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REMEMBER THIS: Post-war, Cold War politics challenged Mackenzie King

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod continues the story of the Newmarket and area MP who became prime minister, after the Second World War and during the Cold War

This is the second in a two-part series about William Lyon Mackenzie King, picking up where part one left off .

The local MPP King became the leader of the federal Liberal Party and, subsequently, prime minister. His career began when he was noticed and nurtured by Sir William Mulock, who pushed King to enter federal politics and assume his seat locally.

As we resume our story, it is 1926 and King has won a majority government. The next few years were good ones to be in office as the Canadian economy continued to expand. Later in the decade, there were signs of the economic grief lying ahead, but King remained optimistic.

King attended the Imperial Conference of 1926, which attempted to define the nature of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

He believed ethnic ties and a common political heritage were powerful bonds. However, Canada’s independence from the Commonwealth was a necessity for him.

Back in Canada, at the Dominion-Provincial Conference of 1927, King attempted to deal with continuing regional dissatisfaction, as various premiers stepped forward with regional grievances. King would need to use his considerable conciliatory skills, and it was felt the episode signalled the end of a long era of nation building.

King reintroduced old age pensions after the 1926 election and did not follow it up with any other measures of social security for individuals in what was an increasingly urban and industrial Canada. He chose instead to reduce the debt and, in 1927-28, he lowered the sales and income taxes.

Internationally, he agreed to help the United States enforce Prohibition, making it more difficult to smuggle Canadian liquor into the States.

King appeared to be unaware of the onset of the worldwide depression of the 1930s, believing we were merely experiencing a temporary recession.

The prime minister spent the early part of 1930 planning for the next election, still confident voters would appreciate his frugal financial policy given the economic downturn. This resulted in a Conservative majority government, and King spent the next five years in Opposition.

King was then 55, a confirmed bachelor with few interests outside of politics. Today, we would call him a recluse. His biographer calls him a lonely man, politics not being enough to fill his life completely. He had a sibling, Janet (Jennie) Lindsey Lay, who lived in Barrie, but they were not close. As the leader of the party, he chose to keep himself at arm’s length from colleagues.

Pat, his Irish terrier, who he was said to have talked to after its death, was his most important companion. King found emotional support in his beliefs in the spiritual world, according to entries in his diary. His faith that his family, especially his mother, and others were somehow still watching over him became more important as time passed. He regularly saw coincidences as signs of their presence and interpreted his dreams as evidence of their affection and support.

This faith was not unique, but his need for signs from the spirit world gradually led him to seek confirmation in more eccentric ways. He was intrigued by forecasts of the future based on tea leaves and his horoscope, he consulted a fortune teller and, during his years in Opposition, when he had more leisure time, he tried to contact the spirit world through other means, including the Ouija board and sessions with a medium.

Those close to him stated he did not seek their political advice; his political decisions being based on his own analysis of situations.

He was embroiled during the 1930 election in allegations of corruption in connection with a scheme to divert water from the St. Lawrence River into the Beauharnois Canal near Montreal to develop hydroelectric power. In March 1929, the King government had authorized the diversion.

However, evidence was presented that money had been funnelled into the Liberal campaign fund of 1930 and that King had gone on a holiday to Bermuda with Wilfrid Laurier McDougald, chair of the Beauharnois board. Between June 1931 and April 1932, committees of the Commons and the Senate investigated the many related allegations, but King managed to have his name cleared.

The R.B. Bennett Conservative government began to experience national economic issues mainly due to changing economic realities. King proved to be an effective Opposition leader. The Depression was of unprecedented severity in Canada, but he kept the Liberals together, the Conservative party disintegrated, and new political parties (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) emerged to compete for votes.

King saw little need to reconsider or revise his political assumptions, confident his policies would prove correct. Within five years, he was back in power, with the Liberals returning with 173 seats, the largest majority on record, with members from every province.

The next four years proved difficult for the country and for King. As 1937 saw another economic downturn, regional grievances fed on the frustrations arising from these setbacks, and the government again became a popular target. Divisions within the Liberal party, reflecting regional rivalries, were compounded by a series of international crises that threatened to involve Canada in the European war.

