Richard Bedford Bennett, 1st Viscount Bennett PC KC (July 3, 1870 – June 26, 1947) was a Canadian lawyer, businessman, politician, and philanthropist. He served as the eleventh Prime Minister of Canada from August 7, 1930 to October 23, 1935, during the worst of the Great Depression years. Following his defeat as prime minister, Bennett moved to England, and was elevated to the British House of Lords.
His father was descended from English ancestors who emigrated to Connecticut in the 18th century. His great, great grandfather Bennett migrated from Connecticut to Nova Scotia c. 1765, before the American Revolution, taking advantage of lands vacated by the Acadians during the Great Upheaval.
R. B. Bennett's family was poor, subsisting mainly on the produce of a small farm. His early days inculcated a lifelong habit of thrift. The driving force in his family was his mother. She was a Wesleyan Methodist and passed this faith and the Protestant ethic on to her son. His principle ever after was: work as hard as you can, earn all you can, save all you can, and then give all you can. Bennett's father does not appear to have been a good provider for his family, though the reason is unclear. He operated a general store for a while and tried to develop some gypsum deposits.
The Bennetts were previously a relatively prosperous family, operating a shipyard in Hopewell Cape, but the change to steam meant the end of their business. However, the household was a literate one, subscribing to three newspapers. 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. In addition to his Protestant faith, Bennett grew up with an abiding love of the British Empire, then at its apogee.
At the age of 15, Bennett had learned all the local school could teach him, and he enrolled in the New Brunswick Department of Education's teacher training school in Fredericton, getting his second class teaching certificate. He then taught the elementary grades at a small village called Irishtown, just north of Moncton, New Brunswick. He campaigned vigorously in the Conservative interest in the 1887 federal election, at 17 years of age taking the floor at public meetings in rural areas, well able to handle hecklers. He earned the gratitude of the local candidate, Dr. R.C. Weldon, a co-founder of the Dalhousie Law School.
In 1888 Bennett obtained his first-class teaching certificate and received an appointment as principal of the 159 student Douglastown school. Though only 18 years old, Bennett was a success. He was 6' tall and his serious demeanour enabled him to control his pupils. Sundays were spent across the Miramichi River in the larger community of Chatham, New Brunswick, where he attended the Methodist Church twice and taught Sunday School. He also joined the Chatham branch of the Conservative party and spoke whenever he could. He became a polished speaker. During this time he formed several female friendships, but none blossomed into marriage.
One day, while Bennett was crossing the Miramichi 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 a few others such as 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. Their friendship was renewed here and became crucial to his later life when Jennie Sherreff married the head of the Eddy Company. She later made Bennett the lawyer for her extensive interests.
Bennett started at Dalhousie University in 1890, graduating in 1893 with a law degree. He worked his way through with a job as assistant in the library, being recommended by Dr. R. C. Weldon.
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. A lifelong bachelor and teetotaler, he led a rather lonely life in a hotel and later, in a boarding house. For a while a younger brother roomed with him. He ate his noon meal on workdays at the Alberta Hotel. Social life, such as it was, centered on church. There was, however, no scandal attached to his personal life. Bennett worked hard and gradually built up his legal practice.
In 1905, when Alberta was carved out of the territories and made a province, Bennett became the first leader of the Alberta Conservative Party and, in 1909, 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 seat in Ottawa when his Tories failed to take power in the province. He was appointed Minister of Justice in 1921 shortly before the federal Tory government of Arthur Meighen was defeated. Bennett returned to government as Minister of Finance in 1926, and became Conservative leader in 1927 at the first Conservative leadership convention.
When his Imperial Preference policy failed to generate the desired result, Bennett's government had no real contingency plan. The party's pro-business and pro-banking inclinations provided little relief to the millions of increasingly desperate and agitated unemployed. Despite the economic crisis, Laissez-faire persisted as the guiding economic principle of Conservative Party ideology. Government relief to the unemployed was considered a disincentive to individual initiative and was therefore only granted in the most minimal amounts and attached to work programs. An additional concern of the federal government was that large numbers of disaffected unemployed men concentrating in urban centres created a volatile situation. As an "alternative to bloodshed on the streets," the stop-gap solution for unemployment chosen by the 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.
