Election hijinks in the Yukon

The first time that Yukon voters went to the polls in a federal election was in a by-election in 1902. James Hamilton Ross, the commissioner of the territory, was running as Wilfred Laurier's candidate, while Joseph Clark stood for the Conservatives.

The first time that Yukon voters went to the polls in a federal election was in a by-election in 1902. James Hamilton Ross, the commissioner of the territory, was running as Wilfred Laurier’s candidate, while Joseph Clark stood for the Conservatives. Ross won the election by a vote of 2,971 to 2,079.

Ross’s life in the Yukon was fraught with tragedy and sadness. On August 15, 1901, his wife and two children drowned when an iceberg struck their boat, the Islander, off the Alaskan coast and sank in 20 minutes. His sadness weighed heavily upon him; that and the pressures of his job were contributing factors when the following year, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and incapable of speech.

He recovered slowly but despite his poor health, he accepted the nomination in the forthcoming by-election, scheduled for December 2, 1902. In the subsequent campaign, two of the three Dawson City newspapers, the Klondike Nugget and the Yukon World, supported Ross, while the Dawson Daily News stood behind Clark. Ross’s health became a major issue in the ensuing campaign as he was hospitalized in Los Angeles and did not come to the Yukon during the election, or actively campaign. Nevertheless, he won by a decisive margin.

Controversy swirled around the election after it was over. Years later, Martha Black, herself a parliamentarian, remembered the campaign: “Numbers of foreigners were railroaded through a fake form of naturalization and allowed to vote… Credulous hotel keepers gave government supporters large credits, or I.O.U.‘s or ‘Tabs,’ as they were called then were repudiated and unredeemed, and the party responsible and its followers nicknamed ‘Tabs.’”

Never was there such a dirty campaign for a good man, wrote the Reverend John Pringle to Wilfred Laurier. Ballot boxes were stuffed in remote polling stations near the Alaskan border, but nothing could be proved later in court because there were no voters’ lists.

Ross was succeeded in the post of commissioner by Frederick Congdon. The corrupt practices of his administration were so flagrant that even supporters were sickened by what was going on. Aligned behind brewery owner and prominent businessman T.W. O’Brien, they became known as “Steam Beers,” and would play a decisive role in the next election.

A general federal election was called for November 3, 1904, but the election in the Yukon was deferred by six weeks. This was a practice that would continue until the election of 1921.

Again the Yukon World aligned itself with the government candidate, Frederick Congdon, while the Dawson Daily News supported Dr. Alfred Thompson. The “Steam Beers” allied themselves with the Conservatives and formed The Yukon Independent Party, which backed Dr. Thompson.

Alert to the dodgy dealings of the administration during the previous election, the Conservatives demanded to see the voters’ lists, but the returning officers, all government appointees, went into hiding, and had to be hunted down by mobs of angry disenfranchised voters. One enumerator hid in Montreal Marie’s cabin at the north end of Dawson. Confronted at the front door by an angry mob, the enumerator slipped out the back door, with his shoes in one hand and his necktie in the other, while his hostess spurred him on, shouting “Run, baby, run.”

The angry mob quickly ran him to ground and the voters list was eventually produced. The Yukon World reported it differently. According to the World, the enumerator was merely walking along the street when confronted by the angry mob. Further, claimed the World, it was expected that warrants would be issued that very day, presumably against members of the mob, but that never happened.

Throughout the campaign the two newspapers reported the events as though there were two parallel universes. In one, reported by the World, Congdon was far and away the leader. Day after day, the headlines in the World heralded Congdon’s imminent victory. One proclaimed that Congdon was endorsed by Laurier himself. Another declared that the attacks of the opposition were repulsed and that detractors were “confused and self-convicted.” Other headlines announced his triumphs at Grand Forks, Dominion Creek, Caribou and Sulphur Creeks. After a public meeting at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, it shouted, Congdon was “easily Yukon’s Choice.”

Meanwhile, the miners on the creeks were complaining loudly because the enumerators’ list did not make it clear where they were to vote. Does that sound familiar?

The Congdon Machine had one more card up its devious sleeve. Returning officers were sent upriver to a spurious polling station near Hoole Canyon on the Pelly River. Armed with a list of fictional electors and hundreds of blank ballots, they waited to learn if the fraudulent ballots were required. Alerted to this egregious infraction by disgruntled party insiders, the Mounted Police were able to arrest the men and prevent a miscarriage of democracy.

The headlines in the World were supplemented by an artist’s drawing showing the wonderful roads the government had constructed. Another had Laurier shaking Congdon’s hand, suggesting that he would be welcomed into Laurier’s majority government. A third cartoon showed Congdon’s opponent, Dr. Thompson slowly shrinking until he imploded.

The most amazing of all the cartoons depicted a muscular Congdon as a “Modern Sampson,” breaking the bonds of his opponent’s transgressions. But when the votes were tallied, it was Dr. Thompson, not Congdon, who was declared the winner. “THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN,” declared a massive headline across the Dawson Daily News the day after the election, but in the World… nothing.

I searched carefully through the issues of the World that came out after the election, and all I could find was a small item tucked away under the small headline “As To the Election.” It acknowledged the probable Thompson victory, but followed up by implying that there were illegalities, and it would be unwise to say anything more until all the results were in. And that was all they wrote.

Then, as today, it was not the campaign advertisements, the bold pronouncements, the sage predictions, confident forecasts and the partisan prognostications that swayed the voters. There were no opinion polls such as the ones that are frequently released during our modern elections, but the same thing might be said, both then, and now: in the final analysis, there is only one poll that really matters, and that is the one that is taken on Election Day.

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