After the chaos of the 1925 and 1926 elections, coupled with the King-Byng Affair, it probably seemed like things would get better for William Lyon Mackenzie King but what he did not count on was the monumental event of The Great Depression.
By the time the 1930 election rolled around, the first signs of the Depression had appeared, and it would result in Canada wanting to go a different direction than it had for the majority of the 1920s.
The Great Depression is often seen as something that hurt farmers, but it spread across the country to several sectors. The Maritimes were dealing with a severe economic decline, while the overproduction of pulp and paper caused huge layoffs in northern Ontario. The price of wheat began to fall in 1928, but some factories in southern Ontario still operated. In Quebec, New Zealand butter exports were causing the price for dairy products to fall. King did not seem to take notice of the pending disaster. His diary doesn’t even include a reference to the Stock Market Crash in 1929.
Arthur Meighen was long gone as the leader of the Conservatives, replaced by the millionaire Richard Bennett, known more commonly as R.B. Bennett.
He would campaign heavily on his business knowledge and putting in aggressive measures to combat The Great Depression. He would state on June 9, 1930, during the campaign, 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 the attempt.”
At the time, unemployment was rising in Canada and the Liberals had laid claim to the economic prosperity Canada enjoyed through the 1920s. That claim then attached them to the bad times as well, and Canadians began to blame the Liberals for the issues that were created by The Great Depression.
Another issue for the Liberals at this time was the King responded slowly to the growing crisis. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics did not begin to register a drop in employment until 1930, giving a delayed response and view to the entire situation for King.
When provinces began to ask for aid to help their citizens, he simply stated that it was a Conservative conspiracy, and he would make one of the rare political plunders of his career. Called the Five Cent Speech, he stated on April 3, 1930, that the Canadian government should not give unemployment benefits to provincial governments that had Conservative leaders.
He would state in the House of Commons, quote:
In his diary for April 2, 1930, he would write, quote:
“I shall try tomorrow to make an effective speech on unemployment and without notes. I pray God for help in doing so.”
The next day, he would write that his speech received a thunderous ovation from the Liberals, but he also noted that he had made a mistake. He would write, quote:
“It was a fighting speech and in except in two particulars was what was needed. I made a slip I think in saying I would not give a cent to a Tory government on Earth. It was a slip in that it can be read apart from the context, and it is capable of much misrepresentation as applied to unemployment.”
On April 4, the day after the speech, King saw that it was now spreading around the country, he would write, quote:
“The slip I made yesterday. I am persuaded it was such, was in not seeing the single remark would be taken out of its context and misrepresented and the rest of the speech would go by the boards. I am sorry for this. Also, as Prime Minister, speaking in House of Commons, I went perhaps too far.”
At the time, seven of the nine provinces were led by Conservatives, and since King believed that unemployment was not a serious problem, he saw the requests for aid as grandstanding more than anything.
For the Conservatives, this was a gift, and they would run with it through the election. They would portray King as someone who was incapable of running the Canadian government.
The Liberals were also dealing with an age factor. Except for 1920 and part of 1926, they had been ruling most of the 1920s. King was 56 years old for one, and many of the chief strategists had been with the party since the days of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and they were beginning to get too old to help the party. On top of that, King seemed to have troubles at every stop along the campaign tour.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, pushed the image of Bennett being a self-made man who had rebuilt the party using his own funds, providing an estimated $500,000, or $7.7 million today. Of that, one-fifth went to party offices in Quebec. The party bought out newspapers in Liberal controlled areas and shifted their slant to support the Conservatives, and this would be the first election in which radio was a major factor. While King had a somewhat slow and halting way of talking, Bennett was vibrant, which people preferred to listen to. The Conservatives also capitalized on radio, buying the best radio spots they could. Bennett also promised to blast Canada into the world markets through a new tariff policy, which would help the party gain votes in the west.
King did see the potential for radio, but he found talking into a microphone something he did not enjoy. He would write, quote:
Bennett would pledge to end unemployment in the country and provide work for everyone. The Conservative message, after the Liberals pushed for lower tariffs to England and higher tariffs to the United States, was that Bennett’s first concern was Canada.
The Liberals countered this by putting out a pamphlet full of facts that stated, quote:
“During the past seven years, Canada has been wonderfully prosperous, more prosperous than ever before, more prosperous than any other country in the world. There was a larger increase in the total number employed in the six years between 1922 and 1928 than in the previous 32 years.”
