Maclean's

April 21, 1997

Historians rank the BEST AND WORST Canadian Prime Ministers

By Norman Hillmer and J. L. Granatstein

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WILLIAM LYON MACKENZIE KING:

"He was, after all the spiritualist and other jokes about his private life, our greatest prime minister. He tried to understand the country, he was capable of intellectual flexibility and change, and he attracted and held able colleagues. He was an intellectual who was sympathetic to ideas--our first!"

--Patrick Brennan, assistant professor of history, University of Calgary  

Canada is on the verge of an election, and this will likely be the last opportunity Canadians have to vote nationally in the 20th century that was supposed to belong to them. The polls suggest that Jean Chrétien and his Liberals will be re-elected. History suggests it, too, because Canadian prime ministers last a long time, if they last at all. Since 1867, our leaders who served more than a few months have averaged eight years in office; four were in power for 15 years or more. From this perspective, Chrétien might even expect a third term.

But if longevity is assured, reputation is not. It is too soon to say with any certainty how Chrétien will be remembered, especially when he will probably have another chance to make an impression on the public and historical imagination. Will he be inscribed in the history books as the leader who reconciled Canada and Quebec, or as the man who presided over the destruction of Confederation? Will historians write of him as the strong hand that put Canada's fiscal house in order, or write him off for fudging his promise to eliminate the GST and weakening social programs? Will he rank as a great or average prime minister, or just one of those forgettable figures who are scarcely known to anyone but a few scholars who specialize in forlorn hopes? How will Chrétien be ranked by the historians? How will he compare with his predecessors?

In February, 1997, we asked 25 scholars, all specialists in Canada's political history and many of them prime ministerial biographers or authors of major books, to rank Chrétien and all his 19 predecessors on a scale from 0 to 10, from utter failure to greatness. The precise criteria to be employed were not stipulated; the historians could judge as they chose. We did say "that such factors as electoral success, national unity, success in achieving domestic or foreign policy goals, and leadership in cabinet, party, and country must be considered."

The survey results are revealed in these pages. In the collective judgment of our panel of scholars, the greatest prime minister Canada has produced was William Lyon Mackenzie King, with John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier placing second and third. Our very worst prime minister? Kim Campbell, who led the Tories to their current low estate.


THE RANKING

Great:
1.William Lyon Mackenzie King
2. Sir John A. Macdonald
3. Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Near-Great:
4. Louis Saint-Laurent

High-Average:
5. Pierre Elliott Trudeau
6. Lester Pearson
7. Sir Robert Borden

Average:
8. Brian Mulroney
9. Jean Chrétien
10. Sir John Thompson
11. Alexander Mackenzie
12. R.B. Bennett
13. John Diefenbaker

Low-Average:
14. Arthur Meighen
15. Joe Clark

Failure:
16. Sir Charles Tupper
17. Sir John Abbott
18. John Turner
19. Sir Mackenzie Bowell
20. Kim Campbell


Greatness or failure depends on a host of factors, not least a combination of character and circumstance--and chance. King fortuitously lost power in 1930 and missed the worst of the Depression until his restoration in 1935; his greatest years in office lay ahead of him. Nor is decisive action any guarantee of success. Macdonald's boldness in building the Canadian Pacific Railway and bringing British Columbia into Confederation, although it was separated by hundreds of kilometres of all but uninhabited prairie from the rest of Canada, is frequently seen as demonstrating his greatness. By contrast, Pierre Trudeau's handling of the October Crisis in 1970, Joe Clark's attempt to raise energy taxes in 1979, and Brian Mulroney's initiation of the Meech Lake accord were daring moves, but all remain, at the least, controversial.

The scholars thus found their task tougher than they had expected. All were well aware of what University of Saskatchewan political scientist David Smith called "the matter of reverse perspective: characters growing larger the farther one is from them." Smith also argued that Canada's prime ministers have very little in common. "Rather than being a set of equals," he said, "they are actually unequal and therefore comparisons are probably invidious." Carleton University's Blair Neatby responded, however, that "we are not comparing apples and oranges. They were all leaders of political parties and that has meant achieving party unity in the face of strong regional loyalties. They were all trying to govern a country notable for the tensions thrown up by a precarious national sentiment, a powerful and not always sympathetic neighbor, and cultural duality."

