Bennett, Richard Bedford, Viscount Bennett 1870-1947, Canadian prime minister, was born at Hopewell, New Brunswick, 3 July 1870, the eldest of the three sons of Henry J. Bennett, shipbuilder, and his wife, a former schoolmistress, Henrietta, daughter of Captain Daniel Stiles, of Hopewell. Educated at public and high schools in New Brunswick, Bennett qualified as a teacher; but he was possessed of an ambition to attain riches and the highest possible office in the service of his country. As soon as he had sufficient funds he took his law degree at Dalhousie University (1893) and was called to the bar of New Brunswick. He began practice in Chatham but in 1897 moved west to a partnership in a law firm in Calgary where he was rapidly recognized as a very capable advocate. He took silk (1905) and became western counsel for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
His political career began in 1898 when he was elected a Conservative member of the legislature of the North-West Territories, in which he sat until Alberta was created a separate province in 1905. He failed to secure election to the new provincial legislature until 1909, but in the two years which followed he conducted the opposition to the policies of a very powerful Liberal ministry almost single-handed, with a skill and vigour which established his reputation as a formidable politician. He had already run for the Canadian House of Commons in 1900 but it was not until 1911 that he was elected, as Conservative member for Calgary. His large law practice and successful investments had by this time brought him financial independence.
At Ottawa Bennett did not take kindly to the role of a back-bencher, and he was frequently at loggerheads with his leaders, notably on railway matters. In 1915 he accompanied the prime minister, Sir Robert Borden [qv.], on a visit to England and France and in October 1916 became director-general of national service, conducting a vigorous campaign in an effort to avoid conscription. He was not included in, and did not greatly favour, the Unionist Conscriptionist Government formed in the following year and he did not stand at the ensuing general election. For a time he thought of entering British politics but instead he returned to Calgary and his law practice. He was defeated in 1921 and it was not until the election of 1925 that he was back in the House to become a formidable member of the Conservative Opposition in the stormy session which followed.
When Mr. Arthur Meighen resigned the leadership of the party in 1927 Bennett had no serious competitor at the national convention which met to choose a successor. His only experience in office so far had been in Mr. Meighen's pre-election Cabinets of 1921 and 1926 in which he had held respectively the portfolios of justice and finance. He now proceeded to lead the Opposition with great ability and to build up an efficient party organization before the election of 1930 in which he won an easy victory over W. L. Mackenzie King [qv.]. The shadow of the depression was lengthening and apprehensive voters were reassured by the confident promises of this notoriously successful business man to end unemployment and blast Canada's way into the markets of the world.
Once in office, retaining until early in 1932 the portfolio of finance, Bennett's remedies turned out to be the narrowly orthodox ones of retrenchment and high tariffs, with public works and camps for the unemployed. He went to the Imperial Conference of 1930 with views on imperial preference, always strongly held, which were not acceptable to the British Labour Government. His proposals revealed a desire to receive rather than to concede which brought down upon them the terse description humbug from the Dominions secretary, J. H. Thomas [qv.]. Undeterred, Bennett pressed for an imperial economic conference which was held in Ottawa in 1932 in an atmosphere of crisis and resulted in agreements more beneficial to imperial than to world trade. Canada's economic plight was dependent upon world conditions, and her survival and gradual recovery were governed more by these than by Bennett's policy of Canada for the Canadians. Despite his preoccupation with, and faith in, the Empire, Bennett was not unmindful of the importance to Canada of the American market, and in 1933 he discussed with President Roosevelt a trade agreement for which the Liberal Party was to receive the credit since it was not concluded until Mackenzie King was back in office. Meanwhile Bennett dealt with the depression as best he could with decisions which were always bold and vigorous. Much useful work was done and these years saw the establishment of a central bank and a national broadcasting system, as well as a thorough investigation of the railway systems, and a comprehensive reform of the federal budgetary system which strengthened the control of the Treasury over expenditure.
Early in 1935 Bennett startled the country by announcing a New Deal of far-reaching reforms which some thought was inspired by his close contact with American trends through his brother-in-law, W. D. Herridge, Canadian minister in Washington. Others more cynically pointed to the forthcoming election which Bennett already had little chance of winning since he could not be considered to have redeemed his over-confident promises and had, however unfairly, to shoulder the blame for the hardships of the depression. The party had been weakened by the defection of Mr. H. H. Stevens after his damaging revelations of undesirable methods in big business, and the announcement of the New Deal weakened it still further. Bennett went on to represent himself as the indispensable man at a time when the danger of authoritarianism was plain for all to see. It was not perhaps surprising that the country proved unwilling to entrust a programme of reform to a Conservative so traditional as to have restored the granting of titles discontinued since 1919. After leading the Opposition for three years Bennett realized that he had alienated many of the wealthier Conservatives by his last-minute reforms. Most of his social measures had been pronounced unconstitutional by the courts, but they were subsequently adopted in amended form by the Liberal Party, reaping once more where Bennett had sown. He, meanwhile, had retired to England where he purchased a property in Surrey from his old friend Lord Beaverbrook and continued his lifelong advocacy of empire co-ordination.
Despite his high ability, great energy, and very evident honesty, Bennett was never a popular figure. He ruled his Cabinet with a domineering hand, yet he was always a great stickler for the rights of Parliament and the constitutional proprieties. He had a serene confidence, sometimes misplaced, in his own ability to mould public opinion and he employed a vein of sonorous eloquence for the exposition of his policies and ideals. His autocratic temper was not always under perfect control and he was prone to rash impulses, which had sometimes disastrous consequences. In private life, however, he was a man of considerable charm, tall, portly, and elegant, an agreeable companion and an excellent host. He was by upbringing a Methodist, and he never broke an early promise to his mother to observe Sunday as a day of rest and neither to drink nor to smoke.
Bennett inherited from a friend, whose sudden death prevented her marriage to him, a very large fortune, which enabled him to give rein to his philanthropic instincts. At one time he was supporting eleven boys at school or college, and before he died he had distributed a substantial part of his fortune to universities and other institutions, in this country and in Canada.
When he visited Britain in 1930 Bennett received the freedom of London, Edinburgh, and Sheffield and was sworn of the Privy Council. Many other honours came to him, including honorary degrees from sixteen universities. In 1941 he was created a viscount, a title which became extinct when he died, unmarried, at his home at Mickleham 27 June 1947. He was buried close to the grave of Sir James Jeans [qv.] in the churchyard of the parish church which he had regularly attended.
There is a portrait of Bennett by Lawren Harris, junior, in the university of New Brunswick.
Contributor: J. A. Stevenson.