Who do Canadians think was the country's best prime minister?
An exclusive poll by Pollara for The Writ gives us the answer!
In the public’s mind, who was Canada’s greatest prime minister?
Was it Wilfrid Laurier, who said the 20th century would be Canada’s century? Perhaps it was Mackenzie King, who governed longer than any other prime minister. Or maybe it’s John A. Macdonald, whose troubled legacy nevertheless includes the founding of the country.
As a lover of history, I was curious. Luckily, pollster and friend-of-The-Writ Dan Arnold was willing to help — and the responses he gathered betrayed a mix of nostalgia and partisan devotion on the part of Canadians.
Dan and I worked together on the questions and the polling was conducted by Pollara, where Dan works as chief strategy officer.
Pollara interviewed 4,020 adult Canadians online between December 8 and 20. According to Pollara, “online samples cannot be assigned a margin of error. As a guideline, a probability sample of this size carries a margin of error of ± 1.6%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted by the most current gender, age and region Census data, to ensure the sample reflects the actual population of adult Canadians.”
We had to limit the number of prime ministers included in the survey to something reasonable, so I set the bar at the 14 who served at least four years in the job, or the normal lifespan of a single parliament.
The first conclusion we could reach was that Canadians, sadly, don’t all share my love of history. Just 21% said they were “very interested in books and/or TV shows about Canadian history”. The good news, though, is that only 26% said they were “not really interested”, putting half of respondents in the mushy middle.
This question made it possible to separate those who are interested in history from those are aren’t. But their responses weren’t actually as different as I would have thought — as we’ll see in a moment.
But enough preamble. Let’s get to the winner.
Trudeau vs. Harper
There was no unanimous choice, and in fact it was effectively a tie between first and second. But narrowly topping the list of Canada’s greatest prime ministers — at least in the eyes of the public — was Pierre Trudeau, named the greatest by 10.5% of respondents. He just edged out Stephen Harper, who got 9.7%.
The biggest winner, though, were the “don’t knows”. Fully 39.8% of respondents said they did not know who was Canada’s greatest prime minister.
There was no significant regional variation among the undecideds, but there were more women (46%) than men (33%). One-half of those under the age of 35 had no response, while only 29% of those over the age of 65 weren’t sure.
It’s a big chunk of the responses. But the sample of the poll was so big that we can still drill down with some confidence into those who did have an opinion. So, let’s do that from here on out.
With 17.5% support as the greatest prime minister among respondents with an opinion, Pierre Trudeau was the nostalgic first choice of Canadians — particularly those who currently vote Liberal.
Prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and then again from 1980 to 1984, Trudeau’s key demographic are Canadians who are old enough to remember him and/or have voted for him. He was the top choice of Canadians over the age of 50.
He’s also a favourite among women, with 21% naming him as the greatest prime minister. But it wasn’t just older women, as women under the age of 35 also named him as the greatest prime minister (narrowly over Harper). Trudeau was the top choice of urban Canadians, immigrants, racialized Canadians, those with at least a college education and people who currently support the Greens, New Democrats or Liberals.
Trudeau was particularly unpopular, though, in Quebec and Saskatchewan and among Conservative and People’s Party voters.
Stephen Harper was the choice of 16.1% of decided respondents. If Trudeau was the nostalgic Liberal choice, Harper was the modern Conservative favourite.
Those under the age of 50, who, as with Trudeau, had the opportunity to vote for him, preferred Harper. Prime minister from 2006 to 2015, Harper was the favourite choice of men, white Canadians, those with a high school education and those who vote Conservative or PPC. Unlike with Pierre Trudeau, who was six points more popular among women than men, there was no significant gender divide in Harper’s support.
He did most poorly among Liberal and Bloc voters and people living in Nova Scotia.
Age and partisanship explain the support for Pierre Trudeau and Stephen Harper. What’s behind the rest of the list is more complicated.
Finishing in third was John A. Macdonald, named the greatest prime minister by 10.5% of decided respondents. In the job from 1867 to 1873 and again from 1878 to 1891, Macdonald is the only early prime minister with significant support, suggesting his memory has withstood the passage of time (and the blots on his legacy related to residential schools).
While he didn’t top any demographic, he was in the top two among young men, Conservatives, Greens and PPC voters. He was also very unpopular among Bloc voters and in Quebec, as well as in Saskatchewan.
