Canada Kicks Ass
Reflections On Canada Day: Ranking The Prime Ministers


JaredMilne @ Wed Jul 01, 2020 7:58 pm

I’m writing this on the morning of Canada Day 2020, thinking about all the fascinating things I’ve read and the people I’ve met.

For the past several years, I’ve written about various deep, philosophical Canada-related subjects. This year, though, I decided to try something different. Historians like Will Ferguson, J.L. Granatstein, Norman Hillmer and George Bowering have ranked Canada’s Prime Ministers, so I thought I’d try and do the same. I’ve mentioned where some of the Prime Ministers would rank in my previous writings, but now it’s time to show the full list.

The Greats

1. Sir John A. Macdonald

Time In Office: 1867-1873, 1878-1891.

The Good: Macdonald played a critical role in finding common ground between the different goals people wanted in the Confederation debates. Macdonald started the growth of Canadian industry with the National Policy of tariffs. He also physically maintained and expanded Canada as a country by bringing B.C., Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories into Confederation, thwarting the Nova Scotia separatist movement and physically linking Canada with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He could also be more progressive than people gave him credit for, as he staunchly supported bilingualism and opposed attempts to assimilate Francophones outside Quebec. He tried (but failed) to extend voting rights to women, and even did the same for Indigenous men. Notably, Macdonald said that “they carry on the system in their own way, but it is the Indian way…in every right they have a right to be considered as equal with the whites”.

More generally, Macdonald oversaw the growth of Canada from a disparate collection of colonies into the beginnings of a country and fended off American annexation. He also realized many of the principles that Canadian governance requires, such as the need for compromise. While he wanted a strongly centralized federal government, he still accepted the growth of provincial power during the Confederation debates and the later court rulings that confirmed their authority. These would go on to become defining features of Canadian federalism.

The Bad: The Indian Act is as bad as every Indigenous activist who’s criticized it has said. Macdonald oversaw the growth of the reserve and residential school systems as his own Minister of Indian Affairs, which are directly responsible for many of the problems Indigenous people face today. Macdonald also wanted Canada to remain an “Aryan” nation and opposed Chinese immigration. He tried to deter Chinese immigrants by charging a “head tax”, and many of the immigrants who paid it would still die later in the construction of the CPR.

Macdonald’s government also did such a piss-poor job of living up to its promises to the Metis and First Nations on the Prairies, either through deliberate starvation or just plain incompetence, that the Indigenous people were forced to rebel in the 1885 Riel Resistance that Ottawa brutally repressed. In some respects, though, Macdonald’s hand was forced by Ontario Orangemen who were so psychotically bigoted against Catholics, Francophones and Indigenous people that they went crazy when Louis Riel had Thomas Scott executed in the 1870 Riel Resistance. There’s a reason political cartoons of the time depict Macdonald being pulled in one direction by the radical Orangemen and in another by Catholics who sympathized with the Metis. (The toxic influence of that radical “One Nation, One Flag, One Language” ideology on Canada can’t be overstated, but is probably a subject for another day.)

Summary: For all his warts, Macdonald is likely the greatest Prime Minister Canada ever had. Without Macdonald, there would be no Canada. Without Macdonald, Donald Trump would probably be our President right now.

2. Lester B. Pearson

Time In Office: 1963-1968.

The Good: Pearson bumbled, fumbled and stumbled his way through two minority governments for a total of five years. Despite that, his list of accomplishments is staggering.

Pearson created the modern Canadian flag and oversaw the successful Expo 67 celebrations, helping to create a modern identity where Canadians were more than just an appendage of the British Empire. He started the path to modern bilingualism with the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Royal Commission and supported recognizing Quebec’s distinctiveness in Canada. He helped entrench equality by instituting a colour-blind, points-based immigration system, decriminalizing homosexuality and creating a Royal Commission on the Status of Women examining gender equality. He improved access to education through the Canada Student Loan Program, and improved the quality of life of millions of Canadians through creating the Canada Pension Plan and modern medicare.

