Canada’s Greatest Prime Minister: The Weirdo or Another Usual Suspect?

People love talking about lists. I don’t mean shopping lists or other mundane lists, but the ones where something or someone is ranked as best or worst in some way, like best Rock’n Roll Drummer or Worst Road in Ontario.

There are a lot of such lists on the internet, including clickbait that suckers people in to generate ad revenue.  And then there are often lists based on polls, but popularity (or the lack of it) doesn’t necessarily mean best or worst.

Usually the best/worst lists are compiled by experts, as individuals or in groups (is there a collective name for experts, like a ”murder” of crows?). The lists have some logic or reasoning behind them that can be explained.

Perhaps the grandfather of lists (Grandmother? Grandparent?) is who were the greatest U.S. Presidents. Inevitably, the top names on such lists include the “usual suspects” of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, with Thomas Jefferson or Roosevelt most often making the top five.

For Canada, the usual suspects of Mackenzie King, Wilfrid Laurier and John A. MacDonald tend to come out on top, with Pierre Trudeau and Lester B. Pearson following behind, based on the aggregate rankings on the Wikipedia page.

I recently brushed up on my Canadian history by reading Donald Creighton’s Canada’s First Century (1970). As a follow-up, I read three more works:

  • Richard Gwyn’s two volume biography of MacDonald: John A: The Man Who Made Us (2008) and Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times (2011)
  • Allan Levine’s biography of King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny (2011)

The Toronto Public Library was the subject of a ransomware attack and is still off-line, except for a separate e-book website. There is limited choice of books and no general biography of Wilfrid Laurier, but the bookends of Laurier’s career are covered in the books I read. In the Mackenzie King biography, King served in various government capacities before eventually succeeding Laurier as Liberal leader on Laurier’s death in 1919. Laurier’s early political career is touched on in Gwyn’s second volume.

Had Laurier won the Free Trade election of 1911, the case for him being our greatest Prime Minister would certainly have been far stronger, but he lost to Borden and spent his final years as Opposition Leader.

Laurier also had the good fortune of being Prime Minister in the boom years, after the erratic economy that plagued North America for much of MacDonald’s time in office. Furthermore, MacDonald’s dream of settling up the Prairies was only really fulfilled between 1900 and 1914, mostly under Laurier.

Gwyn states that Laurier was the last Prime Minister to speak with the same passion as MacDonald until Diefenbaker, and makes the case that Laurier was the next real successor to MacDonald:

“By his eloquence, elegance and charm, Laurier stirred up a spirit of optimism and confidence among Canadians, forecasting that the approaching twentieth century would belong to them. In many ways, he presided over the realization of the Canada that Macdonald dreamed of achieving. Lady Macdonald recognized this, telling Joseph Pope, ‘Laurier has taken in the strangest way, not only the policy but also the personality of Sir John.’ ”

Frankly, as an economic nationalist, I have a hard time accepting that Laurier was our greatest Prime Minister. Had he won and implemented his trade deal with the U.S., Canada would likely have been absorbed into our southern neighbour.

In his first election as Liberal Leader in 1891, which was MacDonald’s last, Laurier proposed free trade with the Americans. It was likely that, had Laurier won, the U.S. would not have been interested in merely eliminating tariffs. They would only have accepted a far greater degree of economic integration, that would have made a takeover of Canada almost inevitable. Gwynn explains why:

“When Secretary of State Blaine briefed President Harrison about some Canadian approaches during the winter of 1891-92 for a possible reopening of talks about ongoing cross-border problems, he advised him to reject the proposition, because ‘Canada can offer us nothing we cannot duplicate.’ Afterwards, Harrison wrote to Blaine, setting out his views should the topic of cross-border reciprocity ever be revived: ‘I have never seen,’ he stated, ‘how we could arrange a basis of reciprocity with Canada short of a complete customs union by which they would adopt our tariff and everything should be free between the two countries. This would be accompanied by political union.’ “

The other thing that is often forgotten about the elections over free trade (1891 and 1911) is that until the implementation of income taxes during World War I, tariffs were the main source of federal government revenue. Additionally, U.S. tariffs were usually much higher than ours, averaging between 38% and 49.5% in the 1890s.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was a Member of Parliament and Minister of Labour from 1909 to 1911 – and was defeated in 1911 along with free trade. I have long been confounded as to why King is considered by historians to be our greatest Prime Minister. To be sure, he certainly was our most successful Prime Minister at winning power, holding the record at 21 years, 154 days. In fact, he was not only the longest serving Canadian Prime Minister, but served longer than any British Prime Minister other than Robert Walpole.

