On April 21, 1948, William Lyon Mackenzie King established a record as having been prime minister longer than any other man in the history of the British Commonwealth. He had served for 7,825 days, during which time he won six general elections.
Grandson of the rebel William Lyon Mackenzie (see my January 2 post), he became the most controversial leader in Canadian political history. Many books have been written about him, and the title used by Bruce Hutchison
illustrated the common impression of him: The Incredible Canadian. People who were closely associated with Mackenzie King are still not sure that they really knew or understood him. Although some authors and commentators maintain that Mackenzie King was a spiritualist, others declare that his interest in the occult has been greatly exaggerated.
Over the years Mackenzie King became a labour expert and was made Deputy Minister, then Minister of the Department of Labour when he joined the Laurier government. He was defeated in the reciprocity election in 1911 and spent the next three years in financial straits, with his father going blind, his beloved mother seriously ill and a brother suffering from tuberculosis.
It was then that the tide turned. A rich English woman, Violet Markham, gave him an annuity of $1,500 a year. This was followed by an invitation to work for the Rockefeller Foundation of New York, where he earned $20,000 a year while Canada was involved in World War I. He was bitterly attacked for this by political opponents in later years.
Nevertheless, in 1919, the Liberal party needed a leader to replace the great Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King was chosen in a contest with four other candidates. In 1921 he led the Liberal to their first election victory since the defeat of 1911.
Mackenzie King was not Prime Minister continuously from 1921 until 1948, when he resigned in favour of Louis St. Laurent. He was out of office a few days in 1926 during one of Canada’s most exciting political struggles. In 1930 he was defeated in a general election by the Conservatives under R. B. Bennett, and was Leader of the Opposition until 1935. He was at the helm during the “ordeal by fire” of the Second World War.
Mackenzie King was at his best when the political storms were at their worst. His biography makes fascinating reading.
- We come from a long line of great prime ministers (theglobeandmail.com)
- King’s approach to The Great Depression (historymanilya.wordpress.com)
- The 2 Trudeaus, and the lesson of 1968 (cbc.ca)