Pearson’s economic successes are just as notable. He made life easier for Canadian workers by creating the 40-hour workweek and two week annual vacation, boosted Canadian industry with the Auto Pact and shielded Canada’s banks from foreign takeovers, which helped Canada avoid the worst of the 2008 recession.

The Bad: Aside from the general chaos of his administration, Pearson’s major screw-ups are few and far between. The biggest one is probably Pearson’s merging the Canadian Forces into a single unit from the separate Army, Navy and Air Force it originally was. That chaos was the start of a long series of problems for the Canadian military from which it’s never fully recovered.

Summary: The only reason Pearson isn’t the best Prime Minister Canada ever had is because Canada simply wouldn’t have existed at all without John A. Macdonald.

3. Wilfrid Laurier

Time In Office: 1896-1911.

The Good: Laurier’s politics of compromise and balance were a critical message during a time when tensions were rife over the issue of bilingualism outside Quebec and the 1885 Riel Resistance. Laurier eloquently resisted attempts to abolish French outside Quebec, balancing provincial autonomy with respecting the rights of Francophone minorities. Some might argue Laurier could have done more, but the problem was that the Francophone populations on the Prairies were small and provincial public opinion was generally against French itself. More generally, though, Laurier managed to start mending the gaping wounds of 1885. He’d also do so again during World War I after he left office, likely saving Canada after Robert Borden’s bungling nearly destroyed it.

Laurier also oversaw a general growth in Canada’s size and prosperity. He added Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon to Confederation, managed a massive economic boom and welcomed a host of new immigrants from all over the world. Canadian multiculturalism really started to develop at this time. Laurier’s words about allowing each group to retain their core characteristics while contributing to the greater whole would be highly prescient. He also blocked various proposals to tie Canada more closely with the British Empire, starting Canada’s distancing from it. He also came up with a skilled and thoughtful balance between the needs of Ontario industrialists and Prairie farmers, although it led to his defeat.

The Bad: Laurier believed in tolerance and open-mindedness, traits that Canadians recognize today…but like many others he only applied them to other white people. He drastically increased Macdonald’s head tax on Chinese immigrants, instituted a blatantly racist immigration system that favoured northern Europeans over everyone else and rescinded the limited voting rights Macdonald had extended to some Indigenous men. Nor did things get any better for Indigenous people in general.

Summary: Laurier was probably one of our most insightful Prime Ministers when it came to understanding the nature of Canada. His foresight and many of his policies reflected what would come later in Canada, both for the good (recognizing the benefits of diversity and mutual accommodation) and for the bad (often only extending those principles to white people).

The High-Averages

4. Louis St. Laurent

Time In Office: 1948-1957.

The Good: Louis St. Laurent oversaw Canada’s post-war boom times, when the economy thrived and Canada’s military was one of the strongest in the world. St. Laurent started the construction of many important public works like the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway.

He fulfilled Canada’s motto of a mari usque ad mare, or ‘From Sea To Sea’ when Newfoundland & Labrador joined Confederation in 1949. St. Laurent also entrenched a critical element of Canadian federalism when he created the federal equalization program. St. Laurent established the principle of mutual aid that many Canadians take pride in.

The Bad: Unfortunately, St. Laurent also allowed more and more of Canada’s economy to be bought up and hollowed out by foreign ownership. Canadians became increasingly alarmed by how much of the Canadian economy was American-owned, and St. Laurent’s dismissing their concerns was one of the reasons he was thrown out of office. St. Laurent also did little to improve the lot of Francophone Canadians in the federal public service, contributing to the isolation many Franco-Quebecois felt and the nascent separatist movement.

Summary: St. Laurent’s record is not the sexiest, but it’s generally a very good one without the screw-ups that weighed down many of his successors.

5. Pierre Trudeau

Time In Office: 1968-1979, 1980-84.

