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Manitoba History: Review: Robert A. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West

by Henry Trachtenberg

Number 43, Spring / Summer 2002

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Robert A. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2000. 328 pp. ISBN 0802047335, $55.00.

Canadian academics continue to be intrigued, if not fascinated, by William Lyon Mackenzie King, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 1919-48 and the country’s longest-serving (almost 22 years) Prime Minister from 1921-26, 1926-30, and 1935-48. Not all of their commentary on King has been favourable. Recently, University of Winnipeg political scientist Allen Mills, assessing the leadership of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada during World War II, contended that King was “a nerd”, “a little weird”, “a man of stupefying ordinariness and unimaginativeness”, and “a mommy’s boy who regularly sought guidance in the spirit world from dead ancestors and extinct politicians.”

Undoubtedly, much of the interest in King, an apparently proper and colourless man, has been because, as the public learned years after his death in 1950, of his personal peculiarities, his supposed encounters with prostitutes, and his spiritualist yearnings—he was in contact with his mother and other dead relatives and friends, not to say his dog Pat. For many years, most historians treated King in a negative light, arguing, in the words of one of his two official biographers, Professor H. Blair Neatby, that his “political longevity was achieved by evasions and indecision, that he failed to provide creative leadership.” According to two historians of Canada, professors Jack Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, King’s critics downplayed or distorted his “shrewd political judgement, his constant attention to French Canada, his great steps forward in Canadian nationhood”, and viewed as a flaw in his and the Canadian character his “cautious weighing of options and alternatives.”

A few years ago, Granatstein and Hillmer conducted a survey of 26 Canadian historians and political scientists on Canada’s Prime Ministers for Maclean’s: Canada’s Weekly Newsmagazine. Based on the returns, King was ranked as Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, political party leader, and politician, even ahead of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. In a subsequent book, Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada’s Leaders, published in 1999, Granatstein and Hillmer concluded:

The pendulum of opinion has now swung. King the man remains as difficult to like as ever, but his political skills, his brilliant decisiveness in crises and his vision of an independent Canada command attention. No one can rule a nation as disparate as Canada for so long without talents of a high order, and King’s place at last is very properly recognized.

Coincidentally, just when many historians of Canada and readers of Canadian history had thought, with the exception of the last volumes of his official biography, that everything that needed to have been written about King had been published—he, his personal life, government, and policies have been the subject of numerous edited diaries, articles, monographs, and collections of essays not only by academics, but by journalists and political colleagues—along comes Robert Wardhaugh’s excellent study of attempted, and failed, political management, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West. Among other things, Wardhaugh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Winnipeg, demonstrates that solid narrative political history, thoroughly researched and crisply written, is not only not passé, but is alive and well in this age of all-embracing Canadian social history.

Wardhaugh’s book is neither a revisionist interpretation of King nor a complete history of Prairie politics from 19211948, but is a study of the meeting of the two. Unlike most studies of Prairie political history which focus on such protest parties as the Progressives, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and Social Credit, the author approaches western alienation through what has been called “the Government Party”, the Liberal Party of Canada. While it is usually assumed that the decline of the federal Liberals on the Prairies began in June 1957, following the election as Prime Minister of Saskatchewan’s John George Diefenbaker and a Progressive Conservative government, Wardhaugh conclusively demonstrates that the disintegration of Liberal support on the Prairies, a phenomenon which has continued until today, began in 1935, and, in fact, to a considerable extent, had even begun well before then.

Wardhaugh analyzes King’s views and treatment of the Prairie West through a myriad of important Western Canadian issues such as the tariff, railway competition, nationalization, and freight rates, the Hudson Bay Railway, the transfer to provincial jurisdiction of the natural resources of the three Prairie provinces, the Wheat Board, a central Bank of Canada, and immigration. The author scrutinizes the roles and relationships of important Prairie politicians including William Richard Motherwell, Charles Stewart, Charles Avery Dunning, James Garfield (Jimmy) Gardiner, Thomas Alexander Crerar, and Robert Forke, through such factors as representation in King’s Cabinets. Wardhaugh explains the position of Liberalism on the Prairies over the course of three decades, and the place of the region in the nation, as well as frequently, the place of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in the region.

The author argues that when King became Liberal Party leader he had a sympathetic view toward the Prairie West, based on the common optimistic belief that Western Canada had a major role to play in national economic prosperity. Moreover, his perception of the Prairies was a “complex mixture of genuine sympathy, self-deception, and political expediency”. The young, idealistic King, who thought of himself as a reformer—he was the grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada—also believed that he had a natural affinity to the region based on the Social Gospel reform movement. King largely agreed with the religious, economic, and political sentiments being espoused in the West. He personally favoured freer trade and the Prairie provinces’ control of their natural resources, and shared Westerners’ distrust of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Liberal platform in 1919 was almost identical to that of the Canadian Council of Agriculture’s “New National Policy” of 1918. Furthermore, in the face of the agrarian revolt and the Progressive movement, the Liberal Party that emerged from the bitter divisions over conscription and Union Government during World War I, desperately needed support in Western Canada, and it became of the utmost importance to King that the Progressives, who swept the Prairies in the election of 1921, be absorbed by the Liberals. As a result, King’s sympathies toward the Prairies in the 1920s, directed at regaining the lost Liberal support, were translated into federal policies such as the completion of the Hudson Bay Railway and the transfer of natural resources to provincial jurisdiction.

