Canada’s Prime Ministers: Who Was The Greatest?



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Chevrier, J. “Canada’s Prime Ministers:
Who Was The Greatest?” The New Federation 4.4 (1995): 5-7.
Canada’s Prime Ministers: Who Was the Greatest?

by Jean Chevrier
Americans have a well-known propensity for looking at things from the standpoint of greatness. One noted Canadian historian has taken a similar approach in a unique and compelling appraisal of Canada’s ten most important prime ministers.

The author of Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (HarperCollins, 336 pages), Michael Bliss, well-known radio and TV commentator and University of Toronto history professor, never really tells us what his criteria were for selecting Mackenzie King and Pierre Elliot Trudeau as Canada’s greatest prime ministers. Not that Bliss’ choices are not valid ones or potentially the best ones. But he may have started a debate which could lead to further scrutiny. Like many other things, what makes for good leadership can often be in the eye of the beholder. After all, demagogues and tyrants have been known to govern effectively just as genuine democrats or enlightened statesmen.

King and Trudeau had much in common and much that set them apart. Both were adept in keeping the country together in times of crisis – King, during the Second World War, and Trudeau during the FLQ crisis and the referendum of 1980.

Who can forget King’s famous phrase, meant to appease Quebeckers, “Conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription.” Bliss refers to Margaret Trudeau’s memoirs in which Trudeau is quoted as saying that he would have sacrificed her and the children, if necessary, rather than give in to terrorism – “Once you do that, you’re lost.”

But King and Trudeau played politics by different rules. He who governs least, governs best, could have been King’s motto and he said as much in his diary – “the secret of governing well was in preventing things from happening.” But this caution, (his critics called it procrastination) was overshadowed by King’s social conscience. He was determined to give Canada its “cradle to the grave” welfare state ranging from family allowances to old age pensions. This had been a logical sequence to Industry and Humanity which he had written before entering politics. King argued that industry had to serve the needs of humanity, especially its workers. And at the end of his career King could say, “the rich and even the middle class may be upset, but at least the great numbers of people will see that I have been true to them from the beginning of my public life.”

King also fought for classic “separate sphere” federalism and would not have allowed himself to go over the heads of his fellow Premiers. He was particularly pleased to note in his diary that he had managed to obtain the consent of all provinces to amend the constitution, giving the federal government responsibility for unemployment insurance and old-age pensions.

By contrast Trudeau’s social conscience was firmly rooted in the individual, the fundamental necessary foundation of political life. From this sprang the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which has radically changed our society. He too wrote extensively, (in Le fédéralisme et la societé canadienne-française, for example, about the role of the state in a free and democratic society.) Ideologies such as nationalism were enemy No. 1 because they forced on society the notion of collective rights. In that sense Canadian federalism never had a more powerful champion.

Trudeau was also less deferential, more dictatorial and quite capable of locking horns with the provinces to get his way. Whereas King would not have acted without solid public support, Trudeau pushed through his Omnibus Bill, bilingualism and the National Energy Policy, without a clear consensus. Trudeau, it can be said, scored well when he confronted the nation and challenged it to choose new directions, even at the risk of castigating his opponents. He was unapologetic about repatriating the Constitution without Quebec’s consent; a decision which has left deep scars in the province and which has further fuelled separatism.

One of the great difficulties facing historians is to decide which is the better approach: to stand up to Quebec and hold strong to the idea of “One Canada,” as John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau did, or to accommodate Quebec and make exceptions, as Lester Pearson and Brian Mulroney were prepared to do. Only time will tell which was the better approach. In this long Quebec-Canada saga another verdict is likely to come with this fall’s referendum.

Some readers may wonder why Bliss has gratified King and Trudeau at the expense of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and chief architect of Confederation. This enterprise was anything but fool-proof and it took some daring policies on the tariff and a transcontinental railway to create a new east-west country next to the American giant.

There were many skeptics who believed that Canada was too much an artificial creation and that Macdonald’s vision exceeded his grasp. But the country endured and so did Canada’s constitution, the 1867 British North America Act, a masterpiece of political craftsmanship, which can be said to rival the American constitution for its architecture and durability. The chief virtue of our constitution is that it has been able to steer a middle course between the opposite poles of centralization and decentralization to meet changing realities.

As a leader, Macdonald had few equals. He used his “fascinating powers of conciliation” to bring together different colonies, the French and the English and leaders of different political stripes. Paradoxically, Bliss captures the essence of Macdonald’s genius (a combination of shrewdness and humanity) and gives us a striking account of his stewardship.

But Bliss stops short of crowning Macdonald, as most historians have done, for one overriding reason: ethics and transparency – a recurring theme in his book and one that bears repeating. Bliss shares the cynicism and contempt of many Canadians about politics and leadership. He is rightfully indignant of greed, patronage and corruption, which were rampant in the Macdonald era, particularly during the Pacific Scandal.

In our history books Sir Wilfrid Laurier lives in the shadow of John A. Macdonald, but there is a case to be made that Laurier’s achievements have been under-estimated and that he may have been Canada’s greatest prime minister. In many ways Laurier’s tenure was a make-or-break one for Canada. To a great extent the Macdonald-Cartier partnership had been a reflection of two different realities, or to use Lord Durham’s words “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.”

