Mackenzie King at 150: December 17th 2024

December 17th is a Canadian landmark that probably very few Canadians recognise, and fewer still would wish to celebrate. It was the birthday, in 1874, of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the country's longest serving prime minister – a record that is unlikely to be broken.

Two years from the day in 2022 on which I write, December 17th 2024 will mark his 150th anniversary.

In arguing that this 150th milestone ought not to pass unnoticed, I am definitely not proposing a Mackenzie King cult. I once had the pleasure of a friendly conversation with a very senior British diplomat, a mighty Whitehall mandarin who had begun his long career as a junior at the British High Commission in Ottawa in the 1940s. I probed cautiously, referring to "Mr King" in a respectful manner. What was he really like? "Oooooh!", sighed the great man, as if casting around the firmament for the precise term that would sum up every aspect of Mackenzie-Kingness. Suddenly, the right word came upon him, and he fired it out: "Detestable!"

But December 2024 will provide an opportunity to open a window on Mackenzie King's Canada, and to review just how different it was from the Canada of today. Even putting side personality, King would surely be an impossible Prime Minister today. In reviewing the role of the French language in Canadian public life, I was surprised not simply by his inability to speak it, but by his obvious assumption that the deficiency did not matter – and certainly did not undermine his claims upon the political support of Quebec. King's Canada was a country run by men: there were no women in his cabinet, nor in the higher civil service, and barely any in parliament. A few were granted the privilege of walk-on roles in his own bachelor life, but – his mother apart – he neither understood nor trusted them, although perhaps it may be argued that his introduction of family allowances in 1944 improved the lives of other Canadian mothers. In 1933, he dropped in on a Saskatchewan First Nations community, confiding a few lines of romanticised noble-savage twaddle to his diaries, but otherwise indigenous people formed no part of his world. As for a multicultural Canada, his earliest appearances on the global stage involved pith-helmet tours of Asia designed to keep Chinese, Indians and especially Japanese out of the Dominion altogether. Those Japanese who did get in, he interned during the Second World War.

Most successful political careers benefit from a slice or two of luck. Good fortune came to King in bucket loads. He was parachuted into the cabinet in his thirties because Laurier wanted to develop a new field of government activity and needed a Minister of Labour. This gave him experience at the top table, while he was obviously too junior to bear responsibility for the Liberal party's defeat at the 1911 election. He managed to miss the whole of the First World War. Many a 39 year-old Canadian – his age in 1914 – rushed to join the expeditionary force to France, and they did not all come home. King was in the United States, working for John D. Rockefeller, which helped him to ride out the divisive Conscription crisis of 1917. (He made a brief return to Toronto to pay his party dues to run as a candidate, but even then he mostly dodged the issue of compulsory military service.) Neither making money (and a lot of it) by attempting to whitewash the reputation of an industrial bandit, nor remaining deaf to the calls of patriotic duty seem to have damaged his squeaky-clean self-image, and he managed to slip past more experienced but tainted party rivals to capture the leadership in 1919 – though, on the final ballot, with the support of just 52 percent of the delegates. He was a fortunate beneficiary of the Progressive revolt of the 1920s. They denied him a working majority in 1921, but as he was temperamentally inclined to do very little anyway, they did not prove a major obstacle. He successfully kidded himself that the Progressives were "Liberals in a hurry", and did indeed pick up many of their pieces as the uprising fizzled out later in the decade. Losing the 1930 election, as the Depression gathered pace, was also a stroke of luck, and fortunately his party did not punish him – as would happen to a routed leader today – even though his own pig-headed blunders added to the scale of the Liberal defeat. Worse was to follow in 1931 when the Tories uncovered a malodorous tale of corruption in Grit party funding. Mackenzie King survived the Beauharnois Scandal by the noble expedient of laying down his friend for his political life: bagman Andrew Haydon carried the can, and the shame killed him. In political terms, his handling of the issue of conscription for overseas service in the Second World War was masterly, although Canada's soldiers in Europe paid a high price for his wiliness. He got away with his balancing act largely because Nazi Germany collapsed, while the surrender of Japan spared him awkward decisions about Canada and the Pacific. In the tailpiece to King's career, he gained incidental credit for taking the key steps that would bring Newfoundland into Confederation. In reality, his natural caution made him markedly unenthusiastic about the whole process.

