King Returns to Power in Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie King returned to office as prime minister of Canada on October 23, 1935, after having served from 1921 to 1930. King enjoyed the lengthiest tenure of any Canadian prime minister and led the nation through the difficult years of World War II. Under his cautious leadership, Canada emerged from the war as a prosperous and confident nation.

Summary of Event

William Lyon Mackenzie King was born in Berlin (later Kitchener), Ontario, on December 17, 1874, and died at Kingsmere, Quebec, on July 22, 1950. King’s political career began in 1909, when he became labor minister in Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government. In 1911, the Liberals were defeated by the Conservatives, and King lost his parliamentary seat. In 1919, King was reelected to Parliament and chosen as leader of the Liberal Party. He led the Liberals to a majority in the 1921 federal election but could muster only a minority government in the 1925 election, and this government soon lost a confidence vote. The Conservatives formed a government that quickly collapsed, forcing another election. King again won a majority, and he governed until 1930, when the Liberals again lost to the Conservatives. The defeat was a political blessing, as the Conservatives were forced to govern during the worst years of the Great Depression. Great Depression;Canada In the 1935 election, the Liberals, led by King, were reelected and he returned as prime minister, winning three straight federal elections before his retirement in 1948. [kw]King Returns to Power in Canada (Oct. 23, 1935-Nov. 15, 1948)
[kw]Canada, King Returns to Power in (Oct. 23, 1935-Nov. 15, 1948)
Prime ministers;Canada
Canadian prime ministers;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King]
[g]Canada;Oct. 23, 1935-Nov. 15, 1948: King Returns to Power in Canada[09020]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 23, 1935-Nov. 15, 1948: King Returns to Power in Canada[09020]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 23, 1935-Nov. 15, 1948: King Returns to Power in Canada[09020]
King, William Lyon Mackenzie
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
Churchill, Winston
St. Laurent, Louis

The first years of King’s third administration (1935-1940) were largely focused on domestic issues created by the Depression’s devastating economic impact. His government transformed the Bank of Canada from a private corporation into the nation’s central bank and made it responsible for Canada’s monetary policy. Under King, the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations was created to investigate both the fiscal plight of the provinces and the relations between provinces and the federal government, and King also began to consider the possibility of creating a national insurance plan for the unemployed. In 1939, the Liberals deliberately ran a budget deficit in an attempt to stimulate the economy, but the effects of the Depression lingered. As World War II World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Canadian involvement approached, nearly half a million Canadians remained unemployed.

King maintained a policy of cautious autonomy from Britain, ensuring that Canada’s foreign policy interests were determined by Ottawa, not by London. Outside the Commonwealth, King also developed a close relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the two worked together to expand trade relations and to cooperate on defense issues. King was particularly successful in his negotiations on defense, and when Canada entered World War II in September, 1939, Roosevelt’s administration made it clear that it was prepared to defend the continent from any external threat.

King hoped to avoid entering the war, and he skillfully led the nation from 1939 to 1945, although this was arguably the most tumultuous period of his political career. National unity was King’s most important goal, and he wished to avoid the profound discord that occurred between English and French Canadians during World War I. In particular, King wanted to avoid conscription, Conscription, Canada and initially he sought a limited role for the military, one that focused on schemes such as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), which developed and trained pilots from around the world. Opposition from the provinces led King to call an election in early 1940, and he again asserted his opposition to conscription. His consistency assuaged the French Canadians’ concerns, and the Liberals were awarded another majority victory.

Following the rapid German victories in Western Europe and Scandinavia in May and June of 1940, the King government vastly expanded its war effort. The BCATP grew (eventually producing 131,000 crew members), a large navy was raised and played a vital role in protecting the North Atlantic convoys sailing to Britain, and an overseas land army of five divisions was eventually mobilized for service in several of the war’s theaters. By 1945, 1.1 million Canadians were serving in the Canadian armed forces, a significant number given that Canada’s total population numbered only 11.5 million.

