From 1921 to 1948, three men served as Prime Minister of Canada. By far the longest was William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was in charge for over 21 years, but it was not a continuous stretch for King. Instead, King saw his time in office broken up by two men. The first was the brief time of Arthur Meighen, and the second was a five year stretch when Richard Bedford Bennett came to power. Unfortunately for Bennett, he served during one of the most difficult times in Canadian history.
Today, I look at Canada’s Great Depression Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett.
Bennett was born in Hopewell, New Brunswick on July 3, 1870 and raised in a strictly Conservative family that had little in the way of money. The eldest of six children, the family would work on their farm and practiced a daily habit of thrift. Prior to his parents, the family had been rich, owning a shipyard nearby but when the shift to steam-powered ships began, their business suffered and eventually closed. One of the largest and last ships launched by the company was the Sir John A. Macdonald.
Bennett would work in his youth and was seen as a loner by those around him. His mother would push him with ambition, which may have come because of her own frustrations with her husband the family’s difficult financial position. Thanks to a small legacy his mother received, he was able to attend the Normal School in Fredericton, training to be a teacher. He then became a teacher at 16 and a principal by the age of 18. He did this while working part-time for a law firm.
Alma Russell, who attended the school, described Bennett as tall, slim, freckled, who always sat upright in the wagon seat under a bowler hat that was too large for him, while also looking younger than his age.
At the age of 20, he was able to save enough money to attend Dalhousie’s School of Law. Still dealing with having little money, he would spend his time studying and working at the Weldon Library and as a newsroom manager at the Dalhousie Gazette. His fellow students described him as a student who only focused on school and did not take part in anything like rugby games.
After graduating from Dalhousie University in 1893, Bennett practiced law in Chatham, New Brunswick for four years. While there, he would run for town council and was elected by one vote, some sources say 19, but he chose not to stay in the community. He decided the time was right to move out to Calgary in 1897, and became the law partner of James Lougheed, who was the grandfather of future Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.
At the time, when he got off the train in January of 1897, Alberta was not a province yet, Calgary was a small frontier town, but there was opportunity to be had.
Bennett was known for being committed to business and his work. He did not drink; he was devoted to attending church and never married. While living in Calgary, he lived alone in a hotel, and then a boarding house. He was a creature of habit as well, always taking his noon meal on workdays at the Alberta Hotel. When it came to his social life, that was focused on his commitment to church. Lougheed made sure that Bennett met all the right people. Lougheed was able to get along with Bennett, even though he was described as arrogant and reserved. He would say of that Bennett was, quote:
“obnoxiously aware of his own genius”
In 1898, Bennett would win an election as the Conservative to the Assembly of the North-West Territories but resigned his seat in 1900 for a failed run for the House of Commons. He would regain his seat in 1901 and won the 1902 election in his riding with 73 per cent of the vote.
By this point, the law firm and Calgary were booming, and Bennett began to get involved in the buying and selling of land. Before long, he was also buying oil leases including the Calgary Petroleum Products Company, which had the first big strike of Alberta oil in Turner Valley.
In 1905, he attempted to win a seat in the new Alberta Legislature. At the time, he was the first leader of Alberta Conservative Party and was up against Alexander Rutherford of the Liberals. Unfortunately for Bennett, not only did his party only gain two seats, while the Liberals picked up 22, he also lost his own seat to William Cushing.
Even with these election failures, Bennett was prospering in his law firm with Lougheed and Max Aitken. In 1908, he was one of five people appointed to the first library board in Calgary, which would establish the Calgary Public Library.
In 1909, Bennett was elected to the Alberta Legislature, but only served until 1911 when he resigned to run for a seat in the federal government.
In 1910, Lougheed, by this point a Senator, would say of his partner, quote:
“Bennett can solve any problem he puts his mind to. No man is quicker to strip a problem of unnecessary verbiage and translate it into simple and understandable language. Someday, Bennett will be called upon to solve the greatest problems in Canada. Some day Canada will turn to him to get the country out of its difficulties.”
During this time, he became a director of Calgary Power Ltd. As the president of the organization for a time, he would initiate the construction of the first storage reservoir at Lake Minnewanka, the construction of the Kananaskis Falls hydro station and the creation of a second transmission line into Calgary.
