First left-wing mayor rode anger toward streetcars to office

A people’s history of Winnipeg

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

A day before the November 1922 Winnipeg civic election, mayoral candidate and alderman J.K. Sparling ran an ad in the Manitoba Free Press attacking his opponent S.J. Farmer.

The ad used rhetoric that would be familiar to Winnipeggers who just went through the General Strike of 1919. Sparling pitted labour unions and workers against business and bosses. His ad framed the election as between “Sparling and Stability” or “Farmer and the Reign of the Furies.”

Sparling claimed the election of General Strike leaders like Farmer would be a disgrace and put “ultra radicals” in charge of every citizen’s life, property and education. To drive the point even further, the ad ended with “LET US SETTLE THIS ONCE MORE, AND FOR ALL!”

The election seemed to be a replay of the Winnipeg General Strike of three years earlier, with a working-class North End versus the middle-class and elite South End. But the real issue was streetcars, which did not line up so neatly into a North End versus South End narrative.

Much like in the 1906 streetcar strike and the 1919 General Strike, streetcars were the centrepiece where political battles would be fought in Winnipeg. The election in 1922 differed on the question of public ownership of Winnipeg’s streetcar system and growing distrust and anger toward the Winnipeg Electric Company (WEC) that ran the streetcars.

The issue of public ownership arose because the franchise awarded to the WEC to run the city’s streetcars allowed the city to take over service during certain windows.

These windows were not set to occur until 1926 and 1927, but the WEC stated that, without a guarantee of franchise, they would not be able to raise its debenture (a type of credit that is not backed by collateral but given on the reputation of the issuer).

Even though most of Winnipeg City Council opposed the public takeover of the streetcar system, they decided the situation should be resolved through a referendum, spearheaded by Sparling.

Sparling made the crucial error of limiting those who could vote on the referendum to only the 24,000 ratepayers of the WEC, not the general population. This angered many Winnipeggers. Most of the people who relied on the essential service were shut out from deciding its future.

There was significant resentment toward the WEC for always crying “poverty” while continuing to undertake expensive expansion projects and providing lucrative shareholder dividends.

Farmer quickly seized on the opportunity to attack not only the unpopular referendum but also the WEC for being untrustworthy.

All of Sparling’s pontificating fell flat, with Farmer winning 57 per cent of the vote, gaining votes outside of the traditional labour constituency of North Winnipeg, along with the election of six aldermen representing the Independent Labour Party.

Given that the experiences of the Winnipeg General Strike were still fresh, Farmer likely would have lost if the election hadn’t hinged on streetcars and the WEC.

These events represent how the issue of transit can cut across traditional voting lines and be a unifying issue regardless of political leanings.

Scott Price is a labour historian and program director at CKUW 95.9 FM.

Published in Volume 78, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 18, 2024)

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