Of the Canadians having attained the highest political office in the land, which one was the best? This is an attempt to answer that question and rank the remaining men and women in order.

The terms of the 18 prime ministers vary from 21 years to 69 days. Some were not given an honest chance to “prove their stuff.” Ability was not evenly distributed and some did not know when to quit. Others faced tremendous challenges, not of their own making or choosing (Macdonald and Louis Riel or Lester Pearson and Charles de Gaulle) while some had a relatively calm tenure (Laurier and St. Laurent). A particular problem with the incumbent is that he has not yet completed his term of office, which hinders historical assessment.

As much as possible, all these factors were considered in the compilation of the following list, a tribute to the men who have led Canada for 125 years. Each prime minister was scored under general headings of longevity, handling of difficult issues, scandal, responsiveness to regions/provinces, bilingualism, personal life and the opinion of historians. I am very grateful to the historians who so graciously answered my queries.

1. Sir John A. Macdonald (Conservative)

Sir John A. MacDonaldCanada’s all-time best prime minister. Authors Bruce Hutchison and Gordon Donaldson both supported the selection of Macdonald, prime minister from 1867 to 1873, and from 1878 to his death in 1891. Hutchison, author of Mr. Prime Minister, a biographical compilation of Canadian prime ministers, chose Macdonald because:

“He built the God-damn country!”

Donaldson, publisher of a similar book entitled Eighteen Men, added:

“Macdonald did the most. He set up the operations of Canada and was able to balance the interests of competing regional factions.”

He brought Canada together,” agreed Davie Fulton, a former Conservative cabinet minister, who also picked John A. as the best prime minister. “Through his unique political skill and energy, he laid the foundation of Canada as we know it today.”

The Kingston lawyer presided over the Confederation talks in 1867. He also negotiated the entry of British Columbia, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island into Confederation. The only scar in Macdonald’s record, besides his renowned alcoholism, was the 1873 Pacific Scandal, in which he solicited political funds from the leading Pacific railway contractor. This caused his downfall in 1873, but he miraculously recovered in 1878 to remain Canada’s prime minister until his death in 1891. He served as Canadian prime minister [bottom line of .pdf cut off].

2. Sir Wilfred Laurier (Liberal)

Longest-serving member of Parliament (45 years, including 15 years as prime minister, and another 13 as leader of the Opposition). Sir Wilfred Laurier was never personally sullied by scandal.

Wilfrid LaurierHe presided over the entry of Saskatchewan and Alberta into the Canadian Confederation.

            “Laurier had a unique bi-national view of Canada,” said Martin Pâquet, a history professor at Université de Laval.

            “He never pitted region against region,” added Dennis Cooney, a doctorate student at the University of Alberta.

            Laurier’s quick resolution of the Manitoba School Question and his innovative response to the British request for troops in the 1899 Boer War (Laurier allowed volunteers to fight but offered Canadian financing), kept watchful critics in his [bottom line of pdf cut off].

            Laurier was also the choice of former Liberal cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr. and of Dr. David Farr, retired history professor at Carleton University. “Laurier was a master of compromise,” said Farr. “He shared Trudeau’s motto of ‘la raison avant la passion.’”

            Even his greatest political rival, Conservative Robert Borden, once remarked that he had never met a more impressive figure in public life than Laurier.

3. William Lyon Mackenzie King (Liberal)

His 21 years as the prime minister of Canada is one of the longest tenures of a head of government in the history of world democracies.

            “Mackenzie King managed to keep the diverse elements of Canada together and working in the same direction,” said Dr. Ian Macpherson, a history professor with the University of Victoria. “Remarkably, he also managed to respond to some of the social issues of the times.” King endorsed and legislated progressive CCF social programs such as old age pensions and unemployment insurance.

            King also brought the country through the Second World War and managed to escape, although bruised, the political wrath of Quebec when he implemented conscription in 1944.

            However, King’s diary reveals a kookiness or certainly eccentric side to King. He wrote that that he was inspired to make some decisions by séance encounters with Wilfrid Laurier in 1934 (d. 1919) and with Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Blake (d. 1912) and Alexander Mackenzie (d. 1892).

4. Pierre Trudeau (Liberal)

Possibly the most sophisticated and intelligent of all the prime ministers. Trudeau, much like King, saw and cleared his own path and the country followed, mostly to its benefit.

