Richard B. Bennett

The Right Honourable Richard Bedford Bennett, 1st Viscount Bennett

In office:

August 7, 1930 to October 23. 1935

Born: July 3, 1870 at Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick
Died: June 26, 1947, age 76, in Mickleham, England
Resting place: St. Michael’s Churchyard, Mickleham, England

Political party: Conservative

Alma mater: Dalhousie University

Profession: Lawyer

Religion: Methodist, then United Church of Canada.

Bennett was the first Canadian prime minister to be a member of the House of Lords.  While he was prime minister, he lived in a special suite in the Chateau Laurier Hotel, in Ottawa.  He is also the only former prime minister buried outside Canada.

One day, while Bennett was crossing the Miramichi River on the ferry boat, a well-dressed lad about nine years younger came over to him and struck up a conversation. This was the beginning of an improbable but important friendship with Max Aitken, later the industrialist and British press baron, Lord Beaverbrook. The agnostic Aitken liked to tease the Methodist Bennett, whose fiery temper contrasted with Aitken’s ability to turn away wrath with a joke. This friendship would become important to his success later in life.

Bennett moved to Alberta in 1897.  A lifelong bachelor and teetotaler (although Bennett was known by select associates to occasionally drink alcohol when the press was not around to observe this), he led a rather lonely life in a hotel and later, in a boarding house. He ate his noon meal on workdays at the Alberta Hotel. Social life, such as it was, centered on church. Bennett worked hard and gradually built up his legal practice. In 1908 he was one of five people appointed to the first Library Board for the city of Calgary and was instrumental in establishing the Calgary Public Library.

At age 44, he tried to enlist in the Canadian military once World War I broke out, but was turned down as being medically unfit.

By defeating William Lyon Mackenzie King in the 1930 federal election, he had the misfortune of taking office during the Great Depression.

A nickname that would stick with Bennett for the remainder of his political career, “Iron Heel Bennett,” came from a 1932 speech he gave in Toronto that ironically, if unintentionally, alluded to Jack London’s socialist novel:

“What do they offer you in exchange for the present order? Socialism, Communism, dictatorship. They are sowing the seeds of unrest everywhere. Right in this city such propaganda is being carried on and in the little out of the way places as well. And we know that throughout Canada this propaganda is being put forward by organizations from foreign lands that seek to destroy our institutions. And we ask that every man and woman put the iron heel of ruthlessness against a thing of that kind.”

Reacting to fears of Communist subversion, Bennett invoked the controversial Section 98 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Enacted in the aftermath of the Winnipeg General Strike, Section 98 dispensed with the presumption of innocence in outlawing potential threats to the state: specifically, anyone belonging to an organization that officially advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Even if the accused had never committed an act of violence or personally supported such an action, they could be incarcerated merely for attending meetings of such an organization, publicly speaking in its defense, or distributing its literature.  Despite the broad power authorized under Section 98, it targeted specifically the Communist Party of Canada.

He died after suffering a heart attack while taking a bath on June 26, 1947, at Mickleham. He was exactly one week shy of his 77th birthday.

 

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