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King, (William Lyon) Mackenzielocked

  • J. L. Granatstein

(William Lyon) Mackenzie King (1874–1950)

by unknown photographer

© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

King, (William Lyon) Mackenzie (1874–1950), prime minister of Canada, was born on 17 December 1874 at Berlin (later renamed Kitchener), Ontario, the first son and second child of John King (1843–1916), a law lecturer and author, and his wife, Isabel Grace (1843–1917), daughter of the Upper Canadian rebel of 1837 William Lyon Mackenzie. King's mother, who was born in exile in the United States, was the dominant personality in the household and she raised her son with a powerful need to vindicate her father's cause. In a long political life King fought his grandfather's battles against toryism, imperialism, and privilege, and in his own mind, if not necessarily those of all his compatriots or of historians, he was both consistent and successful.

Early life

Mackenzie King was a bright and able student. After attending local schools in his home town, he went to the University of Toronto in 1891. Short, stocky, moon-faced, there he none the less became the archetypal ‘big man on campus’, a powerful figure in student politics and one of the leaders in a major student strike occasioned by the dismissal of a popular professor in 1895. Having graduated BA he turned to law, gaining his degree the next year and writing in Toronto newspapers. Then it was off to Chicago, where, with a fellowship of $320, he intended to do graduate work in sociology. But it was his social work at Hull House, a famous settlement house run by Jane Addams, that attracted him most, and his studies languished until he left Addams's employ to try to concentrate on his classwork. He contracted typhoid fever in early 1897 but this led to an improvement in his social life. In Toronto, King had had many girlfriends but few attachments, and his nights had been preoccupied with rescue work with fallen women, with 'strolls' and 'wasted time'—phrases from King's diary that Charles Stacey interpreted as sessions with prostitutes, though they might just as easily have been voyeurism or simple time-wasting. But in Chicago, King became strongly attracted to one of his nurses, Mathilde Grossert, a relationship fated to be doomed by the expectations of his mother that he marry someone befitting the station that she imagined for her son. King tried to keep up the budding relationship when he went off to Harvard University in 1897 but the family pressure was too strong. In fact King could never shake off his mother's hold over him, even after her death in 1917, and he remained a lifelong bachelor. He was a lonely man with very few friends, and he suffered in his private solitude. None the less he completed his master of arts degree in 1898 and his oral examination for the doctorate the next year. Eleven years later, utilizing government reports that he had prepared in lieu of a dissertation, King received his PhD from Harvard.

In the interim King laid the groundwork of his subsequent career. A promising young scholar interested in sociology and social work—relatively new fields of study in a North America that was only beginning to think seriously about the conditions of workers and the poor—he wrote a series of muckraking articles on sweatshops in the late summer of 1897 for the Toronto Mail and Empire. That turned into a government research job, thanks to his family connections with Sir William Mulock, postmaster-general in Sir Wilfrid Laurier's government. Mulock was quick to put some of King's ideas into practice in his own department and King submitted a formal report on sweatshops in 1898. In 1900 Mulock offered him the post of editor of the Labour Gazette and a salary of C$1500 a year in the newly created department of labour, and King, who had been considering a teaching post at Harvard, accepted. At the age of twenty-five he now had a good position; a few months later he was made deputy minister of labour.

Civil servant to politician

For the next eight years King studied labour questions, used the government's good offices (and its weak legislation) to try to settle labour disputes (he resolved eleven of fifteen strikes in which he intervened between 1900 and 1902), served as editor of the Labour Gazette, and built up a formidable reputation as a young man on the rise. He knew everyone worth knowing, not least the prime minister. He undertook missions in Canada—serving as a royal commissioner to investigate an anti-Japanese riot in Vancouver and, on another occasion, to study how Japanese and other labourers were induced to immigrate to Canada. He also went abroad, travelling to the Far East, Britain, and the United States to conduct investigations into the opium trade and to negotiate a ‘gentleman's agreement’ (with the support and encouragement of President Theodore Roosevelt) with Japan to control immigration to North America. In 1906 he received the CMG—apparently on the personal recommendation of the governor-general, Earl Grey.

As implied by that honour, in everything that King did he showed that he had the knack of winning the support of the influential and, at the same time, an uncanny ability to capture the public mood. When a close friend from university, Henry Albert Harper, drowned while trying to rescue a woman from the Ottawa River in 1901 King organized the erection of a statue of Sir Galahad in his memory and published The Secret of Heroism (1908) as a tribute. This was a genuine human response but it also served King's purposes in establishing his high profile. No one was surprised, therefore, when in 1908 he ran for election as a Liberal in his home town, Berlin, won, and a year later was named labour minister by Laurier.

