Bill Waiser

The political odyssey of Charles McDonald

Tired of parliamentarians not answering questions, mouthing “talking points” prepared by backroom handlers or replying with a fog of obfuscation – when not levelling accusations against the other side?

Well, that was never the problem with Charles McDonald, a druggist from Prince Albert.

McDonald was temporarily thrust into the spotlight when William Lyon Mackenzie King – the guy on our $50 bill – found himself in political trouble.

King might have been Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, but in October 1925, he had badly misread the public mood and lost his seat in a federal election of his own calling. He needed to find a new riding if he was going to continue to lead the Liberal party in the House of Commons.

The prime minister initially leaned toward running in Quebec, where Liberal party strength meant certain victory, especially after the 1917 conscription crisis.

However, he then received a telegram from Saskatchewan’s Liberal premier, Jimmy Gardiner, advising him that Charles McDonald, the newly elected and firsttime Liberal MP for Prince Albert, was willing to step aside for his leader.

King liked the idea. He wanted to strengthen Liberal party support in Western Canada and what better way than to represent a Saskatchewan riding in one of the fastest-growing provinces at the time?

Besides, his mentor, former Liberal leader and prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, had won the Prince Albert seat in the 1896 election when it was possible for candidates to run in two ridings at the same time.

Although Laurier won both seats, he chose to represent Quebec East. That didn’t matter to King – he was never one to question destiny.

Charles McDonald resigned the Prince Albert seat in January 1926 without ever taking his place in the House of Commons and a byelection was called the following month to fill the vacancy.

King travelled by train to Prince Albert to accept the nomination and was met at the station by a delegation of local Liberals.

They had a list of the usual demands: better roads and more railway branch lines.

They also wanted something special in exchange for help in the byelection – the creation of a new national park just north of the city.

Prince Albert got its park and King handily won the contest. He would represent Prince Albert for the next two decades.

He never forgot McDonald’s sacrifice and looked for an opportunity to repay him.

That time arrived in the fall of 1935, when King returned to the prime minister’s office after five years in political exile during the Great Depression.

One of his first acts upon assuming power was to name McDonald to a Senate vacancy.

However, McDonald, then living in Vancouver, was too ill to travel to Ottawa to be sworn in. He died the following year.

Charles McDonald enjoys the distinction of being the only person elected to the House of Commons and appointed to the Senate who never uttered a single word in either chamber.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Prince Albert Historical Museum

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