William Lyon Mackenzie King

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William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), Prime Minister of Canada, whose 21 years in office are the longest of any prime minister in the English-speaking world. He was the dominant political figure from the 1920s through the 1940s, leading Canada through prosperity, depression and war. His surname was "King" but he was usually styled "Mackenzie King."

Mackenzie King lacked the typical personal attributes of great leaders, especially in comparison with Franklin D. Roosevelt of the U.S., Winston Churchill of Britain, Charles de Gaulle of France, or even Joey Smallwood of Newfoundland. Voters did not love him. He lacked charisma, a commanding presence or oratorical skills; he did not shine on radio or in newsreels. His best writing was academic. Cold and tactless in human relations, he had allies but no close personal friends; he never married and lacked a hostess whose charm could substitute for his chill. His allies were annoyed by his constant intrigues. He kept secret his beliefs in spiritualism and use of mediums to stay in contact with departed associates and particularly with his mother, and allowed his intense spirituality to distort his understanding of Adolf Hitler.

Mackenzie King remained so long in power because he had remarkable skills that were exactly appropriate to Canada's needs. He was keenly sensitive to the nuances of public policy; he was a workaholic with a shrewd and penetrating intelligence and a profound understanding of how society and the economy worked. He understood labour and capital. He had a pitch-perfect ear for the Canadian temperament and mentality, and was a master of timing. A modernizing technocrat who regarded managerial mediation as essential to an industrial society, he wanted his Liberal party to represent liberal corporatism to create social harmony. Mackenzie King worked tirelessly and successfully to bring compromise and harmony to many competing and feuding elements, using politics and government action as his great instrument. He conducted the Liberal party over 29 years, and established Canada's international reputation as a middle power fully committed to world order.


He was born on Dec. 17, 1874, at Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, the eldest son of John King and Isabel Grace Mackenzie, daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie, Scotch-Canadian political reformer and one of the leaders of the failed Rebellion of 1837. The father was a lawyer with a struggling practice in a small city, and never enjoyed financial security; his parents lived a life of shabby gentility, employing servants they could scarcely afford. The son became a life-long practising Presbyterian with a dedication to applying Christian virtues to social issues in the style of the Social Gospel. He never favoured socialism.

Mackenzie King graduated college with honours in political science, and then finished law school in one year at the University of Toronto (B.A. 1895, LL. B. 1896). He played a central role in fomenting a students' strike at the university in 1895. He was in close touch, behind the scenes, with Vice-Chancellor William Mulock, for whom the strike provided a chance to embarrass his rivals Chancellor Blake and President Loudon. King failed to gain his immediate objective, a teaching position at the University, but earned political credit with the man who would invite him to Ottawa and make him a deputy minister only five years later.[1]

He now took the name "Mackenzie King" to replace his childhood nickname of Willie, and to boast his self-image in terms of his famous grandfather. He never practiced law. Instead of attending Oxbridge, he took advanced degrees in the United States at the University of Chicago (M.A. 1897), and Harvard University (M.A. 1897). For a few months he lived at Hull House in Chicago, coming under the spell of Jane Addams. His unfinished Harvard PhD thesis compared sweatshop conditions in the clothing industry in the U.S., Britain and Germany. In 1900 became deputy minister of the new formed Department of Labour; he edited the government's Labour Gazette. The only close friend he ever had died in a drowning accident in 1901. As a civil servant Mackenzie King was a well-regarded impartial negotiator who helped settle strikes and lockouts. He designed new labour legislation, especially the "Industrial Disputes Investigation Act" of 1907, creating a plan of a cooling off period and a method of government-supervised voluntary conciliation in labour disputes.

In 1909 he began a political career, winning election from the Berlin district to the House of Commons as a Liberal. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier appointed him minister of labour, with cabinet rank. During his term of office he initiated legislation empowering the government to investigate combines, trusts, and cartels. In the election campaign of 1911 he enthusiastically supported the Laurier's policy of commercial reciprocity between Canada and the United States; the Conservatives rode anti-Americanism to victory nationwide, and Mackenzie King lost his seat.

From 1911 to 1921 Mackenzie King was employed as a political organizer, journalist, and labour relations expert, primarily in the United States. From 1914-1918 he was the research director for the Rockefeller Foundation, and served as labour relations adviser to John D. Rockefeller, whose image was tarnished by a bloody strike in Colorado. His solution was a company union that ended the conflicts at the Colorado Coal and Iron Company. Other American corporations hired Mackenzie King as a labour relations consultant. His book, Industry and Humanity (1918), explained his views on the social service state, and notably on labour relations, including the idea that capital and labour were natural allies, not foes, and that the community at large (represented by the government) should be the third and decisive party in industrial disputes.[2]

First World War

Mackenzie King was defeated in trying to regain his parliamentary seat in 1913. In 1917 Canada was in crisis; he supported Laurier in his opposition to conscription, which was violently opposed in Quebec. The Liberal party became deeply split, with most Anglophones joining in the Union government, a coalition controlled by the Conservatives under Prime Minister Robert Borden. Facing a landslide against him, Mackenzie King lost in the constituency of North York, which his grandfather had once represented. He was Laurier's chosen successor as leader of the Liberal Party, but it was deeply divided by Quebec's total opposition to conscription and the agrarian revolt in Ontario and the Prairies. When Laurier died in 1919, Mackenzie King was elected leader thanks to the critical support of the Quebec bloc, organized by his long-time lieutenant in Quebec, Ernest Lapointe (1876–1941). Mackenzie King could not speak French and had minimal interest in Quebec, but election after election (save for 1930) Lapointe produced the critical seats to give the Liberals a majority in Commons.[3] In the election of 1921 Liberals won a bare majority of seats; Mackenzie King became prime minister.