From King’s perspective, his governments in the 1920s were continuing the political tradition of Laurier in concentrating on the West, along with Quebec, as a mainstay of Liberalism. However, King immediately recognized the primary and essential importance of the Quebec bastion to national Liberal political fortunes, and in this, he remained constant over the course of three decades. Wardhaugh demonstrates that there was, in the words of Professor Jack Bumsted, who favourably reviewed Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, “something fundamentally incompatible about relying on Quebec and wistfully hoping to develop a national party that was strong particularly in Western Canada.” This was apparent as early as the federal election campaign of 1921, when, Wardhaugh contends, the pressure of Montreal Liberals altered King’s “desired strategies dealing with coalitions, tariffs and railways, and as a result ... diminished his western appeal.”

Quebec was fundamentally opposed to Western wishes on almost all issues of significance to the Prairies, including non-economic ones like “direct democracy” and attitudes to the British Empire, and Quebec’s influential members in King’s Cabinet such as Minister of Justice (1921-24) and former Premier, Sir Lomer Gouin, a spokesman for tariff-protected industries, railways, and financial concerns, almost always carried the day. King failed in demonstrating to the West that he was not “the puppet of”, and that his “government was not dominated” by, Quebec. As well, the fact that Ernest Lapointe (Minister of Marine and Fisheries 1921-24; Minister of Justice 1924-30, 1935-41), who while “more liberal” than Gouin was not sympathetic to Western concerns, was the Prime Minister’s “loyal and effective general” in Quebec and his most influential adviser for more than 15 years, symbolically and substantively did not help King in making his case in Western Canada.

Furthermore, even during the 1920s, the author asserts that King had “no real understanding of agriculture”, “little understanding of agrarian discontent, agriculture, or the Prairies themselves”, “a particular ignorance” of Alberta, “knew little about railway issues and even less about freight rates”, that his sympathies “did not necessarily translate into policy”, and, as with “so many of his approaches to Prairie issues, ignorance and caution precluded strong action”.

As long as immigration to and settlement of the Prairie West were central to national economic development, King courted the region. However, as the West diminished in national importance, became less influential and indeed, a financial burden during the 1930s, so did the early emphasis King placed on it. The Prairies consequently became increasingly politically expendable to the Prime Minister. The necessity of governmental centralization to deal with the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, and postwar reconstruction, substantially reinforced this development. In this sense, the Liberal decline in the Prairie West paralleled both the growing divide between Western and Central Canada and the relative decline in national importance and influence of the West in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Wardhaugh, the primary cause of King’s failure to maintain Liberal strength on the Prairies was “perhaps inevitable” and “far beyond the control of one politician or party”—Canada’s change from a rural-agricultural to an urban-industrial nation. The transfer of political influence from Western to Central Canada coincided with the entrenchment after 1935 of the Liberals in Ottawa, and the “new national Liberalism” became increasingly less appealing in the Prairie West, which, in turn, became more and more alienated.

By the time King retired in 1948, his attitude toward the West had undergone a dramatic transition, and the region had responded politically largely in kind. Two developments perhaps symbolically represent King’s relationship to the Prairies in the 1940s. In the federal election of 1945, the Liberals lost 25 seats in the three Prairie provinces, including 10 in Saskatchewan, that they had previously held. Having been defeated by the CCF candidate in the constituency of Prince Albert, which he had represented for almost 20 years (largely in absentia, not visiting the riding, for instance, between the elections of 1935 and 1940), King refused to open the local fair, and to run again or to use his influence to promote federal projects, in Prince Albert. He became the Member of Parliament for Glengarry, Ontario. And prior to and at the Liberal convention to choose his successor, King made public his opposition to the Minister of Agriculture, Saskatchewan’s Jimmy Gardiner, and his support for Quebec’s Louis St. Laurent, the first ballot victor.

Mackenzie King (centre) with Manitoba dignitaries (including Premier John Bracken, third from left, front row) at the Legislature, July 1930.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

One of the most interesting facets of Wardhaugh’s study is the complex relationship between Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta and the Prairie region. While the three provinces shared political, economic, and social concerns and a sense of regional alienation, each also possessed its own distinct political characteristics, and, hence, the dynamics of Prairie Liberalism differed from province to province. Unfortunately for King, he failed to understand what to Wardhaugh was “this essential fact”. King persistently refused to acknowledge that the Prairies “would not always be treated as one region with one western Liberal commanding a following from all three provinces.” There was no Prairie lieutenant equivalent to Quebec’s Lapointe. Neither Motherwell nor Stewart were adequate regional advisers. King did not like or trust Crerar, and ironically, after Gardiner joined King’s Cabinet as Minister of Agriculture in 1935 and Western concerns were left largely within his control, King and his successive governments paid even less attention to the Prairie West.

