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Ranking Canada’s best and worst prime ministers

A survey of scholars across the country weigh in on Canada’s best and worst prime ministers, ranked in duration of their terms


 
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Toronto on Monday, August 17, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Toronto on Monday, August 17, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

As he approaches the end of his first year as Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau surfs a wave of publicity and goodwill. Stephen Harper is meanwhile consigned to oblivion—or worse. In the third Maclean’s prime ministers survey, carried out in the late summer of 2016, Trudeau has a substantial lead on Harper when experts are asked to assess the effectiveness of Canadian leaders.

Trudeau still has the shine of the new about him. He has the advantage of not carrying the load of almost 10 years of hard labour at the job, as Harper did, but there is more to it than that. According to scholars, commentators, and journalists, Trudeau has many more of the attributes Canadian prime ministers must have to be successful.

We set out to discover how Harper and Trudeau compare—both to one another, and to their predecessors. We also wanted to see if views on earlier prime ministers had changed over the years (previous Maclean’s surveys were conducted in 1997 and 2011), and to examine the qualities that drive successful Canadian leadership.

Our survey produced 123 responses from academics and journalists who are experts in history, politics, international relations and economics, making it the largest canvas of opinion on the subject ever undertaken in Canada.

This year’s survey probed deeply into what Canadian prime ministers must do to make a mark on their country. We wanted to know how the leaders managed their cabinets and their parties, communicated with the public, dealt with turbulent times, and how they demonstrated their honesty and integrity—or not. For the first time, we have separated our rankings into two lists, recognizing that it is unfair to compare leaders who served for a long time to those who were in office for only a few months—or, in some cases, only a few days. Here are those two lists:

CANADA'S BEST PMS_SHORT TERM

CANADA'S BEST PMS_LONGEST SERVING

Although Justin Trudeau appears on a different list than Stephen Harper, the gap between them is apparent. Respondents were asked to assess all the prime ministers on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (outstanding). Trudeau achieved a score of 3.27 out of 5, while Harper languished at 2.97. Yet can Trudeau’s impact last, as his father’s has? Will he measure up to the great prime ministers of Canada, or even the good ones, once the burdens of office bear heavily down on him?

The great prime ministers, according to our authorities, were William Lyon Mackenzie King, Wilfrid Laurier, and John A. Macdonald, who were closely clustered at the top of the list—except when experts were 30 years old or younger, or from Quebec.

For younger respondents, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau tied for third, knocking Macdonald out of the elite three. Quebecers also put Pearson third, this time at the expense of Laurier, whom they ranked fourth. Trudeau tumbled all the way to seventh among Quebec experts.

World War II. From left: Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Second Quebec Conference, (codenamed OCTAGON), Quebec City, Canada, September 1944. (Everett Collection)

Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King (left), US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Second Quebec Conference, (codenamed OCTAGON), Quebec City, Canada, September 1944. (Everett Collection)

Among the experts there was consensus on the skills and traits that make for effective leadership. The fundamentals start with an aptitude for holding onto power. “Survival is the ultimate test of political leadership,” said Blair Neatby, who authored books on the durable Laurier and King. “How else can anything be accomplished?” King, Laurier, and Macdonald each had at least 15 years as prime minister and received the highest marks for winning and maintaining support of their party, the public, and Parliament.

Our experts also wanted to see a clear record of significant accomplishments, beyond the ability to cajole voters and manage immediate problems. Crucial also was a sensitivity to national unity, particularly in keeping relations between anglophones and francophones on an even keel. The highest-ranked leaders were those who had devoted their political lives to brokering compromise among the country’s diverse interests and distinct regions.

The experts have changed their criteria over three surveys. This time, large numbers of respondents commented on the way the prime ministers approached Indigenous issues and penalized those leaders who performed poorly in that respect. Experts were also more likely than in the past to make reference to a leader’s environmental policies.

All prime ministers face common challenges: staying in office; building a representative cabinet; holding together a country divided by linguistic and regional cleavages; and maintaining Canadian independence in the shadow of a powerful U.S. Still, many respondents commented on the challenge of evaluating leaders from different eras and contend that governments should be seen in the context of their circumstances. University of Calgary historian Patrick Brennan spoke of the importance of understanding prime ministers in their own times, not making them conform to ours.

For instance, Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister in the prosperous early 20th century, and Louis St. Laurent in the lush and tranquil 1950s—fortunate men both. R.B. Bennett took advantage of an economic downturn to win the election of 1930, only to endure the crisis of the Great Depression.