Finally, in 1911, Bennett was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative, representing Calgary East.
On Nov. 20, 1911, he would give his first speech at the House of Commons, speaking about the government control of freight rates, government grain elevators and trade unions. He would say quote:
“The great struggle of the future will be between human rights and property interests. It is the duty and the function of government to provide that there shall be no undue regard for the latter that limits or lessens the other.”
Borden quickly found that being a member of the House of Commons was not all that he hoped for. When he took his seat in the House, he gave up his CPR retainer that paid him $10,000 a year, or $230,000 today and he found there was little in the way of compensation for being an MP. He would write to a friend in late 1911, quote:
That did not stop him from finding things to put his time behind, including the Naval Aid Bill of 1912-13, in which he made a four-hour speech supporting.
Bennett did not always support his own government either. He had his views on Canadian railways, tariffs, and the position of Canada in the empire that differed from the party, and he would give a speech against his own government’s Northern Railway Guarantee Bill of 1914. He also did not get along with several prominent members of the cabinet, including Arthur Meighen. During his speech against the bill, Meighen continually interrupted Bennett, angering him. Due to his streak of independence and going against the party line, he grew discouraged with Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and he was not appointed to a cabinet. The closest he came was serving as the Director General of National Service in 1916. He was also against the proposal for the formation of a Union Government during the war, as he felt it would hurt the party, which it did. He did support conscription for the war effort though.
While serving in the House of Commons, Bennett had attempted to enlist in the Canadian military but as he was 44 when the war broke out, he was deemed medically unfit since he was missing two toes. He did support the war effort whenever he could, and during his first years in the House of Commons, he gave money to students, widows, and several charities, amounting to 10 per cent of his income in a year.
Rather than run again in 1917, he chose to leave politics. Around this same time, his mother passed away, which impacted Bennett deeply. In 1918, Borden went back on a promise to appoint Bennett to the Canadian Senate, choosing William James Harmer, an Alberta Liberal, instead. In his anger, he wrote a 20-page letter to Borden, stating that he did not need position nor money, but wanted to put his experience and knowledge at the service of his country. Borden sent no reply. Interestingly, the tune of Bennett on the Senate had changed from what he felt earlier. During his Calgary days, he would say that the Senate of Canada, was, quote:
“that body of manufacturers and millionaires sent there by Laurier to be his mouthpiece.”
Bennett would find his way back into politics under Arthur Meighen, who appointed him as the Minister of Justice in 1921 to strengthen his government. Meighen disliked Bennett but he respected the influence he had in the party. Bennett was sworn in as Justice Minister on Sept. 21, 1921 but when the 1921 election came along, the Liberal Party saw a resurgence under William Lyon Mackenzie King and Bennett did not win a seat in Calgary West, losing by .10 per cent.
In 1922, Bennett decided it was time to end his time as a partner with Lougheed, and he would split with the firm after a messy litigation, but he was able to retain several important clients of his own including A.E. Cross and Pat Burns.
By 1924, Bennett was doing quite well. Around 25 per cent of his income came from his legal practice, while director fees accounted for seven per cent. The biggest share was what he made from dividends, which made up 62 per cent of his income. In all, that year he made $76,897, or $1.16 million.
In 1925, Meighen was again prime minister and he asked Bennett to serve as the Minister of Finance. This time, Bennett threw everything into his campaign in Calgary West, instead of just assuming he would win, and he was able to win his seat easily as the Conservatives overall won 116 seats to the Liberals 99. Of course, as we have seen in the past two episodes, this government would not last long and King would come back into power within a few months. Bennett, once again, had seen his cabinet seat evaporate in a short time.
While the Conservatives lost the election, Bennett was able to keep his seat. In the House, would support old-age pensions but he did not like sharing the cost with the provinces, feeling that Ottawa should pay for it completely. Bennett also supported unemployment insurance and supported a proposal put forward by Labour politician Abraham Heaps, but he wanted it funding by both the person concerned and the government.
At the Conservative Convention in Winnipeg on Oct. 10, 1927, Bennett would be elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party following the resignation of Arthur Meighen. In his acceptance speech he admitted that while he was rich, he became rich from hard work. He also promised to resign all directorships that he had. He would say quote:
“No man may serve you as he should if he has over his shoulder always the shadow of pecuniary obligations.”
