Age of the Incredible Canadian, 1921–1948

Dec 3rd, 2017 | By Randall White | Category: Heritage Now

Bruce Hutchison’s The Incredible Canadian — A candid portrait of Mackenzie King : his works, his times, and his nation was first published in 1952, only two years after the death of the man who is still Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948).

The first few sentences of the book’s first chapter nonetheless remain provocative in the 21st century : “The mystery of William Lyon Mackenzie King is not the mystery of a man. It is the mystery of a people. We do not understand King because we do not understand ourselves … The full knowledge of both may be some time off …”

Hutchison’s The Incredible Canadian was republished in 2010, with a new introduction by Vaughn Palmer at the Vancouver Sun. Allan Levine’s engaging modern biography King:  A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny — making good use of Mackenzie King’s astonishingly extensive private diaries (1893–1950) — was published a year later in 2011.

We may still be some distance from any full knowledge of both Mackenzie King and the Canadian people. But there has been some progress since King’s death at Kingsmere, Quebec on Saturday, July 22, 1950. And the further from his living presence we have grown, the clearer it has become that, with all his strange and even crazy as well as brilliant political sides, he set the stage for much of the real progress Canadian democracy has made since 1950. (Which, the late historian Ramsay Cook once quipped, is the point at which the 19th century ended in Canada.)

* * * *

The diplomat and diarist Charles Ritchie has stressed that Mackenzie King the man, in day-to-day real life,“was too evasive and elusive to sum up in a few words … There was no kind of dead center to him … The minute you thought that this was a definition of him, it shifted.”

Then there are a host of profoundly eccentric, even creepy and worse things about the dead-mother-loving, lifelong bachelor spiritualist with a Harvard PhD as an individual human being. Few would want to emulate Mackenzie King’s private life (except perhaps for its impressive self-discipline and focus?). His highest achievement was almost entirely political. He carried on Laurier’s “First Canadian” gospel. And he somehow established  the possibility of being Canadian in some structural way that had very little to do with any specific cultural content.

He did not realize the ultimate Canadian possibility practically himself. Even the bare  beginnings of all that would not come until the long  “transcontinental quiet revolution” from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s (prefaced by various more confused nudges in the 1950s).

Similarly, William Lyon Mackenzie King, it is clear enough, did not himself exactly believe in the deepest kind of cultural diversity that characterizes so much of 21st century Canada (and increasingly not just in a few large urban centres). And he was among the “We” being addressed when Harold Innis wrote in his 1930 conclusion to The Fur Trade in Canada : “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”

Yet it is a crucial key to Mackenzie King’s political arts and crafts that he was the earnest disciple of Wilfrid Laurier (dead or alive). The autonomous “free and democratic” Canada whose possibility he mobilized was (and still is)  concerned to embrace both the French-speaking majority in Quebec, and the English-speaking majority in the rest of the country. Any political structure that can somehow even come close to this, it turns out, can also ultimately embrace and accommodate many other broader diversities, including the original assortment of what the Constitution Act, 1982 calls “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.”

(And thus Pierre Trudeau finally became notorious for all of “bilingualism,” “multiculturalism,” and a 1984 walk in the snow that at last  convinced a prime minister of the 1867 confederation to take the rights of “the aboriginal peoples of Canada” to heart.)

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As if to prepare the ground for the ultimate political achievements of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the December 6, 1921 federal election that first brought his Liberal Party of Canada to office was something of a landmark political event in its own right.

To start with, it was the first election in which adult Canadian women generally could vote. As Wikipedia further explains :  “Five women also ran for office. Agnes Macphail of the Progressive Party was elected as the first woman MP in Canada.”

The 1921 election marked as well the beginning of at least some serious  enlargement (or complication) of the old Liberal/Conservative two-party system of parliamentary government, that the self-governing Dominion of Canada had inherited from the United Kingdom.

The trend began in the provinces, with the October 1919 surprise election of the United Farmers of Ontario, finally forming a provincial government in coalition with Labour and other supporters. Then the United Farmers of Alberta did something similar in July 1921, not quite five months before the federal election.

The cross-Canada variation on this new populist theme was the Progressive Party that was home to Agnes Macphail. On December 6, 1921 the new Progressives, led by Thomas Crerar of the Manitoba Grain Growers’ Association, came from nowhere to take 64 seats in a 235-seat Canadian House of Commons — 24 in Ontario, 15 in Saskatchewan, 12 in Manitoba, 10 in Alberta, 2 in British Columbia, and 1 in New Brunswick.

The rise of the Progressives was accompanied by the fall of the Conservatives under Arthur Meighen (even if the official name was National Liberal and Conservative Party).

In 1921 the Meighen Conservatives did take 37 out of 82 Ontario federal seats, 7 out of 13 seats in BC, 5 out of 11 seats in New Brunswick, and all of the 1 seat allocated to the Yukon Territory Ottawa had created in 1898, to help manage the Klondike Gold Rush. Elsewhere in the 1867 confederation the Meighen Conservatives won no seats at all in 1921.

When the ballots were all counted : “If an Independent Liberal is included, the Liberals had 117 seats, 1 short of a majority” ( Murray Beck). Mackenzie King treated the Progressives as “Liberals in a hurry.” At first no MP from the new party wanted to join his Liberal government. (And it did not exactly want them. The Progressive leader Thomas Crerar would finally become a Liberal cabinet minister very late in 1929.) Progressives nonetheless often supported Mackenzie King’s early legislation because they agreed with it. And in 1921 the Mackenzie King Liberals themselves won all 16 seats in Nova Scotia, all 4 in PEI, and all 65 in Quebec.

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Mackenzie King (l) and William Mulock (r) on Mulock's 101st birthday in 1944.

One complication in any summary of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s  legacies to Canadian democracy is that he often spoke and acted  for others, who were sometimes the deepest authors of his political achievements.