King has a reputation (deservedly) as our “weirdo” Prime Minister. He never married, but was fixated on his mother and his dogs (3 terriers, Pat, Pat II and Pat III). In particular, he is often mocked for his belief in the occult, and his holding seances. He sometimes placed great significance in the position of the hands of a clock. And we know all this about him, and more, because he kept a detailed diary of his thoughts and daily activities for most of his time in politics.

King was our most educated Prime Minister, being the only one so far with a PhD. He was clearly intelligent, and though he inevitably made mistakes, his political astuteness is the main cause of his longevity in office. It certainly wasn’t his looks, his voice, or any real charisma.

King had a few good friends, dated women – though got cold feet before getting too intimate – and he could be very charming to those he wanted to impress, such as Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time, however, he was a horrible and tyrannical boss.

King became rich as a labour relations specialist working for John D. Rockefeller Jr. during World War One. He eventually left an estate equivalent to over $7.5 million (in 2011 dollars) in 1950. This included Kingsmere, a 500-acre estate in Gatineau, which he left to the government and is now the Speaker’s residence. He had also inherited Laurier’s house in Ottawa (as Liberal leader) which he bequeathed to the government.

Levine says this about King:

“That kind and thoughtful aspect of his character was frequently overshadowed by his other side, the one that was self-righteous, egotistical, vain, moralistic, paranoid, selfish, self-centered and vindictive. To compensate for any perceived deficiencies, he went to painstaking lengths to ensure every part of his life or any public statement, from the kitchen utensils his cook used to a major speech in the House of Commons, was perfect. It could drive those around him to distraction, a fact to which he was oblivious. His self-consciousness was legendary.”

King authored a book in 1918 titled “Industry and Humanity”, based in large part on his experiences. It sold well over his lifetime and is still available online. He gave a copy of the book to Hitler when they met in Berlin in 1937.

King was never a socialist, and as a labour relations expert he usually took the side of business and got workers to accept what little their employers were willing to offer voluntarily. King believed in compromise and cooperation, and saw himself as a negotiator, but he was also very concerned with issues of social welfare and was an early advocate of the social safety net programs and the welfare state.

Yet, while serving longer than any Prime Minister, he accomplished little, in contrast with R.B. Bennett – who had one brief term in office in the middle of King’s reign. We do owe to King such programs as Employment Insurance (EI), old age pensions, family allowances, and what would become Air Canada. He was in no rush, however, to bring about broader social or political change.

King’s longevity in office is mainly because he understood Quebec and national unity well enough to remain in power and hold the country together, particularly during the Conscription Crisis of 1917. King was a monarchist, and loved all things British, but wanted Canada to be independent of the British government rather than one of many Commonwealth countries trapped in a British-dominated system. King willingly eschewed taking on a major political role in the early stages of WWII, resulting in him being essentially frozen out of meetings and major decisions after the Americans entered in 1941. He served as a buffer and onlooker who was sometimes consulted but kept on the fringes of power.

King’s years as Prime Minister essentially saw the Canadian economy become dominated by the U.S. Like Laurier, he believed in freer trade and lower tariffs, though the U.S. brought in steeper tariffs during the Depression regardless.

Unlike today, King had powerful ministers in his cabinet who were free to speak their minds before major decisions were taken. He usually had a strong Quebec lieutenant he could rely upon (since he was not fluent in French) – first Ernest Lapointe, then after Lapointe’s death, Louis St. Laurent.

There was one commonality between MacDonald, Laurier and King: they were able to win elections because their party dominated Quebec. This meant that they were able to win federally, even if their party underperformed in anglophone Canada.

Apart from the timid pace of change, however, I find it hard to consider King to be our greatest Prime Minister because he was such an odd duck: an obsessive-compulsive who talked to ghosts and even detailed his bowel movements in his diary!

King sounds more like the main character of a black-comedy TV show than someone who should top a list of the best historical leaders of a G7 country. The writers of Blackadder would have had a field day with King. He was nicknamed “Rex”, and he certainly had Oedipal issues – the jokes write themselves!

