Gotta Know 'Em, Eh? - Prime Ministers
Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Conservative,
18671873 and 18781891
(b. 10 Jan 1815, Glasgow, Scot.;
d. 6 Jun 1891, Ottawa).
Moved to Kingston, Upper Canada, with his family at the age of 5.
Macdonald was truly the father of our country, because he
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
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
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
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
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.
for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was born, a
British subject I will die." (1891)
William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberal,
19211926 and 19261930 and 19351948
(b. 17 Dec 1874, Berlin [now Kitchener], Ont.;
d. 22 Jul 1950, Kingsmere, Que.).
Grandson of the 19th century Scottish-Canadian
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
to form a government.
In the ensuing "King-Byng Affair", King
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
R. B. Bennett's
Conservatives were blamed for the worst of the
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.
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
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.
"Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary."
(1942, announcing his new policy after the plebiscite on conscription)
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Liberal,
(b. 20 Nov 1841, St.-Lin, Canada East;
d. 17 Feb 1919, Ottawa).
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
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 (18741919), longer than anyone else in history.
"The nineteenth century was the century of
the United States. I think we can claim
that Canada will fill the twentieth
Sir Robert Laird Borden, Conservative,
(b. 26 Jun 1854, Grand Pré, N.S.;
d. 10 Jun 1937, Ottawa).
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 (19171920) 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.
"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)
Lester Bowles Pearson, Liberal,
(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
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
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,
in Consumer and Corporate Affairs, and
Jean Chrétien in National Revenue.
"This is the flag of the future, but it does not dishonour
(1964, during the flag debate)
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Liberal,
19681979 and 19801984
(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 (19791980),
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
(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
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).
"Just watch me."
(1970, when asked how far he would go to suspend civil liberties during
the October Crisis)
John George Diefenbaker, Progressive Conservative,
(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
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
Diefenbaker controversially cancelled the highly advanced
military jet (1959) and sparred with President Kennedy over
policy towards Cuba and over keeping nuclear weapons in Canada.
"Everyone is against me except the people!"
(1963, used often during his ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign)
Louis Stephen Saint-Laurent, Liberal,
(b. 1 Feb 1882, Compton, Que.;
d. 25 Jul 1973, Quebec City).
Taking office at age 66, "Uncle Louis" had an exceptionally talented
Lester Pearson in External Affairs and
Howe in Trade and Commerce.
St.-Laurent had the honour of seeing Newfoundland's entry into
His government authorized construction of the
(1949) and the
In foreign affairs, Canada joined NATO (1949) and participated in
the Korean War (19501953), which resulted in the last
Canadian combat deaths before the Afghanistan war in 2002.
The system of
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.
Vincent Massey the first Canadian-born governor general
(1952), and established the
Canada Council for the
"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
(Martin) Brian Mulroney, Progressive Conservative,
(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
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
American Free Trade Agreement (1992).
Mulroney's least popular measure was the
and Services Tax (1991), which the Liberal-dominated Senate
refused to ratify. Invoking the never-before-used
of the 1867 Constitution Act, Mulroney stacked the Senate with
supporters so that the GST could be passed.
"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)
Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative,
19221923 in Britain
(b. 16 Sep 1858, Kingston, N.B.;
d. 30 Oct 1923, London, Eng.).
The only colonial ever to become prime minister of Great Britain
was a Canadian. Law resigned after 209 days because of ill health.
"If I am a great man, then a good many great men of history are frauds."
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