There was little difference in his support based on education and Macdonald actually did a little better among racialized Canadians than he did among white Canadians. He was also nearly twice as popular among those interested in history as among the population as a whole.
Perhaps a surprise showing in fourth was Brian Mulroney, prime minister from 1984 to 1993, with 10.2%. But that’s almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is Quebec’s choice — especially those who voted for the Bloc.
That makes sense. Sovereignists don’t find much to admire in Canada’s pantheon of prime ministers, but Mulroney was the architect of the Meech Lake Accord that would have given Quebec more constitutional powers. It follows, then, that he was very unpopular among voters in Western Canada, as well as in Ontario and Nova Scotia.
Fifth was Jean Chrétien at 9%, apparently the choice of those who grew of age with him as their prime minister.
In the job from 1993 until 2003, Chrétien was the second-most popular choice among people between the ages of 35 and 49, who would have been between the ages of six and 30 years old when he was in office.
Next was Lester Pearson at 8.3%. If Pierre Trudeau is the nostalgic choice, Pearson, prime minister from 1963 to 1968, is the really nostalgic choice.
With 19% support, Pearson topped the list among men over the age of 65 and was second among women of that vintage, who perhaps remember Pearson from their time as a child or young adult.
In seventh was Justin Trudeau, prime minister since 2015, at 7.5%. He was the second-most popular choice of Liberal voters and was tied for second among men under the age of 35. Like Harper, Trudeau fils seems to benefit from a recency bias.
Older men, however, do not rate Trudeau highly. Neither do Conservatives, Bloc voters or Albertans.
Next was John Diefenbaker (1957-1963) at 6.4%, particularly forgettable among Quebecers and young Canadians, followed by Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911) at just 5% and Mackenzie King (1921-1930 and 1935-1948) at 3.7%.
Those last two results were perhaps the most surprising. Laurier and King are generally ranked among the top three prime ministers by historians. They governed Canada for long stretches of time that proved incredibly important in the development of the country.
Laurier presided over Canada’s mass immigration in the early 20th century and was the first prime minister to bridge the linguistic (and sectarian) divide that separated the country. King was prime minister during the Second World War, when Canada emerged as a real player on the international stage.
After the Top 10, we really get into tiny numbers. The under-appreciated Alexander Mackenzie (1873-1878) registered just 1.3% (and only 1.9% in his home province of Ontario), while post-war-boom-PM Louis St-Laurent (1948-1957) got just 1% (and only 2.1% in his home province of Quebec).
Depression-era R.B. Bennett (1930-1935) might have deserved his 0.9% a little more as he is generally seen as one of Canada’s worst prime ministers. He did a bit better in Alberta (1.4%) where he held a seat, but much worse in New Brunswick (0.2%) where he was born.
And at the very bottom of the list is Robert Borden (1911-1920) at just 0.4%. Leading the country through the First World War matters little to Canadians today, though his native Nova Scotia gave him 1.8%.
Regional map echoes today’s politics
If we break it down by region, we see how current partisanship is informing some of these views.
Pierre Trudeau was at the top of the list in British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and in Atlantic Canada as a whole, all areas of strength for the modern Liberal Party. His best results came on the east coast and in Ontario.
Stephen Harper, however, was the favourite — and by a big margin — in Alberta, Saskatchewan and (tiny sample) Prince Edward Island.
But Trudeau and Harper weren’t the only ones to win a region. John Diefenbaker narrowly edged out John A. Macdonald in Manitoba, while Brian Mulroney ran away with the contest in Quebec, the only province in which he hit double-digits.
Macdonald had his best result in Manitoba, where his son was briefly a premier, while Chrétien had his strongest results in Newfoundland and Labrador at 16%. That province was also where Pearson got his best result (14%).
With 9%, Justin Trudeau had his highest result in Ontario while Saskatchewan gave native-son John Diefenbaker his best showing with 22%. Wilfrid Laurier also got a hometown boost in Quebec, where he hit 10%.
How partisanship drives historical views
If we break down the results among decided respondents by partisanship, we see even more that politics drives a lot of how Canadians view past prime ministers.
