Gotta Know 'Em, Eh? - Less important Prime Ministers

History will have to judge the current one, Jean Chrétien, but here are the ten past prime ministers who were not important enough to make our previous list. Since it's kind of difficult to rank people that you've already decided are "less important", we've put them in chronological order.

  1. Alexander Mackenzie, Liberal, 1873—1878 (b. 28 Jan 1822, Logierait, Perthshire, Scot.; d. 17 Apr 1892, Toronto). The observant reader will note that among Canada's first eight prime ministers after confederation, Alexander Mackenzie is the only one without a "Sir" in front of his name. Though offered a knighthood three times, he refused it on principle. Mackenzie took office in the wake of the Pacific Scandal that brought down Sir John A. Macdonald's government, and he introduced such reforms as the secret ballot (1874) and the Office of the Auditor General (1878). His government also established the Royal Military College (1874) in Kingston, and the Supreme Court of Canada (1875). After some years without a strong "Quebec lieutenant", Mackenzie appointed (1877) a young Wilfrid Laurier to his cabinet as Minister of Inland Revenue. By 1878, Canada was in the midst of an economic depression, and despite Mackenzie's honest, competent, and sober leadership, the voters returned Sir John A.'s Conservatives to power.
  2. Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott, Conservative, 1891—1892 (b. 12 Mar 1821, St. Andrews, Lower Canada; d. 30 Oct 1893, Montreal). The first Canadian-born prime minister, and the first to hold the job while a Senator, Abbott took office reluctantly at age 70 as a compromise choice after the death of Sir John A. Macdonald. His government passed Canada's first Criminal Code (1892). With the revelations of the Baie des Chaleurs scandal (1891), Abbott forced the resignation of Public Works minister Hector-Louis Langevin and even got Quebec's lieutenant-governor to dismiss that province's government led by Honoré Mercier. Despite this, in Abbott's 17 months as prime minister, the Conservatives won 42 of the 52 by-elections to the House of Commons. He resigned his post due to ill health.
  3. Sir John Sparrow David Thompson, Conservative, 1892—1894 (b. 10 Nov 1845, Halifax, N.S.; d. 12 Dec 1894, London, Eng.). The Conservative party's great young hope after the Macdonald era. Three months after becoming prime minister, Thompson went to Paris to be a judge in the Bering Sea dispute, and joined in the ruling (1893) in favour of Canada that said that this sea was in international waters. He settled the North-West Territories Schools Question (1894) — recall that the NWT then also included present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan — but left the Manitoba Schools Question up to the courts. The first Roman Catholic prime minister, the newly minted Sir John dropped dead moments after being knighted by the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Queen Victoria. He was 49 years old.
  4. Sir Mackenzie Bowell, Conservative, 1894—1896 (b. 27 Dec 1823, Rickinghall, Eng.; d. 10 Dec 1917, Belleville, Ont.). After the funerals of three successive leaders named Sir John over a four-year period, the Conservatives chose the 70-year-old Senator Bowell. They soon came to regret their decision. When the British Privy Council upheld (1895) Manitoba's right to end public funding for Catholic schools in that province, Bowell dithered over what to do over this very divisive national issue. Despite his past as a Protestant extremist, he eventually supported legislation to force reinstatement of provincial support. But appalled by his indecisive leadership, Bowell's cabinet revolted. He was the only prime minister ever forced to resign by his own cabinet.
  5. Sir Charles Tupper, Conservative, 1896 (b. 2 Jul 1821, Amherst, N.S.; d. 30 Oct 1915, Bexley Heath, Eng.). At age 74, Tupper was the oldest person in Canadian history to enter office as prime minister. This happened a week after the writ was dropped for a new election, as the five-year time limit had run out. Tupper was the fifth Conservative prime minister since the previous election. With the party divided over the Manitoba Schools Question, the Conservatives lost the election of 1896, even though they got a slightly larger share of the popular vote than Laurier's Liberals. Tupper was the shortest-serving prime minister in Canadian history, having lasted only 69 days in the post. Perhaps because of this short duration, or perhaps because he was the only medical doctor ever to have the job, he was also the longest-living prime minister, dying at age 94 as the last of the original Fathers of Confederation.
  6. Arthur Meighen, Conservative, 1920—1921 and 1926 (b. 16 Jun 1874, Anderson, Ont.; d. 5 Aug 1960, Toronto). During Meighen's first 18-month term as prime minister, he attended an Imperial conference (1921) and successfully convinced the British government not to renew the alliance with Japan, which he thought would harm relations with the United States. He also signed trade agreements (1921) with France and the West Indies, and passed the Armistice Day Act (1921), which set the Thanksgiving holiday to be on Armistice Day, the Monday of the week of November 11. (This was changed in 1931.) After losing the 1921 election to the Liberals of Mackenzie King, who continued to lead a minority government after the 1925 election, Meighen was given another chance as prime minister by Governor General Byng after King's government lost the confidence of the House. This was the famous "King-Byng" Affair in which Lord Byng had refused King's request for a new election. But Meighen's new government (1926) lost its own confidence vote within days, forcing an election that the Conservatives lost, ending Meighen's second term as prime minister after only three months.
