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TALES AND LEGENDS OF THE MOUNTAIN KINGDOM: Mackenzie King comes to Rossland...and other things disparate and odd
Adolf Hitler. The $50 bill. Séances. Irish terriers. Rossland’s miners' strike of 1901. What do all of things things have in common? The answer is Canada’s longest serving prime minister, and arguably our most eccentric one, too: William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Yes, the tentacles of the Mountain Kingdom at one point reached out and grasped the grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, famous (at least he should be if you paid attention in high school social studies) journalist, newspaper owner, politician, and co-ring leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1836. (If you did not pay attention in Mr. Paolini’s socials class in grade whatever-it-was, here is a nice Wiki on the first Mr. King).
Born in Kitchener, Ontario, which at that time was called Berlin, on December 17, 1874 to a struggling lawyer and a pious mother, King would grow up to be probably the best-educated political leader Canada has ever seen, earning three degrees from the University of Toronto including a law degree and and a MA. After that, he went on to earn another degree at the University of Chicago, and in 1909, he earned a Ph.D, after acquiring a second MA, from Harvard, in political economy. His dissertation was about “oriental immigration” and how it was a bad thing for Canada.
He would go on to serve three terms as Canada’s prime minister, including one that saw the country through WWII (in which he approved the internment of Japanese Canadians), and he would also introduce sweeping changes that would mark Canada forever, like the creation of unemployment insurance, making the CBC and the Bank of Canada crown corporations, the creation of Air Canada’s precursor, Trans-Canada Airlines, and the creation of the National Film Board of Canada.
But King’s love was always labour relations and the connection between labour and industry, and he even published a study on this called “Industry and humanity: a study in the principles underlying industrial reconstruction”, which by all accounts was boring, pedantic, and too abstract for most readers, though through it, King revealed his ideals. One source summed them up by saying, “King rejected the ideas of an inevitable class struggle. Labour, management, and capital were partners, not rivals, and conflict happened when there were grievances that the other partners did not fully appreciate. Industrial peace could be restored only if the partners recognized they had common interests.”
This study was published in 1918, by which time King was a notable labour conciliator with a lot of experience under his belt. This is where Rossland comes in. During the 1901 miners strike, the union executive telegraphed Ottawa and requested King come to Rossland “to act under the Conciliation act, 1900, to investigate and adjust strike here at the mines.”
King was at the time the Deputy Minister of Labour and as such had been following the goings-on in Rossland and the strike. He was sympathetic to the union and was thrilled to bits to be invited to the Mountain Kingdom to help out with the situation there. 10 days after receiving the invitation, he arrived by train.
But King’s visit and findings did not turn out to be the boon for the union’s cause organizers had hoped it would be. In fact, he did an enormous flip flop.
After spending over a week talking with both sides of the dispute, King concluded that it was actually the union executive’s fault the strike had been called, not the majority of the union who voted in favour of the strike in July. In a letter to his boss, William Mulock, the cabinet minister responsible for the Department of Labour, King stated that the strike “was forced upon them [the miners] by subterfuge and a great deal of crooked work on the part of the executive committee...It is only the officers of the executive of the local and district unions who are responsible for having brought on the strike at the outset, and for refusing to allow even those who are affected by it to vote in regard to declaring it off.”
King advised the union to give up their fight. In a letter to his BFF Bert Harper (who would soon be dead due to a tragic accident on the Ottawa River a mere three or so weeks later), King said, “I have obtained a new point of view in regard to trade unionism. The situation [in Rossland] is one of the grossest tyranny of labour organization, and the dealings of those who have manipulated the affair are as crooked as they can be.”
Needless to say, this was not what the union was expecting. The union executive was very upset, and its secretary, Frank Woodside, stated, “we have...reason to believe that his [King’s] judgement has been warped by the exaggerated statements given to him by the mine managers.”
In fact, King thought the mining managers were a jolly fine lot, and found their company “quite congenial”, according to Jeremy Mouat.
As I reported in this piece, the miners’ strike was eventually a monumental failure, and the union executive partially blamed King for not doing what he was invited to come to do.
After a prolific career, King died in 1950. What no one knew until after his death was that he was also an extremely prolific diarist, and once the diaries were released to the public, a big secret of King’s got out: he was heavily into the occult and participated in regular séances in which he supposedly talked to all kinds of people, including his dead mother, some of the saints, his predecessor in the PM’s office, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and his beloved Irish terriers, the first three of which were all named Pat, and the fourth was named Bob - amongst others.
Apparently, King was also into crystal balls, tea leaves, and possibly ouija boards. This obsession with communing with the other side started in the 1920s, so I guess we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions about King’s Rossland flip flop being a directive from his dead mother or a vision in a crystal ball or one of his Pats telling him to change his mind.
As for the Adolf Hitler connection, that is another interesting chapter in King’s career. Wanting to assess Hitler and Germany for himself rather than just trusting what others were reacting to as Germany showed her aggression, King made the journey to Berlin in 1937 to visit Adolf Hitler and measure the man with his own eyes.
What appeared in his diary as as result is quite chilling: “He smiled very pleasantly, and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man and his country ... his eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicated keen perception and profound sympathy (calm, composed) - and one could see how particularly humble folk would come to have a profound love for the man.”
King left the country quite convinced that Hitler was not a threat.
While he surely deserves some credit for going in person to see the Third Reich for himself and not trusting the “other side” to provide him with information, perhaps this was one instance in which he should have consulted his crystal ball.
And, in case you didn’t know, that face on our $50 bill, even the new plasticized version, is that of William Lyon Mackenzie King. He never married and never had any children, and is buried in Toronto.
1. Roaring Days, by Jeremy Mouat