The prime minister as reader

By Meaghan Scanlon

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Prime Ministers and the Arts: Creators, Collectors and Muses exhibition looks at Canada’s prime ministers through the lens of their relationships with the arts. One aspect of the exhibition is an exploration of the prime minister as collector and fan. Among the items featured that explore this theme are correspondence between Sir Wilfrid Laurier and painter Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, a painting from William Lyon Mackenzie King’s personal collection, and a fan letter from John Diefenbaker to artist Alma Duncan.

But the exhibition mainly focuses on the prime ministers’ libraries. If you read enough prime ministerial biographies, a pattern emerges: almost every one contains references to its subject’s prodigious reading habits. A biography of Alexander Mackenzie (OCLC 20920624), for example, notes that Mackenzie “was a greedy reader, and never tired of poring over his books.” According to the authors, Mackenzie’s family would spend their winter evenings

“sitting round the wide, old-fashioned fire-place, cheerful and ruddy with the blaze of the big logs, reading and discussing literary subjects and authors, especially Shakespeare and Byron, two prime favourites of theirs. It was a very interesting group, and its intellectual life was a fitting preparation for the future statesman. All who have heard Mr. Mackenzie speak, know that he could readily quote from the poets, and from current literature, and that his addresses were invariably pitched on the high plane of presupposing intelligent hearers.”

Sir John A. Macdonald, too, was known for quoting from literature in his speeches, according to biographers. In his book about Macdonald (OCLC 2886256), Joseph Pope claimed Macdonald was an “omnivorous” reader, meaning that he would read almost anything, but his favourite genre was political memoirs. Sir Robert Borden studied classical languages. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto now holds a number of very old Greek and Latin books that contain Borden’s bookplate; one of these, a 1725 edition of writings by Cicero, is currently on loan to LAC for the exhibition. Mackenzie King was an avid reader who regularly commented in his diary on the books he had been reading. Many of his books are now in LAC’s collection, but a portion of his extensive library remains on view in his study at Laurier House.

Each of the prime ministers likely had favourite books and authors—Macdonald was a devotee of novelist Anthony Trollope, and King was so enamoured with poet Matthew Arnold that he began collecting books from Arnold’s own library.

A book open to the inside front cover. Attached to the left-hand page is the bookplate of Matthew Arnold. The right-hand page is blank and held down by a weight.

Bookplate of Matthew Arnold affixed to the inside front cover of The Holy Bible (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1828), from the Collection of Books from the Library of William Lyon Mackenzie King (OCLC 1007776528) Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

But Arthur Meighen stands out among them all for his dedication to one particular literary figure: William Shakespeare. Meighen was known to be able to quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory. In 1934, during an ocean voyage to Australia, he composed and memorized a speech on Shakespeare, which he entitled “The Greatest Englishman of History.” Meighen delivered this speech a number of times; one address, at the Canadian Club in Toronto in February 1936, was recorded. This recording was eventually released on vinyl (OCLC 981934627), giving Meighen the unusual distinction of being the first Canadian prime minister ever to release an album.

A black 12-inch vinyl record with a yellow label.

Photograph of the vinyl record The Greatest Englishman of History by Arthur Meighen (OCLC 270719760) Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

You can hear a clip of the audio recording of Arthur Meighen delivering his speech “The Greatest Englishman of History” in the Prime Ministers and the Arts episode of the LAC podcast.

The exhibition is open at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa until December 3, 2019.


Meaghan Scanlon is Senior Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Canadian prime ministers through news photographers’ lenses

By Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Prime Ministers and the Arts exhibition explores the sometimes unusual links between artistic forms of expression and the prime ministers of Canada. In particular, the exhibition includes architectural photographs by Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1958), Jean Chrétien’s playful selfie (Andrew Danson, Unofficial Portraits, 1985) and the large yellow-and-orange canvas by artist Carl Beam (2000), inspired by Lester B. Pearson.

These works reveal what may be an unsuspected artistic side to our prime ministers. They also show how the role and the personality of some prime ministers have—leaving politics aside—inspired a number of artists. Yousuf Karsh, for instance, whose photographs are preserved by LAC, made portraits of prime ministers of many generations and political stripes during his career, including William Lyon Mackenzie King, Robert Borden, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Joe Clark.

