Bennett Era in Canada Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Canadians elected a Conservative government after nine years of Liberal rule, but the government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett, proved unpopular, damaging the reputation of the party and condemning it to another twenty-two years in the minority from 1935 to 1957.

Summary of Event

Although Richard Bedford Bennett played an active role in Canadian politics throughout the first third of the twentieth century, historians generally believe that he was an uninspired politician who accomplished little during his five years of service as prime minister of Canada. His ineffectiveness as prime minister made his Conservative Party Conservative Party (Canada) so unpopular with Canadian voters that the Conservatives would not win another general election in Canada until 1957, when the Conservative John Diefenbaker succeeded the Liberal Louis St. Laurent as prime minister. [kw]Bennett Era in Canada (Aug., 1930-1935) [kw]Canada, Bennett Era in (Aug., 1930-1935) Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Richard Bedford Bennett[Bennett] [g]Canada;Aug., 1930-1935: Bennett Era in Canada[07650] [c]Government and politics;Aug., 1930-1935: Bennett Era in Canada[07650] Bennett, Richard Bedford Borden, Robert Laird Hoover, Herbert King, William Lyon Mackenzie [p]King, William Lyon Mackenzie;Great Depression Meighen, Arthur

Canadian prime minister Richard Bedford Bennett (left) with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. secretary of state Cordell Hull in 1933.

(Library of Congress)

Bennett was born in the small town of Hopewell, New Brunswick, in 1870, the son of farmers. He studied law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After his admission to the bar, he moved to Calgary, Alberta, where he became a successful lawyer, and his investments in real estate and various Calgary companies made him a millionaire by the first decade of the twentieth century.

Like his principal political rival, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Bennett never married: Law, business, and politics were Bennett’s sole interests. After having served for thirteen years, first in the legislature of the Northwest Territories and then in the legislature in Alberta, Bennett was elected in a Calgary district as a Conservative member of Canada’s national parliament. He earned the nickname Bonfire Bennett because he often spoke in public at more than two hundred words per minute. Prime ministers Sir Robert Laird Borden and Arthur Meighen both recognized his adminstrative and legal skills. In Borden’s government, Bennett served as the director-general of National Service, responsible for encouraging enlistment in the Canadian armed forces during World War I. In 1921, Meighen named Bennett his minister of justice. Bennett was an ethical and effective public servant, which led the Conservatives to conclude that he would lead their party to victory in the general election of 1930.

When the Great Depression Great Depression;Canada began with the U.S. stock market crash on October 29, 1929, the Canadian economy suffered greatly. Businesses failed throughout Canada, and unemployment exceeded 25 percent in many provinces. Canadian voters expected Prime Minister King to do something about this economic and social crisis, but, like U.S. president Herbert Hoover, King believed that the Depression would not last long. Both leaders also felt that the Depression would worsen if their governments increased spending on social programs. Just before the July, 1930, general election, King made an incredible blunder. During debate in the House of Commons, he stated his unwillingness to send even “a five-cent piece” in unemployment assistance to provincial governments controlled by the Conservative Party. During the election campaign of 1930, Conservative candidates repeatedly referred to King’s injudicious remark and suggested that a Conservative prime minister such as Bennett, who already had created many jobs through his Calgary companies, would be more successful than the Liberals in dealing with Canada’s economic problems. This argument proved persuasive with Canadian voters, who gave the Conservatives a solid majority in the House of Commons.

Once Bennett assumed power in August, it became clear that he did not intend to share it, even with fellow Conservatives. In addition to his responsibilities as prime minister, he assigned to himself the posts of secretary of state for foreign affairs and minister of finance. Canadian political commentators of the day drew cartoons depicting Bennett alone and suggested that he was holding a cabinet meeting with himself. His unwillingness to listen to advice from such respected Conservative leaders as former prime ministers Borden and Meighen caused a precipitous decline in the standing of his party in the minds of Canadian voters. His one solution to the economic depression was to impose stiff tariffs on foreign products imported into Canada in an attempt to protect Canadian companies from foreign competition. Other countries retaliated, and the export of Canadian products decreased significantly. The resulting loss of jobs worsened an already alarming unemployment problem throughout Canada.