A major example is William Mulock — a “lawyer, businessman, educator, farmer, politician, judge, and philanthropist,” known in later life as a “Grand Old Man of Canada.” Mulock had a finger in the founding of such present-day institutions as the Toronto-Dominion Bank and the  Toronto Star. He was 30 years older than Mackenzie King, and lived to  101. (There is a photograph on the world wide web today of Mulock and Mackenzie King at breakfast on Mulock’s 101st birthday!)

William Mulock also sat in the Canadian House of Commons for the Ontario riding of York North, 1882–1905. He was Wilfrid Laurier’s Postmaster General 1896–1905, and he organized a new federal Department of Labour in 1900.

In September 1900 a 26-year-old  Mackenzie King became the first deputy minister of this new department, at Mulock’s invitation. And this effectively marks the start of King’s long career in the government and politics of a maturing Dominion of Canada.

How did a still somewhat cherubic 26-year-old land such a senior position? The Ottawa public service was still very young (only seven years older than the new deputy minister). Mulock was, as Allan Levine explains, a “close friend” of Mackenzie King’s father. And the son “enjoyed visiting” his father’s friend — especially during student days at the University of Toronto, of which Mulock was vice-chancellor 1881–1900.

Mulock would remain a key advisor during most of Mackenzie King’s long career. When he died in 1944 he left his protégé the then considerable sum of $50,000. On the warm summer 1948 night before Mackenzie King officially resigned as Liberal Party leader, he contemplated various great spirits behind his achievements. And “William Mulock came much in my thoughts with his generosity and real affection for me.”

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Another intriguing Mackenzie King human relationship was his business-and-beyond friendship with John D. Rockefeller Jr, only son and heir of the Standard Oil fortune amassed by John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

After almost exactly eight years as  first deputy minister of labour in Canada’s still youthful federal public service, King had resigned to run  for the Laurier Liberals in the October 26, 1908 election. He won the Ontario seat for Waterloo North (where he had grown up). And he was appointed Canada’s first minister of labour by Wilfrid Laurier in June 1909.

King lost this job in the September 21, 1911 reciprocity election, along with the rest of the Laurier cabinet. But by this point he was an early labour and industrial relations expert.

His practical experience in government was buttressed by intermittent studies at the University of Toronto, the University of Chicago, and Harvard (from which he received a PhD for a now apallingly Eurocentric report on “Oriental Immigration to Canada,” written while he was deputy minister of labour).

By the late spring of 1914 King’s labour and industrial relations expertise had bumped into increasingly serious labour-management conflicts in Rockefeller industrial enterprises in the USA. For a princely salary John D. Rockefeller Jr. hired the former Canadian minister of labour to head the Rockefeller Foundation’s new department of industrial research, and advise John D. Jr. on related practical issues.

Out of this developed a lifelong friendship between two men who were born in the same year (1874) and seemed to share certain character traits. Shortly after Mackenzie King retired in 1948 “Rockefeller had gifted him $100,000 to ease any financial concerns. Then, a few months later the Rockefeller Foundation provided King with another $100,000, no strings attached, for his memoir project” (Allan Levine).

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William Lyon Mackenzie King’s ultimate political achievements also often enough flowed from the hard work of such Ottawa bureaucrats and politicians as Brooke Claxton, Arnold Heeney, Ernest Lapointe, Ian Mackenzie, Lester Pearson, Jack Pickersgill, Charles “Chubby” Power, Gordon Robertson, Norman Robertson, Norman Rogers, and O.D. Skelton.

In King’s time  the Ottawa bureaucracy was exclusively managed by white males : “Men ran the show during what’s called the … ‘golden age’ …  Married women couldn’t work in the public service until 1955 and the first woman didn’t even reach the executive level until 1972” (National Post, 2015). Mackenzie King was nonetheless a man who frequently took advice from women — starting with his mother (dead or alive), and ending with  Joan Patteson, wife of the banker Godfroy Patteson, and from the end of the First World War to his death King’s “constant companion, sometime hostess, and intimate confidante” (Pierre Berton).

Similarly, no account even of Mackenzie King’s approach to political strategy would be complete without some reference to female spiritualist mediums on two continents.

The historian J.L. Granatstein was almost certainly right to stress (in the later 1970s) that King’s constant dabbling in “spiritualism” was shared by “many of the most famous people of his era.” (The Irish poet W.B. Yeats’s book A Vision, first published in 1925 and then in a revised edition in 1937, is just one case in point.)

Allan Levine’s biography also reports on King’s adventures with the spiritualist mediums Mrs. Rachel Bleaney in Kingston (Ontario), Mrs. Etta Wriedt in Detroit, Mrs. Quest Brown from England, Mrs. Sharplin and Mrs. Helen Hughes  in the UK, and the  Irish writer Geraldine Cummins, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research (whose members included philosopher Henry Sidgwick and psychologist William James).

Similarly, although King never quite married, he kept intending to until later in life. And he kept up lifetime friendships with a number of accomplished and impressive women.

One major example is the independently wealthy English social reformer and UK Liberal party member Violet Markham (who eventually married a racehorse owner).

Mackenzie King (“Rex” to a few close friends) first met the young Miss Markham at an Ottawa reception in 1905. They remained friends after she returned to England. She sent him money after his defeat in the 1911 election. (She was later “staggered” to discover the “amount of money” finally dispersed in Mackenzie King’s will : “I always thought Rex a poor man.”) And they kept in touch for the rest of King’s life.

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There is more on various parallel planes. Although not experienced in what early 21st century Canada would call cultural diversity, eg, the geographic ridings Mackenzie King sat for as a Member of Parliament in Ottawa reflected other diverse themes : Waterloo North in Ontario (1908–1911) ; Prince in Prince Edward Island (1919–1921) ; York North in Ontario (1921–1925) ; Prince Albert in Saskatchewan (1926–1945) ; and Glengarry in Ontario (1945–1949).

When he met with Joachim von Ribbentrop, in a prelude to his bizarre 1937 meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin (Germany), King “thought it relevant to stress that he had been born in Berlin, Ontario.” (In the words of Allan Levine. Note also that during the First World War the name of this “patch of old Germany set down in the garden of Ontario” had been changed to “Kitchener,” to honour a British general of the day.)