Black-and-white photograph of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at his desk. One of the Parliament buildings is visible in the background through a window.

William Lyon Mackenzie King at his desk, March 15, 1947. King sat for Yousuf Karsh starting in 1936. Photograph by Yousuf Karsh (e010752289)

However, some of the most famous and most iconic photos of our prime ministers are not by portrait photographers. Many were taken by news photographers whose names are unfamiliar to the public. Unlike portrait photographers, who have time to plan their background settings and research their subjects, news photographers must be both patient and react quickly. News photographers must often wait for hours before taking the “snapshot” that tells the story of an event, expresses a feeling, or even captures a prime minister’s personality trait on the fly.

You may have seen the famous photograph of Pierre Elliott Trudeau sliding down a bannister like a child! Taken during the Liberal Party of Canada leadership convention in 1968, this photo is one of the most remarkable shots in the career of news photographer Ted Grant. In a book by Thelma Fayle about Grant’s life work, the photographer explains that if he had not heard the laughter of people nearby, he would probably have missed the moment entirely: “The laughter triggered me to turn around and catch three shots before Trudeau was almost on top of me” (Thelma Fayle, Ted Grant: Sixty Years of Legendary Photojournalism, Victoria, Heritage House Publishing, 2013, p. 67-68).

Born in Toronto in 1929, Ted Grant became a photographer in the mid-1950s. Seen by many as a true pioneer in Canadian news photography (some even call him the “father of Canadian photojournalism”), he worked on contract for various newspapers (including the Ottawa Citizen), the National Film Board and the Canadian Government Travel Bureau. During his career, Grant photographed many leadership campaigns, elections (federal and provincial) and first ministers’ conferences. While following the campaign of Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Grant befriended a young Joe Clark, the future prime minister, and made connections with his political entourage and family. Many black-and-white photos in the Joe Clark fonds and Ted Grant fonds show Clark during public appearances such as his swearing-in ceremony as well as in more private settings such as working meetings with his principal advisors.

Black-and-white photograph of Joe Clark standing and being sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada. Seated at his side is Governor General Edward Schreyer.

The swearing-in of Joe Clark as the 16th Prime Minister of Canada, June 4, 1979. Photograph by Ted Grant (e010764766)

The special relationship between Ted Grant and the Clarks gave him access to the Prime Minister’s private and family life. The photographer took the very first photos of Catherine, the couple’s only child, and he was invited to informal family gatherings and garden parties. Though Grant was in the room, the Clarks seemed able to ignore his camera. According to Clark’s wife, Maureen McTeer, the photographer knew how to be patient and keep a low profile: “Ted will wait for the photograph. If you are aware of his presence, he will wait until you are not. That is a very unusual quality for a photographer” (Fayle, p. 75). But while Grant captured happy moments, such as the Prime Minister sitting on the floor at 24 Sussex Drive relaxing with his wife and daughter, he also caught times of obvious disappointment, including election night 1980.

Black-and-white photograph depicting Prime Minister Joe Clark with his wife and daughter, sitting on the floor in the living room, in front of a fireplace.

Prime Minister Joe Clark and his family (spouse Maureen McTeer and daughter Catherine) at 24 Sussex Drive (e002712822). This photograph is an excellent example of the exceptional, trusting relationship between the Clark family and photographer Ted Grant. Over several decades, Grant documented many important events in Clark’s career, as well as intimate family moments.

Because news photographers capture an instant, it is not surprising that their photo collections include snapshots of prime ministers in the heat of political action. Consider, for instance, the Louis Jaques photo of a young John Diefenbaker speaking in the House as an MP aspiring to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Or the Robert Cooper photo of John Turner speaking to a crowd during his campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Black-and-white photograph showing MP John Diefenbaker standing and speaking to the House of Commons. Around him, MPs are sitting at their desks.

John Diefenbaker, MP, speaking in the House of Commons, 1948. Photograph by Louis Jaques (C-080883)

Black-and-white photograph of John Turner speaking into a microphone in front of a crowd. A Canadian flag is visible.

