William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Fine Balance

William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874–1950) was the Prime Minister of Canada for 22 years—from 1921 to 1930 (except for a few months in 1926), and from 1935 to 1948. A specialist in industrial relations and an heir to the Liberal party’s tradition of Laurier, his conciliation and political skills helped him stay in power longer than anyone in the history of Canada since Confederation. These talents also helped him preserve the unity of the country and of his party, despite both being threatened during his mandate by some of the most dramatic times in Canadian history, including the Depression in the 1930s and the Second World War.

Black-and-white photo of William Lyon Mackenzie King seated at a desk and prepared to sign papers

The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King (MIKAN 3217524)

Borrowing a number of ideas from political opponents, such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, King greatly contributed to transforming Canada into a welfare state. Under his leadership, the country also gained, although progressively and without any radical breaks, significant independence from Great Britain.

Black-and-white photo of W.L. Mackenzie King standing and holding the lapel of his suit jacket with his right hand

Portrait of the Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, 1921–1926; 1926–1930; 1935–1948 (MIKAN 3217560)

He was an extremely skilled politician, but in his private life, he was a man with strange and original habits. A single man and a believer in spiritualism, he visited mediums and claimed to be in contact with his mother, who died in 1917, in the afterlife.

Black-and-white photo of a man speaking through a microphone and standing on a podium that is decorated with the flag of Great Britain

The Right Honourable W.L. Mackenzie King addressing a crowd outside during his tour of the Western provinces in 1941 (MIKAN 3401452)

Throughout his entire adult life, King kept a personal diary in which he wrote daily, or almost daily, his impressions of events, both large and small, that marked his life. This exceptional document provides an inside perspective on the complex personality of the man, showing the fundamental reasons for his decisions, his personal and professional concerns, and his impressions of the complicated and numerous interpersonal relationships that a politician of his level had to maintain. Library and Archives Canada has the William Lyon Mackenzie King collection and has digitized his personal diary. The full text search offers unparalleled access to the document, one of the most remarkable sources of information on Canadian political history in the first half of the 20th century.

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