W. L. Mackenzie King (1874-1950), tenth prime minister of Canada (1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948). King was the leader of Canada's Liberal Party from 1919 to 1948. On his retirement he had held office longer than any other prime minister in the British Commonwealth, and under his leadership, Canada became a participant in world affairs. King contributed much to the cooperation between Britain, Canada, and the United States during and after World War II (1939-1945). However, his greatest achievement was the preservation of unity between French-speaking and English-speaking parts of Canada.
William Lyon Mackenzie King was born in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, in 1874. He was named after his maternal grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, a leader in an unsuccessful 1837 rebellion against British rule. King's father came from a family that was loyal to Britain, and this combination of opposites foreshadowed King's future.
In 1891 King went to the University of Toronto to study economics and government. He won a scholarship to the University of Chicago and did postgraduate work at Harvard University.
In Toronto and in Chicago, King had been appalled by the poverty of big cities. In the summer of 1897 he took a job as a reporter for the Toronto Mail and Empire and made a study of conditions in the garment industry. He found that the contractors for postmen's uniforms ran some of the worst sweatshops. King told the facts to the postmaster general, Sir William Mulock, who was a family friend, and suggested that a fair-wage clause be included in future contracts. Mulock took the advice. In 1900 he invited King to administer Canada's first department of labor. King accepted and at 25 became deputy minister of labor.
For the next eight years, King remained a civil servant, working to improve labor conditions all over the country. He helped settle some 40 strikes, and he drafted labor legislation.
Although technically a civil servant, King was deeply engaged in politics and was interested in little else. In 1908 King was the Liberal candidate from Waterloo North, Ontario for a seat in the House of Commons. Although the area was mainly Conservative, he was easily elected because of his vigorous and well-organized campaign. In 1909 Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier asked King to be minister of labor. In 1911 the Liberal government was defeated by the Conservatives in the general election, and King lost his post and his seat in the House of Commons.
|B||Rise to Leadership|
King worked in minor political posts in the Liberal Party. In 1914 he took a job in the United States as director of industrial research with the Rockefeller Foundation, which was impressed by his record in labor negotiations.
In Canada the outbreak of World War I in 1914 caused conflict in the Liberal Party over the issue of conscription, or compulsory enrollment in the armed forces, also called the draft. The Conservative prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, offered Laurier a post in the coalition cabinet. As the leader of Québec, Laurier refused to join a government that favored the draft. However, most of his Liberal colleagues did join, and by 1917 the Liberal Party had almost no strength outside Québec. King remained loyal to Laurier and in the 1917 election ran against a coalition candidate. This was a gesture of loyalty, because King had no chance of winning.
In 1918 King wrote Industry and Humanity, in which he set out his ideas about labor and capitalism. These were much more liberal than his party's general views. The book advocated cooperation between the community, labor, and the owners of industry. It recommended a larger share for the state in the control of capital, and it represented a step toward a welfare state. The book was as close as King came to formulating a political creed, but it made little impression on his colleagues.
After many Liberal leaders deserted the party over the draft issue, King became Laurier's political heir. Laurier died in February 1919, and the party met in August to choose a new leader. Because he had refused to accept the draft, King had most of Québec's votes, and he was elected.
King knew how to impress Parliament and was a great tactician. The Liberal Party was still small and divided. He had to reconvert members who had joined the coalition government, without angering Liberals who had remained faithful.
King tried to unify his party by attacking the coalition government. He maintained that the coalition had been formed during wartime and had no right to stay in power after the war. Further, he stated that Canadian industry was controlled by friends of the coalition government and was favored by lucrative contracts and protected by high tariffs, taxes on imports. King also made a long speech in Parliament, defending in detail his reasons for not having fought in the war, the main one being the necessity of supporting his family. The speech, although humiliating, prevented an attack on King because of his war record.
|IV||FIRST TERM AS PRIME MINISTER|
In the election of 1921 the Liberal Party campaigned solely on the issue of lowering tariffs, but the party did not back the issue strongly. It did not want to lose the East, which supported tariffs, in order to gain the West, which favored free trade. However, the postwar economic depression worked against the Conservatives. Although the Conservatives did not do well in the election, it was not a complete victory for the Liberals. King did not have a majority. The Progressives were the second strongest party in Parliament, and although they refused to join King's government, they also refused to act as the official opposition. King could govern if the Progressives voted with him, which they did because the Progressives despised the Conservatives under Arthur Meighen.