Bennett hosted the 1932 Imperial Conference in Ottawa. It was attended by the leaders of the independent dominions of the British Empire (which later became the Commonwealth of Nations). This was the first occasion the conference was held outside the British Isles. Bennett dominated the meetings, which were ultimately unproductive, due to the inability of leaders to agree on policies, mainly to combat the economic woes dominating the world at the time.
A nickname that would stick with Bennett for the remainder of his political career, "Iron Heel Bennett," came from a 1932 speech he gave in Toronto that ironically, if unintentionally, alluded to Jack London's socialist novel:
What do they offer you in exchange for the present order? Socialism, Communism, dictatorship. They are sowing the seeds of unrest everywhere. Right in this city such propaganda is being carried on and in the little out of the way places as well. And we know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind.
Reacting to fears of Communist subversion, Bennett invoked the controversial Section 98 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Enacted in the aftermath of the Winnipeg General Strike, Section 98 dispensed with the presumption of innocence in outlawing potential threats to the state, specifically, anyone belonging to an organisation that officially advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Even if the accused had never committed an act of violence or personally supported such an action, they could be incarcerated merely for attending meetings of such an organization, publicly speaking in its defense, or distributing its literature. Despite the broad power authorized under Section 98, its targeted specifically the Communist Party of Canada. Eight of the top party leaders, including Tim Buck, were arrested and convicted under Section 98 in 1931. This plan to stamp out communism however, backfired and proved to be a damaging embarrassment for the government, especially after Buck was the target of an apparent assassination attempt. While confined to his cell during a prison riot, despite not participating in the riot, shots were fired into his cell. When an agit-prop play depicting these events, Eight Men Speak, was suppressed by the Toronto police, a protest meeting was held where activist A.E. Smith repeated the play's allegations and was consequently arrested for sedition. This created a storm of public protest compounded with Buck being called as a witness to the trial and repeating the allegations in open court. Although the remarks were striken from the record, they still discredited the prosecution's case and Smith was acquitted. As a result, the government's case against Buck lost any credibility and Buck and his comrades were released early and fêted as heroic champions of civil liberties.
Having survived Section 98, and benefiting from the public sympathy wrought by persecution, Communist Party members set out to organize workers in the relief camps. Camp workers laboured on a variety of infrastructure projects, including such things as municipal airports, roads, and park facilities, along with a number of make-work schemes. Conditions in the camps were abhorrent, not only because of the low pay, but the lack of recreational facilities, isolation from family and friends, poor quality food, and the use of military discipline, which made the camps feel like penal colonies. Communists thus had ample grounds on which to organize camp inmates. The Relief Camp Workers' Union was formed and affiliated with the Workers' Unity League, the trade union umbrella of the Communist Party. Camp workers in BC struck on 4 April 1935 and, after two months of protesting in Vancouver, began the On-to-Ottawa Trek to bring their grievances to Bennett's doorstep. The Prime Minister and his Minister of Justice, Hugh Guthrie, treated the trek as an attempted insurrection, and ordered it to be stopped. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) halted the Trek in Regina on 1 July 1935 by attacking a crowd of 3,000 strikers and their supporters, resulting in two deaths and dozens of injured. All told, Bennett's communist policy would not bode well for his political career.
Following the lead of President Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States, Bennett eventually followed suit as even mainstream economic thinking was changing in order to better cope with the global depression. The Bennett government 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.Bennett's conversion, however, was seen as too little too late, and he faced criticism that his reforms either did not go far enough, or that they 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 last to this day, including the Bank of Canada (which is responsible for the money supply and monetary policy), and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
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. King's government 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. Many of King's other reforms continue today, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the 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.
While Bennett was, and is still, often criticized for lack of compassion for the impoverished masses, he stayed up through many nights reading and responding to personal letters from ordinary citizens asking for his help and often dipped into his personal fortune to send a five dollar bill to a starving family. The total amount he gave personally is uncertain, although he personally estimated that between the years of 1927-37 he spent well over 2.3 million dollars. Bennett was a controlling owner of the E.B. Eddy match company, which was the largest safety match manufacturer in Canada, and one of the richest Canadians at that time. Bennett helped put many poor, struggling young men through university. Relative to the times he lived in, he was likely the wealthiest Canadian to become prime minister.
