Born at Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Richard Bedford Bennett (1870–1947) was a teacher, lawyer, businessman and politician. He began his political career in 1898 when he was elected as a Conservative to the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories and in 1911 he entered federal politics as the Member of Parliament for Calgary East. Bennett became Minister of Justice briefly in Arthur Meighen’s 1921 government and then leader of the Conservative Party in 1927. Bennett’s 1930 election victory meant he was Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935, during the worst years of the Great Depression.
Although Bennett began his term of office believing that self-denial, individual responsibility, free enterprise and new trade agreements would lift Canada out of the Great Depression, he left believing that capitalism had failed and government needed a new economic role. Did his beliefs change as a result of the many Canadians who wrote to tell him that, despite their good behaviour, they still needed basic necessities such as winter clothing and medical care and that the existing municipal relief programs were still inadequate? Influenced by the success of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Bennett devised similar federal legislation for Canadians, providing a comprehensive system of social welfare, including unemployment insurance, health insurance and other social welfare measures. However, Bennett’s legislation was declared unconstitutional as it violated the division of federal–provincial responsibilities as set out in the British North America Act. Despite its failure, the legislation was a step on the road to medicare because it showed why the provincial and federal governments had to cooperate to deliver health care to Canadians.