Mackenzie King was also fortunate to survive what can only be called a bumpy record as an MP which, unusually, spanned three provinces. Few (if any) modern politicians would be granted the chance to represent five ridings. Even fewer careers would survive rejection by three of them. His only 'normal' constituency relationships were with Waterloo North (1908-11) and North York (1921-5). He had graduated to the Liberal candidacy for the latter, a winnable prospect, in 1913, but R.M. Dawson described his attempt to nurse the riding from the United States as "foolhardy". He was most successful as an absentee MP, sitting for Prince in PEI from 1919 to 1921, and representing Prince Albert in Saskatchewan from 1926 until the CCF tipped him out (by 129 votes) in 1945. During his final parliament, he found a snug berth in the eastern Ontario constituency of Glengarry. James A. Gibson, one of his private secretaries, described it to me as the nearest thing Canada had to a rotten borough, a small electorate and a safe seat, whose voters did not trouble their MP. Brian Mulroney briefly used a Nova Scotian riding as a springboard into the House of Commons, but Mackenzie King's checkered career of (nearly) coast-to-coast half-hearted ward-heeling would be a non-starter today.  

Most of all, Mackenzie King's strange fascination with spiritualism was protected from public gaze by a polite curtain of confidentiality. Maybe it is not entirely surprising that his mother should have been the dominant influence in his life. Much the same can be said of John A. Macdonald and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but their mothers dominated through charm and love. Isabella King was the mother from hell, and her son had to perform some violent adjustments of reality to avoid facing the truth. He saw himself as the political heir to her father, the 1837 rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, and ruthlessly suppressed an innocuous biography by W.D. LeSueur because it fell short of hagiography. (It was eventually published in 1979.) Mrs King's death in 1917 did not break their intense and unhealthy intimacy: he continued to communicate with her through spiritualist mediums. In so straitlaced a country as pre-Expo67 Canada, this was a highly dangerous practice. In 1942, for instance, he attended a séance with Toronto medium, Alma Brash, who produced the usual farrago of greetings and reassurance from his mother and someone who seemed to be calling himself Laura or Arrier. When King suggested Laurier, Miss Brash reported: "he is so glad that you know him. He is pleased with what you have done. Says he has been helping you". Anne Boleyn also put in an appearance, as did Queen Victoria, "but I do not recall what they said". Perhaps there was something quaint about King's belief that death was a minor incident in the soul's voyage through the cosmos, but the timing of the excursion was crass. Two weeks later, Canadian troops were sent on a hopeless and gruesome raid against the heavily fortified port of Dieppe. The casualties were terrible.

I made my own small contribution to this aspect of the story thanks to the Cork City and County archivist, who one day remarked: "did I hear you talking about somebody called Mackenzie King? I have some papers about him." They were the automatic writing scripts of Geraldine Cummins, an Anglo-Irish lady and spiritualist medium. She held two long sittings with King in London in 1947 and 1948. At the first, on a Saturday afternoon, King sought advice from the dead as to whether he should retire. Miss Cummins duly dialed up Roosevelt, who urgently insisted that his continuation in public life was vital to the Western alliance. Oddly enough, King's diaries reveal that he had spent that Saturday morning with another medium, Mrs Sharplin, who had also summoned Roosevelt from the vasty beyond. King did not press Miss Cummins to ask his interlocutor why he had not mentioned so pressing a matter in their earlier chat.

In 1924, Mackenzie King's associates pondered the problem that he needed companionship but could not relate to people, and decided to get him a dog. There would be a dynasty of three Irish terriers, all unimaginatively called Pat, who provided him with the uncritical devotion that he felt he deserved. Although a devout Presbyterian, he concluded that they possessed souls and would go to Heaven. The canine end-of-life rituals for Pat I in 1941 were very moving, although they did require the postponement of a meeting of the cabinet war committee. The dog duly passed over laden with messages to his family, Laurier, grandfather Mackenzie and so on. On Christmas Eve 1944, Pat II was on the receiving end of "a little talk" about the significance of the birth of Jesus in a stable full of animals. When the silence surrounding King's weird beliefs was broken by Maclean's in 1951, a year after his death, the magazine published an angry complaint from a reader who wondered how Canada had put up with a Prime Minister who talked to dead dogs (it seems the Pats popped up on the Ouija boards as well). The letter came from Spirit River in Alberta.

It was Geraldine Cummins who had revealed King's interest in the occult, despite the best efforts of the Mackenzie King trustees to intimidate her into silence. She survived a bullying confrontation with Leonard Brockington (who had his own agenda of grievances against The Incredible Canadian) by acting the sweet old lady. Blair Neatby told me the story of a frustrated Brockington returning to Ottawa to admit that it was the only occasion in his life when he had been tempted to strike a happy medium. Miss Cummins was fortified by a message from King himself, regretting that he had never had the courage to own up to his spiritualist enthusiasms in public, but pleading that he had not wished to upset his devout supporters in the province of Quebec. Perhaps this should rank as Mackenzie King's last-ever political statement, but it may suggest that Miss Cummins (who had claimed to believe that Winnipeg was the Dominion's capital) was better informed about Canadian politics than she let on.

