It’s Time to Put Bennett on the Hill
History matters. It is the stories we tell ourselves and others about whom we are and who we aspire to be. Among the important ways we tell those stories are through the monuments we erect on Parliament Hill; the lawn outside our House. Sir John is there. So are Diefenbaker and Laurier, the Queen, the Famous Five, and more. But Parliament Hill’s story is incomplete for it is without a statue of Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. He deserves to be there. We need him there for visitors to ponder his life and contributions as reflections of the values we cherish as Canadians.
Bennett was a remarkable man. Born to a poor New Brunswick family, he was a school principal by age 19. Wanting more, he attended law school. Senator James Lougheed was so impressed with the young student that he offered a full partnership so that Lougheed-Bennett was born in the Wild West boomtown of Calgary. Bennett was soon president of several companies and on the boards of more. Through hard work, connections and good luck he became a multi-millionaire. But he was never inspired or impressed by wealth. He owned neither a car nor, until retirement, a house. He gave nearly all of his money to individuals, charities, schools and universities.
Bennett was an engaged citizen. He believed in the nobility of public service. He was a city counsellor, territorial representative, and then a member of Alberta’s provincial parliament. He was the first leader of the Alberta Conservative Party. He won a federal seat and served in cabinet. In 1927 he became leader of the federal Tories and then, in 1930, Canada’s prime minister – the first, but not the last from Calgary.
After suffering defeat in 1935, Bennett was an effective opposition leader for two years but then fulfilled a life-long dream and retired to England. The Second World War drew him back to public service. He led the preparation of the Royal Air Force by coordinating the building of planes and air strips. Churchill rewarded him with an appointment to the House of Lords where he worked hard to prepare for the post-war years.
Bennett was a transformational leader. He became prime minister just as the Great Depression was entering its darkest days. The Red Tory principles that he had espoused throughout his life led to policies that respected the positive power of capitalism and a constructive role for government.
Bennett’s government provided immediate relief for those in need and then restructured the economy to mitigate the impacts of future economic calamities. He modernized unemployment insurance, established a minimum wage and limits on work hours, extended federally-backed farm credit, enacted anti-monopoly legislation, and saved thousands of farms with a revamped Wheat Board. He wrestled control of monetary policy from chartered banks with the establishment of the indispensable Bank of Canada. To protect and promote Canadian culture and national unity, Bennett formed the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission that became the CBC.
His legacy also includes increased trade with a host of countries and a trade deal with America that was enacted weeks after he left office. He negotiated a treaty that later served as the framework for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bennett’s bold actions led to a reinterpretation of the constitution that allowed the creation of many of the social policies which Canadians now proclaim as their birthright.
Bennett was not a perfect prime minister. There is no such thing. He was not a perfect human being – none of us are. But he was a remarkable man, a generous philanthropist, an engaged citizen and a transformational leader. His contributions, principles, and the questions his life forces us to ponder helps us understand ourselves and our country. R. B. Bennett’s story deserves to be a larger part of our collective story. We should begin our consideration of its place and lessons by placing a commemorative statue of R. B. Bennett on Parliament Hill.
(For more on R. B. Bennett see Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation (Goose Lane Editions) available at: amazon.ca and chapters.indigo.ca
(This was published as an op. ed. column in Ottawa’s Hill Times on April 28, 2014)