I was talking with my friend JJ the other day about Justin Trudeau, the Liberal MP who is currently the all-but-anointed future leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. I remarked that the day of the nomination would coincide with Justin’s four-and-a-half-year anniversary of his first election to Parliament. I also noted this was twice as long as it took his father, Pierre Trudeau, to go from rookie MP to Prime Minister. At this point JJ said he believed most elected prime ministers in Canada have less than 10 years of experience in the House of Commons before they take office. I took the contrary opinion, and these are my findings.
Since the statement only applied to elected prime ministers, I have not taken into account Sir John Abbott, Sir John Thompson, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, Sir Charles Tupper, Arthur Meighen, John Turner or A.P. “Kim” Campbell. This leaves us with a set of 15 prime ministers.
“But wait,” I hear you say, “Arthur Meighen was an elected prime minister! The Conservatives won a plurality of seats in the election of 1925!” True. But considering all the finagling and counter-finagling that went on in that Parliament, I would be prepared to defend the idea that nobody won the election of 1925.
I also decided to include experience in the earlier Assembly of the Province of Canada (1841-1867). I was unable to date these early elections with certainty – information is scarce – but I have made some justifiable approximations. If you want to set me straight, I welcome your input.
First was the father of our country, the Rt. Hon. Sir John Alexander Macdonald, GCB, KCMG, PC, QC. He was first elected to the Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1844. That session first sat on November 28th, so that’s the date I’ll use. By the time he became our first prime minister on July 1st, 1867, he had been in the legislature for 22 years, 7 months and 3 days.
The Hon. Alexander Mackenzie, PC, became prime minister on November 7th, 1873. He was first elected to the Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1861. I found a biographical article stating that Sir Charles Boucher de Boucherville was elected to the same assembly on July 4th of the same year, So I’ll assume Mackenzie was elected the same day, giving him 12 years, 4 months and 3 days of experience.
The Rt. Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, GCMG, PC, KC, was elected to Parliament on January 22nd, 1874, and became Prime Minister on July 11th, 1896, a duration of 22 years, 5 months and 19 days.
The Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Laird Borden, GCMG, PC, KC, was elected an MP on June 23rd, 1896, and PM on October 10th, 1911, a gap of 15 years, 2 months and 17 days.
The Rt. Hon. Dr. William Lyon Mackenzie King, OM, CMG, PC, was an MP from October 26th, 1908, to September 21st, 1911. He returned to Parliament on October 20th, 1919 before becoming Prime Minister on December 29th, 1921, a total of 5 years, 1 month and 5 days.
The Rt. Hon. Richard Bedford Bennett, 1st Viscount Bennett, PC, KC, KGStJ, was an MP from September 21st, 1911 to December 6th, 1921, and from October 29th, 1925 to his election as Prime Minister on August 7th, 1930, a total of 14 years, 11 months and 25 days.
The Rt. Hon. Louis Stephen Saint-Laurent, CC, PC, QC, won a by-election on February 9th, 1942, and succeeded as PM on, September 15th, 1948, 6 years, 7 months and 6 days later.
The Rt. Hon. John George Diefenbaker, CH, PC, QC, FRSC, FRSA, was first elected to Parliament on March 26th, 1940, and became Prime Minister on June 21st, 1957, after 17 years, 2 months and 26 days as an MP.
The Rt. Hon. Lester Bowles Pearson, OM, CC, OBE, PC, entered Parliament on October 25th, 1948, and became Prime Minister on April 22nd, 1963, a period 14 years, 5 months and 28 days long.
The Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, CC, CH, PC, QC, FRSC, became an MP on November 8th, 1965, and was sworn in as PM on April 20th, 1968, only 2 years, 5 months and 12 days later.
The Rt. Hon. Charles Joseph Clark, CC, PC, AOE, was elected to Parliament on October 30th, 1972, and won the prime ministership on June 4th, 1979, 6 years, 7 months and 5 days later.
The Rt. Hon. Martin Brian Mulroney, CC, PC, GOQ, entered Parliament after winning a by-election on August 29th, 1983. He was elected PM on September 17th, 1984, after only 1 year and 19 days as an MP.
The Rt. Hon. Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien, OM, CC, PC, QC, was an MP from April 8th, 1963 to September 28th, 1986, then returned to the House of Commons on December 10th, 1990, before he was elected PM on November 29th, 1993, with a total of 26 years, 4 months and 15 days in the House.
The Rt. Hon. Paul Edgar Philippe Martin, CC, PC, was elected as MP on November 21st, 1988, and was sworn in as Prime Minister on December 12th, 2003, 15 years and 21 days later.
The Rt. Hon. Stephen Joseph Harper, PC, was a Reform MP from October 25th, 1993 to January 14th, 1997. He returned to Parliament on May 13th, 2002, to lead the Canadian Alliance and became Conservative Prime Minister on February 6th, 2006, after a total of 6 years, 11 months and 14 days as an MP.
To conclude, by a total of 9 to 6, I am correct: most elected prime ministers of Canada have more than a decade in Parliament under their belts before taking office.