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.
He died after suffering a heart attack while taking a bath on 26 June, 1947 at Mickleham, and is buried there in St. Michael's Churchyard. He is the only former Prime Minister not buried in Canada. Unmarried, Bennett is survived by nephew William Herridge.
Published in 2001 by Québécois investigative journalist Normand Lester (himself part Jewish), Le Livre noir du Canada anglais (later translated as The Black Book of English Canada) first reported a relationship between R. B. Bennett and fascist Adrien Arcand. The book tells that, before the 1930 federal election campaign, Adrien Arcand and his associate Joseph Ménard were secretly approached by then-senator Joseph Hormisdas Rainville, in the name of Conservative leader in opposition Richard Bedford Bennett.
Arcand and Ménard were offered an initial guaranteed funding of 25,000 CAD dollars (equivalent to 268,577 CAD dollars at time of publication, according to the book) and promise of further financial support for their newspapers, now known for their anti-semitic content. In return, their publications (at the time, Le Miroir and Le Goglu; Le Chameau would soon follow) and Arcand's movement l'Ordre patriotique des Goglus would need to help the Conservative Party of Canada to win at least 12 seats in the upcoming election. In a May 22, 1930 letter marked "confidential", Adrien Arcand refers to Bennett and him meeting each other and the exposition of the plan to the future Canadian PM:
After the Conservative win in the 1930 election, on January 28, 1931, upon another letter marked confidential, Arcand and Ménard detailed their expenses. They asked to be reimbursed 52,000 dollars ($627,752 at publication) for their electoral help, including organizing 104 electoral assemblies having gathered 400,000 people. The two also recognized having already received 18,000 dollars ($193,376 at publication) in 1930, right in the Great Depression. As the papers struggled, other letters pleading for financial help would follow. A January 2, 1932 letter of Adrien Arcand and Joseph Ménard to R. B. Bennett shows the loyalty they professed towards the latter:
Arcand accumulated defamation cases against him and, in May 1932, asked again the Conservatives for help. On June 7, 1932, Conservative MP Leslie G. Bell wrote to Bennett that Le Goglu, "as you are aware, rendered us efficient and valuable service during the last election campaign. On every occasion when it was necessary to call upon their services, they responded most effectively." Later in the letter, he would note that "I am quite thoroughly convinced that the proprietors of 'The Goglu' are conservative in their politics and are prepared to back the Federal interests with all their strength." Another conservative, John A. Sullivan, would intervene and write about Le Goglu that "It would be a pity to see it fall, and you alone can help it in the present circumstances. Unable to face the financial hardships brought on by the legal cases against them, Arcand and Ménard would fall into bankruptcy.
Arcand knew the British fascist Arnold Spencer Leese and would even once send to Bennett a copy of Leese's paper The Fascist. On January 4, 1933, Arcand wrote to Bennett's secretary to inform him that Adolf Hitler's Washington representative, Kurt Ludecke, wished to meet with him in the second half of January. Ludecke was the Nazi representative in charge of gathering funds and support in America. No trace is to be found of Bennett either attending the meeting or refusing it.
After the end of the three papers, the new middleman between Bennett and Arcand, Pierre Édouard Blondin, leader of the government in senate, recommended Arcand to "turn a new sheet" and start a new newspaper. Le Patriote would be launched on May 4, 1934. In the beginning of 1934, senator Blondin confided to Bennett that "[…] he [Arcand] has launched a movement which (under the name of The Christian national party) aims simply at the debunking of all the rot of the old parties, which, when the end comes, will be found to be 'a regenerated Conservative party' in Quebec, which I think we need.
Arcand would once again be commissioned to help the Conservative Party for the 1935 federal election campaign. He and his paper Le Fasciste canadien campaigned for the Conservatives and attacked Mackenzie King, who would win the election. In 1936, in a letter to Bennett, a Conservative organizer, A. W. Reid, estimated that the Conservative Party gave Arcand 27,000 dollars ($359,284 at publication) in total. The author Lester notes that all the light may not have been shed on the relationship between the Conservative Party of Canada and Arcand: the Arcand archives from before the war have disappeared while in the care of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.