King was a good, tireless cabinet minister and, in his own mind, the all but designated successor to Laurier. His preferred tactic was conciliation—in light of the powers given to the provinces to deal with labour questions in the British North America Act, King had few real weapons; conciliation was the course he had followed as deputy minister and the course he preached to management and labour. Labour largely scorned his method, as did management, but that suggested that King was characteristically in the middle and just slightly ahead of his time. This did not save him in 1911, when the Laurier government, campaigning in support of a reciprocity or free trade agreement negotiated with the United States, went down to defeat at the hands of Robert Borden and the Conservative Party. King himself lost his seat.

The next eight years were difficult for King. He had to find work, and he became a labour expert in the employ of John D. Rockefeller jun. and the Rockefeller Foundation, most especially in dealing with labour troubles that had begun in 1913 in the Colorado coalfields. Conciliation and company unions were his watchwords and there can be little doubt that he served the interests of capital first while ameliorating the conditions of labour second. The salary paid him by the Rockefellers was good and the connections he established were lifelong.

The outbreak of war in 1914 made King's work in the United States look almost unpatriotic. Why was he not in the army? In King's mind there was no difficulty in dealing with this question. He was forty in 1914, his parents were old and ill—both would die during the course of the war and King would continue to venerate his mother for the rest of his life—and he had to help to support his siblings. Critics then and later dismissed such arguments as self-serving but they had cogency. Perhaps it was his concern about appearances that none the less led King to a near breakdown in 1916, a crisis that he treated sensibly by seeking psychological assistance at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Recovered and trying to keep his name forward in Canadian politics, King ran in the 1917 election but lost, in North York. The issue was conscription for overseas service, and King philosophically supported compulsory service (and even wrote an anonymous article in the New York Outlook (25 July 1917) in favour of it). But when the Liberal Party split on the issue and when a Union government of conscriptionists was formed under Sir Robert Borden, King decided to remain with Laurier and to oppose the Union. Despite his and the Liberal Party's election defeat that loyalty would pay off handsomely.

The end of the First World War, with all its terrible casualties and dislocation, produced terrific and unprecedented labour unrest in Canada. Rising prices, the return of the armies, government disorganization—all combined to create a climate that, to some, seemed at times to verge on revolution. King was a genuine expert on labour questions—had the Rockefellers not employed him?—and in 1918 he published a long book, Industry and Humanity, that wrestled the questions of the day to the ground. Industrialists had the duty to deal humanely with workers, he argued, and the book, with incomprehensible fold-out charts and prose dripping with near-religious intensity, sold well but remained largely unread.

Party leader and prime minister

That mattered little. When Sir Wilfrid Laurier died in February 1919 and when the Winnipeg general strike erupted in May, King seemed to be the man of the hour, as Liberals gathered in convention to select a new party leader. There were other, better-known candidates—the aged W. S. Fielding, George Graham of Ontario, and D. D. McKenzie of Nova Scotia, who had been the party's house leader after Laurier's death. King was the youngest and easily the ablest, the candidate who had remained loyal to Laurier in 1917 and, most importantly, had written a book on the great issue of the day—the relations between labour and capital. The party platform drafted at the convention (with King's fingerprints all over it) was reformist as well. And King himself helped his cause immeasurably with a superb speech that brought the audience, cheering, to its feet. The issue of the leadership was sealed when the Quebec delegates, marshalled in King's support by Ernest Lapointe, voted for him en bloc, though it took three ballots to determine the outcome. King was now what he had long believed himself to be, the successor to Laurier.

King's task as Liberal leader was multifaceted. He had to reunite the Liberals' conscriptionist and anti-conscriptionist wings—in effect its English-Canadian and Quebec members. He had to try to keep a light in the window of the Liberal Party so that it could remain the ultimate home for restive farmers, then beginning to organize themselves into a separate, if loosely constructed, Progressive Party. He had to develop a tariff policy that had an appeal to the farmers yet did not alienate the industrial interests of central Canada. He had to put forward a reformist policy to show workers that his party could deal with their needs. He had to defeat the Union government, still led by Borden but with Arthur Meighen in the wings. And above all he had to demonstrate that he was a leader, a man with the capacity to inspire his caucus and the country.

