Race and politics in Vancouver’s First Civic Election

by Eric Wright

** Trigger Warning: This post contains the racist language and imagery of historical actors directed towards people of Chinese origin in B.C.

The story of Vancouver’s first civic election does not lack its fair share of political chicanery.  The contest was held on May 3, 1886 and pitted R.H. Alexander, manager of the Hastings Sawmill, against Malcolm Maclean, a newcomer businessman from Winnipeg.  By all accounts, It was Alexander’s election to lose.  He was backed by the local business establishment and had lived in Granville for twelve years.  As a resident of early Vancouver recalled, “He was so very sure of being elected that he had a lot of torches prepared, and went to a lot of expense.” (Hart, 1933)

R.H. Alexander was heavily favoured to win in Vancouver's first civic election but lost in an upset to Malcolm Maclean.

R.H. Alexander, candidate in the city of Vancouver’s first election, 1886.  Photo courtesy of Vancouver City Archives, Richard Alexander Fonds.

As it turned out, Alexander would never light those victory torches.  On voting day MacLean stole the election by a mere 17 votes, becoming the first mayor of Vancouver.  And steal the election he did in the most literal sense, through an unholy combination of political slander, electoral fraud and voter suppression.

How did MacLean steal the election?

As an underdog, MacLean and his supporters knew that they had to find an issue to campaign on that would resonate broadly with a large portion of Alexander supporters.  MacLean’s status as a newcomer also meant that he could not run a campaign based on his “record” against that of Alexander’s– instead he needed an issue that would galvanize the electorate on a broad scale, and perhaps even inspire an “anyone but Alexander” style reaction amongst early Vancouverites.

MacLean faced a distinct disadvantage, having arrived in Vancouver only a few months prior to the first election.

Malcolm Alexander MacLean, first mayor of Vancouver.  MacLean was an underdog in need of an issue.  Photo courtesy of SFU Centre for Scottish Studies.

Lacking any real issues to campaign on, the MacLean camp turned, unfortunately, to lies and innuendo.  A few days before the election, they circulated a rumour via written pamphlet that Alexander had made remarks to the effect that white male Canadian labourers were no better than male Chinese labourers.  The pamphlet read:

“Canadians! Read this! The following answer was given by Mr. Alexander to a deputation which waited upon him with a protest against the employment of Chinese: ‘I do not consider that a Canadian is much superior to a Chinaman.  If he can procure a bowl of black-strap and a piece of fat pork, it is all he requires.’  Let Alexander deny this if he can, the deputation is prepared to prove it.” (The Mainland Guardian, May 6, 1886)

According to the racial ideology of the time, most white people in early Vancouver would have taken it for granted that they were superior to Chinese people.  Therefore, when they got wind of Alexander’s supposed suggestion that white Canadians were really no better than Chinese people, they were gravely insulted.  The MacLean camp had accurately understood that if eligible white male voters believed Alexander had put them on the same level as the“Chinese”, they would throw their support behind MacLean, despite the fact that he had almost no connection to the community.

Many men who voted in Vancouver’s first election recalled years later in interviews with city archivist Major Matthews that Alexander’s supposed comparing of white people to Chinese people was a key reason why they chose to vote for MacLean.  Although many interviewees swore that Alexander had actually uttered the infamous words attributed to him in the above quoted pamphlet, none claimed to have actually heard him say the words or know when he said them.  As one “old-timer” put it, “He said it all right, but when or why, I never have known.” (Jackman, 1936)

Ensuring the Victory

By starting a rumour that Alexander had put white working men on par with Chinese men, the MacLean camp tapped the electorate’s belief in white superiority to its own advantage. But they did not stop there. The MacLean camp doubly ensured their victory by committing extensive electoral fraud.  Many men in early Vancouver were loggers or CPR railroad workers who lived in hotels on a temporary basis before shipping out to far-flung locales.  On election day, MacLean and his supporters created false tenancy papers for many of these men so they might vote in the election.  As V.W. Haywood, the city’s first constable recalled, “There was a lot of people who voted who did not have a vote.  Lots of people coming in here stopping in hotels; they had no qualification, but, as I said, we wanted to put in MacLean, and we did.” (Haywood,1936) Vancouver’s first election saw a healthy amount of document forgery, which permitted many unqualified individuals to vote.  