In the next few years King initiated few new policies. He left his ministers to their own devices, as long as their actions did not embarrass the government. He concentrated mainly on organizing the party. Realizing the special conditions in Québec, King wisely left Québec politics entirely in the hands of native French Canadian Ernest Lapointe, who had campaigned with King. Until Lapointe died in 1941, he remained King's second-in-command.
King was careful to avoid most issues that would cause problems, but some were forced on him. In 1922 the British government asked him for support in a threatened war with Turkey. King refused to commit Canada without the consent of his Parliament. The next year the British tried to achieve a common foreign policy for all the parts of the Empire. By standing firmly against this plan, King helped to ensure that the Commonwealth continued to consist of independent nations.
|V||SECOND TERM AS PRIME MINISTER|
By the election of 1925 most of the rifts in the Liberal Party were healed. Little had been achieved by King's government except for some tariff reduction and the reorganization of Canadian railroads, but no mistakes had been made. The real issue of the election was the personalities of the party leaders, King and the brilliant but arrogant Conservative, Arthur Meighen. The Conservatives swept English-speaking Canada, and they won 116 seats. The Liberals won 101, and the Progressives 25. King himself was defeated in North York, and the result was a loss in his prestige as leader of the party.
However, King did not resign. He determined to try to govern with the help of the Progressives. He consulted with the British governor-general and asked for the chance to continue as prime minister, promising to resign in favor of Meighen if he could not get enough Progressive support for a majority.
King succeeded in getting a majority vote based on the speech from the throne, the government's general statement of its plans at the opening of a new session of Parliament. However, a scandal had been discovered in the customs department, and a committee studying the evidence handed in a critical report. King's defense was that his government had already been making an inquiry into customs operations and that the Conservatives had received much of their information from government investigators. This was true, but a preliminary vote showed that King had lost the support of the legislature. King asked the governor-general to dissolve Parliament, but his request was refused.
King immediately announced his resignation, and Meighen took over as prime minister. However, he could not get a parliamentary majority to support his cabinet and had to ask for a dissolution of Parliament. This time the governor-general agreed.
In the election that followed, King argued that Britain, represented by the governor-general, had interfered in Canadian politics, first by refusing King's request for a dissolution and then by granting a similar request by Meighen. It was a technicality, but it succeeded. Canadians distrusted outside dominance so much that they forgot the customs scandal, and the Liberals gained a working majority in Parliament.
During the next few years King had few problems, but this tranquil period ended in 1929. King could not have prevented the Great Depression, the hard times of the 1930s, but when it came, he did little to relieve it. The new leader of the Conservative Party, Richard Bennett, recommended that federal aid be given to provincial unemployment programs. King refused to agree and made an indiscreet statement implying that he was refusing because some provincial governments were Conservative. This ensured King's defeat in the election of July 1930, and Bennett became prime minister.
A new scandal came to light at this time involving contributions of over $800,000 made by the Beauharnois Power Company to the Liberal Party. King made a point of not knowing where the funds came from, and it was also noted that the Conservatives themselves had received $30,000 from the company. The defense seemed weak, but the country as a whole judged King to be honest.
The scandal was largely forgotten as the depression deepened. Bennett's measures to stop the worsening economic situation were unsuccessful, but the Liberals also had no effective remedy. A new movement, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), an alliance of left-wing groups, was gaining strength. King realized that the Liberals must also move to the left. However, he could not move too fast and anger the conservatives in his own party. His main proposal to deal with the depression was a central bank controlled by the state.
|VI||RETURN TO OFFICE|
In the 1935 election the Liberals campaigned by saying that Conservatives had stolen most of their new reforms from the Liberals, who were better able to operate them. The depression gave King his greatest Parliamentary majority up to that time, 171 seats out of 245.
After the election, King's first success was the reduction of trade barriers between Canada and the United States. The agreement was followed by another in 1938 that reduced tariffs between Great Britain, the United States, and Canada. However, through most of the 1930s, Canada remained in the grip of the depression, the effects of which were magnified by a drought in the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. When the economic situation improved somewhat in 1937 and 1939, the Liberal government took credit.
