Bennett, Richard B.

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R. B. Bennett was born on July 3, 1870, when his mother, Henrietta Stiles, was visiting at her parents home in Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Canada.

He grew up nearby at the home of his father, Henry John Bennett, at Hopewell Cape, the shire town of Albert County, then a town of 1,800 people.

R. B. Bennett's family was poor, subsisting mainly on the produce of a small farm. The Bennetts had previously been a relatively prosperous family, operating a shipyard in Hopewell Cape, but the change to steam-powered vessels in the mid-19th century meant the gradual winding down of their business. They were strong Conservatives; indeed one of the largest and last ships launched by the Bennett shipyard (in 1869) was the Sir John A. Macdonald. Educated in the local school, Bennett was a good student, but something of a loner.

One day, while Bennett was crossing the Miramichi River on the ferry boat, a well-dressed lad about nine years younger came over to him and struck up a conversation. This was the beginning of an improbable but important friendship with Max Aitken, later the industrialist and British press baron, Lord Beaverbrook. The agnostic Aitken liked to tease the Methodist Bennett, whose fiery temper contrasted with Aitken's ability to turn away wrath with a joke. This friendship would become important to his success later in life, as would his friendship with the Chatham lawyer, Lemuel J. Tweedie, a prominent Conservative politician. He began to study law with Tweedie on weekends and during summer holidays.

Another important friendship was with the prominent Shirreff family of Chatham, the father being High Sheriff of Northumberland County for 25 years. The son, Harry, joined the E.B. Eddy Company, a large pulp and paper industrial concern, and was transferred to Halifax. His sister moved there to study nursing, and soon Bennett joined them to study law at Dalhousie University in 1890, graduating in 1893 with a law degree. Their friendship was renewed there, and became crucial to his later life when Jennie Shirreff married the head of the Eddy Company. She later made Bennett the lawyer for her extensive interests.

He was then a partner in the Chatham law firm of Tweedie and Bennett. Max Aitken (later known as Lord Beaverbrook) was his office boy, while articling as a lawyer, acting as a stringer for the Montreal Gazette, and selling life insurance. Aitken persuaded him to run for alderman in the first Town Council of Chatham, and managed his campaign. Bennett was elected by one vote, and was later furious with Aitken when he heard all the promises he had made on Bennett's behalf.

Despite his election to the Chatham town council, Bennett's days in the town were numbered. He was ambitious and saw that the small community was too narrow a field for him. He was already negotiating with Sir James Lougheed to move to Calgary and become his law partner. Lougheed was Calgary's richest man and most successful lawyer.

Bennett moved to Alberta in 1897. Bennett worked hard and gradually built up his legal practice. In 1908 he was one of five people appointed to the first Library Board for the city of Calgary and was instrumental in establishing the Calgary Public Library.

He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in the 1898 general election, representing the riding of West Calgary. He was re-elected to a second term in office in 1902 as an Independent from the parties in the Northwest Territories legislature.

In 1905, when Alberta was carved out of the territories and made a province, Bennett became the first leader of the Alberta Conservative Party. In 1909, he won a seat in the provincial legislature, before switching to federal politics. Elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1911, Bennett returned to the provincial scene to again lead the Alberta Tories in the 1913 provincial election, but kept his federal seat in Ottawa when his Tories failed to take power in the province; such practice was later forbidden.

At age 44, he tried to enlist in the Canadian military once World War I broke out, but was turned down as being medically unfit. In 1916, Bennett was appointed director general of the National Service Board, which was in charge of identifying the number of potential recruits in the country.

Arthur Meighen appointed Bennett Minister of Justice in his government, as it headed into the 1921 federal election in which both the government and Bennett were defeated. Bennett won the seat of Calgary West in the 1925 federal election and was returned to government as Minister of Finance in Meighen's short-lived government in 1926. The government was defeated in the 1926 federal election. Meighen stepped down as Tory leader, and Bennett became the party's leader in 1927 at the first Conservative leadership convention.

As Opposition leader, Bennett faced off against the more experienced Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in Commons debates, and took some time to acquire enough experience to hold his own with King. In 1930, King blundered badly when he made overly partisan statements in response to criticism over King's handling of the economic downturn, which was hitting Canada very hard. King's worst error was in stating that he "would not give Tory provincial governments a five-cent piece!" This serious mistake, which drew wide press coverage, gave Bennett his needed opening to attack King, which he did successfully in the election campaign which followed.

By defeating William Lyon Mackenzie King in the 1930 federal election, he had the misfortune of taking office during the Great Depression. Bennett tried to combat the depression by increasing trade within the British Empire and imposing tariffs for imports from outside the Empire, promising that his measures would blast Canadian exports into world markets. His success was limited however, and his own wealth (often openly displayed) and impersonal style alienated many struggling Canadians.

