Biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canadian Prime Minister

Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada

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William Lyon Mackenzie King (December 17, 1874–July 22, 1950) was prime minister of Canada on and off for a total of 22 years. A compromiser and conciliator, Mackenzie King—as he was more simply known—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 toward 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 aimed to establish 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 Wilfrid 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. He quickly took a leading role in securing the equality of self-governing nations of the British Empire (the Commonwealth).

Second Stint as Prime Minister

In 1930, King once again lost the election and, instead of leading Canada as its 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 in 1948.

Some of King's 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 six times.

King's Published Diaries

While King was seen as a rather dull but competent bachelor and statesman throughout his life, in the 1970s his personal diaries began to appear in print. These provided a very different view of the man. Specifically, they revealed that King's personal life was quite different from his public persona. In fact, he was a spiritualist who believed it was possible to talk with the dead through a medium. According to his diaries, King frequently worked with mediums to "contact" his dead friends and relatives. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, "Thousands of pages of diaries, spanning half a century, exposed him as an oddball and eccentric—a lifelong bachelor who was extremely close to his mother, adored his dog, availed himself of hookers, and communed with the spiritual world."

Death

King died of pneumonia at the age of 75 on July 22, 1950, at Kingsmere. He was in the process of writing his memoirs. He is buried near his mother at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. 

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.

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