Arthur Meighen (1874-1960), ninth prime minister of Canada, (1920-1921, 1926). Meighen became prime minister at the age of 46. As adviser to Sir Robert Laird Borden during World War I (1914-1918) he pushed through Parliament many of Borden's most important programs. One of these programs, a bill establishing conscription, or compulsory enrollment in the military, also called the draft, was to wreck his own political career. To the French Canadians, Meighen was the prime minister who forced their sons to fight against their will. Denied votes in Québec, where French Canadians predominated, he quickly lost power both times he became prime minister. Brilliant and forceful but too briefly in office, his main accomplishments were to prevent the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance after World War I and to consolidate Canada's railway system.
Meighen was born in 1874, on his family's farm near Saint Mary's, Ontario. Having received his early education at St. Mary's collegiate institute, he graduated with honors from the University of Toronto in 1896. He studied at the School of Pedagogy in Toronto for a time and taught at a nearby collegiate institute. He disliked teaching, and he borrowed money to start a small business in Manitoba. The business failed, however, and he returned to teaching, taking a post at a high school in Caledonia, Ontario. In 1898 he resigned to prepare for a legal career. Apprenticed to a number of firms in Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, in Manitoba, Meighen became a lawyer in 1903. He set up practice in Portage la Prairie and soon gained a reputation as a brilliant prosecuting attorney. In 1908 Meighen ran as the local candidate for the federal Parliament. He ran as a Conservative and won what had been a safe Liberal seat. He easily made his presence felt in Parliament with his scathing wit. In the next few years he rose rapidly in the Conservative Party.
In 1911 the Conservatives came to power with Robert Laird Borden as prime minister. Meighen was again elected in Portage la Prairie, and two years later, Borden made him solicitor general. He was almost immediately involved in controversy. Borden had decided to pay for three warships that would be built and manned by the British navy, but the Liberals wanted any ships paid for by Canada to remain Canadian. They stalled to prevent the passage of Borden's bill. Meighen put into effect a closure motion limiting debate, the first such motion to be successful in Canada. The bill passed the House of Commons but was rejected by the Senate, where the Liberals still had a majority. Borden let the matter drop, and Meighen gained nothing but enemies.
With the outbreak of World War I, Borden depended more and more on Meighen's skill. In 1915 he was granted a seat in the cabinet as solicitor general. He fully supported the war effort, declaring that he was willing to bankrupt Canada to save the British Empire. He was also one of the first cabinet members to favor a draft.
Conscription was the most important issue in 1916. British Canadians resented the fact that many farmers and French Canadians would not allow their sons to enlist. Meighen believed that the general election in 1917 would be fought on the issue of the draft. To prepare for the election, he introduced two bills to take away the right to vote from people who might oppose conscription. The Military Voters Act and the War Times Election Act took the vote away from conscientious objectors and German-speaking naturalized citizens and gave it to the female relatives of men on active service, who until that time had not had the right to vote. Although both bills were bitterly opposed by the French Canadians, they were passed with British Canadian support. Meighen's tactics gained the Conservatives few votes, and they widened the division between English-speaking and French-speaking Canada.
When Borden introduced the Military Service Act in Parliament in 1917, Meighen, as secretary of state debated Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the Liberals. Laurier tried to find a compromise, but Meighen countered all arguments and won many Liberal votes. Most people considered him the author of the bill and the one who forced it through. Flattering as this was, Meighen's connection with the bill made it certain that Québec would always vote against him.
The Military Service Act split the Liberal Party as well as the country. Many English-speaking Liberals left Laurier and joined Borden in a coalition government known as the Union government. In the December 1917 election the Union government won a decisive victory everywhere except Québec. Meighen was reelected and became minister of the interior in the new Union government. In this post he was responsible for overseeing the railroads. In 1917 the Canadian Northern went bankrupt, and Meighen persuaded Parliament to take over and subsidize the railway. By 1919 the dominion government had also taken over the Grand Trunk and the Grand Trunk Pacific railways. By 1923 all three railroads had been consolidated into the publicly held Canadian National Railways. Meighen succeeded in consolidating the railroad system in spite of the opposition of his Conservative colleague Richard Bedford Bennett.
Bennett accused Meighen of being the puppet of the railway promoters Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann. Although this statement was untrue, it gave Meighen the reputation of being a friend of big business. This image gained greater credibility during the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. Borden sent Meighen to discover the causes of the strike and to try to settle it. Meighen discovered that the strike was the result of a communist conspiracy and urged the arrest and deportation of the leaders of the strike. He charged James S. Woodsworth, a moderate labor leader who was soon to be a member of Parliament, with sedition and prosecuted him. The case was later dismissed, although the charges were never actually withdrawn.
