King Era in Canada

The Liberal administration of William Lyon Mackenzie King constituted the longest administration of any Canadian prime minister to that time.

Summary of Event

William Lyon Mackenzie King was a skillful politician who managed to hold together for almost three decades a Canadian political coalition composed of very strong support from Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritime Provinces, and moderate support from the other provinces. Like earlier successful Canadian prime ministers, including John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier, King understood clearly that a party could maintain a majority in the House of Commons for extended periods of time only by satisfying the needs and aspirations of both English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians. Until his death in 1941, Ernest Lapointe Lapointe, Ernest from Quebec was King’s most trusted adviser. Numerous other Quebecers served in important positions in King’s governments, which always included a balance of ministers from Quebec and English-speaking provinces. King had an uncanny knack for sensing which policies would be politically acceptable to Canadian voters, and he modified his positions several times during his many years as Canada’s prime minister. Canadian prime ministers;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King]
Prime ministers;Canada
[kw]King Era in Canada (1921-1948)
[kw]Canada, King Era in (1921-1948)
Canadian prime ministers;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King]
Prime ministers;Canada
[g]Canada;1921-1948: King Era in Canada[05380]
[c]Government and politics;1921-1948: King Era in Canada[05380]
King, William Lyon Mackenzie
Borden, Robert Laird
Meighen, Arthur
Bennett, Richard Bedford
St. Laurent, Louis

Sir Robert Laird Borden, who served as Canada’s prime minister from 1911 to 1920, had become exceedingly unpopular in Quebec during World War I when his government imposed conscription. This move was bitterly opposed throughout Quebec. The parliamentary debates on the proposed conscription law were directed by Arthur Meighen, who was then a member of Borden’s cabinet and succeeded him as prime minister in 1920. Quebec voters would not forgive Meighen and his Conservatives for what the Quebecers perceived as another attempt by English Canada to mistreat Quebec. In the general election of 1921, the Liberal Party, under King, won all sixty-five seats in Parliament from Quebec; with reasonable support in the other provinces, it was relatively easy for the Liberals to receive a majority in the House of Commons. King also managed to obtain the support of most of the fifty-four members of Parliament from the Progressive Party.

William Lyon Mackenzie King.

(Library of Congress)

During his first five years as prime minister, King made it clear to the British government that Canada would no longer allow Great Britain to determine Canada’s foreign policy. In 1922, he respectfully rejected a request from the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, to send Canadian troops to help British forces then fighting in Turkey. As a further indication of Canada’s growing independence from Great Britain, King sent Ernest Lapointe to Washington, D.C., to sign a fishery treaty with the United States that would come to be known as the Halibut Treaty. Halibut Treaty (1924) Until then, it was generally accepted that Great Britain’s overseas dominions would defer to British judgment in matters related to foreign policy. King decided that his government would no longer tolerate such limitations on Canadian independence. In the 1925 general election, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals obtained a majority in the House of Commons. The twenty-four Progressives and the six independent members of Parliament would determine whether Meighen or King would become the prime minister of Canada.

Although at first King obtained enough support from the Progressives to form a new government, a scandal in the Canadian customs office caused a decrease in King’s support in Parliament. He requested that Governor-General Julian Byng Byng, Julian dissolve Parliament, but this request was not granted, and Lord Byng asked Meighen to form a new government. Within three days after Meighen was sworn in as the new Canadian prime minister, King used an extraordinary parliamentary procedure to bring about the dissolution of Parliament. Canadian law then required the prime minister and members of his cabinet to resign from the House of Commons. (This law was later changed.)

Although Meighen resigned from Parliament, he appointed his cabinet members as acting ministers so that they could keep their seats in Parliament and preserve the narrow majority created with support from some Progressives. King accused Meighen’s government of violating Canadian law, and a motion of no confidence was approved by the House of Commons by a vote of ninety-six to ninety-five. Meighen’s second term as prime minister had lasted three days. In the September, 1926, general election, the Liberals won an absolute majority in the House of Commons.

The Liberals probably would have remained in power throughout the 1930’s had King not made an incredible blunder in 1930. After the outbreak of the Great Depression Great Depression;Canada in 1929, King was under pressure to do something to relieve the suffering of unemployed Canadians. In his most injudicious comment, he told Parliament that assistance would not be given to any provincial government ruled by Conservatives. Canadian voters did not forgive him for this insensitive remark, and the Conservatives, under the leadership of Richard Bedford Bennett, easily won the general election of 1930. The Canadian economy, however, did not improve during Bennett’s five years in office, and the Liberals won 173 of the 244 seats in the House of Commons in the 1935 general election.

Under the leadership of King, the Liberals also won the general elections of 1940 and 1945. During his last thirteen years as prime minister, King was very involved in foreign affairs, especially with organizing Canadian efforts to help the Allies defeat Germany and Japan in World War II. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian involvement King cooperated fully with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, throughout the war. British and U.S. forces made extensive use of armaments, airplanes, and boats produced in Canada. The Royal Canadian Air Force was active throughout the war, and many Canadian pilots flew bombing missions over Germany for the British Royal Air Force. Thousands of Canadian soldiers fought and died with British and U.S. troops during the liberation of France in 1944.

After the Allied victory over the Axis in 1945, King was seventy-one years of age and in poor health. Nevertheless, he was reelected prime minister in 1945 for the fifth time. Eventually, deteriorating health convinced King that he should end his political career. In 1948, he persuaded Louis St. Laurent, his minister of justice from Quebec, to succeed him as leader of the Liberals and as prime minister. King died on July 22, 1950.


William Lyon Mackenzie King dominated Canadian politics between 1921 and 1948. It is exceedingly unlikely that any Canadian prime minister will ever surpass King’s extraordinarily long record of twenty-two years of service as the leader of Canada. Many years after his retirement in 1948 and his death in 1950, historians still find it amazing that King and his Liberal Party managed to remain in power from 1921 until 1957, with only a five-year hiatus between 1930 and 1935.

King’s government helped Canadian businesses in the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. In addition, under King’s guidance, Canada began to play an increasingly influential role in international diplomacy. King and Lester Pearson, who was then the Canadian ambassador to the United States, both participated in the 1945 San Francisco conference that created the United Nations. Canadian prime ministers;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King]
Prime ministers;Canada

Further Reading

  • Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada: 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Contains an excellent analysis of Canadian political and social history until the end of World War II.
  • _______. Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Useful supplement to the book cited above examines economic and political changes in Canada since World War II.
  • Hutchison, Bruce. The Prime Ministers of Canada: Macdonald to Pearson. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans Canada, 1967. Contains three excellent chapters that deal with King’s twenty-two years of service as Canada’s prime minister.
  • McInnis, Edgar. Canada: A Political and Social History. 4th ed. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1982. Focuses on the sociological impact of historical events in Canada since the nation’s founding.
  • McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politics: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. 3d ed. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001. Collection of more than five hundred brief essays on a wide range of topics related to the Canadian system of government, Canadian political history, Canadian laws and legal history, and more.
  • Owram, Doug, ed. Confederation to the Present. Vol. 2 in Canadian History: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Contains a well-annotated bibliography of historical studies on Canadian society and politics since 1867.
  • Riendeau, Roger. A Brief History of Canada. 2d rev. ed. New York: Facts On File, 2006. Concise history includes discussion of King’s government, the Depression, and the World War II years in Canada.

Borden Leads Canada Through World War I

Meighen Era in Canada

Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations

St. Lawrence Seaway Treaty

King Returns to Power in Canada

Canada Enters World War II

Ogdensburg Agreement