Meighen Era in Canada Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After nine years of Conservative rule, Canada’s Liberal Party assumed leadership of the nation’s government.

Summary of Event

When the respected Canadian prime minister Robert Laird Borden retired in 1920, his successor, Arthur Meighen, thought that, like Borden, he would win general elections and serve as prime minister for many years. In both the 1921 and 1926 national elections, however, Canadian voters expressed their preference for the Liberal leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King, over Meighen. Historians now generally agree that positions taken by Meighen during and just after World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Canadian involvement made him so unacceptable to large segments of Canadian society that his failure in two general elections was almost predictable. Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Arthur Meighen[Meighen] [kw]Meighen Era in Canada (July 10, 1920-Sept., 1926) [kw]Canada, Meighen Era in (July 10, 1920-Sept., 1926) Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Arthur Meighen[Meighen] [g]Canada;July 10, 1920-Sept., 1926: Meighen Era in Canada[05140] [c]Government and politics;July 10, 1920-Sept., 1926: Meighen Era in Canada[05140] Meighen, Arthur Borden, Robert Laird King, William Lyon Mackenzie Laurier, Sir Wilfrid Bennett, Richard Bedford

Meighen’s background was modest. He was born on an Ontario farm in 1874 to a father who had emigrated from Ireland in 1843. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto and then moved to Manitoba, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1902. Thanks to his successful law practice and wise business investments, he was able to ensure a comfortable life for his wife, Isabel, and their three children. He was elected a Conservative member of the Canadian parliament in 1908. When the Liberal prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, heard Meighen’s maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1908, he recognized Meighen’s oratorical skills and perceptively predicted that he soon would become an influential adviser to the Conservative leader, Borden.

Arthur Meighen.

(Library of Congress)

When the Conservatives won a majority in the general election of 1911, Borden became prime minister, a post that he held for nine years. Meighen defended the policies of Prime Minister Borden so vigorously and expressed such contempt for those who disagreed with Conservative policies that he created many political enemies who never forgave him for what they perceived to be his insensitivity and arrogance. When World War I broke out in Europe, Borden and his fellow Conservatives believed that it was the duty of Canada, which still belonged to the British Empire, to fight with Great Britain. Many French Canadians, in contrast, believed strongly that European, not Canadian, interests were involved, and they saw no reason for Canadians to give their lives defending Great Britain. Borden tactfully tried to persuade the Liberal leader, Laurier, who was from Quebec, to support military conscription and to join the Conservatives in a unified government.

Borden understood the importance of not offending French-speaking Canadians. Meighen, however, referred to Quebecers as “a backward people” during heated debates in the House of Commons on the conscription bill. He then offended Canadians of German and Austrian descent by questioning their loyalty to Canada. In his position as minister of justice, Meighen argued that it was perfectly legal for the Canadian government to disenfranchise Canadians of German and Austrian birth who had become citizens after 1902. His argument that citizenship did not necessarily grant people the right to vote enraged many ethnic Canadians.

In 1919, Meighen angered Canadian union members when he ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to arrest and detain union leaders who had called a legal strike in Winnipeg. Although he admitted that there was no legal justification for these arrests, Meighen had no qualms about abusing his authority in order to end the strike. Because of Meighen’s actions in the 1910’s, Quebecers, union members, and many ethnic Canadians concluded that they should not trust him. Although Meighen did not realize it when he became prime minister in July, 1920, his defeat in the next general election was almost inevitable.

During his short term as prime minister, however, Meighen made a significant contribution to Canadian foreign policy. At the June, 1921, Imperial Conference in London, he informed the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, that henceforth Canada would not necessarily accept British control over Canadian foreign policy. Under Meighen, Canada began to become more independent of Great Britain.

On the domestic front, Meighen was less successful. In 1920 and 1921, Canada experienced an economic downturn, and Canadian voters decisively rejected the Conservatives in the 1921 election. The Liberals won all 65 seats from Quebec, for a total of 116 seats. The Conservatives won only 50 seats, even fewer than the 65 seats won by the newly created Progressives. The Conservatives went from 153 to 50 seats in the House of Commons. Meighen was defeated for reelection in 1921.

Despite this crushing defeat for his party, Meighen remained the Conservative leader. Four years later, a scandal connected with political appointees in the Canadian customs department made King’s government somewhat unpopular. No party obtained a majority in the 1925 election, which produced 116 Conservatives, 99 Liberals, 24 Progressives, and 4 independents in the House of Commons. With support from the Progressives, King was temporarily able to govern. When he realized that he was losing the support of the Progressives, King asked Lord Julian Byng, Byng, Julian governor-general of Canada, to dissolve Parliament. Lord Byng rejected this request and asked Meighen to try to form a parliamentary majority. Meighen accepted this invitation, but his government lasted exactly three days. Canadian law at that time required the prime minister and the members of the cabinet to resign from Parliament and run for reelection before they could assume their positions. Had they resigned, the Conservatives would not have had enough votes to form a new government.

Meighen came up with a creative solution. He resigned his seat in Parliament, but the members of his cabinet became acting ministers and remained in the House of Commons. King argued in the House of Commons that this was a violation of Canadian law. He accused Lord Byng of violating Canadian sovereignty by refusing to dissolve Parliament, and he further claimed that Meighen’s new government was unconstitutional because its ministers had no legal authority. These arguments proved persuasive with enough Progressives, and a vote of no confidence carried by one vote. This time, Lord Byng had no choice but to dissolve Parliament. In the general election of September, 1926, Meighen tried to get Canadian voters to think about the customs scandal, but King focused their attention on the constitutional crisis created by Lord Byng and Meighen, and the Liberals won the election easily.

Significance

Although Meighen served as prime minister for only seventeen months, during that time he made an important contribution to Canada’s move toward independence from Great Britain. In addition, he had a long and distinguished career in government both before and after his service as prime minister.

After his defeat in 1926, Meighen lived for thirty-four more years, but he never again played a leading role in Canadian national politics. He served in the House of Commons until 1930. In 1932, Conservative prime minister Richard Bedford Bennett appointed him to the Canadian Senate, where he served until 1941. He then resigned from the Senate and once again became the Conservative leader, but he lost his race for a seat in Parliament. Meighen then moved to Toronto, where he became an investment banker. He died in Toronto in 1960 at the age of eighty-six. Prime ministers;Canada Canadian prime ministers;Arthur Meighen[Meighen]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada, 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Contains a clear description of Meighen’s quick rise to political power in the Borden government and explains why he failed to inspire enthusiasm in Canadian voters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creighton, Donald. Canada’s First Century, 1867-1967. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976. Presents a positive image of Meighen’s campaigns against King and many harsh judgments concerning King’s actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Roger. Arthur Meighen. 3 vols. Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1960-1965. This well-documented biography presents a sympathetic view of Meighen’s lengthy career in public service and argues that his intense shyness caused many Canadian voters to conclude that he was arrogant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchison, Bruce. Macdonald to Pearson: The Prime Ministers of Canada. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans Canada, 1967. Two chapters on Meighen describe his lack of accomplishment during his seventeen months as prime minister and his insensitivity to the aspirations of French Canadians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politics: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. 3d ed. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001. Collection of more than five hundred brief essays on a wide range of topics related to the Canadian system of government, Canadian political history, Canadian laws and legal history, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owram, Doug, ed. Confederation to the Present. Vol. 2 in Canadian History: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Contains an excellent annotated bibliography of historical studies on Meighen’s service as minister of justice and prime minister of Canada.

Borden Leads Canada Through World War I

Winnipeg General Strike

King Era in Canada

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