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Mackenzie King and the National Identity

by Blair Neatby

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 24, 1967-68 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Winnipeg is a stimulating and even a challenging place to discuss Mackenzie King and his concept of national identity because during most of his career Winnipeg was the centre of constructive political thought about this country and about the nature of our federal union. If we talk about the politics of the 1920s we talk about the Progressives and men like T. A. Crerar; if we talk about foreign policy in the 1930s we talk of men such as Edgar Tarr; if we talk of Dominion-provincial financial relations in the 1940s we must mention Stuart Garson; and if we mention these and almost any other topic during these years, we have to refer to J. W. Dafoe and the Free Press. Geography offers a partial explanation for the pre-eminence of men from Winnipeg in these national debates. As the port-of-entry to the west, Winnipeg was naturally a focal point for the expression of the western point of view - especially at a time when Wheat was still King, and was funnelled through Winnipeg on its way to Europe. But Winnipeg was more than a prairie center because its existence also depended on the preservation and development of an integrated national economy. If Canada was to avoid being absorbed into a continental economy, goods had to move east and west instead of north and south - which meant trans-continental Canadian railways and a Canadian tariff system. Winnipeg became the unrivalled metropolis of the west because the 49th parallel became more than a line of political demarcation - and with the Canadian Shield pressing down from the north and the border to the south, Winnipeg became the hour-glass waist of Canada.

Winnipeg leaders were thus much more than regional spokesmen, speaking for western Canada. They had a vital stake in the preservation of the federal union and so became key figures in adapting the federal system to changing conditions. The role of Winnipeg has been modified over the years. The growing importance of newsprint, base minerals, oil and potash - developed for U.S. markets and with U.S. capital - has dispersed the flow of goods and services and, since the war, upstarts like Calgary and Edmonton have been known to forget that Winnipeg is still the largest city between Toronto and the Pacific. But in the days of Mackenzie King, at least, Winnipeg was treated with the respect it deserved.

The issues debated here in those days whether over lunch in the Manitoba Club or in the editorial columns of the Free Press, were Canadian issues, all of them concerned in some way with the nature of Canadian identity. Canadians have always argued about this identity; for more than a century now we have tried to define Canada or Canadians in ways that would reassure us that we were different and unique - that we were not Britishers (or Frenchmen) living in Canada or, more recently, that we were not merely Americans in North America. The problems and the perspectives have changed over this hundred year period but the discussion continues with no end in sight.

It is easy to be cynical about this national obsession with our identity - character is not formed on the psychiatrist's couch. But cynicism itself is the blind frigidity of the ivory tower. These past - and present - debates are of real significance because to these men Canadian identity was not an abstraction or even an interesting specimen which could be transfixed forever on a pin, carefully labelled as "something or other Canadensis." The argument about the identity of this country was really a moral argument about what kind of country Canada should be, and the men who argued were vitally concerned with transforming it into the country it could and ought to be.

The past debates can be revealing because from them we can deduce the unstated preconceptions of the debaters, their vision of what Canada should become. Even Mackenzie King, for all his platitudes and obfuscations, has an unconscious sense of direction and over the years his policies and his methods were shaped by his view of how this country would achieve its destiny.

Mackenzie King never formulated his concept of the Canada of the future. His vision of Canada can only be reconstructed by analysing his responses to the political controversies of his time. The first step is to isolate certain aspects of Canadian society over which Canadians have argued. The next step is to define King's position in each of these controversies. Only then can we hope to synthesize his views and to understand what his version of Canadian identity really was.

The debate on Canadian identity has had many starting points. It is a revealing fact that in most countries discussions usually begin within the framework of the class struggle. In Canada however, even the vocabulary of the class struggle still has an alien ring, and if we talk about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, for example, the odds are we are not talking about Canadians. This is not to suggest that there are no class interests in Canada or that legislators do not favour one class at the expense of another - no Canadian could be that naive. But most Canadians believe that there are more fundamental or pressing issues than the struggle between social classes. Mr. Stanfield and Mr. Trudeau are not taking sides in the class struggle these days, and even Mr. Douglas is not talking about a war to the death.