  7. Richard Bedford Bennett, Conservative, 1930—1935 (b. 3 Jul 1870, Hopewell Hill, N.B.; d. 26 Jun 1947, Mickleham, Surrey, Eng.). Bennett had the misfortune to become prime minister just as the Great Depression was starting. He thought this crisis should be dealt with by introducing preferential tariffs for trade within the British Empire, and he signed 12 such agreements with the other dominions and Great Britain at an Imperial conference in Ottawa (1932). He also passed the Relief Act (1932), which set up work camps for unemployed single men, and established the Bank of Canada (1934) and the Canadian Wheat Board (1935). Many Canadians could no longer afford gasoline for their cars, and so they used horses to pull them and called them "Bennett buggies". Bennett was so out of touch with the common people in their time of need that he brought back the practice (which had ended in 1919) of granting knighthoods and peerages to Canadians. Bennett established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (1932), the precursor of today's CBC for programming and CRTC for regulation, and it was on a CRBC dominion-wide broadcast (1935) that he made an abrupt change in his approach, proposing a "new deal" of more progressive taxation, federal regulation of businesses and working conditions, health and accident insurance, and other social-democratic measures of the kind introduced in the United States. This was too late for many Canadians, such as the relief-camp workers in British Columbia who were getting paid 20 cents a day and went on strike, going on an On-to-Ottawa Trek (1935) from Vancouver. The RCMP stopped the Trek in Regina on orders from Bennett's government. His Conservatives lost the election that year, and Bennett himself moved to England, never to return to Canada. He became a Viscount, the only Canadian prime minister to join the aristocracy, and sat in the House of Lords. Buried in England, he was the only prime minister who was buried outside Canada.
  8. (Charles) Joseph Clark, Progressive Conservative, 1979—1980 (b. 5 Jun 1939, High River, Alta.) Although earlier prime ministers had lived in Western Canada and had represented seats there, Clark was the first who was born west of Ontario. At 39, he was the youngest prime minister in Canadian history. Clark's Conservatives came to power with a distinct lack of a popular mandate: the party got only 35.9% of the nationwide vote compared with 40.1% for Pierre Trudeau's Liberals, whose support was concentrated in the province of Quebec. If the Conservatives had formed a coalition with the six Créditistes, the two parties together would have had a one-seat majority in the House of Commons, but Clark announced that he would govern as if the Conservatives had a majority by themselves. Big mistake, as the government was defeated on its first budget just seven months after taking office, primarily because of the budget's provision for an immediate gasoline tax hike of 18 cents per gallon (4 cents per litre). The subsequent "18-cent election" was won by the Trudeau Liberals, and Clark left office after only nine months. Clark was prime minister when six American diplomats secretly gained refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran, Iran, after their own embassy had been seized by militants. The Americans were able to escape Iran on false Canadian passports in a scheme approved by Clark.
  9. John Napier Turner, Liberal, 1984 (b. 7 Jun 1929, Richmond, Surrey, Eng.). The only prime minister since the 19th century who was not born in Canada, Turner had a Canadian mother and moved with her back to Canada at age 3 after the death of his father. He returned to England to study as a Rhodes Scholar, the only future Canadian prime minister to receive that honour. Turner gained the Liberal leadership after being out of public life for nine years. As he was not a sitting MP, he called an election as soon as he replaced Trudeau as prime minister. Following an agreement with Trudeau, Turner then made a slew of patronage appointments of Trudeau's cronies and other long-time Liberals to various boards and commissions, as well as three to the Senate, because Trudeau had run out of time to make all the appointments himself. This action only served to strengthen his connection in voters' minds to the unpopular Trudeau government, and the Liberals lost the election, winning only 40 seats and 28.0% of the popular vote, by both measures the worst showing in the party's history since Confederation. Although he had lost the election a week earlier, the Roman Catholic Turner was still prime minister when he welcomed Pope John Paul II on Canada's first ever papal visit, which had been planned long before Turner took office. Turner was prime minister for 79 days, the second shortest term after Tupper's.
  10. (Avril Phaedra) Kim Campbell, Progressive Conservative, 1993 (b. 10 Mar 1947, Port Alberni, B.C.). Campbell was the first female prime minister, the first born in British Columbia, and the only person who had been divorced (in her case, twice) before becoming prime minister. Within two weeks of taking over from Brian Mulroney, she attended the G7 summit in Tokyo as the only female head of government to take part in that gathering since Margaret Thatcher. When Campbell took office, it had already been four years and seven months since the previous election, and she had little time to establish her government as different from the previous very unpopular one led by Mulroney. After a series of gaffes including her statement that an election is no time discuss serious issues, Campbell's Conservatives suffered the biggest electoral defeat in Canadian parliamentary history, from a majority in the House of Commons to a mere two seats (and Campbell's was not one of them). She was prime minister for just over four months. Canadians were incredulous in 2004 when National Geographic's Almanac of World History listed Campbell as one of the "50 Most Important Political Leaders in History".

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