The Good: Above all else, Trudeau was a fighter. He fought for and established bilingualism federally and across Canada with the Official Languages Act, reversing decades of discrimination against Francophones and their language. That also led to an increase in French immersion programs, starting a process of building more links between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. Trudeau also officially established multiculturalism, recognizing newly arrived immigrant Canadians and their contributions. He also maintained many of the social programs that helped maintain a relatively high standard of living for many Canadians.

Trudeau’s fight in the 1980 referendum also led to what’s probably had more impact on Canadians than anything else in the 20th century. He brought the Constitution home from Britain, finally resolving a logjam that Canadians hadn’t been able to solve for decades. The Constitution included everything from a modern amending formula to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter contained everything from fundamental liberties of speech and association to Indigenous Treaty rights to the rights of official language minorities to educate their kids in their own language.

The Bad: Trudeau made an awful mess of the country’s finances with huge deficits and debt increases. The good he did with social programs was offset by his poor economic management. Trudeau’s lack of attention to Western Canada’s economic issues royally pissed off Western Canadians, particularly the National Energy Program that critically damaged Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s economies. Trudeau’s snobbish, dismissive attitude didn’t help either, and drove Western alienation to a boiling point. His lack of attention for the military didn’t help things either.

While Trudeau won the 1980 referendum, he didn’t defeat separatism. He only ever understood half the equation when it came to Quebec-that while a lot of Quebecois are attached to Canada, they also see themselves as distinct from the other provinces. Trudeau’s broken promises in the 1980 referendum, which many Quebecois saw as a promise to recognize Quebec as distinct in the Constitution, and his latter opposition to recognizing it, arguably led to a revival of separatism and the near-disaster of the 1995 referendum.
Parliament also began to weaken on Trudeau’s watch. He began a very bad trend of concentrating more and more power in the Prime Minister’s Office that his successors would follow.

Finally, of course, there’s the 1969 White Paper. Asking Indigenous people to rescind the Treaties was like asking them to peel off their own skins-as Harold Cardinal put it, the Treaties are as important to them as Magna Carta is to England. Unfortunately, Trudeau’s initial policy continues on in modern governments.

Summary: Trudeau’s impact on modern Canada can’t be overstated. Some people swear by Trudeau, some swear at him. I do both-he accomplished some amazing things for Canada, but his failures also did serious harm and keep him from being truly considered ‘great’. His mismanaging of the Quebec issue, and his angering Western Canada, led him to harm national unity as much as he helped it.

6. William Lyon Mackenzie King

Time In Office: 1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948.

The Good: Mackenzie King may have been a racist occultist with an Oedipus complex, but he brilliantly managed Canada’s effort in World War II, far better than Robert Borden did in World War I. Canada’s economy thrived and the Great Depression quickly became a memory. Mackenzie King also carefully managed the conscription issue to keep it from becoming a national crisis the way it did under Borden.

Mackenzie King also played a critical role in building the Canadian welfare state, including old-age pensions and family allowances. Later Prime Ministers would build on his work, but Mackenzie King arguably laid the foundation.

The Bad: Unfortunately, for all his political skill Mackenzie King was also a brutal racist. The oppression of Indigenous people reached its nadir under him, as he implemented the most draconian policies relating to controlling Indigenous peoples’ lives. The residential school system was as strong as ever, and restrictions were placed on Indigenous peoples’ movements that previous Prime Ministers would never have considered.

Mackenzie King also maintained the ugly immigration quotas implemented by Laurier, and interred Japanese Canadians who were considered a threat despite being born in Canada. They were treated as slaves, doing back-breaking labour even as the government stole their property. His treatment of the Jews fleeing Nazi genocide was no better. His Cabinet was full of disgusting anti-Semitism, summed up by the infamous quote that “none is too many”. Mackenzie King’s government sat on its hands when it could have saved tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, including the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis who came to Canada desperately seeking help, but instead abandoned them to their deaths.

