September 1, 2015


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Tireless R.B. Bennett a 'blazing intelligence'

RICHARD Bedford (R.B.) Bennett had the thankless task of being prime minister of Canada during the depths of the Great Depression, 1930-1935.

How he led Canada through these difficult years is the main focus of this outstanding biography by P.B. Waite, a veteran historian at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Waite convincingly argues that Bennett's efforts during the Depression were herculean; Waite's study shines much-needed light on a figure who has received little credit for his exertions.

Born in 1870 in New Brunswick, Bennett first became a teacher, and then studied law. He moved to Calgary in 1897, where he made a fortune as a lawyer and businessman.

By 1911, when he was elected Conservative MP for Calgary, he was independently wealthy.

His independent means and independent mind made him a maverick MP -- not really a "team player." He became leader of the Conservative party in 1927, and was elected prime minister in 1930.

In addition to being prime minister, he also held the offices, simultaneously, of minister of external affairs, acting minister of finance and, in 1931, acting minister of labour.

This burden reflects one of his chief characteristics: a prodigious capacity for work, which he displayed throughout his life.

Long days

As prime minister, he routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days.

This penchant for hard work, combined with what Waite calls his "blazing intelligence," made him a formidable figure -- a "phenomenon."

What was Bennett's political philosophy? He was an exemplar of the Red Tory, a conservative with progressive ideas about the role of government in the economy.

As Bennett declared in a radio address in 1935, "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."

The concrete policies that issued from this philosophy included the beginning of unemployment insurance and legislation for Prairie farmers in 1934 and 1935.

However, when Bennett assumed power, he had to take immediate steps to avert a total financial collapse. Only when fiscal stability was restored could he turn to enacting his agenda of progressive reform.

But by then it was too late for the Canadian public. Widespread discontent swept the Liberals and Mackenzie King back into office in 1935.

Bennett continued to be a public figure after leaving office, speaking often about Canada's role in the British Empire, a role that promoted Canadian independence by providing a counterweight to the influence of Canada's powerful southern neighbour.

Bennett left Canada in 1939 to reside in Britain. He was awarded a peerage. He died in 1947.

Waite's account of Bennett depicts a politician and statesman who served Canada tirelessly under adverse circumstances, and who therefore deserves an honoured place among great Canadian political leaders.

 

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J7

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