Since Canadian Confederation in 1867, twenty-one men and one woman have served as Prime Minister of Canada, assuming the ultimate challenge of political leadership in Canada's federal parliamentary system; They successfully battled both party rivals and opposition parties to gain, and hold, the office that has been called "the apex of power" in Canada; And they left an extraordinary documentary record.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) was founded in 1872 by Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald; Fittingly, Macdonald's papers (125 linear feet) were LAC's first prime ministerial acquisition, in 1914; The Prime Ministers Collection has subsequently grown to include approximately 12,700 linear feet of textual records, 18.9 gigabytes of electronic records, 700 reels of microfilm, and over one million photographs, as well as numerous paintings, caricatures, posters, films, videocassettes, audio cassettes, philatelic items, medals, and political buttons.
The collection held at LAC encompasses the original textual records of eighteen prime ministers, with microfilm copies of the papers of another two; These extensive holdings comprise not only official and political documents, but also personal and family papers, constituting an invaluable source that is regularly consulted by students, scholars, journalists, and other researchers; The historian John English, who recently worked on the early papers of Pierre Elliott Trudeau at LAC, underscored the importance of such holdings: "Trudeau's private papers are an exceptionally rich lode for a biographer to mine, and valuable nuggets appear in virtually every box."
The collection includes many such treasures, but arguably the most remarkable is the diary kept by Canada's longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King; This document, which King began in 1893 when he was an undergraduate student, ended in 1950, a few days before his death; It comprises nearly 30,000 pages and more than 7,500,000 words; Not only is it a remarkable political record, but it is also one of Canada's greatest literary achievements; According to the critic Robert Fulford, it "might turn out to be the only Canadian work of our century that someone will look at in 500 years." In 2003, LAC made the entire diary available on its Web site under the title: A Real Companion and Friend.
King's diary is only one of many significant prime ministerial items now available on the LAC Web site; Most of the prime ministers' finding aids are online, as are detailed correspondence indexes and databases relating to art and photos; In addition, LAC has created "First among Equals," a massive Web exhibition that draws upon a wide variety of records to explore the role of the prime minister in Canadian life and politics.
The Prime Ministers Collection is a crucial part of LAC's mandate to preserve and make known Canada's documentary heritage; As one former National Archivist observed: "It is obvious that if we forget our prime ministers, we lose an important part of our heritage; for these are…individuals who have made a difference, shaping Canada's identity, often in profound ways."
Collection Profile and Overview: John Bell, Maureen Hoogenraad, and Marcel Barriault
Illustrations: Library and Archives Canada