Our politicians are, of course, talking about French-English relations. Cultural duality is one factor that does bring our blurred identity into focus. Here we have a vocabulary which is not only familiar but which is uniquely Canadian. We can easily indulge in embittered discussions about "separate schools" or "opting out" or about "two nations" without the frustration of having to stop to define out terms because these terms are as familiar to us as freight rates and tariffs. The undiluted joy of racial strife has often been one of the satisfactions of being Canadian, and even in periods when French-English relations have been relatively harmonious, when moderates on both sides have foregone the emotional release which belligerence can provide, even then the problems of a bilingual and bicultural country have been the constant concern of politicians. The Manitoba School Question, with its long history, was and remains not merely a Manitoba question but also a Canadian question, just as any crisis in French-English relations is of national significance. Thus any version of Canadian identity must give some recognition to our cultural duality.

Biculturalism, however, is not the only subject of debate about our identity. Canadians form regional groups as well as cultural groups, and this regionalism is often the pith and substance of our national controversies. When I was a boy in Saskatchewan I knew about the barons of Bay Street and St. James Street - and I knew that they were responsible for all the problems of the west. Even the villainies of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange paled into insignificance by comparison. But at the same time I didn't know that one of these streets was in Toronto and the other in Montreal. All I knew was that they were somewhere in the "east" - and that was all I needed to know. And this same regional perspective showed up in the army, where barrack-room arguments so often set east against west, with outnumbered Maritimers or British Columbians trying to get their regional grievances into the debate. Class identity was overshadowed by regional loyalty, and men from River Heights and North Winnipeg made common cause against Toronto. Regional issues can also cut across cultural divisions. Hepburn could cooperate with Duplessis to protect central Canada against federal generosity to the prairie farmers; Quebec and British Columbia agree about offshore mineral rights. Indeed, there are federalists today who argue that French Canadian separatism is really a reaction against economic conditions in Quebec and that an effective regional economic program would end the crisis. This is wishful thinking but it does underline the point that regional economic dissatisfaction is a pervasive factor in Canadian politics. No definition of Canadian identity would be complete without giving weight to regional differences and regional rivalries.

Not that regionalism is peculiar to Canada. In every country there are local as well as national loyalties. The difference is one of degree. Canadian identity is colored by the fact that regional loyalties are more intense than in most countries or, to put it another way, that national loyalties are less intense. Any discussion of national identity must be put in a time perspective. The war and the post-war period had a stronger national focus - with a stable and centralizing federal government; the last decade has had a stronger regional focus - and the regional blocs have been constant enough to ensure that the last three elections have failed to produce a majority government at Ottawa. But although regionalism may ebb and flow, it is always remorselessly there.

Canadian regionalism has many roots. Geography separates the regions much more sharply than in the United States, for example, and this helps to foster a sense of regional identity. A federal system both reflects and re-enforces this regionalism by creating provincial governments to represent regional interests. Probably even more significant, the concentration of the French-Canadian minority in one province has meant that Quebec has been an ardent and consistent spokesman for provincial rights. Indeed, national loyalties are naturally less intense in a country which has two cultures - if not two nations - and this means that regional loyalties are inevitably more significant in relative terms.

There is yet another factor which comes into any debate on the nature of Canadian identity. This is our image abroad - foreign relations or, to use our euphemistic label, our external affairs. What role do we play in the international arena? What role should we play? Are we a middle power, with no aggressive ambitions, bringing the voice of reason to world assemblies and sending peace-keeping forces when the power of reason fails? Or are we a satellite of the United States, sharing the responsibility and the guilt for hot and cold wars? An earlier generation asked whether we were an autonomous country or a colony and so an accomplice of British imperialism. But these are really the same questions in a different historical context. The fundamental questions were and are: to what extent can Canada have an independent foreign policy, and to the extent that this is possible, what should its foreign policy objectives be.

