Until 1939, the battlegrounds of election campaigns were the big public meetings at Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Political writers and commentators could usually judge who was going to win an election by the reception given the Conservative or Liberal leaders in those places.
One of the greatest political campaigners was Sir John A. Macdonald. He really began the tariff issue by introducing what was called “The National Policy” before the election on September 17, 1878. His government had been forced to resign in 1873 owing to a campaign fund scandal. Macdonald sat back quietly for almost five years and watched Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie struggle with a severe depression.
As the time for the next election drew nearer, the question was whether nor not Mackenzie would try to improve economic conditions by making a reciprocal trade deal with the United States. When Mackenzie committed himself to reciprocity, Macdonald trotted out his “National Policy” of higher tariffs for prosperity. Years later, Dalton McCarthy, who was Macdonald’s chief aide in Ontario, admitted that if Mackenzie had based his campaign on higher tariffs, Macdonald would have advocated reciprocity. Nevertheless, the high-low tariff battle continued until 1939 when World War II made it clear that nations do better through economic co-operation than through competition.
Macdonald was also largely responsible for the old system of spectacular public meetings. It has been said that he made after-dinner speeches popular. In the 1878 campaign he introduced the “political picnic.” Tables were set under the trees. There were plates of cold chicken, tongue, ham, frosted cakes and mounds of strawberries, and jugs of iced lemonade and raspberry cordial. People came from miles around in their horse-drawn carriages, dressed in their Sunday-best. After a delightful luncheon, Macdonald would speak from a specially built platform to a well-nourished, warm-hearted audience. One such picnic at Belleville, Ontario, was attended by 15,000 people.
Macdonald won the election of 1878, despite the fact that he was defeated in his own constituency. A safe seat had to be found for him in Victoria, B.C. Sir John remained prime minister until his death 13 years later. Political picnics and public meetings lasted far longer than that.
“Not only is this country made a slaughter market by being overwhelmed by the sweepings of the United States, but it has sometimes been made a sacrifice market by ruinous proposals for the purpose of suppressing any given trade. We all remember what the salt manufacturers of the Untied States did when the salt manufacturers first opened work in Goderich. The salt manufacturers of Syracuse and Salena sent in their salt with instructions to undersell Canadian salt on the Canadian market, to crush this infant industry. The shoe trade was dealt with in the same way by the leather manufacturers of the United States.” – Sir John A. Macdonald, Advocating the National Policy