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Pick a PM: Prime Ministerial Biographies and Memoirs

December 30, 2011 | John P. | Comments (0)

Truth can be stranger than fiction (with apologies to Lord Byron). Biographies afford us the opportunity to learn of someone's life told by another person. Autobiographies let us explore a person's life through their own words. Rich or poor, famous, infamous or not so famous, biographies and autobiographies offer the reader a connected, non-fiction narrative on a person's life. Collected biographies offer information about different people or a group of people with something in common. Memoirs are similar to autobiographies, but tend to focus on one aspect of a person's life in one's own words rather than telling the entire story.

Biographies and memoirs on Canadian political leaders might appeal to the non-fiction reader interested in Canadian political history, especially those dealing with prime ministers (both former and present). Here is a selective list of prime ministerial titles worth considering. Pick a PM!

Canada's Prime Ministers

Canada's prime ministers, Macdonald to Trudeau: portraits from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography / Ramsay Cook and Réal Bélanger (eds.), 2007.

This book affords access to collected biographies on 15 of Canada’s Prime Ministers written by eminent historians. It should appeal to students of Canadian history and politics as well those seeking a crash course on past Canadian political leadership under one book cover.


Citizen of the World

Citizen of the world: the life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, volume one, 1919-1968 / John English, 2006.

John English’s first of two volumes on Mr. Trudeau included his education at a classical Jesuit college that helped to define him mentally, physically, and spiritually. He sought and pursued excellence in his endeavours. In fact, Trudeau dreamed of an independent Québec in 1936, 40 years before the election of the Parti Québécois. Following post-secondary education and world travel, he co-founded Cité Libre and opposed the Duplessis regime. Trudeau became a staunch federalist and was elected a member of Lester Pearson’s federal government in 1965.


Elusive Destiny

Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner / Paul Litt, 2011.

Mr. Turner was only Prime Minister for 79 days and hampered by patronage appointments left over by his predecessor that contributed to the Liberal Party’s humbling defeat in 1984. However, the book also showed Mr. Turner as the leading English Canadian cabinet minister under a French Canadian prime minister in the 1970s (where conflicting ambitions led to Turner taking a timeout from politics until 1984), and as Opposition Leader with a spirited denunciation of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 federal election.



Harperland: the politics of control / Lawrence Martin, 2010.

Journalist Martin offered a look at the current Prime Minister whose political background was the first of any prime minister to develop outside of the traditional Conservative-Liberal axis and within the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties. The author praised Harper as a talented, knowledgeable, and disciplined political leader with a mental ability for precision and an aptitude for strategy. Martin wondered presciently in 2010 what dominance might result from Harper winning a majority government.


Hell or High Water

Hell or high water: my life in and out of politics / Paul Martin, 2008.

Martin started out as a lawyer and a businessman before entering his father’s world of elected politics. He recounted his role as federal finance minister from 1993-2002 when significant fiscal cutbacks were undertaken. Martin argued for worldwide financial reform and understood the significance of the national debt. He clashed with Jean Chrétien over the leadership succession, became Prime Minister in 2003 and won a minority government in 2004, followed by defeat in early 2006.


In Search of R B Bennett

In Search of R. B. Bennett / P. B. Waite, 2012.

Historian Waite offers the reader an examination of Canada’s 11th Prime Minister through his character, motivations and principles. Although Prime Minister during the worst part of the Great Depression, Bennett’s government established the Canadian Wheat Board, the Bank of Canada and the forerunner of the CBC despite business and media opposition. The author examines Bennett’s personal friendships and relationships and his lifetime as a bachelor.

(For those interested in R. B. Bennett, you might also want to consider Bennett: the rebel who challenged a nation (2010) by John Boyko. See the We Recommend section of the Toronto Public Library website for a review of this book under Biographies, Autobiographies & Memoirs.)

Just Watch Me

Just watch me: the life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000 / John English, 2009.

Academic and former MP English’s second volume on Pierre Trudeau delved heavily into anecdotal, personal and diary sources from colleagues and friends. The author presented two sides of Trudeau: the political side, including his opposition to capital punishment, his support for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the patriation of the constitution, and the imposition of the War Measures Act; and, the personal side with his marriage to Margaret Sinclair, their subsequent separation and divorce, his custody of the children, and his relationships with well-known personalities such as Liona Boyd and Margot Kidder. This book won the 2009 Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing.


