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Reading: Allan Levine, King, Vancouver / Toronto / Berkeley: Douglas and McIntyre, 2011: a review

Updated on August 24, 2016
Bronze sculpture of William Lyon Mackenzie King as a young man, by Ruth Abernethy. Located on the front lawn of Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School.
Bronze sculpture of William Lyon Mackenzie King as a young man, by Ruth Abernethy. Located on the front lawn of Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. | Source

Yes, it's WLMK's religious background

Allan Levine, King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: a life guided by the hand of destiny, Vancouver / Toronto / Berkeley: Douglas and McIntyre, 2011. ISBN 978-1-77100-068-0, p. p. 515


Some books about William Lyon Mackenzie King focus on the minutiae of events in his long Canadian Prime Ministerial career (1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948) and Liberal leader. Others seek to do a 'hatchet job' on his private life. Be this as it may, Allan Levine's magisterial biography of WLMK makes — among other things — a serious attempt to look at the protagonist's deep sense of duty and — related to this — his religious background.

The writer traces how WLMK's earnest, moral background as an Ontario Presbyterian dove-tailed into his sense of obligation in labour and political issues. Reading the book, it is frankly impossible to trace (as many contemporary 'opinion formers' would have us try to do) just where WLMK's sense of religious motivation ceased and his political sense of obligation began. Popular today are attempts to encapsulate environmental and organizational ethics within holistic frameworks which, however, seemingly insist that such paradigms be religion-free zones. The life of WLMK, Canada's (and the Commonwealth's) longest-serving Prime Minister, would serve to disabuse any attempt to interpret a significant part of post-Confederation history in purely secular terms.

Dating from the late 20th century, we read biographies — one could easily cite them — of Canadian public figures which purport to demonstrate how supposedly irrelevant religion had become in Canadian public affairs. (What this means maybe is that this is what the biographers in question wish their readers to believe.) In the case of King, the religious aspect to his thought and life — often overlooked — runs in fact so deep that one may legitimately ask how so called political experts have for so long managed not to see the wood for the trees.

The book is a strikingly complex biography of an amazingly complex man. Some phrases in his life have stood out for years: 'double life' (taken from his student diary), 'not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary' (in relation to keeping Canada together during World War Two). But one may legitimately ask, at what point does WLMK's studied ambiguity leave his obscure personality and become symptomatic of the central dilemmas of Canada itself?

In any case, Allan Levine brings out the contradictions in the personality of WLMK: cold and distant to his devoted colleagues with whom he would presumably have had compelling reasons to try to evince some sense of camaraderie, he could be excessively friendly and unctuous towards those to whom he owed little. He was devoted to the memory of his rebel grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, while resembling him very little. A successful war leader who distrusted the military and its Anglophone business community base, the bringer of social security to Canadians who worried perennially about its excessive cost to the public purse; who really was William Lyon Mackenzie King? Though he acted with a strongly moralizing personal sense of purpose, one wonders in the end whether he was, after all, more about process rather than clearly perceived principles.

April 22, 2013

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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