Names Written in Water: Canadian National Leaders and Their Reputations among Party Members

By Stewart, Ian | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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Names Written in Water: Canadian National Leaders and Their Reputations among Party Members


Stewart, Ian, Journal of Canadian Studies


Party iconologies can provide a potent set of symbols for party adherents, and perceptions of former leaders are a central element in any party iconology. This essay explores the perceptions of successful leadership offered over the past decade by Maritime party activists (as opposed to those provided by academic panels), and links these views to such factors as electoral success and longevity, leadership type, and respondent characteristics. This essay also reveals the fluidity of party iconologies, with modern leaders gradually superseding the titans of yesteryear.

Les iconologies du parti peuvent fournir un ensemble puissant de symboles pour les adhérents du parti et les perceptions d'anciens chefs sont un élément central dans toute iconologie du parti. Le présent article examine les perceptions de leaderships prospères offertes par des activistes du parti maritime au cours de la dernière décennie (par rapport aux perceptions offertes par des groupes d'universitaires) et relie ces points de vue à des facteurs comme la longévité et le succès électoraux, le type de leadership et les caractéristiques des défendeurs. L'article révèle également le caractère incertain des iconologies du parti avec les chefs modernes remplaçant graduellement les titans du passé.

In Leon Dion's seminal treatment of the topic, leadership was defined as "a relationship between one or more persons exercising influence (i.e., the leader) and one or more persons submitting to that influence (followers)" (Dion 1968, 3). This relationship is central to politics. Political leaders shape popular attitudes, organize political activity, and advance policy agendas. As to the followers, few aspects of their daily existence are not, in some measure, affected by the activities of political leaders. This relationship, of course, is far from one-sided; paradoxically, the actions of "leaders" are sometimes determined by those of their "followers." Thus, the nineteenth-century French politician Ledru-Rollin once observed, "There go my people and I must follow them for I am their leader" (cited in Courtney 1995, 229). Even allowing for this type of reciprocal influence, however, it cannot plausibly be advanced that the behaviour of leaders is epiphenomenal, that their actions are entirely propelled by social, institutional, and cultural forces. Leaders enjoy some measure of individual autonomy in their dealings with followers, and different leaders will thus exercise their autonomy in different ways. Inevitably, some human agents are better suited to and more adept at performing these tasks of leadership than others are. If they are also blessed with good fortune in the matters over which they have little or no control, they are likely to be successful leaders.

This essay seeks to answer two particular questions. First, which post-Confederation Canadian political party leaders do modern-day activists consider to have been the most successful? Second, how can we explain these rankings? That is, what factors have led to some former leaders being venerated, while others are ignored? As to the first question, there have been some recent scholarly attempts to rate Canada's most prominent federal leaders, from Hillmer and Granatstein's 1997 ranking of the "Best and Worst" Prime Ministers, to the June 2003 issue of Policy Options (co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on Public Policy [IRPP]), which was devoted to judging the prime ministers from the previous half-century. These two efforts based their ratings on the collective judgement of, respectively, 25 "specialists in Canada's political history" and 28 "eminent Canadians" (Schwanen 2003, 18-20; Hillmer and Granatstein 1997, 34-40). Whether relying on these blue-ribbon panels rendered the rankings any more objective is open to question. Thus, it is revealing that Louis St. Laurent was adjudged to have been the greatest prime minister of the past 50 years by the Hillmer and Granatstein experts but was ranked no better than fourth (of six) by the IRPP/Policy Options judges.

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