All of these perspectives must be included in any adequate discussion of Canadian identity. We cannot ignore the social problems of our industrial society, the cultural problems of our duality, the tendency towards regional balkanization, or our international role. Any attempt to discuss one of these aspects in isolation is frustrating and fruitless because they are mingled, enmeshed and confused, and all form part of the Canadian entity. To take one example, the Canadian Labour Congress may try to focus on the rights of labour, but it is constantly getting involved in issues of French-English relations, regional development and our relations with the United States. If we start from the perspective of foreign policy, on the other hand, we soon have to discuss regional differences over American investment, cultural differences over Gabon or class differences over immigration. Any person who tries to define Canadian identity is likely to give priority to one of these factors - the factor which seems most significant to him. His personal philosophy will also shape his conclusions; his vision of what should be becomes the standard by which the Canada of today is measured. But if he pursues his argument he will have to discuss the other factors as well and will have to concede the existence of other philosophies. Small wonder that the debate has continued for a century and still goes on. It can only be resolved when Canadians no longer care about the future of their country.

It would be foolish to propose my definition of our national identity; it is my contention that any definition will be biased by utopian pre-conceptions. As an historian, however, I can cloak myself in anonymity and discuss the views held by another, in this case by William Lyon Mackenzie King. King's views are important because they so often determined our national policies in the past and so helped to shape our present identity. They are also of interest because a discussion of his views may help to clarify the issues and the unconscious sentiments which still give shape and heat to our national debate.

Mackenzie King's background might suggest that he would emphasize the danger of national division along class lines. Did he see our identity in terms of the class struggle? He had after all been the first Deputy Minister and then the first Minister of Labour. He also became Liberal leader in 1919, the year of the Winnipeg Strike which to many seemed an attempt to establish a soviet on Canadian soil. King's speeches also seem to offer some support to a class interpretation of politics. He referred frequently to the rights of labour and could wax eloquent on the nefarious selfishness of Big Business and of vested interests. One of his phrases, that "private rights cease when they become public wrongs," would be an appropriate slogan for a socialist candidate today.

Of course King was not a socialist. He didn't believe in the class struggle because he didn't believe that social classes had contradictory and conflicting interests. He saw capital, management and labour as partners in industry, each of them benefiting from this partnership and each of them suffering from industrial strife. He saw the community as the fourth partner and when the interests of consumers were imperilled he believed that the government should protect the interests of this amorphous group. When King as a politician had to take sides in an industrial dispute, he tended to assume that capital and management were at fault and that labour was not adequately benefiting from the partnership, but he usually saw some faults on both sides and took it for granted that a satisfactory compromise was possible. A general strike, a class war, the dictatorship of the proletariat - these were to him both absurd and abhorrent because they denied the existence of a partnership. Reasonable men, he was sure would never be so irrational. The existing partnership might be unsatisfactory but King's solution was to re-negotiate the contract.

This made King a social reformer but it did not make him a radical. Even as a reformer he could not be called aggressive. He was not likely to see any urgent need for social reform unless there was a clear evident danger. He himself was not likely to see any danger unless there was a menacing social unrest or, to put it in political terms, unless political support for the Liberal party might be seriously affected by this unrest. He could act decisively, as he did in 1926 with old age pensions, or in 1945 with family allowances and the sweeping proposals for post-war reconstruction. On both occasions, these policies were consistent with King's liberalism, with the state intervening to redress the social balance by helping the underprivileged members of society.

On both occasions, however, the immediate cause was the possibility of political defeat. In King's defence it can be argued that he could only carry the party with him when the political danger was evident and imminent; it is nonetheless true that Mackenzie King was no crusader. He took no initiative if the dogs of unrest were safely sleeping. When the Liberals were securely in office King could not believe that social reforms were urgent.

