Vancouver's First Election

Posted by Daniel on May 3, 2011 - 6 comments

Yesterday's federal election was a sedate affair compared to Vancouver's first mayoralty contest, held 125 years ago today.

Richard Alexander represented the new city's commercial elite. The 42-year-old Alexander, who was born in Scotland, arrived in BC as an Overlander in the 1860s and by 1886 managed the Hastings Sawmill, the largest employer in the city. Backed by the CPR and other influential property owners, he looked to be a shoo-in. His opponent was Malcolm MacLean, another 40-something Scot, a real estate agent who had only been in town for a few weeks.

Popular though he was with the elites, however, Alexander had made enemies of the ordinary working stiffs who toiled at his mill. Earlier in the spring they had gone on strike for a 10-hour day and he had threatened to replace them all with Aboriginal and Chinese labourers, the latter in plentiful supply since the completion of the CPR mainline. Working people in the city decided they would do everything they could to defeat the arrogant Alexander and the powerful interests he represented.

In order to qualify to cast a ballot, voters need to own property in the city or rent property worth at least $300, but in practice the requirement was flexible. On election day Alexander dragooned his Chinese employees to vote for him and a boatload of absentee owners came over from Victoria on a steamer supplied by the CPR. Local residents fought back, literally, refusing to allow the Chinese access to the poll and fudging the proof of residency to allow people who were just passing through town to take part.

In the end, MacLean prevailed by 17 votes. His gleeful supporters, having stuck it to The Man, installed their candidate in an open buggy and hauled him around the small townsite in celebration. The result was challenged and might well have been overturned had the Great Fire of June 13 not intervened and forced civic leaders to deal with more pressing issues. MacLean proved very able in the crisis and went on to serve two terms as mayor. He died in the city in 1895.