Did you know that William Lyon Mackenzie King, more commonly known as Mackenzie King, represented the York North electoral district, which included Aurora and Newmarket, in the House of Commons from 1908 to 1911 and again from 1919 to 1948?
King would serve as our Member of Parliament (MP) while he also held various cabinet positions, eventually becoming the prime minister of Canada. King would serve as prime minister for 21 years, making him the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history.
In this article I shall lay out some of key details about his life and career: This will be a two-parter, but I think that he warrants two articles as he was both our federal representative and the protégé of Sir William Mulock.
Mackenzie King was born on Dec. 17, 1874, in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener). He would study economics and political science at the University of Toronto and later would earn a master's degree in economics from Harvard University. It was while he was a student at U of T that he came to the attention of Mulock, who took the young man under his wing and made his local federal seat available to King.
King would begin his political career as a civil servant, working in various government positions. He served as Canada's first deputy minister of Labour under Mulock and was immersed in various labour negotiations and mediation. He would become the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1919, leading the Liberals through multiple elections and serving three non-consecutive terms: 1921 to 1926, in 1926 (briefly), and 1935 to 1948.
As prime minister, King would be part of several significant policy initiatives, including the establishment of the old age pension, unemployment insurance, and the establishment of Trans-Canada Air Lines (Air Canada). He also, of course, was a key player in Canada's involvement in the Second World War.
So what leadership style was he known for? King was known as cautious and pragmatic, a skilled negotiator, choosing to seek consensus and compromise in politically challenging situations.
Many Canadians remember that King showed a keen interest in spiritualism and claimed to communicate with the spirits of deceased individuals, including his mother and dog while making many key national decisions. This interest in the supernatural would become a subject of some controversy during his time in office and make him an intriguing character in our history.
Mackenzie King's legacy has proven to be rather complex one for historians.
Remembered primarily as a long-serving prime minister who did guide Canada through some challenging times, his cautious approach to leadership and, of course, his personal idiosyncrasies have been the subject of historical debate over the years.
King completed his final term as prime minister in 1948 and retired from politics that same year and would pass away on July 22, 1950 in Ottawa.
Historians are still contemplating the nature of his enduring impact on Canada's political landscape and significant contributions to the social and economic policies we continue to enjoy today.
King, during his lifetime was a journalist, civil servant, author, labour conciliator and politician. He was the leader of the Liberal Party for 29 years through our rapid expansion of the 1920s, the Depression of the 1930s, the shock of the Second World War, and our post-war reconstruction, and for 21 of these years he was Canada’s prime minister.
There is little doubt of his contribution in shaping Canada and to its development as an influential middle power in world affairs. After his death, his political career was sometimes overshadowed by the revelation of his unsuspected personal idiosyncrasies.
King’s mother, Isabel Mackenzie, was the daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie of 1837 Rebellion fame, born in the U.S. during her father’s exile. It was said that King was a good student, active in debates and sports, popular among his peers, and trusted by his elders.
King’s social activism has its roots in his early life. After a summer stint as a journalist, writing articles for the Toronto Globe on local sweatshops, he would began work at Harvard on a doctoral thesis on labour conditions in the clothing industry.
In June 1900, he received a telegram from William Mulock, Canada’s postmaster general who was also responsible for the newly formed Department of Labour. It seems King had already come to Mulock’s attention and Mulock offered King the editorship of the proposed Labour Gazette.
King yielded to family pressure, seeing an opportunity for greater financial security, and an opportunity for public service, and accepted the job. He would arrive in Ottawa in late July 1900 and the following month Mulock also offered him the position of deputy minister of labour, which he formally took up on Sept. 15 of that year.
It would turn out to be a crucial time in the development of industrial relations. The early years of the 20th century found the conflict between labour and capital irrepressible. At the time, violence seemed to be the only effective response. King saw the Labour Gazette as an important contribution to labour relations. Earning a reputation for being non-partisan, the Gazette soon became a respected reference for labour discussions.