During his five years as prime minister, the wealthy Bennett lived in an elegant suite in the Chateau Laurier, Ottawa’s finest hotel. He spoke repeatedly of the need for personal initiative and hard work in order to solve Canada’s economic problem. A strong work ethic had helped Bennett to become a millionaire, and he firmly believed that it sufficed to cure Canada’s economic and social problems. He was opposed philosophically to increased spending on social programs because he believed that the main responsibility of the federal government in Ottawa was to avoid deficits. Although Canadians admired Bennett’s integrity and his personal generosity—as shown by his large contributions to charitable organizations—they came to believe that he had no practical ideas for solving Canada’s economic and social problems.

Starting in 1932, Bennett spent less time on domestic issues and more on international concerns. At the 1932 Imperial Conference in Ottawa, he persuaded the British government to modify the British North America Act of 1867, which had created Canada as a British dominion, in order to increase Canada’s political independence from Great Britain. This was a major accomplishment, but in the minds of Canadian voters, it did not make up for Bennett’s unwillingness to recognize the extreme seriousness of the Great Depression. The Liberals, under the leadership of King, argued for the need for increased federal spending to deal with homelessness and unemployment, but such proposals were consistently rejected by the Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Just before the general election of 1935, Bennett suddenly changed his position and argued in favor of increased federal spending on social programs. He presented his new proposals as a Canadian version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, but Canadian voters were suspicious of this sudden change in the domestic program of Bennett’s Conservative government. The Liberals, under King, won 173 of the 244 seats in the House of Commons, bringing the Bennett era to an end.

Significance

Bennett reacted bitterly to his defeat. In 1938, he left Canada permanently for England and transferred his allegiance to Great Britain. Thanks to the help of his friend Lord Beaverbrook, Bennett was appointed to the British House of Lords. When he died in 1947, he had been almost forgotten by Canadians, who never understood why a former prime minister of their country would emigrate from Canada. Canadian historians often have compared Bennett to Herbert Hoover, but the comparison is unfair. Neither Bennett nor Hoover succeeded in ending the economic depression, but Hoover was never considered arrogant, and he remained in the United States after his term in office and continued to serve his country as a respected adviser to both Democratic and Republican presidents.

If Bennett was forgotten, however, his effect on his party was not. As party leader for eleven years, five of which he spent as prime minister, Bennett helped to define the image of the Conservative Party for a generation. The nation’s reaction to that image is to be seen most clearly in its refusal to elect another Conservative government for more than two decades after Bennett’s defeat. Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Richard Bedford Bennett[Bennett]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada, 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. A well-documented history of the Great Depression in Canada and Bennett’s problems in dealing with economic issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, and J. L. Granatstein. Our Century: The Canadian Journey in the Twentieth Century. Toronto: McArthur, 2000. Places Bennett’s ministry in the context of twentieth century Canadian history. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creighton, Donald. Canada’s First Century, 1867-1967. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1970. Describes the terrible effects of the Depression in Canada, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which experienced both high unemployment in private industry and drought conditions in farming regions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glassford, Larry. Reaction and Reform: The Politics of the Conservative Party Under R. B. Bennett, 1927-1938. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Contains a thoughtful analysis of the reasons for Bennett’s popularity within the Conservative Party during his six years as leader of the opposition and five years as prime minister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchison, Bruce. Macdonald to Pearson: The Prime Ministers of Canada. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans Canada, 1967. The chapter on Bennett describes his successful career in business and discusses his inability to understand that Canadians wanted him to spend more money on social programs during the Great Depression.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, M. Brook, and Doug Owram, eds. Canadian History: A Reader’s Guide. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Contains an annotated bibliography of important studies on the domestic and foreign policies of Bennett.

Meighen Era in Canada

King Era in Canada

Hoover Signs the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act

Canada Enacts Depression-Era Relief Legislation

Ottawa Agreements

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