If you haven’t heard of the allegations of “fake news” being thrown about by the president of the United States, then you have been living an extremely sheltered life. But fake news is old news in the Yukon, and that was never more the case than in the federal election of 1904.
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 for the Liberals, while Joseph Clark stood for the Conservatives. Ross won the election by a vote of 2,971 to 2,079.
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. After the election these 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 later to Wilfred Laurier. Ballot boxes were stuffed in 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 many Liberal supporters were sickened by what was going on. Aligned behind brewery owner and prominent businessman Thomas W. O’Brien, they formed a splinter group known as “Steam Beers,” and would play an important role in the 1904 election.
A general federal election was called for Nov. 3, 1904, but the election in the Yukon was deferred to Dec. 16.
The Yukon World, which had been established by Frederick Congdon, aligned itself with Congdon in the election, while the Dawson Daily News and the Yukon Sun 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 of the Congdon administration, went into hiding, and had to be hunted down by mobs of angry disenfranchised voters.
According to the Dawson Daily News, 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, and fled down the street, while his hostess spurred him on, shouting “run, baby, run.” This debacle was illustrated with a large Arthur Buel Cartoon in the Dec. 11 edition of the Yukon Sun.
The angry mob quickly ran the enumerator 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 arrest warrants would be issued that very day, presumably against members of the mob; but that never happened.
Throughout the campaign the opposing newspapers reported the events as though there were two parallel universes. According to the World, Congdon was far and away the leader. Day after day, the headlines in the World heralded Congdon’s imminent victory. One edition 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, as well as Dominion, Caribou and Sulphur creeks. After a public meeting at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall in Dawson City, it shouted, Congdon was “easily Yukon’s Choice.”
The headlines in the World were supplemented by an artist’s drawing showing the wonderful roads the government had constructed. Another cartoon had Laurier shaking Congdon’s hand, suggesting that he would be welcomed into Laurier’s majority government. A third showed Congdon’s opponent, Dr. Thompson slowly shrinking until he imploded.
The most amusing of all the cartoons in the Dec. 13 issue of the World depicted a muscular Congdon as a “Modern Sampson,” breaking the bonds of his opponent’s transgressions.
Meanwhile, the miners on the creeks were complaining loudly because the enumerators’ list did not make it clear where they were to vote. Does any of this sound familiar?
The Congdon machine had one more card up its devious sleeve. Returning officers were sent up the Yukon valley 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 North West Mounted Police were able to arrest the men and prevent a miscarriage of democracy.
When the votes were tallied, it was Dr. Thompson, not Congdon, who was declared the winner, by a margin of 2,113 votes to 1,495. “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 ever wrote about the election.
Then, as today, the campaign advertisements, the bold pronouncements, the sage predictions, confident forecasts, and the partisan prognostications were designed to sway 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 mattered, and that was the one taken on Election Day.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org