William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874–1950) politician
As prime minister during World War II (1939–45; see World War II and immigration), King largely reflected Canadian ethnic attitudes toward immigrants. He followed public opinion in incarcerating Italians, Germans, Japanese, and communists during the war and worked steadfastly against the admission of large numbers of European refugees, especially Jews. At the same time, he enthusiastically welcomed refugees from Britain, which had always provided Canada’s most favored immigrants.
Born in Berlin (later Kitchener), Ontario, King graduated from the University of Toronto in 1895. He then studied at the University of Chicago, where he took part in the work of Jane Addams’s Hull-House, and eventually earned a doctorate in political economy from Harvard University. While serving as deputy minister of labour in 1907, he was sent to investigate the causes of the anti-Asian Vancouver Riot. After holding hearings, he determined that the Japanese government was not primarily at fault but rather unregulated immigration from Hawaii and the work of Canadian immigration companies. King awarded Japanese and Chinese riot victims $9,000 and $26,000, respectively, and made several recommendations, including prohibition of contract labor and the banning of immigration by way of Hawaii.
King entered Parliament in 1908 when he was elected as a Liberal for Waterloo North and was appointed minister of labour in the Wilfrid Laurier government. King was chosen party leader after Laurier’s death in 1919, as Canada entered a period of multiparty politics. As a result, most of his career was spent in leading several disparate political groups including Liberals, conservative French Canadians, and agrarian progressives. He was a pragmatic, rather than doctrinaire politician, which enabled him to retain the prime ministership for 21 years (1921–26, 1926–30, 1935–48)—longer than any other Canadian premier. In foreign policy, he advocated complete Canadian independence, which was achieved during the 1930s, and closer relations with the United States. Courting public opinion, especially in Quebec, King was opposed to admitting large numbers of refugees during and just after World War II. His policy was brought about by numerous restrictive measures, including raising the capital required for Jewish immigrants to be able to enter from $5,000 to $20,000 (1938), prohibiting admission of immigrants from countries with which Canada was at war (1940), and refusing to enter into general agreements for admission of refugees. King’s 1947 statement on immigration suggested that immigration was wanted but affirmed that “the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population.” During 1947 and 1948, the admission of 50,000 displaced persons was approved, representing the first stage of a dramatic reversal of Canadian isolation. King and his ministers were careful to screen out Jews, communists, and Asians, however, and most of the early immigration came from the Baltic countries and the Netherlands.