Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Reflections on the 1969 NDP Election Win in Manitoba

In June I attended a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the election of Ed Schreyer's NDP government in Manitoba in 1969. Fifty years ago I had just turned 21 and cast my first vote that day for the NDP, having worked during the campaign for Cy Gonick, the NDP candidate in Crescentwood. His victory was one of a number of outcomes in close contests critical to the NDP's success. Most of the speeches at the dinner were devoted to the (highly successful) record of the government, which I will touch on, but I want to reflect here on how it happened.

Back in 1970 I was generously given co-authorship by Tom Peterson, a member of the University of Manitoba Political Science Department, for an article published in the Lakehead University Review titled "Some Factors in the 1969 NDP Victory in Manitoba".  This analysis reflects arguments made there but adds to them.

The Diagonal Line

Fundamental to the NDP victory was that politics in the province divided along a northwest to southeast diagonal line, poorer and more ethnically diverse to the north, more prosperous and more British to the south. Here is the line as it appeared in the 1970 article:

The pattern is clearly visible in coloured maps of the 1969 results below:

The line would become deeply entrenched over time.  Several factors converged in 1969 to produce the NDP victory:

1. Redistribution and the end of rural preference. For decades Manitoba had legislated rural over-representation. However, the provincial government had also implemented a non-partisan system for redrawing constituency boundaries in 1955. Further reform meant a 1968 redistribution permitted no more than a 25 percent allowance on riding size. This increased representation in Winnipeg where the NDP's victory was centred - the party captured 17 of 27 constituencies with 45.4% of the vote (compared to 38.3% province-wide).

2. The Liberal party had not been small 'l' liberal for a long time. There was a reform Liberal government in Manitoba from 1915 to 1922 but it lost to the United Farmers (later the Progressives) in the 1922 election, and thereafter was a small urban party. The Liberals entered into coalition with the Progressives in 1932 and became part of a small 'c' conservative regime that lasted until 1958. I described the consequences in a paper in 2008: "By joining a farmers’ movement with its emphasis on fiscal frugality the Manitoba Liberals put themselves on a course that would leave them vulnerable in a modern urban world that wanted a more activist state than their inherited beliefs would permit."

Under leader Gil Molgat the Liberals did project a moderate image in the sixties. After by-election defeats in February 1969 Molgat resigned and was replaced by Robert Bend, a man who hailed from the coalition days, and who described himself as 'a little more right of centre'.

Although the provincial party leaned right there were many small 'l' liberals in the province (many had voted for Pierre Trudeau the year before). For them Ed Schreyer was an attractive commodity. The Liberal convention that chose Bend preceded the NDP convention by a few weeks. However, the name of everyone's lips at that convention was not Bend or his opponents. It was Ed Schreyer.

3. The PCs also shifted to the right. When they selected Walter Weir to replace the urban and reform minded Duff Roblin it represented a significant ideological shift within the PC universe. More progressive candidates were defeated at the leadership convention that chose Weir.

With an echo of today's Ford-Trudeau relationship, media accounts at the time suggested Weir had successfully confronted ideological adversary Pierre Trudeau in February at a federal-provincial conference. Shortly thereafter his party won three of four by-elections. He also made it clear that French language rights would be a low priority for him. The PCs subsequently tested the waters with a private poll, the only political poll of any kind taken in 1969 in Manitoba. Thinking they would catch their leaderless opponents off guard, they called an early election.

4. Luck mattered.  Something that should never be underestimated in politics. While three of the four February by-elections were won by the Weir PCs, the fourth in Churchill was won by the NDP's Joe Borowski. Key to the June 25 victory were the three wins in the northern seats of The Pas, Flin Flon and Thompson (a new constituency in 1969 won by Borowski). I think the by-election win had a demonstration effect that encouraged voters in the other two northern ridings to view the prospects of the NDP as a realistic alternative in electoral contests at a point where they were ready to vote for change.

The leadership contest the NDP were forced to call in the middle of the campaign received extensive television coverage, granting free media to a party that could not afford to buy time on TV. The northern seats have been dominated by the NDP ever since.

5. Ethnic diversity in Manitoba in 1969 was quite different from diversity and politics as it is thought of today in much of Canada. Ethnic political strategy in the current environment is conceived of as appealing for votes among relatively recent immigrants. In 1969 the NDP made significant gains among Manitobans of Indigenous and Francophone descent, although the latter continued to exhibit residual loyalty to the Liberals. Other minorities from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds were composed mostly of a population that had immigrated to Manitoba prior to World War I more than fifty years in the past in 1969. Initially Liberal and Conservative politicians were highly successful in recruiting leaders in ethnic communities and, by granting recognition and status to them, they were able to secure electoral support. However, by the sixties as Thomas Peterson noted the "second and third generations of non-British immigrants became less susceptible to ethnic appeals. Among this younger group, in contrast to the 'hesitant conservatism' of their elders, there was a greater drive toward improvement of their material circumstances as well as a skepticism that this could be achieved within the existing system." [This is drawn from an article by Thomas Peterson titled Ethnic and Class Politics in Manitoba]. CCF-NDP leaders had always been from British backgrounds. The selection of Schreyer as a leader signalled that the NDP was a party that could be trusted by minorities whose class status inclined them to support social democratic reforms. Increasingly, they were less interested in questions of ethnic status.

6. Mistakes by the governing PCs mattered.  An increase in health care premiums just prior to the campaign became a major election issue. Manitoba joined the national medicare program on April 1, 1969, nine months after the federal implementation date of July 1, 1968. Prior to that Manitobans paid health care premiums to help finance the already existing hospitalization program, introduced in the late fifties. As a political gambit, the Weir government created a premium 'holiday' for the period leading up to medicare implementation. However, when premiums returned with the introduction of medicare they were dramatically increased. The unpopularity of this move made slashing premiums a key election plank for the NDP.

Following the election, the NDP secured a governing majority when re-elected Liberal, Laurent Desjardins, supported the NDP.  Weir's hostility to French language rights compared to Schreyer's support for bilingualism made the difference.

The new government called an early session and adopted the outgoing government's budget with two key changes, the premiums were cut, and personal income tax rates were increased to pay for the change. It was the first of a series of fiscal changes that led to a more progressive tax structure in Manitoba by the time the NDP left office in 1977.


The election represented a fundamental departure in the province's history, what political scientists would call a re-aligning election. Its consequences for Manitoba's politics are still clearly discernible today.