In the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s political demise seemed inevitable. He sought to reverse the tide running against his Conservative Party. In January 1935, he began a series of live radio speeches outlining a “New Deal” for Canada. He promised a more progressive taxation system; a maximum work week; a minimum wage; closer regulation of working conditions; unemployment insurance; health and accident insurance; a revised old-age pension; and agricultural support programs. But Bennett’s 11th-hour proposals were seen as too-little, too-late. He lost the 1935 election to William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Liberals.
R.B. Bennett’s Conservative Party had won a majority government in August 1930. However, the Great Depression had been his government’s millstone since its rise to power. Bennett had tried to bring back prosperity using traditional economic tools, including high import tariffs. (See also Protectionism.) By 1934, as the Depression and the burden of unemployment wore on, political discontent surfaced across the country.
In Ontario and the West, the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) emerged with its “Regina Manifesto.” It advocated unemployment and health insurance, farming price supports and public housing. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Social Credit movement blossomed and came to power in Alberta in 1935. It argued for increased purchasing power for consumers, via a $25-per month social dividend payment to every adult Albertan. Another new political party, Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale, began to make waves in Quebec. And there was criticism from within Bennett’s own cabinet that the Conservative government’s policies were creating easy profits for big business and hardship for others.
Reforms Announced on Radio
Amidst these pressures, and with an election on the horizon, Bennett dramatically changed course. Modelling his strategy on United States President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the prime minister took to the radio airwaves with a series of speeches outlining a New Deal for Canada.
Bennett’s reforms promised a more progressive taxation system; a maximum work week; a minimum wage; closer regulation of working conditions; unemployment insurance; health and accident insurance; a revised old-age pension; and agricultural support programs. (See also Social and Welfare Services.) Bennett’s New Deal legislation was largely unopposed by the other political parties; however, the reforms were not enacted in time for the October 1935 election.
Bennett’s 11th-hour proposals were seen as too-little, too-late by a weary and impatient electorate. He lost the 1935 election to William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Liberals, who were returned to Parliament with a majority government. The Liberal percentage of the vote did not dramatically increase from the election in 1930. But the new parties contesting the election — the CCF, Social Credit, and the Reconstruction Party (a Conservative splinter group) — all drew votes away from the Conservatives.
King referred Bennett’s New Deal legislation to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (Canada’s highest court of appeal at the time). In 1937, it declared many of the reforms unconstitutional and outside of federal jurisdiction. (See Distribution of Powers.)