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Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation

by John Boyko

At first glance, there is something almost reassuringly Canadian about the fact that R.B. Bennett, who was prime minister during the worst years of the Great Depression, between 1930 and 1935, has mostly avoided the full-length biographical treatment. It plays into the notion that we are less in thrall to our political leaders than our American neighbours (or maybe our leaders are just less enthralling).

The real reason for the lack of a Bennett bio, which is explained early on in John Boyko’s mostly valiant effort, may be that Bennett burned his most interesting papers. Bennett, who is portrayed here as awkward and prudish, never married and had no children, so there are no heirs or grandchildren to speak to. As a result, the two most striking personal details Boyko mentions are the speculation that Bennett’s bachelorhood was the result of a painful medical condition affecting his genitalia, and that the portly Bennett ate a pound of chocolate crèmes almost every night.

Boyko has better luck taking the measure of the public figure, drawing on newspaper accounts of Bennett’s career, other details in the public record, and Bennett’s frequent correspondence with his boyhood friend, Max Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook. The author tries, with considerable success, to build a case that the one-term prime minister is more significant to the country’s history than his limited legacy suggests.

The Conservative (who was actually more liberal, in modern terms, than Mackenzie King, his Liberal counterpart) was responsible, to varying degrees, for the creation of The Bank of Canada and the Canadian Radio Broadcast Commission, the forerunner to the CBC. Boyko’s attention to Bennett’s diligence and determination in creating these institutions is a good antidote to the “Bennett buggies” that most of us learned about in high school history classes.

At the same time, Boyko’s desire to burnish Bennett’s reputation leads to at least one disturbing conclusion. He contends that Bennett’s decision to violently crush the 1935 On to Ottawa Trek, which was mounted by striking workers protesting the conditions in federal relief camps, was ultimately correct, but offers little justification.

Still, Boyko’s Bennett remains a worthwhile contribution to the literature on our country’s political leaders.