Bancroft History – Voting and Politics
In the very early days of voting, settlers in the Bancroft district were unable to mark their ballots secretly and then put them into a ballot box. Ballot boxes did not exist. Instead, men would gather at a hall and raise their hands. Women did not have voting rights and would not obtain them for federal elections until 1918. “Indians” were not allowed to vote either, as will be explained later on. The contestants, running for election and ever present in the meeting hall, could clearly see who voted for them and who did not. Of course, they all knew each other, and it took some courage for a voter to reject the one or other candidate who might be his neighbour or with whom he might have frequent business dealings. Yet, open voting was accepted practice. Still, after an election the villagers usually got along as well as they had done before. In the pioneer days they needed to support one another in so many ways, regardless of who had won the election. And so they did. However, when the ballot box was introduced eventually, it must have been a relief to some voters. Generally, North Hastings voted Conservative.
When the “Indians” gave up their lands in North Hastings and moved to the reservation at Golden Lake, Chief John Baptiste remained at his lake. Consequently he was obliged to pay taxes just like the “white man”. Yet the Chief was also quick to mention that he now had the right to vote. This was important to him.
Indeed, First Nations had the right to vote from the start of Confederation, but only if they gave up their “Indian status” through a process defined in the “Indian Act” as enfranchisement. Few were willing to do this. Chief Baptiste was the exception. Many Natives perceived enfranchisement as an attempt of the “white man” to assimilate them into a non-First Nations society. They wanted to preserve their own society, with their own system of choosing chiefs and elders. Prevailing paternalistic and racist attitudes towards “Indians” among the “white” settlers prevented significant progress towards Natives’ right to vote for a long time. Whereas in the United States Native Americans had been allowed to vote since the 1920s, in Canada it took four more decades. Only in 1960, under John Diefenbaker as prime minister, the federal government finally extended the right to vote to all “Indian persons” unconditionally, which meant that the First Nations peoples could vote regardless of whether they lived on-reserve or off-reserve. Chief John Baptiste would have valued this new law highly, which had been too long in arriving.
In the 1925 general election the newly formed riding of Hastings-Peterborough elected an exemplary politician, the Conservative Dr. Alex Thomas Embury (1874 – 1956). He deserves special mention, because he dedicated his entire life to serving others. First he chose the helping profession of a physician. He obtained his medical degrees at Queen’s University and then practised as an M.D. Later he served in World War I. He was Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corp. In politics he represented his riding capably for a decade. In the House of Commons and in the backrooms of power in Ottawa, he worked tirelessly for all his constituents, regardless of their political affiliation. Indeed, he was so popular in his riding that for years the Liberals could not find a candidate to oppose him. Consequently, he was re-elected as M.P. in 1926 and 1930. Yet in 1935 the riding’s vote was split between three candidates. Facing two opponents at once, Dr. Embury was defeated by the Liberal candidate by about 1,000 votes. In his retirement he lived for many years in Ottawa, but frequently returned to Bancroft for visits. After he passed away at age 82, he was buried at the Bancroft Anglican cemetery.
In the 1930s local Bancroft elections became rather turbulent in the two “beer parlour” contests. The “wets” and the “drys” battled against one another, each side with much fervour and conviction. In 1936 the “drys” narrowly missed to get their required 60 percent of the vote. However, when they tried for a second time in 1939, they reached just over 60%, and the beer parlours in the two Bancroft hotels had to close a few months later. However, in time the citizens began to consider the moderate consumption of alcohol as less of an evil. Thus the hard fought-for victory of the “drys” turned into just another lively chapter in the history of the Bancroft district.