            “He created an ambience of excitement and optimism about Canada,” said Jim Creskey, editor of The Hill Times. Trudeau implemented a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unfortunately, the legacy of his 15-and-one-half years as prime minister of Canada included a massive federal debt and a constitutional dilemma still unresolved.

5. Sir Robert Borden (Conservative)

Borden patiently bided his time as leader of the Opposition from 1901 to 1911 (which remains the longest term of anyone in that position), until his party won the 1911 election.

Robert BordenBorden’s biggest accomplishment was the establishment of the Union Party in 1917, risking the eternal wrath of some of the less prominent Conservatives, overlooked as Borden enticed pro-conscription Liberals into a Union coalition cabinet for the duration of World War I. His nonpartisan Union government then won the 1917 election. Said Desmond Morton, author of A Short History of Canada:

"For character and energy, I would choose Robert Borden as the best all-time Prime Minister of Canada. He wrestled conscientiously with national problems, resisting the pressures of partisanship and patronage.”

            But Borden, admitted Morton, “struggled in vain with Quebec.” In the four general elections in which Borden led a political party, his candidates never won a majority of seats in Quebec; and in the 1917 election, held shortly after he implemented conscription, his Union Party won a mere three of Quebec’s 65 federal seats.

6. Brian Mulroney (Conservative)

Delivered the largest majority in Canadian history in the 1984 election. In spite of an intimidating free trade deal with the United States, Mulroney repeated with a second majority government in 1988, effectively exorcizing traditional loathing of Tories by the Quebec electorate, and provided calm and effective leadership during the 1990 Oka crisis and the Gulf War (1990-1991). Through valiant attempts to hammer out a constitutional deal, and a gutsy GST, Mulroney has shown where his heart is, but suffered when a public inquiry looked into his conduct with a foreign businessman in accepting an alleged bribe. His free trade legacy, his tough anti-apartheid stance, his commitment to the protection of the rights of gays and lesbians, his courageous and creative constitutional proposals (the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord), Mulroney remains an upwardly mobile name on any “best prime minister list.”

7. Lester B. Pearson (Liberal)

The career diplomat who became prime minister, Pearson was handed the leadership of the Liberal party when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. He was the choice of George Egerton, professor of history at UBC, because he was “ethical and intelligent.” But it took Pearson five years to figure out Diefenbaker. Once given the reins of government, he gave the country clear and steady leadership, and a new flag. He showed tremendous leadership with his quick and thoughtful response to the diplomatic “vive le Quebec libre” crisis. Pearson also knew when to quit.

8. Louis St. Laurent (Liberal)

Louis St. LaurentThe businessman’s prime minister, best known for bringing Newfoundland into the fold of Confederation, for abolishing final appeals to the British Privy Council court, and for administering the participation of Canadian troops in the Korean War, provided Canada with good solid government for eight-and-one-half years.

9. Joe Clark (Conservative)

Likeable, Clark was done in by political errors.

Joe ClarkLike Diefenbaker before him, Clark inherited a Canadian public thirsting for new government, and perhaps ready to give a new prime minister a decade in office. But Clark gambled and misplayed his role as minority government leader when he allowed John Crosbie, his minister of finance, to implement a conservative budget.

The Liberals were given a reprieve and brought about Clark’s sudden demise. He never got a second chance.

10. John Diefenbaker (Conservative)

John DiefenbakerDiefenbaker’s career was marked by moments of great success followed by actions unbecoming a prime minister. Moody, vain and, at times, irascible, Diefenbaker caught the hearts of the Canadian electorate in 1958 with an unprecedented 208 seats of a possible 265, at the time the largest electoral victory in the history of Canada. But before long his waffling on major issues such as nuclear arms in Canada, and his chaotic response during the Cuban Crisis caused Canadians to lose confidence in his ability. Like Bowell, Diefenbaker suffered a cabinet revolt in 1963, a sure sign of a prime minister out of control. His dogged opposition to the proposed new Canadian flag, while leader of the opposition in 1964, was the last straw and sealed his replacement as leader of the Conservatives.

11. John Thompson (Conservative)

Sir John ThompsonThe successor to Macdonald, the 49-year-old Thompson suddenly suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting England in December, 1894, after only two years in office.

He had showed tremendous political promise in standardizing criminal law in Canada - see 1892, Canada's Criminal Code.

12. Alexander Mackenzie (Liberal)

The pride of Sarnia, Ontario, probably the hardest-working prime minister, let his finance minister, Richard Cartwright, table a devastating budget in 1878 which Macdonald and his Tories tore up during the subsequent election campaign. Mackenzie’s influence then declined rapidly and he was quietly ousted as leader of the Opposition in April, 1880.

