Manitoba History: The “Impartial Umpire” Views the West: Mackenzie King and the Search for the New Jerusalem

by Robert Wardhaugh
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Number 29, Spring 1995

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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MacKenzie King (centre) with Manitoba Premier John Bracken and dignitaries on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature, July 1930.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

As prime minister of Canada through most of the years from 1921 to 1948, Mackenzie King held favourable views of the Prairie West that affected the region’s treatment by the federal government. [1] These views were shaped by King’s early religious, economic, and political ideas, and set within the prevailing popular images depicting the West. By the time the young politician became prime minister in 1921, his perceptions of the Prairies had developed to the point that he saw himself as particularly suited to represent and defend western interests. King’s early views were idealistic and would undergo transition throughout his career but they are crucial in understanding his handling of the region.

Conventional interpretations of Mackenzie King would suggest that his perceptions of the Prairies had little effect on his policies because he only adopted policies which kept him elected. Such an argument assumes the prime minister had no principles or ideas which guided his actions, mainly because historians have failed to construct an acceptable picture of his philosophy. Political opportunism and inertia have become King’s accepted characteristics. But analysts have been blind to his ideas. Paul Craven was the first historian to break away from the “broadly accepted view” that King had no philosophy:

In Mackenzie King’s case, it is possible at least to say that the ideas he used were not formed after the fact. What King thought about society in the abstract had been put in place, to all intents and purposes, before he realized the opportunity to act on a particular society ... After all, even the most rank of opportunists must frame his acts according to some organized perception of what is likely to be opportune. [2]

Historians have also been confused by King’s ability to shape his perceptions to coincide with reality. [3] They do not realize that in most cases the prime minister sincerely believed he was acting according to his principles. His personality included a particularly powerful sense of self-justification that always resulted in the belief that he had taken the proper and moral action that was grounded in his own perceptions. [4] His critics were cynical and assumed he was an insincere hypocrite moving on the whims of expediency. As Neatby notes, “they could not believe he was deluding himself.” [5] To a large extent, historians have fallen prey to the same assumption. The result has been an interpretation of King that refuses to acknowledge the importance of his ideas and the impact they had on his policies.

What follows then is an attempt to construct Mackenzie King’s initial ideas of the West and to show how the perceptions would later come to influence policy. Such a task is made difficult because in order to carry it out one must enter his world of self-deception and work beneath the justifications and rhetoric. King’s idealistic view of himself as the representative of the entire nation and his constant goal of national unity did not allow him outrightly to express any differing regional sympathies. Furthermore, his idealistic perceptions of the region had to be balanced against his underlying drive to play conciliator and ‘impartial umpire’. An in-depth study, however, does allow particular assertions to be made. The perceptions formed before the 1919 Leadership Convention would lay the foundation for King’s handling of the Prairie West during his lengthy career as prime minister. Prairie sympathies did not directly determine his policies but they were part of a complex array of influences.

When William Lyon Mackenzie King was born in 1874 the distant interior of the continent had only scattered white settlement, and was a vast expanse of rolling plain and rugged parkland. The Ontario of his youth would have seemed a world away from the Canadian West. The traditional rural lifestyle was being replaced by new industrialization and accompanying urbanization. Dramatic increases in poverty, crime, prostitution, gambling, and alcoholism all became social vices associated with city-living. Class conflict was rampant as capital and labour clashed. To those living within this atmosphere the old order seemed to be collapsing and they wondered what its replacement would be.

To those searching for a new order the Prairie West offered hope. The region seemed to be vast, open, and empty, a perfect place to found a new society. The interior was not only gradually undergoing cultural, political, and economic change, but was also becoming more favourably viewed in eastern Canada. Mackenzie King’s initial views of the West were framed by this popular imagery. This would become apparent when the youth made his first visits to the area.

As early as the 1850s a consensus had taken shape that the West was a land of opportunity and even a potential agricultural frontier. By the 1870s it was transformed in Canadian writings into a “fertile garden well adapted to agricultural pursuits.” [6] It was generally believed the potential of Canada lay in the developing interior:

These forces raised the image of the West to new heights and shattered the last qualifications in the Canadian myth of the garden ... The result was an image of the North West that was more idealistic and optimistic than anything that had gone before, or, for that matter anything that has existed since. [7]

By the early 1880s expansionist writers were viewing the region as “something approximating an utopia.” [8] The frontier was able to produce its share of heroes to dramatize the new society. Images of the pioneer and the North West Mounted Police glorified rural life amid the continuing onset of urban industrialization in the East. Despite the hardships of the pioneering West, the myth of the frontier survived and prospered.

Eastern industrialization and urbanization brought together the imagery of western garden of Eden and utopia in the years from 1880 until World War One. In this period the popular image of the West was dominated by the search for a “new and better society- the promised land, a garden of abundance in which all material wants would be provided and where moral and civic virtues would be perfected.” [9] In the early years of the twentieth century the nation was being discussed in terms of a “New” and “Old” Canada, of an “East” and “West”. [10] Images in art and literature [11] described the Prairies as a new society, the symbolic land “wherein the heavenly city might yet be founded.” [12] It was pure and filled with hope, far from the inherent evils of the “Old East”. The Prairies remained an untrammelled wilderness that represented nature as God had intended, a garden of Eden, a paradise to be lost or won depending on the inhabitants. The dominant qualities of the young region were described as “youthful”, “manly”, and “rugged.”

