Elections and politics could be rowdy in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

P.E.I. is having a byelection Monday in District 10, Charlottetown-Winsloe, so it's an opportune time to take a look back at politics and elections in the Island's bygone days of 100 years ago and see how much has changed.

'They were the best of friends ... [but] when they were out politicking, they were bitter opponents'

P.E.I. Lt.-Gov. A.A. MacDonald and ladies have tea at Government House in Charlottetown in the 1880s. Most Islanders professed to be teetotallers, and Prohibition and temperance were hot topics at election times on P.E.I. until the 1960s. (Historic PEI )

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every few weeks, CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

P.E.I. is having a byelection Monday in District 10, Charlottetown-Winsloe, so it's an opportune time to take a look back at politics and elections in the Island's bygone days of 100 years ago and see how much has changed.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

Elmer McInnis was born in 1908 in Lorne Valley in eastern P.E.I. McInnis remembered a blacksmith from Murray River who settled on a farm in Lorne Valley, who was known as Peter the Grit, because he was a long-standing Liberal. 

McInnis recalled this story: Sir Wilfred Laurier was the Liberal prime minister of Canada at the time, and someone asked Peter the Grit who was the best person — Jesus, or Laurier? 

"He thought for a while," McInnis said, and replied, "Well, I suppose the Lord is the oldest!" 

Andrew Murnaghan remembers being offered a pint of liquor for his vote decades ago on P.E.I. (Dutch Thompson)

Andrew Murnaghan from Donagh was born in 1915. He remembered being offered a pint of liquor for a vote, from the Liberals or Conservatives of the day — or maybe both. 

"There was some done that — collected from both sides," Murnaghan said. 

Peter the Grit's grandson became a renowned moonshine maker in the Lorne Valley area — one might rightly wonder if he sold exclusively to Liberals, or if business trumped politics. 

Making political hay

Voters were also bribed in the bygone days with jobs, or even hay. 

Father Francis Corcoran came from a community of quick-witted Islanders who made up folk songs about interesting events, like rewarding votes with hay. (Dutch Thompson)

Father Francis Corcoran grew up in Baldwin Road near Cardigan, where people were noted for making up satirical folk songs. 

One such song was written about an unusual summer in the 1930s during which P.E.I.'s hay crop failed. A train-load of hay had to be imported from Quebec to feed Island cattle and horses. All went well until it was time to divvy up the hay — and that fell along party lines.

Corcoran sang this ditty, The Hay Song.

Two cars of hay rolled up to Peakes, were put off at the switch,
Then up steps Captain Mooney with a few more favoured Grits, 
The car door was pushed open, and Trainor he stepped in,
"You'll do with less" the captain said, "for you know there's feed for Jim.
Now don't forget your friend Big Burns, give him the lion's share,
To feed the royal parkland and the little Barney mare,
Give a tonne to brother Robert although he stayed at home, 
If he had come and voted, the seat would have been won."
And up steps Johnny Hendricken and said "Boys, it isn't fair,
For when the cars of hay they come, I should have got my share,
So I ride into Arthur, and him I'm going tell, 
the hay that should have been for me was hauled out to Morell."

'Slam the living hell out of one another'

Politics can be divisive, and ruin relationships — but not always. 

This is a pledge card the P.E.I. Temperance Alliance asked politicians to sign during elections, and is believed to be from about 1930. (Historic PEI)

In the 1930s, Premier Walter Lea was running for office in the district of Fourth Prince, in Prince County.

His son Dr. Gordon Lea recalled the debates drew big crowds in the days before television, and when most Islanders didn't have radios either.

There'd be more fights at them political meetings than you could shake a stick at.— Roy Clow

"They were downright funny," he said. "He had a perennial opponent, John Myers from Hampton, and the interesting thing that always interested me was how they could slam the living hell out of one another on the platform, and often get in the same car and come home together. One lived in Victoria and the other in Hampton, and they were the best of friends ... [but] when they were out politicking, they were bitter opponents." 

In 1935, Walter Lea's Liberals won all 30 seats in the P.E.I. Legislature — the first time in British Commonwealth history. 

'It was a real circus'

Prohibition on P.E.I. lasted longer than any other province in Canada and the debate over legalizing alcohol was always a hot issue at election time. 

Roy Clow back in 1998 at his home in Montague. (Dutch Thompson)

Roy Clow remembered well the political debates in his hometown of Murray Harbour North when he was young. 

"Oh it was a real circus, there'd be more fights at them political meetings than you could shake a stick at," Clow said. "You wouldn't be bothered going to the meeting to hear them talking, it was more fun watching them fight and cursing each other." 

He remembered going with his mother to debates and staying up well past his bedtime to get his "10 cent's worth" of entertainment, he said. 

Clow recalled being offered pints of liquor for his vote, and told this story: one of the politicians had hidden a five-gallon keg of rum in a barn in Montague. A couple of local lads, about 13 or 14 years old, saw them hiding the keg, and stole it. They split it up in pints and gave it out to everybody who wanted it, "having a great time," Clow said with a laugh. 

"The fella found out that they had taken it, and he went and looked and there wasn't a damn thing left but the empty keg and a funnel. They cleaned him out just a couple days before the election!" 

Prohibition was finally repealed in P.E.I. — the last province in Canada to do so — in 1948. However it was replaced by the Temperance Act, which restricted the sale of alcohol. Island residents required a permit to purchase limited amounts of liquor and a special permit was available to visitors. 

In 1960, the restrictions on quantities were removed, and in 1967 the individual and tourist permits were finally abolished, according to the provincial government's website. 

Clow also recalled his father, a die-hard Liberal, taking the Conservative candidate out to the barn for several drinks of rum right before debates, hoping it would addle the politician's brain during the debate. 

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