This Week in History


Bennett's New Deal

For the week of Monday December 31, 2001

On January 2, 1935, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett began a series of live radio speeches outlining what came to be known as the "Bennett New Deal." These speeches contained proposals for economic and social reforms that would change the relationship between the government and the public, ushering in the welfare state.

Rt. Hon. Richard Bennett

Rt. Hon. Richard Bennett
© LAC / C-000687

R.B. Bennett, leader of the Conservative party, was elected Prime Minister in 1930, at a time when the whole world, including Canada, was in the midst of the Great Depression. Wheat prices had collapsed, businesses had gone bankrupt and one-quarter of the population was unemployed. Canadians looked to the government for help. Early relief measures included The Unemployment Relief Act, which provided $20 million to aid the unemployed, and the Ottawa Agreements, which established preferential trade tariffs within the British Commonwealth. The government also created the Bank of Canada to strengthen the Canadian banking system and organized the Canadian Wheat Board to improve the wheat-marketing network.

Despite these measures, the Depression continued and Bennett's popularity waned. In 1934, William D. Herridge, Canada's Minister to the United States, encouraged Bennett to try a new approach. Influenced by U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Herridge endorsed more government economic control in order to get substantial progress and relief from the Depression.

In January of 1935, Bennett gave five half-hour radio speeches outlining a reform program. During these broadcasts, which he financed with his own money, Bennett passionately advocated a minimum wage, and health and unemployment insurance. Canadians sat riveted to their radios and those without a radio gathered at homes with one. Bennett's ideas surprised Canadians; conservatives did not normally interfere in business practices and social welfare.

Unemployed people during the Depression at Market Square, Edmonton, Alberta

Unemployed people during the Depression
at Market Square, Edmonton, Alberta

© LAC / C-020595

When Bennett's new legislation came before Parliament, three bills—establishing an eight-hour workday, a six-day work week, and a minimum wage—were ready for debate. However, Bennett's long-expected Employment and Social Insurance Act was introduced late and many Canadians felt that the legislation had not delivered on enough of Bennett's promises. Disappointed Canadians re-elected Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1935. Two years later, the British Privy Council ruled most of Bennett's legislation unconstitutional, because it encroached on provincial government powers. However, Bennett's New Deal did set an important precedent, for his proposed program influenced the future of the welfare state in Canada.

For his role as Prime Minister, Richard Bedford Bennett was designated a person of national historic significance.

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