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There's much to admire in nasty-tempered R.B. Bennett

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The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation

By John Boyko

Key Porter Books, 464 pages, $35

To Canadians who think of him at all, R.B. Bennett, prime minister during the worst of the Depression, is a caricature.

Bennett looked like the Monopoly man -- top hat, waistcoat and watch chain -- while gaslesss cars drawn by horses became Bennett buggies and hobo camps were Bennett boroughs.

John Boyko, dean of history and social sciences at Lakefield College School in Ontario, sets out to rescue Bennett from the ignominy that the man largely fashioned for himself.

Boyko has written several books on Canadian politics, including Into the Hurricane: Attacking Socialism and the CCF.

Despite Bennett's arrogance, nasty temper and stubborn, foolish pride, Boyko finds much to admire in Canada's 11th prime minister.

Bennett was a Red Tory who believed a judicious use of government power could help forge a better society.

By the 1935 election, Bennett had steered his party far to the left of the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King.

With a reformist zeal that began long before Franklin Delano Roosevelt became U.S. president, Bennett created many institutions that are now Canadian icons.

The CBC, the Bank of Canada and the Economic Council of Canada all sprang from Bennett's fertile mind.

Bennett initiated the concept of the social safety net by introducing unemployment insurance, minimum wages, old-age pensions and other reforms for workers and farmers.

Boyko consistently demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian history.

He can jump from Sir John A. to Pierre Elliott Trudeau and back to Bennett in a single paragraph to illustrate Bennett's answers at the time to a prime minister's perennial problems -- Quebec, provincial powers, and the relationship with the United States.

Boyko's writing is so good and his research so thorough that any Canadian with an interest in our political history can read and enjoy this book.

Boyko lays out the many dramatic ironies and seeming contradictions of this complex character.

Bennett was the corporate lawyer for the Canadian Pacific Railway and made himself rich by using inside information to buy railway land and flip it to others.

Yet he was also a leader in calling for railway reform and played a key role in the formation of the Canadian National Railway, the Crown corporation that competed against the CPR.

He was a lawyer for the Royal Bank of Canada. But he was also an enthusiastic proponent of banking reform, arguing that Parliament should ensure banks acted in the public interest.

One of Bennett's responses to the Depression was to set up work camps to build roads and put otherwise idle young men to work.

Hundreds of those men, led by Communist organizers, tried to take protests about the camps to Ottawa.

The On to Ottawa trek ended in Regina as the RCMP used baseball bats and machine guns to disperse the mob.

Bennett hadn't ordered the RCMP action, but he didn't disapprove it either and so carried all of the blame for the violent treatment of out-of-work Canadians.

In what was widely labelled "Bennett's New Deal," Bennett took his party even further left in a series of five radio speeches to the nation in early 1935 that contained what were then radical solutions to the Depression.

Mackenzie King's label -- a "death-bed conversion" -- stuck, even though Mackenzie King had no ideas of his own and ended up implementing many of Bennett's.

As his cabinet split around him, with one minister leaving to form his own party, Bennett was left to fight the 1935 election alone.

Canadians vented their frustrations with the Depression on him and trounced his party with its worst results to date.

Bennett moved to Britain, contributed greatly to the effort to win the Second World War, and died shortly after the war with few friends or supporters left to mourn him.

By the end of this book, Boyko's achievement is that the reader feels Bennett should be mourned as a courageous leader who contributed so much to what is now modern Canada.

Donald Benham works at the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and Winnipeg Harvest and teaches politics at the University of Winnipeg.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2010 H8

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