At the time this article was
written Arthur Milnes was a graduate student in the Journalism Programme at
Ryerson in Toronto.
Most of Canada's Prime Ministers were
lawyers. Sir John A. Macdonald entered a Napanee, Ontario law office at the age
of 15. Brian Mulroney cut his teeth in Montreal legal circles. John
Diefenbaker's legal exploits are a Prairie legend. The list goes on.
But Canada's longest serving Prime
Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, never saw a courtroom or legal
boardroom. His arrival in politics followed a stint pounding the pavement as a
reporter in Toronto during the final decade of the last century.
King was Prime Minister for
twenty-two years, longer even than Macdonald, but he is remembered now mostly
for belief in the supernatural including the ability to communicate with his
mother and others who had passed away. His is also remembered for the massive
personal diary he kept which continues to enthrall and confuse students and
Few are aware of another aspect of
his life, his career as a journalist. Indeed, his reporting for the Globe and
the Daily Mail and Empire had a great deal to do with his eventual entry into
government and politics. King came to journalism naturally. His grandfather was
none other than William Lyon Mackenzie, newspaper editor, publisher and leader
of the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada. The Toronto Historical Board still
operates a 19th century newspaper press in Mackenzie's house on Bond Street.
King's father, John King of Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener) had been an editor
and life-long contributor to the Berlin Telegraph.
Mackenzie King was only 16 when he
arrived in Toronto as a student at the University of Toronto in the fall of
1891. After his arrival, he naturally gravitated towards the school paper and
his name soon appeared in the Varsity. By the time of his graduation in 1895,
King had been an assistant editor and head of the sport's department at the
school paper. Throughout his undergraduate years, King made a habit of
regularly submitting articles to the Globe concerning Varsity events. His first
Globe article appears to be an October 5, 1893 account of Varsity's victory
over Upper Canada College in rugby. This practice continued and he even offered
the same services to Saturday Night magazine but was rejected.
He had planned to continue in
academia but plans for a fellowship fell through and King had to find a job.
So, he found himself a position with the Globe as a reporter during the fall of
1895. They paid him the grand total of $7 a week. Though it was not his first
choice of a job, he was soon telling his diary that a year in journalism would
be "an extra year of practical experience in the great school of
King was assigned the police-court
beat for the paper. I had a zigzag route to follow today, and the extremes
seemed far apart. This morning I was at the police court, recording lists of
drunks, vagrants, burglars, "cases of non-support and the like. This kept
me busy till nearly noon," he wrote in his diary on March 13, 1896,
describing part of his day on the job.
He stayed at the Globe for nearly
nine months and earned $275.75 before departing for graduate school in Chicago
in late 1896.
When he came back to Toronto in the
summer of 1897, he once again had to find a job and turned to journalism. This
time it was with the Daily Mail and Empire, and his work there had a great deal
to do with his eventual arrival in Ottawa and entry into politics.1
In September 1897, King spent
several days working on a special feature about the living and working
conditions among Toronto's poor and mostly immigrant classes. What he saw
shocked him. "What a day I have had today and how I have witnessed the
oppression of man over his fellows," the 22-year-old wrote in his diary
after touring a local sweat-shop during his research. The result was four
full-page articles in Saturday editions of the Mail and Empire during September
and October of 1897. Toronto readers were given blunt descriptions of the filth
and oppression which was a daily part of life for thousands of Toronto's
Readers were introduced to, among
others, a middle aged garment worker who, "could hardly speak with a consumptive
cough which is taking her life away." The woman had worked in the garment
trade most of her life and her daughters were also employed in the industry.
King also described them. "A little girl, 16 years of age, who is thin and
sickly in appearance, stood by her side and related how she had worked for the
past eight years for a large wholesale house, most of the time for two dollars
a week. She now intended to help her mother at the machine," King wrote,
adding that her nine-year-old sister was also employed as a labourer.
King also gave readers the other
side of the story and interviewed a local sweat-shop owner who had been in the
business for over 10 years and who employed 15 workers at the time. "When
I asked what he paid them he said, `Well, I have to work hard myself and I do
the best I can. I do not treat the men bad but I end up taking advantage of the
women. I have a girl here who can do as much and as good work as a man and she
gets $5 a week. The man who is standing next to her gets $11", he matter-of-factly
told the young Mail and Empire reporter.
King's series also dealt with
crowded housing in Toronto's immigrant communities, and the racism blacks
experienced in the city. He wrote that there were about 800 blacks in Toronto
and that unfortunately, because of racism, most of the men left Toronto because
there were better opportunities in the United States. He also related the story
of how the community was saddened by a recent example of racism on the part of
the local military. "Especially were they grieved when one of their
number, after having practiced for six months in the band of a city regiment,
and after having been granted his uniform, was refused admission when about to
be sworn in and given the reason that he might look like a black horse among a
lot of white ones," King wrote.
With these facts in hand, and
before publication of his articles, the gutsy young man marched off with his
father to tell a family friend about what he had seen in the homes and
sweat-shops of Toronto. The friend was William Mulock, Postmaster General in
the newly elected government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
King informed the Minister that
much of the work being performed in the sweat-shops was being done for
government clothing contracts, mostly for the militia and post office. This was
hardly a situation that Canada's first Liberal government in twenty-five years
could allow and King knew it.
On the spot, Mulock commissioned
the reporter to write a report to him about the sweat shop system. One week
later, the Minister announced reforms in his own department regarding clothing
contracts. By October, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, hearing of King's work, changed the
process so that all government contracts would have clauses demanding
reasonable hours of work, fair wages and sanitary conditions for workers. King
had accomplished every investigative reporter's dream. He had caused positive
change through his work.
The situation was not bad for a
22-year-old and King was not unaware of its significance. "This has been
the first influential part I have played in the history of Canadian
politics," he wrote in his faithful diary.
Former TV Ontario Chairman and King
biographer, Bernard Ostry, advises caution in heaping too much praise onto King
for such incidents. "If you recognize who he regarded as his masters and
look at his later work for the Rockefellers, you have to think," Ostry
says from his home in Toronto. "His deep interest in the poor and weak,
though probably genuine, was combined with a stronger desire to become known to
the rich and the powerful," he says.
Ostry might be correct in
suggesting we question King's motives for approaching someone like the
Postmaster General in this situation but this should not take away from his
very real accomplishments in this case.
In any event, Laurier and Mulock
were very impressed with the young Mackenzie King and they did not forget him.
Three years later, they invited King to join them in Ottawa as editor of the
new Labour Gazette, and once having arrived in Ottawa, he began his climb to
the Prime Minister's Office.
1. The Mail and Empire was known
for its Conservative sympathies and one of King's friends is still surprised he
took a job with them. "He never talked to me about being a reporter,"
King's former secretary and confidant Jack Pickersgill, 86, says from Ottawa,
"but I remember being very surprised that he would write for the Mail and
Empire considering what a Tory organ it was." Maybe economics had
something to do with the abandonment of King's partisanship.