Richard Bennett (1870-1947), 11th prime minister of Canada (1930-1935). Bennett had the misfortune of holding office during the worst of the Great Depression, the hard times of the 1930s. Successful as a lawyer and businessman, he was an administrator of great decisiveness and a forceful speaker. However, he was hot-tempered, blunt, and uncompromising, and in public life his hopes were often frustrated. His achievements as prime minister have attracted less notice than his mistakes. His program to combat the depression failed to win the support of the voting public. His government was defeated by a large margin in the 1935 general election, and the Conservative Party did not regain federal office for 22 years.
Richard Bedford Bennett was born in Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick. His father was a shipbuilder, and Bennett grew up in an atmosphere of economy, industry, and piety. He taught school until 1890, then began to study law with L. J. Tweedie in Chatham, New Brunswick. After he had graduated from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bennett returned to Tweedie's office in 1893 as junior partner. His work with Tweedie, who shortly became Conservative premier of the province, was Bennett's introduction to politics. In 1896 Bennett was elected to the Chatham town council.
In 1897 Bennett moved to Calgary, in what is now Alberta, and became junior partner to another Conservative lawyer, Senator J. A. Lougheed. In 1898 Bennett was elected to the territorial legislature, and in 1911 he was elected for Calgary West to the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament.
Bennett had worked with publisher William M. Aitken in Tweedie's law office, and in 1906, Bennett assumed direction of two of Aitken's Canadian enterprises, a hydroelectric plant and a cement factory. He later joined with Aitken to launch three other highly successful businesses. In 1922 Bennett transferred to a law partnership of his own, Bennett, Hannah and Sanford. In 1923 he became a director of the Royal Bank of Canada, and in 1926 he gained control of the E. B. Eddy Company, a large pulp and paper manufacturer. Well before he made a mark in the field of politics, Bennett was already a wealthy man.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
Bennett entered federal politics with very definite opinions. He was a supporter of prohibition and bitterly opposed publicly funded separate schools for Roman Catholics in the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. He criticized the settlement and immigration policies of the department of the interior as being partisan, corrupt, and unappreciative of private enterprise. He advocated what he termed tariff reform, or the idea of a common protective tariff (tax on imports) for the whole British Empire, supposedly to allow free trade within the entire commonwealth. Bennett had campaigned against the Liberal government's proposal to implement an agreement that would lower tariffs and encourage trade with the United States. His imperial loyalties had been outraged by the Naval Service Bill of 1910, which provided for the start of a separate Canadian navy instead of a contribution to the British battle fleet. Further, Bennett was also critical of the Liberal government's railway policy, which would have produced two government-subsidized transcontinental systems in addition to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Bennett thought that the new railway systems were unnecessary and that government assistance to them was extravagance.
|A||Rise in Politics|
Bennett found his first experience of federal politics discouraging. He was often bitterly opposed to the policies of his own party's leaders. Although his ability had impressed party leaders in 1903, after 15 years in opposition, the Conservatives had many members more senior than Bennett expecting ministerial posts. However, when Canada entered World War I, the needs of wartime administration allowed Bennett to be appointed in 1916 to the office of director general of national service. Bennett believed that voluntary recruiting, which it was his task to organize, should be replaced by conscription, compulsory enrollment in the armed forces, also called the draft. A draft was introduced, but by a coalition government. Bennett objected to the coalition and was not taken into the reorganized cabinet. He did not run in the election of 1917, seeing no future for himself in Canadian politics. Predicting that Canada would within 25 years become a part of the United States, he contemplated moving into British politics but instead decided to retire from public life.
In 1921 Bennett agreed to be minister of justice and attorney general in the cabinet of Arthur Meighen. However, in the general election in December not a single Conservative was elected from the Prairie provinces, although Bennett came within 17 votes of victory. In 1925 Bennett returned to Parliament, and in 1926, when Meighen was defeated, he was the only Conservative elected from the Prairie provinces. Bennett's standing was established in his party and in the House of Commons.