An exaggerated illustration of his complacency is provided by a speech to the Liberal Caucus in 1936, shortly after the Liberal victory of 1935. King's speech was provoked by Gerry McGeer, a Vancouver Liberal member who believed that social credit was the answer to the depression. (In those days there were many who really believed in Major Douglas' A plus B theorem and there were some believers in all political parties.) In any case, McGeer was an evangelist who frequently preached the gospel of social credit in caucus and who saw bloody revolution as the apocalypse if Canadians were not soon converted. King's reply was that the possibility of revolution was still remote. Revolutions, he explained, occurred when people feared for the security of their property and their savings. In the rebellion of 1837, according to him, it was the farmers and the mechanics who had supported his grandfather, not the city rabble. King then drew the inference that radical inflationary measures would be more likely to provoke than to prevent a revolution. The Canada of the future, as King saw it, would be a Canada in which more Canadians could acquire property and savings but it would be a Canada which would still enshrine the traditional respect for contracts and for private property. He knew that Canadian identity included rivalry between classes but he saw it as a rivalry within the context of a bourgeois society.

Mackenzie King did see cultural duality as a distinctive feature of Canadian identity. He assumed, however, that the traditional structures were sound. He rejected the idea of an inevitable struggle between groups with incompatible and contradictory aims. He saw Canada as a partnership between French and English Canadians with both partners benefiting from the federal union. He had no blueprint for a new and different kind of partnership. He assumed that reasonable men on both sides could operate within the system to arrive at policies acceptable to both groups. The Liberal party was his window on bicultural problems. As long as French and English Canadian Liberals could agree, he assumed that all was well.

King lived at a time when the issue of French-English relations was less acute than it is today. The division of political authority between the two cultural groups had never been defined by the constitution or by any official document but there were unwritten traditions which all Canadian politicians knew and accepted. French Canadian politicians at Ottawa exercised political autonomy in such matters as political appointments which directly affected French Canada, and they were consulted on such matters as relations with Great Britain where their point of view could not be ignored. At the same time, French Canadians were content to leave many of the decisions affecting business and the national economy to English Canadians. They were interested in the portfolios of Justice and Public Works but not in Finance or Trade and Commerce. This modus vivendi had been established before King's day and he did little to change it.

It is obvious that this modus vivendi is no longer adequate and that today the traditional demarcation between French Canadian and English Canadian spheres of influence has disappeared. French Canadians now see the importance to their society of tariffs and trade, of fiscal and monetary policies, and are not prepared to accept an English Canadian monopoly in these areas. At the federal level they are claiming the right to share in decisions in these areas, to extend the partnership to include economic policies. Many French Canadians do not believe that a satisfactory partnership is possible in the economic field, that English Canadians will give enough weight to French Canadian interests in this area, and so argue that only the government at Quebec can develop economic policies suitable to French Canada. They may favour a provincial government with special status or an independent government of a separate state, but these are differences of degree; the common objective is to give French Canadians more control in economic matters. For Mackenzie King this problem never arose. Most French Canadians accepted the traditional allocation of political authority, and partly because of King's meticulous respect for the tradition, most French Canadians continued to vote Liberal in federal elections.

It would be misleading to suggest, however that French English relations posed no problem in King's time. He lived through two conscription crises and in the 1930s, there was a separatist movement as well as the autonomist Union Nationale under Duplessis. It is possible and, I think, probable that French Canadian nationalism would have been even more potent in those years if King had not been effective in responding to the crises of his era. Within the limits of the French-English problem as it was generally understood, King was remarkably successful in maintaining respect for Canadian duality within the Liberal party and so, for most of the period, within the federal government.

King's success cannot be attributed to any special sympathy or affection for French Canada. He was brought up in southern Ontario and shared the wide-spread Protestant distrust of the Roman Catholic church and the English Canadian political influence. As a politician he might have learned to resent the minority which so often complicated his life by refusing to accept policies which the English Canadian majority favored. But Mackenzie King was pragmatic. He accepted French Canadians as they were, accepted them as partners in the federal union, and respected their right to participate in political decisions.

