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Arthur Meighen

Arthur Meighen

9th Prime Minister of Canada
Arthur Meighen
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro 9th Prime Minister of Canada
Was Politician Lawyer Diplomat
From Canada
Type Law Politics
Gender male
Birth 16 June 1874, Ontario
Death 5 August 1960, Toronto (aged 86 years)
Spouse: Isabel Meighen
Arthur Meighen
The details


Arthur Meighen (PC, QC; /ˈmiːən/; 16 June 1874 – 5 August 1960) was a Canadian lawyer and politician. He served two terms as the ninth Prime Minister of Canada: from 10 July 1920 to 29 December 1921; and from 29 June 1926 to 25 September 1926. He was the first Prime Minister born after Confederation, and the only one to represent a riding in Manitoba. Meighen later served for a decade in the Senate of Canada, and failed in a second attempt at leading the Conservatives in 1941–42, after which he returned to the practice of law. He has the reputation of being a mediocre prime minister.

Early life

Arthur Meighen's Birthplace

Arthur Meighen was born on a farm near Anderson, Perth County, Ontario, to Joseph Meighen and Mary Jane Bell. He attended primary school at Blanshard public school in Anderson, where, in addition to being the grandson of the village's first schoolmaster, he was an exemplary student. In 1892, during his final high school year at St. Marys Collegiate Institute, which later became North Ward Public School in St. Marys (now known as Arthur Meighen Public School) Meighen was elected secretary of the literary society and was an expert debater in the school debating society in an era when debating was in high repute. He took first class honours in mathematics, English, and Latin.

He then attended University College at the University of Toronto, where he earned a B.A. in mathematics in 1896, with first-class standing. While there, he met and became a rival of William Lyon Mackenzie King; the two men, both future prime ministers, did not get along especially well from the start. Meighen then graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School.

In 1904 he married Isabel J. Cox, with whom he had two sons and one daughter.

Early professional career

He moved to Manitoba shortly after finishing law school. Early in his professional career, Meighen experimented with several professions, including those of teacher, lawyer, and businessman, before becoming involved in politics as a member of the Conservative Party. In public, Meighen was a first-class debater, said to have honed his oratory by delivering lectures to empty desks after class. He was renowned for his sharp wit.

Early political career

Meighen was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1908, at the age of 34, defeating incumbent John Crawford when he captured the Manitoba riding of Portage la Prairie. In 1911, Meighen won re-election, this time as a member of the new governing party. He won election again in 1913, after being appointed to Prime Minister Robert Borden's Cabinet as Solicitor General.

Meighen's fiery, sarcastic, and partisan speeches gained him a following on the Conservative party backbench, who saw him as logical, informed, and principled. He gained a following among those in the party who felt Borden's government was aimless.

Cabinet minister

Meighen during his early years as a cabinet minister.

Meighen served as Solicitor General from 26 June 1913 until 25 August 1917, when he was appointed Minister of Mines and Secretary of State for Canada. In 1917, he was mainly responsible for implementing mandatory military service as a result of the Conscription Crisis of 1917. Noteworthy was the government's decision to give votes to conscription supporters (soldiers and their families), while denying that right to potential opponents of conscription such as immigrants. Meighen's portfolios were again shifted on 12 October 1917, this time to the positions of Minister of the Interior and Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

He was re-elected in the December 1917 federal election, in which Borden's Unionist (wartime coalition) government defeated the opposition Laurier Liberals over the conscription issue.

As Minister of the Interior, Meighen steered through Parliament the largest piece of legislation ever enacted in the British Empire: The consolidation of a number of bankrupt and insolvent railways into the Canadian National Railway Company, which continues today.

In 1919, as acting Minister of Justice and senior Manitoban in the government of Sir Robert Borden, Meighen helped to subdue the Winnipeg General Strike. Shortly after the strike ended, he enacted the Section 98 amendments to the Criminal Code to ban association with organizations deemed seditious. Though Meighen has often been credited by historians with instigating the prosecution of the Winnipeg strike leaders, in fact he rejected demands from the Citizens' Committee that Ottawa step in when the provincial government of Manitoba refused to prosecute. It took the return to Ottawa in late July 1919 of Charles Doherty, Minister of Justice, for the Citizens' Committee to get federal money to carry forward their campaign against labour.

Meighen was re-appointed Minister of Mines on the last day of 1920.

Prime minister: first Parliament

He became leader of the Conservative and the Unionist Party, and Prime Minister on 10 July 1920, when Borden resigned and William Thomas White declined the Governor General's invitation to be appointed Prime Minister. During this first term, he was Prime Minister for about a year and a half.

Meighen fought the 1921 election under the banner of the National Liberal and Conservative Party in an attempt to keep the allegiance of Liberals who had supported the wartime Unionist government. However, his actions in implementing conscription hurt his party's already-weak support in Quebec, while the Winnipeg General Strike and farm tariffs made him unpopular among labour and farmers alike. The party was defeated by the Liberals, led by William Lyon Mackenzie King. Meighen was personally defeated in Portage la Prairie, with his party nationally falling to third place behind the newly formed Progressive Party.

