History Files
 

The Americas

North American Colonial Settlements

 

Prime Ministers of Canada
AD 1867 - 2021

Modern Canada covers a vast amount of territory - the world's second largest - although great areas of that are wilderness which is largely uninhabited by humans. The bulk of settlement is in the south and south-east which is also where the oldest settlements occur. Canada follows the British pattern of parliamentary democracy. The monarch of the United Kingdom remains Canada's head of state, while a prime minister has been elected since 1867 to take on the task of coordinating Canada's government.

Upper and lower Canada were united with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on 1 July 1867 under the British North America Act. By enacting this, the British Parliament created the dominion of Canada, which was autonomous with regard to internal affairs. In part, the move was designed to unify Britain's possessions in Canada in light of the US purchase of Russian America (Alaska and northern California) and the threat to Britain's trade and colonies in the Pacific region of North America. The institutions which Britain set up were largely mirror images of those in the UK, with the prime minister leading a House of Commons and the governor-general (the UK monarch's direct representative) appointing them (although today's governor-generals have little discretion in the matter).

Canadian prime ministers are not specifically elected to the position. Instead, the prime minister is typically the leader of whichever political party has the most seats in the House of Commons. A senate replaces the UK's House of Lords. The prime minister controls the governing party and speaks for it, names senators and senior judges for appointment, and appoints and dismisses all members of cabinet. As the cabinet chair, the prime minister controls its agenda and greatly influences the activities and priorities of the Canadian parliament. In recent years, a debate has emerged about the growing power of prime ministers, and whether this threatens other democratic institutions.

It was Sir John Alexander Macdonald who became the first prime minister of Canada (1867-1873, with a second spell in 1878-1891). Born in Glasgow in Scotland in 1815, he was the dominant creative mind which produced the 'British North America Act' and the union of provinces which became Canada. As the first prime minister of Canada, he oversaw the expansion of the dominion from sea to sea. His government dominated politics for half a century and set out policy goals for future generations of political leaders. Today the Canadian constitution requires general elections to be held at least every five years. In 2007, parliament passed a fixed-date election law which stated that a general election would be held on the third Monday in October every four years.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with initial list of prime ministers supplied by Janann Blanchard, and additional information from External Links: The Governor General of Canada, and Discover Canada - Canada's History (Government of Canada), and BBC Country Profiles, and Office of the Governor General of Canada, and The Canada Encyclopaedia, and Canadian Prime Ministers (Infoplease), and Library and Archives Canada (Government of Canada), and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

1867 - 1873

Sir John A Macdonald

Conservative. Born in Scotland. Returned in 1878.

1869

Canada takes over the vast north-west region from the Hudson's Bay Company (incorporated in 1670). The 12,000 Métis of the Red River have not been consulted so, in response, Louis Riel leads an armed uprising and seizes Fort Garry, the territorial capital. Canada's future is in jeopardy, but Ottawa sends troops to retake Fort Garry in 1870. Riel flees to the USA and Canada establishes a new province named Manitoba. Riel is elected to its parliament but never takes his seat.

Hudson's Bay Company trading post
By the mid-1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company controlled the north-west region and its fur trade, with this photo showing the post at Sturgeon River House in late 1870

1871 - 1873

British Columbia is joined to the dominion of Canada in 1871 as its sixth province. The province has been hampered by massive debt which the dominion as a whole now absorbs. It is promised a railway connection, but this is not a prerequisite of joining the dominion. Having long resisted confederation, the largely rural Prince Edward Island is added in 1873. Many of the islanders retain a strong sense of independence however.

1873 - 1878

Alexander Mackenzie

Liberal. Born in Scotland. Died 1892.

1878 - 1891

Sir John A Macdonald

Conservative. Second spell in office. Died in office.

1885

Métis and Native Indian rights have again been threatened by westward settlement in Canada. A second rebellion in what is now Saskatchewan - the North-West Rebellion - leads to Riel's trial and execution for high treason, a decision that is strongly opposed in Quebec. Riel is seen by many as a hero, a defender of Métis rights, and the father of Manitoba.

1891 - 1892

Sir John J C Abbott

Conservative. First Canadian-born PM (from the Senate).

1892 - 1894

Sir John S D Thompson

Conservative. Died at Windsor Castle, England, in 1894.

1894 - 1896

Sir Mackenzie Bowell

Conservative (from the Senate). Born in England. Died 1917.