What is more remarkable, King, in spite of his background, was sensitive to the French Canadian outlook. It is this sensitivity which distinguishes him from the other political leaders of his day, such as Borden, Meighen and Bennett. These men were also aware that French Canada existed and that French Canadian votes were valuable, but they never saw as clearly as did King that this minority group had a different mentality and a collective pride that could never safely be ignored.

King was punctilious in his recognition of French Canadian identity. Historians often refer to the Canadian tradition of a French Canadian lieutenant at the side of every English Canadian Prime Minister but since Cartier's death in 1872, Ernest Lapointe, and Louis St. Laurent are really the only two men who have played this role. Their special status was possible because Mackenzie King gave them the title and also gave them the prestige and the authority which the role required.

King's relations with Ernest Lapointe are the best illustration of his concept of cultural duality. King selected Lapointe as his French Canadian lieutenant in 1919 when he became leader. Sir Lomer Gouin was the most prestigious French Canadian Liberal at Ottawa after the election of 1921 and he insisted on becoming Minister of Justice but King continued to consult Lapointe on all issues affecting French Canada. Within a few years, a frustrated Gouin resigned and Lapointe became the unquestioned spokesman for his compatriots.

The division of authority between King and Lapointe is not easy to describe. King was clearly the party leader and Prime Minister; Lapointe was the loyal lieutenant, giving advice, defending his point of view with vigour. When a decision was made, however, Lapointe accepted the policy as his own. It is impossible to imagine Lapointe opposing King openly or challenging his authority. On the other hand King discussed all major decisions with Lapointe before any announcement was made. He told Lapointe, for example, of any contemplated Cabinet appointments, and of his initial position on any major issue. To this extent, Lapointe was more than a French Canadian lieutenant; he was involved in matters affecting all parts of Canada. Sometimes Lapointe merely expressed approval. In issues affecting French Canada more directly, such as external affairs, Lapointe's opinion was freely given and his comments carried weight. On those issues which related primarily to French Canada, Lapointe's opinion was likely to be decisive. Over a period of more than twenty years there was never a difference of opinion that was not quickly and easily resolved. Even when Lapointe was on his deathbed the major concern of the two colleagues was the future of the party and the question they discussed was whom to choose as Lapointe's successor.

Cultural duality was thus a very real aspect of Canadian identity for Mackenzie King. He did not see this duality extending to economic policies or to minority rights outside of Quebec but within the limits of duality as it was then understood, King showed great respect for the minority. He recognized the existence of French Canada openly and honestly by choosing a French Canadian lieutenant and by giving him both status and authority. This respect for French Canadian identity was more than a political platitude. By 1944 when he reluctantly imposed conscription for overseas service even French Canadians conceded that it was politically necessary, and continued to support him in preference to any other federal leader.

Regionalism was, for King, another fundamental factor in the structure of Canadian identity. Again King began with a concept of partnership. There were five regions, which made the partnership more complex, but the aim was still to give every region a sense of sharing equitably in the benefits of the federal union. Regionalism for him, however, was not so much a problem of different mentalities or of different cultural perspectives. The regional issues were mainly economic, and the problem was to ensure that no region smarted from a sense of economic discrimination. King did not think in terms of federal initiative for vast enterprises which might have given Canadians from different regions a sense of common purpose and common pride. His government did not undertake the equivalent of a C.P.R., or a St. Lawrence seaway or an Expo 67. As always his aim was balance, and when regional dissatisfaction indicated an imbalance, his response was to make minor adjustments within the existing structure. In the 1920s, western dissatisfaction was the major focus; the Progressives at Ottawa were a vocal testimony to the grievances of prairie farmers. King promised the Hudson's Bay railway and manipulated tariffs and freight rates in an effort to satisfy the west without unduly alienating eastern interests. By the end of the decade he had succeeded. T. A. Crerar, Robert Forke, and the moderate Progressives were back in the Liberal fold and the west was returning to the two party system.