This win put him into the position as Leader of the Official Opposition. It would take some time for Bennett to hold his own against the more experienced King, but he would and quickly proved himself in the House of Commons. He also got down to work repairing the damage done to the party over the past few years and fixing the relations with Quebec that were still at a terrible low almost 15 years after the conscription crisis. He would establish a central office in Ottawa, which would have 27 full-time employees by 1930. The money for this came from Bennett and senior party members personally. By May of 1930, Bennett had contributed $500,000, or $7.4 million today, of his own funds into the party, with 20 per cent alone going into Quebec.
While he worked hard, he also wondered what he was doing with his life as the leader of the opposition. He would say quote:
“Sometimes I wonder why I ever undertook this work at my time of life, after all my years of toil and effort.”
Unlike with Meighen, King and Bennett generally got along quite well. When the 16th Parliament ended in May of 1930, he and King shared a joke and after MPs went onto the floor to shake hands, King remarked how pleasant it all was.
With The Great Depression beginning in 1930, and the Liberals hurting because of the stagnant economy, an election was called.
Bennett began his campaign at 2:30 a.m. on June 8, 1930, heading to Winnipeg where he would give his first speech. Bennett’s speech would be heard across Canada by one million Canadians and unlike King, who never came off well on the radio, many felt that Bennett did sound good on the radio with a resonate voice that carried well.
Over the next two months, from June 9 to July 26, Bennett did as many as five speeches a day, and travelled 22,500 kilometres, or a distance almost 2/3rds around the Earth.
Bennett was also given a gift when in a rare political blunder, King would say that he would not quote:
“give Tory provincial governments a five-cent piece”
This blunder would cost King dearly and it was used by Bennett and the Conservatives as a rallying cry. Bennett would also campaign on a message of fixing the issues hitting the country during The Great Depression. He would say quote:
“I propose that any government of which I am the head will at the first session of parliament initiate whatever action is necessary to that end or perish in that attempt.”
At one campaign stop, he would say quote:
Bennett was also unique in his desire for women to run as candidates. While the Liberals ran women in ridings where they had no hope of winning just to gain the female vote, Bennett wanted to run women in safe seats, but he was unable to convince the constituencies to go along with his plan. His sister Mildred also joined him on the campaign and displayed a strong political sense, along with a sense of humour and charm that made up for the aloofness of her brother.
In that election, the Conservatives gained 44 seats, putting Bennett in the role as Prime Minister of Canada, while the Liberals lost 27 seats in a stunning defeat. The biggest surprise came in Quebec, where the party went from four seats to 24 seats. Unfortunately, the cabinet that was sworn in on Aug. 7, 1930, had few in the way of French Canadians occupying prominent seats. Bennett would take over the cabinet seat of Minister of Finance and Minister of External Affairs, which was in danger of being abolished but which Bennett was able to save.
It was also a good year financially for Bennett, who made $262,176, or $3.9 million today. This arguably makes him one of, if not the, richest person in Canadian history to be elected as prime minister.
He promised aggressive action to deal with the Depression, but that action never came. While Bennett had excellent business skills, that did not serve his political interests well. As with many other leaders who came to power during The Great Depression, he also underestimated the severity and longevity of it. He also operated on a policy of the free enterprise system, with the government interfering as little as possible. This was the wrong method to deal with The Great Depression.
As prime minister, Bennett attempted to deal with the economy by persuading the British to adopt preferential tariffs, and while this brought relief, it was nowhere near enough. Bennett wanted a rapid modernization of Canada and promised that his measures would blast Canadian exports into world markets. The Imperial Preference policy failed to generate the result he wanted, and Bennett had no backup plan. His Unemployment Relief Act would put $20 million in place for public works across Canada as well, which would have more of an impact.
In 1931, Bennett’s government passed the Unemployment and Farm Relief Act to stop the spiraling of The Depression in Canada, putting $28 million in direct relief. His government would pass similar relief acts every year he was in power.