While that was true, it didn’t reflect the current situation in 1930 in Canada.
Overall, compared to the past elections over the course of 20 years, this was a quieter affair. Maclean’s magazine would write on Aug. 1, 1930, quote:
“The politicians, too, seemed strangely unreal. Mr. Bennett and Mr. King talked rather like revivalists. They used the most solemn language, but somehow or other they lacked the iron of some past campaigns, were either too polite or too little in real earnest to say those things which shock the anemic but actually please many more others and give to an election a certain fighting zest.”
One reason for this more settled affair, in terms of elections, was that Meighen was no longer the leader of the Conservatives. King and Meighen did not like each other, but King and Bennett did like each other, even when trading attacks on the campaign trail. In fact, the two men would often meet in Bennett’s office to talk and discuss major matters pertaining to the election. When Parliament ended prior to the election, King and Bennett even talked and shared a joke, while also shaking hands on the floor of the House of Commons.
Over the course of the election campaign, Bennett travelled 22,530 kilometres around the country, meeting with voters. He left Ottawa at 2:10 a.m. on June 8 in a private railway car to begin his tour and on June 9, he gave his first speech over the radio, broadcast to the 500,000 radios in Canada at the time. Bennett would continue to campaign until July 26, delivering as much as five speeches per day.
In the July 28, 1930, election, the Liberals lost 27 seats, becoming the Official Opposition with 89 seats. The Conservatives in contrast soared ahead with a gain of 44 seats, finishing with a majority of 135. The United Farmers finished with nine, while the Progressive Party continued its decline, finishing with just three seats. The Conservatives defeated the Liberals in every province except Saskatchewan, where the Liberals had 12 seats to the Conservative’s seven, and Quebec. In Quebec, the Conservatives did surprisingly well, picking up 24 seats, up 20 from the 1926 election, while the Liberals picked up 40. In Ontario, the Conservatives dominated with 59 seats to the 22 won by the Liberals.
King would write in his diary at 3:30 a.m. on July 29, quote:
“The result is a great surprise. First, I was astonished Nova Scotia did not do better, greatly disappointed at PEI and New Brunswick as bad as it could be. Ontario did not do well in some seats owing to neglect of members, internal differences. Quebec not as good as expected, we lost many there. The west held up pretty well, but we lost several seats.”
For King, he had been leading the party since the death of Laurier in 1919, and had gone through four elections by this point, including the 1930 one. He wrote in his diary prior to the election that he was exhausted and sick. When the result became known, he would write, quote:
“The truth is I feel I do not much care, the load is very heavy, and I would gladly do literary work for a while. I shall be glad to throw on to Bennett’s shoulders the formation of a government and finding a solution for unemployment and other problems. My guess is he will go to pieces under the strain.”
Upon his election, Bennett would state, quote:
“The policy of this Conservative Party has been accepted by the people of Canada as the instrument of national development. The fact that every province of the Dominion has contributed to the result will sustain the new government in the task which lies before us.”
King, unlike the 1925 election, would concede defeat with the Conservatives commanding a large majority. He would say in a statement, quote:
“I have told his excellency that I shall be glad in any way possible to expedite the summoning of Parliament and am prepared to tender my resignation as Prime Minister…I naturally regret its outcome. I am particularly sorry that a few of my colleagues and some of the former supporters of the government in the House of Commons have met with defeat.”
After the election, Liberals started dealing with allegations of corruption due to the Beauharnois Scandal, which was a plan to divert water from the St. Lawrence into the Beauharnois Canal to develop hydroelectric power. The Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company, seeing the potential to divert the St. Lawrence to the canal, wanted to keep the Liberals in power in order to capitalize on the potential huge profits. To do so, the company put $500,000 into the campaign fund. When the Liberals lost, the scandal came to light.
While Bennett had won the election, and would remain prime minister for five years, The Great Depression would prove to be a much tougher problem to solve for him. As it turned out for King, losing to Bennett when he did may have been the best thing that could have happened to him in terms of his career. We will talk about that in the next episode.
Information from Library and Archives Canada, Vancouver Province, Wikipedia, Macleans, the Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette, Biographi, Dynasties and Interludes,