Biography of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King

The Longest-Serving Canadian Prime Minister

Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada
Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada.

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Mackenzie King (1874–1950) was Prime Minister of Canada off and on for a total of 22 years. A compromiser and conciliator, Mackenzie King was mild-mannered and had a bland public personality. The private personality of Mackenzie King was more exotic, as his diaries show. A devout Christian, he believed in an afterlife, and consulted fortune tellers, communicated with his dead relatives in seances, and pursued "psychical research." Mackenzie King was also extremely superstitious.

Mackenzie King followed the political path set by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in emphasizing national unity. He also started a Canadian Liberal tradition of his own by setting Canada on the road towards social welfare.

Fast Facts: Mackenzie King

  • Known For: Longest-serving Prime Minister of Canada
  • Born: December 17, 1874, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
  • Parents: John King and Isabel Grace Mackenzie.
  • Died: July 22, 1950, in Chelsea, Quebec, Canada
  • Education: University College, Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, University of Chicago, Harvard University 
  • Published Works: Industry and Humanity, extensive diaries
  • Awards and Honors:  MacKenzie received many honorary degrees and national and international honors. He is also the namesake for numerous roads, schools, and other public institutions.
  • Notable Quote: Where there is little or no public opinion, there is likely to be bad government, which sooner or later becomes autocratic government.


Early Life

Mackenzie King was born into a struggling middle-class family. His maternal grandfather, whose name he bore, had been a leader of the Canadian Rebellion of 1837 which had aimed at establishing self-government in Upper Canada. As a boy, the younger Mackenzie was encouraged to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. King was an outstanding student; he attended the University of Toronto and then went on to earn advanced degrees there and at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and the London School of Economics.

Early Career

King was offered an academic position at Harvard but turned it down. Instead, he accepted the position of deputy minister of labor in Ottawa, where he developed a talent for mediating labor disputes.

In 1908 King resigned from his position to run as the liberal candidate for Parliament, representing North Waterloo (his birthplace). He was elected in 1908 and was quickly given the position of minister of labor by Prime Minister Laurier. Laurier, however, was defeated in 1909, after which King took a post with the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States. King's work involved investigation of industrial relations in the U.S., and it resulted in the publication of his 1918 book Industry and Humanity.

Elected Prime Minister of Canada

In 1919, Laurier's death left an opening for King to be named the leader of the Liberal Party. In 1921, he became Prime Minister although his government was made up largely of conservatives. A master mediator, King was able to muster a vote of confidence. Despite this success, however, a scandal led to King's resignation in 1926. Just a few months later, after the new Conservative government failed, King once again became Prime Minister. Soon afterward, he took the lead in "securing the declaration of equality of status of the self-governing nations of the empire, thereafter styled the Commonwealth."

Mid-Life Career

In 1930, King once again lost the election; instead of leading as Prime Minister, he led the opposition throughout the Great Depression. In 1935, he was once again elected Prime Minister in a landslide victory and continued in that role until his 1948 retirement. He led his nation through World War II and, following his resignation, continued to sit as a member of parliament. Louis St. Laurent took over as Leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Canada. Some of his accomplishments included:

  • Development of social programs such as unemployment insurance, old age pensions, welfare, and the family allowance;
  • Leading Canada through World War II, surviving a conscription crisis that split Canada along English French lines;
  • Introducing the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) which trained more than 130,000 aircrew members in Canada for the Allied war effort.

King continues to hold the record for the most elections to the position of Prime Minister of Canada: he was elected no fewer than six times.

King's Published Diaries

While King was seen as a rather dull but competent bachelor and statesman throughout his life, in the 1970's his personal diaries began to appear in print. These provided a very different view of the man. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

King’s political achievements have often been overshadowed by the revelation that this apparently proper and colorless man was a spiritualist, who frequently sought contact with his mother and other dead relatives and friends. King kept a detailed personal diary for much of his life; this diary...has provided biographers and historians with a fascinating insight into King’s beliefs and his personal and spiritual life. The publication of C.P. Stacey’s A Very Double Life in 1976 led to intense speculation about King’s sexual and spiritual life, and many presented him as leading an almost Jekyll-and-Hyde existence.

Death

King died of pneumonia on July 22, 1950, at Kingsmere. He was in the process of writing his memoirs.

Legacy

King was a consummate politician and deal maker with the ability to mediate agreements between disparate groups over the course of decades. While not the nation's most exciting leader, his longevity and consistency helped mold Canada into the nation it is today.

Sources

  • Pickersgill, John Whitney. “W.L. Mackenzie King.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/W-L-Mackenzie-King.
  • “'Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life' | CBC Radio.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 24 Aug. 2018, www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-november-5-2017-1.4384859/unbuttoned-a-history-of-mackenzie-king-s-secret-life-1.4384890.
  • “William Lyon Mackenzie King.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/william-lyon-mackenzie-king.