PREST: Who is the best Canadian prime minister ever?

Who is the best prime minister?

Not the best for right now – our votes on Monday should answer that uneasy question – but who is the best Canadian prime minister ever?

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The question had never really occurred to me until last week. The best prime minister? Why would anyone care to rank such a humdrum thing? That’s like asking someone to choose the greatest vegetable of all time. Sure, we need them to keep the pipes clean and lead a healthy life, but other than that, they’re all just bland lumps of fibre. Except for you, fresh garden peas! The greatest veggie of all time!

But is there a garden pea of prime ministers? The best ever? The GOAT? It was my nine-year-old son who asked that question during one of those conversations that begins with “Dad, why are there annoying signs on every street?” The discussion moved from campaign signs to Parliament to prime ministers, and as kids always do, he naturally went straight to the superlatives and wanted to know who was the best ever.

And I can’t say no to my kids, so here we are. Let’s pick the best prime minister!

Some folks have tried this already, notably Maclean’s magazine, which at three different times over the past 25 years has conducted a survey of political scholars and experts to rank the prime ministers. I used their results as a starting point, and also narrowed down the contenders with my wonky and wise father and brother in the nerdiest Thanksgiving conversation ever, as well as that most scientific of endeavours, the Twitter poll.

Pierre Trudeau, the "cool" prime minister. photo supplied Wikimedia Commons

So who are the contenders? First of all, let’s cut off all PMs who served only one term. If you can’t get re-elected, you can’t be the best.

That leaves 13 long-serving PMs, but six are duds who got no love (sorry Robert Borden), so we’re down to seven. Here are the contenders, in order of appearance:

John A. Macdonald (1867-’73, 1878-’91) 

Numero Uno, Big Pappa, the Mac Daddy. John A. gets big points as the first prime minister, the completer of the national railway, and the second longest-serving PM in Canadian history (a big part of the job is simply surviving). In recent years his legacy has lost some lustre, however, as more light has been shed on his, um ... genocidal side.

Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911)

The man on the fiver, Canada’s first francophone PM is known as a great reconciler of the country’s French and English factions as well as a defender of Canadian autonomy within the British Empire and a champion of individual liberty and financial prudence. Also racist. He gets bonus points simply for tying with the Quaker Oats guy as the world’s most successful “Wilfrid.”

William Lyon Mackenzie King (1921-’26, ’26-’30, ’35-’48)

The latest Maclean’s ranking picked King as the greatest prime minister ever, with scholars noting his longevity – he’s the longest-serving PM in Canadian history – as well as his leadership during the Second World War. The Canadian government also gained independence from the British Empire and founded the welfare state under his watch. Also, racist stuff. King is also described as cold, tactless, sneaky, stubby and sweaty. Add in grumpy and dopey, and you’ve got the world’s worst reboot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Lester B. Pearson (1963-’68)

Airport Man was elected twice, both times with minority governments, and under his watch Canada said hello to universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada and the Maple Leaf flag. His government also basically eliminated the death penalty, brought women closer to legal equality, promoted bilingualism, and kept Canada out of the Vietnam War. As unscientific as it is, Pearson also won my “best PM” Twitter poll, so he’s got that going for him.

Brian Mulroney
Brian Mulroney. Maybe we're warming up to the guy again. photo supplied Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Trudeau (1968-’79, ’80-’84)

PET was the third-longest-serving prime minister, and the “coolest” one. Trudeaumania dominated Canadian politics for more than a decade, and with him at the helm Canada established a new Constitution and brought in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But many in the West hated him for his National Energy Program, and many in Quebec ended up hating the Montreal native for “betraying” the province and focusing on federalism while denouncing separatism. Trudeau the elder: so loved, so hated. 

Brian Mulroney (1984-’93)

Best ever? Brian Mulroney? I’m as shocked as you are. He’s the first PM on this list I remember personally – I was 13 when he retired, and I recall him being a big doofus whom nobody liked. But time has been good to Mulroney, who ushered in Canada-U.S. free trade and introduced the GST, both moves now generally lauded as good policy for the country’s long-term financial health. He also championed international human rights and put a lot of effort into protecting the environment. Two failed constitutional reforms are strikes against him, as is the utter implosion of the Tory party (from 151 seats to two) in the election that followed shortly after he retired with one of the lowest PM approval ratings in history. But maybe we’re warming up to the guy again.

Stephen Harper

LOL, just kidding. Are we allowed to do science again, Steve?

Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) 

Superficial snapshot memory: the guy with the very interesting speaking voice who once gave a protestor a chokehold throwdown. More substantially, Chrétien is known for fiscal management, for narrowly winning the Quebec independence vote in 1995, and for keeping Canada out of the Iraq war. He also left office embroiled in the sponsorship scandal. Let it be noted that JC somehow finished second in my Twitter poll, just ahead of ... Mulroney!

So those are the contenders. But who is the best?

Lester Pearson
Lester B. Pearson. The GOAT. photo supplied Wikimedia Commons

I’ll go with my Twitter followers – can you believe they think just like me?! – and say that a guy who ushered in universal health care, student loans and a pension plan, fought for bilingualism and women’s rights and gave us our own flag is a pretty good representative of the best parts of Canada. Plus Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize and excelled at rugby, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and baseball. He’s a winner!

Do you disagree? I’d love to hear about it! It is, after all, a free country, thanks to these great prime ministers except for Stephen Harper.

So congratulations Lester B., you really put the pea in PM!

Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News. His biweekly humour/lifestyle column appears here biweekly.

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