The West was also portrayed as the last frontier and according to western images it could offer equality of status and opportunity. As a frontier it offered the potential for prosperity which could only be obtained through the hard work of the individual. Yet, in the popular imagination

the emphasis upon the individual and his opportunities did not create a society of hard-bitten competitors. Everyone started out equal, according to the ideas of the day, and faced similar tasks. Although material prosperity accrued in private accounts, the social wealth of co-operation and friendliness was shared by all. [13]

Also attached to the symbols of liberalism and individualism was the ideal of progress, necessarily inherent in reform and development: “The development of the West, expansionists had promised, would ensure Canada’s economic prosperity, enhance its political power, and even allow moral improvement.” [14]

Questioning the roots of social order and searching for a new society was common during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The old system seemed on the verge of crumbling. King’s philosophy became imbued with the ideas of reform that were dominating the social, economic, and political language of the day, and which were so evident in Prairie imagery. The youth was always romantically aware of his maternal grandfather’s role in the reforming of Canada’s political system through the rebellions of 1837, [15] and he believed it was his task to continue the reforming process, “to better the condition of the poor, denounce corruption, the tyranny of abused power, and uphold right and honoured principles.” [16] He was developing a social conscience aimed at the evils of industrialization and urbanization, and he embraced the popular movement towards social reform that had been evolving for over a century. King’s undergraduate years at the University of Toronto furthered these sentiments and saw him wavering between two impulses: a career in the Christian Ministry or a career in politics. The intellectual environment provided by the University offered a third impulse. Together they wed King’s growing belief that reform could best be achieved through a union of religion, politics, and education A shared interest and sympathy for the labouring classes was discovered through his work at Hull House in Chicago, and he was inspired by the writing of Arnold Toynbee. Hope for a new, stable society, free from class conflict, Toynbee argued, lay in the formation of a new moral order. Despite King’s rhetoric of philanthropy, the realities of social work at Hull House were simply too gruelling and disheartening. His ambition again turned to academe and a possible career as a professor or university president.

MacKenzie King, 1945.

King’s liberal economic beliefs were strengthened while working towards the doctorate degree at Harvard, and his ideas were formed during the great theoretical debate that transformed political economy at the end of the nineteenth century. Like Toynbee he saw that society’s arduous pilgrimage along the road of liberal capitalism was being assailed by the vices of class conflict. The rise of trade unionism and working-class political movements were threatening the social order, already under attack from industrial capitalism. A debate formed around the question of whether class cooperation or conflict would prevail. King’s philosophy was moulded by the new political-economic movement and debate. Disassociating themselves from the laissez-faire orthodoxy of the past, the new political economists prescribed a positive role for the state. There was an endorsement of trade unionism and social reform movements. The movements called for a regeneration of society, a cleansing of the old order, and the formation of new perspectives for the future. King’s blending of Calvinism and social reform produced what has been called a “religious liberalism.” [17] His faith was imbued with the spirit of individual and social moral reform that was supposed to be possible especially in the West.

The social gospel and social reform in Canada were movements rooted in the search for a new interpretation of religion. From the 1890s through the 1930s, this spirit was abroad in Canada. [18] The movement couched its objectives in the language of the Kingdom of God on Earth, the New Day, the New Birth, the New Jerusalem. In large measure, the popular images of the West spawned a reforming ideal for the social gospel. In Canada, it was the Prairie West that supported the strongest and most active movement:

Progress was an inclusive philosophy in Victorian Canada, and therefore, was the foundation for the extraordinary prairie confidence in personal and social improvement ... Moral improvement and more good works figured prominently in generalizations about the West.” [19]

The social gospel was also a dominant feature of King’s philosophy. From early youth he advocated his religious convictions adamantly. On numerous occasions King seriously contemplated entering the clergy and always believed God had some divinely inspired mission for him to fulfill. What he believed to be his genuine concern for ‘the people’ and the progress of humanity led him logically into the arms of the social gospel. The youth agreed with the search for a reformed faith, “the renaissance of a pure religion.” [20] He was constantly searching for the golden path to Salvation and Redemption, for the gates of the Celestial City, for the “New Jerusalem.” [21] The influence of Christianity was to serve “as a motive power in social reform,” [22] and the union of religion and reform resulted in the search for this new society. The old order was being transformed but King was frustrated that the people were not taking full advantage. He could not understand “how men are looking into all corners of the earth creating literally a new heaven & new earth & yet nothing new under the sun.” [23] It was, he believed, possible to find the Kingdom of God on earth: “I am bound to overcome my besetting sin, it wd. close me out of the Garden of Eden which still exists in this world if it gained the mastery.” [24] He saw himself as the Questing Galahad in search of the elusive Grail: “It comes back to the truth of the scriptual saying ‘Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, & all these things shall be added unto you’ that is what I am striving to do.” [25]

Mackenzie King was aware of the strong influence the social gospel and social reform were having on the Prairies and this coloured his perceptions of the region favourably. His initial impressions were inevitably affected by the prevailing popular imagery, and these were reinforced on his first journey across the Prairies in 1903 as Deputy Minister of Labour. That King was prepared to see the West as a new society closer to the Kingdom of God became immediately apparent. While travelling King was struck by the sublimity of a seemingly ordinary gesture. A man on the train lent his coat to King and this act conjured up an idealistic and symbolic response in his diary: “He lent me his coat, to wear & was as kind as could be. I thought of Christ’s words ‘I was a stranger & ye took me in, naked & ye clothed me.’ Surely those who will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven are such men as these.” [26]

The geographical traits of the Prairie West took on an element of the sublime. The symbol of Nature represented the power of God in that it reflected the purity, regeneration, and rewarding and punishing power of the garden of Eden. King searched for what he called “the great pure world of Nature” because, he wrote, “all Nature seems to me a manifestation of the Divine.” [27] Whenever King’s early political career with the Department of Labour in the Laurier Government or as labour consultant for the Rockefeller family took him to the West, he always remarked upon the powerful force of Nature in terms that were saturated with religious imagery. While he could not help but notice the “monotony” of the Prairie landscape, more often he commented on the “presence of trees, & water with hills in places” affording

many glimpses of beautiful landscape. The presence of many blue flowers on the prairies during the afternoon, of fires at night, and of the brightness of the stars & the vastness of the open spaces were the most attractive features of the day’s journey. [28]

Mackenzie King always placed a romantic importance on agriculture and rural life that affected his perceptions of the Prairies. “I am convinced,” he wrote in 1914, “we must consider what is going to help to keep the people on the land first of all. It is sound economics & helpful to the morality and character of a nation.” [29] King’s idealistic views of agriculture fit into his utopian image of the West and his search for moral reform:

I believe so strongly that the interests of all classes in Canada depend primarily on the extent and prosperity of agriculture in Canada and in this connection the moral fibre not less than the material well being of the nation, that I do not think it is possible for the agricultural interests to receive too much consideration from Parliament or placed in too strongly a position to compel consideration of their demands. [30]

Working on the Lethbridge Strike in 1907, King commented on changes he perceived in the region: “The Indians seemed to be disappearing and the stations and small towns have a different class of settlers than appeared a few years ago.” The result, however, was that the West was still a land of opportunity where one noticed “the great prosperity in this country and of the exceptional opportunity it afforded to all classes who were willing to work.” [31] ‘Civilization’ was coming to the region but in King’s eyes it was creating a new and better society.

