The Lost Prime Ministers is a glimpse at the four men who were Canada’s leaders in the years between John A Macdonald’s death in 1891 and the election of Wilfrid Laurier in 1896. Of the four, two met tragic ends, one was deposed by his own cabinet and the last one only held office for a mere sixty-nine days. Yet each of these men were fascinating for what they accomplished not only in political life but beyond.
As a voracious reader of Canadian history—particularly political history—I was surprised by what I found when I began to research these relatively unknown prime ministers. There was so much I’d never heard or read about each of them. John Abbott was a lawyer, professor, musician, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and all-round Renaissance man. John Thompson—“the man from Halifax”—stood head and shoulders intellectually above most of the men of his day. Not until Pierre Trudeau would we see such brilliance in another PM. Prior to taking office, Mackenzie Bowell, a newspaper publisher from Belleville, was entrusted by Macdonald to handle the customs ministry and was so brutally honest and efficient at it that he angered Sir John A by refusing to grant even tiny acts of patronage. Charles Tupper, one of the key figures in the 1867 Confederation of Canada, was still active in politics and diplomacy nearly thirty years later when he answered the call to head up the Conservative party, despite knowing the odds against him keeping the Premier’s job.
Another thing that struck me as I researched was that so much went on in Parliament—both in the press and in life in general—was not all that different from what goes on today. Newspapers in the late nineteenth century were generally politically biased and often printed “fake news.” (God, I hate that term!) Men like Tupper for instance, were vehemently partisan. Tupper absolutely hated the Liberals and their policies. He’d fit comfortably into contemporary Ottawa. Politicians in the 1890s were almost as prone to demagoguery and populism as are the men and women in politics today. Voters were cajoled, manipulated, and patronized just as we are today.
Perhaps the thing I personally learned from putting this book together was what it takes to be a leader in political life. A work ethic greater than that of your colleagues is one of the characteristics needed. Being able to work well with others is another, though that sounds so cliché and obvious. (Yeah, we learn that in kindergarten. But how many politicians actually know how to practice that skill?) It was interesting to see how these men managed their relationships, brought new ideas forward, and generally handled their political affairs.
I hope that people who read my book will be able to see the admirable (if not great) qualities in these men. Each of these prime ministers had foibles and weaknesses but on the other hand they certainly had exceptional traits that led them to the top of the political ladder.
Michael Hill is the author of The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History. A former history teacher, he was also Mariposa’s artistic director and has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He lives in Orillia, Ontario. Read more here.