An Animated History of Elections Gone Sideways in Newfoundland and Labrador


With its changing deadlines, pandemic politics and mail-in ballots, the current election in N.L has taken some sideways moves.

However, the province has been here before or, at least, has previously seen the campaign trail take a dramatic turn.

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The province’s history books are full of stories of elections that went wildly off the rails, complete with ballot burning, vote-buying, angry mobs, and candidates who ended up in jail or, even worse, exile.

These stories of distorted democracy come straight from the pages of The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. You will see herein some examples from N.L’s long and colorful political history. But since there’s no footage from the mid-19 century, there’s no better way than to use art and animation to bring these tales to life.

Throwing James Winter in Jail

Kicking of our list is the story from Burin in 1873 when a candidate going by the name James Winter found himself confronted by a drunken mob.

That was on nomination day, and the group wanted to hear Winter’s position on Confederation with Canada. It was a hot topic in 1873, the same time that colonies met in Charlottetown to establish the young country. Winter replied that he would only support Confederation is most of the people supported it by referendum.

That, however, was not enough response for the mob, which shouted the word “traitor!” in Winter’s direction.

To stop Winter from being nominated, the angry mob hustled him into the Burin courthouse, where they locked him up. Still, they were not satisfied. Fearing that Winter’s supporters would come to get him out, they forced him into a boat and sailed him 19km away to the town of Beau Bois, where he was locked again.

Today, if a politician was confronted by a mob, thrown in a trunk, drove to another town, and locked up in a basement, they might consider dropping out of the race.

But James Winter was no ordinary politician. He managed to escape his confinement the same night and trekked all the way back to Burin. Most importantly, he had already submitted his nomination documents to the town’s returning officer before the mob caught him. By the time he got home, he was already the victor in that election.

Better still, James Winter later became the 10th premier of Newfoundland, and the town of Winterton is named in his honor.

An ‘indecent carnival of scurrility’

The provincial election of 1893 was very modern in one sense – it was marred by dirty tricks, candidates hurling insults against each other, and mudslinging.

The eminent historian D.W Prowse is quoted in the Encyclopedia, saying,

“Both the political parties vied with each other in keeping up in this indecent carnival of scurrility.”

When the votes were counted, the Liberal party had won a vast majority. However, the Conservatives accused the majority of the Liberal congress of cheating by promising prospective voters government jobs in exchange for their votes.

This vote-buying scandal sent the developing government into free-fall, whereas the resulting courtroom drama went on for months.

However, in the end, the accused Liberals were all found guilty, removed from their seats, and banned from running for office again.

However, the Conservatives were not able to enjoy the victory for long. When by-elections were conducted to replace those removed from office, the Liberals were returned to power with accurately the same number of seats they had won before.

…You did what with the ballots?

Many people will not need a history book to recall the sideways election of 1971. The results were pretty close than many districts had recounted. Indeed, the fate of the entire government hung in the balance. Another election was to be done early the next year. That is when the Frank Moores Tories came through and ended twenty-three years of rule for Joey Smallwood’s Liberals.

Amid all of this, in the small village of Sally’s Cove on Newfoundland’s west coast, 106 ballots could not be found.

It happened that the assistant returning officer in the village, a woman by the name Olive Payne, had accidentally burned the ballots after they were counted the first round, so a recount was not possible.

Later on, a judge issued the ruling that ballot burning was accidental and that the officer had not committed a crime and had a political motive. By then, the tale was already the thing of political legend.

These are just some of the few instances from scandalous political history.

So while the current election in Newfoundland and Labrador has taken some questionable turns, in the stories of future history books, it may seem like just another indecently vituperative chapter.