From his selection as leader until the general election in December 1921 King worked tirelessly to rebuild his party, his image as a vigorous reformer generally going over well. Not with the farmers, however, although the efforts of Borden and his successor, Arthur Meighen, to hold the unpopular wartime coalition together did nothing to help them with the Progressives. Prime Minister Meighen campaigned in the general election in favour of a high tariff but King ran against the Union government and on the Liberals' reformist 1919 platform and on his reputation as a conciliator, the man to bring French and English Canadians, east and west, farmer, worker, and industrialist together. King's message worked, the Liberals capturing 116 seats (including all 65 in Quebec, which then and later played a key role in keeping him in power), the Progressives 64, and poor Meighen's tattered coalition only 50. King had won but, as his was the first minority government in Canadian history, he would be forced to rely on the Progressives to govern and his conciliatory skills would be tested to the limit.

Again King was helped by Meighen. Though a great orator Meighen was so blinkered as to think every compromise a betrayal; the farmers' views were simply wrong and dangerous to boot, so he attacked and attacked again, sarcasm dripping off his every word. King on the other hand held out an olive branch, trying to bring the Progressives into his cabinet from the outset. This effort failing, he began offering small concessions on tariffs—he could not offer major ones because the government's industrial supporters in central Canada were certain to object—and modifications to railway freight rates to seduce the farmers back to Liberalism. The Progressive leader, T. A. Crerar, a former Liberal and Unionist, left his fractious colleagues and eventually entered King's cabinet in 1929. Political seduction, it was obvious now, was King's stock in trade, and pragmatism and compromise his weapons. The laissez-faire legislative record of his first government was far from impressive but King had again made the Liberal Party into an agency of French–English reconciliation, and he had gone a substantial distance in bringing farmers back to his side.

Where King had real success was on the international stage. He was a soft nationalist, a supporter of British ideals and the monarchy, but a bristling opponent of arrogant Whitehall interference in Canada's autonomy. In 1922 Lloyd George had publicly asked for Canadian support for British intervention at Chanak before any official request even reached Ottawa. King was outraged at this assertion of a common imperial foreign policy but in public he said only that parliament would decide. Parliament was not in session, of course, so no decision was forthcoming and no Canadian contingent went off to Turkey. Angered by the assumptions of London, King went to the Imperial Conference of 1923, intending to get autonomy recognized—as a self-governing dominion Canada had to make its own policy. The British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, found the Canadian leader 'obstinate, tiresome and stupid' but King prevailed and the conference communiqué recognized that the diplomatic unity of the empire was a relic of the past. Indeed as Canada and the United States had earlier that year negotiated and signed a halibut treaty the Imperial Conference had merely caught up to the reality. And at the 1926 Imperial Conference the new relationship was recognized formally with the statement that the dominions were:

autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

King's stubbornness and insistence on making foreign policy decisions in Canada had greatly accelerated the process of turning the empire into the Commonwealth.

At home, however, King's government was in difficulty with westerners, maritimers, and imperialist Ontarians. In the 1925 election the issues had been much the same as those of four years earlier. Meighen still called for a high tariff but now he had King's record to denounce. For his part King seemed satisfied with the stability that he had brought to the country, and his campaign was as uninspired as the ‘common-sense’ tariff that he called for. The results shocked the Liberals; Meighen won 116 seats, the Progressives were reduced to 24, there were a few independents, and King took only 99. There were rumblings within the Liberal Party about King's leadership and he lost his own seat. To almost everyone's astonishment he decided to try to govern on the assumption that he could get the support of the Progressives. This was his constitutional right but the governor-general, Viscount Byng, was clearly unhappy, a factor that soon became critical.

The cause of the government's concern was a major scandal in the customs department that threatened to blow up into a government-wrecking affair. King tried to keep the Progressives and Labour MPs on side by supporting the establishment of old age pensions and by lowering taxes but the scandal, investigated by a parliamentary committee, directly implicated two successive customs ministers. Facing defeat on a motion of censure King went to Byng to seek a dissolution. He had governed successfully for nine months, he told the governor-general, and believed that he was entitled to get what he asked; Byng disagreed, refused King a dissolution, and properly decided that Conservative leader Meighen must get a chance to govern. King promptly resigned and told parliament of this. There was no longer a prime minister, he said, violating every convention of parliamentary government, and the next day Meighen held the reins. Under the rules of that era ministers, once named, had to resign their seats and be re-elected in a by-election. Instead of adjourning the House of Commons the too eager Meighen played just as fast and loose with the rules as King had—he resigned his own seat but appointed acting ministers. The Liberals, with Meighen fuming in the public galleries, argued that if the acting ministers were legally running their departments they must vacate their seats; if they did not hold office legally they had no right to govern. The clever argument did the trick with the Progressive MPs, and Meighen lost a critical vote by one—when a Progressive MP broke an agreement to pair. Meighen quickly received the dissolution that Byng had refused King.

