Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada

IV: Visual Evidence

1) Cartoon depicting R.B. Bennett presiding over his Cabinet
2)
The Regina riot of 1935
3)
Mackenzie King in a Bennett Buggy
4) Extract from The Family Allowances Act, 1944
5) Transcript of Mackenzie King speech entitled Postwar Program (1945)
6) Mackenzie King's study in Laurier House
7) Latter-day assessment of Mackenzie King's accomplishments

1) Cartoon depicting R.B. Bennett presiding over his Cabinet


My government: Prime Minister Bennett presiding over his cabinet, every face his.
© Dale/Winnipeg Free Press / 1935

Question:

  1. What is striking about the faces of Bennett's ministers and of the figures in the pictures on the wall? What does this suggest to you concerning Bennett's approach to government?

(During the 1930s there was a popular story that illustrated succinctly the authoritarian and autocratic approach of R.B. Bennett: A tourist observed a solitary figure walking toward the Parliament buildings talking to himself. When he inquired who the person was, he was informed that it was the Prime Minister holding a Cabinet meeting.)

2) The Regina riot of 1935

Rioters atop railroad cars, others climbing, police and others below.
Rioters atop railroad cars, others climbing, police and others below.
© National Archives of Canada / #C-24840

During the Depression, strikes and mass protests were all too frequent and often degenerated into violence. R.B. Bennett had little sympathy with acts of civil disobedience and the reckless and radical demands of agitators who, in his opinion, were seeking to overthrow the established order. Under Bennett, the RCMP was often called upon to assist local authorities in preserving order during labour disputes. In June 1935, unemployment relief camp workers in Vancouver decided to travel to Ottawa by train in order to protest conditions in the camps and appeal to the government for aid. When the train reached Regina, the Prime Minister ordered the RCMP to prevent the workers from continuing on their journey to the capital. The order was carried out; however, a riot ensued during which one policeman was killed and many police officers and civilians were injured. The Regina Riot was the most violent incident of the Depression.

Questions:

  1. Despite Bennett's dislike of strikes and protests, did he have an obligation, under the circumstances, to allow the relief camp workers to proceed to Ottawa and present their grievances to the government?
  2. In unusually severe conditions, such as those of the Great Depression, are mass protests and other forms of civil disobedience justified?

3) Mackenzie King in a Bennett Buggy

King sitting in a
King sitting in a Bennett Buggy: the body of an automobile hitched to a horse.
© National Archives of Canada / #C-087860

Like Mackenzie King, Bennett believed that the economic recession was temporary. In reality, of course, the situation was far more serious than either realized. Bennett promised aggressive action, but by 1935 he had failed to develop a coherent economic strategy to combat the effects of the Depression. Despite the fact that his government had spent over $100 million on farm and unemployment relief, and despite acts of personal generosity on the part of the Prime Minister himself such as sending two-dollar bills to needy Canadians Bennett had alienated a majority of the population. He was regarded as out of touch and indifferent to the distress of ordinary, struggling Canadians. He himself became a derisive symbol of the Depression: cars with the engines removed and drawn by horses because the owners could not afford to purchase gasoline were dubbed Bennett buggies, and the squalid tar-paper shacks of the unemployed were referred to as Bennett burghs. In the election of 1935, Mackenzie King and the Liberals returned to power with the largest majority in Canadian history to that time.

Questions:

  1. Canadians have largely forgotten R.B. Bennett. Do you think he has been judged unfairly because of his ineffectual policies?
  2. If Mackenzie King had been Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935, would he have suffered the same fate as Bennett? Was King a superior political leader or did he benefit from the mistakes of his predecessor? Or both?

4) Extract from The Family Allowances Act, 1944

3. Subject as provided in this Act and in regulations, there may be paid out of unappropriated moneys in the Consolidated Revenue Fund from and after the first day of July, one thousand nine hundred and forty-five, in respect of each child resident in Canada maintained by a parent, the following monthly allowance:

  1. in the case of a child less than six years of age, five dollars per month;
  2. in the case of a child six or more years of age but less than ten years of age, six dollars per month;
  3. in the case of a child ten or more years of age but less than thirteen years of age, seven dollars per month;
  4. in the case of a child thirteen or more years of age but less than sixteen years of age, eight dollars per month.