Summary: Mackenzie King was a brilliant wartime leader and a brutal racist. His policies would have far-reaching impacts both good (for the non-Native people who thrived under the welfare state) and bad (for the Indigenous and Japanese people who suffered his cruel policies).

The Averages

7. John Diefenbaker

Time In Office: 1957-1963.

The Good: Diefenbaker’s most significant achievement was extending the vote to Indigenous people without forcing them to give up their Treaty rights, delivering something 93 years overdue. He also abolished the racist immigration quotas set up by his Liberal predecessors, opening the way for a colour-blind immigration policy. He also completed construction of the Trans-Canada Highway and got South Africa kicked out of the British Commonwealth for its apartheid policies.

Diefenbaker’s biggest successes were those important to Western Canada and the Prairies. He opened new markets for Canadian wheat to Red China, and his general agricultural reform benefited Prairie farmers too. His ‘National Oil Program’ helped the Alberta oil and gas industry grow. Diefenbaker’s government was one of the first times many Western Canadians felt like they truly had a seat at the table in the federal government.

The Bad: Diefenbaker constantly talked big about his ‘Vision of the North’ but did little to actually realize it. He made enemies without needing to, constantly provoking the United States with little to gain from it and causing political chaos. His Canadian Bill of Rights provided some legal protection, but it was useless in responding to provincial statutes. He also didn’t show much consideration for Quebec either, further strengthening separation.

Most infamously, Diefenbaker shut down the Avro Arrow project, ruining Canada’s chances at becoming an aerospace leader. Many of its best and brightest talents left for the United States, where they would contribute to NASA’s space program.

Summary: ‘Dief The Chief’ didn’t have many earth-shaking achievements, but aside from the Avro Arrow most of his mistakes didn’t hurt Canada in the long run.

8. Jean Chretien

Time In Office: 1993-2003

The Good: Chretien somehow cleaned up the hideous mess that Mulroney and Trudeau made of Canada’s finances and balanced the budget. He also worked with Quebec’s and Newfoundland & Labrador to reform their education systems, which had been tied into the Constitution. Chretien also instituted a new plan of support for supporting official language minority communities, instituted a law banning corporate donations to political parties and added Nunavut to Confederation. Chretien also deserves credit for deciding to stay out of the nightmare that was the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Chretien barely won the 1995 referendum and resumed the offence against separatism. He used the Clarity Act to set out a clear process for any future separation referendums, He also deployed Stéphane Dion’s clear, incisive logic to blow holes in the separatists’ arguments while advocating for the benefits of Canadian unity.

The Bad: Unfortunately, Chretien’s cuts also led to major cuts in a wide variety of areas, harming multiple areas of Canadian life. One of the most notable was the military, which increasingly had to use antiquated junk like the Sea King helicopters while Ottawa demanded more and more of it. Chretien also wasted nearly half a billion dollars cancelling contracts for new equipment. He also wasted millions of dollars on a long-gun registry that did little to deter crime but a lot to cause headaches for law-abiding gun owners.

Chretien also broke many of the promises he made in the original Red Book, including one to fundamentally change how the federal government dealt with Indigenous people. He also sat on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which continue to gather dust today.

Chretien also increasingly bypassed Parliament in favour of his unelected advisors, continuing the trend started by Pierre Trudeau. More damningly, the sponsorship scandal started on his watch, which infuriated Quebec and very nearly plunged Canada into another unity crisis. He also signed off on NAFTA, and all the hollowing out of the economy and loss of Canadian sovereignty that came with it.

Summary: Chretien skillfully managed several bread and butter issues, and did some good for national unity, but his signing NAFTA and his broken promises to Indigenous people left unresolved issues that would come back to haunt Canada in the future.

