CBC Digital Archives CBC butterfly logo

CBC Archives has a new look: Please go to cbc.ca/archives to access the new site.

The page you are looking at will not be updated.

Is Mackenzie King the best PM in history?

The Story

Mackenzie King is Canada's greatest prime minister ever - at least according to the 1999 book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders by historians Jack Granatstein and Norman Hillmer. But in this clip from CBC Radio's Talking Books, all three panellists would beg to differ. Lawyer T. Sher Singh, writer/broadcaster Bill Roe and Senator Pat Carney all seem prefer John A. Macdonald or Wilfrid Laurier. They believe Mackenzie King had too many flaws to be ranked #1. The three panellists cite a wide range of King's shortcomings. These run the gamut from his participation in séances and his tendency to delay decision-making, to his bad breath and cold demeanour. And when Roe calls King "a bit of a bigot," Singh respond with a laugh: "A bit?" Singh then derides King for the way he dealt with Jewish, Italian, Japanese and Indian immigrants.

Medium: Radio
Program: Talking Books
Broadcast Date: July 2, 2000
Guest(s): Pat Carney, Bill Roe, T. Sher Singh
Host: Ian Brown
Duration: 6:59

Did You know?

• Jack Granatstein and Norman Hilmer first published their ranked list of prime ministers in Maclean's magazine in 1997. Their book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders was then published in 1999. The rankings were compiled with the input of 25 leading Canadian historians.
• The top three prime ministers in the ranking were: 1) William Lyon Mackenzie King; 2) Sir John A. Macdonald; and 3) Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
• The bottom three were John Turner, Sir Mackenzie Bowell and Kim Campbell.

• The reasons for Mackenzie King being chosen as #1 included:
• his masterful finessing of the conscription question, which helped Canada avoid a potentially destructive crisis in unity
• his contribution to asserting Canada's autonomy as a country within the Commonwealth
• his implementation of social programs -- old age pensions, unemployment insurance and family allowances -- that would be the foundation of Canada's social safety net

• Granatstein and Hillmer addressed King's personality quirks, but said that enough time has passed that people can now judge him on his performance as Canada's longest-serving leader. "King the man remains as difficult to like as ever, but his political leadership skills, his brilliant decisiveness in a crises, and his vision of an independent Canada command admiration. No one can rule a nation as disparate as Canada for so long without talents of a high order, and King's place at last is being properly recognized."

• As T. Sher Singh and Bill Roe pointed out, King's immigration policies often revealed racist attitudes (many of which were quite common to Canadians at the time). Some of this was related to his interest in keeping labour relations conflict-free. During his early years in the Department of Labour, for example, he discouraged Japanese, Chinese and Indian immigration to Canada on the grounds that bringing in cheap "foreign" labour would add to industrial conflict.

• Based on King's findings, the "continuous journey regulation" was added to the Immigration Act in 1908. This regulation meant that all potential immigrants had to travel to Canada by "continuous passage" from their country of origin (or citizenship) on a through-ticket purchased in their home country. Since no shipping company provided direct service from India to Canada, this was nothing more than a thinly veiled way to ban all Indian immigration to Canada.

• King has also been heavily criticized for his unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees into Canada in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. Once again, this appeared to come from a mix of racist attitudes and a fear of disturbing Canada's internal stability. "My own feeling is that there is nothing to be gained by creating an internal problem in an effort to meet an international one," King wrote in a 1938 diary entry on the topic.

• At the prospect of admitting Jewish refugees, King also wrote in his diary in 1938: "We must nevertheless seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood, as much the same thing as lies at the basis of the Oriental problem. I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews."

• After Canada declared war on Italy during the Second World War in 1940, King interned hundreds of Italian Canadians who were classified as "enemy aliens." Later, in a much more sweeping application of the War Measures Act, King's government interned approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in the United States in 1941.


Mackenzie King: Public Life, Private Man more