King meets de Gaulle (top photo)
Black and white photos from an exhibition of American press images of Canada
– at the fantastic Ryerson Image Centre –

Mount Pleasant cemetery contains the graves of many Canadian notables, but few who are more important to the history of the country than this man, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was not only the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history (1921-1926, 1926-1930 and 1935-1948), but also the only one to earn a PHD (just one of his five degrees, from University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall law school, and Harvard).

He’s a hugely contradictory character in a lot of ways, a big part of a student strike at U of T in 1895 (yes, students were political, even back then), and powerfully influenced by his social studies and progressive anti-poverty movements of the time, he was convinced that capital and labour were natural allies, and irresponsible actions and unreasonable positions taken by either side were destructive to the best possible outcome of freely negotiated enlightened cooperation.

As the first full minister of Labour in a Canadian government (1909), he passed two bills which cracked down on a whole range of exploitative and monopolist big-business practices, and thus directly improved the lives of workers (and customers) across the country.

Taking office as prime minister originally, just after the first world war, he worked for years to heal the deep wounds and divisions it had produced, especially with the farmers all the way from Ontario right out through the Prairie provinces, who were frustrated by trade blockages, and were (curiously) strongly inclined toward democratic socialism, and also free trade. King’s zeal for social reform was genuine and practical enough, that he was able to bring much of that progressive reform movement back into the Liberal fold, which has a lot to do with its centre-left position to this day. Capitalist, yes, but less than cut-throat. Compromise and balance between interests, always front and centre.

He was also the first Prime Minister to assert a Canadian foreign policy completely independent of the wishes of Britain. His refusal to support the mother country in one of its interminable petty squabbles even helped bring down the government of Lloyd George. Shocking insubordination!

He did not speak French and had little deep knowledge of Quebec politics – but he had supported Wilfred Laurier, in opposing conscription in the first world war (which might well have split the country, Quebec was so opposed) – and it must be noted, huge numbers of volunteers came from all over the country, Quebec included, without having to be forced. He also selected a couple of brilliant deputies to advise and deal with Quebec, one of whom (Louis St Laurent, who had resisted entering politics formally until he was sixty years old!) would succeed him as Prime Minister.

Considering his lifelong dedication to social reform, poverty reduction, and urban planning – it might seem surprising that he was not an enthusiastic ‘new-dealer’. Nevertheless, his government passed a huge range of key legislation which now forms the backbone of the Canadian welfare state: family allowance, help for farmers, students, industrial workers, the unemployed, protections for unionized labour, subsidized housing, and even state pensions for the blind. It took Lester Pearson to finally pass modern universal healthcare – but it was under King that federal payments to the provinces to subsidize healthcare began. He also made the National Bank of Canada a crown corporation, taking it out of private hands.

Culturally, we owe him for establishing the CBC, Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada), and one of our most under-appreciated treasures – the National film board of Canada. Animation and Documentary superstars!

Nothing to smoke (with Churchill and Roosevelt)

King was an intellectual, but not a charismatic one – never became a great orator – but he was at the helm through the second world war, and the speed with which he organized the Canadian economy to assist besieged Britain helped immensely, during the war’s darkest days, when the US was still sitting on its hands, and U-boats were so effective against shipping, they threatened to starve the UK into surrender. (Churchill’s worst nightmare).

A personal friend of Rockefeller who opposed monopolists in spirit and legislation throughout his career, and sincerely strived to lift people out of entrenched poverty. Racist by policy and philosophy – against Asian immigration from early in his career – and later interned many Japanese families during the second world war – despite advice from both the RCMP and the military that almost all were peaceful law-abiding citizens, who posed no threat.

And yet the war might well have been lost without his deft governance – and rapid shift from principled defiance of England, to unstinting and tireless support, in her hour of greatest need. We weren’t even Canadian citizens before King passed the citizenship act – technically, we were British subjects living in Canada. Most impressively – between 1939 and 1945 the GDP of Canada more than DOUBLED! It was widely recognized at the time that no allied nation employed their economy more effectively.  All while balancing myriad regional tensions.

Wages rose by two-thirds, during this same period – and post-war, Canada was firmly established as a middle-power on the world stage, with fantastic industrial promise, fast rising standards for it’s people, and a key role in establishing the United Nations (see this piece on Lester Pearson).

There is so much more – great and terrible – to say about the man. But I’ll end with this thought – crucial to Canadian independence (from the UK and US both), national unity and broad social progress – while much less charismatic than others more often discussed, and horribly wrong in some huge and unforgivable ways, his is nevertheless a big part of the soul that got built into our machine. National character achieved through progressive legislation.

Compromise master – ultra Canadian. Keep those plastic flowers dusted.

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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