Yet Mackenzie King did shape the country in various ways, laying the foundations for the Canada of today. In the 1920s, he presided over a quiet shift (its significance is not always noted) from the master-and-servant Dominion-provincial relationship to something closer to the modern federal structure. Disallowance of awkward provincial laws went into abeyance, while the prairie provinces were granted control over their natural resources, and hence full equality with the East. Blair Neatby called it "Tinkering with Federalism", but it was surely something more than that. The balance swung back to the dominance of the political centre  during the Second World War, enabling King to set the foundations for a welfare state, although waiting until 1944 to make the first moves does seem unduly slow for a politician who had formed his first government in 1921. Perhaps above all, in a series of almost casual and highly personal deals with Roosevelt, in 1941 he effectively shifted Canada from the British empire to the American universe, establishing a continental closeness in defence (and, by extension, much else) that remains to this day.

On the plus side, there is a great deal of accessible material on Mackenzie King which can form the basis of attempts to understand him. The three-volume official biography, I by R.M Dawson covering 1874 to 1923, and II and III by H. Blair Neatby, taking the story to 1939, may now seem old-fashioned, but in their day they represented statesman-biography at its very best (and they remain useful).  The years from 1939 to his retirement in 1948 are covered in four solid volumes of the Mackenzie King Record, edited by J.W. Pickersgill, with D.F. Forster as co-editor for II to IV. The Record consists mainly of extracts from King's own diaries, and since Jack Pickersgill was a Liberal stalwart, the weirder segments were excised. Phases of his career are dealt with in F.A. McGregor, The Fall and Rise of Mackenzie King, 1911-1919, T.D. Regehr, The Beauharnois Scandal and J.L. Granatstein, Canada's War: the Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939-1945. Robert Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West is a superb regional study, while Mackenzie King and the Age of the Dictators benefits from the insights of its author, Roy MacLaren, into the world of external policy: his long public career culminated in a term as a popular High Commissioner in London. Neville Thompson, The Third Man explores King's role in external policy during the Second World War. Taylor Hollander, Power, Politics and Principles: Mackenzie King and Labour, 1935–48 argues that King's interest in social reform should be taken seriously.  Raymond B. Blake, "William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Role in the Reconstruction of National Identity", Canadian Historical Review, ci (2020) also presents a positive interpretation, arguing that he "helped to shape Canada’s new postwar national identity based on modern liberal values and ideas", themes that would bear review in 2024.  

King's spiritualism was irreverently handled by C.P. Stacey in A Very Double Life: the Private World of Mackenzie King, (which also probed his fraught relations with women), while his insecurities were more sympathetically psycho-analysed by Joy E. Esberey, Knight of the Holy Spirit: a Study of William Lyon Mackenzie King. More recently, Christopher Dummitt's Unbuttoned: a History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life has examined how Canadians came to terms with King's oddities as the details emerged through the decades following his death in 1950. Of more general studies, The Age of Mackenzie King by Harry Ferns and Bernard Ostry offered an incisive debunking: in conversation, Harry Ferns, an Ottawa civil servant in the King era, was entertainingly scathing about his former boss. By contrast, biographies from King's lifetime and soon afterwards were breathlessly admiring. Emil Ludwig's short sketch of 1944 interestingly focused upon the importance of King's mother, but portrayed the relationship entirely in the terms presented to him through interviews with his subject. "It may seem superfluous to add that I am one of Mr King's sincere admirers", H. Reginald Hardy informed readers of his 1949 retirement tribute, Mackenzie King of Canada. Bruce Hutchison's The Incredible Canadian, published two years after King's death, claimed in its subtitle to be a "candid portrait", and may now be dismissed as nothing of the kind. King's 1918 blueprint for society, Industry and Humanity, was described by David Jay Bercuson in a 1973 reissue as "one of the few genuine liberal critiques of industrial society ever written by a notable Canadian", although it was unfortunate that the labyrinths of Dominion-provincial relations hampered its author from putting much of his manifesto into action. A 1935 biography, Mackenzie King by Norman McLeod Rogers, should also be mentioned, since its contents were closely monitored by the subject himself. Rogers, a cabinet minister, was later killed in an air crash, and became a regular member of the cast appearing at séances.

