On today’s date in 1948, William Lyon Mackenzie King retired as prime minister of Canada after more than two decades of service—a British Commonwealth record.
Born in present-day Kitchener, Ont., in December 1874, King served as the 10th prime minister of Canada from 1921-26; again from 1926-30; and finally, from 1935-48. With nearly 22 years in office, the Liberal politician was the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.
In 1997, after a survey of scholars by Maclean’s ranked King first among all Canada’s prime ministers, historian Jack Granatstein noted the scholars “expressed little admiration for King the man but offered unbounded admiration for his political skills and attention to Canadian unity.”
Voters of the day were similarly uninspired by King’s persona, which lacked charisma, a commanding presence or oratorical skills.
According to his biographers, King lacked the typical personal attributes of great leaders, especially in comparison with then-U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt; the U.K.’s Winston Churchill; France’s Charles de Gaulle; or even Newfoundland’s Joey Smallwood.
Cold and tactless in human relations, he had allies but very few close personal friends. He was a lifelong bachelor with a fixation on his deceased mother, who he claimed to have spoken with “beyond the grave” during numerous séances in his home at Laurier House. He also used a crystal ball as noted in his voluminous journal, which he wrote every day from 1893 until just before his death in 1950.
Overall, King led the Liberal party for 29 years and established Canada’s international reputation as an effective middle power.
KING ON CANADIAN BANKNOTES
King has graced Canada’s $50 banknote since 1975, when the denomination was issued as part of the Scenes of Canada series.
It uses a portrait of King based on a photograph by Malak Karsh and engraved by George Gunderson. The note was withdrawn in December 1989.
The next series, known as the Birds of Canada issue, features a portrait of King alongside the coat of arms and an image of the Centre Block of Parliament. This portrait was engraved by Thomas Hipschen and placed adjacent to the Parliament buildings flying the Canadian Red Ensign. Introduced in December 1989, this note was finally withdrawn in November 2004. It was the first Canadian banknote to feature the optical security device.
King’s depiction on Canada’s $50 note continued on the Canadian Journey series. This note’s face features a portrait of King created using a computer-assisted engraving process by Giesecke and Devrient. He’s depicted alongside the coat of arms and a picture of the Peace Tower of the Parliament buildings. Security features visible from the face include a hologram strip along the left side depicting the number “50” alternated with maple leaves; a watermark of King’s portrait; and a broken-up number “50,” which resolves itself when backlit. This note was issued in November 2004 and withdrawn in March 2012.
King is also depicted on the face of the current Frontier series’ $50 note. Printed on polymer rather than paper, it was introduced into circulation in March 2012 and features a portrait of King based on a photograph in the collections of Library and Archives Canada. A large clear window runs vertically on the right-hand side of the face with a second metallic hologram of King at the top of the window and a hologram of the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament buildings at the bottom of the window. A ribbon made of the number “50” weaves between the duplicate King portrait and the Centre Block. The top-left corner of the note’s face has a metallic maple leaf surrounded by a transparent border. As well as textured printing, this design incorporates a special tactile feature similar to Braille to indicate the denomination.
DAYS ARE NUMBERED
With last year’s release of the first note – a $10 bill – from the as-of-yet unnamed eighth series, the Bank of Canada’s approach to issuing banknotes is changing.
“Rather than issuing all five denominations within a short time frame, a new note will be issued every few years,” reads a statement released by the bank last year, adding this will allow the bank “to integrate the latest security features” each time a new note is issued.
To celebrate other iconic Canadians, the series’ next note will also feature a new portrait subject and supporting imagery.
In due course, the bank will launch another consultation process – similar to the one for the new $10 note, which features Black rights activist Viola Desmond – to seek input from Canadians on the design of the series’ next note.
Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who was previously on the $10 note, and first francophone Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who’s on the $5 note, will be honoured on higher-value denominations when they are redesigned.
These changes mean King – as well as Sir Robert Borden – will no longer be portrayed on banknotes.
The $20 denomination will continue to feature the reigning monarch.