This Week in History


Canada and the 1920s

This story was initially published in 2004

October 24, 1929, marked the beginning of the volatility of the world's stock markets, thus ending a decade of changes in the economy, politics and arts in Canada.

The Right Honourable R.B. Bennett and Mackenzie King, arm in arm
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-148532

After 1918, Canada experienced significant, but fragile economic development. During the First World War, there was an increased demand for Canadian products. However, after the war ended, inflation and unemployment thrust the country into recession, which drove down grain prices on the world markets. Agriculture in the West became mechanized and the property value of farmland increased in the late 1920s. In spite of the increasing debt that affected farmers in this region, this economic sector remained relatively prosperous until 1929.

Wilfrid Laurier, leader of the Liberal Party since 1887, died in 1919. The young William Lyon Mackenzie King succeeded him. Through skill, luck, ambition and Quebeckers' loyalty to the Liberal Party, Mackenzie King was able to defeat his opponents for the entire decade. In 1921, Agnes Macphail was elected to the House of Commons. She was the first woman to receive such an appointment.

In the cultural world, the Group of Seven held its first exhibition in Toronto in 1920. These painters believed that Canadian art should reflect its environment and should break away from the European tradition. In 1924, during the Wembley Exhibition in England, their landscapes, which convey a strong nationalist sentiment, dominated the Canadian collection.

Toronto Stock Exchange (1913-1936), Bay Steet
© Toronto Public Library (TRL) / T 30948

Unfortunately, on October 29, 1929, world market share prices, which had tripled since 1920, plummeted and the New York, Toronto and Montréal stock exchanges crashed. In Canada, the value of exports and the price of wheat dropped. No one seemed to realize the significance of this crisis, which would last until the beginning of the Second World War. Mackenzie King did not escape misfortune either, losing the election in 1930. He was succeeded by Richard Bedford Bennett, who would only serve one term before King's return to power from 1935 to 1948. Mackenzie King, who led the country for 22 years, was thus the longest-serving Prime Minister in the entire Commonwealth to date.

A turning point in Canadian history, the 1920s witnessed significant events and the rise of various figures that shaped the country's history. A number of them were commemorated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, including Richard Bedford Bennett, designated in 1949, William Lyon Mackenzie King, designated in 1967, the Group of Seven, designated in 1974, and Agnes Campbell Macphail, designated in 1985.

For more information on Agnes Campbell Macphail, visit Canada's First Female MP in the This Week in History archives. 

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