Prime Suspects: Canada's Prime Ministers, Caricatured | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Prime Suspects: Canada's Prime Ministers, Caricatured

In this exhibit of political artwork, cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon marks 2017, Canada's 150 birthday, with caricatures of the country's 23 prime ministers.
Pierre and Justin Trudeau

150 Years of Satirical Source Material

2017 signifies 150 years since Canada was conceived. For some, this is a reason to celebrate, for others, maybe not so much. But for political cartoonists, it marks a century and a half of some of the best material a political satirist could hope for. Canada has had plenty; a seemingly endless parade of political characters from the charismatic and eccentric to the incompetent and unscrupulous, all welcome targets for the nation's long line of editorial cartoonists.

Political cartooning in Canada predates Confederation by over a century, going back to George Townshend, a British soldier with a talent for drawing, who fought in the Seven Years War and is widely recognized as Canada's first political cartoonist. Loosely coinciding with the advent of the print shop and the ensuing newspaper age, an era of political cartooning was born, where caricaturists became the voice of the commoner, lampooning the mighty and speaking truth to power. Whether you look to those such as Townshend in the 1700s, John W. Bengough in the 1800s or Bob Chambers in the 1900s, the country's history of editorial cartooning is long and rich.

James Wolfe by George Townshend
A portrait of British General James Wolfe, by artist George Townshend.

Canada has employed/endured a grand total of 23 prime ministers since Confederation, though some have come back to serve as prime minister a second or even a third time after being tossed from office.

A prime example (pun intended) would be Canada's first PM, Sir John A. Macdonald, elected to lead Canada's first government, then defeated in 1874 by Canada's second prime minister Alexander Mackenzie, only to come back and be re-elected in 1878 for a second term. Macdonald was rich fodder for the cartoonists of the day. He was just as often viewed as a rascal and a scallywag (old-timey language for bad to the bone) as he was a determined visionary. His dream of a national railway, to unite the country both geographically and economically, was almost derailed by his excessive drinking.

Since that time there has been a steady stream of prime ministerial targets for the poison pens of the nation's editorial cartoonists. These 23 prime ministers, largely a collection of old white men, represent a veritable cornucopia of receding hairlines, big noses and double chins, the stuff of which cartoonists' dreams are made. They are both our fossil fuel and our ultimate renewable resource.

Vive le Canada, vive la caricature . . .

Sir John A. Macdonald

Conservative Party. Prime minister 1867-1873, 1878-1891.

(Click on the image for larger view.)

Sir John A. Macdonald

A Scottish immigrant, Sir John A. Macdonald was a Father of Confederation and Canada's first prime minister. One of his most important accomplishments was the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. A crafty politician and a determined visionary, he was also known to be an excessive drinker.

Alexander Mackenzie

Liberal Party. PM 1873-1878.

Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie was a Scottish immigrant who started out as a stonemason, building many structures that still stand today. He became involved in politics soon after moving to Canada, eventually becoming Canada's second prime minister. One of his most noted accomplishments was the introduction of the secret ballot.

Sir John Abbott

Conservative Party. PM 1891-1892.

Sir John Abbott

Sir John Abbott was the first Canadian-born prime minister. His was largely a caretaking administration, having been thrust into the position after Sir John A. Macdonald died in office. Abbott was a reluctant leader who initially resisted taking the reins of power. After 17 months as PM, he turned over the government to Sir John Thompson in 1892.

Sir John Thompson

Conservative Party. PM 1892-1894.

Sir John Thompson

Sir John Thompson was a Nova Scotia lawyer who was briefly premier of Nova Scotia and was instrumental in founding Dalhousie Law School in 1883. He eventually became federal justice minister under Sir John A. Macdonald. Thompson assumed the office of prime minister in 1892 when Sir John Abbott retired. Among his political accomplishments was the creation of the Criminal Code, a consolidation and unification of the criminal law for Canada.

Sir Mackenzie Bowell

Conservative Party. PM 1894-1896.

Sir MacKenzie Bowell

Sir Mackenzie Bowell was appointed prime minister in 1894 after the sudden death of then PM Sir John Thompson. Bowell's reign was short lived. Due to his indecision and perceived incompetence regarding a growing controversy over public funding for denominational schools in Manitoba, he became the only sitting prime minister forced to resign by his cabinet.