I confess that, in deep retirement, I do not monitor published work in Canadian history as closely as in days gone by, and offer my apologies to any authors whose work I have passed over. However, I can mention a few gems among shorter works. In 1977, the Association for Canadian Studies published, in its Canadian Issues series, a slim collection of valuable interviews, Mackenzie King: a Personal View. The year was close enough to assemble eight men (no women, of course) who had encountered King and could talk freely about him, while long enough after his disappearance from the Canadian scene for clinical objectivity. Of articles, I would mention "Mackenzie King's Spiritualism and his View of Adolf Hitler", by Robert H. Keyserlinck, in the Journal of Canadian Studies, xx (1986), which argued that King's otherworldly views should be integrated with his politics, and not regarded as an eccentric side interest. Keyserlinck was critical of Esberey's Freudian analysis, and placed more emphasis upon King's attempt to meld Wagner and Hitler into one overarching interpretation of world affairs. This collapsed in September 1939, but it is fun to read about. Another wide-ranging article is John Price's "'Orienting' the Empire: Mackenzie King and the Aftermath of the 1907 Race Riots" in BC Studies, clvi (2007-8), which traces the global ramifications of disturbances in Vancouver, and links them to aspects of King's later career. Two articles examine Mackenzie King's leadership style: Reginald Whitaker, "Political Thought and Political Action in Mackenzie King", Journal of Canadian Studies, xiii (1978) and John T. Courtney, "Prime Ministerial Character: an Examination of Mackenzie King’s Political Leadership",Canadian Journal of Political Science, ix (1979). Last but of course not least, mention should be made of H. Blair Neatby's overview essay in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography  

From the point of view of the enquiring citizen at a computer terminal, there is a now wealth of raw material available at a few clicks of the mouse. Mackenzie King's diaries are available, in full and searchable, via Library and Archives Canada, and very strange they can often be. (We owe their survival to Geraldine Cummins. King's trustees had considered destroying the diaries, which was probably what their author would have wished, but the Cummins revelations would have made that look like a cover-up. Instead they sealed them and left later generations to make their own judgement, of course not foreseeing that the text might be conjured down a million cathode-ray tubes.) Parliamentary debates are available through the website. Health warning: King did not believe in brevity, and one can only sympathise with the confidential secretary who had to type up his daily ramblings. There are, of course, many newspaper archives that are now available online. My favourite is the British Colonist from Victoria, BC ( because it's free, although the lotus-land of Vancouver Island does not necessarily provide the best lens for interpreting King. The point about this massive amount of accessible material, both the books and the websites, is that there will be scope, in and around the 150th anniversary of his birth, for local study groups and student dissertations to look in detail at Mackenzie King's relationship with different cities and provinces across Canada, as well as for thematic reviews of the subjects that seem important to us but somehow passed him by. I enjoyed following his 1927 foray into Acadian country, with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in tow. Somehow, when they reached Moncton, they found the building where he had planned to speak (and parade his distinguished guest) was locked and barred. There must be more to his dealings with New Brunswick than that.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Mackenzie King, on December 17th 1874, will constitute a landmark that merits attention. This does not mean that it calls for celebration, but rather for assessment and introspective reflection. Historical studies will no doubt wish to search for the female, First Nations, Francophone and visible minority elements in his career that must surely lurk below the surface (but do they?). But in noting, with relief, the aspects of his world that seem to have vanished, there will also be space to ask how far he lingers in the Canada of today. One of Mackenzie King's more charming exercises in self-delusion was his belief that he was a lifelong friend of Winston Churchill. The risk-taking warrior in fact had little in common with the human herbivore, but Churchill tolerated the fantasy as part of the vital wartime alliance with Canada. Nonetheless, King aroused Churchill's contempt when he remarked, on one occasion, that the great art of politics was to avoid making mistakes. It is not a particularly uplifting view of public life – and it was definitely not Churchill's – but it may tell us something about the quality of leadership that works in a country as diverse and complex as Canada. Prime Ministers who have led boldly from the front – I think of Borden, Trudeau and Mulroney – have sometimes succeeded, at least in part, but at the price of creating (or exposing) deep and maybe enduring communal and regional divisions. Mackenzie King may have been neither incredible nor detestable, and perhaps there is something of his political DNA that is still embedded in the nation that he led through almost thirty years.

Modest addendum. My own account of King's journeys through the netherworld, originally published as "Mackenzie King, the Medium and the Messages" [British Journal of Canadian Studies, iv (1989)] is available via For King's problems with the French language:

Ged Martin, Shanacoole, County Waterford                                                  December 17th 2022

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