Last episode, I talked about Edward Blake, the first Leader of the Official Opposition to never become prime minister when he served from 1880 to 1887. Today, we are going to jump ahead three decades, past the First World War, for the next person who served as leader but never became prime minister, Daniel Duncan McKenzie.
I debated about including McKenzie and a couple others because they were acting leaders, rather than official leaders, but I thought it would be a good idea. As well, when I say that three Liberal leaders never became prime minister, I’m not including McKenzie in that as he was acting, rather than elected by the party. McKenzie also has the distinction of filling the gap following the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier on Feb. 17, 1919, before the arrival of William Lyon Mackenzie King as leader on April 7, 1919, a role he would fill for the next three decades.
As a result of his limited time in power, this won’t be a very long episode.
Daniel Duncan McKenzie was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on Jan. 8, 1859 to Duncan and Jessie McKenzie.
Educated at public school, he would go on to Sydney Academy where he studied law with George Murray, who was a member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from 1867 to 1871 as a member of the Anti-Confederation Party.
Working as a lawyer, one of his most notable clients was the Nova Scotia Steel Company.
His first foray into political life came when he was appointed as the Commissioner of Schools for Cape Breton, followed by ten terms on the Municipal Council of North Sydney, including five years as the mayor of the community.
He would marry Florence Macdonald of Sydney Mines and the community of Florence, Cape Breton would be named for her later in life. The couple would live as Presbyterians and by all accounts had a very happy marriage.
In 1900, he would be elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly as a Liberal, and again in 1901.
In 1904, he would be elected to the House of Commons of Canada for the North Cape Breton and Victoria riding, serving for the next two years.
In 1906, he resigned as he was appointed as a judge in the County Court of Nova Scotia. Working as a judge for the next two years, he resigned and was elected once again to the House of Commons in 1908, and would remain in Parliament for over a decade.
Upon the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been the leader of the Liberal Party since 1887, McKenzie took over as the acting leader of the party on Feb. 17, 1919.
At the time it was stated that he quote:
“ascended higher on the political pyramid than any other Cape Bretoner before or since.”
While McKenzie was now the acting leader, he refused to occupy the chair that had been used by Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The Ottawa Citizen would report on Feb. 26, 1919, quote:
“Standing by the chair of the dead leader, Mr. McKenzie said he felt that it could never be filled again. The leadership of the Liberal Party would be filled, but the present could not produce a man who was capable of taking the place which Sir Wilfrid’s death had left vacant.”
McKenzie would state in that same article that he was sorry that the duty of paying tribute had not fallen on more capable shoulders than his own. He would state that with the death of Laurier, he found himself longing, quote:
“for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still.”
He would add that Laurier was a democrat to the hilt and he could understand the feelings of the people because he had grown and lived with them. He would continue, quote:
“If he had been born in any other country, in the United States for example, his position would have been similar to that of Washington or Lincoln.”
On March 6, 1919, H.F. Gadsby would report on the new leader of the party, stating he was filling a dead man’s shoes. He would state, while giving an incorrect name for McKenzie, quote:
“Daniel Donald McKenzie of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is the Joshua-o’-the-pinch who will bridge the gap between the wilderness and the promised land until the Liberal Party holds its national convention next midsummer. Then the real Saul will be chosen, but meantime McKenzie’s the man.”
He would continue, quote:
“Leader McKenzie’s job is to lead, under advisement, for the next five months or so, to do the rough and tumble, to endure the head and shoulder the burden, to draw the salary, which is a consideration, but not to occupy the vacant chair, which is to be kept sacred for Sir Wilfrid’s permanent successor.”
Gadsby would finish his assessment of McKenzie, stating quote:
During his time as leader, McKenzie had little time to do much beyond attack the government for various matters. On April 23, 1919, he would attack the government regarding the fact that Canadian manufacturers were unable to use wool produced in Canada and had to import it from the United States. He would also put forward a motion that the construction of the Welland Canal should be done by the returning soldiers who were arriving home and needed work.
On May 9, 1919, he would again attack the government over demobilization following the end of the First World War. He would state that the men on Canadian ship Niobe wanted to get away and claimed that the officers were delaying demobilization simply for the purpose of keeping positions for themselves.
As the leader of the Liberal Party, McKenzie would also draft the agenda for the first Liberal Convention. He would state, quote:
“The purpose of the convention will be first to draft, discuss and adopt the platform of the Liberal Party of Canada, second to deal with the question of party organization, third to select a leader in succession to Sir Wilfrid Laurier.”
McKenzie would serve as leader until Aug. 7, 1919 when the first Liberal leadership convention ever held was conducted. The first leadership convention had been called by Sir Wilfrid Laurier prior to his death, with the intention of reinvigorating the party after it had spent eight years in opposition. There was also the matter of the Conscription Crisis, which had split the party. The Laurier Liberals remained in opposition, while the Liberal-Unionist faction were part of the union government of Sir Robert Borden.