King William Lyon Mackenzie King

King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: a life guided by the hand of destiny / Allan Gerald Levine, 2011.

Levine offered the reader the first biographical review of Canada’s best educated (Ph.D, Harvard University) and longest-serving (and arguably the most unusual) Prime Minister in many years. On the one hand, King consulted mediums to gain contact with deceased family members and political mentors. On the other hand, he showed great political foresight in outmanoeuvring political opponents and keeping the country together.


Lester B Pearson

Lester B. Pearson / Andrew Cohen, 2008. (Series: Extraordinary Canadians )

Professor and journalist Cohen produced a readable biography on Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, including his time as an academic, a diplomat, and Minister for External Affairs during which time his solution of the 1956 Suez Crisis led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Pearson won two minority governments in 1963 and 1965 that brought in the Maple Leaf flag, the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact, the Canada Pension Plan, and paved the way for the introduction of universal medicare across Canada.


Memoirs Brian Mulroney

Memoirs: 1939-1993 / Brian Mulroney, 2007.

Brian Mulroney was the only Conservative leader to win back-to-back majority governments in the 20th century. As Opposition Leader, he undertook a principled stand on French language rights in Manitoba. He delivered a knockout blow in the 1984 election debates against patronage from a tired government and won 211 seats. He won the 1988 election campaign by focussing on the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement. In foreign affairs, his government aided famine-stricken Ethiopia and opposed apartheid in South Africa.


My Years as Prime Minister

My years as Prime Minister / Jean Chrétien, 2007.

Jean Chrétien recounted his years in power from 1993-2003 of three consecutive Liberal majority governments. He was Prime Minister during the second Québec referendum, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the sponsorship scandal. The book has been cited for its criticism of Paul Martin and his successful attempt to succeed Mr. Chrétien as Prime Minister and Liberal leader.


  Nation Maker

Nation maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: his life, our times, Volume 2, 1867-1891 / Richard Gwyn, 2011.

Journalist Richard Gwyn concluded his two-part biography of Canada’s first prime minister by introducing new material, including Macdonald’s consideration of giving women the vote and equal treatment in society. The author showed Macdonald to have liberal tendencies for his times, including the extension of the vote to aboriginal people and his view that African-Canadians had the same rights as other subjects. Gwyn also considered Macdonald’s drunkenness, his problematic family life, his championing of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the ensuing Pacific Scandal that almost ended his political career, and the controversial decision to hang rather than imprison Louis Riel that resulted in major changes to the Canadian political scene following Macdonald’s death in 1891.

(For reviews of Richard Gwyn’s first volume and other biographies about Sir John A. Macdonald, as well as Sir John Thompson and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, please refer to: Political Leaders Dying in Office: Laurier, Layton, Macdonald and Thompson.)


Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada

Stephen Harper and the future of Canada / William Johnson, 2005.

Quebec-based journalist Johnson wrote this first biography of Stephen Harper before the latter became Prime Minister in early 2006. The book brought out Harper’s fiscally and politically conservative ideas, drawing on his essays, policy papers, and speeches that demonstrated the intelligence driving his thoughts.


Trudeau Transformed

Trudeau transformed, 1944-1965: the shaping of a statesman / Max Nemni and Monique Nemni, 2011.

The Nemnis continued their biographical examination of their late friend P.E. Trudeau through his papers. They noted his philosophical volte-face during his 1944-1947 postgraduate studies at Harvard University, Sciences Po in Paris, and the London School of Economics where he inculcated support of democratic ideas and individual rights and knowledge of economic theory. The authors contended that Trudeau’s well-known travels following university did not lack purpose or direction but rather a desire to learn more about world politics. In fact, his Harvard application revealed early on his plan to become a statesman.


Young Trudeau

Young Trudeau, 1919-1944: son of Quebec, Father of Canada / Max Nemni and Monique Nemni, 2006.

Trudeau provided authorized access to his papers to these close friends who are retired university professors. They told the story of a younger, narrower-thinking Pierre Elliott Trudeau who possessed anti-democratic, pro-fascist and separatist tendencies within the context of a closed and conservative Quebec society in the 1930s and early 1940s. The book won the 2006 Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing.


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