Richard Bedford Bennett (RB Bennett) was born July 3, 1870, one hundred and fifty years ago today. He died June 26, 1947, clearly not soon enough. He was Canada’s 11th prime minister, “leading” the country from 1930 until 1935.
If by leading, you mean leading it into ruin that didn’t have to happen.
Bennett was a millionaire lawyer who came to power via populism, opposition to the moderately successful 1920s under William Lyon Mackenzie King. Despite empty promises, Bennett’s policies were empty and his ineptitude made the effects of the Great Depression far worse.
Does that sound at all familiar?
Up until Bennett, the majority of Canadian prime ministers were Conservative Party leaders. After Bennett, the majority (of numbers and years in power) were Liberal Party leaders.
From the CBC:
Richard (R.B.) Bennett was a tough-talking millionaire whom Canadians turned to as a beacon of hope during the first years of the Great Depression. He soon became the focus of a nation’s anger as hard times intensified.
Bennett, the Conservative opposition leader, ran against Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King during the 1930 federal election. King had led the country through the prosperous 1920s but did little to acknowledge the growing economic crisis. Bennett seemed to offer more hope.
“The Conservative Party is going to find work for all who are willing to work, or perish in the attempt,” he told a Moncton audience while on the campaign trail. “Mr. King promises consideration of the problem of employment. I promise to end unemployment. Which plan do you like best?”
Canadians elected Bennett with a commanding majority.
Once in office, Bennett had few concrete visions for drawing Canadians out of the crisis. Basically, he believed governments should interfere as little as possible in the free enterprise system. His few efforts to regulate the economy involved traditional policies. Bennett raised tariffs to unprecedented levels in an effort to protect Canadian markets and convinced Britain to offer Canada some preferential trading opportunities.
But these efforts did not stop the economic hemorrhage.
By 1932, almost a quarter of workers were jobless. Bennett was forced to adopt less traditional economic measures and the federal government gave the provinces $20 million for relief programs. Bennett also created labour camps to provide unemployed single men with a subsistence living. Men lived in bunkhouses and were paid 20 cents a day in return for a 44-hour week of hard labour.
The camps were very unpopular and so was Bennett. His initiatives offered Canadians no concrete ways to get back to work.
Canadians looked at the portly bachelor who lived in style at the Château Laurier Hotel in Ottawa and wondered how he could ever understand their misery. The Prime Minister became the target of endless jokes. Cars which were towed by horses because there was no money for fuel were called “Bennett buggies.”
From there, it gets worse.
To those from the US reading this, may your incompetent buffoon be deposed ASAP.