Sunday, October 13, 2013

Arthur Meighen, orator and PM

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Known from an early age as an orator, Meighen was the grandson of an Ulsterman who had immigrated to Upper Canada. He left the family farm to attend the University of Toronto where he participated in a mock parliament and earned an honours degree in Mathematics. He trained as a teacher, but this career did not suit him.

He obtained a law degree, and while practicing in Portage la Prairie, got involved with the Young Men's Conservative Club. He ran an election campaign for a fellow Tory there, and later it became his constituency.

In 1908, Meighen won his seat by a small margin, and found himself in the Opposition benches under the leadership of Robert Borden. A man who understood the workings of government, Meighen worked hard behind the scenes and gained a reputation as Borden's troubleshooter.

He held half a dozen cabinet posts beginning in 1913. When Borden retired in 1920, Meighen succeeded him, but he lost the election the next year. The bad taste left by the rough handling of the conscription crisis and the Winnipeg General Strike dogged the party into the 1921 election.

Having led the Opposition, Meighen managed to win the election of 1926. However, the Liberals under Mackenzie King held onto power by allying themselves with a new party, the Progressives.

Liberal leader Mackenzie King went so far as to ask the Governor General, Lord Byng, to dissolve Parliament, and Byng refused. This led to a furore, the King-Byng affair. This minor constitutional crisis was the last time a governor general intervened directly in Canadian politics. At all events, within days, the Conservatives failed to win a vote, a new election was called, and Meighen lost. 

Meighen was responsible for creating the Canadian National Railway (CNR, later CN) in 1919 and ending the Winnipeg General Strike the same year, albeit to the displeasure of the working man.

Between 1932 and 1942, Arthur Meighen was a Senator, but he retired from politics when after being re-elected Conservative Party leader, he failed to win the by-election that would have got him back into the House of Commons.

A story I heard in a small town in Alberta may be apocryphal, but is interesting nonetheless. In that farming community, the Norwegian immigrants had settled on the north side of the railroad and the Czechs on the south. When the federal government tried to name the growing town after Meighen, the townspeople objected. The Czechs wanted to call the place Prague, while the Norwegians plumped for Viking. The latter turned out in force to vote, and the rest is history.

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