King, Lapointe friendship bridged the two solitudes

The friendship between King and Lapointe formed the lynch pin of national unity during a key period of Canadian political history

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Political friendships

Harry S. Truman is reputed to have said if you want a friend in Washington, D.C., then get a dog. Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister through most of the 1920s-1940s, seems to have enjoyed both human and canine friends.

In January 1941, his dog, Pat, died at the age of 17. Conrad Black explains how, on Pat’s last night, King held him and sang “safe in the Arms of Jesus.” In his diary, he called Pat “[M]y little friend, the truest friend I have had – or man ever had.”

Eleven months later, he received grimmer news. His closest colleague and Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe, was dying of pancreatic cancer.

In his diary, King records telling him at his bedside that, “no man had ever had a truer friend. But for him, I would never have been prime minister, nor have been able to hold the office, as I had held it through these years. That there was never a deeper love between brothers than existed between us. That we had never had a difference all the years that we had been associated together, in thought and work alike.” After this, they kissed each other on the cheek and bade goodbye.

The King-Lapointe friendship constituted another chapter in Canadian federal politics of Upper Canadian and Lower Canadian partnership in government. They continued the tradition started by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, and continued by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier.

Lapointe was the point-man in Quebec for King, who did not speak French and had little interest in Quebec. But Lapointe did more than serve King in Quebec. He was essentially a co-prime minister for the nearly 20 years King was in power. King consulted him on all matters and profoundly depended on him for advice and support. King rarely disagreed with him. The Quebec press spoke of “le gouvernement King-Lapointe.”

In a biography, Lita-Rose Betcherman shows how Lapointe was instrumental in helping King win the Liberal leadership (to replace Wilfred Laurier) in 1919. He did so at the leadership convention by preventing the Quebec caucus from leaving, which also avoided a national unity crisis.

Speaking in support of King, Lapointe struck a tone that would have fit in the 2015 federal election campaign: “A Liberal is a Liberal because he likes something or somebody; a Tory is a Tory because he hates something or somebody.” That was the beginning of a friendship and political partnership that would end with Lapointe’s death in 1941.

During that period, mostly as Minister of Justice, Lapointe accompanied King to the Imperial Conference in 1926 and served as the lead Canadian delegate to discussions that led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Lapointe was a classical liberal who opposed Duplessis and the stronger forms of Quebec nationalism, and opposed nationalization of industries (i.e., railways) and social legislation.

In a speech to the House of Commons in April 1919, he stated: “Liberalism stands for liberty – liberty of the subject, liberty of speech, liberty of action, liberty of commerce. Liberalism stands for freedom and competition in all lines and spheres.” His defence of liberalism (and the Liberals) ensured its influence in Quebec for years to come.

Lapointe’s greatest contribution to the political partnership was securing Quebec’s support for Canadian participation in the Second World War. King wished to avoid a repeat of the 1917 conscription crisis. Lapointe’s guarantee to Quebec that there would be no conscription helped secure its support as well as the defeat of Duplessis in the 1939 provincial election at the hands of Liberal Adélard Godbout.

King visited Lapointe on his deathbed the next day after the visit noted above. Betcherman reports that as two soulmates with a strong belief in eternal life, King told him, “Ernest, we will see each other again.” King kissed him and Lapointe died soon after.

Within a year of Lapointe’s death, King yielded to demands for conscription and called a national plebiscite asking Canadians whether they were in favour of releasing his government from previous commitments to refrain from imposing conscription. Quebec opposition to conscription was overwhelmed by massive support for it in the rest of Canada. King lost considerable support in Quebec, including some of his cabinet ministers. Although he held onto office until his retirement in 1948, some scholars believe his conscription gamble gave birth to modern Quebec nationalism.

The friendship of King and Lapointe formed the lynch pin of their political partnership, which in turn formed the lynch pin of national unity during that key period of Canadian political history.

 


Mackenzie King Ernest Lapointe

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