Like too many others, King was fooled and charmed by Hitler. He felt that Hitler was someone like himself, “a fellow spiritualist, guided, as he was, by the spirit of his mother”, as Levine notes in his book.

Take this other section by Levine about the day after Hitler invaded Poland:

“As he was shaving the next morning, he noticed that the lather resembled ‘a perfect swan with a figure like that of Siegfried [the main character in Richard Wagner’s The Siegfried Idyll] rising out of the centre of it (as if it were a boat carrying him).’ As he wrote, ‘It seemed to me to be a guide as to Hitler in some particulars … I believe Hitler like Siegfried has gone out to court death—hoping for the Valhalla—an immortality to be joined by death—Wagner’s emphasis on death to be aimed at.’ In the afternoon, he drove out to Kingsmere and had dinner with Joan Patterson. They sought reassurance from the little table about events in Europe. The spirit of John King [Mackenzie King’s father] told them that he was dead, ‘shot by a Pole.’ When this turned out to be incorrect, King concluded two days later that he and Joan had been victimized by a ‘lying spirit’ and questioned his faith in utilizing the little table to discern the truth.”

King usually compromised, dithered, or delayed until forced to act. In truth, he only accomplished so much because he was in power so long. He maintained Canadian unity, and moved Canada away from Britain, so in that sense he was a nationalist. He was not necessarily an economic nationalist, however – with rare exceptions.

Mackenzie King was our longest-serving Prime Minister, while John A. MacDonald was second, Pierre Trudeau third and Wilfrid Laurier fourth. MacDonald, however, was our first Prime Minister. He was actually in politics 11 years before Confederation and served as Joint-Premier in the Province of Canada, which consisted of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec). Gwyn explains that, without MacDonald, Confederation likely would not have happened at all.

John A. MacDonald was certainly a flawed character. He drank to excess and made numerous serious mistakes. There was the Pacific Scandal of course, which delayed the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). MacDonald erred in allowing Louis Riel to be executed, though Gwyn attributes this to MacDonald’s belief in law and order, and not racism.

In recent years, after Gwyn’s books were published, MacDonald’s reputation has suffered, particularly on the political left. His statues have been taken down, and his name removed from landmarks, because of the sin of racism – particularly in relation to the First Nations and the Métis. Yet, Gwyn paints a picture of someone far less racist than Mackenzie King, who was Prime Minister decades later.

MacDonald had no issue with indigenous people and white people intermarrying, and he had good relations with indigenous people before becoming Prime Minister, when he was a lawyer in Kingston. MacDonald was welcoming towards Jewish immigrants settling in the West, including 1,500 Russian Jews who were to settle in Saskatchewan.

Here is what Gwyn writes:

“By the standards of the day, Macdonald was liberal on most matters of race. All his political life he sought harmony between the French and the English. His views about the proper treatment of Indians – ‘the original owners of the soil’ in his repeated phrase – were far more liberal than most. He also took it for granted that in Canada [indigenous peoples] had the same rights as anyone else, telling one correspondent, ‘There should be no reason why the red man … should not have the same privileges as the British subjects either White or Black.’ In 1882, when blacks were attacked by a crowd of whites and fought back, he came down strongly on their side…”

On the other hand, MacDonald did, under pressure, bring in a head tax on the Chinese – though he also knew that they would help to make the CPR possible.

However, MacDonald also tucked into an 1885 bill the provision that women would be allowed the right to vote, before any other country. On top of this, the bill extended to indigenous people the right to vote without giving up any other rights.

This is a huge contrast with King, who was bigoted towards “darkies”, as well as anti-Semitic – King is blamed for not allowing in the Jewish refugees sailing past Canada on the St. Louis in 1939.

MacDonald was Prime Minister during the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, but he was not really a Victorian, as he was actually four years older than Victoria, and came to Canada at age 5. He was not particularly religious, and was a pragmatist. He was not moralistic or a prude.

MacDonald seems far more like somebody who would be at home in today’s Canada than King, who was born in Kitchener in 1874. Both MacDonald and King served as Prime Ministers into their 70s, and were not really of their time in the way that Justin Trudeau strives to be today.

MacDonald was slow to arrive at the vision of Canada that was to be the basis of Confederation, and which was not really realized until Laurier’s time: a federal state (when only two other existed) which would stretch from the Maritimes to the Pacific with a railway connecting the coasts.

