Historically important Canadian politicians

Not all of Canada’s important political leaders have been prime ministers. Here are 30 of the most notable men and women who have left some lasting mark on Canadian history — and a couple who are still making marks to this day.

William Aberhart William Aberhart (1878-1943)
“Bible Bill” was the founder of the western Canadian Social Credit movement and served as premier of Alberta from 1935 until his death. A former Baptist preacher, his fusion of statist economic theories with religious demagoguery made him a popular figure during the Great Depression, though today he’s often criticized for personifying the intolerant Christian fundamentalism of that era.
W.A.C. Bennett W.A.C. Bennett (1900-1979)
“Wacky” Bennett (as he was known) was the founder of the British Columbia Social Credit Party and served as premier of B.C. for two decades, from 1952 to 1972. Often considered B.C.’s greatest leader, his rule oversaw the development of the small, undeveloped province to a modern, urbanized region on par with Ontario and Quebec. His son, Bill Bennett, later became premier as well, serving 1975-1986.
Dalton Camp Dalton Camp (1920-2002)
Dalton Camp was a very influential “behind the scenes” member of the Progressive Conservative Party during the 1950s and 1960s. He helped orchestrate the election of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1957 but then turned sharply against the PM after he failed to win a third term, leading a movement to depose him as party boss and install the more moderate Robert Stanfield.
George-Etienne Cartier George-Etienne Cartier (1814-1873)
Cartier was one of Canada’s most important founding fathers. As head of the French Tory delegation in the colonial legislature of the United Province of Canada, he worked closely with the Anglo Tory leader, John A. MacDonald, to unite French and English Canadians into a single nation. When MacDonald became Canada’s first prime minister, Cartier was among his closest advisers.
Amor DeCosmos Amor DeCosmos (1825-1897)
The eccentric Amor DeCosmos was a British Columbian journalist and politician considered highly influential in helping convince his colony to join Canada in 1871. Deeply critical of the dictatorial rule of Governor James Douglas, he saw union with Canada as a path to greater democracy, and lobbied aggressively for the goal in writings and speeches. In 1872, he sat briefly as B.C.’s second premier.
Romeo Dallaire General Romeo Dallaire (b. 1946)
Dallaire was a Canadian general who served as head of a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in the early 1990s. While there, he witnessed the start of a terrible genocide, but was infamously unable to provoke a UN response. Now a human rights activist, he often argues that the UN has been rendered powerless by the arrogance of rich nations. In 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin made him a senator.
James Douglas Sir James Douglas (1803-1877)
The founding father of British Columbia, James Douglas was the powerful governor of Britain’s Pacific northwest colonies from around 1838 to 1864. By consolidating the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island under his own rule, he set in motion their eventual permanent union. Fearful of American settlement and influence, he helped keep his lands British in part by suppressing democratic institutions.
Tommy Douglas Tommy Douglas (1904-1986)
Douglas was the NDP premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961. As the first open socialist to lead a government in North America, his election was very controversial, but he proved moderate in office. His main legacy was the introduction of government-run healthcare, which would go on to inspire a similar nationwide program. Douglas later served as head of the federal NDP from 1961 to 1971.
Gilles Duceppe Gilles Duceppe (b. 1947)
Duceppe led the Bloc Quebecois from 1996 to 2015 and was the public face of Quebec separatism for most of the same era. As head of the large separatist delegation in parliament, he was often a power-broker during the era of minority governments in the early 2000s, but remained unsuccessful at pursuing his main goal. He ultimately led his party to near-extinction in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections.
Maurice Duplessis Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959)
Duplessis was premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939, and then 1944 to his death. He’s now remembered mainly as a symbol of the old, conservative Quebec ruling elite, and ran the province as a tight oligarchy in which the Catholic Church and state united to fight common enemies like the labour movement. His death would trigger an aggressive period of liberal reforms dubbed the “Quiet Revolution.”
William Lyon Mackenzie William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861)
Not to be confused with his grandson, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the elder William was a publisher, politician, and pro-democracy radical in early 19th century Canada. Aggressively contemptuous of the authoritarian British elite that ruled the Canadian colonies, in 1837 he led a botched revolution that helped trigger the appointment of the moderate Lord Durham as governor.
C.D. Howe C.D. Howe (1886-1960)
Dubbed “the minister of everything,” Howe was a powerful figure in the successive Liberal governments that ran Canada for much of the 1940s and 1950s. As chief of economic planning during World War II, he ensured that Canada’s tremendous natural resources were used to help the Allies, and after 1945 oversaw the economic shift that made Canada one the world’s leading industrial powers.
Lord Durham Lord Durham (1792-1840)
Durham was appointed governor of Britain’s Canadian colonies in 1838, the aftermath of much political unrest. Fair and moderate, his brief administration is best remembered for writing the so-called “Durham Report,” which argued there would be no political stability in British North America until French and English colonists were ruled by a single government run somewhat democratically.
Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine (1807-1864)
Sometimes called Canada’s “real first prime minister,” LaFontaine was a 19th century French-Canadian politician and pro-democracy advocate in the colonial government of the United Province of Canada. With his Anglo ally Robert Baldwin (1804-1858), the two ran the colonial legislature during the 1840s and 1850s and greatly liberalized Canada’s political system, paving the way for full democracy in 1867.
Jean Lesage Jean Lesage (1912-1980)
Lesage was premier of Quebec from 1960 to 1966 and led a liberal, reformist administration determined to roll back much of unpopular legacy of Maurice Duplessis. Among other things, his government saw the creation of a secular education system, a reformed civil service, and a state-owned electricity corporation. His famous call for Quebecers to be “masters of their own house” still reverberates today.
