Poll on best prime ministers of the 20th century suggests regional divide

OTTAWA — There appears to be a regional divide in how fondly Canadians view prime ministers past, according to a poll that might shed light on today’s politics.

The survey from the non-profit Association for Canadian Studies found respondents were divided in their choices for the best prime minister of the 20th century, with Pierre Trudeau receiving the largest share of votes at 15 per cent.

He and Brian Mulroney were the most popular picks in Quebec — but francophone Quebecers favoured Mulroney while anglophones in the province favoured Trudeau.

And in the West, respondents chose Lester B. Pearson more often from the list of eight prime ministers who served long stints in office between 1900 and 2000.

The Leger online poll conducted the week of Nov. 11 surveyed 2,295 Canadians but cannot be assigned a margin of error because polls from Internet panels are not random samples.

Association president Jack Jedwab notes Pierre Trudeau was chosen by respondents in parts of the country key to current prime minister Justin Trudeau’s electoral successes.

“Justin Trudeau, who in many ways articulates the key pillars of his father’s vision … is today popular with the same constituents as his father is in the survey,” Jedwab says.

He adds that younger Canadians, Ontarians and anglophone Quebecers have positive evaluations of Pierre Trudeau’s legacy, “and may also determine how Justin fares in the future.”

Pierre Trudeau, a Liberal, was prime minister from 1968 to 1984, minus nine months in opposition in 1979. Mulroney, a Progressive Conservative, was in office from 1984 to 1993. Pearson, a Liberal, was prime minister from 1963 to 1968.

Other prime ministers on the list of options included Robert Borden (prime minister from 1911 to 1920, as a Conservative and then at the head of a coalition during the First World War), William Lyon Mackenzie King (a Liberal with three stints between 1921 and 1948, totalling more than 21 years), Wilfrid Laurier (Liberal prime minister from 1896 to 1911), Jean Chretien (Liberal prime minister from 1993 to 2003), and Louis Saint-Laurent (Liberal prime minister from 1948 to 1957).

Respondents in the survey who were older than 55 selected Pierre Trudeau, Pearson and Laurier above others on the list of prime ministers presented.

Jedwab notes the majority of respondents under age 35, the oldest of whom were teenagers at the end of the 20th century, either didn’t recognize the names on the list or felt uncomfortable ranking them.

The findings show the effect the years are having on how we remember prime ministerial performance, he says. People over age 55 likely remember Pierre Trudeau’s time in office, while those who are just hitting that age got the right to vote around the time the elder Trudeau left office for good in 1984, Jedwab says.

“Increasingly, what we hear or read about Trudeau and the other prime ministers can make the difference in our evaluations and who happens to currently be in power will have a bearing on that.”

John Diefenbaker, Kim Campbell, Arthur Meighen, R.B. Bennett, John Turner, and Joe Clark were not included in questions to respondents, though both Bennett and Diefenbaker served longer as prime minister than Pearson did.

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