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25/06/2011 13:22




New Brunswick teenager wants statue of R.B. Bennett built on Parliament Hill - by Tristen Hopper


A 16-year-old home-schooled New Brunswicker is trying to secure what a Conservative backbencher, a former Liberal Prime Minister and an ageing John Diefenbaker could not: a Parliament Hill statue of former Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.

“He was not liked in his time,” says Jordan Grondin. “But as a New Brunswicker, I don’t want people to forget him in years to come.”

Mr. Grondin, who grew up just a few kilometres from Bennett’s birthplace of Hopewell Hill, N.B., will be spending the summer touring flea markets and parades, clipboard in hand, to fill a pro-statue petition. Once he amasses 1,000 signatures, British Columbia Conservative MP Nina Grewal has agreed to draft a private member’s bill calling for the monument.

R.B. Bennett, Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935, is not the kind of Canadian leader who typically inspires youthful political activism. Although he founded the CBC and the Bank of Canada, his legacy is largely overshadowed by his perceived inaction during the Great Depression. He passed a plan in the mould of the U.S. New Deal on the eve of the 1935 election, but his Conservatives nevertheless lost 95 seats, the largest-ever Tory defeat up to that point. Just three years later, Mr. Bennett permanently fled Canada to a 94-acre estate in the English countryside. He died in 1947 and remains the only Canadian prime minister buried outside the country.

Today, aside from a 1960s-era portrait hung in Centre Block, R.B. Bennett’s most enduring parliamentary legacy is as an insult. In 1997, then-opposition leader Preston Manning accused former prime minister Jean Chretien of being “right up there with R.B. Bennett” in his weak response to unemployment. In 2006, Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc declared “R.B. Bennett may be alive and well” after a Conservative MP suggested that unemployed

Atlantic Canadians should simply move to the West.

Seven of Canada’s 22 prime ministers are currently immortalized on Parliament Hill. In the 1960s, Mr. Bennett, along with former prime ministers Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Arthur Meighen, was pegged for a series of four new Parliament Hill statues. The nine-foot-tall Mackenzie King statue was unveiled in 1968 with a 21-gun salute — but the other three prime ministers remained hidden with the explanation that they were too “embarassing” to display.

In 1974, 79-year-old former prime minister John Diefenbaker stormed into an Ottawa Public Works department warehouse demanding to see the forsaken statues. Led to the rear of the facility by hesitant employees, Mr. Diefenbaker encountered a “monstrous,” highly stylized statue of Arthur Meighen. Liberal MP Lloyd Francis, who had made an earlier visit to the warehouse, described it as “grotesque, with his arms spread and his face turned to the sky as if contemplating Armageddon.” Mr. Diefenbaker compared it to a Halloween decoration.

Mr. Bennett had never been sculpted, but a preliminary maquette of the statue depicted a baby-like head perched atop a stumpy, seal-like form. “The mummies of Egypt look more real than that,” said Mr. Diefenbaker. Louis St. Laurent’s statue was relatively true-to-life, but his seated pose and bored-looking expression was not in keeping with the “vitality” of other Parliament Hill statues, explained public works staff.

St. Laurent’s likeness was eventually installed a few blocks from Parliament at the Supreme Court of Canada. The Meighen statue would remain hidden from view until 1987, when it was packed off to a small park in St. Mary’s, Ontario.

In 2005, Ms. Grewal, the B.C. MP supporting Mr. Grondin, introduced a private member’s bill calling for a new statue, but it was voted down by all but her Conservative peers. Conservative senator Hugh Segal met a similar response when he tried a to pass a similar bill through the Senate.

Mr. Bennett’s reputation has enjoyed a minor boost in recent years, partly as a result of the Bank of Canada’s strong performance in the most recent recession. In a recent Maclean’s magazine ranking of Canadian prime ministers,

Mr. Bennett jumped from 17th to 12th place. “R.B. Bennett is a case study in political leadership during a time of national and global crisis. He is whispering to us through time. We owe it to ourselves to listen,” wrote author John Boyko in a glowing 2010 biography of Mr. Bennett.

Last year, former prime minister John Turner publicly joined the pro-Bennett camp. “This glaring [statue] omission has bothered me since I was a young MP sent to Ottawa in 1962,” wrote Mr. Turner in a 2010 op-ed. “Proud Liberal though I was — and remain — the time has come to erect a statue to this Conservative prime minister on Parliament Hill.”

National Post