Before Confederation, Ontario and Quebec were essentially handcuffed together as equals. Elected members in each “section” could only pass laws that solely affected their side, while a “double majority” of members from both sides was needed to pass anything affecting both.

George Brown had initially wanted to see Ontario and Quebec form a new federation (without other British colonies joining) with “representation by population”. MacDonald opposed rep by pop, but eventually came around to the idea of a federation spanning the northern half of the continent, with a railway to ensure that we held onto the Western parts that would be bought from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

It was MacDonald who made it happen, by getting two Maritime provinces on board, and getting it passed in Britain.

Gwyn details how, in the run-up to Confederation, British politicians saw Canada as an unwanted burden that might interfere in their relationship with an increasingly powerful U.S. Other than a naval base in Halifax, we were not of much importance or benefit, and they would not be upset should we end up as part of the U.S. in the longer term. Queen Victoria’s personal desire to hang on to Canada helped to bring about Confederation, and even then Nova Scotia was essentially forced into it.

Despite the boozing, MacDonald was a hard worker, with vision and passion. He had the skills to get things done, while not being a petty tyrant, and was witty and charming – in particular, with women. While MacDonald had personal tragedies that deeply affected him throughout most of his life, he was overall a larger than life figure.

Here is a snippet from early in Gwyn’s first volume:

“Yet few other Canadian leaders – Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker for a time, Wilfrid Laurier – had the same capacity to inspire love. One MP -a Liberal – wrote in a magazine article of Macdonald’s hold on his supporters: ‘They would go through fire and water to serve him, and got, some of them, little or no reward. But they served him because they loved him, and because with all his great powers they saw in him their own frailties.’ The novelist Hugh MacLennan, in his Scotchman’s Return, caught many of the layers within him: ‘This frail-looking man with the immense and rueful patience of a Celt…. This utterly masculine man with so much woman in him…this lonely man flashing gay out of his inner solitude…this statesman who understood that without chicanery statesmanship is powerless.’ Macdonald was as complex and contradictory as his own country.”

The Canada we live in today is largely what MacDonald imagined, or at least, in most respects it is.

MacDonald and the other authors of the British North America Act designed a highly centralized federation. In Quebec, this vision was described as an opportunity for French-Canadians to have a government where they were the majority, free from interference in their own affairs.

MacDonald’s vision was formed after the U.S. Civil War. The lesson he took from that conflict was the importance of having a strong federal government with the power to disallow provincial laws.

Yet, despite Canada having a Supreme Court, it wasn’t truly supreme since court rulings could go to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in Britain. This was our highest, final court of appeal, until 1949 when that power was transferred to the Supreme Court of Canada.

It was the JCPC that decentralized Canada far more than MacDonald dreamed, and all the Prime Ministers up to King are in my bad books for allowing it, or not taking away its power sooner.

Ultimately, I like MacDonald better as both a person and a political leader. I feel that he genuinely was the greatest Prime Minister, considering who he was and what he was able to accomplish in the prevailing circumstances. Gwyn, who was a journalist and also shared Scottish roots with MacDonald, is a good writer and I think fair, but obviously admired MacDonald.

In a “post-national” Canada there is an even greater trend to denigrate heroes than our usual Canadian tendency to be overly modest and self-critical.

Historical figures should not be judged by contemporary standards. Even on issues like gay marriage, people still in the public eye today have reversed themselves. People should be judged by the standards of their times, if they were ahead of their times overall, or did more bad than good.

I frankly think that anybody wanting to take down any statues of MacDonald, or take his name off of anything, should be forced to sign an affidavit swearing they read both of Gwyn’s books.

As for MacKenzie King, if anybody wants to take his name off of anything, maybe hold a séance first and see if he will speak from the dead and apologize for his sins.

All content on this website is copyrighted, and cannot be republished or reproduced without permission. 

Share this article

Dominion Review

The truth does not fear investigation.

You can help support Dominion Review!

Dominion Review is entirely funded by readers. I am proud to publish hard-hitting columns and in-depth journalism with no paywall, no government grants, and no deference to political correctness and prevailing orthodoxies. If you appreciate this publication and want to help it grow and provide novel and dissenting perspectives to more Canadians, consider subscribing on Patreon for $5/month
- Riley Donovan, editor

Scroll to Top