King was soon writing speeches for his minister that associated Mulock and the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier with a policy of fair wages for its employees. King offered his services to employers and workers in the settlement of strikes and lockouts with remarkable results, devising compromises that both sides could accept.
King’s successes in conciliation led to the government’s calling on him to troubleshoot a wide range of problems. He served on royal commissions dealing with industrial conflicts in British Columbia (1903), at Bell Telephone in Toronto (1907), and in the cotton industry in Quebec (1908), and with the problem of compensation to Japanese and Chinese residents arising out of riots in Vancouver (1907 to 1908). He even undertook a quasi-diplomatic mission to London, England, to convey the concerns of American president Theodore Roosevelt and the Canadian government on the issue of Japanese immigration to North America.
These were major responsibilities for a civil servant, but King still found it frustrating not to have any power to make political decisions. This would lead him on Sept. 21, 1908 to resign as deputy minister to devote his talents to active politics.
In the federal election of October 1908, King became the Liberal candidate in the riding of Waterloo North, which he won by a small margin. On June 2, 1909, Laurier appointed him minister of Labour. He would introduce the Combines Investigation Act of 1910, which essentially established legislation to investigate alleged restraints of trade or price manipulation and authorized fines for those operating contrary to the public interest. He also pushed the need for a bill for an eight-hour day, however his legislative activity was interrupted by the federal election of September 1911. The government was defeated, and King lost his seat.
To earn his living he gave speeches, wrote political articles and pamphlets, and ran the Liberal Party’s new central information office in Ottawa, a job that included editing the Canadian Liberal Monthly.
He had gained the Liberal nomination for York North in 1913, but he spent little time in our riding. In 1917, during the First World War, Sir Robert Borden, the Conservative prime minister, opted for a policy of conscription for overseas service.
King tried to avoid taking a position but when Laurier insisted on opposing conscription, he accepted the party line. In the federal election of 1917, the newly formed Union government, which included Conservatives and conscriptionist Liberals, won a sweeping majority, with the opposition Liberals taking most of their seats in Quebec, while in York North, King failed to get elected.
Laurier died in February 1919, and the Liberal Party held a leadership convention. King found himself with the advantage of being young and energetic, as well as a recognized expert on the disturbing social and industrial questions of the day. On Aug. 7, he was chosen leader of the party.
The Liberal Party that had chosen King as its leader was deeply divided. King needed to construct a majority party in a divided country. King wanted to get into the House of Commons as soon as possible and so he chose a sure seat in Prince Edward Island, where he was acclaimed in October 1919.
The election of December 1921, which was the first in which all women could vote, brought the Liberals victory with a bare majority; enjoying representation from every province except Alberta, they could claim to be the only national party.
Electoral results in October 1925 constituted a major setback for King as the Conservatives took power in a minority government and King lost his seat along with eight other cabinet ministers. King was confident that the Progressives would support his government rather than see it replaced by the Conservatives, so he decided to attempt to retain power.
He retained power a few tense months as the Progressives had supported the throne speech of Jan. 8, 1926 and then the Liberal budget in April. King would also win the support of the two Labour MPs by introducing a bill for old age pensions. King himself would return to the Commons after a byelection in Prince Albert, Sask. on Feb.15 and the Liberal government seemed likely to survive the session. It even seemed possible that it could survive one or two more.
The election of September 1926 would prove decisive for King’s career. King argued that the Liberal’s constitutional rights had been usurped in 1925 and in the election of 1926 the Liberals won 116 seats and, with the support of 10 Liberal-Progressives, won a clear majority. King himself retained his seat in Prince Albert.
To be continued in part 2.
Sources: William Lyon Mackenzie King by H. Blair Neatby Canadian Encyclopedia; William Lyon MacKenzie King by H. Blair Neatby, Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life by Christopher Dummitt; Political Life of William Lyon Mackenzie King - Laurier House National Historic Site; Toronto Star and Newmarket Era.
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.