In 1927 Meighen resigned his leadership of the Conservative Party, and Bennett was elected to succeed him. It was unlikely that he would restore the Conservatives' fortunes in Québec, but he was the only hope for doing so in the Prairie provinces. Although Bennett was determined and self-confident, he faced a Liberal government with a secure majority led by William L. Mackenzie King, a veteran politician. Bennett was active as the leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, but he was not particularly effective.
Bennett's opportunity came with the Liberals' unimaginative response to the Great Depression, the economic hard times of the 1930s. Canada's economy was hit hard by the collapse of prices for its main exports and especially by the loss of its wheat markets. Bennett demanded action to relieve unemployment, but King insisted that it was a provincial responsibility and refused assistance to Conservative provincial governments.
In his campaign for the election of 1930, Bennett promised to build new branch railways, a national highway, a St. Lawrence waterway, and to pay the full cost of old-age pensions from the federal treasury. However, what he really offered the voters was the “declaration of faith,” in Canada and in himself, with which he ended his speeches. His addresses were dismissed by his opponent as empty promises, but they conveyed passionate sincerity. The Conservatives won 49 percent of the popular vote, gaining a majority of the seats in the new House of Commons.
The Cabinet that Bennett formed seldom emerged from his shadow. Within a month of taking office, Bennett called a special session of Parliament, indicated his legislative program in a single paragraph, and in two weeks had obtained a sharp increase in tariffs and a grant of $20 million for one winter's unemployment relief, 30 times any previous expenditure. Bennett went his own way with little regard for the traditions of his office or of the Conservative Party. A popular cartoon showed Bennett holding a meeting with the members of his Cabinet by talking to himself.
Bennett was the first prime minister to make full use of the strong civil service, the appointed officials who make up the bulk of the executive branch of government, that had existed since 1920. He used able people from various government departments to write legislation, to negotiate trade agreements, and to act as economic advisers. He also built up the political and secret work of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Bennett's tariff policy combined protection for Canadian farmers and manufacturers and special treatment for nations that were members of the British Commonwealth. In 1932, at a Commonwealth economic conference, a series of agreements were reached that secured privileges in the British market for Canada's main exports. However, the preferential tariff still protected Canadian manufacturers against British competition. While the agreements seemed to promote imperial unity, in reality they were economic nationalism. Canada's debt to Britain became a surplus, but the tariff was not popular in Canada because it subsidized some provinces at the expense of others. Bennett also began negotiations that later led to a free trade agreement with the United States.
In 1931 Bennett accepted the Statute of Westminster, which gave the British dominions the power to amend their own constitutions. He negotiated the St. Lawrence Deep Waterways Treaty with the United States, which allowed the building of canals linking the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1934 he led a Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, an international organization established in 1920 to preserve peace.
Bennett's government created a central reserve bank, nationalized control of radio broadcasting, and successfully established federal control over civil aviation. Bennett established a national system of marketing boards for primary products. He pegged the price of wheat, placed its export under the control of a wheat board, and protected farmers from their creditors. The criminal law was extended to cover unfair trade practices. The federal government started paying large percentages of the cost of old-age pensions and of unemployment relief. Bennett's government undertook public works to provide employment, including the construction of a trans-Canada highway. Many Conservatives, however, felt Bennett's path was too radical.
However, rural distress and urban unemployment remained common, and provincial governments complained about federal interference and limited revenues. The Conservatives lost to the Liberals in three provincial elections. Facing the prospect of defeat in the general election of 1935, Bennett pushed through five new statutes that were similar to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. They established minimum wages, maximum hours of work, unemployment insurance, and national control of marketing. Although they were logical extensions of Bennett's policy, they also openly endorsed social reform and state control, and were one reason for the Conservatives' crushing defeat in the 1935 election.
Bennett remained leader of the Opposition until 1938, then retired to England. He remained in private life a pessimistic commentator on Canadian affairs. He was made a viscount in 1941. He died in Surrey in 1947.