Friends and family knew the end was coming; the enigmatic, political warrior had been fading for some time. But his death still came as a shock. It was a warm summer day.
Picnickers had left the heat of the capital for the Gatineau hills oblivious to the human drama that was playing out at Kingsmere, close to Chelsea, Quebec. There, at his summer residence, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister and leader through the dark days of World War II, was breathing his last. He had slipped into a coma two days earlier. At times, he appeared to rally, but the end came on Saturday, July 22, 1950. At his side throughout his final hours was the Rev. Ian Burnett, the minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Wellington Street, the church where King had faithfully attended for decades. Three nephews were also at his bedside—Arthur King, the son of King’s late brother, Dougall Macdougall “Max” King, as well as John and Harry Lay Jr., the sons of his sister, Janet “Jenny” Lay.
Mackenzie King was born in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario in 1874, the son of John King and Isabel Grace King (née McKenzie). He was named after his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto and the prominent Reformer leader of the failed 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. The future prime minster was immensely proud of his grandfather, and in many respects inherited his reforming zeal.
King was highly educated, with a BA and MA from the University of Toronto, an LLB from Osgoode Law School and a PhD in political economy from Harvard—the only Canadian prime minister to have earned a doctorate. In 1900, he was appointed the first deputy minister of labour. Eight years later, he ran for Parliament, winning the riding of Waterloo North for the Liberals. He entered the cabinet of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1909 as Minister of Labour. After being defeated in the 1911 General Election he was in the political wilderness for eight years until he was elected leader of the Liberal Party in 1919 after the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the first leadership convention held in Canada. A surprising choice in many ways as he was an indifferent orator, awkward with most people, and could not speak French. Shortly afterwards, he re-entered Parliament through a by-election. Healing internal rifts within the party caused by the conscription crisis during the Great War that had divided English and French Canadians, he led the Liberal Party to victory in the 1922 General Election—the first of many victories over the coming decades.
In 1926, leading a minority government, King was defeated in the House of Commons where the opposition Conservative Party had a plurality of votes. The Governor General of the day, Lord Byng, refused a request by Mackenzie King to dissolve Parliament and hold a General Election, but instead offered Conservative Leader, Arthur Meighan, the opportunity to form a government. But when Meighen also failed to command the confidence of the House, an election was called. King triumphantly returned to power. This constitutional crisis, called the King-Byng Affair, pitted the prime minster against the Crown. While Byng’s actions were constitutionally correct, King took political advantage of the situation campaigning on a platform that the British government, which still appointed Canada’s governors general, was interfering in the domestic politics of Canadians.
Losing in 1930 to R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives, King and the Liberal Party were re-elected in 1936. King remained in power through successive elections through the war years until his retirement in 1948. He was succeeded by Louis St. Laurent, his former Minister of Justice.
After King’s death, his body was placed in an open, mahogany casket by the fireplace in the sitting room at Laurier House, his Ottawa residence, the same room where he had received so many people during his lifetime. Close friends, senior officials, including Governor General the Viscount Alexander, who had flown back to Ottawa from holiday out west, came to pay their last respects. Prime Minister St. Laurent who had been at his summer residence in St. Patrice, Quebec also quickly returned to the capital to pay his respects. On top of the casket was the golden, enamelled Order of Merit and its green and red ribbon given to him by King George in 1947. The order, of which there were only twenty-four members, had been created by Edward VII. In accordance with King’s wishes, there was no sign of mourning at Laurier House, its windows open, and the blinds undrawn. Callers at Laurier House were received by King’s relatives, Edouard Hardy, who had been King’s private secretary, and Fred McGregor, his former secretary and friend who had been helping King prepare his memoirs.
Telegrams of condolences poured in from around the world. His Majesty King George said that the prime minister’s “lifelong service to Canada will ensure him a place in the history of his country and in the hearts of its people…his wisdom and wide experience were of constant value in the counsels of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” US President Truman called King “an unwavering champion” of freedom-loving peoples and democratic institutions. Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that he was “a great statesman and a friend.”
Mackenzie King’s body was subsequently moved from Laurier House to the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings to lie is state in the Hall of Fame. At each corner of his casket was a constant guard of honour of men representing the armed services and the RCMP. Over the next two days, more than 30,000 ordinary citizens filed past his bier to pay their last respects to the man to had led the country through both war and peace. Flags flew at half mast over the capital.
