Monday, October 14, 2013

William Lyon Mackenzie King

Image from Upper Canada History

William Lyon Mackenzie King, grandson of reformer William Lyon Mackenzie, was undoubtedly one of Canada's most successful politicians.

He led the Liberal Party from 1919 to 1948, and his party governed the country during three mandates: 1921-26, 1926-30, and 1935-48.

A graduate of the U of T, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, Mackenzie King entered politics in 1900 as Laurier's Minister of Labour.

With an interest in industrial relations, King mediated in a number of strikes, and created the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act, which his party passed in 1907.

Mackenzie King lost his seat in the election of 1911 and was unable to regain it in 1917 (the Conscription election); however, he maintained ties with the party. During the war, he worked for the Rockefeller Foundation and wrote a book.

In 1919, he was chosen to succeed Laurier as party leader, and in 1921, the Liberals got a small majority, and joined with the Progressives, a new party, to govern. The withdrawal of the necessary but precarious support of the Progressive Party led to a constitutional crisis when Governor General Lord Byng refused to dissolve Parliament on King's request.

Although this King-Byng affair made it clear that governors-general were no longer free to intervene in Canadian affairs, the Conservatives took power again. However, Meighen's government was soon defeated. Brazening out a scandal, the Liberals were elected and governed between 1926 and 1930.

During this era, they established Old Age Pensions and reduced the debt. King also  continued to pursue the path of increasing autonomy for Canada, and at the 1926 Imperial Conference he helped craft and establish the nation's Dominion status.

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the 1930 election returned the Conservatives to power under RB Bennett, but the Liberals were back in 1935. Before the war, King arranged some trade agreements with the US and the UK to help cope with the terrible economic problems at home.

When war came, King said Parliament would decide on Canada's involvement. Having witnessed the conscription crisis of WWI, he also promised French Canadians they wouldn't be conscripted for overseas service. In 1940 the Liberals called an election and won, and King put the nation into full war production. The same year, he introduced conscription for the defense of Canada.

By 1942, the conscription debate was back. A plebiscite showed a majority of English Canadians willing to let the government off its 1940 promise, with Quebeckers opposed. The pressure increased as volunteer numbers declined and losses mounted.

The conversation about conscription dragged on in Parliament until 1944. In response to continuing pressure from Britain for Canada to introduce full conscription, King told Churchill he couldn't do it; the issue would tear Canada apart.

In the end, the war was nearly over when King finally sent some of the home defense forces overseas. However, although he lost his minister of defense in the process, he managed this backtracking without alienating French Canada.

Mackenzie King was the only wartime leader among the Allies to be re-elected in 1945 when the war was over. He represented Canada at the UN Conference in 1946.

On a personal level, he was decidedly eccentric. A single man, he was devoted to his dog Pat.
According to LAC, the two walked together in the morning and companionably enjoyed their evenings together, both drinking cocoa and eating oatmeal cookies.

He also joined the contemporary fad of spiritualism, and used a crystal ball to communicate with his dead mother, whom he apparently considered a source of political as well as personal counsel.

No comments:

Post a Comment