Prime ministers. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly

If we are to understand the implication of having bronze statues of our prime ministers placed in Kitchener’s Victoria Park, we should first understand who they were. I tried not to ignore the good parts of these. I promise. I will write more on this project later, but for now, get informed.

From the first to the most recent. Here’s a list of the Prime Ministers – dirty laundry and all. Not included is the complicity in domestic genocide of the First Nations with residential schools starting with the Indian Act in 1876 and the last one closing in 1996. This taints the tenure of almost all of these prime ministers.

Prime ministers of Canada

John A Macdonald had the honour of being one of the founders of confederation and the first Canadian prime minister. He was an alcoholic. Internationally, he was the broker of high trade tariffs, ensuring that Canada would not make it out of the gate economically. He would be best known for the hanging of Louis Riel – becoming also the first Canadian prime minister to cause major division between the new country and both its First Peoples and Quebec. His rule also represented the beginning of the Pacific Scandal  – which also caused his resignation.

Alexander Mackenzie served a single term. He was a working class bloke who refused to be knighted three times. His greatest accomplishment was to break down high trade tariffs with the US. Perhaps too sweet to stay in office. He lasted a single term. Surprisingly, after the Pacific Scandal, John A. was elected back into office.

Sir John Abbott would be the third prime minister, and the second rich white guy in office. His early attempts to rise politically were tainted with bribery scandals. He hated politics and would be best known for several attempts to hand the leadership over to another conservative, John Thompson who would not be accepted until he was elected by the people due to the hatred of Catholics in the conservative party.

Sir John Thompson had the honour of being the first Catholic in office. Thompson was Justice Minister when Riel was hanged. He stated that anyone who encouraged Aboriginal Canadians in their protests against the state would also face justice. This shot him forward in popularity in the Conservative party.

Sir Mackenzie Bowell was appointed on Thompson’s death. He resigned. Neither elected, or suited to be in politics. He just generally sucked.

Sir Charles Tupper lasted 69 days in office.

Sir Henry Charles Wilfrid Laurier was Canada’s first Francophone leader, and considered one of Canada’s greatest statesmen. He built the industrial nation of Canada, and ushered in massive amounts of immigrants. His efforts bolstered Canada as a nation independent from England through economic growth. This guy was pretty good. His worst scandal was a reputed affair.

Sir Robert Borden was the second prime minister to be a Freemason. He is well known for the Conscription Crisis in the First World War – a deeply divisive issue between French and English Canada. He was, however, a supporter of the suffragettes, and ushered in more equality for women voting in Canada. He also asserted Canada as a nation politically separate from England. He was also a strike breaker, squashing the Winnipeg General Strike. This strike was against long working hours and dangerous working conditions (and unreasonable charges to workers such a blanket rentals). The assumption was Russian support. After a violent breaking of the strike, an inquiry found no foreign influence. You can thank this strike for better modern working conditions.  This was the first violent government oppression of the average working Canadian.

Arthur Meighen was appointed, and lasted a single year – he was defeated. After a single Mackenzie King term, he was appointed again. He resigned his second term. A very insignificant leader. A place-holder in Canadian politics.

William Lyon Mackenzie King saw the CBC, the NFB, the nationalization of the Bank of Canada, the entry into the UN and some other great progressive actions that built Canada as a country and as a cultural entity. He was the longest serving prime minister, and the tenth white guy to be in office. He also created the Conscription Crisis of 1944 – building a rift between English Canada and French Canada that would last for decades. He created internment camps for Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War placing whole families into these internments. He famously uttered “None is too many” during Canada’s refusal of Jewish refugees and immigrants from Europe. He was an admirer of the eugenics movement – forced sterlisation and all. He was an admirer of Hitler. He received political advice from spirits who communicated through his dogs.

Prime Minister poster

Robert Bedford Bennett is the 11th prime minister of Canada. Ultimate rich guy who thought sending unemployed men to toil in the bush for 20 cents per day was a solution for the Great Depression – these camps resembled penal colonies. He abolished the presumption of innocence until proven guilty when it came to political dissent. He eventually built a “New Deal” modelled on the American version but it was far too late. Overall just a shitty person.

Louis St.-Laurent established NATO and helps solve the Suez Canal crisis. He also supported Britain’s Clement Attlee’s push to change the Commonwealth from a white dominion to a multi-racial partnership. This was not widely supported by other Commonwealth leaders. He paved the way towards healthcare. Another decent one.

John Diefenbaker built the Canada Bill of Rights. He was brought down by his cabinet in a vote of no confidence. He is famous for stopping the Avro Arrow. He was weak next to the US president Eisenhower. The second worse thing he did was just be desperately less sexy than Kennedy.

Lester B. Pearson is our most beloved prime minister. Universal healthcare, Canada student loans, Canada Pension Plan, Nobel Prize winner, creator of Canadian Armed Forces, new Canadian flag, kept Canada out of Vietnam. We could use another Pearson.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the 15th white guy to serve as prime minister. Nuanced… Famous for paving the way for multiculturalism, grandfather of metric, “keep government out of the bedroom”, Official Languages Act. Also October Crisis – Canada’s first instance of domestic terrorism – he averted the worst. He abolished the death penalty.  Canada fell into a deep debt with this leader.  He called Nixon to offer support. First leader to deeply alienate western Canada. As much as he provided measures that created real change, he also placed a lot of bandaids. Trudeau, hubris be thy name.

Joe Clark lasted less than a year.

John Turner held the PMO for 79 days.

Brian Mulroney built NAFTA. Best pal with Reagan. Created and implemented the GST. Failed two attempts to build a new confederation for Canada – Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord. Leader in the Gulf War – yes, we were there. Oka crisis is a mark on his term in office. Managed to not be convicted by the skin of his nose in the Airbus scandal. A demonstration of big power. The line between government and corporation becomes much thinner.

Kim Campbell was the first and only female prime minister. She lost her seat when Canadians overwhelmingly ousted the Conservative party, decimating it across the country as a protest against Mulroney-type rule.

Jean Chretien was swept into office with huge support. He prevented a Quebec separation and increased national unity. Chretien also began to climb the country out of the enormous debt created by the Trudeau and Mulroney goverments. He ignored the plea for help from Rwanda concerning the genocide and apologised later for showing indifference. He invovled Canada in the war against Iraq and brought the nation into active combat in Afganistan after 9-11. He also made Canada complicit in activities at Guantanamo. But he balanced the budget.

Paul Martin was the 21st prime minister and the 20th white guy. His office was tainted with the Sponsorship Scandal. He did legalise gay marriage, and made real attempts to build a national childcare scheme. Most of his efforts were kiboshed due to his minority government (opposition – conservative).

Finally, we come to Stephen Harper. I will let you draw your own conclusions about this leader. He is still in power. Look him up. Watch him.

9 thoughts on “Prime ministers. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly

  1. Pingback: Victoria Park Prime Ministers Project – Point by Point. An Open Letter ¶ My Contention

    • I will stand behind the details. I researched this post really closely. I wanted nuance. We all learn the cute stuff in school. If I could fold in more scandal and icky things about these men, I would. Know any?

    • Technically, at the date you posted your comment, October 27, he was still the prime minister. I know he was defeated in the October 19 election, but he continued to serve as prime minister until he officially resigned on November 4, so Justin Trudeau could be sworn in.

  2. Wilfrid Laurier jacked up the tax on Chinese immigrants by a factor of ten, and blocked black people from taking up the government’s offer of cheap land out west. Also Diefenbaker gave Native Canadians the right to vote (in 1960, shockingly enough).

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