Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada

By Gregory Clark, August 14, 1943.

What will it be like in Canada after the war? By what changes in our way of life shall we Canadians who remain pay the debt of life and blood we owe to the Canadians who have passed over the highest and noblest divide?

Prime Minister Mackenzie King gave me his answers to these questions in an interview in Ottawa.

“There can be no doubt whatever now,” said Mr. King, “that Canada will be a better and a more interesting place for all to live in after the war. The foundations of the changes to come are already firmly laid down and everybody surely is aware of them. First of these fundamental facts is one over which there can be no disagreement among us. It is this: In the last war, by reason largely of her fighting men and their unforgettable performance, Canada emerged not only in her own consciousness but in the opinion of the world as a nation. In this war, by reason not merely of her fighting men but of her people as a whole and their wonderful performance, Canada is emerging as a world power. As a world power Canada’s policies will have to be world policies. It is unthinkable that Canada will not march with the very forefront of our United Nations in all things.

“The times in which we live,” said Mr. King, “constitute an epoch in human affairs. Human relations have never been so searchingly examined by mankind as a whole. This is not a time in which a little part of the world of a few nations have advanced themselves in the endless struggle of human progress. In this struggle the whole human race in involved. Canada finds herself at this critical and epochal hour just emerging as a world power entitled to march in the van. That is my reason for believing that after the war Canada will be a better, a happier, a more interesting place in which to live for every last one of us.”

“What changes do you foresee?” I asked.

“Social changes,” said Mr. King. “Security and the four freedoms first and last. The policy the government proposes to pursue will be to enlarge the field of opportunity for every man, woman and child by removing the inequalities that arise from false standards of wealth or social position.”

“That,” I said, “sounds like socialism.”

“It is social service,” declared the prime minister: “Simply social service. In the past social service has been held to narrow confines. The elements in our community life developed into social service have been special groups. It is, you might say, as if social service had been a scouting party out ahead of the main body of society. But social service now becomes, not a program but an actuality, not an ideal but a fact. What the scouting parties have discovered we move into. I think I can best describe what I expect Canada to be after the war as the promised land. For the promises of social service and social science for the past 50 years have had a definite goal in mind and that goal I sincerely believe is now in full sight.”

I suggested to Mr. King a theme that is receiving a good deal of attention lately, about the eternal problem of what to do with the clever and the shrewd in this world. Thousands of years ago we decided it was absurd that the strong should rule that the biggest man in the valley should rule the tribe, that he should steal all the prettiest girls, invade the most comfortable cave, beat into submission all others in the community was finally conceded to be unjust; and so law was born. Century by century the use of physical force was brought under control until today it is unlawful for you or me to carry a jackknife with a blade of more than three inches. Today we are at war with a new and perhaps the last great struggle of physical force to resume its mastery over human destiny. But in our long battle we forgot the mentally strong, the strong-willed, the strong-minded. What is the difference between a 250-pound man with a battle-axe and a measly little man with fifty million dollars? Have we come to the time when those endowed with mental strength must be persuaded as we have persuaded the physically strong that the strength belongs to us all and is not a gift in their own right to use lawlessly as they see fit for the control the intimidation and the abuse of their fellow men?

“That fits perfectly,” agreed the prime minister, “with a curious notion I have had lately that history has been on three planes, the earth, the sea and the sky. In ancient days life was lived and wars fought on land. That might be the epoch of physical rule. Then men discovered the seas and went abroad into the world exploring and investigating one another and warring still. That would correspond to the epoch of mental and intellectual rule. Now mankind has moved into the air, the sky. Suddenly we are not only in intimate contact with all the world about us but we are terribly at war with one another.”

“Do you think,” I asked, “that there is spiritual strength in man in view of the world as it appears today?”

“I believe,” said the prime minister in sudden complete simplicity, “in the survival after death of human personality. I believe that a man is an end in himself and not a means to any end. I believe humanity is above all race and all class and that we should love our fellow man not because he is a Canadian or a Frenchman or a Chinese but because he is a fellow mortal bent upon the same journey with us. With all my heart after nearly 50 years of a life devoted entirely to social service, I am convinced that the spiritual capacity of the human race is at its dawn. And when you ask me will Canada be a better place to live in after the war my answer is the world will be a better place to live in.”