9. Alexander Mackenzie

Time In Office: 1873-1878

The Good: Canada’s first Liberal Prime Minister, who took office after Macdonald was embroiled in the CPR scandal, made some important changes to the way the federal government worked. He created the Office of the Auditor General to monitor how the government spent its money, the Supreme Court of Canada to have a non-partisan place of justice, and instituted secret ballots in federal elections.

The Bad: ‘Sandy’ Mackenzie could have earned his nickname from how he managed the economy. General economic stagnation and his failure to deliver on Ottawa’s promises of building a railway led to B.C. angrily threatening to separate. Mackenzie generally seemed rudderless in government, and the general state of the country reflected it.

Summary: Mackenzie doesn’t have any major stains on his record, and he made some important contributions to Canadian democracy. Unfortunately, he also didn’t make any really big contributions either.

The Low-Averages

10. R.B. Bennett

Time In Office: 1930-1935

The Good: Bennett had the unenviable task of being in office during the Great Depression. He created some important institutions that would benefit the country for years to come like the Canadian Wheat Board, the Bank of Canada and the CBC, all of which either strengthened Canada economically or culturally.

The Bad: Canada’s economy was in the tank during the Depression, and Bennett mostly made things worse by viciously repressing protesters who asked for help. When he finally, belatedly, tried to put together an aid package, it was struck down by the courts for infringing on provincial jurisdiction.

Summary: Bennett recognized that capitalism needs to “be the servant, not the master”. That insight, as well as the positive parts of his legacy, would far outlast him. When it came to his general government, he was a huge failure.

11. Stephen Harper

Time In Office: 2006-2015

The Good: Stephen Harper greatly improved the Criminal Code by getting rid of ridiculous legislation like the ‘faint hope’ clause, he armed Canada’s border guards, instituted tax credits to families with disabled members, he legislated federal gas tax funding to support municipal infrastructure, he killed the failed long gun registry, and he established Tax-Free Savings Accounts. Harper also fast-tracked skilled immigrants and revised Canada’s immigration policies to favour people who already speak good English or French.

The Bad: Harper damaged Parliament with his hypocritical use of omnibus bills and PMO staffers silencing elected MPs. He damaged public support for pipelines by repealing important environmental legislation, auditing charities that criticized the government’s approach to building pipelines and reducing funding for cleaning up oil spills, he ran deficits as big as any Liberal’s, he gave away the farm in trade deals with countries like China, he unilaterally closed Parliament to avoid facing issues he didn’t want to, and his cuts to pseudo-balance the budget came at the expense of front-line services to Canadians.

Summary: Stephen Harper is arguably the poor man’s John Diefenbaker. While Harper failed in his larger goal to ‘tighten the screws’ on the federal government and make the Conservatives Canada’s natural governing party, he did nonetheless do some very good work on some important bread and butter issues. The difference with Harper is that his screw-ups are more likely to hurt Canada over the long run than Diefenbaker’s were.

12. Justin Trudeau
Time In Office: 2015-Present

The Good: As of this writing, Justin Trudeau has worked diligently to keep Canadians up to date on how the government is dealing with COVID-19, and to ensure that they have the critical support they need. He also commissioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Indigenous people harmed by residential schools, and the report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The country is starting, however belatedly, to act on some of these issues.

Trudeau’s also legalized cannabis, providing a new potential source of economic growth. He’s instituted other policies such as a new childcare benefit and a formal assisted dying law, removed multiple ‘zombie laws’ from the Criminal Code, and increased mental health transfers to the provinces. He also cleaned up the tax code by removing overly narrow tax credits for everything from art classes to textbooks that didn’t benefit most Canadians and weren’t even good at getting people into the activities they supposedly supported.

The Bad: Unfortunately, Trudeau’s botched multiple elements of governance. His government’s been slow to fill basic appointments to a number of offices, he’s been slow to act on the recommendations coming from the TRC or MMIWG commissions he appointed, he’s punished outspoken backbenchers like Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpot for speaking out about the SNC-Lavalin scandal. He’s also run up huge deficits and made a complete mess of his promise to change how Canada elected its leaders.