Sir Charles Tupper

Conservative Party. PM 1896.

Sir Charles Tupper

Sir Charles Tupper was premier of Nova Scotia from 1864–1867. Driven by concern over American aggression northward and a lack of oversight by Britain, he proposed a Maritime Union at a September 1864 conference in Charlottetown. Through several subsequent conferences over his three years as premier, that union expanded to become the Confederation of Canada. He served for many years after as a federal member of Parliament, briefly appointed prime minister in 1896 before losing the June election to Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Liberal Party. PM 1896-1911.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir Wilfrid Laurier was Canada's first francophone prime minister and is recognized as one of its finest statesmen. His diplomatic handling of the Manitoba Schools Crisis gave him the reputation of a skillful conciliator. He referred to his efforts to satisfy both French and English sides of the issue as "sunny ways". More recently, his image has long been featured on the contemporary five dollar bill, one version of which was known for being easily and frequently defaced by the pens of mischievous lay-artists who, with a quick scribble, could make him look like Leonard Nimoy's "Mr. Spock".

Sir Robert Borden

Conservative Party. PM 1911-1920.

Sir Robert Borden

As prime minster during the First World War, Sir Robert Borden provided strong leadership in contributing to the Allied war effort. Though the issue of conscription had deeply divided the country, the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers allowed Borden to win new autonomy for the nation and a place at the post-war Versailles peace talks.

Arthur Meighen

Conservative Party. PM 1920-1921, 1926.

Arthur Meighen

Arthur Meighen became prime minister upon the retirement of Sir Robert Borden. Highly respected as a debater and orator, he nevertheless was ousted from office twice by William Lyon Mackenzie King, with whom he shared a bitter rivalry. Meighen's two terms as PM were short and truncated, largely due to King's strategic political skills.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

Liberal Party. PM 1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

William Lyon Mackenzie King led Canada through a time of dramatic political and social change. His leadership spanned three decades, and guided the nation through the Second World War and into a period of unprecedented prosperity. Despite his many political successes, he is widely remembered for personal oddities such as dabbling in the occult, and other eccentricities detailed in his personal journals which were made public after his death.

R.B. Bennett

Conservative Party. PM 1930-1935.

R. B. Bennett

Richard Bedford Bennett had the unfortunate timing to win office at the beginning of the Great Depression, defeating Mackenzie King's Liberals just as the economy was turning sour. While he did manage some significant political achievements during his mandate, he was promptly swept out of office again by Mackenzie King, just as the Depression was receding.

Louis St-Laurent

Liberal Party. PM 1948-1957.

Louis St-Laurent

As prime minister, Louis St-Laurent, affectionately known as "Uncle Louis," enjoyed an extended period of post-war prosperity. He governed for nearly a decade, and is credited with many political achievements, not the least of which was bringing Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation.

John Diefenbaker

Progressive Conservative Party. PM 1957-1963.

John Diefenbaker

John Diefenbaker upset Louis St-Laurent in the 1957 election to win a minority government for the Progressive Conservatives. He followed that with an historic victory in the 1958 election, winning an unprecedented 208 seats. He stayed on as leader of the party after his defeat in 1963 and performed as an effective opposition leader, despite the growing revolt within his own party. He is widely credited with the following quip: “What is the difference between a cactus and a Conservative caucus? On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.”

Lester Pearson

Liberal Party. PM 1963-1968.

Lester Pearson

Lester B. Pearson is remembered for many political triumphs but perhaps his most notable is one achieved before his years as prime minister, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully brokering a resolution to the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Pierre Trudeau

Liberal Party. PM 1968-1979, 1980-1984.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Pierre Trudeau was one of Canada's longest serving and most flamboyant prime ministers. Among his most enduring accomplishments would be the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the patriation of the Constitution, an historic document signed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982. The memorable signing ceremony was followed by Trudeau's signature pirouette, gently mocking the Queen's formality.

Joe Clark

Progressive Conservative Party. PM 1979-1980.