King was torn between a sentimental attachment to Britain and international cooperation, and an equally strong devotion to North American isolationism. In addition, King refused to believe that there would be another war. In 1937 King met German dictator Adolf Hitler and thought him a “simple sort of peasant” and no danger to anyone. King kept Canada's military spending to a minimum. Whatever was spent on Canadian defense was pushed through by the prime minister against the opposition of many of his colleagues.
King continued to hope for peace, but in 1939 as it became clear that war was inevitable, he remembered the problems of World War I and began the long struggle to preserve the nation's unity. In a speech of March 30 he said that he still believed in peace, but that if Britain were attacked Canada would support Britain. King reassured French Canadians that the unity of Canada was more important than saving Europe. Most important, he pledged there would be no draft.
|B||World War II|
On September 1, 1939, King learned that war was imminent, and when Parliament next met only three members spoke against Canada's entrance into the war. Lapointe's influence had carried almost all of the Québec members.
However, there was opposition outside Parliament. The premier of Québec, Maurice Duplessis, dissolved his provincial legislature, hoping to get support from the public for Québec to secede from Canada and become independent. If he had succeeded, the country's unity would have been irreparably damaged. King wanted to conciliate, but Lapointe persuaded him that the battle with Duplessis should be fought openly. The Liberals won the province, and the Duplessis government was turned out of office.
Meanwhile, King's rival Mitchell F. Hepburn, the Liberal premier of Ontario, introduced a motion in the Ontario parliament saying that the federal government was not being aggressive enough in preparing for war. The Ontario Conservatives supported the motion, which appealed to a large section of English-speaking Canada.
On the first day of the new Parliamentary session, King announced that he was going to seek a dissolution, on the grounds that he could not run the government while it was being stabbed in the back by the Ontario legislature. The move surprised both Conservatives and Liberals. In the election that followed, King won a substantial majority in Parliament.
After the fall of France, Canada's war effort increased. A draft was introduced, but only for an army that would remain at home for defense. King did more than lead his own country. He became an intermediary between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and the British prime minister, Winston Churchill. In August 1940 King met Roosevelt in Ogdensburg, New York, where they made an agreement of mutual defense.
The first stage of the inevitable draft crisis came in 1942. The Conservatives demanded a draft for overseas service, which was favored by most Canadians outside Québec. King took it to a popular vote, and the nation voted to allow a draft for overseas military service if it became necessary. King believed that a draft would never be necessary, and this seemed probable in 1942, when the Canadian army was doing garrison duty in England.
Meanwhile, opinion polls indicated that the CCF was again gaining support. Perhaps inspired by this, King introduced legislation that established family allowances, unemployment insurance, and other measures to promote the welfare of Canadian citizens. He looked forward to a new election with confidence.
However, the draft issue persisted. In 1944 Canadian troops suffered heavy losses in the invasion of France, and the army urgently needed reinforcements. King had promised Colonel James L. Ralston, the minister of defense, that troops based in Canada would be sent abroad if necessary, and he now called on King to keep his promise. King desperately tried to find a compromise, because he could not face either the loss of his ministers who wanted the draft, or the support of French Canada. After a long crisis within the cabinet, King dismissed Ralston and replaced him with a new minister of defense, who promised to find enough reinforcements from volunteers. He failed and King was forced to accept a modest form of overseas conscription. Louis St. Laurent, who had become Québec's representative in the cabinet after Lapointe's death, had always been willing to accept a draft if necessary. Other French Canadians were won over by King's threat of army revolt if the measure were not passed. Nevertheless, two-thirds of the Québec members of Parliament voted against a draft. King narrowly survived his last crisis, but his maneuvering had avoided a breach between English-speaking and French Canada.
In the 1945 election the Liberals campaigned on hopes for a new postwar world. The war in Europe had ended, defusing the draft issue; in any event, Québec would never vote for the Conservatives. The Liberals again won a Parliamentary majority.
Although an old man, King still represented Canada in international conferences. In 1947 King was awarded the last of many honors. He was admitted to the Order of Merit, the first Canadian to gain membership.
King's most important task in his last years was designating a successor. At his urging, the Liberal Party chose Louis St. Laurent. On November 15, 1948, King resigned as prime minister, having served in that office more than 7800 days. He spent his last months at Kingsmere, planning his autobiography, and died in 1950.