Steering the ship in bad weather was an important part of our experts’ evaluation. King’s repute rests heavily on his stewardship of the country through the six years of the Second World War. Robert Borden, the First World War prime minister, finished many places behind King because he drove Canadians apart at home in his zeal to win the great battles overseas. John Diefenbaker, in spite of attempts by the Harper government to burnish his reputation, is stuck in the ratings cellar, in large measure because he could not cope with the pressures of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and deteriorating relations with the United States.

When evaluating the prime ministers, many respondents considered the degree of difficulty, as is done in gymnastics or diving competitions. Duke University’s John Herd Thompson insisted that Louis St. Laurent had to be downgraded because “he presided over a Canada that was easier to govern domestically than it had been for any PM who preceded him.”

King, ranked No. 1 in the 1997 survey, regained the position of best prime minister that he lost to Wilfrid Laurier in the 2011 poll. As King specialist Hector Mackenzie pointed out, the longest-serving prime minister’s record is unmatched in Canadian politics and government. King gained independence from the British Empire; founded the welfare state; navigated the perils of the 1939-45 war and the early Cold War; smoothly guided his cabinet and caucus; intuitively understood and responded to popular attitudes; and made his Liberals the government party. Most of all, King never lost sight of Canadian unity, particularly in wartime. “He bridged the solitudes,” in the words of Frédéric Bastien, a professor at Dawson College in Montreal.

The solitudes did not include all Canadians. Nor was King’s Canada hospitable to Asian immigrants or the Jewish refugees of Europe. Stephanie Bangarth, an authority on human rights, put the spotlight on the Second World War “incarceration of Canadians of Japanese ancestry as a true black mark on Canadian history.” Even so, she could appreciate how good King was at his trade: “I both loathe and admire WLMK.”

Dean Oliver, director of research and chief curator at the Canadian Museum of History, said: “King was stubby, sweaty, and sneaky, but what a mind for tactics, openings, and leverage, for people and their foibles, for overarching strategies and destinations.”

King underwhelmed his contemporaries. His unappetizing personality is captured on almost every page of the hundreds of thousands of words in his obsessive daily diary, now preserved at Library and Archives Canada. He fascinates people today, mainly because of his eccentric private life, but when he was prime minister, he left little impression on Canadians unless it was to make them angry. “King would be unelectable today,” laments Jonathan Vance of Western University. “That says a lot about us as voters.”

Wilfrid Laurier, who ranked first in the 2011 survey and moves into second place this time, is an enduring favourite. “Who wouldn’t admire such an endearing, optimistic personality,” Patrick Brennan asked. “Probably our most intelligent prime minister, and certainly the most poetical,” wrote John English, director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History.

Réal Bélanger, co-editor of the Dictionnaire biographique du Canada and Laurier’s biographer, emphasized the first francophone prime minister’s cultural sophistication and intellect, linked to an abiding faith in tolerance and compromise as the way forward for an insecure, easily fractured and colonial Canada. Bélanger agreed with Barry Ferguson of the University of Manitoba that Laurier also opened up a new country to the world.

Barbara Messamore of the University of the Fraser Valley warned that sometimes Laurier’s compromises could be “a moral evasion,” as it was when he surrendered the constitutional rights of Manitoba’s French Catholic minority with a deal “that fundamentally represented an abandonment of those rights.”

Sir John A. MacDonald's statue in Kingston, Ontario on June 21, 2012. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Kingston, Ontario on June 21, 2012. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

John A. Macdonald, prime minister for almost as long as King and during Canada’s precarious first years, falls from second to third place in the rankings.

“The man who made us,” Richard Gwyn’s biography of Macdonald shouts, and the experts were largely of a similar view, with important reservations. University of Victoria political scientist Reg Whitaker described John A’s use of grubby politics “in the service of an encompassing vision and sense of mission.”

Nipissing University’s Rob Gendron reported that his views had changed since the 2011 Maclean’s survey in light of revelations about the systemic and deliberate campaign mounted by Macdonald and his government against First Nations in the West.

Gendron was responding to scholarship examining Macdonald’s Indigenous policies more closely and declaring them unenlightened, even by the standards of the day. To clear the West for new settlers, Ottawa starved First Nations people and deprived the Metis of their land.

Last year’s final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made it impossible for many observers to champion Macdonald, even as they acknowledged his unrivalled political acumen. “His policies toward Indigenous communities have left a scar on the country that has yet to heal,” declared Queen’s University doctoral student Andrew Sopko.

Robert Bothwell of the University of Toronto urged historical perspective. “Macdonald has been unfairly abused for being a man of the 19th century. He had moral failings, and was sometimes indifferent to or negligent of serious problems. He did not have our sensibilities, and had many of the characteristics of his period that at the time passed without comment because they were so widely held.”