The Liberal government had to decide on its international obligations as a member of the League of Nations. Canada’s foreign policy had long been mainly confined to its relations with Britain and the United States. However, King’s government was now faced with a request from the League to impose economic sanctions on Italy because it had invaded Ethiopia.

The cabinet agreed to apply sanctions, but it was clear to King that if the League went on to propose military intervention, the cabinet and the country would be deeply divided. King, nevertheless, learned an important lesson: Membership in the League might have serious political consequences for Canada. He took steps to minimize the risk.

Though he affirmed in the Commons, and later in Geneva, his support for the League as a necessary institution for the resolution of disputes, he bluntly rejected the idea of the League as a military alliance against aggressors. Canada, he told the League’s Assembly in 1936, did not support “automatic commitments to the use of force.”

Editorials in much of the Canadian press applauded King’s political faith in non-intervention, and his fear of domestic division can be seen, too, in his decision to distance Canada from the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and his refusal to modify Canadian immigration regulations to admit European Jewish refugees.

In the coming weeks, I will write a column looking at Canada’s war years under King. We shall jump ahead to post-war Canada, where we still find a King government in power.

The end of the war in Europe in May 1945 and in the Pacific in August brought new concerns, with King and his government planning for a post-war world. The closure of munitions plants and return of almost a million members of the armed services to civilian life would be enormously disruptive and memories of the Depression were still on everyone’s mind. The government was credited with an efficient administration during the war and so many Canadians looked to it to provide economic security during this transition to a peacetime economy.

King’s response was an accelerated shift to the left with the introduction of unemployment insurance. In 1945, the government favoured an increase in public expenditures, creating jobs and instituting family allowances and other social measures.

We know from his writings that King had misgivings about an expanded government role in our social welfare net, still fearing government deficits. Was it the political pressure on the Liberals to compete with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation that prompted King’s change of mind or was this always his focus?

King introduced family allowances and, for the election of June 1945, he campaigned on a broad program of social security. Still plagued with the legacy of conscription, this new social program was enough to produce a narrow Liberal victory.

I think it is correct to say King did not adapt easily to a post-war world. He attended the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in April and June 1945 but played a minor role. He foresaw the major powers would dominate the UN, arguing for a “functional principle” that would give middle powers like Canada an influence based on their contributions to the settlement of disputes.

Later in the year, he had to face the implications of a divided world when Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, revealed Soviet spying in Canada. King was too realistic to believe Canada could isolate itself from the Cold War, but he continued to be ill at ease with the demands made on Canada for the defence of North America and Western Europe.

King was dubious about these new international commitments, feeling foreign entanglements would limit Canadian autonomy. Even closer relations with the United States left King concerned at the risk of falling into a new imperial orbit. This led him in September 1946 to transfer the external affairs portfolio to Louis St. Laurent.

King was no more at ease in domestic politics. His skills as a conciliator were still valuable, but policy initiatives came from his ministers and, more commonly, from the bureaucracy. The pent-up demands for housing and consumer goods facilitated a quick transition to a peacetime economy and full employment.

The burden of politics affected King’s health. Tired out, he told St. Laurent in May 1948 he could not face another campaign. He resigned as party leader in August and as prime minister on Nov. 15, succeeded by St. Laurent.

King had planned to write his memoirs, but he found it too exhausting to recall the stresses of his political career, so his papers were still being organized when he died at Kingsmere on July 22, 1950. He was buried in the family plot at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

King had created a government that reflected the diverse regional, economic and ethnic interests of the country. Historians do not depict him as a dynamic figure, but as a leader who had the qualities needed for the time, enabling domestic stability and strong leadership in international affairs.

Sources: W.L. Mackenzie King: A Bibliography and Research Guide, by G. F. Henderson; William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Political Biography, King’s official biography, by R.M. Dawson and H.B. Neatby; Canada’s War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939-1945, by J.L. Granatstein; The Fall and Rise of Mackenzie King: 1911-1919, by F.A. McGregor; William Lyon Mackenzie King, by H. Blair Neatby, Canadian Encyclopedia article; William Lyon Mackenzie King, by H. Blair Neatby, Dictionary of Canadian Biography article; Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life, by Christopher Dummitt; The Political Life of William Lyon Mackenzie King — Laurier House National Historic Site — Government of Canada website; The Toronto Star and the 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.