Rene Levesque Rene Levesque (1922-1987)
Levesque was the first separatist premier of Quebec, serving from 1976 to 1985. Fiery and charismatic, his administration was marked by predictable tension with the federal government, including opposition to the constitutional reforms of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In 1980, his government held Quebec’s first ever referendum on secession, though only 40 per cent voted in favour.
Stephen Lewis Stephen Lewis (b. 1937)
Stephen Lewis is a high-profile former Canadian diplomat best know today for his UN charity work in countries stricken by poverty and AIDS. He previously served as head of the Ontario NDP during the 1970s, while his father, David Lewis, ran the national NDP from 1971 to 1974. Stephen Lewis got his start at the UN when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed him Canadian ambassador in 1984.
Peter Lougheed Peter Lougheed (1928-2012)
Often considered the father of modern Alberta, Lougheed was the province’s Conservative premier from 1971 to 1985. His tenure oversaw a massive economic boom born from the development of Alberta’s vast oil fields, but also increasing tension with the federal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was eager to assert greater national control over natural resources.
Preston Manning Preston Manning (b. 1942)
Manning was the founder of the conservative Reform Party of Canada and led it from 1987 to 2000. Deeply critical of what he perceived as the liberalism and anti-western bias of all of Canada’s existing parties, Manning led Reform to a strong second-place showing in the 1997 federal election, forever altering the nation’s party system and helping hasten the death of the old Progressive Conservative Party.
Agnes McPhail Agnes McPhail (1890-1954)
McPhail was an Ottawa schoolteacher who made history in 1921 by becoming the first woman ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons. Fairly radical in her politics, she switched parties several times during her five terms before finally joining the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Her granddaughter, Joy McPhail, would later lead the British Columbia NDP.
Oliver Mowat Oliver Mowat (1820-1903)
Mowat was the third and perhaps most influential premier of Ontario, serving a 24-year term from 1872 to 1896. His long reign oversaw the rapid development of Ontario into Canada’s industrial base, while tensions with John A. MacDonald‘s federal government helped clarify and strengthen provincial power. Mowat later joined the feds himself to serve as Wilfrid Laurier’s attorney-general.
Emily Murphy Emily Murphy (1868-1933)
In 1927, Murphy was the leader of a group of early feminist activists (“the Famous Five“) who took the Canadian government to court over the fact that women could not be appointed to the Senate of Canada. The so-called “Persons Case” was ultimately appealed to the British House of Lords, who sided with the Five. In 1930, Cairine Wilson was appointed Canada’s first female Senator.
Louis Riel Louis Riel (1844-1885)
Riel was the founder and first leader of the territory of Manitoba, which under his leadership became Canada’s fourth province in 1870. A mixed-race Metis, he quickly soured on the union when the federal government reneged on a variety of conditional promises made to his people. In 1869 and 1885, he led armed rebellions against the federal government and was eventually caught, tried and executed.
Clifford Sifton Sir Clifford Sifton (1861-1929)
Sir Clifford is usually considered one of the most important Canadian politicians of the late 19th century, and served as federal Minister of the Interior from 1896 to 1905 under Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. During his tenure, he was the leading architect of an ambitious plan to settle Canada’s vacant western territories through massive immigration from eastern Europe and generous land giveaways.
Joey Smallwood Joey Smallwood (1900-1991)
Smallwood was the first premier of the province of Newfoundland. In Newfoundland’s final years as an independent country, he was a leading activist in the campaign for annexation to Canada and is sometimes considered Canada’s last “Father of Confederation” as a result. His long rule as premier (1949-1972) was marked by ambitious economic initiatives and resettlement schemes.
Ken Taylor Ken Taylor (1934-2015)
Now best known as a character in the 2012 movie Argo, Taylor was the Canadian ambassador to Iran during the country’s 1979 revolution. During the ensuing hostage taking of U.S. diplomats, he secretly housed several escaped Americans in his residence and collaborated with the CIA to free them from the country. Lavishly praised for his heroism, his CIA ties remained hidden for decades.
Tecumseh Tecumseh (1767-1813)
Canada’s most famous aboriginal leader, Tecumseh was chief of the Shawnee nation and a vital British ally during the War of 1812. As head of a confederacy of tribes in the Ohio valley, his opposition to American settlement led to a British alliance, and when the Anglo-American war began his men helped secure a handful of early British victories. His role was then abruptly ended by a battlefield death.
Margaret Trudeau Margaret Trudeau (b. 1948)
Easily Canada’s most famous “first lady,” the wealthy and well-connected Margaret Sinclair married Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1971 during his first term in office. 29 years younger than the PM, she often made headlines with her juvenile antics, and the tense marriage provided much fodder for the tabloids. The two had three children together, including future PM Justin Trudeau, but divorced in 1984.
William Van Horne Sir William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915)
Van Horne was a wealthy railway tycoon and one of Canada’s most powerful men during the late 1800s. In 1881, he was hired by the government of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to build a railroad to unite Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, a hugely ambitious project known as the Canadian Pacific Railway. The settlement patterns of western Canada were largely dictated by his train’s route.
J.S. Woodsworth J.S. Woodsworth (1874-1942)
Woodsworth was a socialist member of Parliament from 1921 to his death. A leading left-wing activist during the labour unrest of the early 20th century, in 1932 he helped found the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation party, the predecessor of the NDP. An early advocate of old-age pensions, he used his party’s sway in parliament to ensure passage of Canada’s first Pension Act in 1926.