Prior to this convention, party leaders were chosen by the outgoing leader, or the parliamentary caucus. The Liberal Caucus in the wake of the death of Laurier, felt that this as not a proper representation of Canada’s growing diversity.
In the convention, four candidates put their name forward. There as William Lyon Mackenzie King, the former Minister of Labour, William Stevens Fielding, the former Minister of Finance and the Premier of Nova Scotia from 1884 to 1896, George Graham and McKenzie. Fielding was seen as the natural successor to Laurier but in 1917, he had split with the party over the issue of conscription and became a Liberal-Unionist MP, which would hurt his support in the party.
The convention would kick off with the arrival of McKenzie. The Montreal Gazette reported, quote:
“Mr. D.D. McKenzie, the first of the aspirants for leadership to arrive, was received with a round of applause. He proceeded to the platform to temporarily preside over the proceedings.”
During the convention, McKenzie put forward a resolution for the reduction to the high cost of living and to outlaw profiteering in Canada as part of the Liberal platform. According to the Victoria Daily Times, the speech in favour of the matter by McKenzie was met with great enthusiasm and the resolution was carried.
Also during his speech to the Liberal delegates, McKenzie stated that he had been a follower of Sir Wilfrid Laurier to the last. McKenzie also had some heavy weights behind him for the leadership of the party, including Frank Oliver, who had served in Parliament since 1896 and was the Minister of the Interior from 1905 to 1911. The Calgary Herald would report, quote:
“Between the lot of them, D.D. McKenzie, the temporary leader, has a splendid chance of slipping in.”
The Ottawa Citizen would report, quote:
“D.D. McKenzie, who has been lagging somewhat of late, went over the jumps, made the effort of his life and had the delegates yelling and waving.”
Not every newspaper thought well of the chances of McKenzie to take the leadership. The Regina Leader-Post would state, quote:
“Whatever the degree of support which will be accorded D.D. McKenzie, his followers assuredly are a quiet and docile lot, doing little shouting from the house top. So it happens that his name is not at all prominent. It will be surprising if the last analysis he is much above the foot of the ladder.”
The first ballot would begin at 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 7. In the first ballot, King was only five percentage points above Fielding, while McKenzie was tied for last place with Graham with 16.2 per cent of the vote. In the second ballot, King increased his lead to 43.8 per cent, compared to Fielding’s 36.6 per cent. McKenzie dropped to 6.4 per cent, well back of the leaders in the ballots. On the last ballot, Graham and McKenzie withdrew and King won, becoming the leader of the party.
Due to his experience in the party and his time as interim leader, McKenzie was rewarded by King with the post of Solicitor General in King’s first term in office.
In 1923, McKenzie resigned from the House of Commons after he was named a judge with the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on March 23, 1923.
Rumours of McKenzie taking over the post on the Supreme Court began to swirl as early as January. The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix would state, quote:
By the time he left politics, he had spent 19 years in the House of Commons, no small feat but despite this and his role as the leader between two icons of the Liberal Party, few know who he is today.
The Winnipeg Tribune would report, quote:
“The appointment of Mr. McKenzie, forecast frequently within the last few months, comes after 19 years in the House of Commons.”
With the loss of McKenzie from the House of Commons, there was worry regarding representation in the cabinet in Nova Scotia. The post of solicitor general would remain vacant until Nov. 13, 1923 when Edward James McMurray took over, a Member of Parliament from Winnipeg.
He would continue to serve in the court until June 8, 1927, when he died at the age of 68. By this point, he was mostly forgotten in political circles and the Canadian consciousness. His death would be printed on page 9 of the Ottawa Citizen. It would report, quote:
“Justice D.D. McKenzie of the Supreme Court of Canada, died here today after an illness of two months. He is survived by Mrs. McKenzie, who was Miss Florence Macdonald of North Sydney, and a son, Russell, of Montreal.”
While his name is mostly forgotten, and his role as leader is a mere blip in the history of Canada, there is one very interesting aspect about McKenzie.
Throughout his political life, from his days in municipal politics all the way up to federal politics, he never once lost an election.
So what would things look like if McKenzie became prime minister? Well, he wouldn’t have been around as long as Mackenzie King for one thing. Arthur Meighen was a capable politician and he did serve as prime minister twice, but the second time, while he won more seats in the 1926 election, King was capable enough as a politician to keep power. When his coalition fell apart, he still won the next election. He then won again in 1935. I don’t think McKenzie had the ability to do that. So if McKenzie became prime minister, as in if he won the 1921 election like King did, I don’t think he would have served more than one term. In many ways he was similar to King so there would have been little differences between the two, although my hope is that McKenzie would not have implemented the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1924.
Best case scenario, we would be talking about Duncan McKenzie, our 10th prime minister, who served from 1921-1926. The biggest change likely would have been Arthur Meighen having a full term from 1926 to 1930, rather than only a few months.
Information from Nova Scotians At Home and Abroad, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Ottawa Citizen, The Victoria Daily Times, Regina Leader-Post, Montreal Gazette, Winnipeg Tribune,