Gotta Know 'Em, Eh? - Prime Ministers

  1. Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Conservative, 1867—1873 and 1878—1891 (b. 10 Jan 1815, Glasgow, Scot.; d. 6 Jun 1891, Ottawa). On the $10 bill. Moved to Kingston, Upper Canada, with his family at the age of 5. Macdonald was truly the father of our country, because he drafted the British North America Act (1867) that created the Dominion of Canada, a new confederation of the four provinces of Ontario and Quebec (heretofore united as the Province of Canada), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. As part of the deal, construction began on the Intercolonial Railway from Quebec City to Halifax, N.S. In quick succession, Macdonald oversaw the transfer to Canada of the Northwest Territories (1870) from the Hudson's Bay Company, and the entry of three new provinces: Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), and Prince Edward Island (1873). Manitoba was made a province separate from the N.W.T. in response to the Red River Rebellion (1870). B.C. joined on condition that a transcontinental railway would link it with eastern Canada, and Macdonald was again prime minister when it was completed in 1885, as the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the meantime, Macdonald was forced out of office because of the Pacific Scandal (1873), in which the Conservatives had received kickbacks from the recipients of the transcontinental railway contract. Another enduring national institution, the North-West Mounted Police, precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was established (1873) on Macdonald's watch. The Conservatives were returned to office after an economic depression, and Macdonald instituted the National Policy (1879) of trade protection for Canadian manufacturers. Also, the first national park, Banff, was established (1885). Macdonald crushed the North-West Rebellion (1885), and refused to commute the death sentence of its leader, Louis Riel, saying, "He shall hang, though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour." As a result, the then-opposition Liberal Party won a majority of French-speaking Quebec ridings in every federal election until 1958. Quote: "As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die." (1891)
  2. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberal, 1921—1926 and 1926—1930 and 1935—1948 (b. 17 Dec 1874, Berlin [now Kitchener], Ont.; d. 22 Jul 1950, Kingsmere, Que.). On the $50 bill. Grandson of the 19th century Scottish-Canadian rebel/statesman William Lyon Mackenzie, and the only prime minister with a Ph.D. (Harvard, 1909). King would make this list if for no other reason than the fact that he served longer than anyone else: a total of 21 years and 5 months in the top job. In 1926, King's minority government lost the support of the House of Commons, and he asked the Governor General, Lord Byng, for a new election. Byng refused to call another election after only 8 months, and instead asked Conservative leader Arthur Meighen to form a government. In the ensuing "King-Byng Affair", King accused Byng of acting unconstitutionally. The victory of King's Liberals in the subsequent election effectively weakened the role of the governor general. In social legislation, the first Old Age Pension was introduced (1927). King lost the 1930 election, after arrogantly promising "not a five-cent piece for any Tory government" among the provinces requesting relief funds, but was returned to office in 1935, after R. B. Bennett's Conservatives were blamed for the worst of the Great Depression. Canada entered World War II (1939) with its own declaration of war, and it was during the war that Canada was transformed from an agricultural to an industrial economy, led largely by the "Minister of Everything", C.D. Howe. In 1940, King's Liberals were re-elected with a promise not to introduce conscription for overseas service. After pressure from the Allies for more troops, a dominion-wide plebiscite was held on conscription, with 64% in favour across the country — but 73% opposed in Quebec. The government avoided imposing conscription until late 1944. After the war, the Citizenship Act (1947) defined for the first time a Canadian citizenship separate from the status of British subject. King was the first person to receive a certificate of Canadian citizenship. Quote: "Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." (1942, announcing his new policy after the plebiscite on conscription)
  3. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Liberal, 1896—1911 (b. 20 Nov 1841, St.-Lin, Canada East; d. 17 Feb 1919, Ottawa). On the $5 bill. Came to power in 1896 after an election whose main issue was the long-festering Manitoba Schools Question of whether public funds should support separate French Roman Catholic schools in that province. Laurier finally resolved this issue with a compromise, the Laurier-Greenway agreement (1896) under which there would be no separate schools, but provisions for some religious instruction in public schools. Temperance advocates persuaded Laurier to call the first-ever national plebiscite (1898), on prohibition. A bare majority (51%) voted in favour, but because of the small margin, low turnout and overwhelming opposition in Quebec, nothing was done about it. The Klondike gold rush precipitated the establishment of a separate Yukon Territory (1898). Minister of the Interior Sir Clifford Sifton promoted immigration from Europe and the U.S. to the Prairies, where settlement expanded greatly. Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces (1905). After the failure of the Alaska Boundary Dispute (1903), which awarded all of the Alaska Panhandle to the U.S.A., Laurier's government initiated a second transcontinental railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to Prince Rupert, B.C., via Edmonton from Winnipeg, connecting with a new National Transcontinental from Winnipeg via northern Ontario to Quebec City and Moncton. Laurier's Liberals were defeated in an election fought over two of his initiatives: the Naval Service Act (1910) established a Canadian navy independent of British control — opposed by Imperialists for being too independent, and by Quebec nationalists who feared it would be used for Imperialist purposes. The unratified Reciprocity Agreement (1911) negotiated with the United States was opposed by manufacturers concerned about losing tariff protection and by others fearing it would lead to Canadian absorption into the U.S. Laurier was a member of the House of Commons for 44 years and 11 months (1874—1919), longer than anyone else in history. Quote: "The nineteenth century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that Canada will fill the twentieth century." (1904)
  4. Sir Robert Laird Borden, Conservative, 1911—1920 (b. 26 Jun 1854, Grand Pré, N.S.; d. 10 Jun 1937, Ottawa). On the $100 bill. Came to office on a wave of pro-Imperialist sentiment. In 1914, when Britain entered World War I, Canada was automatically at war. Borden strove for a greater say for Canada and the other dominions within the British Empire during the war. During the great fire (1916) at the Centre Block of Parliament, Borden escaped with minor burns, but his office and all of its contents were destroyed. The war forced some new measures, such as the "temporary" Income War Tax Act (1917). Over the introduction of conscription (1917), all cabinet ministers from Quebec resigned, but a Union Government (1917—1920) was formed that included some pro-conscription Liberals (though not Wilfrid Laurier, who remained Leader of the Opposition). Women were granted the right to vote (1918). Borden led the Canadian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference (1919), and was primarily responsible for international recognition of the autonomous status of the Dominions. Quote: "continuous consultation in all important matters of common Imperial concern, and for such necessary concerted action, founded on consultation, as the several Governments may determine." (1917, written into Resolution IX of the Imperial War Conference)
  5. Lester Bowles Pearson, Liberal, 1963—1968 (b. 22 Apr 1897, Newton Brook, Ont.; d. 27 Dec 1972, Ottawa). Nicknamed "Mike" during service in the WWI Royal Flying Corps, Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize when he was St.-Laurent's minister of External Affairs. The only person on this list whose party never had a majority in the House of Commons during his time as prime minister, he governed chiefly with the support of the New Democratic Party. As a result, the welfare state expanded with the Canada Pension Plan (1965) and the universal medical care system (1966). The Canada-United States Automotive Agreement Pact (1965) was signed, and the armed forces were unified (1967). After a long and contentious debate, a new flag was introduced (1965) in time for the Canadian centennial celebrations (1967). Pearson's cabinet included three future prime ministers: Pierre Trudeau as Minister of Justice, John Turner in Consumer and Corporate Affairs, and Jean Chrétien in National Revenue. Quote: "This is the flag of the future, but it does not dishonour the past." (1964, during the flag debate)
  6. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Liberal, 1968—1979 and 1980—1984 (b. 18 Oct 1919, Montreal; d. 28 Sep 2000, Montreal). First elected in a national wave of "Trudeaumania." Introduced the first Official Languages Act, making French and English equal in status in the federal government. This was obviously not good enough for the Front de Libération du Quebec, which set off bombs in Montreal and kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte (and later murdered Laporte). In the resulting "October Crisis" (1970), Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, putting the province of Quebec under martial law for 2 months. In a departure from previous Canadian notions of "two nations", and distinct from the American "melting pot" idea, Trudeau introduced a policy of Multiculturalism (1969) based on valuing ethnic pluralism and respecting cultural differences. Trudeau imposed Wage and Price Controls (1975), after ridiculing this idea ("Zap! You're frozen!") that the Conservatives proposed in the 1974 election campaign. After a brief period of Conservative government (1979—1980), Trudeau returned to office and campaigned for the "no" side in Quebec's first referendum on "sovereignty-assocation" (1980), which was defeated by 60% to 40%. The government also introduced the highly controversial National Energy Program (1980), aimed at increasing Canadian ownership of the oil industry, and keeping oil prices in Canada artificially low — in effect, a subsidy from Alberta to eastern Canada. Trudeau's greatest constitutional achievement was the patriation of the constitution (1982), including an amending formula, agreed to by every province except Quebec, then under a separatist government. Previously, the Canadian constitution could be amended only by the British Parliament. Of particular importance was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Trudeau was also known for his interesting personal life while prime minister: he was a bachelor until age 51, when he married (1971) 22-year-old Margaret Sinclair. Two of their three sons were born on Christmas Day. The couple separated (1977) and divorced (1984). Quote: "Just watch me." (1970, when asked how far he would go to suspend civil liberties during the October Crisis)