Pierre Trudeau and Lester B. Pearson complete the upper echelon of prime ministers who have served four years or more. Pearson received almost exactly the same score as he did last time, but Trudeau has moved markedly ahead of him. Perhaps, in a curious twist, the father’s rise can be explained in part by his son’s current popularity.

But Pierre Trudeau can make it on his own. He brought the French fact to Ottawa and beyond, battled a Quebec separatist movement that seemed sure to succeed, and established a new Constitution with a revolutionary Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“For all his faults, [he is] the saviour of his country,” says historian Michael Bliss of Trudeau. But francophone Quebecers are apt to reject the claim, made so often in English Canada. Historian Éric Bédard told us that Trudeau “remade Canada, but in doing so completely isolated one of its founding communities. He was largely responsible for the near victory of the Yes side in the 1995 referendum.”

Pearson had a sunnier personality and has a reputation to match. The specialists who took part in the survey remembered a poor politician but a creative prime minister whose initiatives included the Canadian flag, medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, peacekeeping, and royal commissions on bilingualism and biculturalism and the status of women. Writing from Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., David Webster said: “Through an act of will and a willingness to see the need for changes, Pearson helped allow a better Canada to be born, instead of fighting those Canadians who were working to make the country a better and more just place.”

Brian Mulroney too was widely interpreted as a transformative prime minister. Queen’s University political scientist Kim Richard Nossal chose him as “best ever” because of “his long-term policy legacies,” including free trade with the United States, the Goods and Services Tax, and pension reform, as well as his focus on human rights internationally and the environment.

Jean Chretien Election Campaign 1997. (Andrew Stawicki/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Jean Chretien during his election campaign in 1997. (Andrew Stawicki/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

The assessments of Jean Chrétien teetered between condemnations of his role in both the 1995 Quebec independence vote and the sponsorship scandal and compliments for the slaying of the budget deficit, for the Clarity Act that set rules for a future Quebec referendum, and for the decision to stay out of the Iraq war. Chrétien finished one place ahead of Mulroney, whose downfall in the survey came from his failure to achieve constitutional reform and, as University of Regina history professor Raymond Blake put it, “the revelations about his life after office that tarnished his remarkable record.”

Stephen Harper was 11th in the 2011 survey, when he was on the verge of forming a majority government. Five years later, he has moved up only one place in the rankings, having (in Kim Nossal’s phrasing) “frittered it away in a splurge of hubris and hyper-partisan nastiness.” Harper received the lowest scores of all the prime ministers in promoting Canadian interests abroad and communicating with the public.

Donald Wright of the University of New Brunswick was happy to see the end of one-party Liberal rule, but was dismayed by Harper’s policies on the environment and the Senate, and by “his shameful decision to go after Islamic women and the niqab during the 2015 election campaign.” Nova Scotia historian Ken Dewar concluded that what Harper left behind “was mainly destructive, which is not really surprising since the driving force of his rise to power seems to have been to dismantle the legacy of postwar Liberalism.”

In their criticisms of Harper, the experts make clear what they want their leaders to be. At their best, prime ministers set a tone of civility and unity. They govern for all Canadians. They make fundamental change by lifting up the country or shaking it to the roots. They leave Canada better than they found it.

Justin Trudeau fits the experts’ job description, but the hard work begins in the second year of his government. He has strong public support and weak opposition, and he has piled up the promises. He has to deliver.

Our experts identify one challenging opportunity for the current PM. Trudeau could put the full powers of the federal government behind an effort to tackle the problems of Indigenous dispossession and destitution. The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a step in the right direction, but it only deals with one aspect of a much larger issue. The Prime Minister will not have to solve the problems facing Indigenous peoples overnight, but he could wage war vigorously, systemically, and on many fronts, confronting not only the immediate problems of Indigenous health, education, and housing, but also the long-term complexities of self-government and access to land and resources.

The Prime Minister must frame his program not as a favour that Ottawa bestows on Indigenous peoples, but as a recognition that their rights have been too long denied. If Justin Trudeau does that, he could find himself near the front of the list in the Maclean’s survey of 2030.

Stephen Azzi is associate professor in the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University. Norman Hillmer is Chancellor’s Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University.

Methodology

In late August and early September 2016, we invited 187 experts in Canadian political history (economists, journalists, political scientists, historians, and international relations scholars) to complete a survey on Canada’s prime ministers. We received responses from 123. They were asked to vote for Canada’s best prime minister, to evaluate each prime minister on a five-point scale, and to rate the long-serving prime ministers (those with at least four years in office) in their abilities in several categories: effectively managing cabinet; winning and maintaining the support of the party, the public, and Parliament; converting promises into deeds; demonstrating personal integrity; leaving a significant policy legacy; communicating effectively with the public; defending and promoting Canadian interests abroad; fostering national unity; and managing turbulent times.


 

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