We Canadians are uncomfortable idolizing our leaders. This is too bad as we have had some good ones. We have had a drunk Sir John A. MacDonald who created a country, Wilfred Laurier who overcame French-Catholic prejudice to lead the country, Mackenzie-King who was a master of political tactics (and has the long-service award in office to prove it) and of course Trudeau who (for better or worse) remade Canada in someone’s image – and nearly destroyed it in the process (but that is another blog).
What about Richard Bedford Bennett (or RB)? Do you vaguely remember him from Grade 8 social, perhaps you remember the ‘Bennett-buggy’, the horse drawn Model-T used on the prairies because no one could afford the gas anymore? In his book, Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation, John Boyko explores perhaps one of the most and least lucky of Canada’s Prime Ministers.His luck started out iffy though as he was born into a home that had known wealth but the family fortunes were in decline during his childhood. The decline was partly due to his father who worked hard but also liked a strong drink. Nevertheless, RB was able to obtain his teaching certificate and was soon a principle in a school over-seeing children not much younger than him. It was during this time that he met a life-long friend, Max Aitken who you may know better (at least for those living in Calgary) as Lord Beaverbrook. Max would prove a strong ally and provided political practicality to the relationship. Within a few years Bennett grew bored and left the teaching profession to study law at Dalhousie University. Soon after graduation, the Maritimes were also left behind when RB took up Senator James Lougheed’s (grandfather of Peter, premier of Alberta) offer to work in his Calgary law office.
From there, RB was soon to amass a fortune through hard work, skill, honesty and shrewd business judgement. Also during this time he was shown to have innate abilities any politician would kill for. These included a strong work ethic, an excellent memory and the ability to speak ad lib as if he was reading the best of the prepared speeches.
RB had dreamed of being Prime Minister since his youth in Eastern Canada; in 1930 he realized it. In retrospect – this could be described as a mixed blessing. In 1930 Canada did not have a central bank; its economic measurements were crude and would need to wait until the Second World War before such basic measures as unemployment or gross domestic product could be measured accurately. So while RB attempted to rectify Canada’s fortunes, he was essentially flying economically blind. In addition, his economic fire power was limited as it would be three years until Keynesian inspired economic measures of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ would show nations the way out of recessions and depressions.
As a result, RB was blamed for much of the country’s economic turmoil – despite the limited tools, measurement or resources he had to fight the Depression. True, he did not help himself. He was a workaholic-bachelor who was surprised that others did not share his enthusiasm for long hours in the office. His brilliant mind meant that he would alienate those who could not keep up. He was facing a formidable political adversary in Mackenzie-King who was wily and willing to capitalize on RB’s weaknesses. Finally, he served during a time when communists and fascists were both offering and agitating for alternatives to capitalism and democracy.
Nevertheless RB was generous and gave away much of his considerable fortune during his lifetime. He supported, often anonymously schools, libraries and university students. For Canada he founded the Bank of Canada, inspired the St. Lawrence Seaway and commissioned the Canadian Broadcast Corporation – all icons of a modern Canada. At a time when increasing tariffs were pulling the global economy down into an abyss, he championed free trade and economic liberalization with both the Commonwealth and the United States. Finally he recognized the growing storm clouds in Europe. In 1937, Mackenzie-King called Hitler a simple peasant and not a danger to anyone. RB by contrast was publicly warning of the rise of fascism in 1935 – two years after Hitler had ceased power.
In the end, Bennett should be remembered for more than his Depression-era buggy. He was a brilliant Canadian who despite being flawed had helped to shape and direct the country we now live in. Boyko’s book is mostly a good and accessible read – albeit a bit long on details for the more casual historian. A good addition to all Canadian-history buffs out there.