Mackenzie King was also impressed by the emphasis on ‘labour’, ‘the people’, and ‘humanity’ that he perceived in the new region. The Prairies offered the hope of creating a society able to avoid the many conflicts and struggles that were coming to characterize the industrial old world. King was an ‘intellectual’ supporter of what he termed ‘the working classes’ and believed his mission in life was “to make for labour vs. all tyranny and oppress’n & effort to gain better life for the toilers.” [32] As a young boy he remembered reading his grandfather’s words: “Well may I love the poor, greatly may I esteem the humble and the lovely.” [33] As one of his contemporaries has written, “Mackenzie King was not only on the side of the poor and humble; he believed he was spiritually one of them.” [34] His graduate career at Harvard, his position with the Labour Gazette, his service with the Department of Labour, and finally his work with the Rockefellers would develop King’s political thinking to the point where he saw himself as a strong advocate of labour and the working classes. He believed he was the impartial umpire maintaining the balance between industry and humanity and if anything, more sympathetic to the plight of the worker than the employer.

King applied the same form of ‘idealistic’ sympathy he felt with labour to the Prairie region, and viewed the farmers essentially as labourers. The western farmers were employers of labour and independent operators, and did not identify themselves with the working classes. ‘The interests’, however, were generally associated with the manufacturing East. In the overall struggle of labour and management King’s ignorance of agriculture led him to equate the West with ‘the masses’. Reflecting back on the Lethbridge strike of 1907, King wrote that “the most enlightening experience of those years was that which arose out of a strike in the coal mines of Lethbridge in the Province of Alberta.” The impact of the Prairie strike would remain with the young politician: “What I saw, at the time, of the desperate plight of a large proportion of the Prairie population made an indelible impression an my mind.” [35] King received widespread acclaim for having ‘solved’ the strike from such western leaders as Saskatchewan Premier Walter Scott, and as one correspondent put it, “the people of a great province will be saved this winter from disaster and suffering.” [36]

In King’s mind the plight of the worker and farmer against the established interests were similar and both deserved sympathy. This sympathy could only be offered, however, as long as the movements did not exceed the bounds of moderation. His attitude toward socialism is therefore crucial in understanding his later views toward the radicalization of the farmer’s movements in the West.

King’s biographer points to his sympathy for labour yet his apathy for socialism: “For one whose paramount desire was to help the working man, King still proved singularly impervious to the appeal of socialist arguments directed to the same end.” [37] He admired “the emphasis ... upon the spirit which the Socialist movement is intended to express” but could not embrace a movement that was “the opposite of that which admits of private property, and of individuals pursuing, under voluntary association, their own interests in their own way.” [38] He acknowledged Marx’s contribution and objective, but could not accept the means nor analysis of change. The answer to society’s social and economic ills lay in reform not revolution. As a ‘liberal democrat’ he could not swallow the notion of class conflict and distrusted all schemes which threatened to abolish private property and curb individual initiative and freedom. Within the desire for social reform there remained the fundamental principles of nineteenth-century liberalism: “I find myself”, King wrote,

becoming ever stronger against govt. action, except for making restrictions, regulat’ns etc. chiefly because of the deteriorating effect it tends to have on human character, giving wider scope for favoritism lending to idleness etc. in those employed, & a favouring sycophancy on the part of those seeking it. [39]

Six months later he wrote, “while my love is mostly for the wkg. classes, I am inclined to believe that it is better for public bodies to leave the matter of ownership etc. alone - I am on the whole opposed to ‘Socialistic Schemes’.” [40] For King, state regulation was beneficial only to check the abuses of private enterprise. In England he had been “immensely taken” with the Cooperative Movement as having “all the virtues claimed for Socialism without its defects.” [41] King did not, however, agree with the socialism or secularism of the Fabian movement in Britain and found it to be faithless. He shared Toynbee’s emphasis on moral improvement as being the key to social reform: “till the heart of man & his morality has changed, external changes whatever they be will neither end corruption or misery.” [42] Mankind was not morally prepared for the responsibility of creating an ideal society of equals, and socialism, therefore, was too idealistic:

How impossible it would be, against the ignorance of the age, & the weakness of human nature as it is constituted, to expect men to be governed in their dealings by ... honor only a spur to exertion, or all to govern themselves without external function or external corruption. Human nature changes slowly, but until men have changed greatly from what they are today anything like a regime of Socialism is entirely a mistake & impossibility. [43]

The radicalism of labour caused an internal struggle for King where his personal sympathies had to coexist with his desire to play mediator. The dilemma would mirror the situation with King’s perceptions of the Prairies. The increasing radicalism of the farmers would clash with his personal sympathies, and he would often find it necessary to fall back on his desire to balance regional interests.

By the early years of the twentieth century the utopian images of the Prairie West were being tempered by the realities of a region being pulled into the political and economic framework of a growing nation. In the face of East-West antagonism and the increasing sentiments of western alienation, particular ‘Prairie’ issues emerged. Mackenzie King found himself in sympathy with western opinions on these issues.

The roots of western alienation went back to the region’s absorption into Confederation. The anger over the purchase of Rupert’s Land which culminated in the Red River Resistance became symbolic of the region’s relationship to Ottawa. Manitoba’s entry into Confederation was reason in itself for conflict. The control of the province’s natural resources remained in the hands of the federal government to foster western development. Manitoba would receive a subsidy in lieu of the resources but this could not replace the symbolic control that was, by British tradition, an inherent right of responsible government. In the meantime when British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871 and Prince Edward Island in 1873, they received full control of their public domain. The creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 under the auspices of Laurier’s Government turned both provinces into Liberal strongholds. Both provinces were refused control of their natural resources on the same basis as Manitoba and this exclusion eventually transformed the issue from a provincial into a regional concern. Westerners justifiably felt they were not on a par with citizens of other sections of the nation.

