Golden Country: A tight provincial race in the area? Welcome to the 1872 by-election.

Politics and elections have changed a lot since 1872; but nail-biting races never go out of fashion.

Thomas Basil Humphreys

Thomas Basil Humphreys

The many rules and regulations around modern provincial elections, which ensure fairness at the voting booth and mean that those casting ballots may do so in private, are by now well-established. Despite the odd cry of voter fraud, it is almost impossible for a politician or party to “game the system”. However, a glance back at our province’s early history shows that elections were conducted in a very different manner in those years immediately after British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871.

Women, of course, were not allowed to vote, although men who were British (but not necessarily Canadian) subjects could. And there was no such thing as a secret ballot; each voter would, on voting day, turn up at the polling station, state his name to the poll clerk, and then say publicly who he was voting for, with the choice inscribed in a poll book.

In 1871, the first legislative assembly of the new province of British Columbia was duly elected. Thomas Basil Humphreys, who had represented Lillooet for several terms when B.C. was a colony, stood for election in the Lillooet district, which comprised all the territory between Lillooet and Clinton. The district was allowed two representatives, and Humphreys was duly elected, alongside Andrew T. Jamieson.

However, Jamieson died in November 1872, and a by-election was held to fill the second spot in the district. The winning candidate was one William Saul, who lived in 59 Mile House, 12 miles north of Clinton, and who became the junior member of the Lillooet district in the legislative assembly.

Humphreys was well-educated, a good and fluent speaker, shrewd, and an experienced politician. Saul was … none of those things. In his book The Cariboo Road, author Mark S. Wade memorably describes Saul as being “handicapped by an indifferent education and a narrow mental horizon.” The two men were complete opposites, personally as well as politically, and continually found themselves on the opposite side of almost every matter that came before them. Humphreys found Saul a consistent irritation due to his “circumscribed mentality”. What Saul thought of Humphreys has gone unrecorded.

Mark 3:25 tells us that “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” How could the two representatives of the Lillooet district adequately represent the region, if they were continually in opposition to each other? Humphreys, as the more senior and experienced of the two men, saw two solutions: he could kick Saul out (which could trigger a backlash), or himself be kicked out. He chose the latter solution, and asked Saul to resign, so that the election could be run again.

Saul accepted the challenge, and the race was on. Humphreys selected as his running-mate William M. Brown, a farmer from north of Lillooet, while Saul decided to run alone. The riding was a large one, and both men worked it from end to end, with meetings, speeches, and canvassing. It was a furious campaign, and a poll taken near the end of it indicated that the vote was very close, but that Saul had a narrow lead.

Lillooet circa 1871, shortly before a contentious by-election took place there.

When voting day came, and each man came to the voting booth to register his vote to the poll clerk, the Humphreys camp was dismayed to find that their man was falling behind. It looked as if Saul’s win was assured; but what could they do?

His adherents might have been dismayed, but Humphreys remained remarkably—almost oddly—confident throughout the day: never without a smile, and treating his friends’ concerns lightly, as if he knew something that they did not. Slowly it dawned on his supporters that Humphreys—wily career politician that he was—had something up his sleeve; but what on earth could that be?

The answer became apparent just as William Saul’s supporters began to congratulate themselves on their man’s victory. Humphreys had, during his years as a colonial politician for Lillooet, made himself useful to the Chinese community in Lillooet by keeping their books, disposing of their gold, and writing letters for them. The Chinese men he helped held Humphreys in high esteem, because he had always treated them fairly.

So when Humphreys came to them, before the by-election, with a request, they did not disappoint him. There they were on election day, 35 men making their way to the polling station in Lillooet, all of them having been coached on what to say when they got there. Each man, upon stepping before the poll clerk, stated that he was a native of Hong Kong, and swore that he was a British subject.

Lillooet’s Chinatown circa 1900.

The oath, however, had to be made in such a way that showed it was binding on each man’s conscience. For that reason, each of the Chinese workers carried with him a small bowl of rice, and upon making the oath broke his bowl and scattered the rice, to the amusement of some onlookers. Then, having been declared a British subject, each of the workers was allowed to vote; and to a man, they voted for Thomas Basil Humphreys. “He good friend to me. Me like him.”

When the votes were counted, Humphreys and Brown had won—by four votes. A recount came up with the same result. Saul—or someone in his camp—raised the matter of the legality of the voting by the Chinese workers. Upon consideration, a judge ruled that “Those Chinamen are all natives of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a British possession. Therefore, those thirty-five men are British subjects and entitled to vote.”

We hear a good deal, today, about politicians needing to “get out the vote” in order to win a tight constituency race. As history—and Thomas Basil Humphreys—shows, getting out the vote has always been an issue, and a puzzle for politicians to solve, sometimes in creative ways. And history also shows that this region has a legacy of tight election races that go down to the wire. The more things change, the more they stay the same.