In 1920, Borden, a sick man, decided to retire. He wanted Meighen to succeed him, but his poll of the cabinet indicated opposition to Meighen. His leadership would lose the Conservatives votes in Québec. However, the only reasonable alternative to Meighen was Thomas White, who was old and was determined to retire from politics. The dissenters were forced to accept Meighen. On July 10, he became prime minister and secretary for external affairs.
In the following months, Meighen was unable and perhaps unwilling to do anything significant at home. In the summer of 1921 he went to England to attend the imperial conference of the heads of state of the British Commonwealth. The treaty between Britain and Japan was due for renewal, and the British wanted to renew it with the approval of the imperial prime ministers. Meighen knew that a renewal of the treaty would upset the United States, and he urged a new treaty that would include all the Pacific powers. His proposal was violently attacked by the Australian prime minister, who called the imperialist Meighen “the American ambassador.” The attack convinced the British that Meighen was right, and the treaty was not renewed. Instead, a conference of the Pacific powers was arranged in Washington, D.C., for December 1921. Although Meighen had been directly responsible for the change in British policy, the United States was insensitive to Canada's new role as international mediator and almost forgot to invite Canada to the Washington Conference.
Meighen called the new national election as late as possible, in December 1921. It was not a good time, because Canada was going through a postwar economic depression for which many people blamed the Conservatives. In Québec, Meighen was still known as the author of the draft. A new party, the Progressive Party, which demanded lower tariffs to protect Canadian farmers and manufacturers and government reform, was gaining supporters in the west. Despite this, Meighen campaigned on the strength of his own personality and on the slogan “Canada needs Meighen.” Confident of his own ability, he ignored the fact that he was distrusted by large groups of Canadians. His opponent, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was more cautious, confining himself to clichés and seeking to reunite English and French wings of the Liberal Party. The election was disastrous for the Conservatives, who returned only 50 members. The Liberals won 117 seats and the Progressives 65. Meighen himself was defeated in Portage la Prairie. He resigned as prime minister on December 29, 1921.
Meighen soon regained a seat and returned to lead the opposition, since the Progressive Party had refused to be the official opposition. His first major clash with King came in September 1922, when Britain asked for Canada's help in the event of a war with Turkey. Meighen thought that Canada should agree, but King refused to commit Canada to fight Britain's wars. He reinforced this attitude in the next imperial conference, rejecting the idea of a common imperial foreign policy.
There seemed no reason why King should not have won again in the 1925 election. He had provided a sound administration, the country was recovering from the depression, and Meighen again had to rely solely on his personality. Surprisingly, the Liberals won only 101 seats, in contrast to the Conservatives' 116. Meighen himself gained Portage la Prairie. However, King did not resign but persuaded the British governor-general, Lord Byng, that he could govern with the help of the Progressives. It seemed at first that King might succeed. Meighen was making no headway in Québec, even though in a speech in Hamilton he had said that the government should consult “the people at a general election before troops should leave our shores.” He only alienated some of his imperialist supporters with this statement.
In 1926 the Conservatives discovered a scandal in the Customs Department that involved traffic in illegal whiskey and cigarettes. An official reprimand was supported by Progressives, and the Conservatives seemed certain to defeat King. Rather than wait for a vote, King asked the governor-general to dissolve the government. Byng refused, King resigned, and Meighen agreed to form a government. At that time, ministers had to resign their seats and stand again for election. Since Meighen could not afford even a temporary loss of support, he gave the people in his cabinet the rank of acting minister, so that they did not have to run for reelection. King argued that there was no one in Parliament to answer for the government. This technical point gained enough supporters among the Progressives to bring down Meighen's government. He was forced to ask for the dissolution that had been refused to King.
Meighen was certain that the customs scandal would win the election for him and that the constitutional issue was not important. However, King claimed that the governor-general and Meighen had made Canada a British colony, and enough voters were convinced to give the Liberals 116 seats to the Conservatives' 91. Meighen resigned. His second administration lasted only from June 29 to September 25, 1926.
In the party meeting of 1927, Meighen turned over the Conservative leadership to Richard Bennett and decided to begin a business career in Toronto. In 1931 when Bennett became prime minister, Meighen became a member of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. In 1932 Meighen became a senator and minister without portfolio. He resigned his ministry with the fall of the Bennett government in 1935 but remained the leader of the Conservatives in the Senate until 1941. In that year he came out of semiretirement and resumed leadership of the Conservative Party. Since the party had to be led from the House of Commons, he ran for Parliament in a by-election to fill an empty seat in South York. Determined to defeat him, King backed another candidate. Meighen was defeated, although his main campaign issue, the draft, was favored in South York. He was forced to resign his leadership, an act that marked the end of his political career. He had published a collection of his speeches, Oversea Addresses, in 1921. In 1945 he published another volume, Unrevised and Unrepented: Debating Speeches and Others. Meighen died in Toronto in 1960.