Arthur Meighen

Arthur Meighen (1874-1960) was a Canadian lawyer and prime minister. He was one of the most respected Conservative leaders of government despite his espousal of several unpopular laws.

Arthur Meighen was born on June 16, 1874, near St. Mary's, Ontario, to parents of Ulster stock. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1896, and after a brief period as a high school teacher he went west to Winnipeg. He was called to the Manitoba bar in 1902 and took up the practice of law in the growing town of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, where his ability and unrelenting hard work soon made him a leading citizen. In 1904 he married Isabel Cox, a schoolteacher recently arrived from Quebec.

Meighen was elected to Parliament as Conservative member for Portage la Prairie in 1908 and reelected in 1911, when the new Conservative ministry of Robert Borden was formed. In 1913 Meighen became solicitor general of Canada and in 1917 was appointed secretary of state. Among Canadian political leaders of the day, he was without superior as a parliamentary debater and public speaker; his oratorical skills were frequently employed in defense of the protective tariff and the maintenance of close ties with Britain.

During World War I Meighen assumed an increasing role in the government and was a key figure in formulating and defending several controversial measures, including the act imposing conscription for overseas military service and the Wartime Election Act, which took the franchise away from citizens of enemy-alien origin naturalized since 1902 while giving it to the female relatives of members of the armed forces. When the Conservatives joined with a sector of the Liberal party in October 1917 to form a union government organized under Borden's leadership and committed to the enforcement of conscription, Meighen became minister of the interior. He was primarily responsible for the legislation which nationalized several railways to form the Canadian National Railways system.

On Borden's retirement on July 10, 1920, Meighen became prime minister and held office until the government was defeated in the general election of December 1921. At the conference of Dominion prime ministers in 1921 his pro-British sentiments did not inhibit him in opposing British policy and preventing the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance.

At the end of five years as leader of the opposition, Meighen faced the electors again in the election of 1925 but failed to win a clear majority, largely because of the hostility of French-Canadian voters, who continued to resent conscription. When Mackenzie King resigned in 1926, Meighen formed a minority government which was shortly defeated in Parliament and subsequently lost a general election. Thereupon Meighen retired from public life to pursue business interests and the study of Shakespeare in Toronto.

Meighen returned in 1932 as government leader in the Senate and held that position until the defeat of Richard Bedford Bennett's Conservative ministry in 1935. During World War II Meighen again accepted the leadership of the Conservative party, espousing conscription and national government once more, but he resigned after his defeat in a by-election in 1942. He died in Toronto on Aug. 5, 1960.

Further Reading on Arthur Meighen

Some of Meighen's public addresses are in Unrevised and Unrepented (1949). An excellent three-volume biography is Roger Graham, Arthur Meighen (1960-1966). The last phase of Meighen's political career is discussed in J. L. Granatstein, The Politics of Survival: The Conservative Party of Canada, 1939-1945 (1967).