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Alone at the Top
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William Lyon Mackenzie King.


1874 - 1950

"It is what we prevent, rather than what we do that counts most in Government." -- Mackenzie King, August 26, 1936

This statement sums up best the secret of Mackenzie King's success as prime minister, and perhaps, the key to governing Canada effectively. King's record as prime minister is sometimes difficult to assess. He had no captivating image, he gave no spellbinding speeches, he championed no radical platform. He is remembered for his mild-mannered, passive compromise and conciliation. Yet Mackenzie King led Canada for a total of twenty-two years, through half the Depression and all of the Second World War. Like every other prime minister, he had to possess ambition, stamina and determination to become prime minister and, in spite of appearances, his accomplishments in that role required political acuity, decisiveness and faultless judgement.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was born in Berlin (later renamed Kitchener), Ontario in 1874. His father was a lawyer and his maternal grandfather was William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. From an early age, King identified with his grandfather, an association that influenced him throughout his political life.

King studied economics and law at the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. After graduating with an M.A. in 1897, he pursued his studies at Harvard. In 1900, he entered the civil service and became Deputy Minister of the new Department of Labour. King joined the Liberal party and won a seat in the 1908 election. The following year he was appointed Minister of Labour in Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Cabinet.

After he lost his seat in the 1911 election, King worked as a labour consultant for the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States. He ran and lost again in the 1917 election. Unlike most English-speaking Liberals, he stood by Laurier in opposition to conscription.

In 1919, King was elected leader of the Liberal party in the first leadership convention held in Canada. The party was still bitterly divided, with some Liberals in the Union government and some in Opposition. King's stand on conscription two years before won him the loyalty of Quebec. Furthermore his skills as a conciliator were well developed by his labour experience and he put them to good use rebuilding the party. The Liberals won the 1921 election.

The contentious issue of King's first term of office was tariffs and freight rates. King reduced them, but not enough to satisfy the prairie farmers, who gave their support to the Progressives, a new political party formed to represent their interests. After the 1925 election, King could maintain his majority only with their support. The Liberals lost a vote of confidence the following year. The Governor General refused King's request to dissolve Parliament and called on Arthur Meighen, Leader of the Opposition to form the government. However, this lasted only four days, until King called for a vote on the constitutional right of Meighen to govern. The Conservatives lost the vote and an election was called.

Despite a recently uncovered scandal involving the Liberal Minister of Customs, King and his party won the 1926 election. He took advantage of the prosperity of the late 1920s to reduce the war debt and to introduce an old-age pension scheme. Although the Liberals lost the 1930 election, it was to their benefit in the long run. The worst years of the Depression were associated with the Conservatives. The Liberals were reinstated in government in 1935.

King led the nation through the Second World War, during which Canada contributed food supplies, financial aid, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, ships, aircraft, tanks and over a million Canadian troops to the Allied cause. The close friendship of King with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President F. D. Roosevelt was one of the cornerstones of the Allied effort. One of the secrets of King's success as a leader was his ability to recognize the talents of his party members. He filled his Cabinet with extremely capable men and delegated to them the authority to carry out their tasks.

National unity was King's most important goal. He recognized that this did not mean forcing all Canadians to espouse one single vision, but accommodating a multitude of differing, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints. It was this wisdom and his ability to compromise that allowed King to successfully negotiate the issue of conscription in 1944 and avoid the divisiveness of 1917.

As part of his ideals on social reform, King introduced unemployment insurance in 1940 and family allowance in 1944. Perhaps the most significant indication of King's success as prime minister is the fact that upon his retirement in 1948, his successor, Louis St. Laurent, won an election the following year and kept the Liberals in power for another eight years. Politics had been King's life and an exhausting one at that; he died in 1950, less than two years after retiring.

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

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