As The Great Depression raged on, Bennett’s government would set up relief camps for single men, which cost him a great deal of popularity. By 1932, 25 per cent of workers in Canada had no job, and Bennett was forced to give the provinces $20 million, or $354 million today. At the relief camps, men lived in bunkhouses and were paid 20 cents, or $3.54 a day in return for a 44-hour week of hard labour. These camps were run by the military, in their style, always in remote areas of the country.
His unpopularity only decreased since he lived at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa and was a millionaire. Many saw his wealth and impersonal style as evidence of someone who was disconnected from the regular person, which may not have always been the case.
In 1932, Canada hosted the Imperial Economic Conference for the first time, which was attended by the independent nations of the British Empire. While Bennett dominated in those meetings, they proved to be unproductive and policies could not be agreed upon. Bennett had suggested that Britain might have free entry into Canada for any products that would not hurt Canadian enterprise, and when he did get a list of Canadian concessions from the British, it was much less than he had expected.
It was not all dealing with The Great Depression for Bennett during his term in office. Radio was becoming the dominant form of communication in the country, and a question was raised about the constitutional authority of regulating it. Quebec felt it was a provincial matter, while the federal government wanted to regulate it themselves. It eventually went to the Supreme Court, who decided on June 30, 1931 that it was up to the federal government.
From this, a special committee was organized on May 9, 1932 and a bill to set up the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation, the CRBC, was established to regulate all broadcasting in Canada and to set up a nationally owned radio system, which would become the CBC in a few years.
At this same time, as Communism grew in popularity among the disenfranchised Canadians, Bennett developed a reputation as an anti-Communist leader. He would earn the nickname of Iron Heel Bennett; thanks to a speech he gave in Toronto in 1932 that alluded to the Socialist novel by Jack London of the same name.
Bennett would say quote:
“What do they offer in exchange for the present order? Socialism, Communism, dictatorship. They are sowing the seeds of unrest everywhere. Right in this city such propaganda is being carried on and in the little out of the way places as well. And we know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind.”
In his fight against the threat he perceived from Communism, Bennett invoked Section 98 of the Criminal Code, which had been enacted by his predecessor Arthur Meighen after the Winnipeg General Strike. It allowed the removal of the presumption of innocence in outlawing potential threats to the state. This allowed individuals who had never been accused of an act of violence to be incarcerated just for attending a meeting of an organization deemed to be a threat by the government. Bennett had the Communist Party of Canada targeted specifically, with eight top leaders in the party, including Tim Buck, arrested in August of 1931. Soon after, during a riot that Buck was not participating in, someone attempted to assassinate him by shooting a gun into his locked cell. Eventually, the backlash grew against Bennett over the matter of the imprisonment, and Buck was released with the others, heroes for standing up for civil liberties.
By 1933, The Great Depression was at its height and Bennett’s government was indecisive. The lasting image of this time are cars being towed by horses because the owners could not afford gas. These vehicles were called Bennett Buggies.
On March 21, 1933, a royal commission on banking and currency was organized. Bennett had seen how the Bank of England was able to help Britain during The Depression, and while Canada’s bank system had not seen a bank failure since 1923, he wanted to have a central bank for the country. In 1934, the Bank of Canada would be created with Graham Ford Towers serving as the first governor. Chartered banks were not happy about this as they had to give up their issuing of bank notes in favour of a national currency, and all gold reserves would be transferred to the Bank of Canada.
In 1934, Bennett, facing the uphill battle of The Great Depression, was becoming isolated and dealing with open revolt within the party towards him. Canada’s GDP had fell by 40 per cent, and unemployment reached 30 per cent.
Bennett would take a further hit after a protest was organized by men in relief camps over the low pay, lack of recreation facilities, isolation from family and poor food. The Relief Camp Workers’ Union was formed, and camp workers set out from Vancouver on April 4, 1935 on the On-To-Ottawa Trek, which I covered last year on the podcast. You can find the episode on my website. The relief camp strikers wanted to come to Ottawa to bring their grievances right to the prime minister, but Bennett treated the strikers as an insurrection that had to be stopped. This led to the RCMP confronting 3,000 strikers and supporters on July 1, 1935 in Regina, resulting in a riot that left two dead and dozens injured. The public backlash over the response by the government would have significant consequences for Bennett.
