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.

The Halifax Explosion: Records at Library and Archives Canada

By Valerie Casbourn

On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships, the Imo and the Mont-Blanc, collided in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour. The Mont-Blanc was a munitions ship on its way to join a convoy sailing to war-torn Europe. The cargo of the Mont-Blanc caught fire, and after burning for 20 minutes, the ship exploded. The blast ripped through the city killing almost 2,000 people, injuring thousands more and causing widespread devastation in Halifax, Dartmouth, and the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove. The “Halifax Explosion” as it became known, brought the danger and destruction of the First World War home to Canada, and left an indelible mark on the city of Halifax.

A black-and-white photograph of several people walking down a street with destroyed buildings on both sides.

Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. The building on the left was the Hillis & Sons Foundry. (MIKAN 3193301)

Guides to Records about the Halifax Explosion

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds various records that tell part of the story of the Halifax Explosion, its aftermath, and the relief work and investigations following the disaster. The first place to look is LAC’s thematic guide, Halifax Explosion. Some of the records listed in the guide are available on digitized microfilm reels on the Héritage website. Other records are available for onsite consultation at LAC.

The guide primarily lists records about the disaster and its aftermath kept by the Canadian federal government. This includes records such as the formal investigation into the collision of the Imo and the Mont-Blanc conducted by the Dominion Wreck Commissioner (RG42, Vol. 596 and RG42, Vol. 597). There is also correspondence of the wartime Chief Press Censor, Ernest J. Chambers (RG6, Vol. 621, File 350, Microfilm reel T-102) that documents both the urgent need to report news of the disaster accurately, but not to reveal any information about the defences of Halifax Harbour.

Image of a telegram that reads: “3:45 p.m. Telegram sent to Geo. D. Perry? Gen. Mgr. G.N.W. Telegraph Co, Toronto, Ont. Telegram sent to J. McMillan, Mgr. C.P. Ry. Telegraphs, Montreal. Ottawa, Ont., December 6, 1917. In view of contradictory reports abroad regarding Halifax explosion I hope everything possible is being done to facilitate a transmission of all press reports. This most desirable from a national point of view. Ernest J. Chambers, Chief Press Censor.”

from Ernest J. Chambers, Chief Press Censor, to G.N.W. Telegraph Co. and C.P. Ry. Telegraphs (T-102, Image 119)

Image of a telegram that reads: “Ottawa, December 7, 1917. C.O. Knowles, Toronto. In connection with reports of Halifax disaster it is important that nothing be published revealing information as to defences, strength and disposition of garrison, etc. Neither should details be given as to naval and transport activities at the port during war. No photographs of Halifax or vicinity taken since commencement of war should be published. Desirable that special correspondents despatched to Halifax inform themselves as to local censorship requirements. Ernest J. Chambers.”

from Ernest J. Chambers, Chief Press Censor, to C.O. Knowles, Canadian Press Limited. (T-102, Image 136)

If you are looking for images, try LAC’s Flickr album of digitized photographs taken after the Halifax Explosion. LAC also has a more detailed description of the explosion at First World War: Tragedy on the Home Front.

A black-and-white photograph showing a line of people digging through the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion. (MIKAN 3193299)

How to Search for More Records

You can find more records related to the Halifax Explosion by searching the Archives database for the keywords Halifax AND explosion OR disaster; or try searching for other keywords related to the disaster. You can then limit your search results by date, or by the type of material (i.e., photographs or textual material).

The records at LAC come from the Canadian federal government and from private individuals and organizations. Some records are available online, and others are available for onsite consultation by visiting in person, or by ordering reproductions.

Correspondence about the Halifax Explosion: Sir Robert Borden fonds

There are far too many different records about the Halifax Explosion to mention them all here, but correspondence in the Sir Robert Borden fonds (MG26-H) tells one small part of the story. Sir Robert Borden was the Prime Minister of Canada and the Member of Parliament for Halifax at the time of the explosion, and his papers include telegram messages giving news of the disaster, messages of sympathy for the people of Halifax, offers of assistance, and more.

To find records about the Halifax Explosion in the Sir Robert Borden fonds, search the Archives database for the keywords MG26-H AND Halifax AND explosion. You can also review the finding aids for the Borden fonds, available as PDF documents in the “Finding aid” section of the fonds description (scroll down).

Much of the correspondence related to the explosion is in the file “Halifax Disaster 1917–1918” (MG26-H, Vols. 89–90, Pages 46309–47016, microfilm reel C-4325, which is available on the Héritage website, starting at image 301).

A Great North Western Telegraph Company of Canada telegram, which reads: “Moncton, N.B. Dec. 6, 1917. J.D. Reid, Ottawa. It is reported that ship loaded with explosives at pier six as she was backing out of pier about half past eight this morning an inward bound ship ran into her and she caught fire, they tried to sink her before she exploded but failed. She blew up at nine o’clock. It is reported the city in bad state and much damage done but account wires being down unable to get any detail. Will give further information soon as obtained. Assistant General Manager Brown going to Halifax by Special. C.A. Hayes.”

This initial report of the disaster was sent to Ottawa from Moncton because the explosion damaged telegraph and telephone wires in Halifax and cut off communications to the city. (microfilm C-4325, image 321)

A Western Union telegram which reads: “RM Boston Mass. Dec 7 via Ottawa Ont. 8 1917. Robert Borden, Prime Minister, Halifax, NS. From your knowledge of conditions at Halifax what can we best do at once to help relieve the distress of the people at Halifax last night medical relief train left here at ten o’clock due at Halifax at eight pm tonight we have a ship here at our disposal that can leave here Sunday morning and would be due in Halifax Monday morning can she dock. H.B. Endicot Chairman Mass Halifax Relief Committee.”

An offer of help from Boston, sent to Sir Robert Borden by H.B. Endicott, Chairman of the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee (microfilm C-4325, image 345)

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Valerie Casbourn is an archivist with the Regional Services and ATIP Division at Library and Archives Canada.