Once he became the Liberal leader in 1919 he paid attention to the Prairies. With a highly romanticized view he envisioned the pioneers as morally sound, hardworking individuals who lived close to nature and to God. The reform ferment in the region meshed with his self-image as a social reformer and fighter for the "people" against the "interests." Viewing a glorious sunrise in Alberta in 1920, he wrote in his diary, "I thought of the New Day, the New Social Order. It seems like Heaven's prophecy of the dawn of a new era, revealed to me."[4] Realism played a role too, since his party depended for its survival on the votes of Progressive party members of parliament who represented farmers in Ontario and the Prairies. His convinced many Progressives to return to the Liberal fold. [5]

Prime Minister

During his first term of office, from 1921 to 1925, Mackenzie King pursued a conservative domestic policy with the object of lowering wartime taxes and, especially, wartime ethnic tensions, as well as defusing postwar labour conflicts. "The War is over," he argued, "and for a long time to come it is going to take all that the energies of man can do to bridge the chasm and heal the wounds which the War has made in our social life."[6] He sought an Canadian voice independent of London in foreign affairs. In 1923 the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, appealed to Mackenzie King for support in the British quarrel with Turkey. Mackenzie King instead said the Canadian Parliament would decide what the policy to follow, making clear it would not be bound by London's suggestions; the episode led to the downfall of Lloyd George.

The constitutional crisis of 1926

In the election of 1925 the Liberal Party lost seats, as Mackenzie King struggled to retain office. Charges of corruption in the Customs Department, however, led to the government's defeat in the Commons. Mackenzie King advised the governor-general, Lord Byng, to dissolve Parliament and call another election, but Lord Byng refused the advice and called upon the Conservative Party leader, Arthur Meighen, to form a government. Meighen was unable to obtain a majority in the Commons and he, too, advised dissolution, which this time was accepted. In the ensuing election of 1926, Mackenzie King appealed for public support of the constitutional principle that the governor-general must accept the advice of his ministers, though this principle was at most only customary. The Liberals argued that the governor-general had interfered in politics and shown favor to one party over another. Mackenzie King and his party won the election and a clear majority in the Commons.[7]

The crisis of 1926 provoked a consideration of the constitutional relations between the self-governing dominions and the British government. During the next five years the position of the governor-general of a dominion was clarified; he ceased to be a representative of the British government and became a personal representative of the British crown. The independent position of the dominions in the Commonwealth and in the international community was put on a firm legal foundation by the Statute of Westminster (1931). In domestic affairs Mackenzie King strengthened the Liberal policy of increasing the powers of the provincial governments by transferring to the governments of Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan the ownership of the crown lands within those provinces, as well as the subsoil rights. In collaboration with the provincial governments he inaugurated a system of old-age pensions based on need.

Great Depression

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 led to a Liberal defeat in the 1930 elections. In opposition, it was Mackenzie King's policy to refrain from offering advice and to let the Conservative government under R.B. Bennett make its mistakes; Mackenzie King's policy preferences were not radically different. Though he gave the impression of sympathy with progressive and liberal causes, he had no enthusiasm for the New Deal of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (which Bennett tried to emulate), and he never advocated massive government action to alleviate depression in Canada.

In 1935 the Liberals used the slogan "King or Chaos" to win a landslide. Promising a much-desired trade treaty with the U.S., the Mackenzie King government passed the 1935 Reciprocal Trade Agreement. It marked the turning point in Canadian-American economic relations, reversing the disastrous trade war of 1930-31, lowing tariffs, and yielding a dramatic increase in trade; more subtly, it revealed to the prime minister and the president that they could work together well.[8] After 1936 the prime minister lost patience when westerners preferred radical alternatives such as the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) and Social Credit to his middle-of-the-road liberalism. Indeed, he came close to writing off the region with his comment that the prairie dust bowl was "part of the U.S. desert area. I doubt if it will be of any real use again."[9] Instead he paid more attention to the industrial regions and the needs of Ontario and Quebec regarding the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway project with the United States. As for the unemployed, he was hostile to federal relief and reluctantly accepted a Keynesian solution that involved federal deficit spending, tax cuts and subsidies to the housing market.[10]

Mackenzie King returned as prime minister, serving until his retirement in 1948. During all but the last two years he was also secretary of state for external affairs, taking personal charge of foreign policy.