1896

Sir Mackenzie Bowell is the the second and last federal leader to direct government from the Senate rather than the House of Commons. Pressure from his own cabinet forces his resignation, making him the only prime minister to suffer that fate. He does, though, remain a senator until his death.

Prime Minister of Canada Mackenzie Bowell
The Hon Mackenzie Bowell, Member of Parliament for Hastings North, Ontario, seen in 1889 in his role as minister of customs

1896

Sir Charles Tupper

Conservative. Born in Nova Scotia. Died 1915.

1896

Sir Charles Tupper is the last surviving 'Father of the Confederation', a group of thirty-six representatives of the Canadian territories who had led them into confederation and the dominion in 1867. The list of 'fathers' can be expanded but this core number is largely undisputed. His ten-week term of office is the shortest in Canadian history, but he does welcome Nova Scotia into the fold before resigning following a stunning general election defeat of his ailing party.

1896 - 1911

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Liberal. Born in Ontario. Skilful PM. Died 1919.

1904 - 1905

Following a series of confrontations between British general officers commanding the Canadian militia and the minister of militia and defence, a 'Militia Act' now sets up the militia council of civilians and military officials, including a chief of the general staff. The bill doubles the Canadian 'Permanent Force' to four thousand men to provide a garrison to replace the British at Halifax.

When Earl Grey is appointed governor-general of Canada later in the same year, he is also appointed 'Commander-in-Chief of the Dominion of Canada'. Shortly after he takes office, Alberta and Saskatchewan join the Canadian confederation.

1911 - 1917

Sir Robert Laird Borden

Conservative. Led fight for conscription in 1916-1917.

1914 - 1918

Having jointly guaranteed in 1839 to support the neutrality of Belgium, when the country is invaded by Germany, Britain, France and Russia are forced to declare war at midnight on 4 August. The First World War (variously called World War I, or the Great War), has begun. As a dominion, Canada is directly involved, along with its newly-formed Royal Canadian Navy (from 1910).

Belgium refugees in 1914
Belgian refugees (looking surprisingly jolly) were photographed here in 1914, on the road between Malines and Brussels while they attempted to outrun the invading imperial German army

1917 - 1920

Sir Robert Laird Borden

Unionist (Conservatives & Liberals). Retired. Died 1937.

1920 - 1921

Arthur Meighen

Unionist. Conservative leader from 1921. PM again in 1926.

1921 - 1926

William Lyon Mackenzie King

Liberal (with Progressive Party support from 1925).

1922

Canada's National Defence Act brings the militia, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Canadian Air Force together under the administration of the Department of National Defence.

1926

Canada is plunged into constitutional crisis by the 'King-Byng Affair'. Governor-General Lord Byng refuses a request by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to dissolve parliament and announce a general election. Byng is seen has having overstepped the unwritten but traditional rule of non-interference in Canadian domestic affairs.

Arthur Meighen's Conservative government replaces King's liberal one, but that is defeated in the commons and then in the general election by King's Liberals and their renewed support by the Progressive Party. The ensuing fall-out leads directly to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, not just for Canada but for all British dominions.

1926

Arthur Meighen

Conservative. Defeated during 'King-Byng Affair'. Died 1960.

1926 - 1930

William Lyon Mackenzie King

Liberal. Defeated for failing to offer Gt Depression support.

1930 - 1935

Richard B Bennett

Conservative. Created Bank of Canada and CBC. Died 1947.

1931

Canada becomes a separate kingdom from Britain under the terms of the Statute of Westminster. The two countries share the same monarch as head of state, with the younger constitutional monarchy's administration being known as 'Her Majesty in Right of Canada'. The position of governor-general becomes the equivalent of that of viceroy, with the post now representing the monarch alone, and not the British government.

Canada's Parliament building
The centre block of the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa was rebuilt in 1922 following a fire which destroyed the old block in 1916

1934

Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Depression, there is growing demand for the government to create a social safety net with minimum wages, a standard working week, and programmes such as unemployment insurance. The Bank of Canada, a central bank which will manage the money supply and bring stability to the financial system, is created in 1934.

1935 - 1948

William Lyon Mackenzie King

Liberal. Mobilised quickly for WWII. Resigned. Died 1950.

1939

The Nazi German invasion of Poland on 1 September is the trigger for the Second World War. With both France and Britain, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, pledged to support Poland, both countries have no option but to declare war on 3 September. Again, Canada supports Britain's efforts in war, and without any real opposition following King's improved standing after the 1940 election.

