William Lyon Mackenzie King, OM, PC, LL.B, Ph.D, MA, BA (December 17, 1874 – July 22, 1950) was the tenth Prime Minister of Canada from December 29, 1921, to June 28, 1926; September 25, 1926, to August 6, 1930; and October 23, 1935, to November 15, 1948. With over 21 years in the office, he was the longest serving Prime Minister in British Commonwealth history. He is commonly known either by his full name or as Mackenzie King. Mackenzie was one of his given names, not part of his surname, but he was never publicly referred to as simply "William King." Friends and family called him by his nickname, "Rex."
King was born in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) to John King and Isabel Grace Mackenzie. His grandfather was William Lyon Mackenzie, first mayor of Toronto and leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837. King had three siblings: older sister Isabel "Bella" Christina Grace (1873–1915), younger sister Janet "Jennie" Lindsey (1876–1962), and younger brother Dougall Macdougall "Max" (1878–1922) After studying at the University of Chicago, Mackenzie King proceeded to Harvard University, receiving an M.A. in political economy 1898 and a Ph.D. 1909. He is the only Canadian Prime Minister to have earned a doctorate.
King worked as a newspaper reporter for the Toronto Globe while studying at the University of Toronto. In 1900, he became Canada's first Deputy Minister of Labour. He was first elected to Parliament as a Liberal in a 1908 by-election, and was re-elected in a 1909 by-election following his appointment as the first-ever Minister of Labour. He lost his seat in the 1911 general election, which saw the Conservatives defeat his Liberals.
Following his party's defeat, he went to the United States to work for the Rockefeller family's Foundation at their invitation, heading their new Department of Industrial Relations. He formed a close working association and friendship with the family leader, John D. Rockefeller Jr., advising him through the turbulent period of the 1914 strike and Ludlow massacre at a family-owned coal company in Colorado, which subsequently set the stage for a new era in labor management in America.
He returned to Canada to run in the 1917 election, which focused almost entirely on the conscription issue, and lost again, due to his opposition to conscription, which was supported by the majority of English Canadians.
In 1919, he was elected leader at the first Liberal leadership convention, and soon returned to parliament in a by-election. King remained leader until 1948. In the 1921 election, his party defeated Arthur Meighen and the Conservatives, and he became Prime Minister.
In his first term as Prime Minister, he was opposed by the Progressive Party, which did not support trade tariffs. King called an election in 1925, in which the Conservatives won the most seats, but not a majority in the House of Commons. King held on to power with the support of the Progressives. Soon into his term, however, a bribery scandal in the Department of Customs was revealed, which led to more support for the Conservatives and Progressives, and the possibility that King would be forced to resign. King asked Governor General Lord Byng to dissolve Parliament and call another election, but Byng refused, the only time in Canadian history that the Governor General has exercised such a power. King resigned, and Byng asked Meighen to form a new government. When Meighen's government was defeated in the House of Commons a short time later, however, Byng called a new election in 1926. See the King-Byng Affair.
In his second term, King introduced old-age pensions. In February 1930, he appointed Cairine Wilson, whom he knew personally, as the first female senator in Canadian history. His government was in power during the beginning of the Great Depression, but lost the election of 1930 to the Conservative Party, led by Richard Bedford Bennett.
King's Liberals were returned to power once more in the 1935 election. The worst of the Depression had passed, and King implemented relief programs such as the National Housing Act and National Employment Commission. His government also created the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1936, Trans-Canada Airlines (the precursor to Air Canada) in 1937, and the National Film Board of Canada in 1939.
While Minister of Labour, King was appointed to investigate the causes of and claims for compensation resulting from the 1907 Asiatic Exclusion League riots in Vancouver's Chinatown and Japantown. One of the claims for damages came from Chinese opium manufacturers, which led King to investigate the drug scene in Vancouver. King became alarmed upon hearing that white women were also opium users, not just Chinese men, and he then initiated the process that led to the first legislation outlawing narcotics in Canada, effectively an attempt to save white women from the Yellow Peril.
King hoped an outbreak of war in the 1930s could be averted and he therefore supported the appeasement policies of the British. He met with Adolf Hitler who, he remarked in his journal, came across as "a reasonable and caring man ... who might be thought of as one of the saviors of the world." Telling a Jewish delegation that Kristallnacht "might turn out to be a blessing," he refused to allow Jewish refugees who were attempting to leave Nazi Germany entry into Canada.
Despite pledges of support from Canada's Jewish community, in June 1939 King also refused to allow the 900 desperate Jewish refugees aboard the passenger ship M.S. St. Louis refuge in Canada (as did Cuba, the United States, and Britain). When asked how many Jews would be allowed to immigrate immediately after World War II, one of King's civil servants, Frederick Charles Blair, famously quipped that "none is too many". While it might be tempting to blame Blair, it was King who said he wanted to "keep this part of the continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood." The federal government confiscated and sold the property and belongings of the incarcerated Japanese at public auction. After the war, King offered Japanese-Canadians the option of "repatriation" to a war-ravaged Japan, even though many had never been there and did not speak the language; they were not allowed back to coastal areas until his government fell several years later.