“Why are you so sure?” I asked.

“Because the whole history of humanity has been a struggle, often cruel and long sustained,” said the prime minister, “but a never-ending victory for the greater number. Human progress has never been a steady upward slope. It has been a series of plateaus and of sudden steep ascents. We are in the midst of one of the steepest ascents yet experienced. To go back to your analogy of the physically strong and mentally strong, our enemies have asserted again and probably for the last time, the ancient claims of the physically strong. They have persecuted and destroyed among themselves and among their victims those who asserted spiritual or intellectual strength. Their battle today is for the restoration of physical strength to its prehistoric eminence. They will fail. They will be destroyed, and I trust with them all claims forever to the right of physical strength to rule mankind. But in this struggle we are climbing another ascent in the series of plateaus and cliffs by which humanity moves. And in this ascent I believe we shall discover at the top another plateau in which strength of mind or will or even of spirit will no longer demand the rights and privileges over the rest of humanity it has claimed in the past.”

A Curious Parallel

“You spoke a minute ago,” I said, “of your life devoted to social service?”

The prime minister smiled awkwardly and pressed the button on his desk. Walter Turnbull, the private secretary, came in.

“Where are those little handbills,” inquired the prime minister. “I was looking at the other day?”

In a few minutes Walter Turnbull returned with three little old handbills each about the size of a sheet of letter paper. They were faded and in an old fashion. I examined one. It was headed, “The Passmore Edwards Settlement, Tavistock Place, London,” and it was dated December, 1899. It announced a series of lectures by W. L. Mackenzie King. The first lecture was, “What is the Main Feature of the Labor Problem?” The second lecture in that settlement house in a London working class region 44 years ago was entitled, “Some Current Industrial Troubles.”

“How old are you, sir?” I inquired.

“Sixty-eight,” said Mr. King.

“Then you were 24 when you were delivering these lectures in a London slum?” I inquired, “Will you tell me a little about that? How did you come to be looking at these old handbills just lately?”

“I was invited to Columbia university,” he said, “three months or so ago to receive an honorary degree. On the same occasion Sir William Beveridge was receiving a degree. I then recollected that while I was at the Passmore Edwards, or Mary Ward Settlement as it is now called, in London, Sir William Beveridge was warden at Toynbee Hall, another settlement a few blocks away in the poor districts of London doing the same work. I thought it a curious parallel that two young men living and serving at the same time in the same work in London’s laboring district should meet after 44 years at Columbia university for the purpose of receiving honorary degrees. Sir William remained in the academic field to which I had every intention of devoting my life. By accident I was directed into public life and politics, yet I regard my life as having been devoted to social service.”

Three little cheap leaflets advertising meetings in a London Slum settlement at the very dawn of this century at which lectures on social security and labor were delivered by a young man destined to become prime minister of a great and rising young nation. In 1896 and 1897 Mackenzie King, newly graduated from Toronto university, lived at Hull House in Chicago where, under the direction of the famous Jane Addams, he studied poverty and social problems in the slums of the uprising American city. Then he went to Harvard for two years and won a travelling scholarship that took him to the Mary Ward Settlement in London for two years where he lived right in the settlement day and night studying and serving the needs of the working masses of London, lecturing to them and leading discussion groups. It was this experience that led him to accept Sir William Mulock’s invitation when still in his late 20’s to organize for the Canadian government a department of labor. That is how a social service worker of 44 years ago became a social service worker in the great modern field of tomorrow.

The prime minister told me that his book. published in 1918, “Industry and Humanity,” which is still a live textbook in universities in all parts of the world, was mainly the result of his experience in the social settlements of Chicago and London.

Editor’s Notes: This seems like a very simple interview with softball questions by Greg. It also seems padded out to fill space. The Toronto Star was a Liberal supporting paper at the time so, this would be expected.

You can read more about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Walter Turnbull, William Beveridge, and Jane Addams.