Why July 22 should make us think of these legendary first ministers

William Lyon Mackenzie King was our longest-serving prime minister — Oliver Mowat, Ontario’s longest-serving premier. For both, this was a date of significance
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 22, 2020
Oliver Mowat (left) served as Ontario’s first minister for nearly 24 years; William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister for nearly 21 and a half years.



Mount Pleasant Cemetery in midtown Toronto is simply one of the most glorious places to hang out if you’re a history buff.

Never mind that the nearly century-and-a-half-old place has been officially recognized as a National Historic Site. There are nearly 170,000 people buried there, including some of the most influential people in our history. And this beautiful green space is located right in the middle of the biggest city in the country.

I’ve visited dozens of times and almost never fail to learn some little new nugget of history. For example, did you know that the longest-serving prime minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, is buried there? And how’s this for a coincidence: so is the longest-serving premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat. These two are legends in their fields. King was actually the longest-serving prime minister in the entire British Commonwealth — nearly 21 and a half years. Mowat did even better, acting for nearly 24 years as Ontario’s first minister. That’s almost as long as the second- and third-longest-serving premiers combined (Bill Davis and Leslie Frost, for those of you keeping score at home).

But the coincidences involving King and Mowat get even more intriguing. For both these two legendary political figures, July 22 was a day of significance. For King, it was the date on which he died in 1950 at age 75. For Mowat, it was the date on which he had been born, 200 years ago today. Both men have gravesites that are remarkably modest, given their political achievements. In fact, King’s headstone merely has his name and his birth and death dates. That’s it. The stone sarcophagus doesn’t even mention the fact that he was prime minister.

oliver mowat's headstone
Oliver Mowat's headstone at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. (Steve Paikin)

Conversely, the first thing you notice about the headstone of Mowat, who died in 1903 at age 82, is the remarkable number of accomplishments it records, starting with the fact he was Sir Oliver Mowat. (He was knighted in 1892.)  Additional details are carved onto two sides of a very tall headstone.

For example, Mowat is lauded as “one of the founders of the Confederation” that became Canada in 1867. His headstone also notes that Mowat “devoted 39 years of his life uninterruptedly to the public service.” In fact, Mowat was in politics before Canada became Canada. He first got elected 10 years before Confederation, in 1857, as a member of the legislative assembly of the “Province of Canada.” He was there at the dawning of Confederation in 1864 at the Quebec Conference, thus cementing his role as a Father of Confederation. From 1864 to ’72, he was vice-chancellor of the Court of Chancery — the equivalent of being a justice on today’s Supreme Court. He was then appointed “First Minister” (the job we’d call premier today) and attorney general for the reformist Liberal Party in Ontario, and he stayed in that role for nearly 24 years.

But Mowat wasn’t done with politics. A further examination of his headstone shows that he then moved to federal politics at the invitation of the federal Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. The combination of Mowat’s superstardom in English Canada and Laurier’s experience in French Canada made for an irresistible combination in the 1896 election. In fact, the Liberals’ slogan was: “Laurier, Mowat, and Victory.” When victory, in fact, transpired, Mowat became justice minister and a senator. And, as if that weren’t enough, a year later he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

Mowat’s brilliance revealed itself early. Before he was even 16 years old, he articled at a Kingston law firm. The firm’s proprietor was another man with a bright future in politics: John A. Macdonald.

William Lyon Mackenzie King's grave
William Lyon Mackenzie King's grave at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. (Flickr/Paul Joseph)

The two men started as friends, but, as they entered politics, they discovered they were on opposite sides of many issues. Macdonald became Canada’s most prominent Conservative; Mowat, with George Brown, helped found the Liberal party. Eventually, they developed one of the great political rivalries in Canadian history. While Macdonald fought the good fight for a strong central government, Mowat became the champion of provincial rights, demanding (and getting) powers for provinces that Macdonald vehemently opposed. But Mowat also introduced the secret ballot into Ontario elections and extended voting rights beyond the realm simply of property owners.

Mowat Avenue, in his hometown of Kingston, is named in his honour. A statue of Mowat graces the grounds at Queen’s Park. And, on the east side of Queen’s Park Crescent, the Mowat Block houses the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. Those in provincial political circles have been known to complain that education policy is made “at the Mowat Block,” rather than by school boards or in the province’s various communities.

Strangely enough, despite the Macdonald-Mowat rivalry, two homes in Ontario commemorate their relationship: the building on Wellington Street in Kingston where the two men practised law together, and the so-called Macdonald-Mowat House on St. George Street, on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, where both men once lived (though not at the same time).

And, yes, Mowat was the great-great-uncle of famed Canadian writer Farley Mowat.

The 200th anniversary of Mowat’s birth. The 70th anniversary of King’s death. And they’re buried a long stone’s throw from each other. If you love coincidences and Canadian politics, go visit them both. It’s an irresistible way to spend this July 22.

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