Mackenzie King found it easy to sympathize with the western desire for control of its natural resources. The Dominion Lands policy was always seen as a short-term measure to deal with the rapid expansion of the region. It was commonly accepted that the claims of the Prairie provinces had a “moral” basis. [44] The issue fit into King’s belief that the West had genuine grievances against Ottawa that only a sympathetic government could properly manage. The resources would not be returned to the Prairie provinces by the King government until 1930 but throughout the lengthy and complicated negotiations the prime minister would often find himself facing off against his eastern colleagues in defence of the western position. As leader of the federal government King worked to gain an acceptable transfer agreement for Ottawa, but in cabinet he defended the Prairie position against such influential eastern ministers as Gouin and Fielding. In 1922, for example, King was “exasperated” by the opposition and described Gouin as “obdurate” and Fielding as “a dog in the manger, when it comes to making any allowances on an equitable basis.” [45]

The means by which Ottawa had fostered western development was the National Policy of Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservative party. The three elements of the policy, transportation, immigration, and protectionism, all became sources of western discontent and augmented the belief that the Prairie West was being exploited and manipulated for the benefit of eastern Canada. The protective tariff came to rest at the heart of the anger.

King’s views on such traditionally liberal ideas as freer trade were strengthened by his graduate work at Harvard. Professor Frank William Taussig, in particular, influenced his thinking. Dawson argues that “to Taussig must be given the credit for conforming and consolidating King’s belief in the theory of free trade.” [46] After listening to a lecture by Taussig, he wrote:

I feel more convinced than ever. In fact convinced for the first time of the truth of the theory of free trade. We must have regard for conditions in practice. I see the side against protect’n more clearly than ever. This has been a day, if not of political convers’n, at least of conviction. [47]

Journeys into the West further convinced King of the soundness of this issue. “To my mind,” he wrote in 1907, “the people have much to gain, by a reduction in tariffs all round.” [48]

The Liberals, however, had to face the realities of office and the sectional interests of the nation. Governing Canada involved a series of compromises among the Maritimes, central Canada, and the West. In 1907 the party had structured the tariff into the British preferential, intermediate, and maximum set of rates, but the Republicans in the United States began to raise their tariff after 1909. King’s Ontario roots, his desire to play impartial umpire, and his growing sense of political expediency made him aware of the benefits the tariff provided the East. He was wrestling with the difficulties of somehow combining his sympathies for a lower tariff with his need to play mediator among regions:

I must frankly confess I see great danger in whole tariff negotiations at this time ... The West just now is affording a good market to Eastern mffrs. We are building up an internal development, trade east & west, mffr. development, getting capital from U.S. & other lands & well enough had better be left alone ... We could meet the farmers by tariff reductions in agric. implements. This has been the view I have taken, it is the Ont. view I believe, & is in national interest, as well as interests of Govt.- If we can get a few national products free each way well & good, [but] it is questionable the touching mffrs to any extent. [49]

Under pressure from agrarian interests across the country the Liberals managed to negotiate the infamous Reciprocity Agreement with the United States in 1911. The fact that later in the same year the Liberals were staking their future and an election on the issue allowed King to return to his philosophical base and the western position:

... agreed the party should think of the consumer primarily, not look to the mffr’r, get after the combines & trusts, not look to them for support. Go in for increase of the British Preference & show up the selfishness of those who were waving the flag as a pretext in the Reciprocity campaign. Look to the West & not a few interests in Montreal & Toronto for results. [50]

Laurier and the Liberals learned their lesson from the defeat of 1911. The national parties were often forced to function less as formulators of policy than as brokers of sectional interests. “Our best course,” Laurier informed King,

is to follow as we have commenced - a revenue tariff-appealing to the common sense of both producers and consumers ... we must convince every class of the community - farmers, manufacturers, consumers and producers - that we are enemy to none, friend of all and that we want justice for every one. [51]

The young King was also coming to terms with the sectional nature of the country and studying the art of brokerage politics that would later become his trademark. A politician could pursue policies based on personal philosophy and sympathy but when the situation demanded it, compromise was necessary. Such an ability was crucial to mediate among the many divergent interests in Canada. King was personally sympathetic to the plight of the Prairie populace and the liberal principle of freer trade but he could understand the tradition of protecting the manufacturing interests, and more importantly its expediency. It was admirable to stand on an issue but as the election of 1911 had shown, it could cause defeat. If the nature of governing Canada meant at times compromising on principle, so be it. He still remained convinced there should be “a reduction of duties ... on all commodities which form part of the necessaries of life,” [52] and if the opportunity arose he would act. By 1914 King had wrestled with the conflicting political and economic interests and was articulating a more comprehensive position:

The declaration on the part of the Liberals for free implements and for free wheat which means free flour, as well, and the abolition of protected duties on milling and also the declaration for a change in the tariff with a view to reducing the high cost of living are surely evidences sufficient that the Liberal party has no desire to see retained privileges which are disadvantageous to the people as a whole. One has also to remember that Canada has had a protective tariff now for a number of years and is alongside of a Nation whose industries are very similar and which have been built up by the aid of protection. To alter a fabric of this kind without injuring legitimate vested interests is a difficult task, and changes as radical as those suggested by some of the members of the Canadian West ... if put into force would only retard in the long run the attaining of the goal to freer trade which is their ultimate aim and which may come in time, though not for many years. [53]

Eastern pressure on the Liberal party to maintain the tariff increased after 1911. Laurier had made Quebec the main bastion of support for the Liberal party and whoever was to be his successor would have to appeal to this stronghold. “I had a feeling, while in Quebec,” King wrote, that certain of our friends there were likely to be more concerned about keeping the tariff where it is than effecting any modifications of it. Under the circumstances it has seemed to me the part of wisdom not to be involved in any discussion of this subject just at this time.” [54] Political expediency and the balancing of sectional interests demanded the impartial umpire refrain from publicly advocating tariff modifications but he continued to believe “the West is right in wanting freer trade.” [55]

As prime minister, King would usually side with western Liberals in working to gain tariff concessions whenever possible. While the tariff remained an issue throughout the early 1920s, King defended the western position against the eastern protectionist wing of the Liberal party led by the influential Fielding and Gouin. Despite the prime minister’s urgings, the budgets of 1922 and 1923 reflected the influence of this eastern faction, but by 1924 both Fielding and Gouin were gone, and King was able to wield more personal sway. The result was the Robb budgets which moved back toward lower tariffs and were popular across the West.

