In the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett's political demise seemed inevitable. Seeking 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.
The Great Depression had been the Bennett government's millstone since its rise to power in 1930, in spite of its parliamentary majority. Bennett had tried to bring back prosperity using traditional economic tools, including high import tariffs (see 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," advocating unemployment and health insurance, farming price supports and public housing. At the other end of the spectrum, the Social Credit movement blossomed and came to power provincially in 1935 in Alberta, arguing for increased purchasing power for consumers — via a $25-per month social dividend payment to every adult Albertan. A new political party, Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale, also began to make waves in Québec. 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
In the midst of these pressures, and with an election on the horizon, Bennett dramatically changed course. Modelling his strategy on President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States, 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. The New Deal legislation was largely unopposed by the other political parties, although the reforms weren't enacted in time before 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's Liberals, who were returned to Parliament with a majority government. While the Liberal percentage of the vote didn't dramatically increase from the previous election in 1930, 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 (at that time Canada's court of final appeal), which in 1937 declared many of the reforms unconstitutional and outside of federal jurisdiction.