If Macdonald provided the infrastructure, Laurier gave the country its moral arsenal. He personified unity in a country that was torn by bitter racial conflicts (i.e. the Manitoba Schools Question and Regulation 17 in Ontario.) The Louis Riel execution following the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 had the potential to strike a fatal blow to a nation just a few years old. As a young Rouge (at times anti-British, anti-clerical and anti-Confederation), Laurier, a powerful orator, was able to assuage the anger and passion of Quebec nationalists, an advantage later denied St. Laurent or Trudeau.

Henri Bourrassa would later take the nationalist element under his wing and help to defeat Laurier in the 1911 election. Laurier’s own career path would come full circle as he became a staunch defender of the Commonwealth and the British monarchy.

While Bliss captures the essential elements of Laurier’s role as a peacemaker and mediator between Protestants and Catholics and English and French Canadians, other aspects of Laurier’s achievements are less well accounted for.

Laurier was a leader ahead of his time. Much has been made of his statement that the twentieth century would belong to Canada, but he had ample reason to be optimistic. Today, as a member of the G7 industrialized countries, Canada has grown immeasurably. Laurier himself presided over the greatest period of prosperity and growth the country had ever seen. He had taken steps to make his prophecy become a reality when he successfully negotiated a free trade treaty with the Americans, only to see Parliament fail to ratify it.

His critics believed that the nation was too young to withstand the rigours of free trade, but Canada could have entered the new century ahead of the Europeans.

Laurier was also a precursor of the new reality of multiculturalism. He opened up the West to large-scale immigration with a definite objective in mind: that the country’s population would grow from six million to “soon” become “twenty-five million, yes forty million.” He saw the English, the French and the immigrant as part of a three dimensional world – in sharp contrast to the US melting pot. Out of these elements, “the marble, the granite and the oak,” he would make Canada “one of the great nations of the world.” When measured against the realities of a modern, goal-oriented, multicultural society, Laurier’s policies touched the right chords, successfully engineering Canada’s transition into the twentieth century.

Laurier resembled Trudeau. Both were charismatic figures who inspired their generations but Laurier may have been the more well-rounded politician. Certainly he was better at managing the economy. Trudeau left the country with a $32 billion deficit when he retired in 1983. Bliss tells us, on the other hand, that King was parsimonious, and that he would be extremely critical of his ministers who spent too much.

Brian Mulroney’s contribution to Canadian history presents more of an enigma. Was Mulroney one of our worst prime ministers, as Bliss seems to imply? Certainly there are powerful arguments to support this thesis: his responsibility for causing the near-extinction of his party; and what could be described as his godfather image, around which revolved the darker side of politics—manipulation, back-room dealings, and excessive patronage.

Bliss can be given to making extreme comments. Mulroney he says, was “born to be a lieutenant, not a general.” Of Mackenzie King he wrote, “if he had been born in the United States, he could have gone all the way to the presidency,” King was a lack-lustre individual and a poor speaker, hardly the type that American’s would have elected as their President. Mulroney, while Canada’s most unpopular prime minister, was an exceedingly good general who led his troops to unprecedented back-to-back majority victories and single-handedly resurrected his party in Quebec.

History will, certainly, note Mulroney’s efforts to bring Canada into the 21st century and compete in the global market place. His policies on free trade, deregulation, privatization, and on reducing the deficit may have been unpopular but they were right for the times. More questionable was his decision to re-open the constitutional debate. Time will tell if Meech Lake and Charlottetown were stepping stones to Canada’s reorganization as a nation, or if they were largely wasted efforts.

In the end, his rehabilitation in the eyes of history may rest on whether his party can again become a national force, thereby absolving Mulroney of his fatal mistake of not leaving earlier, when all signs pointed to a reckoning with the Canadian people.

With his book, Bliss opens a new chapter in the writing of our history – giving the reader splendid character sketches of our prime ministers coupled with vivid descriptions of events and policies which characterized each period. It is accessible, entertaining and highly instructive. Some interesting observations can be made. Party politics matter less than policies which for the most part, have been chosen to meet changing times. And both Liberals and Conservatives have been on both sides of many issues – free trade, renewed federalism, abortion and balanced budgets.

What matters more is the ability of our prime ministers to develop our national consciousness and project Canada as a special haven, a place of destiny. At least those who did struck a responsive chord with Canadians, (e.g., Diefenbaker’s northern vision, Pearson’s Canadian flag, Clarke’s “community of communities”, Trudeau’s Charter). And those who did not, like Meighen and Bennett, did not keep pace with public expectations and consequently had their careers shortened.

The book’s subtitle, Descent into Canadian Politics, is unfortunate to the extent that it downplays the role of our prime ministers. Many of them stood tall in the face of adversity and defied the odds when they had to. Some examples stand out: Louis St. Laurent standing before Parliament during the Suez crisis denouncing the super powers, France and England, because, as he put it, “the smaller countries of the world had rights too;” Lester Pearson going to Washington to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s policy in Vietnam; Diefenbaker defying Kennedy and refusing nuclear warheads on Canadian soil; Robert Borden embarking on a bold new twentieth-century progressive course with his 1909 Halifax platform; and Richard Bennett showing resilience when he proposed a Canada-made New Deal to fight the Great Depression.



There is something to the old cliché that our prime ministers built better than they knew. It can be argued that Canada should not have existed. There were too many forces pulling in opposite directions – geography, cultural makeup, US domination – and now, globalization.
Jean Chevrier is Editor of The New Federation and a former professor of Canadian political history.


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