By Sean Graham
When I was an MA student in Regina, I was talking to somebody about how great it would be if there could be a historical figures fantasy league. With the success of fantasy football and fantasy hockey, I figured that some sort of fantasy league could really boost the interest in history. The biggest problem was trying to figure out how points would be scored – where football and hockey players continue to score goals and touchdowns, a lot of historical figures suffer from the unfortunate medical condition of being deceased. As such, it would be hard to accumulate points. Given that one of the best parts of fantasy sports is the draft, however, we decided that we could do the draft and let the listeners decide who has the best team.
Canada has had twenty-two people serve as Prime Minister and in this podcast Aaron Boyes, Patrick Fournier, Mike Thompson, and I sit down and each draft teams of four. Our rationale for our picks is laid out in the podcast (and each of us provide a brief recap below) and now it’s up to you to determine whose team is best. You can vote in this poll or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send your vote to me on Twitter @drseannysfever . We’ll be back in a few weeks to recap the draft and announce the winner.
Participants (Listed Alphabetically)
The Prime Ministers Fantasy Draft was a lot of fun to do. But it was also quite difficult. When Sean first asked me to participate I thought for sure that I already knew who I wanted on my team. Yet the more I investigated into the political successes and failures, as well as the positive and negative aspects of their personalities, I found myself questioning my original assumptions. I wanted a mix of both Liberals and Conservatives – something I was able to do – because I personally do not adhere to a strict, never-ending support for one political party. I believe that both parties have (and have had) both good and bad aspects of their platform. Overall, I wanted some balance, and I think I was able to achieve that.
My first pick, and my personal number one overall, was Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984). Unfortunately, I had not yet been born when Trudeau became Prime Minister, but the more I have learned about this man, the more I have come to respect him not only as a politician, but as a person. Trudeau was a man and a Prime Minister who you either loved or hated; and I feel that this is a positive aspect for a politician. He had his own vision for Canada and he stuck to it. Granted, his foreign policies were quite weak, but during the 1960s and 1970s as Canada underwent a crucial shift in its national affairs, Trudeau was there to keep the country united. What draws me most to Trudeau, however, is not his political record, but his personality. He was not the stereotypical ‘uptight’ politician: he wore sandals in the House of Commons, he may or may not have uttered “fuddle-duddle” during a debate within Parliament, and he was never one to shy away from the media spotlight. Overall, what solidifies Trudeau as a great Prime Minister for me can be summed up in three words: “Just watch me.”
My second pick, also in my top four, was Sir John A. Macdonald (1867-1873, 1878-1891). Macdonald has assumed a mythological stature in Canadian history – he is our George Washington – and rightly so. He devoted his life to Canada and making this a strong, united, and continental nation. Although I disagree with his position vis-à-vis the British Empire and his anti-Americanism, I appreciate that his goals were to see Canada prosper. On a personal level, Macdonald was a very popular and social man. I think it would be great to go out and have a beer (or several) and simply chat like old friends.
My third round pick was Alexander Mackenzie (1873-1878). Mackenzie is one of the more ‘forgotten’ Prime Ministers, likely because he assumed the position during Sir John A.’s interlude, but Mackenzie was a man I respect immensely. Known for his hard work and dedication, Mackenzie was of humble origins and he never lost that throughout his career. He was the Prime Minister who introduced the secret ballot and created the Supreme Court of Canada, moving this nation slowly but surely away from its dependency on Britain. Also, as a continentalist I truly appreciate Mackenzie’s rejection of a Knighthood from Queen Victoria.
My final pick was a difficult one. As I wrote earlier, I wanted balance. In order to achieve that I needed a Conservative and I needed a Prime Minister from the twentieth century. John Diefenbaker became my guy (1957-1963). This was a tough pick, and not one of my favourites, but I stand by it. Diefenbaker’s attempts to strengthen Canada’s position within the waning Empire (now Commonwealth) somewhat irks me when the country was clearly moving toward embracing its North American identity, but he was also trying to look out for Canada’s best interest. And you have to respect the man who gave us our own Bill of Rights in 1960, the precursor to the Charter of Rights on Freedoms.
So there it is. My ‘dream team,’ if you will. I tried to pick Prime Ministers that I liked, but also who had significant impacts on Canada. I approached it like an NHL GM, looking for a top-line centre (Trudeau) to pair up with a goal scorer who is popular with the fans (Macdonald), with some grit and toughness (Mackenzie), and a capable defenseman (Diefenbaker). Is this team a Stanley Cup contender? I think so, but I leave it now to you.
From the beginning, it was obvious that I was joining this great “competition” as the underdog, primarily because my research focus is non-Canadian. With apprehension, I jumped into the murky waters of Canadian politics, emerging with enough that I felt I could participate in this draft. One could hardly speak of strategy when my only objective was to survive – and perhaps pick a prime minister away from someone, which I did. I came in with a list of “favourites”, but I knew that my choices would have to be made as a reaction to other picks. Indeed, my position in the draft (last pick in the first round) allowed me to observe what others were doing and helped me decide who I really wanted on my team.
My first pick had to be a strong one and Jean Chretien (1993-2003) was a strong leader for my team (and for Canada too). I originally wanted to choose Pierre Trudeau – which would probably have drawn me some flak from some of my Separatist friends – but he was already off the board. In my mind, Chretien remains a strong and powerful figure of Canadian politics. With his ten years as prime minister and his hilarious encounters with burglars and activists, the creator of the “Shawinigan handshake” consolidated Canada in a transitory period for world politics while eluding the accusations against him during the sponsorship scandal. This strong political figure remained the “guy next door” – a guy I would love to have a beer with just to hear his stories.