King's sensitivity to regional grievances can also be illustrated by his treatment of the Maritimes in the same decade. The Maritimes was as certain as the west that it was neglected or even discriminated against by federal policies. Spokesmen for the Maritimes listed a long series of wrongs which they inverted and labelled "Maritime rights." Maritime voters showed their indignation by voting Conservative. The agitation was based on the conviction that the region had not prospered as much as other parts of Canada. King acutely commented in private that the Maritimes problems were largely the result of geography and impersonal economic factors but he did not ignore the situation. He appointed a Royal Commission and when the Commission recommended freight rate reductions and increased subsidies to the provincial governments, he implemented the recommendations immediately. The Maritimers were not satisfied but they were grateful enough to restore the fortunes of the Liberal party in the region.

Thus by the end of the 1920s federal economic policies had been adapted and modified in response to regional grievances. There had been no promises to build a new Canada, no stirring talk of a crusade for national reconstruction. King's methods did not enthuse Canadians with a sense of purpose but they did forestall acrimonious debates by blunting the edge of regional grievances. Mackenzie King would have been appalled by the politicians of today who propose to transform our Canadian society, and who deliberately provoke public debate on contentious and potentially divisive issues. He offered no sense of great achievement in a common cause; he gave the sometimes frustrating impression of always barely averting or merely postponing a clash.

Mackenzie King's conception of Canadian identity is also illustrated by his policies in external affairs. He was a champion of Canadian autonomy within the Commonwealth. Then, as now, this was considered his most distinctive contribution to national development. Canadian nationalists were nonetheless frequently exasperated because he refused to define autonomy. He rejected colonial subordination without rejecting the British connection, and the obligations and responsibilities associated with this connection were never stated. By 1939 it was clear that for King a major British war was also Canada's war. On major issues in international affairs he took it for granted that British and Canadian interests coincided. He never seriously considered the possibility that Canada might have an independent and distinctively Canadian foreign policy. Autonomous, yes, but not independent.

Mackenzie King's version of Canadian identity, therefore, reflected his confidence in existing Canadian structures and Canadian institutions. He had an eclectic view of Canadian society which included the relations between social classes, between cultural groups, between regions, and with other nations, and he himself gave no special priority to any one of these aspects. He responded to any imbalance in the existing situation. The political pressures which made him conscious of an imbalance thus determined his priorities at any given time.

There are, however, many ways to achieve a balance. King knew better than to expect a balance which would be fixed and final, a Canadian identity which would be immutable. He did not react to imbalance by trying to restore a hallowed status quo. The partnerships which he saw as implicit in Canadian society were not based on binding contracts, valid and enforceable to the end of time. Nor were they, on the other hand, contrasts which could be terminated at will by any one of the partners. He saw the partnerships as evolutionary, in which the rights and obligations of the partners were always negotiable, but to which the partners were irrevocably committed.

This meant that King accepted instability as part of the Canadian identity. He did not initiate change if the partners were satisfied, but he was sensitive to grievances and prepared at any time to modify the terms of the partnership to satisfy the parties involved. As a political philosophy, this view of society is not inspiring. It is based on compromises, concessions and minor adjustments; at any given time there will be inconsistencies and contradictions between theory and practice. As a concept of Canadian identity, however, it is more respectable. It recognizes the pluralism of Canadian society, the relevance of social, cultural and regional differences, and it offers the flexibility which any open society requires. A partnership, like a marriage, must have some tensions if it is to be rewarding and creative, but tensions which are frustrated by immobility may destroy the state of partnership or of matrimony. King's concept recognized a number of interacting partnerships - not unlike many families living in the same house - and yet still permitted growth and change.

In practice, Mackenzie King showed that his approach could win support from all sectors of Canadian society over three decades of prosperity, depression and war. His concept of Canadian identity was at least an adequate working hypothesis. It would be unwise to belittle it until we find an alternative hypothesis that can pass the same acid test.

Page revised: 11 November 2010

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