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The time for a statue is now, says John Turner (IRMA COUCILL/Irma Coucill/The Canadian Press)
The time for a statue is now, says John Turner (IRMA COUCILL/Irma Coucill/The Canadian Press)

John Turner

Give R.B. Bennett his place on the Hill Add to ...

As a boy growing up in Ottawa in the 1930s, it was my good fortune to meet Richard Bedford Bennett, Canada's 11th prime minister, on many occasions. I recall a friendly man with a booming voice who gave me chocolates once in a while.

A man with progressive views for his time about women, he was responsible for bringing my late mother, Phyllis Gregory (later Ross), into Canada's public service during the Great Depression. She soon rose through the ranks, a single woman with two young children to raise, and became the senior-ranked female public servant in the land.

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For the rest of her life, my mother respected and admired Bennett for this and his countless contributions to Canada. Like me today, she never understood as time went on the largely negative portrayal he received before history - when he's even been considered at all.

This was a prime minister who left solid accomplishments in his wake, many of which are still being felt positively by Canadians today. It was Bennett, to name just one priority of his, who created the Bank of Canada. He also ensured that Canada would forever have a voice on the airwaves by founding what soon became the CBC.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Bennett's election in 1930 as prime minister. So far, it's been a good year for him in terms of historiography. Recently, John Boyko of Lakefield College published the first full-length biography of Bennett. Earlier, my friends Christopher McCreery and Arthur Milnes edited a collection of his addresses in the British House of Lords, The Authentic Voice of Canada, to which I was pleased to contribute a foreword. On June 12, I had the high honour of paying tribute to Bennett in Albert County, New Brunswick, on the opening of the R.B. Bennett Commemorative Centre. Then on June 15, a large crowd gathered at Toronto's Albany Club to honour his memory.

Still, an important gesture toward this leader who gave so much to build modern Canada is still lacking. I speak, of course, about a statue of R.B. Bennett on Parliament Hill itself. Although it's been more than 60 years since his death in England, successive governments and parliaments have not placed a statue in his honour to join the other prime ministers who are remembered on Parliament Hill.

This glaring omission has bothered me since I was a young MP sent to Ottawa in 1962. Proud Liberal though I was - and remain - the time has come to erect a statue to this Conservative prime minister on Parliament Hill. I join with Senator Hugh Segal, the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University, and many others to call on Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his government and MPs from all parties to work together to make a Bennett statue a reality as soon as possible.

Back in the 1980s, as Leader of the Opposition, I was proud that members of my own caucus joined with Conservative MP Pauline Browes and worked together to create the wonderful statue of John Diefenbaker that now graces Parliament Hill. Later, partisanship was again put aside and a statue of Lester Pearson was also raised on the Hill.

As this year is the 80th anniversary of Bennett's election to the highest office in the land, I call on Mr. Harper - who, by the way, is the first prime minister since Bennett to represent Calgary in the House of Commons - to make this a priority before 2010 is out.

God willing, I will eagerly join the Prime Minister and all party leaders on Parliament Hill some day soon as a statue of R.B. Bennett is finally unveiled. The time for such a statue is now.

John Turner was Canada's 17th prime minister.

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