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September 2010 - Nr.9

William Lyon Mackenzie King’s grandfather was a rebel, who probably would have been hanged if he had not fled to the United States. King himself became Canada’s longest-serving and one of its best prime ministers. King and the Liberal party governed the country most of the time from 1921 to 1948. During those years King’s greatest achievements were leading Canada through World War II and introducing major social welfare policies.

William Lyon Mackenzie, a hot-tempered immigrant from Scotland, led a brief rebellion against British rule in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1837. In 1874 his daughter, Isabel King, gave birth to a son who had a very different temperament from the grandfather. King was ambitious, clever, and well-educated at the University of Toronto, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and the London School of Economics.

He became an expert in labour relations and was appointed Canada’s first Minister of Labour in the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In 1919 King succeeded Laurier as leader of the Liberal party. After the 1921 election King became prime minister, heading a minority government. He emerged from the elections of 1925 and 1926 (and a serious constitutional controversy with the governor-general, Lord Byng) as leader of a majority government.

King was not a colourful or even a very popular politician but he was very patient in adopting only policies designed to appeal to the moderate majority of Canadians. Like Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier before him, he hoped to unite the country rather than divide it. During the prosperous 1920s Canada was not a difficult country to govern. After the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 the King government fell out of touch and lost to R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives in 1930. When Bennett failed to end hard times, King came back into office in 1935 and would never be beaten again.

As war in Europe loomed, King steered carefully between those who wanted Canada to stay out of European affairs and those who thought it important to support British policy. When Great Britain went to war against Hitler’s Germany in 1939 Canada also declared war. During the next six years the King government organized a massive war effort that enlisted 1.1 million Canadians in the army, navy, and air force. More than 40,000 Canadians were killed in battle. Canadian industry was fully employed producing munitions and other war materials. A young country coming to the aid of its motherland, the Canadian government made significant loans to Great Britain.

Canadians were seriously divided on the issue of how to reinforce the army. French Canadians strongly opposed the idea of conscripting men for overseas service. After much hesitation King managed to introduce conscription with a minimum of national disunity.

There was less disagreement about the desirability of moving Japanese Canadians away from the country’s Pacific coast, where it was believed they might be a security risk. Putting Japanese Canadians in camps in the interior of British Columbia has been widely condemned as a blot on Canada’s record, as has its reluctance to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. On the other hand, World War II caused the government Canada gradually to abandon policies based on racial exclusion and to become more active in world affairs. Canada was a founding member of the United Nations.

The hardships Canadians suffered during the Great Depression convinced King that national social welfare programs should be introduced when it was politically practical. In 1940 the King government brought in Canada’s basic system of unemployment insurance, and in 1944 introduced child allowances (nicknamed baby bonuses) to assist poor families. King also passed legislation giving important rights to labour unions and had earlier introduced the first old age pensions.

When King retired he had been prime minister longer than anyone in the history of British Commonwealth countries. He left his Liberal party in good health; under his successor, Louis St. Laurent, the Liberals formed the government through two more elections.

After his death in 1950 it was revealed that King had been a lonely man who worshipped his mother and his dogs and sometimes sought advice from spiritualist mediums and fortune-tellers. He kept detailed diaries which have many embarrassing passages. But his diaries also show that King was masterful in his understanding of Canadian politics and public issues. Cautious and careful and sometimes slow to act, over the years King possibly achieved more for Canada and his party than any other prime minister.

He was never loved by Canadians or even by most members of his Liberal party, but King was always respected. Not a bad record of achievement for a rebel’s grandson.

Further Reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, by Michael Bliss; Mackenzie King: His Life and World, by J.L. Granatstein.

Next Instalment: Lester Pearson: A Nobel Prize and the Maple Leaf Flag

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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