And then in the fall of 1948, from a suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London, England, a somewhat ailing William Lyon Mackenzie King met with the prime minister of the new dominion of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and “did his part to help resolve India’s desire to remain in the Commonwealth but become a republic” (Levine again).

Along what might be the democrat Mackenzie King’s highest road, the military historian C.P. Stacey (later a King critic) first met the aging prime minister when he guided him on a tour of European battlefields at  the end of the Second World War. Colonel Stacey was not impressed : “The Prime Minister’s conversation was just what you might have heard from any old gentleman in the back of a Toronto streetcar.”

Yet from another point of view, this too strengthened  Mackenzie King’s stewardship of Wilfrid Laurier’s “First Canadian”gospel. The historian Frank Underhill, who had helped write the 1933 “Regina Manifesto” of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) ancestors of today’s New Democrats (NDP), may have come to understand and express all this best.

Fifteen years after the Manifesto, Underhill had acquired more respect for the retiring leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, who would finally serve as Prime Minister of Canada for 21 years and 154 days.

In an August 1948 Canadian Forum article Frank Underhill paid   a kind of irked but ultimately unmistakable tribute to William Lyon Mackenzie King: “His statesmanship has been a more subtly accurate, a more flexibly adjustable Gallup poll of Canadian public opinion than statisticians will ever be able to devise. He has been the representative Canadian, the typical Canadian,  the essential Canadian, the ideal Canadian, the Canadian as he exists in the mind of God.”

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Whatever the exact later 19th century experience may have been, Canada was already being called “a democracy” by the time Mackenzie King first became prime minister in the 1921 election

The same year in fact also saw the publication of the classic study Modern Democracies, by the “British academic, jurist, historian and Liberal politician” James Bryce. And the particular modern “Democracies in Their Working” he studied in the empirical parts of his two volumes were France, Switzerland, and Canada (vol 1) and the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (vol 2).

In Bryce’s view, the “study of popular government in Canada derives a peculiar interest from the fact that while the economic and social conditions of the country are generally similar to those of the United States, the political institutions have been framed upon English models.”

And so, James Bryce carried on, “in Canada, better perhaps than in any other country, the working of the English system can be judged in its application to the facts of a new and swiftly growing country, thoroughly democratic in its ideas and its institutions.”

William Lyon Mackenzie King took these democratic Canadian ideas and institutions of 1921 and extended and enriched them in at least three main directions :

(1) “NATION BUILDING” : From his challenge to the British-appointed Governor General in the “King-Byng Affair” of 1926 to the (at last) creation of the legal status of a Canadian citizen in 1947, King and his governments worked hard to build a “new national status” for the old first self-governing British dominion — accountable to “the Canadian people” and their representatives in the Ottawa parliament, and altogether autonomous with respect to the government of the United Kingdom.

(2) “NATIONAL UNITY” : Guided by his legendary “Quebec lieutenant” Ernest Lapointe (later succeeded by Louis St. Laurent), King worked hard to ensure a “united Canada” that included both the French-speaking majority in Quebec and the English-speaking majority in the rest of the country. (And this finally brought forth the legendary Mackenzie King political slogan  — “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” — during the Second World War.)

(3) “WELFARE STATE PROTOTYPE” : Mackenzie King was not a “socialist” or “social democrat” — like members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) that was founded in Calgary in 1932, and then adopted  its policy Manifesto at a convention in Regina in 1933. (He wasn’t even a late 20th century “tax and spend liberal.”)  Yet he was the author of a 1918 book called Industry and humanity : a study in the principles underlying industrial reconstruction, which grew out of his work for the Rockefeller Foundation, and alluded to some expanded role for government after the First World War. Circumstances in any case conspired to lead King’s  governments into the bare beginnings of a later federal welfare state in Canada —  from the parsimonious Old Age Pensions Act in 1927 to Canada’s first Unemployment Insurance Act in 1940.

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Two events in the wider  evolution of the global British empire  formed quiet but provocative deep background to the evolution of Mackenzie King’s nation-building policy in Canada, from the 1920s to the 1940s.

The first was the establishment of the Irish Free  State as a new self-governing dominion of the empire late in 1922. The second was the establishment  of India and Pakistan as new dominions in 1947.

Closer to home, the 1923 Halibut Treaty between Canada and the United States established the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) to manage halibut fishing on the Pacific Northwest coast. It was the first international agreement negotiated by Canada altogether independently of the United Kingdom.

This also set the stage for the appointment of Vincent Massey as “first Canadian Minister to Washington” in 1926 (or “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary” to the United States, changed to “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary” in 1943).

The signature domestic adventure of Mackenzie King’s early nation-building was  the so-called King-Byng affair of 1926 (the scourge of now several subsequent generations of Canadian political science students). And it all began with the October 29, 1925 federal election.

Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives won 116 of the 245 seats in the Canadian House of Commons with 46.5% of the cross-Canada popular vote in 1925. Mackenzie King’s governing Liberals won only 99 seats with 39.9% of the vote. The Progressives won 24 seats, and six other members were elected. (The exact numbers here are Murray Beck’s.)

No party could claim even a bare governing majority of 123 seats.  So King decided to remain in office. By courting the 30 Progressive and other MPs he managed to carry on as prime minister until late June 1926.

Meanwhile, the Meighen Conservatives uncovered a scandal over “the maladministration of the Customs Department” (Beck again). By late June 1926 they had pinned the blame on King’s cabinet, and this ate into the government’s Progressive and other support. To avoid defeat in the House over a censure motion moved by the Conservatives, King advised the Governor General still appointed by the British government, Baron Byng of Vimy, to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Lord Byng declined this advice, to the at least outward outrage of William Lyon Mackenzie King, grandson of the 1837 rebellion leader. Instead Byng asked Arthur Meighen — whose Conservatives did hold more seats than King’s Liberals at this point — to see if he could form a government, and avoid another election so soon after October 29, 1925.