Transportation and freight rates were another source of debate in regards to the National Policy. King shared the West’s distrust of the Canadian Pacific Railway and viewed the relationship of that company with the people of the Prairies as one more example of ‘the people’ being manipulated by ‘the interests’. As Labour Minister he was able to view the railway’s attempts to exploit its employees first hand. The Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement had been the valued Prairie means to cheaper freight rates and was one of the “first fruits of a Liberal Government elected in 1896”. King was personally quite ignorant on the issue of freight rates but he found it easy to oppose the CPR’s desire to end the special western rates. When the Union Government would suspend the rates in 1919, King would declare his intention to restore them. “I believe in letting the Railway lose some of their profits & help along the consumers. I favour the Crow’s Nest agreement coming into effect and will work to that end.” [56] Once again as prime minister, King would find his personal sympathies clashing with the realities of influential eastern opposition which could not be alienated. By 1924, however, he would have his way and the western rates would be restored: “It has been the most difficult question in the cabinet thus far. I can feel that my judgment for better or for worse has prevailed, I believe it is for better”. [57]

Mackenzie King believed the West was a natural region for the growth of liberalism. Western voices, however, were threatening that unless the party made some move to accommodate the Prairie desire for reform, the increasing sentiments of radicalism would move out of Liberal control. King agreed with western sentiment that a New Liberalism was required to deal with the new order: “A radical policy which will, if carried, mean something of real value to the great mass of the people is what the Liberal party must adopt, and be prepared to advocate as strongly as possible.” [58] The Liberal party would have to demonstrate its intention for reform to prevent the West from crossing the boundaries of radicalism.

The favourable impressions of the West were evident in King’s contemplation, as early as 1911, of taking a western seat in Parliament. The power of the Liberals in Saskatchewan made the province particularly alluring, and his early years in politics had demonstrated the difficulty in finding a safe seat. [59] To add to the appeal, Laurier had sat for Saskatchewan. King wrote after the election defeat of 1911 that if he could not win a seat in Ontario he would “go to Saskatchewan.” [60] Western leaders, however, had mixed views on having him take a Prairie seat. “I received today a letter from [Premier] Martin of Regina,” King recorded,

offering me his seat there, but expressing doubt as to the wisdom of opening it or transplanting an eastern man west. The latter prejudice I think I could overcome, by getting around among the people ... More & more Saskatchewan seems to me the best province for my purpose. [61]

The mediator could not accept the notion of being known specifically as an ‘eastern man’ but believed his philosophy and sympathy would make him a suitable western representative. Western Liberals were reinforcing King’s perception that there should exist a strong relationship between himself and the region. “Your ideas,” one correspondent wrote, “on national subjects are much [more] in accordance with the spirit of the West than of old conservative Ontario.” He also suggested that King should represent a constituency in Saskatchewan. [62] In 1926 King would become the representative of Prince Albert, a seat he would hold until 1945. This connection to the Prairies was highly valued by the prime minister who came to feel he was a “spiritual” westerner and defender of the region. [63]

King spent World War One in the United States working as a labour consultant for the Rockefeller family. The ‘war to end all wars’ demonstrated the world was indeed on the verge of founding a new order and out of the chaos and destruction new hope for a better future had to arise. These years also gave him the opportunity to write Industry and Humanity. The work appeared in 1918 and serves as the most comprehensive account of King’s early philosophy. The treatise laid out his plan for social reconstruction in the post-war era and emphasized avoiding industrial disputes. The sympathy lay with humanity and labour but the balance with industry had to be maintained. Its rhetoric was shaped by the ideology of post-war reconstruction and the “swelling currents” of the Social Gospel. [64] “Can we not begin anew,” King wrote, “this time with belief in Divinity, and accepting some law which evidences a divine order, seek out the rules of conduct and methods of organization which accord with the principles it suggest.” [65] With the proper cooperation between the social groups, “it is not alone a new dawn Labor and Capital may summon forth; they can create a wholly new civilization.” [66] The work demonstrated King’s reforming brand of liberal philosophy. The liberal emphasis on individual freedom had to be tempered by the concern for all humanity. The tone of the work found a generally receptive audience in the West and throughout King’s career Prairie residents would often remind the prime minister of the book’s message.

In the meantime, the seeds of radicalism were fermenting in the West where expectations for the new order had been greatest: “Reform in the labour and industrial field ... seemed to be the next step towards the new Jerusalem.” [67] Post-War labour turmoil erupted in May of 1919 as the Winnipeg General Strike indicated that class conflicts were indeed part of the Canadian fabric. The Labour movement was divided on regional lines with western unions tending to be more radical, more interested in independent labour politics, and more militant than their eastern and central Canadian counterparts. There may have been a smaller working class movement in western Canada but it was more radical in pushing for reform and even revolution. [68] The concept of class conflict and consciousness was more prevalent in the West, where in “a land of company towns ... the theory of class conflict received daily confirmation in practice.” [69]

Mackenzie King had come to admire the organization of international unionism as reflected in the American Federation of Labour but he disliked its tendencies toward agitation. Instead King emphasized the importance of moderate leadership. [70] He had been in England at the time of the Winnipeg General Strike but his brief comments upon the event reflected his sympathies:

I think fundamentally the right of collective bargaining was at the basis of the strike, and that the greater readiness on the part of some of the employers to meet’ with representatives of Organized Labour some time ago would have prevented the growth of feeling of which advantage was taken when the strike came on ... so far as the Government was concerned, its action was belated and of little real help in the situation. [71]

The failure of the Strike and the urban labour movement to establish an acceptable and effective political alternative shifted the emphasis onto a burgeoning agrarian protest movement. To King, both the labour and farmer movements were liberal.