Opposition leader

Meighen continued to lead the Conservative Party (which reverted to its traditional name), and was returned to Parliament in 1922, after winning a by-election in the eastern Ontario riding of Grenville.

Despite his party finishing in third place, Meighen became Leader of the Opposition after the Progressives declined the opportunity to become the Official Opposition. Unlike Laurier and Borden, who had a generally respectful personal relationship, there existed between Meighen and King a very deep personal distrust and animosity. Meighen looked down upon King, whom he called "Rex" (King's old University nickname), and considered him unprincipled. King viewed Meighen as an unreconstructed High Tory who would destroy the nation's social peace after the traumatic domestic events of World War I. Their bitter and unrelenting rivalry was probably the nastiest in the history of Canadian politics.

Meighen's term as opposition leader was most marked by his response to the crisis at Chanak, in which British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill leaked to the press that the Dominions might be called upon to help British forces in the Chanak, Turkey. With Parliament not in session, King refused to commit to action without Parliamentary approval, and that the matter was not important enough to recall Parliament. Meighen strongly condemned King's statement, stating in a Toronto hotel and quoting former Liberal PM Wilfrid Laurier, "When Britain's message came, then Canada should have said, 'Ready, aye ready, we stand by you.'" The crisis subsided within days before any request could be made, bringing down the government of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Meighen was left with a reputation as being blindly in favour of Britain's interests.

The Liberal government of Mackenzie King was soon beset with scandal. While the uneven performance of the government and disorganization of the Progressive movement created some opportunity for the Conservatives, Meighen generally refused to change from his general philosophy of restoring the pre-war social order and returning to National Policy level tariffs. His strategy in Quebec consisted of granting Esioff-Léon Patenaude general autonomy to run a full campaign without any interference from Conservative headquarters.

Meighen and the Tories would win a plurality of seats in the inconclusive election of 1925. King, as the already sitting Prime Minister, opted to retain confidence in the house through an informal alliance with the Progressives. Meighen denounced King as holding onto office like a "lobster with lockjaw."

Prime minister: second Parliament

After a scandal was revealed in the Customs Department, King was on the verge of losing a vote in the Commons on a motion censuring the government. King, before the vote, asked the Governor General, Lord Byng, to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Byng, believing that the request was inappropriate considering the length of time since the election, Meighen's larger seat count, and King's uncertain control of confidence of the chamber, used his reserve power to refuse the request. King duly resigned as prime minister. Meighen, having secured a measure of support from the opposition Progressives, was invited by Byng to form a government, which Meighen accepted.

Because of the possibility of losing a vote in the Commons, Meighen advised Byng to appoint the ministers of the Crown in an "acting" capacity only, to avoid triggering the automatic by-elections Ministers faced when accepting their appointments at the time. King used the technique to mock the government and further his accusation that Meighen had acted irresponsibly by accepting Byng's appointment, attracting Progressive support to take down the fledgling government. The government lost a motion regarding the "acting" Ministers by one vote three days after Meighen's appointment. With no other parliamentary leader to call upon, Byng called the Canadian federal election, 1926.

Byng's actions became known as the "King-Byng Affair." Debate continues today about whether King was attacking the Governor General's constitutional prerogative to refuse an election request by a prime minister, or whether Byng had intruded into Canadian Parliamentary affairs as an unelected figurehead, in violation of the principle of responsible government and the longstanding tradition of non-interference.

While Meighen's appointment as Prime Minister gave the Conservatives control of the country's electoral machinery, the Conservatives' weakness in Quebec and the West continued, and Meighen faced rousing attacks from Mackenzie King and the Liberals for accepting Byng's appointment. Although the Conservatives won the popular vote, they were swept from office by a Liberal majority, and Meighen himself was again defeated in Portage la Prairie. His second term lasted three months.

Meighen announced his resignation as Conservative Party leader shortly thereafter, though during his speech at the subsequent leadership convention it became clear he was attempting to rouse the floor to gain a new term. Rejected, he moved to Toronto to practice law.

Senate appointment

Meighen was appointed to the Senate in 1932 on the recommendation of Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. He served as Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister without Portfolio from 3 February 1932 to 22 October 1935. He served as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1935 until he resigned from the upper house in January 1942.

Second Conservative leadership

In late 1941, Meighen was prevailed upon by a unanimous vote in a national conference of the party to become leader of the Conservative Party for the duration of the war. He accepted the party leadership on 13 November 1941, foregoing a leadership convention, and campaigned in favour of overseas conscription, a measure which his predecessor, Robert Manion, had opposed. As leader, Meighen continued to champion a National Government including all parties, which the party had advocated in the 1940 federal election.