In the course of election day, as Alexander became aware of MacLean’s political chicanery, he and his people decided to “collect together,” in early Vancouver resident W.H. Gallagher’s words, the Chinese people who laboured in the Hastings Mill to vote for him, despite the fact that a racist law had banned Chinese people along with other non-white groups from voting in provincial or municipal elections in B.C. (Embrace BC, 2014)  Although the informant Gallagher’s choice of words, “collected up,” suggests that Alexander purchased the votes of the Chinese people who laboured at the mill he managed, possibly through promising slightly better working conditions or higher pay, it is hard to determine what exactly happened due to a lack of documentary evidence.  It is possible that the Chinese people working at Hastings Sawmill decided to try to vote of their own volition.  However, this is doubtful, since they would have been aware that contravening racist laws could result in violent repercussions.  White violence towards Chinese people was endemic in this period throughout the North American west. (Pfaelzer, 2007)

Cartoon depicting Amor de Cosmos (Lover of the Universe) second premier of British Columbia assaulting a Chinese person. Cartoons like these both reflected and re-enforced white violence towards Chinese people.

“The Heathen Chinee in British Columbia, ” Canadian Illustrated News, 1879.  Caricatures depicting white violence committed against Chinese people were common throughout the North American west in the late 19th century.

When the Chinese men made their way to the polling place, at the behest of Alexander or not, they were blocked by a white male mob of MacLean supporters.  W.H. Gallagher, who participated in the blockade, recounted the incident in the acceptable racist language of the early 20th century:

 “they [MacLean supporters] shouted at the approaching Chinamen, and began to move towards them. Then one or two of the Chinamen decided, I suppose, that they did not like the look of things, and that they did not want to vote anyhow, and turned around; then one or two more came to a standstill, the rest came on up, until there was a little crowd of them, standing, and the white men advancing towards them. The white men shouted at the Chinamen and the Chinamen turned tail and ran.” (Gallagher, 1933)

Thus, the Chinese men who laboured in the Hastings Mill were blocked from casting their votes by a white male mob.  And that is how, in broad strokes, the first civic election in Vancouver was won — through political mud-slinging, electoral fraud and racially based voter suppression. 

Although not an example of democracy in action, the story of Vancouver’s first election is useful in the way it reveals the centrality of whiteness to many peoples’ identities in the early city.  When seeking a highly emotive issue that would engender a powerful “anyone but Alexander” style reaction in the white male population, MacLean chose, of all the possibilities, to make up a fib about Alexander putting white people on par with Chinese people.  The very effectiveness of this “insult” at driving voters from the Alexander to the MacLean camp shows how it was a central part of white peoples’ identity in early Vancouver to understand oneself as superior than other “races.”  MacLean, opportunist that he was, knew how to locate and hit this exposed nerve to his own political advantage.

Works Cited:

Embrace B.C., “Legislation Affecting British Columbians of Chinese Descent,” (2014), access at http://www.embracebc.ca/local/embracebc/pdf/chronology_english.pdf

W.H. Gallagher, “Our first civic election – Chinese,” (1933) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, vol. III (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1935).

Frank W. Hart, “The First Election,” (1933) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, vol. II (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1935).

V.W. Haywood, “In conversation with J.S. Matthews,” (1936) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver Vol. IV, (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 1935).

T.J. Jackman, “Memo of Conversation with Captain T.J. Jackman,” (1936) in James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver Vol. IV, (Vancouver: City of Vancouver Archives, 1935).

Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The forgotten war against Chinese Americans, (New York: Random House, 2007).

“The Election at Granville,” The Mainland Guardian, May 6, 1886.  Newspaper published at New Westminster, B.C. Vancouver Public Library Archives, Microfilm Collection.

Additional Resources:

Robert MacDonald, Making Vancouver: Class, Status and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996).  A history of Vancouver’s early years as a lumber town that charts the growing political and social conflict and heightening class tensions that arrived with the coming of the CPR in the 1880s.

“Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past,” Web Resource, 2014.  This project is a joint collaboration between UBC, SFU and other institutions aimed at providing resources for the teaching of Chinese Canadian History as well as giving scholars and researchers access to a searchable database of over 20,000 photos, videos, newspapers and historical documents.  There’s also a fun game for kids called “Gold Mountain.”

James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver Vols. I-VII(Vancouver: City of Vancouver Archives, 1935).  Early Vancouver is one of the best sources available for finding information about the city’s early days.  James Skitt Matthews, Vancouver’s first archivist, created Early Vancouver from a lifetime of interviewing residents and collecting photographs and ephemera.  In 2011, it was digitized by the Vancouver City Archives, and is now available in searchable format online.  

** Research undertaken for this article was supported by the Global Civic Policy Society