Mackenzie King spent most of the War outside of Canada but the War created an issue that would have long-term, detrimental effects on the Liberal party. Laurier’s refusal to accept conscription and join the Union Government maintained French-Canadian support for the Liberal Party in the long run, but lost the immediate support of English Canada. Western Liberals clamoured aboard the Union bandwagon to ensure Canada implemented a policy of conscription and maintained a ‘united’ war effort. In the 1917 election the Prairie West returned forty-one Unionists and only two Liberals. The Liberal Party emerged from the War divided. Mackenzie King had remained loyal to Laurier.

The death of Laurier in January, 1919, forced the Liberal party to contemplate its future leadership and direction. The National Leadership Convention met from August 5-7, and the nature of the Convention platform reflected the need to conciliate and attract many wavering elements both within the Liberal party and the nation. In particular, for the Liberal party to be successful the West had to be won. The platform was considered by some to be radical but its Liberal roots were unmistakable. Resolutions on the tariff were aimed directly at inducing the Prairie West and rural Ontario to return to their Liberal allegiance. The tariff resolution called for the lowering of duties on the necessities of life and supplies used in natural resource industries. The British preference was to be increased to fifty per cent of the general tariff and the desire for the reciprocity agreement of 1911 was reaffirmed. Resolutions on Canadian autonomy, and in particular on labour and industry questions, [72] were in accord with the spirit of reform and showed “the hand of Mackenzie King” in their framing. [73]

King was the Liberal party’s best hope of maintaining Quebec support and winning the Prairie West. Upon accession to the leadership he was forced to bring his idealistic perceptions of the Prairie West to terms with the political realities of regaining the region’s support. The obstacle would be the agrarian revolt. One of King’s most remarkable political traits was patience, and to somehow return the frustrated Prairies to the Liberal fold would require a great deal. He was certain, however, the quest would be his: “I have not the slightest doubt that it will be mine to link together Liberals, Farmers & Labor, and form a really progressive party in Canadian affairs.” [74] The arbitration process would become one of the greatest challenges of King’s career, and at the time it was one of the biggest challenges to his uncertain leadership.

Reaction from the region after the Convention seemed to confirm King’s idealistic and naive perceptions of the Prairies and demonstrate he could overcome the sectional barriers to his elusive dream of national unity. Optimistic Prairie voices seemed prepared to give King a chance to show his mettle: “Young Canada is looking for someone to trust, for an appeal to heroism for the sounding of a high note of idealism + purity in politics ... You may safely trust yourself to the great moral current which has set in all over the world.” [75] King was seen as succeeding the “grand old leader” but his selection resulted in the emergence of a “new Liberal Party” that would, as one correspondent wrote, carry “with it much that was best in the old party” and divest “itself very largely of those features which hampered its progress in the past.” [76] King agreed heartily with these sentiments and saw his relative youth as an essential attribute breathing new life into the party and nation. Laurier had opened the West and King believed it was his task so develop it. “In regard to Mr. King,” the Grain Grower’s Guide announced,

there is undeniably one thing which appeals to the imagination in the fact that he is the grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, who was four score years ago for democracy in Canada, which its spirit had so much in common with the movement of the organized farmers today as a fight against privileged interests for justice and for equal rights. [77]

Mackenzie King sympathized with the ideological sentiments producing the farmers’ movements and believed they were “people’s movement[s] & as such the truest kind of Liberalism,” [78] but he believed they had become radical manifestations of discontent that could only be tempered by conciliation. He saw the farmer’s political involvement as unnecessary because the nation’s politics were determined by the Liberal and Conservative parties which already espoused the two fundamental philosophies of Western democratic thought. “There is an attitude,” King wrote, which is the direct opposite of Liberalism, and that is Conservatism. Liberal and Conservative forces will always be opposed in the nature of things.” A third party had no place and would inevitably pull support away from one of the groups. Because the farmers were liberals in philosophy, the losses would be suffered by that party:

Be assured that once a third party is formed ... instead of any group being able to count upon the support of a great party to insure [sic] the reforms and desires of the armies of progress, we will see a number of factions destroying each other in the face of a common hereditary foe.

The result would be either the destruction of the movement or its eventual return to its roots:

they will become sooner or later a Liberal or a Conservative organization; or they will remain what in reality they are, class organizations under false characterization. If the latter, you may be perfectly sure that it will be a matter of only a very short time before ... they ... encounter a formidable opposition, which will either destroy their influence altogether or drive them for refuge back into the arms of the parties to which they naturally belong. [79]

King’s apathy towards socialism and the concept of class struggle shaped his opposition to the third party’s tendency toward radicalism. Classes existed, but he believed liberalism and the Liberal party as its vehicle had to represent the interests of all groups. Liberalism was to transcend the concept of class. When the Farmers considered themselves a class, they were referring to an occupation rather than a mode of production in the Marxist sense. Nevertheless, King rejected the notion that the Liberals could not represent them regardless of how they defined their position. Class conflict occurred because class consciousness and organization furthered the potential for conflict by highlighting divisions, widening them, and then creating an atmosphere of antagonism. King’s career as labour mediator had trained him to work to bridge the growing divisions between labour and management and demonstrate class cleavages were not necessary. In Industry and Humanity he had sought to lecture society on the dangers of these divisions and to show that through conciliation harmony could be found between the parties to industry. He would bring these same skills of mediation to the agrarian revolt and instilled with his personal sympathies, work to return the disgruntled Farmers to the Liberal fold.

