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Canada's History - - CONTENTS -

“I do not want my daily life to be­come pub­lic,” pleaded Prime Min­is­ter Wil­frid Lau­rier when asked in 1896 for some per­sonal in­for­ma­tion from a jour­nal­ist. While the re­porter may not have re­ceived an an­swer to his ques­tion, he was nei­ther the first nor the last to try to bet­ter un­der­stand the in­ner lives of Cana­dian prime min­is­ters — who have con­sis­tently been the sub­jects of our at­ten­tion over the past 150 years.

There are dozens of bi­ogra­phies of Cana­dian prime min­is­ters, al­most all of them fo­cus­ing on prime min­is­te­rial acts and deeds, their suc­cesses and fail­ures, and the con­stant re-eval­u­a­tion of their legacy. While there is space in any book, spe­cial­ized bi­og­ra­phy, or high school text for John A. Mac­don­ald’s drink­ing, Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King’s spir­i­tu­al­ism, and Pierre El­liott Trudeau’s ir­rev­er­ence, J. D. M. Ste­wart’s Be­ing Prime Min­is­ter is en­tirely de­voted to the daily lives of Canada’s prime min­is­ters.

A teacher of Cana­dian his­tory in Toronto, Ste­wart has writ­ten a book that is won­der­fully gos­sipy and is built on anec­dotes and sto­ries — “his­tory by the ounce,” as his­to­rian Bar­bara Tuch­man called it. Ste­wart tells us much that is new in a num­ber of the­matic chap­ters about the twenty-two men and one woman who have so deeply shaped our coun­try. To weave to­gether the many sto­ries, Ste­wart has read widely, delved into the archives, and even — some­what amaz­ingly — in­ter­viewed six for­mer prime min­is­ters.

Most strik­ing is the long hours worked by all the lead­ers, as well as the in­cred­i­ble stamina of many of the older ones. Al­most ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment was de­voted to some task or meet­ing, or to

Ste­wart’s won­der­fully gos­sipy book is built on anec­dotes and sto­ries

re­spond­ing to other politi­cians, the cab­i­net, civil ser­vants, or the mass of well­wish­ers, donors, or pa­tron­age seek­ers. Sev­eral of the prime min­is­ters — Mac­don­ald, Robert Bor­den, and Richard Ben­nett — al­most died from over­work.

Ste­wart clev­erly com­pares and con­trasts the lead­ers. In one of many ex­am­ples, he il­lus­trates the change from the time of Mac­don­ald and Lau­rier, each of whom wrote dozens of let­ters a day in re­sponse to all man­ner of re­quests, to to­day. Now a mod­ern army of staff sup­ports prime min­is­ters who have trou­ble sim­ply stay­ing on top of the cor­re­spon­dence that amounts to two mil­lion let­ters and emails a year.

Ste­wart of­fers cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ries rang­ing from the prime min­is­ters’ break­fasts and read­ing ma­te­rial, to the places they took their va­ca­tions, to their in­ter­ac­tions with celebri­ties. Speed-read­ing through papers, ab­sorb­ing brief­ing books, find­ing time to send the kids off to school, or sneak­ing in a swim be­tween meet­ings were all part of the rit­u­al­ized and rigidly planned day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties of these lead­ers who were rarely alone.

Ste­wart finds hu­mour in all the greats and not-so-greats, rang­ing from Lester Pear­son’s folksy charm with Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts (and ev­ery­one else) to Louis St. Lau­rent’s gen­tle words with work­ers at Par­lia­ment, and from John Diefen­baker’s ex­u­ber­ant charisma on the hus­tings to Stephen Harper’s pierc­ing jokes with his in­ner cir­cle.

There is al­most no venom for the var­i­ous lead­ers; Ste­wart writes with re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion through­out the book, es­pe­cially as he de­scribes prime min­is­ters deal­ing with crises over hous­ing, travel, and health. The book in­cludes a re­veal­ing chap­ter on the rise of se­cu­rity de­tails and the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble in­com­pe­tence of the RCMP, who all but aban­doned Jean Chré­tien and his wife to an as­sas­sin who broke in to the prime min­is­te­rial res­i­dence at 24 Sus­sex Drive in Ot­tawa.

All au­thors make choices of omis­sion in a the­matic book like this, and I lamented the fact that so lit­tle space was de­voted to prime min­is­ters’ part­ners. One is struck, for ex­am­ple, by Maryon Pear­son’s sharp ob­ser­va­tion that “Be­hind ev­ery suc­cess­ful man stands a sur­prised woman.” More of that, please.

None­the­less, Be­ing Prime Min­is­ter is a good read that brings to­gether mul­ti­ple sto­ries of how the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers spent their days and nights in the re­lent­less grind they all loved so dearly. Tim Cook is the au­thor of eleven books, in­clud­ing The Se­cret His­tory of Sol­diers: How Cana­di­ans Sur­vived the Great War (2018).

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