Joe Clark

In June 1979, 'Joe Who?' was sworn in as Canada's youngest-ever prime minister. His term lasted less than a year, until his minority government was brought down by a vote of non-confidence, and the Liberals returned to power under Pierre Trudeau. Joe Clark, however, was far from finished with politics. After leading the Tories in opposition until 1983, and later serving in the cabinet of Brian Mulroney's government, he retired from politics, only to be re-elected as PC leader once again in 1998. He would never repeat as prime minister.

John Turner

Liberal Party. PM 1984.

John Turner

As a young MP, John Turner was considered the 'golden boy' of the Liberal Party, serving in key cabinet positions in the governments of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. He took over as prime minister in June 1984 after Trudeau stepped down. His tenure as prime minister was short-lived. Turner immediately called an election, ran a flawed campaign, and in the wake of nearly 15 years of Trudeau governments, he lost in dramatic fashion to new Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney.

Brian Mulroney

Progressive Conservative Party. PM 1984-1993.

Brian Mulroney won two successive majority governments and is widely regarded as one of Canada's most progressive leaders in terms of his accomplishments on environmental, trade and economic files. His popularity, however, waned sharply in his second term, and his legacy was tarnished by the so-called 'Airbus Affair.' This involved a murky relationship with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber who — according to a public inquiry — made secret cash payments to Mulroney for purported lobbying services after Mulroney had stepped down as prime minister, but while he was still a member of Parliament.

Kim Campbell

Progressive Conservative Party. PM 1993.

Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell became Canada's first female prime minister after Brian Mulroney resigned near the end of his second term. The burden of Mulroney's unpopularity could not be shed by Campbell. The election that followed resulted in an historic defeat for the Progressive Conservatives. Note: The election occurred just days after the Toronto Blue Jays won their 2nd straight World Series title for Canada. In a thrilling game 6 finish that captivated the nation, the Blue Jays' Joe Carter hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, to win the series. The resulting Kim Campbell cartoon won the 1993 National Newspaper Award for editorial cartooning.

Jean Chrétien

Liberal Party. PM 1993-2003.

Jean Chrétien was the first prime minister since Mackenzie King to win three consecutive majority governments, largely thanks to voters in Ontario. It was not all smooth sailing. Two years into his first mandate his government narrowly avoided losing a Québec referendum on independence which might have resulted in the breakup of the country. Chrétien, a hard-line federalist who initially misjudged the momentum of the separatist campaign, was viewed by many francophones as an inarticulate working class Quebecer, compared to the eloquent and charismatic sovereigntist leader, Lucien Bouchard. The federalist side won by barely 1 per cent of the vote.

Paul Martin

Liberal Party. PM 2003-2006.

After serving several terms as finance minister in Jean Chrétien's government, Paul Martin's leadership aspirations eventually forced Chrétien into an early retirement. The hostile takeover bitterly divided the Liberal Party. This opened the door to the newly united Conservative Party under Stephen Harper. Martin's first election as leader saw the Liberals reduced to a minority. His fortunes at the polls never improved after that. He is still largely remembered for his successes as finance minister, including successive balanced budgets which often came at the expense of social programs such as employment insurance.

Stephen Harper

Conservative Party. PM 2006-2015.

Stephen Harper is credited with re-uniting the political right after years in opposition, bitterly divided by ideology and geography. From his western base he co-founded the Reform Party as an ideologically-pure right wing alternative to the more mainstream Progressive Conservative Party, which had lost much of its support in the West. The Reform Party eventually made overtures to moderate and eastern conservative factions, rebranding itself first as the Canadian Alliance, and finally as the Conservative Party of Canada under Harper's leadership. The CPC reclaimed its former PC base while dropping the Progressive label in both name and ideology. Harper would eventually have to make many ideological concessions to win over the Canadian electorate. He lost his first election to Paul Martin's Liberals and was then limited to two successive minority governments before finally securing a majority in 2011.

Justin Trudeau

Liberal Party. PM 2015-

Justin Trudeau led the Liberals back to power after a tight three-way race with the Conservative and New Democratic parties in the 2015 election. Riding a wave of 2nd generation 'Trudeaumania' fueled by his youthful good looks and upbeat message, he reclaimed middle-left support from the NDP by promising, among other things, to legalize marijuana and run budget deficits in favour of infrastructure spending.