Trudeau’s also been a terrible communicator. His visits to Indian and the Aga Khan embarrassed Canada and made him look ridiculous, he sneeringly thanked an Indigenous protester when she was dragged out of one of his speeches, and he let the SNC-Lavalin issue fester for months when it could have been quickly resolved. Many Indigenous activists have also been bitterly disappointed at his not living up to the promises he initially made.

Summary: Justin Trudeau may want to do the right thing, and he has done the right thing on some issues, but his reach exceeded his grasp on a lot of things. He seems like he’s in over his head on a lot of issues.

The Failures

13. John Sparrow David Thompson

Time In Office: 1892-1894

The Good: Thompson created Canada’s first Criminal Code and tried to reconcile Catholic and Protestant Canadians. He started to rebuild the Conservative party after John A. Macdonald’s death…right before he died unexpectedly in office.

The Bad: Thompson really didn’t hold office long enough to mess anything up too badly.

Summary: Thompson probably had the skill to do impressive things, but otherwise he’s the great ‘What might have been’ of Prime Ministers.

14. Paul Martin

Time In Office: 2003-2006

The Good: Paul Martin was the Prime Minister that finally legalized gay marriage in Canada. While it was hardly perfect, the Kelowna Accord would have also been an important step in addressing Indigenous poverty. He also wisely decided not to join the U.S.’s proposed missile defence shield.

The Bad: Martin was completely blindsided by the sponsorship scandal and seemed all but lost. The Liberals generally seemed burned out through most of his mandate, and it wasn’t surprising when they lost to Stephen Harper in 2006.

Summary: Paul Martin didn’t accomplish a whole lot as Prime Minister, except to oversee the Liberals’ collapse.

15. Mackenzie Bowell

Time In Office: 1894-96

The Good: At best, Bowell can be praised for supporting Francophone rights in Manitoba despite his Orange Protestant background. He didn’t accomplish much more than that.

The Bad: Bowell didn’t really accomplish much of anything either good or bad.

Summary: Another caretaker Prime Minister who wasn’t very good at it.

16. John Abbott

Time In Office: 1891-1892

The Good: Sir John Abbott didn’t want the job, and he didn’t do much with it besides be a caretaker.

The Bad: See previous comment.

Summary: There isn’t much of anything to write about Sir John Abbot when he didn’t want the job. If there was ever a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister, it was him.

17. Charles Tupper

Time In Office: A few months in 1896

The Good: Charles Tupper had the job for such a short time that he barely did anything with it, much less anything good.

The Bad: Charles Tupper had the job for such a short time that he barely did anything with it, much less anything bad.

Summary: Charles Tupper had the job for such a short time that he barely did anything with it, much less anything noteworthy.

18. Kim Campbell

Time In Office: A few months in 1993

The Good: Kim Campbell, our first and so far only female Prime Minister, had the job for such a short time she barely did anything with it.

The Bad: Campbell didn’t do much to harm Canada, but she didn’t do herself any favours with her campaign in 1993.

Summary: Campbell is another ‘what might have been’, since she succeeded Brian Mulroney. Even Macdonald and Laurier wouldn’t have had a chance after that.

19. John Turner

Time In Office: A few months in 1984

The Good: John Turner inherited all the grievances that people had with Pierre Trudeau, and did very little harm with the time he had.

The Bad: Turner willingly made all the gross patronage appointments Trudeau left for him, leaving him wide open to be destroyed by Brian Mulroney.

Summary: John Turner had an option. He could have said no, not just to Trudeau’s patronage appointments but to the entire job. Both he and Canada would have probably been better off.

20. Arthur Meighen

Time In Office: 1920-21, 1926

The Good: Hard to think of anything, really. Meighen was an arrogant jackass who defended all of Robert Borden’s bad policies and arrogantly ignored the frustrations of everyone from farmers to Franco-Quebecois.

