This month marks a notable centenary in Canadian political history. On December 6, 1921, William Lyon Mackenzie King won his first federal election and was duly sworn in as prime minister 23 days later. He went on to spend more than 21 years in office over a 27 year span, which makes him the longest-serving of all our prime ministers.
King’s political resilience was remarkable. As Liberal leader, he won six of seven general elections, three majorities and three minorities. His popular vote tallies ranged from a high of 50.3 percent in 1940 to a low of 39.7 percent in 1925. Recent prime ministers would kill for a track record like that.
King was born in the southwestern Ontario town of Kitchener in 1874 – it was still called Berlin at the time – and named after his maternal grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, a man famous for his leadership role in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. It was a connection he was always proud of.
He was highly educated by anyone’s standards. With a BA and MA from the University of Toronto, an LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School and a PhD from Harvard, King was nobody’s idea of an intellectual slouch.
Then there was his book. Published in 1918, Industry and Humanity addressed the causes and social consequences of strikes. King may not have been radical or even particularly creative, but he can certainly be described as something of a policy wonk with an interest in reform.
Canadian independence was a preoccupation.
King assumed office in a world where Canada had already evolved to dominion status and he was interested in pushing all the way to complete independence. Accordingly, he was an active player in the various imperial discussions that ultimately concluded in the December 1931 Statute of Westminster. With its passage, the various dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada) and the Irish Free State – were formally recognized as sovereign equals of the United Kingdom.
The power to declare war was a particular manifestation of this enhanced status. Whereas Canada had been (enthusiastically) swept up by Britain’s 1914 declaration, King took care to ensure that the decision with respect to the Second World War was made – and seen to be made – by the Canadian parliament in Ottawa.
It wasn’t a matter of being anti-British. King was fine with the British connection and certainly no republican. But Canada was an independent country and everyone needed to recognize that.
King’s long tenure coincided with the country’s move towards industrialization and much of the Great Depression. The early beginnings of Canada’s welfare state also came on his watch, thanks to the introduction of unemployment insurance, old age pensions and family allowances.
But the Second World War was the single most spectacular event.
Initially among those who thought Adolf Hitler – as distinct from Nazism – had positive potential, King was unenthusiastic about the prospect of Canada becoming involved in a European war. Events, however, made conflict inevitable and King’s government rolled up its sleeves.
Canada may have been very much a junior partner, but it punched significantly above its weight. In what’s been described as “a complete mobilization of Canadian society,” substantial quantities of food and armaments were provided to the U.K., the Royal Canadian Navy – the world’s third largest by 1945 – escorted half of all trans-Atlantic convoys and over 42,000 Canadian soldiers died in action.
All the while, there was the need to navigate the country’s inherent fissures, conscription being the major flashpoint. With Quebec adamantly opposed and the rest of the country in favour, King’s formulation – “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” – was a calculated exercise in ambiguity.
Professional historians have hitherto tended to rate King highly. A 1997 survey named him first among prime ministers and a 2011 follow-up had him in third place.
However, rampant wokery being what it is, one wonders how he’d fare in a survey done today. His views on some topics – such as immigration – were decidedly out of touch with our current sensibilities. No doubt, he’d be pilloried as “racist.”
Beyond that, King’s charmless personality simply wouldn’t resonate in today’s Canada. The idea of someone like him winning six terms boggles the mind.
Then again, he wouldn’t regard us very favourably either.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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