In a 50 year period, from 1896 to 1946, Canada had five prime ministers. There are the well-known ones of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, the lesser known R.B. Bennett and then, lost in the shuffle, is one name most Canadians probably don’t know, Arthur Meighen. While his time as prime minister, two times in fact, were not especially long, he did have an illustrious career as one of Canada’s pre-eminent politicians.
The story of Arthur Meighen begins in Perth County, Ontario where Arthur was born on June 16, 1874. His family had a long history in the area, with his grandfather serving as the first schoolmaster for the village. Arthur would attend primary school in Anderson, Ontario and high school at North Ward Public School. His family moved closer to St. Mary’s so he could attend high school there. He excelled in school, earning first class honours in mathematics, English and Latin. He also excelled at debating with the school debating society.
His home environment would instill many values in him, which he recollected as, quote:
“the immeasurable value of sound education and the equally limitless and permanent importance of habits of industry and thrift.”
After high school, he attended University College at the University of Toronto, earning a B.A. in mathematics in 1896. While attending the university, he met someone with whom his professional life would be tied to for decades, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Reportedly, the two men who would become rivals in the House of Commons, did not get along well from the start.
Later in 1897, Meighen returned to Toronto to earn his teaching qualification at the Ontario Normal College. Later that year, he was hired by the high school board of Caledonia to teach math, commercial subjects and English. The post did not last long as Meighen became involved in a bitter argument with the chairman of the school board, whose daughter Meighen had disciplined. Meighen chose to resign and he moved west to Manitoba, working for the Winnipeg Business College. After unsuccessfully applying for a job as a principal in Lethbridge, he chose to commence legal studies. Those legal studies would come to fruition when he was called to the bar of Manitoba on Feb. 2, 1903.
In 1904, he would marry Isabel J. Cox and together the couple would have two sons and one daughter.
While in Manitoba, Meighen became interested in real estate, and would join the Young Men’s Conservative Club, while also campaigning for Conservative MP Nathaniel Boyd. Soon enough, he began to make a name for himself within the local Conservative Party. Known for his debating skills and sharp wit, he quickly began to rise up in the party as a member.
In 1908, at the age of 34, he was elected to the House of Commons, defeating John Crawford in the Portage la Prairie riding, where Crawford had represented for four years. This was especially impressive as Crawford was seen as a lock to win, riding on the coattails of Sir Wilfrid Laurier who was still very popular in the country. In the end, Meighen won by 250 votes.
At the time, the Conservative Party was still in the Opposition as Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals led Canada. Meighen spent most of his time on the back bench and only made two speeches in his first term but they were enough to catch the notice of Conservative Leader Robert Borden.
In 1911, Meighen was re-elected by a margin of 675 votes and this time he was part of the governing party, under new prime minister Sir Robert Borden.
Meighen’s wit and sarcastic speeches gained him a following in the backbench and those around him saw him as logical, informed and principled. Among those who felt that Borden’s government was aimless, he gained quite a following.
When the Laurier opposition held up the government’s Naval Aid Bill, Borden turned to Meighen to find a solution. Meighen would urge the adoption of a form of closure that was operating in the British Parliament and it was a way to implement the bill in the House of Commons without sparking a debate. Borden introduced the motion for closure on April 9, 1913, with the Liberals fighting it but they were unable to and it was passed two weeks later, only to be defeated in the Liberal controlled Senate. Meighen’s solution greatly impressed Borden and on June 26, Meighen was the new Solicitor General.
For the next four years, Meighen served in that position until he was appointed as the Minister of Mines and the Secretary of State in 1917. In his new role, Meighen was responsible for implementing conscription during the First World War, while also denying the right for opponents of conscription, typically immigrants, from being able to vote. At first Meighen was seen as a progressive conservative but before long he was noted for being one of the most conservative members in the Borden government. He was also a strong anti-Communist, and many consider him to be a bit xenophobic, based on some of the policies he worked on during his time in the cabinet. One example of this was his favouring of the rounding up and deporting of immigrants whose loyalty to Canada was considered to be suspect. He was also cold and ruthless as an administrator in any task he was working on.
Borden, becoming more impressed with Meighen and assigned him with negotiating a financial arrangement with the Canadian National Railway, which was about to go bankrupt and would have brought down a large bank and several provincial governments with it. Meighen would come up with a proposal that would provide a $45 million government guarantee of Canadian Northern bonds in return for a mortgage and a large share of common stock. The bill would pass and become law and Borden rewarded Meighen with an elevation to a cabinet rank.