The election of 1926 decided whether King or Meighen, the Liberals or the Conservatives, would make the century theirs. Meighen attacked the King record brilliantly, his speeches excoriating the corruption that the former prime minister had allowed to flourish. For his part King attacked Byng's refusal to grant him a dissolution: what right did a British-appointed official have to interfere in the operations of Canada's democracy? The KingByng affair was muddy enough to confuse most voters but the nationalism of King struck a chord, even with unhappy Progressives and supporters of Maritime rights. More to the point, perhaps, Meighen's Ulster rectitude and rigour did not, and the election was a Liberal cakewalk. Meighen won 91 seats, the Progressives dropped to 20, and King had a comfortable majority with 128. It was to be Mackenzie King's Canada.

Even so King's second administration was as lacklustre as his first. The role of government was to do as little as possible and King presided over a country that was happily enjoying the booming twenties. The diamond jubilee of confederation was celebrated in 1927, radio became popular, and King's slight Scottish burr now could be heard across the land. But when depression hit in the autumn of 1929 King seemingly missed its significance, seeing the downturn as a normal cyclical event. He thus opened the door to Richard Bedford Bennett, the new Conservative leader, who promised to blast his way into the markets of the world with a retaliatory tariff policy, and thus create jobs. King himself made a rare political error when he said that he would not give 5 cents to any province with a Conservative government. The unemployed, those on relief, and the press in the seven provinces that did not have Liberal governments did not appreciate that, and in the election of 1930 King suffered a defeat that surprised him. Bennett had 138 seats, King only 90.

Perhaps King had been lucky to lose when he did. The depression's effects were devastating in Canada, and Bennett, despite spending unprecedented sums on relief, made scarcely a dent in unemployment. Worse, the prime minister projected the image of the tycoon that he was and not even the revelations of a huge scandal over hydro-electric power contracts that plunged King and his party fund-raisers into the 'Valley of Humiliation' did much to make the Conservative government look good. King had a difficult time personally in opposition, fretting over his legacy and worrying about his own solitary life, and he began dabbling seriously in spiritualism. There were frequent sessions with mediums, all carefully recorded in his diaries, as he sought word from his relatives and friends in the after-life, table-rapping sessions, and a near-fixation on coincidental junctures of the hands of the clock or the formation of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. Like many of his age and time King was grasping for certainty in a world whose economy had collapsed and whose beliefs had been shattered by the First World War. While he could not find this certainty he never lost his grasp on reality nor did he ever seriously seek political advice from his spiritualist guides.

Fortunately for King it was simply a matter of waiting for the next election, as Bennett floundered, seeking to craft a reformist new deal that alienated many of his business supporters. It was 'King or Chaos', the Liberals thus cried, offering no policies of any substance, and although there were new parties on the left and the right in the 1935 balloting King won a huge majority, taking 178 seats.

King was now in his sixty-first year and he remained vigorous and alert. His record as party leader throughout sixteen years had been superb, if measured by building and holding together a disparate coalition. As prime minister his record—aside from his successes in strengthening Canada's autonomous place within the Commonwealth—was weak. There had been no great achievements, no attempt—the insubstantial old age pensions legislation notwithstanding—to put into law the great reform platform of 1919 to which King's party had committed itself. But as fate had it King would have thirteen more years in power and his achievements in those years were legion.

There was relatively little to cheer about in domestic policy in the second half of the 1930s. King's government took the Bank of Canada, created as a quasi-governmental agency by Bennett, and made it a nationally-owned central bank. It established a massive royal commission on dominion–provincial relations to investigate the fiscal plight of the provinces, given many powers and few monetary resources, and it began to move toward a national system of unemployment insurance. There were initiatives in housing, and in 1939, under the influence of Keynesian economics, the first stimulative deficit budget. This was better than King's previous administrations but he had done very little to deal with the economic problems afflicting the country.