Meighen tried, but he could not attract enough Progressive and other support to command a governing majority. His “acting government” lasted only three days before it was defeated in the House. At this point Governor General Byng had no alternative but to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election for September 14, 1926. Mackenzie King at last had what he wanted. And his crafty winning issue was the British Lord Byng’s alleged interference with the new Canadian democracy.

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Serious students of “Westminster” parliamentary government agree that Lord Byng (as local representative of Canada’s sovereign head of state, across the sea) acted within his constitutional powers in the King-Byng affair. In 1965 the English historian A.J.P. Taylor included a note on “The constitutional conflict in Canada” in his Oxford History of England volume covering the period 1914–1945. In 1926 Lord Byng had acted, Taylor wrote, “with as much independence as a British sovereign” — and altogether according to the rules of the Westminster parliamentary game.

Yet, A.J.P. Taylor also noted, in the ensuing September 14, 1926 Canadian federal election “the Liberals won a majority” (128 seats — five more than the bare majority of 123) “largely by alleging that the influence of the crown had been used against them.” Taylor went on : “King, restored as prime minister, claimed he had been the victim of ‘colonial’ treatment.”

Taylor concluded : “Probably King knew he was barking up a wrong tree. He was the smartest of political operators and not scrupulous in his means.” (Or, Mackenzie King grasped that, whatever the Westminster fine points might be, his anti-Lord Byng Canadian nation-building rhetoric was popular enough with the people of Canada to re-elect his government with a majority of seats in the House.)

A.J.P.Taylor noted as well that deeper issues in the growth of the global British empire were nonetheless thought by some Canadians and others to be at stake in the King-Byng affair. In the very end, Taylor wrote, “King’s unfounded grievance paved the way for the statute of Westminster” — a little further down the road in 1931.

Meanwhile, related issues were taken up at an Imperial conference held in London, October 19–22, 1926. As Allan Levine explains : “King had one main goal at the conference, and that was to redefine the role of the governor general.” Up to this point the office had represented the real-world British government in London. From fall 1926 on it just represented the abstract concept of “the Crown” in Canada (and elsewhere).

From a broader point of view, yet another declaration named after former UK prime minister Arthur Balfour sketched the larger principle that would acquire more exact definition in the 1931 Statute of Westminster. According to this “Balfour Declaration 1926,” the United Kingdom and the (now six) self-governing British dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and the Irish Free State) were “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

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Back in the economic real world, the late October 1929 Great Crash on the Wall Street stock market in New York ultimately had some harsh  consequences in Canada, as elsewhere. Mackenzie King nonetheless felt that “conditions were reasonably good at the beginning of 1930.”

This feeling was aided and abetted by advice from his fellow spiritualist from nearby Kingston, Mrs. Rachel Bleaney. But in the end both King and Mrs. Bleaney proved wrong. The Liberals lost the mid-summer election of July 28, 1930 to resurgent Conservatives, under the new leadership of Richard Bedford (R.B.) Bennett, MP for Calgary West.

According to dubious later Liberal legends, William Lyon Mackenzie King in his infinite political (and economic) wisdom had  shrewdly calculated that the hard times clearly on the horizon in the summer of 1930 were going to get much worse. (As it happened, unemployment across Canada would peak at 19.3% in 1933, according to the official numbers from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.)

Albert Einstein’s new theory of relativity was not required to guess that the reputation of the Canadian party in power at the height of the economic disaster would be damaged. So, the legend has it, Mackenzie King contrived to lose the 1930 election, and hex the Conservatives.

At the time, however, the Incredible Canadian did confess to his diary that he was “surprised” and even “astonished” by the final results on July 28, 1930. (The new Bennett Conservatives had won at least a dozen  more seats than they needed for a bare majority.)

King did confess as well : “The load is heavy … I shall be glad to throw onto Bennett’s shoulders the formation of the government and finding a solution for unemployment.” Then he added : “I feel I must have another talk with Mrs. B.”

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The new prime minister R.B. Bennett was born and raised in New Brunswick.  He had graduated from the Dalhousie University law school in Nova Scotia when was 23. Four years later, in 1897, he moved west to Calgary in what was then still the Northwest Territories, to join a law firm established by James Lougheed (originally from Ontario, and grandfather of the Peter Lougheed who would be premier of Alberta, 1971–1985).

By the start of the First World War R.B. Bennett was a prosperous lawyer and businessman in the new most-westerly prairie province of Alberta, with interests in such things as the Calgary Petroleum Products Company, the Alberta Pacific Grain Company, Canada Cement, Calgary Power, Calgary Brewing and Malting, and Conservative politics. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1911, and served in Arthur Meighen’s two short-lived governments of 1920–21 and 1926. In 1927 he succeeded Meighen as party leader at the first federal Conservative leadership convention, held in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Prime Minister Bennett’s first approach to Canada’s economic problems followed a widespread early 1930s policy of increasing tariffs on foreign trade to promote growth. Partly because of its international popularity, no doubt, this only made the gathering Great Depression worse.

Leaning on old Canadian Tory traditions (also followed in part by Laurier in 1897), Bennett believed  as well that an aggressive policy of Imperial Preference within the British “empire and commonwealth”could build Canadian economic muscle. He chaired a British Empire Economic Conference in Ottawa, 21 July–18 August 1932, with representatives from  Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, and the United Kingdom.

A study of the gathering by David Jacks at Simon Fraser University  in 2011 explored “whether or not Canada was able to … divert trade flows towards other signatories at Ottawa.” It concluded “the conference was a failure from this perspective.” Similarly, the 1932 global British empire negotiations in Ottawa did not stop unemployment in Canada from peaking in 1933, and remaining unusually high throughout the 1930s.

The website of the Western Development Museum in Saskatchewan today notes that :“ By 1933, nearly half the farm automobiles on the prairies had been taken off the roads,” because “money for gasoline” was in such short supply. With heavy gasoline engines removed some were pulled by horses and known as “Bennett Buggies” —  reflecting “the farmers’ disenchantment with the Right Honourable R. B. Bennett.” (They also resembled  the “Hoover Wagons” that arose in the United States at the same time, honouring the Republican President Herbert Hoover.)