  7. John George Diefenbaker, Progressive Conservative, 1957—1963 (b. 18 Sep 1895, Neustadt, Ont.; d. 16 Aug 1979, Ottawa). "The Chief" moved to Saskatchewan (then part of the Northwest Territories) with his family in 1903, and came to be seen as a folk hero on the Prairies. In 1958 his party received 208 of 265 seats in the House, the biggest electoral landslide until that time. Diefenbaker was of German ancestry — the first prime minister of neither British nor French origin — and it was partly because of this outsider status that he expressed a strong commitment to "social justice" in such acts as the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) and extension of the federal right to vote to aboriginal peoples (1960). He appointed the first female cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough (1957), and the first aboriginal Senator, James Gladstone (1958). Diefenbaker joined Commonwealth heads of government from Africa and Asia in proposing a resolution (1961) denouncing apartheid in South Africa, and he also supported independence for Britain's remaining colonies. Diefenbaker controversially cancelled the highly advanced Avro Arrow military jet (1959) and sparred with President Kennedy over policy towards Cuba and over keeping nuclear weapons in Canada. Quote: "Everyone is against me — except the people!" (1963, used often during his ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign)
  8. Louis Stephen Saint-Laurent, Liberal, 1948—1957 (b. 1 Feb 1882, Compton, Que.; d. 25 Jul 1973, Quebec City). Taking office at age 66, "Uncle Louis" had an exceptionally talented cabinet including Lester Pearson in External Affairs and C.D. Howe in Trade and Commerce. St.-Laurent had the honour of seeing Newfoundland's entry into Confederation (1949). His government authorized construction of the Trans-Canada Highway (1949) and the St. Lawrence Seaway (1954). In foreign affairs, Canada joined NATO (1949) and participated in the Korean War (1950—1953), which resulted in the last Canadian combat deaths before the Afghanistan war in 2002. The system of equalization payments began (1957) to poorer provinces, then every one other than Ontario and B.C., so that each province had roughly the same amount to spend on services per capita. St.-Laurent appointed Vincent Massey the first Canadian-born governor general (1952), and established the Canada Council for the Arts (1957). Quote: "Our nation was planned as a political partnership of two great races. It was planned by men of vision, of tolerance, as a partnership in which both of the partners would retain their essential characteristics, their religion, their culture." (1948)
  9. (Martin) Brian Mulroney, Progressive Conservative, 1984—1993 (b. 20 Mar 1939, Baie-Comeau, Que.). First elected in a landslide with 211 out of 282 seats in the House of Commons. The first Quebecer to lead the Conservatives since the 19th century, Mulroney endeavoured to win ratification from his home province for the 1982 constitution. This goal was achieved with the Meech Lake Accord (1987), agreed to by all provincial premiers including the federalist Robert Bourassa of Quebec. After second thoughts, the legislatures of Manitoba and Newfoundland did not ratify it before the 3-year deadline passed, despite a last-minute first ministers' meeting to work out differences. Later, the more far-reaching Charlottetown Accord (1992) was agreed to by all the premiers, and put to a national vote, but 55% voted against. Mulroney was more successful in passing the Canada - United States Free Trade Agreement (1987), which was the major issue in the 1988 election. The FTA was broadened to the North American Free Trade Agreement (1992). Mulroney's least popular measure was the Goods and Services Tax (1991), which the Liberal-dominated Senate refused to ratify. Invoking the never-before-used Article 26 of the 1867 Constitution Act, Mulroney stacked the Senate with supporters so that the GST could be passed. Quote: "That's the day we're going to roll the dice." (1990, on scheduling a First Ministers' meeting just before the ratification deadline for the Meech Lake Accord)
  10. Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative, 1922—1923 in Britain (b. 16 Sep 1858, Kingston, N.B.; d. 30 Oct 1923, London, Eng.). Who? The only colonial ever to become prime minister of Great Britain was a Canadian. Law resigned after 209 days because of ill health. Quote: "If I am a great man, then a good many great men of history are frauds."

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