13. Arthur Meighen (Conservative)

Handed the prime ministership twice (in July 1920, when Borden retired, and again in June, 1926, when King’s Liberal government resigned) Meighen was unable to follow up with an election victory. He attempted a comeback in 1942 but was defeated in the byelection held to give him a seat in Parliament. Meighen was a great lieutenant but not a prime minister.

14. John Turner (Liberal)

Brains (a Rhodes scholar) and impressive political savvy (managed to sustain national interest in himself as potential leader for a full eight years between his retirement from politics in 1976 and his return in 1984) could not get Turner elected. Twice he failed to become prime minister-elect of Canada even though, in 1988, the incumbent was running against a worrisome Canada-U.S. free trade deal.

15. Richard Bennett (Conservative)

The running joke on the Hill was that if you saw Bennett muttering to himself, he was probably holding a cabinet meeting. His laissez-faire strategy as an answer to the Great Depression never worked and it was only in 1935, inspired by the American New Deal and running scared from the fledgling CCF and a revitalized Liberal party, that Bennett announced a major federal response to the crisis. By then, many Canadians reviled the man. Bennett was shocked by the defeat of his government in the 1935 election and moved to England where he died in 1947.

16. Sir Charles Tupper (Conservative)

Prime minister for only 69 days in 1896, Tupper served the shortest term of any Canadian prime minister (John Turner served for 80 days in 1984). Much like Meighen, Tupper did not appeal to the electorate notwithstanding outstanding professional qualifications. But he was seen as partly responsible for the cabinet revolt Bowell suffered in the winter months of 1896 and was the fourth heir to Macdonald’s Conservative party throne in five years: too much for a Canadian electorate fascinated by Liberal leader, Wilfred Laurier.

17. Mackenzie Bowell (Conservative)

Bowell showed an aptitude for indecisiveness when, throughout his short tenure from 1894 to 1896, he was unable to deal with the Manitoba School Question. In frustration, seven of his colleagues resigned and only returned when he promised to step down a.s.a.p.

18. Kim Campbell (Conservative, British Columbia)

She was Canada's first ever female Prime Minister but she served as prime minister for only five months and this, because of her own poor decisions or perhaps, in her mind, someone else's. To the incredulity of Conservative party observers and advisers in Ottawa, once given the prime ministership, she promptly dissolved Parliament and called a general election. It was as if she thought that the population of Canada has under some kind of some kind of Campbell-mania. Unfortunately, it was only in her mind. The liberal party of Canada soundly defeated her and her team and was returned to power the vast majority and even Campbell was defeated in her own Vancouver riding. She promptly resigned as leader of the conservative party and has been in retirement from politics since.

One, as there are others, example of her inclination to defer accountability for her errors is the Alice in Wonderland explanation she gives for her defeat in the 1993 election. She maintains, as of Sept. 2014, a website dedicated to explaining how the 12993 Kim Campbell disaster was not her fault at all: ww.kimcampbell.com:

"Mulroney announced his resignation to caucus on February 24, 1993, well into the 5th year of his term, leaving very little time for his successor to prepare for a fall election. (the Right Hon. Mr. Brian) Mulroney reassured the caucus he would leave the party in a good position for the election, but then-Minister Campbell began to suspect his actions were more about preserving his own image than out of any concern for the fate of his successor and the PCs."

The country will never know what a Campbell government could have achieved but certainly, her information to not accepting responsibility for what happened when she was behind the wheel, is not a good indication of national leadership.

She lost her own seat in Vancouver and then resigned the leadership of the COnservative party, as Liberal Party of Canada leader, Jean Chretien toook over the rigns of power in Ottawa.

Canada will never know how a Campbell majority government could have made Canada a better place but from the facts and especially her tendency towards self-promotion and lack of accountability, certain essentials of a good prime minister of Canada seem absent.

19. John Abbott (Conservative)

Lawyer to the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate and in the forefront of the 1873 Pacific Scandal, Abbott never wanted to be prime minister but agreed to be the caretaker leader when Macdonald died in June of 1891. “I hate politics,” he once wrote:

“I hate notoriety, public speeches, caucuses, and everything I know of what is apparently the necessary incident of politics.”

Unrated (jury still out):

  • Kim CampbellPaul Martin
  • Jean Chrétien; and
  • Stephen Harper.