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The King-Byng Affair

The Story

Canada had never seen anything like it. In 1926, Prime Minister Mackenzie King wanted to call an election to spare his scandal-gripped government an embarrassing vote in Parliament. He asked that Parliament be dissolved but the governor general, Lord Byng, said no. Instead, Byng invited the opposition Conservatives to replace King's Liberals as the government. As we see in this retrospective television clip, however, it was King who had the last laugh.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: June 27, 2004
Guest: James Laxer
Reporter: Leslie MacKinnon
Duration: 0:50
Photo: National Archives PA-030799, PA-126949

Did You know?

• Mackenzie King was elected prime minister with a minority government in 1921. He called an election in 1925, hoping to win a majority for the Liberals. Instead, the Conservative Party under Arthur Meighen won 116 seats compared to 101 for the Liberals.
• Despite the loss, King retained his grasp on power with support from the Progressive party, which had 24 seats. King's Liberals remained in power even though the Tories represented more ridings.
• A year later, King's Liberals were hit by scandal. The Customs and Excise minister, Jacques Bureau, promoted a known bootlegger to a senior ministry position during Prohibition in the United States. Bureau also protected customs officers accused by the RCMP of smuggling alcohol.
• King announced Bureau was stepping down because of ill health and immediately appointed him to the Senate.
• King was losing the support of the Progressives and facing a non-confidence vote that accused his government of corruption. It was to avoid that vote that King asked the governor general, Lord Byng, to dissolve Parliament. The Conservative government established at Byng's invitation lasted only five days before falling on a non-confidence vote.
• In the resulting election campaign, King accused Byng, the Queen's representative, of interfering in Canadian politics. Voters agreed and, ignoring the Customs scandal that sparked the row, elected 128 Liberals and Liberal-Progressives, compared to 91 Conservatives. King remained prime minister until 1930, was voted out and then back into office from 1935 to 1948.
• The politician who sparked the crisis, Jacques Bureau, remained a senator until his death in 1933.
• Sir Julian Hedworth George Byng was British but became a war hero commanding Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge in the First World War. After finishing his term as governor general in 1926, he moved back to England.
• The scandal and its aftermath paved the way for the Statute of Westminster in 1931 clarifying Canada's independence from Britain. By extension, it clarified the governor general's role as that of a figurehead while real political power rests in the hands of the prime minister and other elected officials.


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