Richard Bedford Bennett, Great Depression, 1935

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1935 Prime Minister R.B. Bennett made several speeches promising government intervention in the economy.

In January 1935 Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett delivered a series of dramatic radio addresses to the nation while Canada was in the grip of the Great Depression. Bennett had been staunchly conservative and anti-interventionist, but the country was in deep trouble. Bennett’s brother-in-law, W. D. Herridge, convinced him that he should follow the lead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had introduced the New Deal in the United States. Herridge helped to write Bennett’s speeches and they were delivered directly to Canadians on a patched together network of forty radio stations. Bennett appealed to Canadians directly in simple sentences and forceful language, but he appeared uneasy on radio.

“The old order is gone. It will not return”

The Speech

The time has come when I must speak to you with the utmost frankness about our national affairs, for your understanding of them is essential to your welfare. This is a critical hour in the history of our country. Momentous questions await your decision. Our future course must now be charted. There is one course, I believe with all my heart, which will lead us to security. It is for you to decide whether we will take it. I am confident that your decision will be the right one, when, with care and diligence, you have studied the facts. Then you will support the action which your judgment decrees to be imperative; you will strive for its success, for its success will determine the future of Canada.

Great changes 

In the last five years, great changes have taken place in the world. The old order is gone. It will not return. We are living amidst conditions which are new and strange to us. Your prosperity demands changes in the old system, so that, in these new conditions, that old system may adequately serve you. The right time to bring about these changes has come. Further progress without them is improbable. To understand what changes and corrections should be made, you must first understand the facts of the present situation. To do that, you should have clearly in mind what has taken place in the past five years; the ways in which we have made progress, the ways in which we have not. To do that, to decide wisely, you must be in a position to judge those acts of government which have palliated your hardships, which have preserved intact our industrial and financial structure, and which have prepared the way for the reforms which must now take place . . .

Government intervention

Reform means government intervention; it means government control and regulation; it means the end of laissez faire. Reform heralds certain recovery; there can be no permanent recovery without reform. Reform or no reform, I raise that issue squarely. I nail the flag of progress to the masthead; I summon the power of the state to its support.

Who will oppose our plan of progress? It will be interesting and instructive to see. It seems to me that the party which supports laissez faire, which demands that government do not interfere with business, which says that the state has no such part to play in these critical times, it seems to me that that party may have a change of heart when it sees how the rest of us feel about the matter, and may decide to come along with you and me. Well, if it will denounce its hereditary chieftain, which is reaction, abandon its creed of inaction, and pledge its allegiance to action, to progress, to reform, it will be welcome if it is really sincere. For I am working, and working grimly, to one end only: to get results. And so, honest support from every quarter, from men and women of good will, of every party, race and creed, I hope for and heartily invite.

Unity of purpose

There must be unity of purpose. There can be no success without it. I earnestly entreat you, be in no doubt upon that point. I am not. If I cannot have your wholehearted support, it is wrong for me to assume the terrible responsibility of leadership in these times. I am willing to go on, if you make it possible for me still to serve you. But if there is anyone better able to do so, I shall gladly make way for him. And it is your duty to yourselves to support him, and not me. Your country’s future is at stake. This is no time to indulge your personal prejudices or fancies. Carefully and calmly, look well into the situation, then pick the man and the policy best fitted to deal with it, and resolutely back that man and that policy. The nation should range itself behind them. In war you fought as one; fight now again as one, for the task ahead demands your war-time resolution and your war-time unity.

Foundations rocked 

When my government came into power in 1930, the economic system of the world was rocking to its foundations. An economic disaster, unparalleled in the history of our civilization, had overtaken us. We were in the grip of something more than a serious illness. Its fatal termination was averted only by means never invoked before. We have been sick almost unto death, but we have survived. Given the right sort of treatment, we will completely recover.

In 1930 there was serious unemployment. Unemployment became greater and greater in the two years following. During the last year, we have been able to put large numbers of men to work. That was a real achievement. It is a fine beginning, but it is only a beginning. I told you in 1930 that I would end unemployment; that was a definite undertaking. By it I stand. Unemployment in Canada today is one of the consequences of this awful and unprecedented world depression. The continued faulty operation of the international economic machine has made re-employment impossible. I do not offer that as an excuse; I state a fact.

The time has come

Therefore, now that the time has come, I am determined to try with all my strength to correct the working of the system in Canada so that present unemployment conditions may be put an end to. When I say I will correct the system, I mean that I will reform it, and when the system is reformed and in full operation again, there will be work for all. We then can do away with relief measures; we then can put behind us the danger of the dole. I am against the dole; it mocks our claim to progress. Canada on the dole is like a young and vigorous man in the poorhouse. The dole is a condemnation, final and complete, of our economic system. If we cannot abolish the dole, we should abolish the system.


Before he could act on the activist government agenda that he promised, Bennett was defeated by the Liberals in an election later in 1935. 


Source: The Premier speaks to the people: the first address delivered from Ottawa on Wednesday, January 2nd, 1935, between 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. (Ottawa: Dominion Conservative Headquarters, 1935). Saved at Library and Archives Canada

More information:  The Canadian Encyclopedia: Bennett’s New Deal

Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His latest book is Speeches That Changed Canada, and in it he treats Bennett’s speech and its context in detail.


4 thoughts on “Richard Bedford Bennett, Great Depression, 1935

Add yours

  1. Thanks for posting this courageous determination to chart a new course. Would that it be read by all CPC members as they now decide on a new leader.


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