Toward the end of his time in office, in January 1935, Bennett “began a series of live radio speeches outlining a ‘New Deal’ for Canada” (see John English in the Canadian Encyclopedia). What he had in mind  was modeled on the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States — and pitched with an eye to what finally became the Canadian federal election of October 14, 1935.

It was at the very best too little too late. The legend that Mackenzie King deliberately lost the 1930 election, to stick the Bennett Conservatives with the blame for the Great Depression, is certainly dubious or worse. But some blame did seem to stick in the 1935 election. When the ballots were counted on October 14 the Conservatives had their worst showing since the start of the 1867 confederation. They took a mere 40 seats (25 in Ontario) with less than 30% of the popular vote. Meanwhile, the Mackenzie King Liberals had their best performance to date — more than 170 out of 245 seats in Ottawa, well over a 123-seat bare majority.

* * * *

Strangely enough, the sometimes twisted logic of the Westminster first-past-the-post electoral system also meant that the Liberals won their record 170+ seats in 1935 with a slightly smaller share of the cross-Canada popular vote than they had when they lost in 1930!

This finally points to a further stage in the complication of the old Liberal/Conservative two-party system of parliamentary government introduced by the Progressives in 1921. (According to the general theory, the larger the number of parties running vote-getting candidates in local contests decided by mere pluralities, the smaller the percentage of the vote required to win a majority of seats country-wide.)

By 1935 the federal Progressives themselves had withered on the vine — or been absorbed into the two major parties (at first especially the Liberals, as with Thomas Crerar who returned to King’s cabinet in 1935). But they were succeeded by the new Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) on the left, and Social Credit on the right.

(Social Credit drew on a strained financial argument invented by the English engineer C.H. Douglas. It was adapted to Canadian circumstances by the Calgary radio evangelist William “Bible Bill” Aberhart. And he was swept into office as premier of Alberta by the Great Depression in late August 1935, less than two months before the October federal election.)

The new “third party”most unfairly treated by the first-past-the–post system in 1935 (in another branch of the general theory) was the  ephemeral Reconstruction Party invented by the Conservative rebel Henry Herbert Stevens. It won 8.7% of the Canada-wide popular vote. But because this vote was spread so evenly across the country it produced only one seat in Ottawa — for  Stevens’s own BC riding of Kootenay East. (And Stevens would return to the Conservative fold in 1938.)

Meanwhile the CCF (whose name echoed Laurence Gronlund’s   1884 translation of international socialism “into the American vernacular” in his book, The Co-operative Commonwealth) won seven seats with 8.8% of the cross-Canada vote. But with only 4.1% the new federal Social Credit party won 17 seats (15 of which were concentrated in Alberta)!

* * * *

Despite the Depression’s raw edges, the 1930s brought some non-economic blessings to the rising Canadian democracy, during the hexed Bennett  regime and beyond. It also brought sometimes distressing developments that only indirectly affected practical politics in Ottawa, or any of the nine provinces and two federal territories.

The Imperial Conference of 1930,  including the UK, the jewel-in-the-crown of India, and the six self-governing dominions, finally led to the 1931 UK legislation known as the Statute of Westminster. And this gave proper legal expression to the 1926 Balfour Declaration that the six dominions were “autonomous Communities … freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”

(The power to amend the 1867 British North America Act would nonetheless remain with the UK parliament  until 1982, because Canadian federal and provincial governments could not agree on an amending formula that reflected the real-world nuances of Canadian federalism.)

On another only vaguely related front, in a talk on “Economic Trends in Canadian-American Relations” at the University of Maine in 1938 Harold Innis somewhat famously noted : “The radio crosses boundaries which stopped the press.”

By the middle  of the 1920s it was clear that the North American free market would do little to create Canadian as well as US radio programs. As a sideline, the new publicly owned Canadian National Railways (CNR) developed an ad hoc radio network with stations in Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Inspired by both the CNR and the British Broadcasting Corporation across the sea, in 1929 Mackenzie King’s Aird Commission recommended “the creation of a national broadcasting company with the status and duties of a public utility” in Canada.  And the grass-roots Canadian Radio League led by Alan Plaunt and Graham Spry promoted the concept.

The Bennett government established a Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) in 1932. But this “suffered from underfunding” and “an uncertain mandate.”

In 1936 the returning Liberal government founded the crown corporation known as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, in English) and Radio-Canada (in French). Through various twists and turns it would live on into the 21st century.

* * * *

Off in a corner of academia Yale University Press in the United States published Harold Innis’s book on The Fur Trade in Canada in 1930 — with its pioneering conclusion : “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”

(And in the Second World War 1939–1945, Veterans Affairs Canada reports today : “At least 3,000 First Nations members—including 72 women—enlisted, as well as an unknown number of Inuit, Métis, and other Indigenous people. The actual numbers were no doubt much higher.”)

From another angle, 1931 has been called “the peak of the residential school system” in Canada. Under these arrangements aboriginal or indigenous children were separated from their on-reserve families, and sent to live at “church-run, government-funded industrial schools,” in a frequently failed attempt at “aggressive assimilation” into the (now largely European-oriented) mainstream society.

From another angle again, the first edition of Diamond Jenness’s early classic on The Indians of Canada appeared in 1932. Jenness was an ethnologist from New Zealand who had become head of the anthropology branch of the Geological Survey in Ottawa in 1925.

Diamond Jenness still believed that in the long run : “Doubtless all the tribes will disappear.” But he “was always courageous in writing and speaking out about the terrible conditions in which Canada’s indigenous people lived.” He “criticized the Indian Act” of 1876 and charged that “penny-pinching and indifference condemned indigenous people to … ‘welfare colonialism,’ poverty and hopelessness.”