John Turner speaking to a crowd in Ottawa, at the Liberal Leadership Convention in 1984. Photograph by Robert Cooper (a152415)

Interestingly, nearly half of the photographs preserved by LAC are in photojournalism collections. Ted Grant’s collection alone includes almost 216,000 black-and-white and colour photographs, photo negatives and contact sheets, while there are 175,000 in the Duncan Cameron collection. Much like Grant, Duncan Cameron began his career as a news journalist in the 1950s. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Cameron immigrated to Canada in 1954 and covered Parliament Hill for many years, photographing and forming relationships with various political figures. Cameron was also a contract photographer for Time Life Inc. from 1963 to 1976, and he completed his career at the Public Archives of Canada, to which he donated his collection.

Black-and-white photograph showing four former Canadian prime ministers: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Lester B. Pearson.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson after a Cabinet shuffle, April 4, 1967. Photograph by Duncan Cameron (a117107)

In short, the collections created by news photographers not only document Canada’s political history in exceptional ways but also highlight more private times in the lives of Canadian prime ministers. Whether capturing the heat of a moment or a moment of quiet, or the rise or fall of a prime minister, these artists have managed to capture different sides of prime ministers’ personalities.

Black-and-white photograph of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph

Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph with one of Duncan Cameron’s cameras, June 28, 1968. Photograph by Duncan Cameron (a175919)


Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert is an archivist in the Private Archives Division, Science and Governance, at Library and Archives Canada.

Accessing our history: a project about prime ministers

By Mariam Lafrenie and Rachel Klassen

In collaboration with Queen’s University, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has launched a project to highlight the speeches of Canada’s prime ministers. To begin the project, LAC’s Governance and Political Archives Section was pleased to work with Mariam Lafrenie, a Queen’s undergraduate student research fellow. Mariam became the project’s prime minister researcher over the summer of 2016. Her findings allowed our section to plan how to meet the project’s central objectives of facilitating greater access to the fonds of Canada’s prime ministers preserved by LAC, and to bring Canadians closer to their political history. To conclude this first phase, we asked Mariam to share her thoughts about both the project and some of the notable speeches she encountered.

Mariam Lafrenie’s reflections

Having worked in the fonds of several prime ministers, including Sir Charles Tupper, I have gained a unique perspective on Canadian history and heritage. I have seen the determination of Canada’s future and the goals agreed upon by our Fathers of Confederation, but I have also watched the evolution of these goals. Each prime minister attempted to redefine Canadian identity and the meaning of a unified nation.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent understood his Canada as a place where diversity and freedom flourished, but also as a place where discrimination and terrorism were inherently intolerable. He was known as “Uncle Louis” to Canadians, and during his prime ministership, he oversaw the establishment of the United Nations and Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation.

An older man is standing on a stage and reaching out to a crowd of children.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent with group of children, 1949 (MIKAN 3220798)

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker fought for the indomitable right of all Canadians to be free. In his Canada, being Canadian meant possessing the ability to express your beliefs and opinions, but also having the responsibility to uphold this standard for all of humanity.

I am Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind. John Diefenbaker, House of Commons, July 1, 1960

An older man is standing and speaking to people seated at desks.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker speaks in the House of Commons, October 14, 1957 (MIKAN 3214921)

Prime Minister Lester Pearson left a legacy of perseverance and diplomacy. His Canada was about social advancement, and it witnessed the creation of universal medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Most notably, however, he is remembered for his dedication to the pursuit of a national flag worthy of an independent and unified Canada.

Cover page of a published speech, includes text and a portrait of a white man.

“I Stand for Canada!” speech delivered by Lester Pearson (MIKAN 4924761)

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dedicated 15 years of service to Canadians and brought Canada through the October Crisis and the Quebec Referendum of 1980. He also spiritedly fought to unify Canadians, from coast to coast, and to entrench their rights and freedoms, as his Canada became a fully autonomous nation with its own constitution.

There still remains much to be discovered about Canada’s prime ministers. As LAC and Queen’s continue with this project, greater access to the prime ministers’ fonds will support this discovery!

Related links:


Mariam Lafrenie is an undergraduate student research fellow from Queen’s University who worked in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada during the summer of 2016.

Rachel Klassen is a political portfolio archivist working in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.