It was 145 years ago that Richard Bedford Bennett was born in the rural community of Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick. Sixty years later, he became Canada's 11th prime minister, serving Canadians during the most difficult years of the Great Depression.
Although his premiership is mostly remembered through the prism of that era's economic hardships, this unfairly simplifies what was a significant record of intellectual and institutional achievement. Indeed, as the respected author Bruce Hutchison noted, if economic times had been more normal, Bennett would likely be regarded today as a good – if not a great – prime minister.
Just as Sir Wilfrid Laurier was ahead of his time when it came to free trade with the United States, R.B. Bennett proved to be tremendously prescient on economic issues. As a rookie MP in 1911, nearly 20 years before the crash of 1929, he spoke in favour of establishing a body to regulate and police the stock market. Later, in 1927, replying to the budget of Mackenzie King's Liberal government, Bennett called for the introduction of what he called a "universal turn-over tax" – in effect, a federal consumption tax. It was more than six decades before the GST was ultimately introduced, and Ottawa is still working to create a national securities regulator.
Bennett was also perhaps the most generous man to hold our country's highest office. At the height of the Great Depression, he often dipped into his own pocket to send money to the many Canadians who wrote to him seeking assistance. In today's dollars, he also donated millions to charities and good works, helping to build universities that still benefit our country today.
Although he served only five years as prime minister, Bennett proved – just as Lester B. Pearson would later go on to show – that longevity in office is not the only indicator of historical significance. During his premiership, Bennett put in place some of our country's institutional foundation stones, creating the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (the CBC's forerunner) in 1932 and establishing the Bank of Canada in 1935.
However, unlike Pearson, Bennett enjoys no monument in Ottawa. It's time to change that. R.B. Bennett's idea of what's important in a democracy deserves to be remembered.
Our leading figures of the past were first and foremost great Canadians, not great Liberals, Conservatives or New Democrats. In honouring them, we reflect our pride of country, not our commitment to party. Indeed, it was John Turner's Liberals who supported building a statue to honour John Diefenbaker, and Brian Mulroney's Conservative government that was responsible for commissioning the monument to Pearson on Parliament Hill. As we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation, it is an opportune time to honour the legacies of Canadian leaders who have shaped our past, strengthened our institutions and served our country.
In the spirit of commemorating our country's multi-partisan history, perhaps three statues are in order. The existing statue of Louis St. Laurent – without question one of Canada's finest heads of government – should be moved from its current location near the Supreme Court building to Parliament Hill, where it belongs. And to honour the many meaningful contributions that New Democrats have made to our country, a monument to Tommy Douglas should be commissioned as well.
We urge whichever leader emerges triumphant from this fall's election to undertake these recommendations. By remembering our past, we will inspire future generations of Canadians to build a country worthy of their legacy. Drawing on the philosophy of Sir John A. Macdonald, Douglas put it this way: "The only value in looking into the past is to grapple with the problems of the present and to enable us better to plan for the future."
We couldn't agree more. The time for statues of Bennett, St. Laurent and Douglas on Parliament Hill is now.
Arthur Milnes was the commissioner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission. Frances Lankin is the chair of the Ontario Press Council and a former Ontario cabinet minister. Steve Paikin is the anchor of TVO's The Agenda. David Lockhart is president of Lockhart Communications. Zach Paikin is a columnist at The Hill Times.