No one felt comfortable about ranking the short-term prime ministers who served only a few months. Some considered these to be failures by definition and dismissed them at once with a zero or one; others found it all but impossible to rate them and left leaders like Sir John Abbott, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, John Turner and Campbell unranked. It was also obvious that a lesser figure who had been the subject of a fine, modern full-length biography--Sir John Thompson, one of Macdonald's successors in the early 1890s who died after only two years in office--was better placed as a result. Prime ministers like Macdonald, King or Lester Pearson, the subjects of big, favorable biographies, also ranked well. Historian (and Liberal member of Parliament) John English's two-volume study of Pearson, the standard by which prime ministerial biography is now judged in Canada, almost certainly helped his man in the rankings. To get praise or condemnation in Michael Bliss's influential Right Honourable Men, a 1994 best-selling survey of prime ministers from Macdonald to Mulroney, surely also affected ratings.

[Photo: Macdonald]

SIR JOHN A. MACDONALD:

"Having defined the role of prime minister, Macdonald excelled at it. All succeeding prime ministers walk in his shadow. The Riel tragedy, the CPR scandal and the moribund National Policy are the singular failures of a career whose success was to define modern Canada."

--David Smith, professor of political science, University of Saskatchewan

Among the 25 historians were five young scholars, but there were no generational variations in the ratings--young and old were all but indistinguishable. So too were rankings by women and men historians and, although there were minor regional variations, nothing led us to conclude that Maritimers or Quebecers reacted one way and westerners another.

As the completed questionnaires poured in, it became clear what characteristics historians valued in a leader. They looked for a coherent vision of the country and well-articulated goals in domestic and foreign policy. They expected a solid record of achievement, not least in getting elected and staying in power. They sought leaders--of cabinet, of party, of country. For most, national unity, confronting and overcoming Canada's geographic and linguistic divisions, was the decisive factor in determining a prime minister's ranking. Failure here made relegation to the prime ministerial boneyard all but certain. Not surprisingly, as a result, Liberal leaders tended to rank higher. Under Laurier, King, Louis Saint-Laurent and their successors, the Liberal party has paid more attention to Quebec in this century than the Conservatives. Historians paid attention, too.

Laurier was the historians' sentimental favorite. The first French-speaking prime minister, Sir Wilfrid was courtly, a superb orator in both languages who devoted his life to trying to bring Canadians together with the perfect compromise. A sly old fox as a politician, although one who created a huge debt from a railway policy based on a combination of optimism and ignorance, Laurier almost always received high marks for his combination of intellect, charm and vision that gave tone to his performance from 1896 to 1911. "He undertook the challenge of leading a nation as much divided as united," commented Francine McKenzie of the University of Toronto. His most recent biographer, Réal Bélanger of Université Laval, added that Laurier's "vision of Canadian reality and his leadership gave his country the push forward and the confidence it needed at a critical moment in its history."

The same can easily be said of Macdonald, another of the Greats, though the academic affection is less for "Old Tomorrow," the nation's first prime minister. The creator of his country and one of the longest-ruling prime ministers, he set the pattern for Canadian political leadership. Shrewd, amiable even though weighed down with personal grief, Sir John A. used his abundant wiles, endless resources of patronage, clear good sense and unstoppable energy to build the institutions of government and forms of party politics that still survive. He brought in new provinces, instituted the National Policy of tariff protection and western settlement, and won election after election; "alas," wrote Patricia Roy of the University of Victoria, "he failed to keep French Canada happy and left no clear heir." Dennis Stairs, the Dalhousie University political scientist, called John A. a "bit of a rascal, but he understood power--how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it."

Leaders fortunate enough to preside over boom times also scored well, the assessment reflecting the view that some credit had to be given to the government that managed the economy. This tended to benefit Laurier and also Saint-Laurent, who ranked fourth overall and was the sole prime minister to rank as a Near-Great. Angelika Sauer of the University of Winnipeg gave Saint-Laurent credit for moving the country "with dignity through the early Cold War" and for continuing our transformation into "a fairer, kinder society." Highly intelligent, decisive, a good performer in two of his three elections, Saint-Laurent governed so effortlessly through the 1950s that some contemporaries--and a few historians--tended to downgrade him. With his able cabinet behind him, Saint-Laurent made government look so easy, his aide J. W. Pickersgill used to say, that Canadians thought anyone could do it--and that explains why they elected John Diefenbaker in 1957, the first Tory to take office in 22 years.