Bennett government was to establish military-run and -styled relief camps in remote areas throughout the country, where single unemployed men toiled for twenty cents a day. Any relief beyond this was left to provincial and municipal governments, many of which were either insolvent or on the brink of bankruptcy, and which railed against the inaction of other levels of government. Partisan differences began to sharpen on the question of government intervention in the economy, since lower levels of government were largely in Liberal hands, and protest movements were beginning to send their own parties into the political mainstream, notably the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and William Aberhart's Social Credit Party in Alberta.

Following the lead of President Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States, Bennett, under the advice of William Duncan Herridge, who was both Canada's ambassador to the United States and Bennett's brother-in-law, the government eventually began to follow the Americans' lead. In a series of five speeches to the nation in January 1935, Bennett introduced a Canadian version of the "New Deal," involving unprecedented public spending and federal intervention in the economy. Progressive income taxation, a minimum wage, a maximum number of working hours per week, unemployment insurance, health insurance, an expanded pension programme, and grants to farmers were all included in the plan.

In one of his addresses to the nation, Bennett said: "like a young and vigorous man in the poorhouse ... If you believe that things should be left as they are, you and I hold contrary and irreconcilable views. I am for reform. And in my mind, reform means government intervention. It means government control and regulation. It means the end of laissez-faire"

Bennett's conversion, however, was seen as too little too late, and he faced criticism that his reforms either went too far, or did not go far enough, including from one of his cabinet ministers H.H. Stevens, who bolted the government to form the Reconstruction Party of Canada. Some of the measures were alleged to have encroached on provincial jurisdictions laid out in Section 92 of the British North America Act. The courts, including the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, agreed and eventually struck down virtually all of Bennett's reforms. However, some of Bennett's initiatives, such as the Bank of Canada, which he founded in 1934, and the Canadian Wheat Board, remain in place to this day.

Although there was no unity among the motley political groups that constituted Bennett's opposition, a consensus emerged that his handling of the economic crisis was insufficient and inappropriate, even from Conservative quarters. Bennett personally became a symbol of the political failings underscoring the depression. Car owners, for example, who could no longer afford gasoline, had horses pull their vehicles, named them Bennett Buggies. Unity in his own administration suffered, notably by the defection of his Minister of Trade, Henry Herbert Stevens. Stevens left the Conservatives and formed the Reconstruction Party of Canada, after Bennett refused to implement Stevens' plan for drastic economic reform to deal with the economic crisis.

The beneficiary of the overwhelming opposition during Bennett's tenure was the Liberal Party. The Tories were decimated in the October 1935 general election, winning only 40 seats to 173 for Mackenzie King's Liberals. The Tories would not form a majority government again in Canada until 1958. King's government soon implemented its own moderate reforms, including the replacement of relief camps with a scaled down provincial relief project scheme, and the repeal of Section 98. King had earlier outlined his plans with his 1918 book Industry and Economy. Many of King's other reforms continue today, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the nationalized Bank of Canada, versions of minimum wage, maximum hours of work, pension, and unemployment insurance legislation. But ultimately, Canada mostly pulled out of the depression not as a result of government programs, but because of jobs created by the industrialization and onset of the Second World War

Bennett worked an exhausting schedule throughout his years as prime minister, often more than 14 hours per day, and dominated his government, usually holding several cabinet posts. He lived in a suite in the Chateau Laurier hotel, a short walk from Parliament Hill. The respected author Bruce Hutchison wrote that had the economic times been more normal, Bennett would likely have been regarded as a good, perhaps great, Canadian prime minister.

Bennett retired to Britain in 1938, and, on June 12, 1941, became the first and only former Canadian Prime Minister to be elevated to the peerage as Viscount Bennett, of Mickleham in the County of Surrey and of Calgary and Hopewell in the Dominion of Canada.

He died after suffering a heart attack while taking a bath on June 26, 1947, at Mickleham. He was exactly one week shy of his 77th birthday. He is buried there in St. Michael's Churchyard, Mickleham. He is the only former Prime Minister not buried in Canada. Unmarried, Bennett was survived by nephews William Herridge, Jr., and Robert Coats and by brother Ronald V. Bennett. The viscountcy became extinct on his death.

Bennett was ranked #12 by a survey of Canadian historians out of the then 20 Prime Ministers of Canada through Jean Chrétien. The results of the survey were included in the book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer.

Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Silver and Gold: Bennett and the Great Depression — Historical essay, illustrated with photographs
R. B. Bennett - Parliament of Canada biography

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