Meighen would serve as the Minister of the Interior before the 1917 election that brought in Borden’s new Unionist government. This Union Party was formed as a result of the conscription crisis, as a means to unite Conservatives and Liberals who supported conscription, to ensure an election win and push conscription ahead. Meighen would say, quote:
“We must not be afraid to lead.”
With the passing of the conscription bill, the Conservative Party would see its support in Quebec evaporate. For the next 50 years, support for the party was nearly non-existent in Quebec.
Meighen was also prominent in dealing with cries of corruption from opponents with the implementation of the War-Time Elections Bill, which was seen as gerrymandering by the Liberals and a noble act of patriotism by the Conservatives. The bill would remove the vote from citizens of enemy alien birth who had arrived to Canada after 1902, while giving the vote to female relatives of Canadian soldiers overseas. With the act, thousands of people likely to vote Liberal were removed from voting lists, replaced with women likely to vote Conservative.
In the House of Commons, Meighen would say, quote:
“War service should be the basis of war franchise.”
As the Minister of the Interior, Meighen was responsible for the largest piece of legislation ever enacted in the British Empire, the consolidation of several bankrupt railways into the Canadian National Railway Company.
In 1918, Borden would take Meighen with him to England to attend the Imperial War Conference. Meighen would take time to visit Canadian troops at the front and also attend the Royal Geographic. At that meeting, he would say, quote:
“Canada is British, never more British than now.”
With the end of the First World War, Meighen was given the task of assisting veterans financially who wanted to become farmers. He was able to pass the act with support from all parties.
The next task for Meighen would come in 1919 with the Winnipeg General Strike. At the time he was the Acting Minister of Justice and the senior member from Manitoba in the government of Borden. Meighen considered the strikers to be revolutionists looking to overthrow constituted authority. He would approve the arrest of strike leaders and urged all foreign-born among the leaders be deported. Once the strike had ended with force, Meighen enacted Section 98 amendments to the Criminal Code, which banned association with organizations deemed seditious.
On June 17, 1919, Meighen sent a message to former Winnipeg mayor A.J. Andrews regarding the trade unionists that were arrested, saying quote:
“Notwithstanding any doubt I have as to the technical legality of the arrest and the detention at Stony Mountain, I feel that rapid deportation is the best course now that the arrests are made and later we can consider ramification.”
By this point, the Conservative Party was disliked by unionists and labourers, farmers angry about tariffs and nearly everyone in Quebec. It was in this new atmosphere that Meighen found himself in a new role.
In 1920, Meighen would see himself become the leader of Canada after the retirement of Sir Robert Borden. William Thomas White had been invited by the Governor General to be the new prime minister but he had declined. This opened the door for Meighen to become the ninth Prime Minister of Canada.
Upon his appointment as Prime Minister, his supporters lit bonfires outside the front of his house in Portage la Prairie, and since prohibition was in effect, lemonade was served.
This appointment was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Conservative Party, who while they respected his abilities and his gift for debating, they felt that he was temperamentally unsuited for the role and handicapped by the policies he helped implement, including conscription and the response to the Winnipeg General Strike. Often, the naysayers are proven wrong, but in this case, they were very accurate in their predictions.
Meighen’s first term as prime minister would only last a year and a half before the 1921 election.
During that time, he would attempt to implement various changes, especially related to the United States. Meighen felt that the greatest threat to Canada’s national existence was the economic power of the United States. In an attempt to deal with this, he advocated for a strong tariff system. Unfortunately, the Canadian economy was in a recession after the First World War and this led to resentment towards the Conservatives, including Meighen.
Another issue was that his government made it illegal for trade unions to contribute funds to Labor Parties in Canada in 1921. The Toronto Labor Party would say about Meighen, quote:
“Whereas a government has been formed with Arthur Meighen as premier who is admittedly the greatest enemy of the trade unionists and working classes have had to deal with since Confederation.”
In August of 1920, Meighen appointed a national organizer named William John Black, and a publicity bureau was established. He then launched on a countrywide speaking tour during the summer and fall. The crowds were often large, and seemed to be receptive to him throughout the west. In Quebec, there was little support for the party.
Looking ahead to the coming 1921 election, Meighen took a moderate and consistent tariff protection path as his main theme. This included a trade treaty with France and the takeover of the Grand Trunk Railway.
In June of 1921, Meighen went with his wife to London for the Imperial Conference. The British government was looking for a common imperial foreign policy as the dominions were beginning to grow more independent. Called the Peace Cabinet, the main topic was the Anglo-Japanese alliance. For 20 years, there had been a pact between the British Empire and the Japanese. Australia and New Zealand supported retaining the treaty. Meighen, in contrast, felt that renewing it would alienate the United States. He recommended the termination of the alliance. Eventually Meighen and others who supported his side would see the alliance be replaced by a multilateral agreement. While Meighen had this success, he came back to Canada to a situation that was getting worse.