Nor was King's record stellar on foreign policy questions. Bennett had seemed willing to see Canada play a vigorous role at the League of Nations in the Italo-Ethiopian conflict but King was not. Nor did King lend any support to tepid British or French efforts to rein in Germany. In his view Canada had no stake in eastern Europe, and the tensions at home between French and English Canadians, always exacerbated by the prospect of involvement in a ‘British’ war, demanded that Canada speak softly. Nor did Canada have a big stick. The regular army, navy, and air force had only 10,000, all ranks, the reserves were weak, and there was no modern equipment. But King did tell Adolf Hitler in 1937 that Canadians would swim the ocean to fight if Germany went to war with Britain and he did work assiduously to cultivate President Franklin Roosevelt.

King and Roosevelt were not close friends and the disparity in their nations' power was substantial. But they respected each other as political leaders and they understood that geography obliged them to work together. King worried about the gulf between the USA and Britain and he believed strongly that trade made good friends. Within days of taking office in 1935 he was pressing forward trade negotiations with Washington that, though begun by Bennett, had become stalled. The resulting agreement, the first since the defeat of reciprocity in 1911, was a signal that trade relations were going to become closer. Two years later there was a second agreement, and in 1938 Canada, the USA, and the UK, after an intricate negotiation complicated by imperial preferences, signed yet another trade pact. Simultaneously King and Roosevelt were beginning to bring their countries toward co-operation in defence. Secret staff talks took place and in 1938 Roosevelt, speaking in Canada, put Canada under the American defence umbrella. When war came in 1939 the good relations established between the two leaders mattered.

Wartime leader

The Second World War was a testing time for King and Canada. By skilful backing and filling King kept the country united. Hardline imperialists regularly jeered at King as the ‘American’, and French Canadian isolationists pronounced him 'ready, aye ready' anytime Britain called. In fact King had desperately hoped to stay out of the war—like most Canadians he had cheered the Munich agreement of 1938—but he and his cabinet, including the justice minister, Ernest Lapointe, and the other Quebec ministers, had agreed that Canada had to join in if Britain went to war; English Canadian public opinion would demand nothing less. But King could decide the scope of involvement and his instincts were for a war of limited liability and, as he declared in March 1939, a war without conscription for overseas service. And when Britain went to war on 3 September King delayed Canada's declaration of war for a week, time enough for parliament to decide to enter. Soon after King began the negotiations with Britain that led to the British Commonwealth air training plan, a scheme that he had London declare to be Canada's major contribution to the war. For a time it seemed doubtful that a division of infantry would proceed overseas but again opinion demanded that. Canada was in the war—reluctantly in Quebec, with limited enthusiasm in English Canada—but in; and united. This was a huge achievement.

King soon faced attacks from both the reluctant and the enthusiastic. In September Premier Maurice Duplessis of Quebec used the war as an excuse for a snap election, charging that the federal government was centralizing power with wartime emergency orders. In effect Ottawa viewed this election as an attack on the war and unity, and King's Quebec ministers, promising no conscription, entered the fray. Duplessis was smashed and a Liberal government under Adelard Godbout took power. Early in the new year of 1940, however, Premier Mitchell Hepburn of Ontario, a Liberal but no supporter of King, charged that the federal government was doing nothing in the war and had his legislature condemn the war effort. King used this extraordinary action to justify his own election call, catching the opposition completely unready. Again the government pledged itself against conscription, and it scored a second successive huge victory. King was in power with a fresh mandate when the fortunes of war turned against the allies in the spring of 1940.

That change in fortune had huge impact on Canada's war. From being a war of limited liability, with the major Canadian effort directed to air training, it was now a struggle for survival with all stops pulled. There would be a vastly expanded air training plan (that eventually produced 131,000 aircrew), a very large navy that played an increasingly important role in the convoy war, and a larger army than in the First World War. Britain's peril also emboldened the conscriptionists in the country and cabinet, and King fought a long rearguard action to stave off the inevitable. The first bite at the cherry came in June 1940, when the National Resources Mobilization Act authorized home defence conscription for thirty days; over time this term was stretched to cover the war's duration. In November 1941 a slightly irregular Conservative meeting made Arthur Meighen party leader once again, and the conscription tom-toms began to beat insistently. King countered with a plebiscite that, without mentioning the word conscription, asked for release from the government's pledges of 1939–40. The government won but French Canadians voted heavily 'no', although Lapointe's replacement, Louis St Laurent, made an impressive beginning in campaigning for the 'yes' side. The National Resources Mobilization Act was duly amended, but with King's pledge that the change meant 'not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary'. That classic King formulation in fact described his manpower policy with precision. Defence minister J. L. Ralston none the less almost resigned and one Quebec minister actually did so.

