The Conservatives and Prime Minister R.B. Bennett had come into power in 1930 on the promise of fixing the problems created by The Great Depression. Five years later, not only did things seem to be worse, but the blame from Canadians for that fell squarely on the shoulders of Bennett.
Through the previous five years, Bennett had believed high tariffs and trade within the British Empire would correct the problems created by The Great Depression, but it had not.
By the time 1935 rolled around, Bennett had shifted tactics, looking to copy on the growing success of The New Deal put forward by President Roosevelt. The Bennett New Deal promised federal intervention to achieve social and economic reform, including old age pensions, unemployment insurance, and amazingly considering his crackdowns on unions, help for labour unions. Bennett would say in a radio speech, quote:
“The old order is gone. If you believe things should be left as they are, and I hold irreconcilable views. I am for reform and in my mind, reform means government intervention. It means the end of laissez-faire.”
Unfortunately, it was too little too late. On top of that, the Conservatives were dealing with internal struggles. On the one side there were those who supported intervention in the economy, but whom Bennett had alienated early on. Then there were those who were alienated by Bennett when he shifted course on the economy just prior to the election.
For voters, the images of work camps for unemployed men, the harsh crackdown on the On to Ottawa Trek that spawned the deadly Regina Riot, and the rampant unemployment were all tied to the Conservatives. It did not help that prior to becoming Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett was an incredibly rich man, so voters saw him as sitting in an ivory tower. The truth was that Bennett was rich, but he was not blind to the struggles. He would often spend his evenings in his office, answering mail from Canadians who had lost everything, to which he donated upwards of $2 million of his own money to help.
On Aug. 15, Parliament was dissolved, and Bennett would embark on a strong campaign.
The Liberals ran on the slogan of “King or Chaos”, hoping to ignite fears in voters of another term with Bennett would mean more of the same problems from the past five years. The Liberal platform was simple, the country was in shambles and the Liberals could fix it.
King and the Liberals made an effort not to make any grand promises, as had been seen by the Conservatives in the previous election, which the party was unable to live up to. He would state quote:
In one speech, King would state, quote:
“Bennett had almost destroyed national unity and only the Liberal Party could restore it. Instead of offering magical nostrums, the Liberal Party would stress the necessity of co-operation, of working together in a common cause.”
The Liberals would pledge to work with the provinces to administer unemployment relief and provide work for the unemployed. It also pledged to enact a form of unemployment insurance, and an expansion of the social insurance programs including health insurance and old-age pensions.
Bennett would open up his cross-country tour on Sept. 16 in Regina, which would continue until Oct. 12 in Ottawa. In all, he would give at least 14 major stops and speeches, as well as several radio broadcasts.
King would begin his campaign on Sept. 17, with a broadcast over the radio from Ottawa.
The 1935 election would be notable for the fact that the previous year Elections Canada began to develop a permanent list of electors. This would be used for the first time in 1935, but it would be abandoned in 1938. This elector list would disappear for the next 60 years until it returned in the mid-1990s when technology allowed for it to be conducted again.
Even though Bennett had touted his New Deal program prior to the election campaign, only days before the election he shifted course again back to what he had pushed for years to fix the economy. At a rally on Oct. 9 at Maple Leaf Gardens, he laid out his new plan for recovery, which included a balanced budget, no repudiation on contracts, resolving railway debt and prosecution of what he perceived to be Communist agitators.
As for why Bennett shifted again, it was because of H.H. Stevens, a prominent member of his cabinet who had broken with the party over what he perceived to be Bennett’s lack of caring for those suffering in The Depression. Stevens would found the Reconstruction Party prior to the election.
After the election loss of 1930, a humbling experience for the Liberal Party, King was ready to regain his position as prime minister.
When King went to bed the night before the election, he would write in his diary, quote:
“I went to bed shortly before midnight, confident of victory tomorrow, with a majority of from 45 to 60 but with complete confidence that God has been guiding my steps and that he will use me as an instrument to work His holy will.”
On the day of the election, Bennett stated he was sure of victory. He would state in a radio address, quote:
“Even the paid propagandists of the Liberal Party, now admit the victory they thought so secure is being snatched from their hands.”
Bennett also brought up the famous Five Cent Speech that had helped sink the Liberals in 1930, stating quote:
“Even the rich province of Ontario got $52 million. We treated the provinces alike. There was no five-cent piece business about it.”
King would take a different approach, attacking Bennett directly stating quote:
In the Oct. 14, 1935, election, the Conservatives would have their worst performance until the total collapse of the party in 1993. They would lose an astonishing 95 seats to fall to 39, while the Liberals picked up 83, finishing with a massive majority of 171. At the time, it was the largest majority in Canadian history. The Social Credit Party, a new party, gained 17 seats, as did two other new parties, the CCF that earned seven seats and the Reconstruction Party that won one seat. Stevens, the leader of the Reconstruction Party, was the only person elected but it is believed that other candidates took enough votes from the Conservatives in various ridings to cost them those ridings. The Liberals would defeat the Conservatives in every province, including Ontario for the first time in decades, while also taking every seat in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. In Quebec, the party won 59 seats to the Conservatives five. Other than in Ontario, where the Conservatives won 25 seats, the party won five seats in two provinces, and one seat in four provinces. The election gave the Liberals 70 per cent of the House of Common’s seats. Both the United Farmers of Alberta and the Progressive Party would disappear from Canadian politics after this election.
Upon winning the election, King would release a statement, stating quote:
“It constitutes a victory a great deliverance, a deliverance of the people form one-man government, from mistaken policies and from autocratic leadership. It is a triumph for broad principles and policies as against promises and pledges recklessly and extravagantly made for the sole purpose of winning an election.”
Bennett, in conceding the election loss, would tell Canadians over the radio, quote:
“The electors of Canada have decided that they desire a change of government. Although from a large number of constituencies, members have been returned by a minority vote, the result is decisive. The Liberal Party has been entrusted with the responsibility of governing Canada. I wish them well.”
The day after the election, King would meet with Bennett. He would write in his diary of the meeting, quote:
“Mr. Bennett was seated on a chair before the door and the window, with his overcoat on, and wearing grey gloves. He came forward and shook hands, using the word congratulations. I said at once to him, I hope Bennett, you are not feeling too tired, and he replied that he was feeling first-class. I said to him, you have put up a very strenuous campaign and you will be glad to have a little rest.”
This election win would also start a Liberal dynasty that has been unmatched in Canadian history. For the next 22 years, longer than any other party in history, the Liberals would govern Canada until finally defeated in 1957 by John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives. As for Bennett, he would eventually resign as Conservative leader, beginning over a decade of rotating leaders of the party. He would then go to England, where he would remain for the rest of his life. To this day, he remains the only prime minister not buried in Canada. King, of course, would never again lose an election as prime minister, and would continue to lead the country for the next 13 years, through one of its most difficult times ever, the Second World War.
Information from Dynasties and Interludes, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Biographi, Elections Canada,