Who is Canada's greatest prime minister? New poll shows we can't seem to agree

If you asked history experts, the results would be wildly different

Canadians would have a challenging time coming up with our own version of Mount Rushmore, as a new poll shows that there’s no clear consensus on who we think our greatest prime minister is.

But some history experts stress that most Canadians aren’t fluent in the historical reign of prime ministers or their major accomplishments, which is reflected in in the results of the poll.

The online survey, conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights, randomly selected 4,020 Canadians 18 years of age and older. Participants either identified themselves as history buffs or not.

A new poll asked more than 4,000 Canadians who they think is the greatest prime minister in history.
A new poll asked more than 4,000 Canadians who they think is the greatest prime minister in history.

When it came to the question of who is the greatest Canadian Prime Minister, 40 per cent of participants said they didn’t know.

Pierre Trudeau received 11 per cent of the vote, while Stephen Harper followed closely behind with 10 per cent.

Among the 60 per cent of "decided" voters, Trudeau received 18 per cent, followed by Harper with 16 per cent and John A. Macdonald with 11 per cent.

No strong feelings

Dan Arnold, Chief Strategy Officer with Pollara Strategic Insights, says the topic of Canada's best-ever PM is one that hasn’t seen much public opinion polling in recent years. And given the frequency of polls that examine how people feel about the current prime minister, it’s important to give Canadians a chance to reflect. And the results were surprising.

“While the intent was to find out how Canadians feel about the former leaders of our country, we found that a lot of Canadians don’t have strong feelings about it,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

Arnold says that could be a reflection of Canadian’s grasp of the country’s political history. It could also suggest Canadians don’t think about it much, or at least enough to feel confident on deciding on who’s the best leader.

When reading through the names of the PMs who are on the list, no one stands out as a definitive winner on the list.

“In the States, there’s Mt. Rushmore and a few names that rise to the top as being the consensus of the greatest presidents in U.S. history,” Arnold says. “Here, it’s more of a wide rage of preferences and names that sort of make up the top of this list.”

Favouring the local boy or political party

What isn’t surprising is the range of response based on people's geography. Quebec favoured Brian Mulroney (17 per cent). Albertans ranked Harper in top place (20 per cent).

“If you go back to the early days of our country, elections often show very different results in different parts of the country,” Arnold says.

Stephen Azzi, a professor of political management at Carleton University, concurs.

“There’s a preference for a local boy or girl,” he says.

Azzi says the results of this type of poll would be extremely different if only historical experts were surveyed. When reviewing this poll, along with others done by Gallup and Angus Reid over the last few decades, it appears Canadians like PMs who are striking, confrontational and quotable.

“They like a dramatic figure and this is why you see (Pierre) Trudeau doing so well,” he says. “In the '80s when they did this sort of poll, Diefenbaker used to poll well. Trudeau and Diefenbaker have very little in common, aside from charisma and a flair for dramatics.”

Finally, he agrees with Arnold and the results of that poll that show most Canadians aren’t all that well-versed in political history.

“It’s natural that the more recent prime ministers will do better than people like Mackenzie King, Wilfrid Laurier or Robert Borden,” he says.

There’s a preference for a local boy or girl.

Charisma over accomplishments

Matthew Hayday, professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Guelph, points out that the list is missing some of the longest serving PMs, like Laurier, who was PM for 15 years.

“There is a definite recency bias in terms of who people know,” he says. “The only person who isn’t a PM in the last 40 years on that list is John A. Macdonald, probably because he is the first prime minister who was involved in so many controversies around issues of commemoration, so his defenders are rallying to him as the ‘nation maker.’”

In 2016, Azzi, along with Norman Hillmer, polled historians on who they felt was the greatest Prime Minister for Macleans magazine. The results were much different. For one, personality barely factors in.

“Mackenzie King, who was the black hole of charisma, topped our last survey,” he says. “Experts are very focused on achievements.”

Someone like Diefenbaker, a dramatic figure who voiced the views of many Canadians, didn’t place as well amongst the experts because his record of accomplishments was much more modest. He also exacerbated relations between English and French Canada, which impacted his results in the poll. However, someone like King, who devoted his life to national unity, ranked higher.

Azzi notes that the Pollara poll doesn’t consider these aspects in their rankings.

“You could argue that someone like Trudeau was a divisive figure, and yet he tops the poll,” he says.