1943 - 1944

Governor-General the earl of Athlone and his wife, Princess Alice, host Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and United States President Franklin D Roosevelt at La Citadelle in Québec on two separate occasions in 1943 and 1944. These meetings, known as the Quebec Conferences, help to decide the strategies of the Western Allies, which eventually lead to victory over Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945.

1948 - 1957

Louis Stephen St-Laurent

Liberal. Retired in 1958. Died 1973.

1949

The sole remaining British North American colony, Newfoundland, joins Canada having originally rejected confederation in 1867. Instead the province had remained a British colony until now, when a majority of voters have been persuaded that confederation is a better option.

1950 - 1953

North Korea's forces attack South Korea on 25 June 1950. A multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, and Britain and the Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), goes in to support the south. Out of around 30,000 Canadians sent into the conflict, over five hundred are killed and 1,200 wounded. The Korean War lasts until a ceasefire is agreed in July 1953.

Korean War and the 38th parallel
The 38th parallel (latitude 38° N) crosses the border between North Korea and South Korea towards the western end of the present demilitarised zone (DMZ), but it is the post-Korean War DMZ that forms the actual border between the two states

1957 - 1963

John G Diefenbaker

Progressive Conservative. Lost support. Died 1979.

1963 - 1968

Lester Bowles Pearson

Liberal (minority govt). Led a chaotic cabinet. Died 1972.

1964 - 1965

A bitter debate breaks out in the House of Commons over the new Canadian flag, between 15 June 1964 and 15 December. Former prime minister and now opposition leader John Diefenbaker demands that it features the Union Jack. Prime Minister Lester Pearson insists on a design which conveys allegiance to Canada while avoiding colonial association. His view wins, and the flag is officially unveiled on 15 February 1965.

1968 - 1979

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Liberal. Increased federalism. Defeated by economic crisis.

1970

The 'October Crisis' sees British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte kidnapped by the militant independence movement, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). In response, Prime Minister Trudeau invokes the War Measures Act, providing for sweeping powers of arrest, detention, and censorship. Shortly after, Laporte is murdered by his abductors.

1979 - 1980

Charles Joseph 'Joe' Clark

Progressive Conservative. In office for 9 months. Born 1939.

1980 - 1984

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Liberal. Recalled by party to govern. Retired. Died 2000.

1982

Canada's last constitutional ties with the United Kingdom, apart from sharing the same monarch as its head of state, are severed under the British Parliament's Constitution Act. The post of governor-general remains in place and the date of 1 July, previously celebrated as 'Dominion Day', is subsequently celebrated as 'Canada Day'.

Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau
During his long period in office as PM, Pierre Trudea achieved constitutional independence from the British parliament, and the formation of a new Canadian constitution with the principal addition of a bill of rights

1984

John Napier Turner

Liberal. PM for 11 weeks. Died 2020.

1984 - 1993

Brian Mulroney

Conservative. Battled unpopularity. Retired. Born 1939.

1993

Avril Kim Campbell

Conservative. First female PM. Party annihilated at elections.

1993 - 2003

Jean Chrétien

Liberal. Born 1934. Resigned.

1999

The territory of Nunavut (meaning 'our land' in the Inuit language) is created in northern Canada. This vast self-governing region in the Arctic Circle is the first Canadian territory to have a majority indigenous population.

2003 - 2006

Paul Edgar Philippe Martin

Liberal. Born 1938. Govt mired in corruption reports.

2006 - 2015

Stephen Joseph Harper

Conservative. Born 1959. Served 3 terms.

2008

Political scientist Graham White points out that Canadian prime ministers are amongst the longest-serving leaders among nations with the United Kingdom's Westminster-style parliament, thanks in part to the control that Canadian prime ministers exercise over their parties and their parliamentary caucuses.

2015 - Present

Justin Pierre James Trudeau

Liberal. Son of Pierre Trudeau.

2017 - 2019

Trudeau, while leading a relatively popular and progressive government, is embroiled in an ethics scandal and is found to have breached the federal conflict of interest law after taking family holidays on the private Bahamas island of the billionaire spiritual leader, the Aga Khan. His Canadian foundation has in the past lobbied the prime minister's office and have received federal funding. Despite two more controversies, Trudeau's party wins the 2019 election in the form of a minority government.

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau
Prime Minster of Canada Justin Trudeau, son of the late Pierre Trudeau, himself twice prime minister

2021

Canadian Governor-General Julie Payette resigns her position when an external report finds that she has overseen a toxic work environment. She had been defended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just the previous September (2020), but he is now urged to take his time in selecting a candidate who is more suitable and qualified for the role.