Meanwhile, in a vague and almost entirely unremembered echo of the 18th century Onontio at Quebec City (and his Algonkian alliance in defence of Canada), the 1931 Statute of Westminster meant that Canadian not British prime ministers should now recommend Canadian governor generals to the British monarch (who remained official head of state).

British aristocrats would continue to monopolize appointments to Rideau Hall in Ottawa until the 1950s. But R.B. Bennett tried to do something slightly innovative by recommending the appointment of the Scottish novelist, historian, and conservative politician  John Buchan — author of the popular 1915 mystery novel The Thirty-Nine Steps.

While Buchan did qualify as British he was not immediately  a British aristocrat. There were those who felt that appointing a British commoner Governor General of Canada would be an insult to someone. And King George V raised Buchan to the status of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, before he assumed office as governor general  on 2 November 1935 — just a few weeks after the Bennett Conservatives lost the 1935 federal election.

* * * *

The 1930s Great Depression brought economic grief everywhere in  the  Dominion of Canada. There had been some improvement in the cross-country unemployment rate after it bottomed out in 1933 — through to 1937. But then it started rising again in 1938, and it did not fall dramatically until the Second World War was well underway in 1941.

Inevitably some places, like some people, were hit harder than others. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia,  the “economic problems were made worse on the Prairies by years of drought” and “plagues of grasshoppers and hail storms, which caused huge crop failures.”

Saskatchewan, third most populous province in all of Canada in 1931 and booming centre of the early 20th century wheat economy, actually lost population between 1931 and 1941. Arguably enough, capitalism in its 1930s prairie wheat economy variant finally proved so hard on so many that it pushed the people of Saskatchewan into their long adventure with “Agrarian Socialism” — starting with the victory of Tommy Douglas’s CCF and “the first socialist government in North America” in the Saskatchewan provincial election of June 15, 1944.

As evidence Canadian socialism did not have to be entirely agrarian (and the prairies were not the only troubled region), the year before the CCF had come close to forming a provincial government in industrial Ontario. Mackenzie King’s reaction to the growing success of the new party provincially was : “In my heart I am not sorry to see the mass of the people coming a little more into their own, but I do regret that it is not a Liberal party that is winning that position. What I fear is that we will begin to have defection from our own ranks in the House to the CCF.”

Meanwhile, in 1943 John Bracken, former Progressive premier of Manitoba, became leader of the federal Conservative party, which he insisted on renaming Progressive Conservative. And in Ontario in 1945 George Drew’s provincial Progressive Conservatives finally won a majority government on an aggressively “Red Tory” platform.

Financial difficulties faced by several provinces also prompted Mackenzie King to appoint the Rowell-Sirois Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations in 1937. While stillborn for the moment, the Commission’s report in 1940 would lay the groundwork for later federal-provincial equalization payments. Leonard Marsh’s Report on Social Security for Canada in 1943 was similarly underplayed at the time. But it led to the introduction of Family Allowances in 1945, and sketched prospects for further social policy growth after the Second World War.

Meanwhile again, the Bennett government in its final New Deal phase had tried to establish a federal unemployment insurance program in 1935. But it was rebuffed by the courts as infringing on provincial powers. In 1940 the King government asked the UK House of Commons to amend the British North America Act 1867, inserting unemployment insurance under the list of federal powers in section 91. Later the same year the Canadian House of Commons passed the beginnings of Canada’s present “employment insurance” legislation.

Meanwhile yet again, by the mid 1930s what had become the Dominion of Newfoundland in 1907 was a place not yet quite in Canada that had been especially hard hit by the Great Depression. Its financial situation deteriorated dramatically. In 1934 it effectively returned to the status of a British colony governed directly from the mother country. And this began a long journey to its not entirely enthusiastic accession to the 1867 Canadian confederation at long last in 1949.

* * * *

From May 17 to June 15, 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the mother of Queen Elizabeth II) embarked on the first tour of Canada ever undertaken by a reigning British monarch. (Though on four of the days involved the royal couple visited places in the United States.)

Many years later Queen Elizabeth (by then known as the Queen Mother) would remember the trip with some affection, “in those anxious days shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.”

The war  began with the German invasion of Poland on the morning of September 1, 1939. The United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany on September 3. No one doubted that Canada, like the other British dominions, would soon join in. But in keeping with its new national status Canada did not declare war on Germany itself until September 10.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the “Second World War [1939–45] was a defining event in Canadian history, transforming a quiet country on the fringes of global affairs.”

As explained by Veterans Affairs Canada today : “More than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in the military — more than 45,000 gave their lives and another 55,000 were wounded …  for a country of only 11 million people Canada’s contribution was remarkable. At war’s end, Canada had … the world’s third largest navy, the fourth largest air force and an army of six divisions.”

The fall of France in June 1940 had a brief but dramatic impact on the first self-governing British dominion. As the historian Arthur Lower would later explain, it “made the possibility of the fall of England very real,” and “strange currents began to course through English Canada,” whose inhabitants “for the first time looked at life through their own eyes.”

Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Charles Ritchie was working at the Office of the High Commissioner for Canada in London, England. One of his colleagues was the 43-year-old Lester “Mike” Pearson, who would later serve as prime minister of Canada (1963–1968). The fall of France, Ritchie wrote in his diary, raised the prospect that even Great Britain may have to “make peace as France is doing now.” And “Mike Pearson says, ‘If this country makes peace I hope Canada will become a republic and that would be the end of this business of our duty to the Empire.’”

As it happened (Lower would later explain as well) the “moment passed.” The island kingdom of Great Britain, protected by a sea-ditch, did not have to make peace with Adolf Hitler. But something of the melody of June 1940 lingered on. In 1941 the historian Frank Underhill was “almost dismissed from the University of Toronto … for suggesting that Canada would drift away from the British Empire and draw closer to the United States” — a concept still deeply offensive (and even ‘treasonous”in wartime) to some among the old “Tory Toronto” elite of the day (descendants of the rabid Toronto Toryism that Charles Dickens had found so appalling in the middle of the 19th century!).