King realized the necessity of World War II before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and actually began mobilizing on 25 Aug 1939, with full mobilization on 1 September. Unlike World War I, however, when Canada was automatically at war as soon as Britain joined, King asserted Canadian autonomy by waiting until September 10, a full week after Britain's declaration, when a vote in the House of Commons took place, to support the government's decision to declare war. During this time Canada was able to acquire weapons from the United States. Upon declaring war Canada would not be able to purchase weapons from the US, under the US policy then in force of not arming belligerents. This issue soon became a moot point as the American embargo was revoked in November 1939.
King's promise not to impose conscription contributed to the defeat of Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale Quebec provincial government in 1939 and Liberals' re-election in the 1940 election. But after the fall of France in 1940, Canada introduced conscription for home service. Still, only volunteers were to be sent overseas. King wanted to avoid a repeat of the Conscription Crisis of 1917. By 1942, the military was pressing King hard to send conscripts to Europe. In 1942, King held a national plebiscite on the issue asking the nation to relieve him of the commitment he had made during the election campaign. He said that his policy was "conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription."
French Canadians voted overwhelmingly against conscription, but a majority of English Canadians supported it. French and English conscripts were sent to fight in the Aleutian Islands in 1943 - technically North American soil and therefore not "overseas" - but the mix of Canadian volunteers and draftees found the Japanese had fled before their arrival. Otherwise, King continued with a campaign to recruit volunteers, hoping to address the problem with the shortage of troops caused by heavy losses in the Dieppe Raid in 1942, in Italy in 1943, and after the Battle of Normandy in 1944. In November 1944, the Government decided it was necessary to send conscripts to Europe. This led to a brief political crisis (see Conscription Crisis of 1944) and a mutiny by conscripts posted in British Columbia, but the war ended a few months later. Over 15,000 conscripts went to Europe, though only a few hundred saw combat.
King was extremely unpopular among Canadian servicemen and women during the war, who were pro conscription. His appearances at Canadian Army installations in Britain (and, after 6 June 1944, in continental Europe) were invariably greeted with boos and catcalls. When he was defeated after the war in his Prince Albert riding, the servicemen's vote was considered instrumental, and a sign was placed outside the town, similar to those that had been erected in The Netherlands, reading, "This Town Liberated by the Canadian Army."
Second World War
Throughout tenure, King led Canada from a colony with responsible government to an autonomous nation within the British Commonwealth. During the Chanak Crisis of 1922, King refused to support the British without first consulting Parliament, while the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, supported Britain. The British were disappointed with King's response. After the King-Byng Affair, King went to the Imperial Conference of 1926 and argued for greater autonomy of the Dominions. This resulted in the Balfour Declaration 1926, which announced the equal status of all members of the British Commonwealth (as it was known then), including Britain. This eventually led to the Statute of Westminster 1931.
In the lead up to World War II, King played two roles. On the one hand, he told English Canadians that Canada would no doubt enter war if Britain did. On the other hand, he and his Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe told French Canadians that Canada would only go to war if it was in the country's best interests. With the dual messages, King slowly led Canada toward war without causing strife between Canada's two main linguistic communities. As his final step in asserting Canada's autonomy, King ensured that the Canadian Parliament made its own declaration of war one week after Britain.
King's government introduced the Canadian Citizenship Act in 1946, which officially created the notion of "Canadian citizens". Prior to this, Canadians were considered British subjects living in Canada. On January 3, 1947, King received Canadian citizenship certificate number 0001.
Mackenzie King was not charismatic and did not have a large personal following. Only 8 Canadians in 100 picked him when the Canadian Gallup (CIPO) poll asked in September, 1946, "What person living in any part of the world today do you admire?" Nevertheless, his Liberal Party was re-elected in the election of 1945. King had been considered a minor player in the war by both United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. King did act as a link between the two countries between September 1939 and December 1941, but after the U.S. entered the war his position was largely redundant. King's most important contribution to wartime diplomacy was his crafting of a plan in June 1940 to host a British government in exile and to aid in the transfer of the British fleet to Canadian ports. He also hosted a major conference in Quebec City in 1943. King helped found the United Nations in 1945.
After the war, King quickly dismantled wartime controls. Unlike World War I, press censorship ended with the hostilities. He began an ambitious program of social programs and laid the groundwork for Newfoundland and Labrador's entry into Canada. King also had to deal with the deepening Cold War and the fallout from espionage revelations of Russian cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, who defected in Ottawa in 1946.
In 1948, he retired after 22 years as prime minister, and was succeeded as Liberal Party leader, and Prime Minister of Canada, by his Justice Minister, Louis St. Laurent.