Mackenzie King believed the farmers were being deceived and blinded by regional alienation and short-term success. Their overwhelming popularity was producing optimistic jubilation. “Today the farmers may seem to have it all their own way ...,” King wrote,

it will not be long, however, before the farmers will come to realize that as a class organization it is going to be impossible form them to succeed, and that their real hope lies in maintaining a close alliance with the political party which is broad and progressive enough to promote principles and politics similar to their own. [80]

The advice King received from Western Liberals reinforced his views that the Farmers had to be convinced the Liberals were a new party with a new leader that could represent Prairie interests:

The Liberal party all along has been fighting the battle of the farmers. That will remain an essential part of its work through the years to come, so long as it remains a Liberal party. It is well, I think that the farmers should never lose sight of this. [81]

If a new party and new leader were not enough, all the Farmers had to do was look at the Convention platform. It was not mere coincidence that the Liberal platform coincided to a remarkable extent with the Farmer’s platform adopted by the Canadian Council of Agriculture. In arguing against the Farmers’ movement as a separate political party, King claimed the Liberal Party had fashioned a programme in which “the Farmers have every reason to believe. It is their battle in no small measure, that Liberalism has undertaken to wage.” [82] This perception was reinforced by the Grain Grower’s Guide which praised the Convention for redrafting “the party programme ... into full accord with ... the new progressive spirit of our day.” In its “outstanding feature, and especially those which most vitally affect the well-being of the rural classes” such as the tariff, taxation, natural resources, liquor traffic control, and freight rates, “it is well nigh impossible to distinguish between the platforms.” Indeed,

a reading of the two together would seem to show the Liberals, in framing their platform, had been so anxious to meet the wishes of the farmers wherever it was possible so to do, that they had adopted the very wording of some of the planks in the farmer’s platform. [83]

King had nailed his colours to the mast and as far he was concerned they were the same hue as those in the Prairie West.

The platform would serve as a chart to guide the party in the future and “interpreted in the spirit in which it was framed, admits of no attitude other than one which is wholly sympathetic to what is fundamental in these new movements.” [84] The Liberal leader was learning to use the 1919 platform as a useful device to fall back on whenever he needed proof of his compromising attitude. “They do not seem yet to have hilly realized,” one Liberal wrote King,

the policies of the real Liberal party led by yourself, and their own are almost identical, both as to lower tariffs and also as to honest administration, and the divorcing from our Government of the big business influences which are so prevalent today. They cannot get any place in my estimation except by coming back to the fold where they belong. [85]

The Liberal leader was in full accord:

‘United we stand; divided we fall’ acquires exceptional significance when applied to the forces against which Autocracy and Privilege are arrayed. The Liberal Party has fashioned a programme in which the Farmers have every reason to believe. It is their battle, in no small measure, that Liberalism has undertaken to wage. The enemy’s only hope lies in creating divisions between those who should be rallying around the one standard. [86]

The western journalist, J. A. Stevenson, continued to advocate King as suitable to represent Prairie interests. “Considering that the convention contained no manual workers and very few farmers,” Stevenson wrote, “its programme was very radical” and the agrarian movement “will have to recognize the fact.” The journalist did make one observation that King was not yet willing to concede but which would become increasingly apparent, and help explain King’s difficulties in immediately winning Prairie support: “He is singularly ignorant of the extent and power of the agrarian movement and I told him he ought to take a course of education upon it.” [87] In fact, King had little real understanding of either agriculture or agrarian discontent.

Arch Dale political cartoon, circa 1930.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

By the time he was selected Liberal leader at the age of forty-five, Mackenzie King’s perceptions of the West had developed to the point that he saw himself as particularly suited to represent the region. The Prairies fit into what he saw as his Divine mission to reform the nation, and the logical site for the New Jerusalem: “A political leader who will be a true servant of God helping to make the Kingdom

of Heaven prevail on Earth. This is what I love politics for.” [88] Above all, King saw the Prairie West as a natural bulwark of the new socially and morally reforming liberalism, and himself as in the leading vanguard of these ideals. Canada had produced a Liberal Party that showed signs of regional division in the past but the West’s affinity with his own thinking allowed the Liberal leader to understand the region’s political concerns that were spawning regional discontent. King believed he was sympathetic with the western concerns and the rightful defender of their interests. The Liberal party was still dominated by older politicians, such as Fielding and Gouin, and the new leader intended on using his western sympathies to oppose these easterners whom he believed held too much influence. He remained convinced that the region was essentially liberal despite its tendency to take reform one step too far to the boundaries of radicalism. The region was discontented with its treatment by the eastern-based federal government but, as far as King was concerned, it was the Liberal Party of Laurier that had always defended its interests. From the Metis rebellion to the Manitoba Schools Question to the quest for Provincial Status, the Liberals had become the party associated with provincial rights. They were the advocates of such key western concerns as freer trade and lower freight rates. The division created by the Union Government had taken the Liberal Party to the verge of destruction, largely due to the West’s decision to support conscription and the coalition. King believed that it was time to breach the gulf of 1917 and bring the West back home to its Liberal roots.

King saw himself as the successor to Laurier who would carry on the goal of national unity, and therefore the sympathetic representative of all Canada’s regions, but he did perceive a unique connection with the Prairie West. King viewed the Maritimes as a part of Canada’s past and, much to the region’s frustration, it would largely be ignored throughout his career. Personal defeat in his home province left King with a bitter view towards the Tory stronghold of Ontario. Quebec was the secure Liberal bastion of support that had been carefully constructed by Laurier but it was a cultural, religious, and linguistic mystery for King, best left to the care of a regional lieutenant. The Prairies had become the second Liberal stronghold under Laurier and the policies of the Tories left little chance of the region turning Conservative. If Mackenzie King and the Liberal party wished to have political success their best hope lay in regaining the West.


1. While King has been the subject of several studies, there has been no attempt to approach him from a regional stance. The official biography by R. MacGregor Dawson and Blair Neatby provides the most comprehensive portrait of the prime minister but as might be expected, does not provide a detailed picture of his relations with the various regions.

2. Paul Craven, ‘An Impartial Umpire’: Industrial Relations and the Canadian State, 1900-11 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp.13,17-18.

3. Blair Neatby is the exception. He points out that King was able to “delude himself’ into truly believing that his policies were following his principles. Neatby’s two volumes, of the official biography, however, do not adequately expand this fundamental point.

4. While this a common in most people, it was particularly prevalent in King and was influential in his philosophy.

5. H. Blair Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1924-1932: The Lonely Heights (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), pp. 204-6, 311.

6. Owram, p. 5.

7. Ibid., p. 149.

8. Ibid., p. 165.

9. Francis, p. 107.

10. Friesen, p. l.

11. Journalists, novelists, and poets such as P. G. Laurie, Ralph Connor, Robert Stead, Robert C. Edwards, and J. W. Dafoe, for example, were responsible for the motivation and context of these images. For a full discussion see Friesen, “Studies in the Development of Western Canadian Regional Consciousness, 1870-1925,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 1973).

