Kelsey Lonie; Corey Safinuk; and Jonathon Zimmer

Canada is an extremely large country and each province has its own unique resources and culture. Distinct societies exist across the country, and following Canada’s Confederation in 1867, each Prime Minister has been tasked with establishing and maintaining unity amidst such differences. Our first Prime Minister, Sir. John A. MacDonald, was charged with carving out the initial policies of a new nation. The Prime Ministers who followed him were also faced with a duty to continue shaping the nation and redefining its policies. While many of their tasks were routine and unexceptional, each Prime Minister also faced a number of adversities and crises, ranging from natural disasters to those created by exogenous sources, including international terrorism, aggressive neighbours, sharp economic downturns, and even war.

Throughout our course titled Studies in Canadian Political History: Prime Ministers, Leadership, and Managing the Nation, we conceded that a leader’s choices in the way they respond to a crisis can significantly shape the direction of the nation. By their very nature, a crisis must be managed quickly, often during a period of great uncertainty, when the collective national stress is mounting and the nation is looking for strong, decisive, and effective leadership. How a Prime Minister manages a crisis or a particular adversity not only provides a glimpse into the abilities and effectiveness of the leader, but also defines for citizens of a nation — and those observing from a distance outside the national boundaries– what values are being upheld. In other words, how a nation and its political leadership manages a major challenge or crisis, defines its identity.[1]

Relatively little historical research has been conducted regarding the study of the phenomenon of Prime Ministerial leadership in Canada. Although Prime Ministers are the principal spokesperson for the nation, they are, first and foremost, politicians who wish to win the support of voters and maintain that support during a particular mandate. Most are not prepared to effectively manage a crisis when it arises. In studying how each Prime Minister responded to a crisis during their term in office, not only do we gain a deeper understanding about our nation, but we also see how the speeches, language, and rhetoric of our leaders contributed to the evolving and changing ideal of what it means to be Canadian. During these moments of crisis, a Prime Minister displays their intellectual approach to leadership, reveals their ideology and their values, and demonstrates to the nation and its citizens how they wish to construct and build the nation going forward. There may be little doubt that through the exercise of prudent and effective leadership in moments of crisis and adversity, leaders demonstrate their ability to balance and accommodate various competing interests. If they do so successfully, they may remain as Prime Minister for another term. If they fail, they will likely lose the support of the electorate and soon be replaced by another judged better able to lead.

Each student who has contributed to this book has chosen how one Prime Minister – from John A. Macdonald to Justin Trudeau – reacted to a crisis during their time in office, and how their decisions and leadership choices played a role in shaping Canada’s identity. Each of Canada’s Prime Ministers have attempted, by varying degrees, to define Canada and build the national narrative during their time in office. They know, of course, that the national character they build will provide a framework for a series of national policies after a particular crisis has been resolved or an adversity overcome. Crises quickly become highly public affairs that often result in an assessment by citizens of the leader’s abilities and character. Our goal in this book is not to be comprehensive or inclusive of every crisis in the history of Canada since 1867, nor of every Prime Minister since then, but to examine the leadership provided by various Prime Ministers at critical junctures that have helped to define Canada’s political systems and shape the Canada we know today. The crises considered here range from John A. Macdonald and his management of First Nations and Metis people as the new Dominion expanded across the continent after 1867 to make way for the settlement of Europeans in the Prairies, to Justin Trudeau and his navigation of Indigenous-state relations as Canada proposed the construction of a pipeline carrying natural gas to the Pacific Coast.

Outside of Canada there are many instances of political leaders who have failed to lead well during moments of constitutional and economic crisis. Sometimes, a country does not survive significant crisis; that occurred with the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s, leading to Adolph Hitler seizing control of the state.[2]  Conversely, when America’s President, Richard Nixon, lied to Congress in the 1970s and created a constitutional crisis over revelations from the Watergate Scandal which led to his resignation and the appointment of a new president, the nation remained strong even when the highest political office in the land changed hands.[3]  Nixon’s actions demonstrated a colossal failure of leadership, but it did not result in the collapse of democracy.

This collection of essays reveals that while Canada has remained a democracy since 1867, it has faced significant disruption throughout its history and our Prime Ministers did not always respond well. Some made authoritative decisions, some procrastinated, and still others stepped back and facilitated in cases where they understood that consultation with others was the only possible recourse.[4]  We see that political leadership in crisis can sometimes be spontaneous, such as was the classical case of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his encounter with journalists over his invocation of the War Measures Act.  Other times, decisions are made with great consideration and an understanding of the broader definition of nationhood and the consequences of inaction, as William Lyon Mackenzie King did with great success during the Second World War.  Whether spontaneous or carefully crafted in advance, Prime Ministers must provide direction to the nation, making critical decisions on how a crisis might be resolved.  Even if a leader is caught by surprise, to be successful they must reduce the uncertainties and fears of citizens as they provide a path forward for the nation. However, as we contend in some of the chapters that follow, not all Prime Ministers have been able to provide effective crisis leadership. Among those that failed to manage a crisis, John George Diefenbaker remains one of the classical examples in Canadian history but there are, of course, others as well.

The chapters in this book have been written either by senior undergraduate students or by graduate students pursing their Masters of Arts. Each chapter offers an interpretation of how various prime minister attempted to define Canada through their leadership and political management.  At the level of research strategy, each chapter focuses on what Prime Ministers said and did, in what contexts, and to what audiences. It is devoted to the practice, not the theories, of political leadership and demonstrates that historical context matters greatly. The chapters also reveal that it is through narrative that we grasp the meaning and the ordering of the events the nation experiences. Narratives help to establish a dominant discourse through their problem specification, creative redefinition of language, and the setting of discursive boundaries. They provide a way for historians to explain how the country came to a certain situation and how it demands change or transformation. Each chapter separates the Prime Ministers into political periods and considers the social, political, and cultural milieu of that period. Prime Ministers are treated as human agents who must act while also hoping to demonstrate solidarity with the nation.[5]

All of the essays in this book are built on the contention that Canada’s Prime Ministers have based their leadership decisions, foremost, on policies that were meant to protect and safeguard the integrity of the nation. During their time in office, each Prime Minister was pressed to define what it meant to be a country and a Canadian.  Confederation, immigration, two World Wars, and many other crises slowly chiseled away at the definition of nationhood, and the process of defining Canada was achieved through not only politics and policies, but also in how each leader managed during moments of crisis and adversity. In those moments, Prime Ministers gave meaning to the ideal of Canada.


  1. M. G Hermann, T. Preston, B. Korany, and T.M Shaw, “Who Leads Matters: The Effects of Powerful Individuals,” International Studies Review, 3(2) (2001): 83-131.
  2. K.D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship (London: Methuen, 1971).
  3. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, The Final Days (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976).
  4. [4] William Waugh, Jr. and Gregory Streib, “Collaboration and Leadership for Effective Emergency Management,” Public Administration Review 66 (2) 2006: 131-40.
  5. John Uhr, “Political Leadership and Rhetoric,” in Australia Reshaped: 200 Years of Institutional Transformation. Eds. Geoffrey Brennan, Francis Geoffrey Castles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.


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Canada and the Challenges of Leadership Copyright © 2023 by Kelsey Lonie; Corey Safinuk; and Jonathon Zimmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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