The Chief's powerful skill as a campaigner and his vision of "One Canada" were praised, but University of Calgary historian David Bercuson labelled him "Canada's Richard Nixon, the perpetual outsider." Diefenbaker's personal and political failings, and his falling into fights with American President John F. Kennedy, led historians to rank him 13th out of the 20 prime ministers--at the very bottom of the Average category. "Inspirational but too headstrong," was the thumbnail characterization offered by the University of Ottawa's Jeffrey Keshen.

Wartime service as prime minister created opportunities but also increased dangers. Sir Robert Borden, the First World War leader, was favored by some assessors for his rock-solid character, his British Empire diplomacy and for his reform of the civil service. Others disliked his failure to keep French- and English-Canadians aligned and for his bargains with the devils of Bay Street and Quebec nationalists in the 1911 free trade election, which brought him victory. Moreover, Borden implemented compulsory military service in 1917, sadly dividing Canada in the process and losing him the support of many historians. For Université de Montréal historian René Durocher, the Great War leader was "a resolute and tenacious politician who failed the test of national unity but succeeded brilliantly in giving Canada a place on the international scene."

SIR WILFRID LAURIER:

[Photo: Laurier]

"With Macdonald, [Laurier] remains the most important prime minister. A partisan of national unity, he lacked courage during key moments, which hurt the realization of a bicultural Canada."

--Réal Bélanger, professor of history, Université Laval

Fourteen historians put King, the Second World War prime minister, first or tied for first. This might surprise those who know nothing of King beyond Dennis Lee's little poem ("William Lyon Mackenzie King/Loved his mother like anything/Sat in the middle and played with string/William Lyon Mackenzie King") or social democrat F. R. Scott's savage comment that "the height of his ambition was to pile a parliamentary committee on a royal commission." Vancouver freelance historian (and the scholar who worked with Diefenbaker and Pearson in writing their memoirs) John Munro described King as "the most peculiar person ever to become a Canadian prime minister." King was said to have communed with spirits who directed his political manoeuvring, patronized prostitutes, and been obsessed with his succession of dogs named Pat; even so, the Canadian public paradoxically views King as the epitome of political dullness.

The historians, including Munro, were more impressed by King's great political skills, his devotion to unity, his establishment of Canada's international persona, his crucial steps towards establishment of the social welfare safety net, and the brilliant way he ran Canada's enormous war effort. No historian admired King as a man--Peter Waite of Dalhousie University commented that he was "marvelously capable of justifying to himself what he had done"--but few denied his brilliance as a political leader. Robert Bothwell of the University of Toronto summed it up: "Canada's greatest prime minister, King had a profound sense of his country's strengths--and weaknesses."

Trudeau and Pearson, who between them dominated the Liberal party from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, received mixed report cards and ended in the High Average category. Although Trudeau ranked fifth overall, this was a tribute to his longevity in office as much as anything. He was admired by many for his intelligence and for defeating René Lévesque in the first referendum in 1980. Many academics, however, believed that Trudeau had exacerbated difficulties with Quebec with his imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 and the divisive struggle he waged leading to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982; still others bristled at his arrogance and his spendthrift governments that ran up the national debt. As Duke University Canadianist John Herd Thompson remarked: "Future historians will find much less to admire" in Trudeau than contemporaries. Some already found little enough to admire--Durocher bluntly pronounced Trudeau a "resounding failure, both on the grounds of public finance and national unity."

Pearson was praised for the introduction of the flag in 1965, for putting new social programs in place, and for focusing attention on Quebec's challenge to national unity. But the former diplomat's stumbling from crisis to crisis hurt him. More than one historian claimed that he excelled at being a civil servant and should have remained one. Even though he lost two elections and could not manage to secure a majority in the two he won, Pearson ranked just a hair's breadth below Trudeau in the High Average category, primarily because, as president Jacques Monet of the Université de Sudbury said, he had "unparalleled high achievement" in office.

The Average category included Sir John Thompson, Alexander Mackenzie and the Great Depression leader, the blustering R. B. Bennett. Predictably, perhaps, the historians parked Mulroney and Chrétien in this category--eighth and ninth overall--with many noting that it was, in truth, too soon to judge either man fairly. Mulroney was hailed for his smashing election victories and his big agenda of free trade and the Constitution, but he was seen as a Gucci-shod glad-hander in bed with the Yankees, the man who failed so dismally in his constitutional gambits and left office so hated by the Canadian public that it promptly destroyed his party in an act of calculated revenge.