The Bad: Meighen inherited the mess that Robert Borden made of the country and did absolutely nothing to improve things. If anything, he would have made them worse.

Summary: Probably the most contemptible person to ever be Prime Minister. The only reason he’s not lower is because he didn’t last long enough in office to do any real damage.

21. Joe Clark

Time In Office: 1979-1980

The Good: In fairness, Clark tried to address several of the complaints that Trudeau had caused…

The Bad: Clark’s bumbling indecisiveness was humiliating for Canada, especially as Clark seemed to lack any kind of comprehensive policy. When he caused his own government’s downfall on the 1980 budget because he didn’t even count how many of his own MPs were in Parliament, it wasn’t really surprising.

Summary: Joe Clark’s heart was in the right place, but he was completely out of his depth from the start. He totally failed to fix any of the issues Trudeau left behind. Thank God he wasn’t in charge during the 1980 referendum…

22. Robert Borden

Time In Office: 1911-1920

The Good: After nearly causing Canada to self-destruct, Borden insisted that Canada have an equal standing with Britain in terms of sovereignty and foreign relations. He also implemented income taxes and gave women the right to vote in federal elections.

The Bad: Robert Borden couldn’t have done a worse job managing Canada’s World War I effort if he tried. He trampled all over peoples’ civil rights with the War Measures Act, arbitrarily imprisoned immigrants from Germany and other Central Power countries, allowed rampant graft and corruption that sent Canadian soldiers into battle with guns that constantly misfired, dangerously alienated Catholic soldiers, allowed language tensions to rise to a boiling point, and came dangerously close to destroying Canada as a whole.

Summary: Probably one of our most overrated Prime Ministers, Robert Borden nearly caused Canada to explode on his watch.

23. Brian Mulroney

Term In Office: 1984-1993

The Good: Mulroney took a principled stand against South Africa’s apartheid and did some decent work on acid rain. Hard to think of much else, really.

The Bad: Where to begin? Mulroney gutted Canada’s social programs but still ran up colossal deficits and debts that nearly ruined Canada’s finances. After raking John Turner for rampant patronage appointments, he went beyond anything Turner or Trudeau ever did He had the right idea in trying to recognize Quebec’s distinctiveness, but he fumbled the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords so badly that separatism surged to the near-disaster of the 1995 referendum. He also overlooked the increasing frustrations and anger of Indigenous people, which led to Elijah Harper’s saying “no” to the Accord and the Oka Crisis in 1990, which led to similar blockades across Canada.

He infuriated Western Canadians with everything from his reckless spending to his obsession with Quebec issues to his awarding a contract to repair Canada’s CF-18 fighter planes to a Quebec firm despite a Manitoba competitor offering a cheaper bid that the government’s own analysis said was better. Western alienation got so hot under Mulroney’s watch that frustrated Western conservatives created the Reform Party.

Mulroney also implemented the original free trade agreement with the United States. In other words, he started Canada on the toxic neoliberal trend that’s increased the gap between rich and poor Canadians, the hollowing out of Canada’s economy, a lack of social mobility and an erosion of the social programs and mutual support that so many Canadians take pride in.

Summary: Mulroney was a disaster. A catastrophe. A failure. Use whatever term you like.

Vive le Canada uni!


Thanos @ Wed Jul 01, 2020 9:03 pm

Good essay in general. I'm not going to comment on the places you've put them in. It's all subjective. I don't think Harper was anywhere near the demon others think he is given how much Reform boilerplate he abandoned altogether in order to rebuild the conservative side. I will also never follow the Liberal belief that Chretien was somehow cute and cuddly with their "he's first in our hearts" crapola. Not only because of the corruption that happened under his watch but because of his arrogance which IMO rivalled that of Pierre Trudeau's dismissiveness of western Canada. He also nearly saw the country come apart, thanks to his botching of the federalist side of the 1995 Quebec referendum. His leadership in that was appallingly terrible, almost as bad as what Trump's done to the United States in terms of response to COVID.

