5 Calgary elections more interesting than this one

There are some that might say Monday's municipal election in Calgary is a bit dull. Historians Kirsten Olson and Harry Sanders outline five elections that really captured the conversation in the city.

From the first woman elected in the British Empire to Ralph Klein's political start

Counting ballots was a lot of work in the 1929 civic election in November when proportional representation was still the system used in Calgary. Voters cast aldermanic ballots for the city at large and not for a local ward alderman. It first started in the 1917 election and lasted until 1960. (Glenbow Archives NA-2399-27)

There are some that might say Monday's municipal election in Calgary is a bit dull. 

Historians Kirsten Olson and Harry Sanders outline five elections that really captured the conversation in the city.

Jan. 5, 1886: Cleaning up Calgary

When Judge Jeremiah Travis arrived in Calgary in 1885 it was a town in economic  and some might say moral  decline.

Prohibition was nominally in place, but bootleggers and prostitutes were generally left to go about their business.

Mayor George Murdoch (a harnessmaker who also owned the Park Hotel) and town solicitor Henry Bleeker were suspected of being involved in a “whiskey ring.” 

The mayor had also been seen in a brothel, and he was alleged to have been running a protection racket with Police Chief John Ingram.

To make matters worse, Coun. Simon John Clarke was charged with assault and resisting arrest in trying to prevent a search of his saloon (on the present site of the Municipal Building).

Travis' Clerk of the Court, Hugh S. Cayley (who was also editor of the Calgary Herald), was found drunk in the street when he was supposed to be making up a jury list.

Travis judged that the late addition of 73 names to the voters’ list by the mayor and one of his candidates was a sign of corruption. He disqualified Murdoch and three councillors and barred them from holding office for two years.

But the nominations officer, a Murdoch supporter, left the names of Murdoch and two other barred candidates on the ballot and the 73 additions on the voters’ list. 

Murdoch and his colleagues won, but the magistrate overturned the result and installed Murdoch’s opponent as mayor  Royal Hotel owner James Reilly.

Both Murdoch and Reilly claimed the mayoralty, and each aligned with his own set of councillors. Factions sprang up in support of both groups, but there were no victors.

Judge Travis was not given another judicial appointment and, after 10 months without governance, Calgarians elected George Clift King as mayor in the second election of the year held Nov. 3, 1886. History recognizes Murdoch as mayor in 1886, but Reilly later held the post in 1891-92 and 1898-99. 

Murdoch later served as a councillor but never again became mayor.

Calgary's first town council pictured in 1886 got off to a bumpy start. Mayor George Murdoch is seated at the left. Behind him, at the far left, stands Coun. Simon Jackson Hogg, the contractor who built the Town Hall. At $1,694, the project was nearly 70 per cent over budget. Besides Murdoch, the front row includes (from left to right): Charles Sparrow, treasurer; T.T.A. Boys, town clerk. Besides Hogg, the back row includes (from left to right): J. Campbell, assessor; Henry Bleeker, solicitor; Neville J. Lindsay, councillor; J.H. Millward, councillor; Simon John Clarke, councillor; J.S. Ingram, chief of police; J.S. Douglas, collector; I.S. Freeze, councillor. (Glenbow Archives NA-644-30)

Dec. 10, 1917: Annie Gale wins big

The 1917 election was significant for two reasons. It was the first election held under a new proportional representation scheme and the first to elect a woman to city council.

Under the new system, Calgarians voted not for a ward alderman, but for aldermen elected from the city as a whole.

Rather than marking an “X” to indicate their preference, voters were asked to mark the number “1” beside their first choice candidate, “2” beside the second choice, and so on until the voter had gone through every name on the ballot.

Once a candidate was declared elected, any further first-choice ballots for that candidate were transferred to the second-choice candidate on the ballot.

This led to confusion by voters and many spoiled ballots as well as all-night sessions of ballot counting. Ald. T.A.P. Frost referred to the new system as “contortional misrepresentation.”

Thirteen candidates vied for nine aldermanic seats on the 1917 council. When the votes were finally counted, Annie Gale — the only woman candidate, had placed sixth. It made her the first woman municipal politician not just in Calgary but in the entire British Empire.

It took almost 10 years for the second woman to be elected to Calgary city council when Edith Patterson was elected in 1926. Proportional representation was eliminated in 1960 when the ward system was re-established.

Annie Gale was not only the first woman to become a municipal politician in Calgary but in the entire British Empire when she was elected in 1917. She is pictured here with her son Bill. (Glenbow Archives PA-1285-1)

Dec. 15, 1920: Pressure gets to pals

In stark contrast to the animosity that we see in elections today, the campaign for mayor of Calgary in 1920 started out as friendly and congenial. Sam Adams, a lawyer, was first elected as an alderman in 1914.

He ran against another alderman, liveryman Ike Ruttle (whose barn stood on the present site of the Ship and Anchor Pub). The two friends agreed to spend only $100 each, $50 to advertise in the Herald and $50 for the Albertan.

