J.L. Ilsley: A Political Biography

Mackenzie King's frugal finance minister who found the money for Canada's war 1939–1945

by Barry Cahill

This biography of J. L. Ilsley offers a new vantage point on Mackenzie King’s Liberal government during the Second World War and a portrait of a fiscal conservative who opened the floodgates of spending while clamping down on profiteering and the rich.

A farmer’s son from rural Nova Scotia, J. L. Ilsley (1894–1967) is an almost forgotten figure who played a key role in government during the Second World War, even though he was despised by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Ilsley was spectacularly successful in cajoling and compelling Canadians to pay for the war. He became a highly regarded national figure. He gradually established his claim to succeed William Lyon Mackenzie King as Prime Minister when the time came. Ultimately, in his devious way, King thwarted Ilsley’s ambition.

Ilsley abandoned politics to take up the post of chief justice in Nova Scotia for 17 years. His place in Canadian political history has been undermined by family members who destroyed his personal papers. Historian and biographer Barry Cahill has pieced together the story of Ilsley’s career for the first time. He used the personal papers of other Ottawa figures of the times, previously secret cabinet records, and glimpses of the man as seen by others in his circle – including, of course, Mackenzie King in his voluminous diaries.

About the Author

BARRY CAHILL is a retired Nova Scotia provincial civil servant who served as a researcher in 2016–19 on the Restorative Inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. He is the author of several books including the recently published Rebuilding Halifax: A history of the Halifax Relief Commission. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


"Elaborately written, clearly structured with a wealth of quotes, this political biography is a crucial addition for those who want to learn more about the life and legacy of J L Ilsley, and the relationship between the provincial and federal governments in Canada from the 1930s to the 1960s."

Mathias Rodorff, Atlantic Books Today

Subjects (BISAC)


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