Roderick Benns recently interviewed Gary Schlee, a journalist and corporate editor before launching Canada’s first corporate communications program at Toronto’s Centennial College. Schlee’s Canadian Prime Ministers: Date Book website is focused on bringing hundreds of facts on Canada’s prime ministers to Canadians. Now retired, he serves on several not-for-profit boards and continues to write and consult. He was named a Master Communicator by the International Association of Business Communicators in 2014. His political activity has been limited to serving as prime minister of Canada for a student mock Parliament in the Trudeau years.
1) Where did your interest in prime ministerial history begin?
Perhaps the more interesting question is ‘when’. I was a high school student when I came across a book by Joseph Nathan Hale called Facts About the Presidents: From Washington to Johnson, which I still have. You can see that I’m dating myself here. My thought at the time was “Why isn’t there a book like this about Canada’s Prime Ministers?” That’s when I started collecting ‘facts’, a project that has continued on and off – mostly off – for 50 years.
2) Tell me about the fact book. What led you to take this approach with our leaders and how do you see the end product?
Certainly I was influenced by Kane’s book. I like the idea of a quick, but comprehensive, resource that brings all 22 of our top leaders together in one place. Rather than bury them in too much narrative, the book would be full of bite-size pieces of information designed to portray the leaders’ personalities and their governments. My hope is that the end product will not only be a very accessible way to learn more about the men and woman who have served as PM, but will also convey a sense of fun. Of course, it isn’t necessarily imperative that we know Tupper was related to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sarah Palin.
3) Tell us 2 or 3 of your favourite anecdotes from your research about some of the PMs.
I particularly like connections that bring different Prime Ministers together. My favourite takes place in December 1965. MP John Turner, who has just been appointed to his first cabinet position, is vacationing in Barbados when he ends up saving someone from drowning. The victim turns out to be former PM John Diefenbaker who is staying at the same hotel. Maybe it’s not total serendipity since the two of them coincidently stayed at the same hotel in Tobago while vacationing 12 months earlier. That’s when they first struck up a friendship. Another Turner connection is a bit more indirect: His mother dated R.B. Bennett.
In 1920, Bennett, an Alberta lawyer, introduced Quebec lawyer Louis St. Laurent as a speaker at the Canadian Bar Association convention. Nine years later, Bennett was the CBA president and St. Laurent one of his vice-presidents. It’s those benign collisions that can be fascinating in hindsight. There are lots of wonderful visual stories, too. Mackenzie would walk across the lake ice from Wolfe Island to Kingston to visit his fiancée Helen, until he fell through the ice on one trip, making a sodden impression when he arrived. I find it hard to picture Abbott as a champion grower of orchids. Or Harper sitting in the minor hockey stands with NDP MP Paul Dewar. Harper’s son played left wing while Dewar’s was on right wing. It’s tough to make this stuff up.
4) Broadly, what have you learned about the 22 people who have led this country? Is there a common theme outside of the office they held?
They’re all so very different. There is no common theme or personality to be found. That’s what makes each one interesting. A fresh new portrait every time. Some of them hungered to be Prime Minister; others dreaded being coerced into it.
5) Will you be shopping it around to a Canadian publisher once it’s complete?
I freely admit that I quite enjoy the research and the leisure pace that go with this project. But yes, I do hope to find a publisher for the end result.