King held the party together for two more years until heavy infantry casualties in Italy and Normandy created a reinforcement crisis in the autumn of 1944. Desperate to keep the country together and aware that sending home defence conscripts could jeopardize unity at a time when the war was all but won, King sacked the conscriptionist Ralston and appointed General A. G. L. McNaughton, former commander of the First Canadian Army overseas, in his place. McNaughton tried and failed to persuade home defence conscripts to volunteer for the front and, after an agonizing three weeks and in the face of threatened resignations of senior army commanders, King reversed course and decided to dispatch 16,000 conscripts overseas. Quebec was restive but King prevailed in the House of Commons and, helped by St Laurent's calm acceptance of the necessity of a measure of conscription, Québecois eventually concluded that King had done his very best to hold off compulsory service.

King was similarly successful in his relations with Roosevelt. The defeats on the continent in 1940 for the first time put Canada's safety in peril, not least if a defeated Britain had to surrender the Royal Navy. At the president's request King found himself uncomfortably in the middle, conveying American demands on the future of the British fleet to Winston Churchill. He also found Roosevelt pressing for a defence alliance in August 1940, and King agreed, first because he had no choice and, secondly, because the alliance let Canada do its utmost to get men and machines overseas without worrying about home defence. The change in imperial masters none the less proved fateful. So too did the shift in economic dependence to the USA. The war greatly expanded Canadian industry—and hence the import of metals, munitions components, and weapons from the south. By early 1941 Canada was all but bereft of American dollars, and King went to Roosevelt's home at Hyde Park, New York, in April 1941 to plead his case. The result in effect was an agreement that the Americans would buy as much in Canada as Canada was buying in the USA; at a stroke that resolved the dollar crisis and let Canadian industry work flat out. The results, directed by the powerful minister of munitions and supply, C. D. Howe, were hugely impressive and Canada gave Britain and the allies billions of dollars in goods and supplies under mutual aid.

Relations between Canada and the USA were generally very good indeed and featured few of the battles that troubled relations with the British. Those tended to revolve around Canada's assertion of its new-found strength. Though King never sought any role in strategic decisions, which he left to Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt, he was determined that Canada's role in key areas where it had power be recognized. Arguing the functional principle King claimed a special place for Canada in food production, in resources, and in relief. Aided by a brilliant team in the department of external affairs (of which he was minister) he had substantial success in getting Canada a special place on the Anglo-American combined food board and the combined production and resources board; Canada did not succeed, however, in getting its claims recognized on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, although that did not stop the country from contributing heavily to European relief efforts.

At the same time King at last began to implement the 1919 Liberal Party platform. It was evident that Canadians feared the return of depression at the war's end and equally evident that the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was making gains. In 1940 King pushed unemployment insurance into law, knowing full well that wartime employment would allow a large insurance fund to be built up to meet the expected post-war dislocations. In 1943 the Liberal Party renewed its pledges of social welfare, and in the next two years the government put in place family allowances (this single programme cost almost half the total pre-war federal budget), allocated large sums for housing, created a department of health and welfare, and in the veterans' charter created what was probably the best package of benefits for demobilized servicemen and women anywhere. At the same time the Keynesian mood that had taken hold in 1939 led the government to create a shelf of large public works projects to soak up the expected post-war unemployment and, in a 1945 white paper, to promise full employment.

The government's war record was superb, Canada putting more than a million men into the field and generating a huge industrial and agricultural effort—and all without inflation or a cut in living standards; in fact, the war saw Canadians with more money in their pockets and much better fed than in the depression years. For once King deserved an election sweep but the 1945 election was a tough fight. He prevailed by stressing the government's war record and the splendid veterans' benefits offered to returning servicemen and women, the social welfare policies already put into effect, the plans that the government had put in place for post-war reconstruction, and by denouncing the socialists and Conservatives for their disruptive schemes. King was as always firmly in the middle and his cautious conscription policies had won him the support of Quebec; that was sufficient to give him 127 seats in a house of 245, the tories garnering 67 and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation 28. It was a victory, but a narrow one.

