In the middle of the hard-fought 1925 federal election, William Lyon Mackenzie King and his Liberals were in trouble.
King’s campaign on a stay-the-course budget was failing to resonate with voters and his majority Liberal government was in danger of being reduced to a minority.
During a stop in Kingston, Ont., King paid a visit to a woman named Rachel Bleaney — the prime minister’s most trusted medium.
“He walks into the house of one of his fortune tellers … and no one notices,” said historian Allan Levine, author of the book King:William Lyon Mackenzie King, A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny. “It’s the middle of the afternoon and he is going to get his fortune told and talk to someone. And he got away with this and [reporters] didn’t even mind.”
King ended up losing his own seat and his party dropped to 101 seats following the federal election, behind Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives who won 116 seats. This situation gave rise to the infamous King-Byng constitutional crisis.
But whether it was consulting the formations in his shaving cream, conducting séances with the dead or his practice of table rapping (think a giant Ouija board), few knew of the spiritualist side of King until after his death. He was prime minister for 22 years.
“The first time the reporters actually started asking about this was when King was sick in London in 1948, just before he retired,” Levine said “There was this stream of ladies going up to his room all the time. And the reporters in the lobby were kind of curious as to who these people are. And two of them were, in fact, British [mediums]. It was sort of just, again, not really talked about.”
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Levine’s book, based on King’s massive, intimate diary that he kept from 1893 until just before his death in 1950 – shows another side of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, a man often obsessed with the afterlife.
“He looked for ways to communicate with the dead and he found some reassurance and the mediums always told him what he wanted to hear anyway,” Levin said. “They came to Ottawa, they visited him regularly and again no one seemed to notice he had these women staying with him in Laurier House in Ottawa and visiting him. No one asked any questions.”
Levine said after losing power in the 1930s King would host his own séances to communicate with the spirits of Leonardo da Vinci, Wilfrid Laurier, Theodore Roosevelt and — most importantly — his mother.
“He always felt his mother was with him and he would comment in the diary of spirits visiting him in the middle of the night or in his dreams,” Levine said. “He would write down all his nutty dreams.”
Sir John Sparrow Thompson, Canada’s fourth prime minister and first Roman Catholic to hold the office, served just two years as Canada’s leader.
His greatest achievement was actually as the justice minister for Sir John A. Macdonald, when he introduced the first Criminal Code of Canada.
But it was his death after suffering a heart attack at Windsor Castle in England on Dec. 12, 1894 while having lunch with Queen Victoria and the events that followed that make Thompson memorable, according to historian Arthur Milnes.
“Queen Victoria, to her great credit and not many Canadians know this, ordered the first Catholic mass in our guy’s honour held at Windsor since the reformation,” said Milnes.
“Then she puts his body on the royal train, sends him to Plymouth harbour where they paint a British man-of-war black in his honour to sail the body home to Canada. In the Victorian Era this is pretty big stuff.”
Thompson was one of two Canadian prime ministers to die in office, the first being Sir John A. Macdonald, and one of three prime ministers to die abroad, the others being Sir Charles Tupper and Richard Bedford Bennett who both died in England.
Canada’s first prime minister and his love affair with the bottle is well documented and has even been commemorated by Parks Canada.
“He drank a lot, like many other people,” Levine said. “He just happened to be the prime minister of Canada and he went on a lot of benders.”
His drinking led to many infamous stories including the time a visibly intoxicated Macdonald took the stage during an election debate.
According to historian Ged Martin in his academic review John A. Macdonald and the Bottle, Macdonald vomited on stage during the debate.
“Is this the man you want running your country?” asked his opponent. “A drunk?”
“I get sick (…) not because of drink [but because] I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent,” Macdonald allegedly responded.
His drinking had other consequences too.
Macdonald was also apparently so drunk during the Fenian raid of 1866 that while he was acting as minister of militia and defence, he was found passed out during the armed incursion.
When it came to international popularity, forget Justin Trudeau and his shirtless photobombs: it was Wilfrid Laurier who was Canada’s first international rock star, says Milnes.
While attending Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 everybody wanted to speak with the Canadian prime minister at what was the biggest celebration on Earth at the time.
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“It was our guy who stole the show. Everybody wanted a piece of Laurier,” said Milnes. “Then because he was the first French-Canadian prime minister, he crossed the channel and he was the toast of Paris.”
Milnes added that Laurier’s trips to the U.S. would also draw huge crowds as fascination with the Canadian prime minister grew.
Known for his fiery temper, his feud with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and giving Indigenous peoples the right to vote in 1960, John Diefenbaker was one of Canada’s most memorable prime ministers.
And while he managed to pass the Canadian Bill of Rights and help keep apartheid South Africa out of the Commonwealth, the man known as Dief the Chief ended up alienating himself from almost everyone in politics.
“He would go on these tirades because he had a bad temper, he yelled at the media and always thought there were conspiracies [against him],” said Levine, adding that his own party eventually turned against him.
Diefenbaker’s government was also home to Canada’s first major political sex scandal known as the Munsinger Affair, in which Gerda Munsinger — an alleged Soviet spy — had slept with a number of Diefenbaker’s cabinet ministers.
There are also questions that Diefenbaker – always believed to have been childless – may have fathered at least two sons.
— With files from Leslie Young
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