Meighen supported having a protectionist National Policy, like had been seen in the days of Sir John A. Macdonald, and he did not distance himself from the previous Union Government. Meighen was then ready to go to war in the election against the Liberal and Progressives that were growing in strength. He would say to a supporter, quote:
On Sept. 1, 1921, he would launch his campaign for re-election but most political observers felt there was no way that the Conservatives could win. Despite this, Meighen implemented an aggressive election campaign, traveling the entire country by rail, automobile and boat, delivering 250 speeches in the process. He defended conscription in the Quebec, and he preached tariff protection in the west and championed public ownership in Montreal. He also appealed to the one million women who could now vote, saying it was the Union Government that gave them the vote. He denounced King on issues such as railways and tariffs, he attacked the Progressives on their class basis, handled hecklers easy and many cheered wherever he went. Even a newspaper in Quebec said he was a man of intellect, and a great leader.
By all accounts, the campaign was an incredible triumph. The election was a different story.
The election would prove to be one of the worst defeats for a ruling party in Canadian history. William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Liberals gained 36 seats, finishing with 118 seats. The new Progressive Party would cruise to second place with 58 seats, while Meighen and his Conservatives lost 104 seats, finishing with 49. Worse yet, Meighen lost his own seat in Portage la Prairie. Meighen would stay on as leader and won a by-election in 1922 in the Grenville riding in Ontario to remain in the House of Commons.
The Progressive Party chose not to be the official opposition, resulting in Meighen becoming the Leader of the Opposition.
Meighen called a meeting of his party and they unanimously endorsed his leadership, allowing him to stay in power as the leader of the party.
As the Leader of the Opposition, Meighen was often at odds with King. Borden and Laurier had had a good relationship and mutual respect for each other. Laurier even ensured a Liberal candidate did not run in a byelection after Borden lost his seat, allowing Borden to be acclaimed. That sort of relationship was not seen at all with Meighen and King. Both men had a distrust to the other, with Meighen often looking down upon King and calling him “Rex”, which was the nickname of King at university. King saw Meighen as a High Tory who would destroy the social peace of the country. The rivalry and dislike between these two men is nearly unrivaled in Canadian history. Ironically, they shared many similarities. Both were born in 1874 in southern Ontario, both came from Presbyterian homes and both were elected in the same year to the House of Commons.
One of the biggest events for Meighen as a member of the Official Opposition was the Crisis at Chanak. The situation began when Winston Churchill, the British Colonial Secretary, leaked to the press that the Dominions might be called upon to help British forces at Chanak, Turkey. In Canada, Parliament was not in session and King refused to commit the country to military action without approval from Parliament. He also felt the matter was not important enough to recall Parliament. Meighen condemned King for his statement and to reinforce his point he quoted Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the mentor of King, stating quote:
“When Britain’s message came, then Canada should have said, ‘Ready, aye ready, we stand by you.”
The crisis eventually faded without the need to for Canadian help, and for Meighen it hurt him in the eyes of Canadians who saw him being blindly in favour of the interests of Britain. In Toronto, his side in the issue was applauded, but in the west and Quebec it was seen in a poor light.
Luckily for Meighen, it was not long before King was dealing with scandal. This created an opportunity for the Conservatives to capitalize on the uneven performance of the government. He also pushed for a general philosophy to restore the pre-war social order and return to National Policy level tariffs.
After the Liberals won an big victory in the provincial election in Saskatchewan, Mackenzie decided the time was right to call an election.
When the 1925 election came along, Meighen and the Tories won 115 seats, an increase of 66, while king won 100, dropping 18. The Progressive Party collapsed losing 36 seats. The Liberals, having fewer seats than the Conservatives, looked to the Progressives for help as a coalition, giving them more seats and the ability to retain confidence in the House of Commons as the already sitting prime minister. Meighen was naturally livid over this and called King’s holding of office to be like a lobster with lockjaw. King had accomplished this by promising to ease rural credit, investigate maritime rights and reform the tariff system. Meighen was also celebrating as he had regained his seat in Portage la Prairie.
Governor General Byng felt that the Liberal-Progressive alliance was a corrupt bargain and he felt that the Conservatives should have formed the next government but there were no valid legal grounds for refusing to allow King to remain as prime minister.