Nearly a third of Liberal voters (32%) ranked Pierre Trudeau first, while another 19% gave it to Justin Trudeau. In all, just over half of Liberal voters think a Trudeau of one generation or another has been the best prime minister the country has ever had. Pearson and Chrétien got 10% apiece. The only non-Liberal to crack the Top 5 was Macdonald at 6%.
Partisanship wasn’t everything, though. Laurier got just 4% of the voting from Liberals, while King got 2% and both St-Laurent and Mackenzie could only muster 1% each among their party-faithful.
Among Conservatives, Harper was the choice of 34%, followed by Macdonald at 15%, Mulroney at 10% and Diefenbaker at 9%. Pearson was the top Liberal at 6%.
When it comes to the New Democrats, who have never had a prime minister of their own, responses were more split. Pierre Trudeau scored well, however, at 24%, followed by Chrétien at 13%. Surprisingly, Macdonald made the podium with 10%, followed by Pearson at 9% and Justin Trudeau at 8%. Notably, 41% of New Democrats opted for a Liberal prime minister who, at one point or another, counted on the NDP for survival in a minority parliament. Only 33% of the general population did the same.
It’s also worth noting that NDP supporters were the most likely to say they did not know who was the greatest Canadian prime minister. At 47%, that was roughly 20 points higher than among Liberal or Conservative voters.
For Bloc voters, the choice was simple. Mulroney was the favourite of nearly half of them at 48%. Pearson was second at 11% — even if he gave Charles De Gaulle the cold shoulder after his “vive le Québec libre!” — while Quebecers Laurier and Chrétien got 10% each. Harper made the Top 5 with 8%.
The sample size was much smaller for supporters of the other parties, so they have to be treated with caution. But among Green voters, Pierre Trudeau was the favourite at 29%, followed by Macdonald at 14%. Chrétien and Harper were tied for third with 9%.
Among People’s Party supporters, Harper was at the top with 22%, followed closely by Macdonald at 18%. King got 10% support, while not a single PPC-voting respondent said Justin Trudeau was the best. The PPC’s supporters were the only ones not to give Trudeau at least one vote.
Our complicated relationship with history
Of course, who Canadians believe is the greatest prime minister does not tell us anything about who actually was the greatest prime minister. But it does tell us a lot about how we remember our own history.
The nostalgia and image surrounding Pierre Trudeau remains remarkably strong — particularly for a prime minister who, for the first decade or so of his tenure, was generally seen to have failed to live up to his promise. But he cemented his legacy in his last term with his defeat of René Lévesque’s 1980 sovereignty-association referendum, the repatriation of the constitution and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That, combined with the popular memory of Trudeaumania in 1968, has kept him high in Canadians’ regard over the years.
But the results also show that we’ve forgotten a lot of our own history, even among those who say they find it interesting. Rankings put together by historians and political scientists have tended to put Laurier, King and Macdonald in their Top 3, with Pearson, St-Laurent and Pierre Trudeau occupying the next three slots.
In this poll, King, Laurier and St-Laurent combined for only 9.7% among the general population who had an opinion. Among those who said they were interested in history, these three “greats” combined for only a little more: 11.2%.
Instead, the two most-recent prime ministers, who have significant backing among current Liberal and Conservative voters, combined for 23.5% among the general population and only a little less, 21.3%, among those with an interest in history.
That could just be blind partisanship at work, along with a little historical ignorance. But what if we take a more charitable view?
On the Conservative side, perhaps this shows that the party has a mixed record of prime ministers. Borden is too long ago to be remembered (and there are reasons to not remember him too fondly), Bennett was widely seen as a failure, Diefenbaker flamed out quickly and Mulroney led the party toward a catastrophic defeat. Macdonald’s record has looked far darker in recent years than it did before. For many Conservatives, that might genuinely leave Harper as the best remaining choice.
And for Liberals, Pierre Trudeau might be the only legitimate contender for the title whose views align most closely with modern morals. Laurier and King held racial views that were fairly common for their time but are distasteful today. Governments under Pearson and St-Laurent persecuted gay people in the public service at a time when that prejudice was sadly all too widespread.
Maybe the optimistic view to take is that these results do not show that Canadians are ignorant of their history — but rather we have a complicated relationship with it.
As with most things, I’m sure the answer is somewhere in between.
Coming next week: who do Canadians think was the best opposition leader in history? Do they see things the way Aaron Wherry and I did in our opposition leader draft? Stay tuned!
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