Mackenzie King was a cautious politician who tailored his policies to prevailing opinions. "Parliament will decide," he liked to say when pressed to act.
Privately, he was highly eccentric with his preference for communing with spirits, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, his dead mother, and several of his Irish Terrier dogs, all named Pat. He sought personal reassurance from the spirit world, rather than seeking political advice. Indeed, after his death, one of his mediums said that she had not realized that he was a politician. King asked whether his party would win the 1935 election, one of the few times politics came up during his seances. His occult interests were not widely known during his years in office, and only became publicized later. In 1953 Time Magazine stated, "that he owned—and used—both a Ouija board and a crystal ball. In the 1970s biographers used the extensive diaries he kept during most of his life to delve deeper into his occult activities. One person he held seances with was Canadian Artist Homer Watson.
King never married, but had several close female friends, including Joan Patteson, a married woman with whom he spent some of his leisure time. Some historians have also interpreted passages in his diaries as suggesting that King regularly had sexual relations with prostitutes, although this has never been confirmed.
Part of his country retreat, now called Mackenzie King Estate, at Kingsmere in the Gatineau Park, near Ottawa, is open to the public. The house King died in, called "The Farm", is the official residence of the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons and is not part of the park.
Mackenzie King died on July 22, 1950, at Kingsmere from pneumonia. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. Unmarried, King is survived by relative Margery King.
His likeness is on the Canadian fifty-dollar bill.
Following the publication of King's diaries in the 1970s, several fictional works about him were published by Canadian writers. These included Elizabeth Gourlay's novel Isabel, Allan Stratton's play Rexy and Heather Robertson's trilogy Willie: A Romance (1983), Lily: A Rhapsody in Red (1986) and Igor: A Novel of Intrigue (1989).
In 1998, there was controversy over King's exclusion from a memorial to the Quebec Conference of 1943, which was attended by King, Roosevelt, and Churchill. The monument was built by the sovereigntist Parti Québécois government of Quebec, which justified the decision on the basis that King was not important enough. Canadian federalists, however, accused the government of Quebec of trying to advance their own political agenda.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of King's legacy is the charge of racism. There are two instances in particular where critics often charge that King was a racist: the fact that only 4500 Jews were accepted into Canada during the Holocaust, and the internment of the Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Canadians have often asked which of their Prime Ministers was the "greatest." Mackenzie King has come on top at least once, and is often considered among the best. Longevity and sheer number of election victories are areas where King would stand out among the leaders of most democracies. Nevertheless, there are many who consider King to be the worst Prime Minister ever, which is telling about the nature of such contests.
King chose the following jurists to be appointed as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada by the Governor General:
Arthur Cyrille Albert Malouin (January 30, 1924 – October 1, 1924)
Francis Alexander Anglin (as Chief Justice, September 16, 1924 – February 28, 1933; appointed a Puisne Justice under Prime Minister Laurier, February 23, 1909)
Edmund Leslie Newcombe (September 16, 1924 – December 9, 1931)
Thibaudeau Rinfret (October 1, 1924 – June 22, 1954; appointed as Chief Justice January 8, 1944)
John Henderson Lamont (April 2, 1927 – March 10, 1936)
Robert Smith (May 18, 1927 – December 7, 1933)
Lawrence Arthur Dumoulin Cannon (January 14, 1930 – December 25, 1939)
Albert Blellock Hudson (March 24, 1936 – January 6, 1947)
Robert Taschereau (February 9, 1940 – September 1, 1967)
Ivan Rand (April 22, 1943 – April 27, 1959)
Roy Lindsay Kellock (October 3, 1944 – January 15, 1958)
James Wilfred Estey (October 6, 1944 – January 22, 1956)
Charles Holland Locke (June 3, 1947 – September 16, 1962) Supreme Court appointments
The Woodside National Historic Site at 528 Wellington Street North, in Kitchener, Ontario, is the cherished boyhood home of William Lyon Mackenzie King. The estate has over 4.65 hectares of garden and parkland for exploring and relaxing. The house has been restored to reflect life during King's era. There is another statue of King outside Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School.
Bliss, Michael. Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (1994), pp. 123-184
Hutchison, Bruce The Incredible Canadian: A Candid Portrait of Mackenzie King: His Works, His Times, and His Nation (1953), popular bio Television series
The Mackenzie King Record - Vol. 1 ed by J. W. Pickersgill (1960)
The Mackenzie King Record - Vol. 3 ed by J. W. Pickersgill and D. F. Forster (1960)
The Mackenzie King Record - Vol. 4 ed by J. W. Pickersgill and D. F. Forster (1960)
Hadley Cantril and Mildred Strunk, eds. Public Opinion, 1935-1946 (1951) reports many CIPO polls from Canadian Institute of Public Opinion.