Soon after the election, the Customs Department was beset in a scandal and with a vote coming in the House of Commons that King thought he would lose, he asked the Lord Byng to dissolve the government and call an election. The previous election had been held on Oct. 29, 1925, not long previous and the Governor General felt that there was too short of a time between the elections, and also looking at the fact that Meighen had a larger seat account, he refused the request. The incident has become known as the King-Byng Affair and many debate who was in the right, King or Byng, in the matter. King in response resigned as prime minister, leaving Canada without a government, and with the support from the Progressives, Meighen was asked to form a government by Lord Byng.
Meighen then advised Byng to appoint Ministers of the Crown in an acting capacity only, which would not trigger automatic by-elections ministers faced in accepting their appointments. King used this situation to mock the government and accused Meighen of acting irresponsibly by accepting Byng’s appointment. The Progressives then shifted their support to King, and the government lost a vote regarding the ministers by one vote and Meighen was forced to call an election.
King doubled down on attacking Meighen for accepting the appointment by Byng, decimating support of the Conservatives in several areas of Canada, especially the west. Meighen attacked King for the customs scandal and other things that he felt were issues among Canadian voters.
In the election, held on Sept. 14, 1926, the Liberals cruised to 116 seats, while Meighen saw his party fall by 24 seats to 91. Meighen also lost his seat in Portage la Prairie again. Meighen and the Conservatives did win the popular vote by 100,000 votes but that did not matter in the election. In all, Meighen’s second time as prime minister lasted only three months.
Upon the loss, the Manitoba Free Press and its Liberal editor John Dafoe, would state of Meighen, quote:
With the election and riding loss, Meighen resigned as Conservative Party leader on Oct. 11, 1926. A new leadership convention was organized and Meighen would run to be leader again, but ended up losing to R.B. Bennett. After this loss, he moved to Toronto to practice law, serving as the general counsel for Canadian General Securities Limited. In 1929, the stock market crash nearly bankrupted the company and Meighen would suffer a great deal of anxiety over it, since many investors had entrusted their funds to the company out of regard for him.
From 1931 to 1934, he would serve as a member of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario.
In 1932, Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett appointed Meighen to the Canadian Senate where he served as the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Minister without Portfolio from 1932 to 1935. From 1935 to 1942, he served as the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.
In 1941, with the Conservative Party in disarray, Meighen was asked to become leader once again during the Second World War. He accepted the unanimous vote on Nov. 13, 1941 and campaigned in favour of overseas conscription.
King would write in his diary of the reemergence of Meighen, quote:
“I am getting past the time when I can fight in public with a man of Meighen’s type who is sarcastic, vitriolic and the meanest type of politician.”
At the time, his two sons, Ted and Max, were serving in the Second World War. He would write, quote:
“I never knew what human longing was until separated by war from the sons I love so much. I sit in my office just gazing on the folder with its two photos.”
The fact his sons were fighting in the war pushed him to launch blistering attacks on the Liberals, and to push for conscription as a Conservative Party platform.
In order to lead the party, he resigned from the Senate on Jan. 16, 1942 and he ran in York South for a seat in the House of Commons during a by-election. The Liberal premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn, actually gave his support which would quickly end his premiership of the province and did not help Meighen much. The practice since the early 20th century was for the ruling party not to run anyone against the Official Opposition member in a by-election and King abided by that, sort of. Instead of having a Liberal run against Meighen in the by-election, he put campaign resources to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation’s candidate, who beat Meighen in the Feb. 9, 1942 by-election as a result. The CCF had portrayed Meighen as a man of yesterday and a tool of big financial interests.
Meighen would never again take a seat in the House of Commons and he would approach Manitoba premier John Bracken about becoming leader of the party. The party would choose Bracken as leader and renamed itself the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. After 1945, he would have little interest in politics.
Meighen then went back to practicing law in Toronto and died of heart failure on Aug. 5, 1960. He was given a state funeral, and then buried at St. Mary’s, where he had lived as a child. His 33 years and 315 days between his last day as prime minister and his death was a record until Jan. 12, 2014 when Joe Clark passed him.
Despite his short time as prime minister, Meighen has been honoured extensively in Canada. A stamp was issued in 1961 and that same year he was designated a National Historic Person. Two schools, one in Portage la Prairie and his former high school are named for him. Mount Arthur Meighen in the Cariboo Mountains was named for him, as is an island in the arctic.
In a ranking of the first 20 prime ministers in Canadian history, Meighen ranked 14th.
I will close this episode out with a quote from Meighen, which he said as a farewell tribute of R.B. Bennett in 1939, saying quote:
“There are times when no Prime Minister can be true to his trust to the nation he has sworn to serve, save at the temporary sacrifice of the party he is appointed to lead. Loyalty to the ballot box is not necessarily loyalty to the nation. Political captains in Canada must have courage to lead rather then servility to follow.”