Provided that the allowance payable shall, in respect of a fifth child maintained by the parent, be reduced by one dollar and in respect of a sixth child and a seventh child respectively so maintained, by two dollars and in respect of an eighth child and each additional child respectively so maintained, be three dollars.

(Extract from the Statutes of Canada, 1944-45.)

Critics regarded the baby bonus as a waste of taxpayers' money, believing that it would encourage poor families to procreate. (In reality, it did not lead to an increase in the birthrate, which has steadily decreased since the mid-1950s.) It was suggested instead that government money should be spent on services to needy families rather than a monthly cash allowance. However, supporters of a universal family allowance program argued that considerable administrative costs would be involved in identifying families in genuine need, and stated that money distributed directly to mothers would ensure a basic income for families with children.

Questions:

  1. Do you believe that a monthly allowance should be paid to families with children in order to help defray the costs of child maintenance?
  2. Do you agree that family allowances should be paid directly to mothers, or should it be distributed in the form of government services to needy families?

5) Transcript of Mackenzie King speech entitled Postwar Program (1945)

Mackenzie King reading speech.
Mackenzie King reading speech.
© National Archives of Canada / #C-23279

Transcript:

On another occasion I hope to speak about the plans of the government to achieve, once the war is won, what I have previously defined as a national minimum of social security and human welfare, not for labour only but for all the people. That national minimum should embrace useful employment for all who are willing to work; standards of nutrition and housing, adequate to ensure the health of the whole population; social insurance against privation resulting from unemployment, from accident, from the death of the bread-winner, from ill health and from old age. Those are our postwar objectives.

Questions:

  1. Do you think Mackenzie King was forced to wait for public opinion to develop before instituting such social measures as unemployment insurance?
  2. Was he restricted by the powers allocated to the provinces by the BNA Act?

6) Mackenzie King's study in Laurier House

Mackenzie King spent many hours in the book-lined study on the third floor of Laurier House. It has been referred to as the room from which the nation was governed for more than two decades.

Colour picture of 3rd floor study in Laurier House.
Colour picture of 3rd floor study in Laurier House.
© Parks Canada / Laurier House staff
King sitting in his study, 1932.
King sitting in his study, 1932.
© National Archives of Canada / Hands studio / #C-009063

7) Latter-day assessment of Mackenzie King's accomplishments

Mackenzie King.
Mackenzie King.
© National Archives of Canada / #C-027645

King not only divided Canada least, but he led governments that accepted a responsibility for ensuring Canadians a national minimum standard of living. The King Liberals gave Canada the welfare state. They expected the thanks of a grateful population at election time and got it. From Macdonald's day the essence of Canadian electoral politics - perhaps the essence of electoral politics in most countries - had been the trading of favours for voter support. King took the system to new levels of sophistication and complexity and it has to be said idealistic service to the less fortunate. Earl Grey [Governor-General of Canada] had predicted [in 1908] that King would be as bad as the rest of them, give public buildings before elections, etc. Perhaps in giving baby-bonus cheques to mothers, before, during, and after elections, Mackenzie King was not as bad as the rest of them. The welfare state cemented the people to their government. For citizens in time of trouble it gave new content to the meaning of being Canadian. In later years the relationship between a paternal government and dependent citizens would be expanded and abused, and would finally become unsustainable. King had vaguely sensed some of those perils ahead. The other Liberals had scoffed at the old man's fretting and caution about too much spending and activism. He proved to have had the better foresight. The qualities that he brought to governing Canada high intelligence, immense knowledge of government and politics, canniness, wariness, and utter dedication to his calling helped him keep the ship of state on course and prevent disasters in stormy, shark-infested waters. Beginning with St. Laurent, his successors lacked Mackenzie King's unique package of political skills.

(Extract from Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1994, p. 183.

Questions:

  1. Historian H.B. Neatby has written that Mackenzie King was not an innovator; he was not a man with original ideas.........[his] strength was in his commitment to a policy of party unity, and in his capacity to accept and adopt new ideas when the alternative was a division within the party. Do you think that this concept of leadership is preferable to the more authoritarian approach of R.B. Bennett?
  2. It has been said that Mackenzie King was the leader who divided us least. Do you agree with this assessment?
  3. Do you think it is true, as many historians and politicians claim, that Canada is a very difficult country to govern? If so, why is this the case?

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