Sunday, November 1, 2015

Canadian and U.S. Elections and Whistle Stop Tours

Wilfrid Laurier on his 1904 whistle stop tour.

During the election that just finished here in Canada, leaders of the federal parties engaged in what the media called “whistle stop” tours.

Of course, there were no trains involved—the traditional meaning of a whistle stop. In these cases, the leaders used busses.

In railroad parlance, a whistle stop is a small station where a train only stops on a signal. (Also known as a flag stop, since a passenger at the station might wave a flag to stop the train.)

A typical whistle, or flag, stop.

According to one source, the “whistle” in whistle stop comes from how the engineer would whistle twice to acknowledge a signal from the conductor that he would stop to pick up a passenger.

It didn’t take long for politicians to realize the potential of using trains to help with election bids, including U.S. presidents (beginning with Theodore Roosevelt).

One of the most famous U.S. whistle stop tours was conducted in 1948 by Harry Truman, who used a special train to travel through over 20 states as part of his re-election bid.

Truman's 1948 whistle stop tour.

During the tour, he made up to eight stops and speeches a day in communities along the way from the rear platform of a passenger car.

In 2009, President Obama took the train to his inauguration from Philadelphia to Washington.

Here in Canada, politicians began using trains in the late 19th century for election purposes. According to Michael Nolan of the University of Western Ontario, trains were a key part of election campaigns for politicians between 1867-1925 (together with newspapers, public meetings, picnics and, later, radio).

One Prime Minister who used trains to good effect was Wilfred Laurier. 

In 1894, as leader of the opposition, he used the train to visit various communities in Ontario. For the 1900 election, he used trains to travel through Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.

Another photo of Laurie's whistle stop tour.

As Nolan put it, when the train arrived at its destination, Laurier would hold an informal reception on the station platform with local dignitaries and others. He’d make a few remarks, shake some hands, and then proceed to the next stop.

The last Prime Minister to use a train for campaigning was Pierre Elliot Trudeau, visiting the eastern Canada in 1974.

Pierre Trudeau on his tour.

In 2008, Green Party leader Elizabeth May travelled by regular VIA trains across Canada to meet voters.

She did it partly to reinforce the party’s position on sustainable energy and climate change, but also because it was cheaper. She did it again in 2011, but this time from Toronto to Montreal.

Today, the traditional whistle stop tour is mostly a quaint thing of the past, what with politicians using planes and busses to get around. But the term lives on.

But now the son of Pierre Trudeau is the new Prime Minister. Since he displays his father's easy way of connecting with people, and a desire to do so, maybe one day he will resurrect his father's whistle stop ways.

For another look at railroad terms with political meaning, click here to read about the gravy train.

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