Guest Commentary

Hugh Thorburn

$5 Payoffs & Chicken Dinners

(Editor’s note: Professor Hugh Thorburn of Queen’s University, former president of the Canadian Political Science Association, passed away in 2014 at age 90. In the 1950s Dr. Thorburn chronicled the vanishing political traditions of rural Canada. He traveled across New Brunswick documenting century-old rituals of patronage and petty corruption, community and caring. On April 11, 2008 Thorburn recounted his work in an interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan. Following is a transcript of his remarks.)

There were political rituals in New Brunswick in those days. The north shore was mainly French-speaking, Roman Catholic and Liberal. The people lived separately from the English Protestants of the Saint John Valley, and in truth the English had kept them out of political and economic life.

Kent County had its political customs. At the beginning of each election people gathered at the Richibucto courthouse. They’d hold an outdoor meeting at which all candidates would speak from the same platform. This was the start of the campaign.

The end of the campaign was marked by a chicken dinner – for supporters, only. It was an old custom to acknowledge organizers’ work, and it was a point of pride to be invited to such a dinner. They served fricot, a stew of chicken and potatoes with dumplings. When I visited in 1953 the custom was already dying; Kent County Liberals had decided not to hold their dinner at the 1952 provincial election.

Acadians had a tragic history and led lives of deprivation. They were poor, they had little education; about a third of the population was illiterate. There was one French-language weekly and no radio stations.

Politics was very personal. There was a New Brunswick Senator, George B. Jones, who kept a book listing all his constituents’ names and incidents in their lives. He never missed a county fair or funeral. He’d send a note if a child received a good mark in school.

This carried over into public administration. In 1940 old age pensioners received a letter from the party: “Dear Pensioner: You will remember that the Liberal Party promised you an old age pension in the election of 1935. You trusted us and we did not disappoint you. We sincerely hope that your pension is bringing you comfort and peace of mind. As long as the present government stays in power you can be assured that nothing will stop your monthly cheque”.

At election time there were certain people who’d “take an envelope”; this was the term that was used. It usually contained a $5 bill. Other voters would be discretely handed a pint of rum. Women were favoured with silk stockings or boxes of chocolates, or a bag of flour. Of course there was an invitation to the fricot dinner. These gifts were distributed to supporters who expected a little consideration.

The two main types of patronage were jobs and contracts. If your party was in power, the local roads were in good shape. As one contractor said, “We naturally expect the government to treat us right after we did our part to put them in.” One party distributed buttons: if you wanted a job on the road crew, you wore the button.

Kent County knew isolation and poverty. Most residents were farmers, loggers and fishermen. The cash income on farms was $1,800 a year then. But it was a wholesome society, free of suspicion of strangers. The people were peaceable and well-meaning in a very sincere and decent way.

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