Canada’s increased involvement in the war put King’s nonconscription promise in jeopardy, and the issue began to threaten party unity. King was able to compromise by amending the National Resources Mobilization Act of June, 1940, which had authorized home-defense conscription for thirty days. This did not, he stressed to Canadians, necessarily entail conscription. Despite Conservative protests, King called for a 1942 plebiscite to release his government from his earlier promise. The government won, although the vast majority of French Canadians voted against it. However, as Canadian casualties mounted in Europe during 1944, a reinforcement crisis developed. King had delayed imposing conscription, using all of his political skills to avoid splitting the country along regional and linguistic lines, but the issue could be avoided no longer. Finally, King opted to send conscripts to Europe. Quebecers were overwhelmingly opposed to conscription, but it was apparent that King had tried to accommodate conflicting national viewpoints. Although King appeared indecisive to many English Canadians, his search for compromise had allowed him to succeed in negotiating the political tempest of conscription and to avoid tearing the country apart.

The close working relationship established among King, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Roosevelt was one of the cornerstones of the Allied effort. This relationship became especially vital for Canada as the war progressed. Roosevelt had pressed for a defense alliance and King acquiesced, which freed Canadian men and resources for the overseas war effort. King was also able to persuade Roosevelt to solve a deeply worrisome wartime trade deficit that threatened to undermine the Canadian economy.

Before the Hyde Park Declaration of April, 1941, Canada had accumulated huge trade deficits with the United States as a result of wartime purchases. The American lend-lease plan Lend-lease policy[Lend lease policy] with Britain threatened to exacerbate this problem, particularly if it meant that Canada could lose British business. Under the agreement, the Americans promised to buy as much in Canada, if not more, as Canada was buying in the United States, thereby wiping out the trade deficit.

Fearing social unrest and another economic downturn after the war, King carefully laid the planks of the Canadian welfare state. The Liberals introduced unemployment insurance in 1940 and family allowances in 1944. Large sums were given for new housing, the Department of Health and the Department of Welfare were created, and returning veterans could choose from several programs designed to help them reintegrate into postwar society. Public works projects increased as the war ended, and this decreased postwar unemployment levels.

The government’s wartime record was impressive: The new social programs were popular, and the economic transition from wartime to peacetime appeared seamless. Still, Canadians never really warmed to King, and the seventy-one-year-old won a hard-fought victory in 1945. His final years in office were dominated by Cold War strains and pronounced political wariness, and King announced his retirement in January of 1948. He had a remarkable ability to recruit talent, and the Liberal Party made a smooth transition into the government of Louis St. Laurent in 1948. The cautious craft of politics had been King’s life, but it had taken a toll, and he died in 1950.


King was not an inspiring politician, but he led Canada for twenty-two years (the record among Commonwealth leaders) and successfully navigated his way through half of the Great Depression and World War II. Arguably, it was during the years after 1935 that King made his mark as prime minister. He kept Canada relatively unified during this period with strong, if cautious, leadership, a considerable feat given the fissures that occurred during World War I. Under strict government control, Canada’s wartime economy—which had been ravaged by the Depression—was rapidly transformed and tightly controlled.

From 1945 through 1948, Canada continued its robust growth and ushered in an era of prosperity. King borrowed heavily from the left-wing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Party’s platform to create social welfare programs, a move that disarmed his opponents. These programs were popular, and future governments expanded on them. Globally, King oversaw Canada’s emergence as a “middle power” that played an increasingly important international role, and the country maintained active memberships in the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Commonwealth. King’s record of consistently successful political strategies led many historians to suggest that he was Canada’s greatest prime minister. Prime ministers;Canada
Canadian prime ministers;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King]

Further Reading

  • Bliss, Michael. Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from MacDonald to Mulroney. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994. Biographical study of Canada’s prime ministers presents a highly favorable assessment of King in two well-researched chapters.
  • Granatstein, J. L. Canada’s War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government, 1939-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. One of the most thorough studies of King’s wartime governments available, although somewhat dated.
  • Granatstein, J. L., and Norman Hillmer. Empire to Umpire: Canada and the World to the 1990’s. Toronto: Irwin, 2000. An excellent survey of Canadian foreign relations during the King years.
  • _______. Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999. A thoughtful and balanced general summary of King’s political career by two of Canada’s leading political historians.
  • Stacey, C. P. A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976. Based on text from King’s private diaries, much of which was previously unavailable to the public. Provides an unflattering but fascinating view of King’s character.

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