In Manitoba, the Liberal Party was plagued by divisions between the Laurier Loyalists (the Diehards) and the Liberal Unionists of 1917 (the Free Press group), a festering wound that took decades to heal and was subsequently compounded by Winnipeg-rural splits. Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s the Diehards opposed co-operation with the federal Progressives in Manitoba and a coalition at the provincial level with the United Farmers, both of which King advocated.

In Alberta, Wardhaugh convincingly claims, King met with “an unending series of failures”. Albertans refused to support the Liberals and demonstrated their resentment against the two “traditional” parties and their deep-rooted sense of Western alienation by electing third party alternatives, such as the United Farmers of Alberta and Social Credit. An ongoing Edmonton-Calgary factional rivalry weakened the Liberal Party. King did not help matters by blaming local Liberals’ lack of organization and leadership for electoral failures. As a result, he did not apportion the province adequate Cabinet representation, in turn resulting in the Prime Minister being even more ill-informed about provincial affairs than in Manitoba or Saskatchewan, and in reinforced anti-Liberal sentiment in Alberta.

The Liberal Party survived the agrarian revolt at the provincial level in Saskatchewan only by co-operating with the farmers’ movement and by adopting many of its policies. Saskatchewan ranked second only to Quebec as a Liberal stronghold from the 1920s until 1944, when the alternative offered by Tommy Douglas and the CCF proved to be alluring to the electorate. Although the Liberals reclaimed several seats in Saskatchewan in the 1949 federal election, this proved to be only temporary, and with their collapse in Saskatchewan, according to the author, Prairie Liberalism was doomed.

Although Wardhaugh is writing about the Prairie West, and, therefore, necessarily emphasizes its rural and agricultural nature, more “urban content” would have been helpful, perhaps an examination of political developments and Liberal support at the constituency level in some of the major Western Canadian cities. Adding an urban angle would have allowed him, for instance, to elaborate on his assertion that in the 1930 federal election, Westerners believed that

Ottawa’s immigration policies such as the Railway Agreement exacerbated unemployment, for which the King Government would not assume responsibility and that consequently, at least half of the Liberal losses on the Prairies were from urban ridings, where most of the unemployed had drifted. More urban information may also have permitted Wardhaugh to attempt to explain such developments as Edward James McMurray’s elevation to the King Cabinet as Solicitor-General in 1923. Besides being only one of two Liberals elected on the Prairies in 1921, McMurray was not only an important Manitoba Liberal, but one of Canada’s leading criminal lawyers. As well, in the election, with considerable support from voters from ethno-cultural communities, McMurray had defeated not only a popular Labour candidate and former imprisoned Winnipeg General Strike leader, but also Conservative and Communist candidates in the post-Strike politically radicalized constituency of Winnipeg North. The urban content is perhaps reflected in the Bibliography, where the author lists as sources, in addition to the Grain Growers’ Guide, eight Western Canadian newspapers. However, only two of them from Saskatchewan are referred to in the footnotes, and then only once each.

As well, more attention ought to have been paid to Central and Eastern European ethno-cultural communities, many living in block settlement areas, given the groups’ numerical and political importance. Wardhaugh refers to them in very general terms as “ethnic voters”, “the ethnic communities” and “these people”, and mentions Ruthenian and Hebrew ethnic newspapers. By the 1920s, certainly, Ruthenians were referring to themselves and were being referred to as Ukrainians; there was no Hebrew language newspaper on the Prairies, only Winnipeg’s Yiddish language The Israelite Press. The author might have benefited from consulting, for example, in the case of Ukrainians, Orest Martynowych’s Ukrainians in Canada: The Formative Years 1891-1924 and Martynowych’s and Nadia Kazymyra’s “Political Activity in Western Canada, 1896-1923” and Rose Harasym’s “Ukrainians in Political Life, 1923-45”, both in A Heritage in Transition: Essays in the History of Ukrainians in Canada, edited by Manoly Lupul. Wardhaugh also might have profitably consulted the relevant provincial essays, especially that of Thomas Peterson on ethnic and class politics in Manitoba, in Martin Robin, editor, Canadian Provincial Politics: The Party Systems of the Ten Provinces.

Regardless of the lack of larger urban and ethnic components, Wardhaugh has written an exemplary political narrative. He has done a masterful job in mining both primary and secondary sources. The scholarly apparatus employed and research honesty apparent are daunting; indeed, the endnotes comprise 41, and the Bibliography nine, pages. Bumsted recommended this book to readers, and especially Western Canadian farmers, seeking to understand the “roots of Western alienation”. One might also add its importance for all Prairie Liberals and all individuals interested in Canada’s political history.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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