Later in 1941 the domestic non-war death of Mackenzie King’s indispensable French Canadian lieutenant Ernest Lapointe brought its own  deep grief to the government in Ottawa. The prime minister of Canada finally took inspiration from the crowds who lined the snowy streets of Quebec City to watch Lapointe’s funeral procession on 29 November 1941.

There had never been, Mackenzie King later told his diary, “at any funeral in Canada heretofore, not excepting Sir Wilfrid’s or Sir John Macdonald’s … a larger number of people gathered … I felt as we walked along how much one owes it to be true to the people … in the march, I turned to [the old Progressive leader] Crerar who was just behind me and said : ‘Truly Canada has become a nation’.”

* * * *

In the later 1930s Mackenzie King’s returning government negotiated two reciprocal tariff reduction agreements with the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in the United States.

(In 1936 the publication of Canadian-American Industry : A Study in International Investment, by Herbert Marshall, Frank Southard Jr., and Kenneth W. Taylor, had made clear how Canada’s old “National Policy” of tariff protection for domestic industry ultimately created a Canadian manufacturing sector dominated by branch plants of firms based in the United States. Canada’s automobile industry was a leading case in point.)

Even Roosevelt’s United States would not join in on the Second World War until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The fall of France in June 1940, however, had created particular concerns about  the immediate fate of the United Kingdom and its  implications for the defence of North America.

On August 17, 1940,  Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King met on a private railway car near Ogdensburg, New York. King reported  in his diary: “Roosevelt was sitting in a corner in his white suit … in a very happy mood. He greeted me with his usual smile and hearty handshake calling me Mackenzie.” The two men signed what became known as the Ogdensburg  Agreement, establishing a Canadian-American Permanent Joint Board on Defence for North America. Not too much later, in the spring of 1941 “Mackenzie and F.D.R.” signed the Hyde Park Declaration — “a financial arrangement with the United States that helped Canada provide war materials to Britain.”

After 1945 (and the death of FDR — and the fall of Churchill’s iron curtain against the former Soviet Russian allies) the rapid rise of a cold-war American imperialism that, in the words of Harold Innis, “has been made plausible and attractive in part by the insistence that it is not imperialistic,” appeared as a threat to Mackenzie King’s Canadian nation-building legacy.

Shortly after a late November 1947 trip to London for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, King cancelled expansive new reciprocity or free trade negotiations between Canada and the United States in Washington. Even he feared they actually were moving too close to some US annexation of Canada. (Also a new cold war aspiration even taken for granted in parts of late 1940s Washington — and NewYork? A memory of Mackenzie King’s rebel grandfather’s mid 19th century remark that “republican rule is far less pure than I thought until I lived in the republic” might also have echoed in his mind — if he had been aware of it!)

* * * *

In a talk in the United Kingdom in the spring of 1948 (later published as “Great Britain, the United States and Canada”) Harold Innis himself worried that “division between French and English” made Canada especially vulnerable to the new American imperialism that insisted it was not imperialistic. Working to prevent this division’s creating some irreparable fracture in Canadian unity was Mackenzie King’s great domestic struggle of the Second World War.

“Conscription” or legally compulsory military service was the big-ticket divisive issue again, as it had been in the First World War, when French Canada was arguably more circumscribed by Our Lady of the Snows, and the cultural weight and heft of the global British empire.

It wasn’t just that the francophone majority in Quebec was resolutely against conscription, while the unrepentant anglophone Tories  who wanted Frank Underhill fired from the University of Toronto for disloyalty to the British empire were aggressively for it. More than a few old Canadian Grit and other anglophone family farmers in all parts of the country were against conscription as well. And still more problematically for William Lyon Mackenzie King, it was aggressively endorsed by some of his own Liberal cabinet and backbench MPs.

From September 10, 1939 to almost the end of the war the Incredible Canadian weaved and bobbed on the issue, while ultimately remaining loyal to the francophone/family farmer opposition. “Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary” (in fact a formulation from a  Toronto Daily Star editorial on Mackenzie King’s policy) had an institutional expression in a group popularly known as “the Zombies” — legally conscripted recruits under The National Resources Mobilization Act, 1940 (NRMA) who remained in Canada, and could/would only be sent overseas if and when absolutely necessary.

King kept necessity from the door as long as he could manage. Then in November 1944, only a little more than six months before the end of the war in Europe, he “finally agreed to a one-time levy of 17,000 NRMA conscripts for overseas service.”

In December 1944, a related  motion of non-confidence in the government was defeated 143 to 70. There were 34 Quebec Liberals voting for the motion, including Charles “Chubby” Power (who had already resigned from cabinet over Mackenzie King’s final agreement to send at least some Zombies overseas). The King Liberals nonetheless took  53 of Quebec’s 65 seats in the June 11, 1945 federal election — down only somewhat from the 61 of 65 Quebec seats they had won in their second great landslide on March 26, 1940.

* * * *

In February 1945, with the end of the war in Europe only a few months away, Mackenzie King’s Secretary of State Paul Martin Sr. (father of the Paul Martin Jr. who would serve as Prime Minister of Canada, 2003–2006)  was visiting the Canadian war cemetery at Dieppe in France.

He thought to himself that these soldiers who had died for their country “had come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds … from all over Canada. But one thing united them : they were all Canadians.” From 1763 up to this point Canadians had legally and officially just been  subjects of the global British empire resident in Canada. Martin (descended himself from French Canadians who had moved to southwestern Ontario near the old Fort Detroit in the 18th century) was seized with the view that the legal and official status of a Canadian citizen was long overdue. With the agreement of prime minister and cabinet he tabled legislation in 1946. The first Canadian Citizenship Act finally took effect on January 1, 1947.

In some ways this marked the height of the long King regime’s  nation-building legacy. On January 3, 1947 a symbolic “first 26” Canadian citizens were presented with certificates in an Ottawa ceremony. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, grandson of the leader of the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada, received “number 0001.”