Remarked University of Manitoba historian Gerald Friesen: "I grieve for the country as a consequence of his free trade policy choices and his administrative hubris (the roll of the dice at Meech Lake), but we did elect him--twice." Yet Desmond Morton of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada reflected the views of many others when he said, "I think he will have longer legs in history than he does now."

Chrétien was criticized for his lacklustre performance during the 1995 referendum, for cutting social programs, and for failing to live up to his promises. Some noted that he was the only francophone leader in this century ever to fail to command a majority of seats in Quebec, while others remarked on his enormous luck in facing a weak, divided opposition. But his deficit-fighting government and his good administrative sense and political ease drew praise. "It is easy to undervalue Chrétien," noted Peter Waite from Halifax. "He is a considerable and capable politician and was a very good minister in the Trudeau government. With Chrétien appearances are deceiving." "So far, so good," wrote Mount Allison University's Penny Bryden, "and I suspect his term is not over yet."

The Low-Average prime ministers, Arthur Meighen and Clark, were both Conservatives. "Poor Joe," in Bothwell's sympathetic phrase, was generally perceived as the man who threw away the priceless opportunity to consolidate the Tories' hold on power in 1979-1980. Fate gave him a bad hand, one historian said, and he played it badly. On the other hand, Margaret Conrad, holder of the Nancy Rowell Jackman Chair in Women's Studies at Halifax's Mount Saint Vincent University, noted that Clark (and Campbell) "rate high in my books when it comes to their understanding of, and serious response to, women's equality." Others commented favorably on Clark's competence and dignity as a senior minister in the Mulroney government.

Meighen, briefly prime minister after the Great War and again for a few months in 1926, was considered highly intelligent but blinkered, "an ideologue's ideologue," said the University of Calgary's Patrick Brennan, a party chief so sure of himself that he "never encountered any reality that couldn't be fit into preconceived theory." With bewildering skill, Meighen made himself the enemy simultaneously of big business and labor and of both Quebec and the West. He was the leader who would rather be right than be prime minister.

The Failures--Sir Charles Tupper, Abbott, Turner, Bowell and Campbell--all governed for very brief periods and can be more accurately described in Francine McKenzie's apt term as "ancillary" prime ministers. Tupper, Turner and Campbell all took office and promptly lost an election. Abbott and Bowell, the only two prime ministers to have held the post from the Senate, were among Sir John A.'s hapless successors, prime ministers vainly trying to hold the old Conservative party together but without the Grand Old Man's imagination, sagacity and patience.

Harsh judgments these, but realistic too. Academics form their judgments in the comfort of their studies, not in the hurly-burly of politics. They cannot know what pressures truly faced the prime ministers, but they do bring perspective, a sense of the continuity of Canadian history, and a familiarity with the issues that comes from calm contemplation. Moreover, the historians understand the country's fragility. Canada is a nation of regions and national unity is more than just a French-English debate. However they define national cohesion, the great Canadian conundrum that has bedevilled all our leaders preoccupies the scholars as well.

It is the unity question that confronts Chrétien as he faces the coming election and an apparently inevitable second term in power. The Liberal Prime Minister is clearly banking on his government's economic record to make the case for his party in 1997 and for his place in history. If, as some pundits suggest may happen, the Liberals return with a minority government, this would pull him down in the ranking of prime ministers. But the deficit has been tamed, there will soon be some money to rebuild social programs, and Chrétien's trade promotion efforts are creating sales and favorable publicity abroad, even if unemployment still remains stubbornly high. A country that is prosperous once again might be a united country--Chrétien has to hope and believe that this is so.

No one knows when the next unity crunch will occur, though a third Quebec referendum is likely before the year 2000. We do know that Chrétien's unique combination of talents and failings will help shape the next prime ministerial term and beyond. Canada's destiny will be in the balance. Less important, so too will be Chrétien's reputation in his lifetime and ever after. If he defeats Lucien Bouchard and the separatists, Chrétien will rise in popular and historical judgment, in English Canada at least; if he loses, if he misjudges sentiment as he did in 1995, he will sink. His future and our future are intertwined.

Norman Hillmer is professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa. J. L. Granatstein is Rowell Jackman Resident Fellow at the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto.

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