Early Yukon politics were pretty darn nasty

At the time of writing this column, there is a case before the Supreme Court of Canada. Notoriously known as the "robocall" affair, it includes alleged fraudulent election activities in the Yukon during the last federal election.

At the time of writing this column, there is a case before the Supreme Court of Canada. Notoriously known as the “robocall” affair, it includes alleged fraudulent election activities in the Yukon during the last federal election. Yukon elector Tom Parlee is one of the complainants, claiming to have been subjected to misleading telephone calls intended to obstruct his right to vote in the election.

Controversy over federal elections in the Yukon is nothing new, however. All you have to do is examine the antics that during the earliest federal elections in Yukon history, those of 1902 and 1904.

It is no secret that Yukon government was twisted back in the early days. The scandalous corruption in the mining recorder’s office is a good example. The government then in power in Ottawa got to fill the civil service positions across the country. In the Yukon, every job from the commissioner, who governed the territory, down to the most menial labouring position, went to party supporters. With a change in government, the entire administration was replaced with a new set of employees.

At the turn of the century, the government was Liberal, under Sir Wilfred Laurier.

The first Yukon federal election was a byelection held Dec. 2, 1902. The Liberal candidate was James Hamilton Ross, commissioner of the Yukon, who resigned his office Oct. 1 to run against Conservative challenger, Joseph Clarke. Clarke would later go on to become mayor of Edmonton.

Ross, whose wife and daughter were lost in the sinking of the Islander on the Alaskan coast the year before, suffered a stroke on his way to Whitehorse and was unable to campaign, yet despite that, he defeated Clarke by a substantial margin.

The validity of his victory was later called into question when it was learned that he received more votes at certain polling stations than there were eligible voters. At one polling station in the Fortymile district, 161 ballots favoured Ross where there were only 35 eligible voters; at Caribou Crossing, another 109 voted for Ross, when there were only 20 eligible to vote. The same chicanery occurred at the polling station at McQuesten.

Ross was replaced by Frederick T. Congdon as commissioner. It was under Congdon’s administration that the most egregious abuses of power took place. Congdon quickly established a political machine that created within the administration a “coterie of loyal followers” who would help organize the territory for the next election.

Congdon’s activities went far beyond the conventional bounds of political patronage. He failed to honour IOUs used to secure votes in the 1902 election. His main henchman overlooked infractions in the liquor ordinance, in exchange for money.

He also failed to honour other patronage commitments. Not satisfied with the support of the Yukon Sun newspaper, Congdon dropped it and established his own highly partisan paper, the World. Congdon’s faction within the party became known as the “Tabs.” They were vehemently opposed by more moderate Liberals, who allied themselves with party president Thomas O’Brien, and became known as the “Steam-Beers.” O’Brien, incidentally, operated the local brewery.

The next election occurred in 1904, and congdon resigned as Commissioner to run for the Liberals. His machine went into action, appointing the returning officer and enumerators for the coming election. The enumerators quickly established voters’ lists with the names of all the Liberal supporters on them; they then went into hiding.

The rift in the Liberal Party could not be healed, so the “Steam-Beer” Liberals joined the Conservatives, formed the Yukon Independent Party, and nominated Dr. Alfred Thompson to run as their candidate.

Thompson wouldn’t stand much of a chance of winning the election unless he could expand the voters’ lists to include more than the names of the Congdon supporters. The enumerators were hard to find as they had gone into hiding, but determined mobs of unregistered Conservatives and Liberals hunted them down. Even with explicit instruction by telegram from the secretary of state, the Congdon appointees dragged their heels and wouldn’t produce the voters lists. Finally, having received instructions from Congdon to co-operate, they did – sort of.

One enumerator told the mob that he couldn’t produce his voting list because it was locked in a safe in the administration building. So the mob went hunting for the holder of the key – Registrar Girouard – and found him hiding in Montreal Marie’s cabin at the north end of Dawson. The registrar snuck out the back door, with shoes in one hand, and necktie in the other, and the mob pursued him while Marie stood at her door shouting, “Run, baby, run!”

They caught him, and the lists were finally produced and names were added. The Thompson supporters spread out to watch the voting at the different polling stations. Frank Berton walked all the way from Dawson to the polling station at McQuesten to act as a scrutineer to ensure that they didn’t pull the same stunt they had in 1902. But the Congdon machine had more tricks up their sleeve.

A polling station was located at the mouth of the Hoole River, a tributary of the Pelly, and there may have been three trappers eligible to vote there. Two returning officers were dispatched to this location with a ballot box, and blank ballots. They never made it. Instead, they camped near Fort Selkirk, where one of them was to wire to Dawson for election results. They planned to stuff the ballot box with the required number of Congdon ballots to sway the results in his favour.

A disgusted Liberal insider blew the whistle and the Mounties were dispatched to place these fraudsters in custody, thus ruining Congdon’s devious plan. Voters had had enough; they elected Thompson by a wide margin, thus putting an end to Congdon’s machine.

Congdon won the seat in 1908 but lost it to Thompson in 1911. He never won another election. Thompson regained the seat in 1911, and held it for another 10 years before retiring from politics.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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