Last years

King was now almost seventy-one years old and he was perceptibly failing. He had his good days, when he was as sharp and forceful as ever, but increasingly his small office staff found his moods difficult to anticipate or deal with. He had always expected his officials to be available at all hours but now the petulance and inconsiderateness spiralled out of control. Still, there was no sign of his preparing to step down, though when he persuaded St Laurent to remain in politics in 1945 and then, in 1946, made him secretary of state for external affairs, the first non-prime minister to hold the post, that was almost certainly an indication of King's choice of successor.

There was no shortage of concerns and issues. The expected economic downturn at war's end did not occur, something in part at least attributable to government preparations, planning, and spending. The gross national product had doubled during six years of war and, after a brief pause, it continued to grow. The new Canada would be prosperous, unlike the old. But the federal government's attempts to re-order confederation and to entrench the powers that Ottawa had exercised during the war foundered in the face of opposition from Ontario and Quebec. And the push toward a social welfare state all but ceased. Even so the government established Canadian citizenship under the law and for a time looked as if it might put a Canadian flag in place. King also put into train the entry of Newfoundland into confederation, a long-sought Canadian goal that came to fruition in April 1949, a few months after his departure from office.

What preoccupied King's last years however was less domestic questions than the international stage. He had been the de facto creator of the Commonwealth, the man who sought greater autonomy for Canada. But he followed Britain's lead wherever possible in the post-war world, and his government loaned the United Kingdom C$1.25 billion in 1946, fully one-third of that provided by the much bigger, much richer United States. He mistrusted the United Nations that he had helped to create, fearing that it was both a talking shop and an international body that might involve Canada in conflict. He admired the United States but he had no doubt that it had long-term designs on Canada. King was a bundle of contradictions, to be sure, but his nationalism, internationalism, Anglophilia, and anti-Americanism all reflected long-lived streams in the Canadian consciousness.

The Soviet Union in particular troubled this deeply anti-communist leader. In September 1945 a Soviet cipher officer, Igor Gouzenko, defected from the embassy in Ottawa, carrying documents proving that the USSR had run spy rings in Canada during the war. There were indications too in Gouzenko's material of espionage in high places in Washington and London. This affair, quickly communicated to the USA and the UK, demonstrated that public servants could violate their oaths for ideological reasons and showed that the Soviet Union remained an implacable foe of the democracies. The cold war was in formation and by 1948, with King's support, Canada was in secret discussions with London and Washington about the need for a north Atlantic alliance.

At the same time Canada and the United States had begun to discuss a free-trade arrangement, motivated in part at least by security concerns. King had agreed to the initiation of these discussions but, when a draft treaty was produced, he suddenly developed cold feet. How would he be perceived by history if he tied Canada forever to its neighbour? That was not an unreasonable response, given the then still powerful force of British sentiment in Canada and the attacks that had been levelled against King for years that he was a continentalist. To the fury of his officials King killed the deal, and the idea of free trade was not to be revived for forty years.

But at last it was time to go. In January 1948 King announced that he would retire after a party leadership convention in August and, though he was ostensibly neutral, he clearly gave his support to St Laurent. The Quebecker duly won and King went off to Europe, still prime minister. It proved difficult for him to give up power and the handover did not finally take place until 15 November.

King, as an old man, intended to write his memoirs, utilizing his astonishing diary and vast collection of papers, but he could never get organized enough to begin. Always lonely he was left with only a few friends, servants, and his dog. His health was breaking down, and he died, at his country retreat, Kingsmere, near Ottawa, on 22 July 1950. Crowds turned out to walk past his bier but there was little emotion. King had never been loved by his people or his colleagues, though many of the latter feared him and some admired him as a leader of skill. He was buried in Toronto on 27 July.

King's legacy after twenty-one years in office was a Liberal Party that had become Canada's ‘government party’. The Liberals had held the centre of the road so skilfully and for so long with a politics based on nationalism, national unity, and a degree of social welfare that the opposition on the left and right had been disarmed. This was King's doing, for he made his party the master of reconciliatory politics. Thanks to King, Canada's twentieth century belonged to the Liberal Party.