Bennett was not against strikes, if he felt they were legitimate, but he felt that public law and order were fundamental and, as has been stated, he hated Communists.
In 1935, on the example of the New Deal Program in America, Bennett began to take aggressive action towards the terrible economy. He announced that he supported government control and regulation, and he called for progressive taxation, unemployment insurance, health insurance and other major social reforms. These caused anger within his own party, and the public was not enthused by his new initiatives. For the most part, critics felt the new initiatives went too far, or they felt they did not go far enough. Along with the New Deal program were bills to establish a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday and a 48-hour work week.
He would say in a radio address, quote:
At the start of 1935, the constant stress of The Great Depression was taking its toll on Bennett. In February, he became sick with what he thought was a bd cold but by March 7 he was dealing with an atrial fibrillation of the heart. He was told he needed to rest for a month and should consider retiring. While Bennett was gone, his New Deal legislation passed. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act was also passed, which would teach 100,000 farmers how to handle and restore the dust bowl area of southern Saskatchewan.
In October, the 1935 federal election was held, and Mackenzie King roared back into power with a large majority and the Conservatives fell to Official Opposition status.
Bennett continued to lead the Official Opposition, often attending the House every single day, and from all accounts he bore no grudges and accepted that the Canadian people had suffered much under The Great Depression and wanted someone new in power.
In 1936, he would travel to New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. At this time, he had seen his weight go up to 228 pounds, and his doctors ordered him to lose ten pounds to reduce the strain on his heart. He thought about retiring in 1937 but the party convinced him to carry on. In 1938, knowing that King could call another election at any point, and knowing he could not do another campaign, he chose to resign on March 6, 1938. Upon his retirement, King would send him a letter of appreciation for his work.
Only two months later, on May 11, his beloved sister Mildred died from breast cancer. He would shut himself in his room at the Chateau, consumed with grief.
In August of 1938, Bennett moved to England and took over Lord Beaverbrook’s option on a 94-acre property in Surrey. He would return to Canada as his new home was upgraded with proper plumbing and heating, and his last day in Canada would be on Jan. 28, 1939 when he left after a luncheon of 292 people. That same day, he resigned as the MP for Calgary West.
In 1941, Bennett was awarded a viscountcy, becoming Viscount Bennett of Mickleham in the Court of Surrey and of Calgary and Hopewell in the British Empire. This honour was given to him by Winston Churchill for his unsalaried work in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, managed by his friend Lord Beaverbrook
On June 26, 1947, while taking a bath, Bennett died of a heart attack in England. Bennett was always a fan of hot baths, but he was warned to be careful because of his heart. He would be found the following morning.
It needs to be pointed out that during The Great Depression, Bennett was not simply ignoring Canadians. Many saw him as being uncaring but at nights he would read an endless stream of desperate letters and sent his own money to struggling families. Between 1927 and 1937, it is estimated he donated $2 million, or $35.4 million of his own funds. He would also help put several poor, struggling young men through university using his own funds at the time as well. As prime minister, he often worked 14 hours per day, held several cabinet posts and lived only a short walk from Parliament Hill. Some historians consider that if Bennett had not had to deal with The Great Depression, he may have been regarded as a good, and even great, prime minister. During his time as Prime Minister, he also encouraged a young Lester Pearson, appointing him to various government inquiries including the Royal Commission on Price Spreads and the Royal Commission on Grain Futures. He also ensured Pearson received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his work.
He would have an influence on another future prime minister as well. John Turner, who would serve briefly in 1984, knew Bennett when he was a child. Bennett would promote Turner’s economist mother to the highest civil service post held by a Canadian woman at the time.
In a ranking of the first 20 prime ministers, Bennett placed 12th. He was also the honorary colonel of the Calgary Highlanders from 1921 to 1947, often visiting the regiment in England during the second World War, ensuring they had a turkey dinner for Christmas every year.
At the end of his life, he would say, quote:
“I’ll always remember the pit from which I was dug and the long uphill road I had to travel. I’ll never forget one step.”
Information comes from Brittanica, Wikipedia, CBC, Dalhousie University, Biographi, Adventurous Albertans, Citymakers: Calgarians After The Frontier,