You should also note one of the worst things to happen under MacKenzie-King. Canada vigourously turned away and outright refused to admit Jewish refugees trying to flee Europe in the years and months before World War Two erupted and refused to change policy at all when Britain declared war on Germany. He even had hardcore Jew-haters in his cabinet that were spouting off racist tripe against Jews that was as terrible as what the Nazis said, things along the lines of "one Jew in Canada is one Jew too many", and the PM did nothing to shut them up or remove them from their positions. This culminated in one of the ugliest moments in Canadian history when the SS St. Louis carrying German Jews found no haven in Canada just like it had been refused by the US and the larger South American countries. We couldn't have done anything to help Jews in Germany or Eastern Europe when the fighting began but there was still almost ten full months where we could have helped evacuate thousand of those people from France, Holland, and Belgium before those countries were in turn attacked and conquered. This is a black eye this country doesn't deserve to ever fade away because our leaders joining in on the worst and most miserable racism this world has ever seen, the endless centuries of hate-filled anti-Jewish bigotry, was as absolutely horrible as the twisted residential school policy we came up with on our own.


Strutz @ Wed Jul 01, 2020 9:28 pm

I agree with Thanos. People with different perspectives/political leanings might rank the above in another way or not see successes/failures as big/small as you have analyzed them. A good summary though of who has been in charge (more or less) of overseeing our government over the years. Love the quips in relation to the short-termers. :lol:

A typo perhaps...

JaredMilne JaredMilne:
18. Kim Campbell

Time In Office: A few months in 1893

1993... :wink:


DrCaleb @ Thu Jul 02, 2020 6:10 am

^^^ I wondered that too. I don't feel that old. 8)


Sunnyways @ Thu Jul 02, 2020 11:21 am

That's a lot of work! I learned quite a bit there. It reminded me of Alan Bliss's rather ambiguously titled book which I read a long time ago in an older edition where he stopped at Mulroney (and as I recall gave him low marks too): ... TF8&btkr=1

A PM is a bit like a bull rider - how you perform is not entirely in your own hands. The guy who started the whole show was always going to get a good mark. I would also be inclined to lump some of them together into eras, going against the Great Man theory a bit. What I like is that you're not as favourably biased toward recent PMs as I would be because I know so little about the earlier ones. Looking at the post-WWII period, PT and Pearson created the modern Canadian state while Chrétien offered the template for the reaction to their radical governments (and Trudeau's spending) that Harper followed.

One could look at different 'best in' categories e.g. campaigning, speaking, corruption (lack of!), spending, foreign policy, legislation.


bootlegga @ Thu Jul 02, 2020 2:54 pm

Solid list - excellent work as always! R=UP

I know it's all subjective, but I would have switched St. Laurent and Pearson around (I think Pearson accomplished more as Foreign Minister than Prime Minister), and listed JT as average, and put R.B. Bennett and Diefenbaker in the failures section. Despite my dislike of Harper, I think you nailed his relative position right on the money.

Thanks for doing this.


JaredMilne @ Thu Jul 02, 2020 6:50 pm

Thanks so much for the feedback, everyone! :mrgreen:

I have to say this year's Reflections nearly killed me. Previous years' reflections usually only took an hour or two in the morning, but this time I had to spend about eight hours non-stop writing and reviewing my sources both written and online. I stupidly thought I could knock it off in a couple of hours and then go to the block party my parents' neighbourhood was having. It was as well that it rained all day yesterday, since the block party was cancelled anyway.

I was a bit worried about how this one would be received too, especially since I covered so much information and gave so many cheers and jeers to leaders some people might love or hate. The reception was a very pleasant surprise.

Thanks to Thanos, Strutz and DrCaleb too-I added a reference to King's anti-Semitism and corrected the typo in Kim Campbell's entry.

That's what I love about this place-even when we have our disagreements, a lot of us are still friends. [B-o]