MEIGHEN, ARTHUR (1874-1960)
Arthur Meighen has been described as the greatest Canadian parliamentarian ever. Born on June 16, 1874, in the small community of St. Mary's, Ontario, Meighen spent most of his life in politics, becoming prime minister of Canada in 1920 and again briefly in 1926.
Raised in a staunch Protestant environment, Meighen was a quiet and studious youth. His most outstanding characteristics were his abilities as an orator and debater, which he displayed even in his earliest schooling. After studying mathematics at the University of Toronto and trying his luck as a shopkeeper and teacher, Arthur Meighen headed west to seek adventure in the Prairies. After a failed attempt in the dried-fruit industry, Meighen proceeded to article as a lawyer and soon found himself established in the small town of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. It was here that Arthur Meighen discovered two great loves, Isabel Cox, whom he married in 1904, and the Conservative Party of Canada.
Arthur Meighen proved to be a most loyal party member. First elected to Parliament in 1908, Meighen became an eloquent defender of a variety of government initiatives, including tariffs, naval policies, and railway nationalization. Meighen was also the author and instigator of several of the most controversial pieces of legislation in Canadian history. During World War I he prepared the Wartime Elections Bill, the War Measures Act, and the Military Service Act, which opponents allege corrupted the electoral process and infringed traditional civil rights.
The aftermath of World War I was an unsettling time in Canada. The Union government that had steered the country through the turbulent wartime years came to an end. When Arthur Meighen became leader of the ruling Conservative Party in 1920, following prime minister Sir Robert Borden's resignation, he faced the difficult task of keeping not only the party but the entire country united. Meighen's uneasy relationship with particular parts of the country limited his effectiveness in this capacity. In 1919 Meighen had acted as mediator in the Winnipeg General Strike. When violence erupted, many criticized him for being unsympathetic to labor concerns. Furthermore, western farmers were angry with Meighen for having sent their sons to war after promising that they would be protected from conscription. This sentiment was echoed in Quebec, where many were also angry with Meighen for introducing wartime conscription.
While Meighen enjoyed international success at the Imperial Conference of 1921, his inability to band the country together resulted in his electoral defeat that year at the hands of his long-time rival, Mackenzie King. Although he formed a minority government in 1926 after a constitutional crisis resulted in King's resignation, Meighen's government was shortlived, lasting only three days. Meighen retreated from the fray to pursue business interests in Toronto, but the lure of politics proved irresistible. On February 3, 1932, he was appointed to the Senate of Canada. Determined to play a leading role, Meighen was one of the first to caution about events developing in Europe, but his warnings went unheeded. Meighen left politics forever in 1942, after suffering a crushing electoral defeat as he sought the Conservative Party leadership a final time. He died on August 4, 1960, in Toronto.
See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Winnipeg General Strike.
Laura Madokoro University of Waterloo
English, John. Arthur Meighen. Don Mills, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Publishers, 1977.
Graham, Roger. Arthur Meighen: A Biography. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Company, 1960–65.