12. Friesen, p. 109.

13. The West was a ‘liberal’ frontier relative to the East, but was a ‘conservative’ frontier relative to the American frontier. This led to a “duality of conservatism and reform” that came to characterize Prairie political thinking. Owram, pp. 138, 144-5; Friesen, pp. 121,123.

14. Owram, p. 219.

15. As R. MacGregor Dawson has indicated, “from his earliest years Willie lived in a political atmosphere, for William Lyon Mackenzie and the Liberal tradition were integral parts of the family environment.” William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Political Biography, 1874-1923 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958), p. 13.

16. William Lyon Mackenzie King Diaries, University of Toronto Press, June 22, 1895.

17. Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), p. 169.

18. Richard Allen, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914-28 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), p. 3.

19. Friesen, pp. 133-4.

20. King Diaries, June 19, 1898.

21. Cook, p. 211.

22. King Diaries, February 22, 1900.

23. Ibid., August 24, 1897.

24. Ibid., February 14, 1898.

25. Ibid., October 31, 1911.

26. Ibid., April 28, 1903.

27. Ibid., March 5, 1899; February 13, 1904.

28. Ibid., April 26, 1903.

29. King Diaries, January 13, 1914.

30. King Papers, Reel 1919, Volume 22, pp. 20268-9, King to H. B. Cowan, April 23, 1914.

31. Ibid., April 22, 1907.

32. Ibid., September 24, 1897.

33. William Lyon Mackenzie as quoted in E. K. Brown, “Mackenzie King of Canada,” Harpers, January, 1943, p. 193.

34. J. W. Pickersgill, “Mackenzie King’s Political Attitudes and Public Policies: A Personal Impression”, John English and J. O. Stubbs, editors, Mackenzie King: Widening the Debate (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1978), p. 16.

35. King, introduction to Industry and Humanity, pp.xviii-xix.

36. National Archives of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King Papers, J1 MG26, Primary Correspondence Series, Reel 1905, Volume 6, pp. 5414-5, King to Walter Scott, December 11, 1906; Reel 1906, p. 5609, W. G. Walker to King, December 12,1906. For a full discussion of King and the strike, see Dawson’s volume of the biography or Ferns and Ostry, The Age of Mackenzie King.

37. Dawson, p. 85.

38. W. L. M. King, Industry and Humanity: A Study in the Principles Underlying Industrial Reconstruction [1919] (Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1947), p. 11.

39. King Diaries, July 11, 1899.

40. Ibid., July 11, 1899; January 23, 1900.

41. Ibid., January 27, 1900.

42. Ibid., July 11, 1899.

43. Ibid., July 12, 1899.

44. King Diaries, April 20, 1922.

45. King Diaires, April 28, November 15, 1922.

46. Dawson, p. 73.

47. King Diaries, December 13, 1897.

48. Ibid., April 22, 1907.

49. Ibid., January 18,1911.

50. Ibid., February 29, 1912.

51. King Papers, Reel 1920, Volume 23, pp. 21394-4, Laurier to King, April 24, 1914.

52. Ibid., Reel 1918, Volume 21, pp. 19538A3-7, King to J. A. Stevenson, July 4, 1913.

53. Ibid., Reel 1920, Volume 24, p. 21794, King to J. H. Munro, April 27, 1914.

54. Ibid., Reel 1935, volume 44, p. 38933, King to Sydney Fisher, April 13, 1919.

55. King Diaries, May 15, 1917.

56. King Diaries, April 8, 1922.

57. King Diaries, December 18, 1924.

58. King Papers, reel 1918, volume 21, pp. 1953A3-7, King to Stevenson, July 4, 1913.

59. In 1908 King won the seat of North Waterloo but lost it in 1911.

60. King Diaries, October, 13, 1911.

61. Ibid., October 26, 1911.

62. King Papers, Reel 1916, Volume 19, pp. 17468-70, Sydney Fray to King, January 6, 1912.

63. Almost immediately upon taking the seat, King was able to gain a national park and an important branch line for the constituency.

64. Craven, p. 38.

65. King, Industry and Humanity, p. 85.

66. Ibid., p. 528.

67. Dawson, p. 301.

68. See Gerald Friesen, The Prairie West: A History, and Ross R. MacCormack, Reformers, Rebels, and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical Movement, 1899-1919 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977).

69. Craven, pp. 117-8.

70. Ibid., pp. 133-4.

71. King Papers, Reel 1934, Volume 43, p.37626, King to G. E. Brown, September 26, 1919.

72. Such as the right of association; a living wage; an eight-hour day; a weekly day of rest; the abolition of child labour; the principle of representation of labour; an adequate system of insurance against unemployment, sickness, maternity, dependence in old age, and other disability.

73. Dawson, pp. 299-302.

74. King Diaries, October 21, 1919.

75. King Papers, Reel 1933, Volume 42, p. 37089, W. W. Andrews to King, August 10, 1919.

76. Ibid., Reel 1936, volume 45, pp. 39751-2, F. C. Hamilton to King, August 28, 1919.

77. University of Manitoba Libraries, Grain Grower’s Guide, volume 12, p.1741, August 20, 1919.

78. King Diaries, October 27.

79. King Papers, reel 1937, volume 47, pp. 41398-400, King to T. McMillan, November 26, 1919.

80. Ibid.

81. Ibid., reel 1937, volume 47, pp. 41398-400, King to T. McMillan, November 26, 1919.

82. Ibid., p. 41393, King to T. Macmillan, August 16, 1919.

83. Ibid., Reel 1933, Volume 42, pp. 36791-806, “The Liberals and the Farmers”, Article for the Grain Grower’s Guide, November 22, 1919.

84. Ibid., volume 48, pp. 41761-2, King to Martin, December 4, 1919.

85. Ibid., volume 47, pp. 41382-4, N. T. Macmillan to King, November 6, 1919.

86. Ibid., p.41393, King to T. McMillan, August 16, 1919.



Page revised: 11 April 2010