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William Lyon Mackenzie King

William Lyon Mackenzie King
Date of Birth:December 17, 1874
Place of Birth:Kitchener, Ontario
Spouse:never married
Political Party:Liberal Party of Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie King (December 17, 1874 - July 22, 1950) was the tenth Prime Minister of Canada from December 29, 1921 to June 28, 1926, September 25, 1926 to August 7, 1930, and October 23, 1935 to November 15, 1948. He had the longest combined time in the Prime Minister position in British Commonwealth history. His 22 years as prime minister may be the all-time record for a freely elected head of government.

Early Life

Mackenzie King was born in Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener). A grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837, King held five university degrees. He obtained three from the University of Toronto: B.A. 1895, LL.B. 1896, and M.A. 1897. After studying at the University of Chicago, Mackenzie King proceeded to Harvard, receiving an M.A. Political Economy degree 1898 and a Ph.D. 1909.

He was first elected to Parliament as a Liberal in 1909. He lost his seat in 1911 and lost again in the election of 1917 due to his opposition to conscription (a view not shared by the majority of English Canadians). In 1919 he was re-elected and became the leader of the Liberal Party, a position he held until 1948. In the 1921 election his party defeated Arthur Meighen and the Conservatives and he became Prime Minister.

The "King-Byng" Affair

In his first term as Prime Minister he was opposed by the Progressive Party, who did not support trade tariffs. King called an election in 1925, in which the Conservatives won the most seats, but as they did not have a majority in the House of Commons King formed a government with the Progressives. Soon into his term, however, anwhile King was involved in a bribery scandal in the Ministry of Customs, which led to more support for the Conservatives and Progressives and the possibility that King would be forced to resign. King asked Governor General Lord Byng to dissolve Parliament and call another election, but Byng refused, one of the rare times in Canadian history that the Governor General has exercised such a power. As King no longer had a majority in Parliament, there was technically no Prime Minister. Byng asked Meighen to form a new government, but when Meighen called a new election in 1926 a short time later, King was re-elected and the Liberals returned to power.

Depression and War

In his second term he introduced old-age pensions, but he lost the election of 1930 to Richard Bedford Bennett. Unfortunately for Bennett, his government was in power during the beginning of the Great Depression, and King was re-elected once more in the 1935 election. The worst of the Depression had passed, and King implemented relief programs such as the National Housing Act and National Employment Commission, and also created the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1936 and Trans-Canada Airlines (the precursor to Air Canada) in 1937.

King hoped an outbreak of war in the 1930s could be avoided. He had met with Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler, who he said was a reasonable man that cared for his fellow man, working to improve his country in the midst of the Depression. He confined in his diary that he thought Hitler "might come to be thought of as one of the saviours of the world" and told a Jewish delegation that "Kristallnacht might turn out to be a blessing." Fortunately for those opposed to Nazi Germany, King realized the necessity of World War II when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, but unlike World War I when Canada was automatically at war as soon as Britain joined, King asserted Canadian independence by waiting until September 10 to declare war.

MacKenzie King's promise not to impose conscription greatly contributed to the Liberals' reelection in 1940. But after the fall of France in 1940, Canada introduced conscription for home service and only volunteers were to be sent overseas. King wanted to avoid a repeat of the Conscription Crisis of 1917. By 1942, the military were pressing King hard to send conscripts to Europe. In 1942 King held a national plebiscite on the issue asking the nation to relieve him of the commitment he had made during the election campaign. He fought the campaign on the motto of "conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription."

French Canadians, opposed to what they saw as a war for an empire that did not respect them, voted overwhelmingly against conscription, but the majority of English Canada supported it. For the next two years King tried to avoid the issue with a massive campaign to recruit volunteers, despite heavy losses in the Dieppe Raid in 1942, in Italy in 1943, and after the Battle of Normandy in 1944. At the end of 1944 he finally decided it was necessary to send conscripts to Europe. This led to a brief political crisis (see Conscription Crisis of 1944), but the war ended just a few months later. None of the conscripts ever saw combat.

Post-War Canada

Mackenzie King won the election of 1945, and began to introduce social programs such as unemployment insurance and universal health care. Although considered a minor player in the war by United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (despite hosting a wartime conference in Quebec City in 1943), King helped found the United Nations in 1945. In 1948 he retired after 22 years as Prime Minister, and was succeeded by Louis St. Laurent.

Personal Life

Mackenzie King was a cautious politician who tailored his policies to prevailing opinions. "Parliament will decide," he liked to say when pressed to act. Privately, he was highly eccentric with his preference for consulting spirits, including that of Leonardo da Vinci, Louis Pasteur, his dead mother and his dog, for political advice. He never married, but had a close female friend, Joan Patteson, a married woman, with whom he spent much of his leisure time. His country retreat at Kingsmere in Gatineau Park, Ottawa, is open to the public.

Mackenzie King died on July 22, 1950 at his home near Ottawa. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, Ontario. He is pictured on the Canadian fifty-dollar bill.


We had no shape
Because he never took sides;
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.
from F.R. Scott, "W.L.M.K."
William Lyon Mackenzie King
Sat in a corner and played with string,
Loved his mother like anything,
William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Dennis Lee, "William Lyon Mackenzie King"

Prime Minister of Canada
Preceded by:
Arthur Meighen
First leadership (1921-1926) Followed by:
Arthur Meighen
Preceded by:
Arthur Meighen
Second leadership (1926-1930) Followed by:
R.B. Bennett
Preceded by:
R.B. Bennett
Third leadership (1935-1948) Followed by:
Louis St. Laurent

Not to be confused with William Lyon Mackenzie, Mackenzie King's grandfather.