Mackenzie King himself still thought of Canada as a country  derived from Europe. But, especially with his commitment to French and English diversity, the ultimate concept of Canadian citizenship his government bequeathed could not finally have any particular “ethnic and religious” definition. And this was at least vaguely foreshadowed by the repeal of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act in May 1947.

The 1923 act — also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act —  was just the most egregious and blatantly racist of various old Dominion of Canada policies, which preferred first British and then more generally European immigrants in the first half of the 20th century. (Although the historic role of Chinese workers in building the late 19th century Canadian transcontinental railroads just further twisted the singling out of later Chinese immigrants for the most blatantly racist treatment.)

It is often said that Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was repealed in 1947 because it violated a proposed new United Nations declaration of human rights that Mackenzie King’s government had  endorsed (and that had been drafted by a committee which included Eleanor Roosevelt and the bilingual Canadian John Peters Humphrey). Yet Paul Martin Sr.’s thoughts about Canadian citizenship and how the soldiers buried at Dieppe “had come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds … from all over Canada”  pointed in the same direction.

As Arlene Chan notes in the Canadian Encyclopedia article on the Chinese Immigration Act : “Though the Act was repealed in 1947, immigration restrictions on the basis of race and national origin were not fully scrubbed until 1967.” And “British subjects,” in one sense or another, would continue to receive some special treatment in Canadian citizenship law until the second Canadian Citizenship Act of 1977, in the age of Pierre Trudeau. But all benign movement in these directions, it also seems fair enough to say, began with the first Canadian Citizenship Act in 1947.

And — in just one of the very many deep ironies of the Canadian  experience — if Mackenzie King himself never did quite escape his 19th century origins in the old British North America (even as he also grew up in the old German immigrant city of Berlin, Ontario), the ultimately quite multicultural Canadian Citizenship Act that first took effect on January 1, 1947 was a kind of grand climax to his Canadian nation building career.

* * * *

In the very end, in nation building — as in French-English “national unity,” and what eventually became today’s Canadian federal-provincial welfare state — the long age of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King could only lay claim to the beginning of bare beginnings.

Kenneth Boulding from Liverpool in the UK, briefly resting at the McGill University economics department in Montreal while in transit to the USA, 1946–47, could not quite see it. But the Incredible Canadian who finally retired in the middle of November 1948 bequeathed at least the structural outlines of a Canadian democracy beyond the British empire (and commonwealth), for future generations to (very gradually) fill in. More poetically, in his own unique way Mackenzie King had begun to awaken the Canadian people who would inherit the British Dominion of Canada.

In the nature of the case, however, the complete awakening would take a long time. And in the middle of November 1948 a very great deal remained to be done. As just one  strictly symbolic example, Mackenzie King’s governments had tried twice to give the very gradually emerging new Canada its own flag  — in 1925 and 1946. Both attempts proved premature. It would be the middle of the 1960s before Lester Pearson’s Liberal and other party MPs finally went the full distance.

Meanwhile, in the old provincial homeland of les canadiens, on January 21, 1948 Quebec’s Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis had unveiled “the first provincial flag officially adopted in Canada.” This foreshadowed further struggles for Canadian nation building and national unity down the road, as the dismantling of the old British empire after the Second World War raised fresh questions about the old British North American Province of Lower Canada. When India became an independent republic in a new kind of Commonwealth of Nations on January 26, 1950 still further questions were (very quietly) raised about the ultimate democratic future of the multiracial Canada  that the old “Indian-European” fur trade had begun, from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific oceans — “coast to coast to coast” in Harold Innis’s “northern North America.”

Mackenzie King himself would see very little of any of this. He was just over a month away from his 74th birthday when he finally retired as Prime Minister of Canada in the middle of November 1948. But retirement, it seems, did not agree with him. He had been at the centre of at least one smaller embryonic example of Viscount Bryce’s Modern Democracies of 1921 too long. After he stopped working he lived only another year and a half, before his death at his Kingsmere country place across the Ottawa River in Quebec,  in the middle of the summer of 1950.

He remains Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948). His worldly reputation has had its ups and downs since his death, but it seems fair to suggest that it has been higher in the early 21st century than it was in the later 20th century.

Christopher Dummitt, the Trent University historian whose Unbuttoned : A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life appeared as recently as the spring of 2017, has also provided an illuminating account of the origins and initial misfortunes of the first seriously critical look at King’s career  — Harry Ferns’s and Bernard Ostry’s The Age of Mackenzie King (first published in 1955 in the United Kingdom, and then republished in Canada in 1976).

Allan Levine quoted an assessment from Harry Ferns in the conclusion to his engaging 2011 biography. Ferns spent some unhappy time actually working for Canada’s longest serving prime minister. And, while embracing Charles Ritchie’s wise advice that King “was too evasive and elusive to sum up in a few words,” Harry Ferns’s deft stab at doing just that equally seems to strike the right note on which to end this short account of the growth of Canadian democracy, 1921–1948 : “Mackenzie King was not a good man or a normal man or a straightforward man or a likeable man … He was simply a great man at his trade.” And, happily enough, that (to altogether summarize the argument proposed here) is almost certainly what Canadian democracy and Canada period in all its particular historical circumstances needed at the time.

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  1. What was so “strained” about C.H. Douglas’ financial argument ?

  2. A fair question, and I spent some time coming up with “strained” as I recall. It still may not be the altogether best word. But what I was trying to get at was expressed at somewhat greater length by Alex N. McLeod in his 1990s volume on The Practice of Economics : Major Douglas, despite some strong parts in his argument, was “guilty of a serious misunderstanding of the nature and functions of money” : http://bit.ly/2iXi4hT
    John Maynard Keynes offers his account of the issue on pp. 370-371 of his 1930s classic on The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money : “Major Douglas is entitled to claim, as against some of his orthodox adversaries, that he at least has not been wholly oblivious of the outstanding problem of our economic system.” But “the detail of his diagnosis,in particular the so-called A+B theorem, includes much mere mystification.”
    Hope this helps out. Thanks for the comment.

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