Blaming the Prime Minister
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Blaming the Prime Minister
Canadians focus their anger on R.B. Bennett as he leads the country during the Great Depression
Richard (R.B.) Bennett was a tough-talking millionaire whom Canadians turned to as a beacon of hope during the first years of the Great Depression. He soon became the focus of a nation's anger as hard times intensified.
Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and his government had little vision for drawing Canadians out of the darkest years of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Pictured here, R.B. Bennett surrounded by members of his Cabinet. (National Archives of Ca
Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and his government had little vision for drawing Canadians out of the darkest years of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Pictured here, R.B. Bennett surrounded by members of his Cabinet. (National Archives of Canada / C-009076)

Bennett, the Conservative opposition leader, ran against Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King during the 1930 federal election. King had led the country through the prosperous 1920s but did little to acknowledge the growing economic crisis. Bennett seemed to offer more hope.

"The Conservative Party is going to find work for all who are willing to work, or perish in the attempt," he told a Moncton audience while on the campaign trail. "Mr. King promises consideration of the problem of employment. I promise to end unemployment. Which plan do you like best?"

Canadians elected Bennett with a commanding majority.

Once in office, Bennett had few concrete visions for drawing Canadians out of the crisis. Basically, he believed governments should interfere as little as possible in the free enterprise system. His few efforts to regulate the economy involved traditional policies. Bennett raised tariffs to unprecedented levels in an effort to protect Canadian markets and convinced Britain to offer Canada some preferential trading opportunities.

But these efforts did not stop the economic hemorrhage.
As the Depression deepened, unrest grew among the thousands of unemployed. Pictured here, an unidentified official beating back a group of people, during a Depression-era demonstration. (National Archives of Canada, C-020596)
As the Depression deepened, unrest grew among the thousands of unemployed. Pictured here, an unidentified official beating back a group of people, during a Depression-era demonstration. (National Archives of Canada, C-020596)

By 1932, almost a quarter of workers were jobless. Bennett was forced to adopt less traditional economic measures and the federal government gave the provinces $20 million for relief programs. Bennett also created labour camps to provide unemployed single men with a subsistence living. Men lived in bunkhouses and were paid 20 cents a day in return for a 44-hour week of hard labour.

The camps were very unpopular and so was Bennett. His initiatives offered Canadians no concrete ways to get back to work.

Canadians looked at the portly bachelor who lived in style at the Château Laurier Hotel in Ottawa and wondered how he could ever understand their misery. The Prime Minister became the target of endless jokes. Cars which were towed by horses because there was no money for fuel were called "Bennett buggies."

After four years in office and with an election looming, Bennett finally took some radical action. He borrowed ideas from American president Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and developed a Canadian version of the plan to combat the Depression.

At the start of 1935, Canadians turned on their radios and were shocked to hear Bennett outlining a new deal for Canada. In a complete departure from his free enterprise beliefs, Bennett called for government control and regulation in Canada's social and economic arenas.

"In the last five years great changes have taken place in the world," he told his listeners. "The old order is gone. We are living in conditions that are new and strange to us. Canada on the dole is 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."

Bennetts new deal promised more progressive taxation, unemployment insurance, health insurance, closer regulation of working conditions and social reforms.

But time had run out for Bennett. By now his party was too closely associated with the hardships of the Depression and Bennett did not have popularity like Roosevelts to sell the plan. An election was called for October 1935. His opponent, Mackenzie King offered the choice of "King or Chaos." Canadians chose King and handed him a majority government.

Although he was out of office, Bennett's new deal legislation was challenged at the Supreme Court. The Court found the most important parts unconstitutional.

Bennett remained opposition leader until 1938. Bitter and disillusioned by his election defeat and conflicts within his Conservative Party, R.B. Bennett abandoned Canada and immigrated to England. He died there in 1947.


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