For three years, Richard Hanson led the Conservatives during a transitional period for the party, and through the bulk of the Second World War. His story is not a long one, but as with many others I will profile in this series, for a time he was one of the most important individuals in Canada.
Born on March 20, 1879, in New Brunswick to Richard and Hannah Hanson.
He would attend public schools in St. Andrews, New Brunswick and then went on to Mount Allison University and Dalhousie Law School. By the time he was done his education, he would have a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws.
In November of 1902, he was called to the Bar of New Brunswick.
In 1906, he would marry Jean Balfour Neill of Fredericton and the couple would have one daughter.
In 1917, he was named to the King’s Counsel.
From 1918 to 1920, he served as the mayor of Fredericton, when he was elected by acclamation.
After serving as mayor, Hanson would turn his attention to federal politics.
On May 29, 1921, he would be elected to the House of Commons for the York-Sudbury Riding, carrying the riding by over 1,000 votes ahead of his competitor. He would say quote:
“The result of the York-Sunbury polling unquestionably demonstrates that once the electors appreciate the true political issues now before the public, the verdict is bound to be in favor of a confirmation of the fiscal policy which has been in force in this country with the common consent of all shades of political thought.”
For the next 14 years, he would serve in the House of Commons, including in 1934 when he was appointed as the Minister of Trade and Commerce. During this same time, he also served as the city solicitor for Fredericton from 1920 to 1926, and the director of several companies including Fraser Companies and the New Brunswick Telephone Company. In 1930, when the R.B. Bennett government came to power, Hanson received the largest majority of votes in his riding of any federal candidate to that point in Canadian history.
In 1932, he would serve on the Commons committee on Railways and Telegraphs in 1932 and also chaired the banking and commerce committee in 1934.
Following his election defeat in 1935, he would stay away from politics for the remainder of the 1930s except in July of 1938 when he was the chairman of the resolutions committee at the National Conservative Convention. He would primarily work with his law firm in Fredericton during this time.
In the March 26, 1940, federal election, he was returned to the House of Commons despite the poor showing by the Conservatives in that election. In that election, Hanson was just one of two former ministers from the R.B. Bennett days to stay remain in the House of Commons.
With the defeat of Robert Manion in that election and his subsequent resignation as the leader of the party, speculation on who would be the new leader rose up and Hanson became the front runner.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King did not think much of Hanson taking over as leader. He would write in his diary on March 28, 1940, quote:
“The feeling that Hanson would not be a fit leader of any party and is not in good health. All agreed with my view that Grote Stirling would be the first choice, particularly for the first session.”
Stirling of course would never become leader. King had good reason to wonder about the health of Hanson. Hanson had recently gone through heart trouble, and some believed that he had had a stroke prior to being elected to the House of Commons.
On May 14, 1940, Hanson took over as leader of the Conservative Party. There was no formal voting in a convention, but 31 members of the party in the House of Commons did vote for a new leader. There was the hope among party that Manion would stay on as leader but since he did not want to due to his ill health, a new leader needed to be chosen. On the fifth ballot of voting among party members, by a narrow margin, Hanson was chosen as the new leader. Five names were also on the ballot including Joseph Harris, Howard Green, Grote Stirling and A.C. Casselman. Stirling dropped out on the first ballot, while Casselman and Green took last place on the second ballot. By the fifth ballot, it was only Harris and Hanson.
With the new job as Opposition Leader, he would also get a raise to $10,000 per year, and a $2,000 automobile allowance. In all, he would receive $16,000 per year, which would be $285,500 today.
The Ottawa Citizen would write upon his election as opposition leader, quote:
King would write in his diary, quote:
“I received word that Hanson had been chosen House leader. It was a relief to my mind to know that Harris had not been appointed. I rang up Hanson once. He was still in the meeting but later called me. I congratulated him on the expression of confidence of his fellow members. Said I would like to see him as soon as it was convenient. Offered to do so tonight to talk over business of the House. He thanked me cordially and said that he was glad that he was older than he had been when he was previously in the House.”
King would tell Hanson that he felt they would get along well in the House together. The two men would meet later that evening. King would write in his diary, quote:
“Hanson came over to my office…I congratulated him on his appointment. Was shocked, however, at his appearance, more particularly as he began to talk with me. I should not be surprised to see him pass away in the House and die before the present session of Parliament is over.”
King would get along well with Hanson in that meeting, but he would write that Hanson had a habit of talking at length of little things instead of listening to what others are saying. King would write, quote:
“He was kindly, and I think means to work cordially with me. I understand he was chosen by a majority of only one over Harris. I am thankful Harris was not chosen. Stirling, to my amazement, was one of the first to be dropped because I assume he was the most gentlemanly of all.”
In the House of Commons, Hanson was described as quote:
“An imposing figure in his front opposition bench, Mr. Hanson was always impeccably dressed in the semi-formal manner of an earlier generation. He always wore wing collars, frequently used a gray waistcoat under a black cutaway and waved his black-ribboned glasses to emphasize a point.”
The Victoria Times Colonist would write on July 2, 1940, about Hanson bringing the party back from the brink, stating quote:
“He has overshot his mark to the extent of making himself in recent weeks one of the most dramatic figures in all Parliament. He has done this by staging the wholly unlooked for feat of skillfully shepherding a largely oblivious Tory party back to the general neighbourhood of traditional Conservative politics.”
