BENNETT, RICHARD B. (1870-1947)
Businessman, lawyer, politician, and prime minister, Richard Bennett was born in Hopewell, New Brunswick, on July 3, 1870, the eldest son of five children. His father, Henry, was a shipbuilding craftsman who drank heavily and drove his business into bankruptcy. His mother, a schoolmistress of strong religious tenets, poured herself into raising her children, of whom Richard was her favorite. A shy and studious boy gifted with a clear mind, superb memory, compelling voice, and strong tenacity, he spent his childhood and teens in school, church, and household duties. He avoided most other children and their pastimes, including alcohol, tobacco, games, and sports. A devout Methodist, he focused on the goal of living life opposite to that of his father and bringing to his mother the success in life he thought she deserved.
Bennett graduated from eighth grade at age twelve, joined the militia, and was a teacher from age sixteen. He entered Dalhousie Law School at age twenty, working part-time as a librarian to finance his studies. Called to the bar in the year of his graduation in 1893, he made a striking figure. Tall, lean, and fair-skinned, and with a glib eloquence, he was successful in court. Possessing an insatiable appetite for current affairs and politics in Canada, Britain, and the Empire, he ran for Chatham city council in 1896 and won. His manager was his youthful friend Max Aitken, the future Lord Beaverbrook. He left office after several months of feuding with his fellow councilors. Later that year his law dean at Dalhousie recommended him to Sir James Lougheed of Calgary, who went to Chatham for a personal interview. Bennett was offered a job as Lougheed's law partner, and after several months of hard negotiations, he accepted it. He saw his future on the Prairies.
The young lawyer devoted his career to fame and fortune: fame through the ballot box and fortune through his legal practice. A strict sabbatarian, he never joined in Prairie culture. Uninterested in horses, farming, or ranching, he lived a solitary, bachelor life first in boardinghouses and later in the Palliser Hotel. He worked twelve-hour days, six days a week. Dressed in a stiff hat, topcoat, striped pants, starched wing collar, and cravat, he took his meals at the Alberta Hotel, where he entertained clients at a separate table behind a drawn curtain. By 1913 he was a rotund figure who had his assistants carry his briefcase and law books into court. Bennett became Calgary's premier corporate lawyer. He was legal counsel for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the Hudson's Bay Company, the Royal Bank, and numerous insurance companies. He also made a fortune buying CPR land and selling it to out-of-town investors. He brought Max Aitken out west and with him created monopolies in grain elevators, electric utilities, and cement. Sitting on corporate directorates and participating in joint ventures, he became president of Calgary Power and a major investor in the Alberta-Pacific Grain Company and Canada Cement. By 1914 he was one of the wealthiest men in the Canadian Prairies.
Bennett had a clear view of his adopted land. He saw its economic potential as unlimited: grains, meats, hydroelectric power, oil and gas, mining, transportation, and settlement. The Canadian Prairies were seen as Britain's hinterland, a place where British culture could flourish in the new industrial world, serving as a counterbalance to the economic power of the American Plains. He saw himself as the conduit between eastern Canadian and British bankers and investors and the development of an industrial, and imperial, Prairie economy. Thus, he was a strong proponent of the British Empire, preferential tariffs, and British foreign policy. He went into politics to develop these ideas. A Conservative, he was elected for Calgary to the territorial assembly in 1898, to the provincial legislature in 1909, and to the Dominion Parliament in 1911. His great lament was World War I, which split the Empire and brought a depression from which the Prairies would never recover in his lifetime.
The 1920s were a period of transition in Bennett's life. He split in anger with his law partner Lougheed in 1921, lost several elections, and considered moving to Britain. But after he won the seat of Calgary West in 1925, his career turned from law and business to politics and from the Prairies to Ottawa. He became the leader of Canada's Conservative Party in 1927 and prime minister in the election of 1930. He promised aggressive and progressive action, but he could not convert his ideas into legislation. Indecisive, he was unable to gain the confidence of the people or to understand from his hotel suite how they saw the world. Bennett became isolated in his own party by 1934, and his party was defeated in the election of October 1935.
His vision of the Prairies, however, still captured the minds of most of his constituents, who continued to vote for him. In these later years he was one of the major philanthropists of Prairie society. But embittered by the belief that his country did not appreciate him, in 1939 he bought the Mickleham estate in Surrey, England, and moved there. Supported by his friend Max, now Lord Beaverbrook, his wealth and political beliefs brought him the title of viscount in 1941. He died at his estate on June 26, 1947, of heart failure.
See also LAW: Lougheed, James.
Louis A. Knafla University of Calgary
Bennett Papers. National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, and Glenbow-Alberta Institute, Calgary.
Gray, James H. R. B. Bennett: The Calgary Years. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Knafla, Louis A. "Richard 'Bonfire' Bennett: The Legal Practice of a Prairie Corporate Lawyer, 1898 to 1913." In Beyond the Law: Lawyers and Business in Canada, 1830 to 1930, edited by Carol Wilton. Toronto: Osgoode Society, 1990: 320–76.