Adams didn’t have a car, but Ruttle did, so they travelled together to campaign meetings and took turns speaking first. They got along so well that Ruttle even said, “If you can’t vote for me, vote for Sam; he’s a good chap.”

Similar to today, conflict makes a story better for reporters, and, unfortunately, Ruttle started to feel pressure and was unable to keep to the original agreement. 

Adams got word that Ruttle had increased his campaign budget and had placed advertisements between the films in one of the theatres. Adams countered with a $25 ad in the Market Examiner.

Adams won the election handily after spending a grand total of $125 to an estimated $1,000 by Ruttle.

A ballot form for the Dec. 15, 1920, mayoral election. The only candidates were aldermen Samuel H. Adams and Isaac Ruttle, who were good friends. The campaign began so civilly that Ruttle drove Adams, who had no car, to campaign events. Adams won 60 per cent of the approximately 10,000 votes cast and held office from 1921 to 1923. (City of Calgary Archives CR-93-083)

Nov. 19, 1941: The non-election

There is nothing new in a group of concerned Calgary citizens promoting a slate of candidates. In 1941, unlike today, the slate being promoted comprised the incumbents and not an opposition group.

Both of the city’s political factions — the Calgary Labor Party and the Civic Government Taxpayers’ Association — supported the slate, agreeing to nominate only as many candidates as were needed to fill vacating positions on council and school boards.

This was wartime, and all resources were being focused overseas. An election could cost as much as $5,500, and the general view was that the time and money could be better used on wartime efforts.

An advertisement, placed in the Albertan by “interested Calgary Citizens” read, in part, “this is no time to distract our thoughts or efforts from the important duties this war has imposed on everyone." 

Only a “dark horse” would change these cost saving plans, as had happened a year earlier, when the Housewives’ League nominated their own candidate which “upset the apple-cart,” according to an editorial in the Oct. 10, 1941, Albertan.

There were 17 seats to be filled on city council and both school boards. Seventeen nominees agreed to serve. Both political factions had as many candidates represented as they had had before the election, so it was felt that citizens were being fairly represented.

No independent candidates stepped forward, and no other organizations presented any nominations. The entire slate of candidates was acclaimed and the election was cancelled, allowing everyone to then turn their thoughts to more pressing concerns. 

A group of concerned citizens argued an election, which could cost as much as $5,500, was not appropriate during wartime. On a side note, this year's election is expected to cost $2.5 million. (Albertan/Oct. 27, 1941)

Oct. 15, 1980: Ralph Klein gets political

In its early days, the 1980 mayoralty race seemed a replay of the 1977 contest, with two old foes as the only serious contenders — Mayor Ross Alger and former alderman Peter Petrasuk.

Both had run in 1974 (when they were defeated by incumbent Rod Sykes) and 1977 (when Alger thumped Petrasuk by a 15,650-vote margin).

Television reporter Ralph Klein made a late entry, but on Sept. 20 — less than a month before the poll — the Herald judged that the 37-year-old upstart “cannot be expected to knock either out of a first or second-place finish” and predicted “a boring re-match.”

There were five other candidates, including Calgary Sun columnist Jack Tennant.

Alger’s eventful term saw the construction of the LRT’s first leg, the bid for the XV Olympic Winter Games, planning for the Olympic coliseum and the acquisition of land where the Municipal Building, Olympic Plaza and Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts now stand.

But Alger’s dream of building a civic centre was defeated by plebiscite. As a former Chartered Accountant, Alger took a great deal of interest in the administration and finances of City Hall and perhaps not enough on political issues.

Even though he based most of his decisions on their cost-effectiveness, his support of a new $250-million civic centre was seen as an unnecessary expense and he was pegged as being too close to city administration.

Klein, whose past political experience involved helping Petrasuk’s unsuccessful Liberal bid in the 1968 “Trudeaumania” election, promised to be a people’s mayor.

“Politicians have become an arm of the bureaucracy,” the Herald quoted him as saying on Sept. 25, “and I’m going to reverse that.”

The outcome on election night launched Klein’s spectacular political career (nine years as mayor, three as provincial environment minister and 14 as premier of Alberta).

It also ended those of Alger and Petrasuk (a lawyer who later went to prison after pleading guilty to theft and breach of trust).

Klein’s administration guided Calgary through the early-1980s recession and saw the city transformed by the time he entered provincial politics in 1989. But some of his signature accomplishments had roots in his predecessor’s single term: the LRT (“Little Ralphie’s Train”), the Saddledome and the 1988 Winter Olympics. 

Klein also governed from the Calgary Municipal Building, which was approved in the same 1980 vote that elected him, in partial fulfillment of Alger’s civic centre idea.

Ralph Klein's political career began in 1980 when, as a local TV reporter who had been covering Calgary city hall for the better part of a decade, he made an improbable bid for mayor. (CBC)


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