Richard Bedford Bennett (1870-1947) was a leader of the Conservative party of Canada and prime minister during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Richard Bedford Bennett was born at Hopewell, New Brunswick, on July 3, 1870, a descendant of pre-Loyalist settlers from Connecticut. After graduating from Dalhousie University in 1893, he practiced law in Chatham, New Brunswick, for 4 years and then moved to Calgary in the Northwest Territories. There he soon built up a successful legal business and established a connection with the E. B. Eddy Company that was to lead to his holding a controlling interest in it 25 years later. He also acted as solicitor for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Bennett was a member of the Assembly of the Northwest Territories for 6 years and was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1909, then resigned to contest and win the Calgary East Riding for the Conservatives in the general election of 1911. He did not run in the wartime election of 1917 but served briefly in the ministries of Arthur Meighen of 1920-1921 and 1926. He represented Calgary West from 1925 to 1938. On Meighen's retirement from public life in 1927, Bennett was chosen leader of the Conservative party. Promising to end the growing unemployment of the Depression by "blasting" his way into world markets, and fortifying Conservative coffers with $600,000 from his own fortune, Bennett defeated W. L. Mackenzie King in the general election of 1930.
In office Bennett proceeded to launch a modest public works program to provide employment, but his major response to Depression conditions was to increase the tariff to unprecedented levels, followed by an initiative which led to the establishment of preferential tariff arrangements within the British Empire. These policies probably further restricted Canadian export trade and increased the burden of the Depression on those who already felt it most. Such policies, the arbitrary treatment of protesters, and the apparent cold aloofness of the bachelor-millionaire prime minister made Bennett an increasingly unpopular leader.
After 4 years, under pressure from a small reform group within his party led by H. H. Stevens, and in the face of the coming election, Bennett began to move toward reform. Through his brother-in-law, W. D. Herridge, Canadian minister to Washington, he became greatly interested in Roosevelt's New Deal program. Early in 1935, to the shock of his Cabinet colleagues, who had not been consulted, Bennett announced in a series of radio addresses a "New Deal" of planning and social security. His government then enacted measures extending farm credit and establishing a natural-products marketing board, unemployment insurance, and minimum wages and maximum hours in industry. After Bennett's defeat in the election of 1935, most of this legislation was ruled unconstitutional by the courts. Bennett remained as leader of the opposition until 1938, when he retired to live in England. In 1941 he was created Viscount Bennett of Mickleham, Calgary, and Hopewell. He died in England on June 26, 1947.
Lord Beaverbrook, Friends (1959), and Ernest Watkins, R. B. Bennett: A Biography (1963), contain useful discussions of Bennett. J. R. H. Wilbur, The Bennett New Deal: Fraud or Portent? (1968), contains the major documents of Bennett's administration.
Gray, James Henry, R.B. Bennett: the Calgary years, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Waite, Peter B., The loner: three sketches of the personal life and ideas of R.B. Bennett, 1870-1947, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1992. □