This Week in History
A Prime Minister in Exile
For the week of Monday July 3, 2000
On July 3, 1870, Richard Bedford Bennett, Canada's 11th prime minister (PM), was born in Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick. As a young man he predicted a political career for himself spanning all levels of government up to the British House of Lords—and he was right!
Admiring his strong dramatic presence and oratory skills, the Conservatives made Bennett Party Leader in 1927. As the Roaring Twenties crashed into the Great Depression, an economically devastated Canada turned to Bennett for salvation in 1930.
The industrious bachelor quickly took charge as PM, Minister of Finance and of External Affairs, forming what some called a "one-man show." A popular tale is told of Bennett sitting alone in his club, grumbling to himself. When someone asked what Bennett was doing, the reply was "He's holding a cabinet meeting!"
As the Depression worsened, Bennett raised protective tariffs and established work camps for the unemployed, but these traditional methods failed to improve conditions. The West was in particularly poor shape, drought turning the prairies into a "Dustbowl." Canadians blamed Bennett for their woes—those who couldn't afford gas drove "Bennett buggies" (cars pulled by horses). Abandoned farms were called "Bennett barnyards." While many felt the millionaire couldn't understand their troubles, he did send money from his own pocket to those who wrote him for help.
As PM, Bennett created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Wheat Board. However, Bennett's more progressive "New Deal" proposals, such as unemployment and health insurance, were considered too late, and outside the federal government's power. Associating Bennett with the Depression, Canadians re-elected former PM Mackenzie King in 1935.
Tormented by the rejection of Canadians, in 1939, an embittered Bennett moved to England in self-imposed exile. Two years later he was made a viscount and admitted to the British House of Lords. Bennett died alone in England in 1947, the only PM not buried in Canada.
Rt. Hon. Richard Bedford Bennett fulfilled an unenviable position in Canadian history. His dedication to serving Canadians is honoured with plaques in Calgary and Hopewell Cape, N.B.
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