Historicist: William Lyon Mackenzie King Fixes the Column

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Historicist: William Lyon Mackenzie King Fixes the Column

After he became prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King could finish what he started and improve the public memory of his grandfather.

Part one of this story appeared in last week’s Historicist.

William Lyon Mackenzie King pays a photographer at Scarborough House c. 1909. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 620.

Mackenzie King’s progress toward boosting his grandfather to the top of the column culminated with the June 1940 installation of the Mackenzie Memorial in Queen’s Park. But before the planning of that apotheosis began in 1936, Mackenzie King had honed his skills at shaping public memory in a number of other instances.

Mackenzie King had debuted as a public memorialist in 1905. Then as a very junior federal minister, he had secured a statue of Sir Galahad as a symbolic representation of his dead housemate, Bert Harper, almost within the precincts of Parliament Hill. Harper had attempted to save a friend as she fell through the ice while skating on the Ottawa River in 1901. They both drowned, and Mackenzie King, along with a group of others, had the statue erected to remember his heroic attempt.

Mackenzie King’s control of the public memory of his grandfather tightened in 1915, after Mackenzie King and his in-laws had waged a successful campaign to suppress a Mackenzie biography that they considered “unfriendly.”

This censorship maintained that the family controlled the use of manuscript materials by an independent scholar and could therefore revoke permission to employ those documents. The courts upheld this precedent, and it lingers still, theoretically inhibiting any usage of family materials that the holders consider improper.

Then had come a mega-project dwarfing those earlier efforts: the 1938 unveiling of the Clifton Gate Pioneer Memorial Arch in Niagara Falls. Later demolished by Ontario’s realization that no amount of historical commemoration could be allowed to impede the flow of automobile traffic, the arch had included a bas-relief of Mackenzie addressing Upper Canada’s assembly. His presence was diluted, however, by all the other explorers and settlers depicted on the arch. But it was a start.

The printing press in action at Mackenzie House, 2011. Photo by Bruce Reeve in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Mackenzie House in Toronto had been established in 1936, but it was more of a heritage tourism location, the sort of place where visitors and school kids come to gawk at old furnishings and munch on home-baked cookies. Something grander and more tightly focused was needed. As the centennial of the 1837 rebellion neared, that vision appeared. We all know now of the trust that Mackenzie King placed in the spirit world: his communication beyond the veil included appearances by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Ewart Gladstone, his mother, and other notables. Their considered advice pointed in one direction for public commemoration of Mackenzie: the Ontario seat of government in Toronto, the heart of the political structure that had once spurned and outlawed William Lyon Mackenzie. It so happened that a Liberal government now ruled there. Access to the via sacra of Ontario worthies was granted by an order-in-council, thus avoiding the necessity of messy debates and awkward questionings.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King (left), Senator Frank O’Connor, and Ontario premier Mitch Hepburn c. 1930. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 8040.

Mackenzie King and Ontario premier Mitch Hepburn were later to have vicious and public falling outs, but they could agree on the necessity for a Mackenzie memorial. Senator Arthur Childs Hardy, a Mackenzie King confidante, had officially pitched the matter to Hepburn. As Hardy pointed out, involving the prime minister directly in a matter of commemorating his grandfather could seem a bit, well, as if the fix were in, but he pointed out just how great a boost it would be for the Ontario Liberals to annex the advent of responsible government as part of their claim to enduring electoral appeal. Such an argument seems to have made sense to Hepburn, and so the planning got under way to occupy a plot of land 35-and-a-half feet long and 21 feet wide along the west side of the legislative buildings, close to the entrance to the lieutenant-governor’s suite. It was a choice location.

Of course, the public clamour for a Mackenzie memorial did not come publicly from the prime minister. That would have been a bit blatant for anyone as crabwise in his progress as Mackenzie King. Instead, a committee of public-spirited citizens, including Liberal senators, financial giants, corporate chiefs, commercial magnates (including the inventor of Laura Secord chocolates), and prominent lawyers stepped up to the plate like the involved citizens that they were. The committee was headed by Senator Hardy (Makenzie King had attended séances at Hardy’s Brockville mansion). The group appeared to function quite independently of the prime minister’s office, though they were quick to take Mackenzie King’s advice to commission Walter Allward, of Vimy Memorial fame, as the artist. Allward was the master of the missed deadline, which was why the memorial wasn’t completed and installed until 1940.

The Mackenzie monument at Queen’s Park. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

The first thing you may notice about the statuary at Queen’s Park is that its meaning is a bit harder to grasp than that of the broken column to the 1837 martyrs that stands in the Necropolis, even though they are all part of the same story. The elevated figure on the left is Mackenzie himself, in a windswept hairdo that seems a trifle more noble than the ill-fitting wig that he often donned in real life. This romantic figure gazing to the northwest is balanced by the somewhat androgynous figure gazing intently at an open book as his left hands hangs on to the remnants of a plowing harness. Leave all those symbolic messages aside for the moment, and let the inscription at the base tell you all you need to know:

To commemorate the struggle for responsible
government in Upper Canada and the pioneers of a
political system which unites in free association the nations of the British Commonwealth. In memory of William Lyon Mackenzie 1795–1861
first mayor of Toronto 1834. Member for
York in the Legislature of Upper Canada 1828–1836
and for Haldimand in the Legislative Assembly of Canada 1851–1858.

So there you have it. William Lyon Mackenzie started it all. Forget about those names on the broken column. Bundle everyone else into the slot marked “pioneers” and call it history.

Still, there is that mysterious figure. The book he is holding is blank. So the ploughboy stares intently at a blank page. Think that’s what the farmer hired him for?

A member of the public—in fact a prominent Toronto lawyer—asked the minister of public works just what the statue meant, soon after the statue went up, at the end of September 1940. The minister bucked the query to a subordinate, who then phoned Allward and transcribed his (mostly opaque) response. That info was passed along to Douglas Oliver, director of the Ontario travel and publicity bureau, who passed it along to someone at the ministry, who then wrote—amazing how smoothly bureaucracy arranges information—that “the allegorical figure” depicts “the liberty of thought and action given to the people.” The “half buried plow at the other end of the wall suggests the condition of the land at that time.” And the lawyer who first asked that question undoubtedly surmised that his was not the only profession specializing in gobbledygook. The way Senator Hardy described it is pleasing: the whole assemblage suggested “freedom or some such thing.”

By the time of the statue’s installation by crane in 1940, Canada was at war. The prime minister considered that a grand formal unveiling would be inappropriate. He took consolation in the fact that he had had a vision of the object getting installed after someone had told him that the piece was on its way. Mackenzie King also took consolation from knowing that he had finally inherited grandfather’s mantle, which could be why the ploughboy’s upper torso is bare.

You can walk from the Necropolis to the Queen’s Park statue in less than half an hour. It took Mackenzie King a bit longer to complete that memorializing journey, but complete it he did. He knew that controlling public memory may not be the same as controlling history, but that it will do for a start.


Works consulted can be found in the writer’s previous work on this subject, including: “The Grandfathering of William Lyon Mackenzie King,” The American Review of Canadian Studies (Winter 2002): 581–608; “The Sideways March: Mackenzie King’s Monumental Quest, 1893-1940” Ontario History 100.2 (Fall 2008) 130–49.


Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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