Historians then and since were ordinarily less kind in their judgements. King's peculiarities, his attachment to his dead mother and to his dogs, his spiritualist yearnings, and his alleged sexual encounters with prostitutes fed an unhealthy interest in the more bizarre aspects of his life. Most of these revelations had been discovered when his diaries were opened to public scrutiny, documents that King's will had ordered to be destroyed but that his literary executors had decided to preserve. Historians will be eternally grateful for the executors' decision but certainly King's reputation suffered, as the diaries fed the fires stoked by sensationalists. King's shrewd judgement, his constant attention to French Canada, his great steps forward in Canadian nationhood were, while not forgotten, routinely downplayed by writers and the media. And his cautious weighing of options and alternatives—do nothing by halves that can be done by quarters, poet F. R. Scott put it—generally was viewed as reflecting a flaw in his and the Canadian character.

More seriously historians were deeply divided on King's legacy. Quebec nationaliste historians tended to see him as a prime minister who paid little serious attention to Quebec concerns—had he not imposed conscription despite his promises? Conservative English-speaking historians contrarily saw King as slavishly following the dictates of Quebec opinion, even to the point of killing the British empire and denying the army overseas the reinforcements that it needed, in order to continue in office. Left-wing scholars viewed King as a hypocritical politician who doled out carefully timed dollops of social welfare in order to gut social democracy, while right-wingers objected to the way that his baby bonus, for example, had weakened the country's moral fibre.

King's policies remained firmly in the centre of the road, however, despite attacks from the political left and right, and so on balance has most historical opinion. In 1997 Maclean's magazine commissioned a ranking of Canadian prime ministers. In their selection, based on region, age, and gender as well as academic distinction, twenty-five historians and political scientists ranked Mackenzie King first, ahead of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The scholars expressed little admiration for King the man but offered unbounded admiration for his political skills and attention to Canadian unity. There was justice in this, for no one can rule a nation as disparate as Canada for so long without talents of a high order. The pendulum of opinion had swung, perhaps to Canadians' surprise.


  • R. M. Dawson, William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1 (Toronto, 1958)
  • H. B. Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King, 2–3 (Toronto, 1963–76)
  • J. W. Pickersgill, The Mackenzie King record, 1–4 (Toronto, 1960–70)
  • C. P. Stacey, A very double life (Toronto, 1976)
  • J. English and J. O. Stubbs, eds., Mackenzie King: widening the debate (Toronto, 1978)
  • C. Gray, Mrs. King (Toronto, 1997)
  • J. L. Granatstein, Canada's war: the politics of the Mackenzie King government, 1939–1945 (1975)
  • J. L. Granatstein and J. M. Hitsman, Broken promises: a history of conscription in Canada (1977)
  • R. Cuff and J. L. Granatstein, Canadian–American relations in wartime (1975)
  • R. D. Cuff and J. L. Granatstein, American dollars—Canadian prosperity: Canadian–American economic relations, 1945-1950 (1978)
  • J. L. Granatstein, The Ottawa men: the civil service mandarins, 1935–1957 (1982)
  • R. Whitaker, The government party: organizing and financing the liberal party of Canada, 1930–1958 (Toronto, 1977)
  • H. S. Ferns and B. Ostry, The age of Mackenzie King (1955)
  • D. Creighton, The forked road: Canada, 1939–1957 (Toronto, 1976)
  • J. Esberey, Knight of the holy spirit: a study of William Lyon Mackenzie King (Toronto, 1980)
  • J. Eayrs, In defence of Canada, 1–4 (Toronto, 1964–80)
  • C. P. Stacey, Canada and the age of conflict: a history of Canadian external policies, 2 (1981)
  • C. P. Stacey, Arms, men and governments: the war policies of Canada, 1939–45 (Ottawa, 1970)


  • NA Canada, MSS
  • BL, letters to J. A. Spender and Mrs. Spender, Add. MS 46388
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Viscount Addison
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Samuel
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Alfred Zimmern
  • CKS, corresp. with Lord Stanhope
  • Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to Lord Howard of Penrith
  • JRL, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, corresp. with Frank O. Salisbury
  • NA Canada, Department of External Affairs records
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Arthur Balfour
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook, and extracts of his diaries and letters


  • BFINA, current affairs footage
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage


  • F. Salisbury, portrait, 1945, House of Commons, Ottawa
  • J. W. L. Foster, portrait, Laurier House, Ottawa
  • Y. Karsh, portrait
  • W. Orpen, portrait, Laurier House, Ottawa
  • photograph, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

C$681,252 and land at Kingsmere, Quebec: Stacey, A very double life