The respect of King for Hanson was also apparent. The same article would state quote:
“It is apparent to all observers that Prime Minister King holds him in healthy respect as a parliamentarian antagonist and does not engage him in combat on the floor of the House with the recklessness with which he used to be willing at all times to engage Dr. Manion.”
In the spring of 1941, King wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir John A. Macdonald. He would create a committee to plan a ceremony at Kingston. On the committee was Richard Hanson, who would speak at the event to honour Macdonald. He would say quote:
“Canadians who inherited the early fruits of Macdonald’s work to strive to make of this nation the best that is possible for all of our people. In diversity there can only be true unity.”
In July, Hanson would take his first trip across the country in 22 years as part of his own campaign to raise the profile of the Conservative Party. In Vancouver, he would say quote:
“Ottawa is the greatest sounding board in Canada but in Ottawa unfortunately, on isn’t always able to form a true estimate of public opinion. Mr. King came home having seen exactly what he wished to see; we intend to see for ourselves.”
In November 1941, Arthur Meighen is appointed the new leader of the party, a position he once held as prime minister. Unfortunately for Meighen, he did not win a seat in a by-election. At the time, it was customary for the leader of a party without a seat to run uncontested in a riding. While Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King did not run a Liberal candidate as per custom, he did put Liberal resources behind the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation opponent, who defeated Meighen in the riding. With that defeat, Hanson stayed on as the leader of the party.
In a meeting with Hanson, King would write in his diary, quote:
In September 1941, he would travel to Britain as part of the war effort. Upon his return he hoped that he could bring home to Canadians the menace of war. He would say quote:
“I wish I could add something to the sum total knowledge of the people about this.”
Even though he was the Opposition leader, Hanson decided to co-operate with the leading Liberals as much as possible during wartime, while still offering criticism when he felt it was warranted. He would not give an opinion on conscription for example, only stating that Canada would need more fighting power and that the government would have to decide how to raise it. This was different from July 1941 when he stated quote:
“Conscription, or national service, to call it by its right name, is an all but accomplished fact. One missing cog stalls the machine. Voluntary enlistment has failed. They say they have obtained the 32,000 recruits asked but what is that number compared to the total required when the real test comes.”
Hanson was well-liked throughout Parliament Hill. He would often entertain the Press Gallery in the Magpie Room of the Parliament Buildings. The get-togethers were described as being without formality, with well-turned jibes at the Liberal regime.
He would remain the Leader of the Opposition until Jan. 1, 1943, when Gordon Graydon took over. King would meet with Hanson on Jan. 26, 1943, and would write in his diary, quote:
“I confess he looked to me as though he might pass away at any moment. We had quite a long and pleasant talk together. He thought it a good thing that the younger men were taking hold.”
Hanson would tell King he had a heart attack recently; his pulse was running at 150. King would write, quote:
“Explained the symptoms of a tightening of the jugular vein as well as feeling pain around the heart. That he had gone to Miami one time and had to give up a couple days with heart attack. He was afraid this attack might come on while he was speaking in the House. Did not want anything of the kind to happen.”
King, for the most part, had respect for Hanson in Parliament. He would write on May 16, 1940, quote:
“I confess I felt also more at ease with Hanson than I have with any of his predecessors, not because he has an evil tongue and might use it freely, but he at least talks to one across the floor as if he were sharing in the responsibilities of government. He also has a parliamentary experience which helps to give one more of a reassuring feeling. He lacks the contemptuousness of Meighen, the superior pompousness of Bennett and Manion’s irritability.”
The Edmonton Journal would describe Hanson as such:
“He was ably fitted for the role of opposition leader and assumed his responsibilities with a zeal that ensured the closest scrutiny of the tremendous wartime expenditures and unprecedented wartime powers which Parliament voted the government.”
Unlike the previous Conservative leaders that I have featured in the past few episodes, Hanson would never actually be elected as leader, but instead would simply serve as leader.
For the remainder of his Parliamentary career, even though he had taken a less prominent position, he was known for jumping to his feet ahead of party leaders to protest or argue when he felt that an attack should be made on legislation being debated by the government.
The Montreal Gazette would write, quote:
“In 1943, when the leadership of the party in the House was given to Gordon Graydon, Hanson continued to serve his party with undiminished keenness of interest.”
He would choose not the run in the 1945 election, choosing instead to support Lt. General Ernest Samson, who himself would be defeated in his election bid.
On July 14, 1948, Hanson would pass away.
Upon his death, the Montreal Gazette would write, quote:
“Honourable R.B. Hanson loved the political arena. There he enjoyed fighting a good fight and in fighting it loyally and fairly.”
Now, when you look at the history books, John Bracken was the leader of the Conservatives beginning in 1942, but this episode and the next won’t focus on him. This is because Bracken was not actually elected to the House of Commons until 1945, and therefore was never the Leader of the Opposition and that is what Part 2 of this series is about, not the leaders of a party but the leaders of the Official Opposition.
As a result, Gordon Grayden will be the focus of next week’s episode, followed by John Bracken on July 9.
Information comes from Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, MyNewBrunswick.ca, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Canada’s History, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Journal, Vancouver Sun, Victoria Times Colonist,