Meighen, lacking a Commons seat, resigned from the Senate on 16 January 1942, and campaigned in a by-election for the Toronto riding of York South. His candidacy received the improbable support of the Liberal Premier of Ontario Mitchell Hepburn; this act effectively hastened the end of Hepburn's Liberal Premiership, and did not in any case grant Meighen durable electoral support. The Liberals did not run a candidate in the riding due to a prevailing convention of allowing the Opposition leader a seat. Still harbouring a deep hatred for the Conservative leader and thinking that the return to the Commons of the ardently conscriptionist Meighen would further inflame the smouldering conscription issue, King arranged for campaign resources to be sent to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation's Joseph Noseworthy. Federal Liberal support and rising CCF fortunes ensured that Meighen was defeated in the 9 February 1942 vote.

With its leader excluded from the Commons, the Conservative Party was further weakened. Meighen continued to campaign for immediate conscription as part of a "total war" effort through the spring and summer, but did not again seek a seat in the House of Commons. In September, Meighen called for a national party convention to "broaden out" the party's appeal. It remained unclear whether Meighen sought to have his leadership confirmed or to have his successor chosen. As the convention neared, news sources reported that Meighen had approached Manitoba's Liberal-Progressive Premier John Bracken about seeking the leadership, and that the convention would adopt a platform that would move the party toward acceptance of the welfare state. Meighen announced in his keynote address to the party on 9 December 1942 that he was not a candidate for the leadership and the party subsequently chose Bracken as leader, and renamed itself the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

Retirement and death

Following his second political retirement, Meighen returned to the practice of law in Toronto. He died from heart failure in Toronto, aged 86, on 5 August 1960, and was buried in St. Marys Cemetery, St. Marys, Ontario, near his birthplace. He had the second longest retirement of any Canadian Prime Minister, at 33 years, 315 days, Joe Clark surpassed him on 12 January 2014.


A school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba is named for Arthur Meighen. Meighen's former high school in St. Marys, Ontario was reopened as North Ward Public School in 1962 and renamed Arthur Meighen Public School in 1984. The school closed permanently in 2010.

Mount Arthur Meighen 52°48′12″N 119°33′12″W / 52.80333°N 119.55333°W / 52.80333; -119.55333 (Mount Arthur Meighen) is a 3205 m (10515 ft) peak located in the Premier Range of the Cariboo Mountains in the east-central interior of British Columbia. The mountain is south of the head of the McClennan River and immediately west of the town of Valemount, B.C.

Meighen Island in northwestern Nunavut is named after Arthur Meighen.

A federal government building in Toronto's Yonge and St Clair area is named for him.

The Post Office Department issued a memorial stamp featuring Meighen on April 19, 1961.

Meighen was designated a National Historic Person by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board in 1961.

The Arthur Meighen Library is located at Toronto's Albany Club.

The Arthur Meighen Gardens are a landscape feature at the entrance to the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.


Larry A. Glassford, a professor of education at the University of Windsor, concluded, "On any list of Canadian prime ministers ranked according to their achievements while in office, Arthur Meighen would not place very high."

Meighen ranks as #14 out of the 20 Prime Ministers through Jean Chrétien, in the survey of Canadian historians included in Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders by J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer.

Electoral history

Canadian federal election, 1908: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Conservative MEIGHEN, Arthur 3,144
Liberal CRAWFORD, John 2,894
Canadian federal election, 1911: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Conservative MEIGHEN, Arthur 3,267
Liberal PATERSON, Robert 2,592
Canadian federal by-election, 19 July 1913: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Conservative MEIGHEN, Hon. Arthur acclaimed
On Mr. Meighen being appointed Solicitor General, 26 June 1913
Canadian federal election, 1917: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Government (Unionist) MEIGHEN, Hon. Arthur 4,611
Opposition (Laurier Liberals) SHIRTLIFF, Frederick 976
Canadian federal election, 1921: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Progressive LEADER, Harry 4,314
Conservative MEIGHEN, Right Hon. Arthur 4,137
Independent BANNERMAN, Alexander Melville 139
Canadian federal by-election, 26 January 1922: Grenville
Party Candidate Votes
Conservative MEIGHEN, Right Hon. Arthur 4,482
Progressive PATTERSON, Arthur Kidd 2,820
Canadian federal election, 1925: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Conservative MEIGHEN, Rt. Hon. Arthur 5,817
Progressive LEADER, Harry 4,966
Canadian federal election, 1926: Portage la Prairie
Party Candidate Votes
Liberal MCPHERSON, Ewen Alexander 6,394
Conservative MEIGHEN, Right Hon. Arthur 5,966
Canadian federal by-election, 9 February 1942: York South
Party Candidate Votes
Co-operative Commonwealth NOSEWORTHY, Joseph W. 16,408
Conservative MEIGHEN, Right Hon. Arthur 11,952

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