The Legacy of William Lyon Mackenzie King In Canada

Roundup: Talking About History

J.D.M. Stewart, Ottawa Citizen, 17 Nov. 2004

When the Bank of Canada unveiled its new $50 bill last month, it seemed that the so-called Famous Five got all of the attention. Today, as the bill finally goes into circulation, perhaps it is the person on the front of the bill who we should be noticing: William Lyon Mackenzie King.

When most Canadians think of Mackenzie King -- if they do at all -- it is usually about his crystal balls, his obsession with his mother, or his dog, Pat.

The basis for all this was King's voluminous diaries, which first entered the consciousness of the public in a meaningful way with the publication in 1976 of A Very Double Life, by C.P. Stacey, one of Canada's greatest historians.

Today, anyone with Internet access can read all 50,000 pages of King's diary online at the National Archives website located at . The site is easily navigable, and the perusal of any page provides for some of the most fascinating reading in Canadian history.

For instance, on May 7, 1945, just before the prime minister was informed of the German surrender in the Second World War, King had had a vision of capturing two white rabbits on a train. These, he later surmised, were symbolic of the German surrender to the Americans and Soviets.

And if you are reading this article at, say, 7:35 or 6:30, Mackenzie King would be very impressed, because he was obsessed by the position of the hands on a clock; when they were in alignment, timing was propitious and King made note of this almost daily.

King did, indeed, lead what he himself called"a very double life," but it would be a shame if that were all that Canadians knew of the man who was Canada's prime minister for 21 years between 1921-1948, including the crucial years of the Second World War (Conservative R.B. Bennett was prime minister from 1930-35).

King's fingerprints are everywhere in the Canadian political landscape of today.

It was King, after all, who took this country down the inexorable road to continentalism, while at the same time weaning the country from the British teat. He played a part in the 1926 Imperial Conference that resulted in the Balfour Declaration, defining Canada and the other"Dominions" -- Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State -- as"autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate."

Continental trade and defence agreements were signed between Canada and the United States during his reign and King actually came very close to signing a comprehensive free-trade deal with the Americans before backing off at the last minute in 1948. Forty years later, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney closed the deal.

And while King was wary of the Americans, fearing their ultimate goal was domination of the continent, he nonetheless developed a trusting but deferential relationship with the U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt, visiting him no less than 18 times during their years in office. King was the first prime minister to host an American president on Canadian soil when FDR came to Quebec City in 1936.

It is hard not to see the spirit of King's equivocating in our current and former prime ministers. His most famous line," conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription," has become the extended metaphor of all prime ministers.

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