My second pick was meant to bring brain and determination to my team, as well as a list of major accomplishments in both domestic and foreign policy. Louis St-Laurent (1948-1957) remains, in my view, one of the strongest figures in Canadian politics since Confederations. He defined what Canada is today by sponsoring the development of new ways of communication – the Trans-Canada Highway, the St-Lawrence Seaway, the Trans-Canada Pipeline. He also contributed to the peaceful Canadian identity with the creation of the UN Emergency Force, establishing Canada as a world leader in Peacekeeping operations.
By the time I had to select my third and fourth pick, the important prime ministers on my list had already been chosen so I was left with a befuddling dilemma. Against all instincts, I selected Stephen Harper (2006-Present). My rationale at the time was to select another strong-headed figure, but at the other end of the political spectrum. Besides, in the context of a debate with my other choices, Harper would provide sufficient material for discussion by opposing Chretien and St-Laurent, which is a good thing, right? Healthy debate can only strengthen a team – and a country for that matter. In addition, I believe he is a prime minister who will be remembered, perhaps not always for the best reasons, but he will be remembered.
Finally, I believe every team needs a fall guy, a wild card, someone to blame in case things do not go well. My fall guy is Joe Clark (1979-1980). I blame him for my poor performance in this draft, and I hope you support my decision to blame him by voting for my team!
So there you have it, the underdog team. I went for a balanced approach in the context that all four members would be put in a room and argue about what they did for Canada and come to a consensus of what Canada’s future should be.
Top to bottom I was able to draft Prime Ministers who, I think, not only did a good job for the country, but also represent some of the things that I really love to see in politics and politicians. Going into the draft I wanted to be able to have one principal achievement that I could point to for each Prime Minister I drafted. I wanted something that I would have personally supported at the time and something that over the years has proven to be a net positive for the country. This meant some tough decisions: for example, despite my undying love of Saskatchewan, because I study the history of the CBC I eliminated John Diefenbaker because of his strong opposition to the concept of public broadcasting.
My first round choice was William Lyon Mackenzie King (1921-1925,1926-1930,1935-1948) and it was by far the easiest pick of the entire draft. Not only is he the longest serving Prime Minister, but his list of achievements includes the Radio Act of 1936 which created the CBC. What I like most about him, however, is his handling of conscription during the Second World War. Despite using some Clintonian-style language (“Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary”) he navigated the country through what could have been a divisive moment. And almost as a bonus, any Prime Minister who can do what he did while openly going to psychics, leaving a stunning resort in the Gatineau hills, providing the greatest archival document in the nation’s history, and being generally, um, eccentric, is a Prime Minister who I want on my team.
The Second round choice was Lester Pearson (1963-1968). If winning the Noble Peace Prize for the Suez Crisis wasn’t enough, he is also the only Prime Minister (that we know about) to have ever been grabbed by his lapels and physically threatened by an American President. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve always been a fan of the Pearson Pennant.
In the third round I was able to select R.B Bennett (1930-1935), the Prime Minister elected at absolutely the worst time to win an election. Despite this, the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) and Trans-Canada Airlines were major achievements during his tenure and who else had a means of travel named after him – even if it was derisive. He also wasn’t the austere detached figure that people generally think of as he used his own money to keep the Conservative Party afloat in the 1920s and would send individual Canadians money when they wrote to him about their hardships in the Depression.
My final pick – and the final pick of the draft – was John Abbott (1891-1892). While his tenure was short and not particularly noteworthy, he has the greatest quote of any Prime Minister: “I hate politics.” Who among us can’t support that sentiment?
In addition to wanting Prime Ministers who I like, I also thought about the composition of my team in the same way as you would put together a reality show. Big personalities, different opinions, and conflict are critical to that and I think that if you put the four Prime Ministers who I selected in a house and turned the cameras on, you would have all those elements.
Mike’s strategy for the draft was two-fold and incorporated two of the longest-standing issues in Canadian history – national unity and independence. The goal was to have prime ministers who tried to unite the country and overcome the natural and historical separation that exists from coast to coast. At the same time, Mike focused on national sovereignty and wanted prime ministers who were willing to assert Canada’s independence on the international stage – a natural desire given his public policy background.
To that end, Mike drafted a team that started with Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), a strong figure who emphasized linguistic unity and was a strong leader as Canada welcomed the 20th century. In the second round, Brian Mulroney (1984-1993) was added to the team in part because, love him or hate him, he had a very clear vision for the country and made some significant financial decisions that have had a long-term impact. With that focus on leadership, the third round saw Mike add Robert Borden (1911-1920), the prime minister who not only led Canada through the First World War but was also a major figure in the Commonwealth. The final addition was John Thompson (1892-1894), a prime minister who died on the job and was plagued by the question of what if?
So Mike’s team is a wide cross-section of our prime ministers who were firm in their convictions. These four prime ministers led Canada through some of the most important years in the country’s history. The question is, is that enough to get your vote?
Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896)
Charles Tupper (1896)
Arthur Meighen (1920-1921; 1926)
John Turner (1984)
Kim Campbell (1993)
Paul Martin (2003-2006)
Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.