There are two men you should know. There is something hiding in Ottawa you should know about. One of the men is Oromocto, New Brunswick’s Robin Hanson. A successful entrepreneur and talented artist, he has been honoured many times by his community and won the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee award.
In 2010, Hanson got an idea involving the second man you should know: Richard Bedford Bennett. Hanson read about and was impressed by the Depression era prime minister and then was shocked that he had not been honoured with a statue on Parliament Hill.
The Hill’s statues reflect stories we tell others and ourselves about who we are and aspire to be. Sir John is there. So are Diefenbaker and Laurier, the Famous Five, and more. Former Prime Minister John Turner, Senator Hugh Segal, and Queen’s University’s Arthur Milnes have all written editorials and letters to decision makers and many current and former MPs have supported their arguments that Bennett deserves to be among the honoured few.
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 enamoured with the young student that he offered a full partnership so that Lougheed-Bennett was born in Calgary. Bennett was soon president of several companies, on the boards of more and, by age 30, a multi-millionaire. Never inspired by wealth, he owned little and gave nearly all his money to individuals, charities, and universities.
Bennett was an engaged citizen. He was a city counsellor, territorial representative, a member of Alberta’s provincial parliament, and then founding leader of the Alberta Conservative Party. He won a federal seat and served in Borden’s cabinet. In 1927 he became leader of the federal Tories and then, in 1930, Canada’s prime minister.
Bennett was a transformational leader. He took office just as the Great Depression entered its darkest days. He provided immediate relief for those in need and then restructured the economy to mitigate the impact of future economic calamities. He modernized unemployment insurance, established a minimum wage, enacted anti-monopoly legislation, and saved thousands of farms with a revamped Wheat Board. He wrestled control of monetary policy from chartered banks and created 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 negotiating 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 allow many of the social policies that Canadians now proclaim as their birthright.
Bennett was not a perfect prime minister or perfect human being – neither is possible. He made mistakes in office and in life. But his contributions, principles, errors, and triumphs help us ponder our country and ourselves. Like the other notable Canadians, Robin Hanson came to believe that Bennett’s story deserves a larger place in our collective narrative and that part and the process should begin with a Bennett monument on the hill.
Hanson studied photographs and then, over a matter of months, fashioned a truly impressive and carefully detailed 10-foot statue. Continuing to self-finance the project, he had the statue bronzed. He then offered it as a gift to the government and people of Canada. The response was silence. There were more letters, editorials, and speeches but still, more silence.
Hanson and the Statue (Photo: CBC)
Former Senate Speaker Noël A. Kinsella supported the project and worked to have the statue moved to Ottawa. But then, again, silence. Now, beneath a tarp somewhere in Ottawa stands Hanson’s Bennett. It’s been there for months. All that is needed is the political will to move it to its rightful place. One remarkable Canadian is trying to give us all a free gift to honour another and, in so doing, to honour us all. All we have to do, Mr. Trudeau, is accept it.
If you liked this column, please share it with others and consider learning more about Bennett by checking R. B. Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation, available at https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=john+boyko