Second World War

Mackenzie King's last 12 years in office were about the preparation for, the fighting of, and the aftermath of the Second World War. Not alarmed by the rise of Hitler, Mackenzie King supported the policies of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with concessions to appease Adolf Hitler in the hope he would stop threatening his neighbours. Hitler met with Mackenzie King in Berlin in 1937, with mesmerizing effect as the prime minister's spiritualism affected his views of Hitler. Possessing a religious yearning for direct insight into the hidden mysteries of life and the universe, and strongly influenced by the operas of Richard Wagner, Mackenzie King decided Hitler was a akin to mythical Wagnerian heroes within whom good and evil were struggling. He thought that good would eventually triumph and Hitler would redeem his people and lead them to a harmonious, uplifting future. These spiritual attitudes not only guided Canada's relations with Hitler but gave the prime minister the comforting sense of a higher mission, that of helping to lead Hitler to peace.[11]

To rearm Canada he built the Royal Canadian Air Force as a viable military power, while at the same time keeping it separate from Britain's Royal Air Force. He was instrumental in obtaining the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Agreement, which was signed in Ottawa in December, 1939, binding Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia to a program that eventually trained half their airmen in the Second World War.

Canada voluntarily entered the war, after waiting a few days to display its independence, but Mackenzie King--and Canada--were largely ignored by Winston Churchill, despite Canada's major role in supplying food, raw materials, munitions and money to the hard-pressed British economy, training airmen for the Commonwealth, guarding the western half of the North Atlantic against German u-boats, and providing combat troops for the invasions of Italy, France and Germany in 1943-45. Mackenzie King linked Canada more and more closely to the United States, signing a private agreement with Roosevelt at Ogdensburg, New York, in August 1940 that provided for the close cooperation of Canadian and American forces. The Americans virtually took control of the Yukon and Newfoundland. Mackenzie King proved high successful in mobilizing the economy for war, with impressive results in industrial and agricultural output. The depression ended and prosperity returned. On the political side, Mackenzie King rejected any notion of a government of national unity.

He raised a million men (and some women) for the military but faced intense resistance in Quebec against conscription for service overseas. He stalled because he did not need conscripted troops until the fighting became heavy in late 1944. By the time he agreed to send a limited number of conscripted men overseas to fight beside the volunteers, the war was ending. He thus avoided the enormous political upheaval of the First World War on the same issue. Meanwhile the army faced with the government's policy of conscripting manpower only for home defense and given their own need for overseas volunteers, used conscripts raised under the National Resources Mobilization Act to meet both purposes.[12]

Canada accepted only 5,000 Jewish refugees from Nazism during 1933-48, while Britain took in 70,000, and the United States 200,000. Mackenzie King always sought compromise, and supported restrictive immigration policies. Opposition to immigration was strongest in Quebec, as was anti-Semitism, and King needed the Liberal Party support of that province.[13]


In his two years of office following the war, Mackenzie King vigorously supported the formation of the United Nations and downplayed the emerging Cold War. In domestic policy his government tried to boost the economy with fiscal and monetary measures. In terms of creating the welfare state, his government passed social measures, including unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, and mothers' allowances. Aging rapidly, in late 1948 he turned over the Liberal Party and the prime ministership to Louis St. Laurent, his foreign minister and chief supporter in Quebec. He died in his country house at Kingsmere, near Ottawa, on July 22, 1950.


  1. Robert H. Blackburn, "Mackenzie King, William Mulock, James Mavor, and the University of Toronto Students' Revolt of 1895." Canadian Historical Review 1988 69(4): 490-503. Issn: 0008-3755
  2. Barry Cooper, "On Reading Industry and Humanity: a Study in the Rhetoric Underlying Liberal Management." Journal of Canadian Studies 1978-1979 13(4): 28-39. Issn: 0021-9495
  3. Lita-Rose Betcherman, Ernest Lapointe: Mackenzie King's Great Quebec Lieutenant. (2002)
  4. See original text at [1]
  5. Robert A. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West (2000)
  6. Letter of May 5, 1919, in Robert Macgregor Dawson, William Lyon Mackenzie King (1958) p. 294.
  7. For primary documents see Bruce Ricketts, "The King-Byng Affair - Canada's Government in Minority" (2007) online version
  8. Marc T. Boucher, "The Politics of Economic Depression: Canadian-American Relations in the Mid-1930s." International Journal 1985-1986 41(1): 3-36. Issn: 0020-7020; H. Blair Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King: 1932-1939 (1976) pp 143-48.
  9. Robert A. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West (2000)
  10. H. Blair Neatby, The Politics of Chaos: Canada in the Thirties (1972) p. 84-6.
  11. Robert H. Keyserlingk, "Mackenzie King's Spiritualism and His View of Hitler in 1939." Journal of Canadian Studies 1985-1986 20(4): 26-44. Issn: 0021-9495; also C. P. Stacey, "The Divine Mission: Mackenzie King and Hitler." Canadian Historical Review 1980 61(4): 502-512. Issn: 0008-3755
  12. Daniel Byers, "Mobilising Canada: the National Resources Mobilization Act, the Department of National Defence, and Compulsory Military Service in Canada, 1940-1945." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 1996 7: 175-203. Issn: 0847-4478 online edition
  13. Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 (1982)