At 2 p.m. on July 26, 1950, the doors to the Centre Block were closed. When the last mourners had left, Fred McGregor, accompanied by Defence Minister Brooke Claxton, removed the Order of Merit from the top of the casket. Charles A. Hulse, the undertaker, then closed the lid.
Mackenzie King’s remains were taken in procession with muffled drums and funeral music from the Peace Tower to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at the corner of Wellington and Kent Streets for the funeral service. The short route was lined with members of the armed services and veterans, standing shoulder to shoulder. An estimated 50,000 people watched the funeral cortege. Accompanying the casket were thirty-nine honorary pallbearers, headed by prime minister St. Laurent. Also in the procession were detachments of four regiments—the Royal 22nd, the Régiment de Hull, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the Royal Canadian Regiment. The RCAF Central Band and naval detachments were also in the cortege.
In the church, King’s customary pew was draped with purple crepe. Viscount Alexander and Lady Alexander, who had arrived early, sat directly in front of the pulpit close to the coffin. Also in front of the pulpit was a massive display of red roses, a tribute from King’s family. Other floral arrangements on display were from the Government of Canada, Lord Alexander, HM the King, and US President Truman.
Officiating at the service was Rev. Ian Burnett and the Rev, A. F. Scott Mackenzie, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. King’s favourite hymns were sung, including John Oxenham’s “My Own Dear Land” sent to the tune of Londonderry Air, which had been specifically chosen by Mackenzie King. Rev. Burnett gave the eulogy. He said that Mackenzie King was a man wedded to a few great, basic principles of righteousness and truth. First, he was a man of peace who proved to be one of the best leaders through the storms of war. Second, he believed in liberty and detested dictators. Third, he felt deeply for the poor and opposed the unscrupulous use of wealth and power.
Following the service, King’s remains were conveyed in a black hearse to Union Station, preceded by the RCMP and RCAF bands. The route was lined with RCMP constables. At the station, to the beat of a single drum, the coffin was carried to the purple and black draped funeral train. The mahogany casket was then placed in a car by six RCMP constables where it was placed on blocks. In front of it was a bank of flowers.
At 6 p.m., the 15-car funeral train, which included coaches for King’s family, prime minster St. Laurent and others, pulled slowly out of Union station destined for Toronto. On the platform the RCMP band played “Nearer My God To Thee.”
At 10 a.m. the next morning, William Lyon Mackenzie King’s body was committed to the ground in the family plot at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. He was laid to rest beside the remains of father and beloved mother.
Mackenzie King left a vast legacy. In total, he was prime minister of Canada for more than 21 years, a record that stands to this day. He did much to fashion the modern country that we know today. The King-Byng Affair, held against the backdrop of the 1926 Imperial Conference, set the stage for the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which recognized that the dominions, of which Canada was one, were in no way subordinate to the United Kingdom. This statute was given clear meaning at the outbreak of World War II. Unlike during the previous world conflict, Canada did not automatically enter the war when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Instead, Mackenzie King called for a debate in the Canadian Parliament before a formal declaration of war was signed by George VI as King of Canada a week later.
King also oversaw the revival of the Canadian economy in the late 1930s, negotiating trade deals with both the United States and the United Kingdom. During the war, King became recognized as a major Allied war leader, and Canada as an important ally on the international scene. King also undertook social reforms, introducing unemployment insurance and family allowances, that set the ground for the social safety net that Canadians take for granted today. Adroit political management based on a respect for different traditions and views successfully managed the English-French divide. King also successfully negotiated the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation. Keen to foster a distinct Canadian identity, he crafted a new Canadian citizenship law that came into effect in early 1947; King himself received Canadian citizen certificate number one.
There were, however, blots on Mackenzie King’s political escutcheon. Like many Western leaders during the 1930s, he was duped by Adolf Hitler, and for a time looked favourably upon the dictator. He also supported Neville Chamberlin’s policy of appeasement. Reflective of prevailing attitudes, Canada’s immigration policies were anti-Semitic during the pre-war years. The Chinese Exclusion Act, was also enacted during King’s first administration and was only repealed in 1947. Even then non-white immigration continued to be discouraged. First Nations peoples also continued to be denied Canadian citizenship through the King era. His reputation has also suffered from his quirkiness, especially his belief in spiritualism and his communing with his dead mother, something that he kept concealed during his lifetime.
Despite these faults, William Lyon Mackenzie King ranked as Canada’s best prime minister in a 2016 Maclean’s Magazine poll. He is commemorated on Canada’s $50 banknote.