It’s hard to imagine a man more miscast for his moment than Richard Bedford Bennett. An out-of-touch millionaire charged with running Canada during the Great Depression, his government was a caricature of the wealthy ruling class at a time when the wealthy ruling class wasn’t exactly held in high regard.
Born in the Maritimes, Bennett trained as a lawyer in the east before moving west to seek employment in the newly-created province of Alberta. He picked up a number of high-profile corporate clients and became a savvy investor, growing very wealthy in the process. Having made his fortune, he turned to politics, helping found the Conservative Party of Alberta and serving as its first leader in the provincial legislature in the early 1900s.
Elected to the House of Commons in 1911, Bennett served briefly in the cabinet of Prime Minister Arthur Meighen (1874-1960). He won the leadership of the federal Conservative Party in 1927, vowing his business background would make him the ideal leader for the party of business. As the Depression dawned, he successfully unseated Prime Minister Mackenzie King (1874-1950) in the 1930 election, arguing the Liberal Party’s economic incompetence was responsible for the country’s woes.
Yet once in office Prime Minister Bennett offered few solutions. Skeptical of government intervention in the economy, he instead offered his citizens moralizing lectures about working hard and saving money, and was quickly demonized for failing to understand the sheer magnitude of the crisis. As his first term came to a close, he had an abrupt (and politically convenient) change of heart, and promised to bring to Canada some of the popular “New Deal” welfare state reforms of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) in the United States — but only if he was reelected.
He was not. Bennett lost his bid for re-election in a landslide and Mackenzie King was returned to power in 1935. Bitter over the country that rejected him, Bennett emigrated to England where he became a member of the House of Lords, living a plush exile until his death.