Robert James Manion
Manion was born in Pembroke, Ontario, of Irish Catholic descent, the son of Mary Ann (O'Brien) and Patrick James Manion. He studied medicine at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario and at the University of Edinburgh before settling in his hometown of Fort William, Ontario where his parents had lived since 1888. In 1915, he enrolled with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Attached to the 21st Canadian Battalion, he was awarded the Military Cross for heroism at the battle of Vimy Ridge.
He was elected to the House of Commons of Canada during the conscription election of 1917 as a Unionist Member of Parliament (MP) for Fort William, Ontario. A member of the Liberal Party before the war, he supported Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden's pro-conscription Union government that was formed as a result of the Conscription Crisis of 1917. Manion remained with the Conservative Party after the war. The new prime minister, Arthur Meighen, appointed him Minister of Soldiers' Civil Re-establishment in 1921. He spent most of the 1920s on the opposition benches, except for a few months in 1926 when he served as a minister in the second Meighen administration, including the position of Postmaster-General.
Following the federal election of 1930, the new Conservative Prime minister R. B. Bennett appointed Manion Minister of Railways and Canals. However, the economic crisis of the Great Depression destroyed the Bennett government, and Manion, with many others, lost his seat in the 1935 election. According to historian Roy Piovesana, Manion's loss was partly attributable to his failure to cultivate his Fort William riding. Despite not having a seat, Manion won the 1938 Conservative leadership convention with backing of an "improbable coalition" of Orange Order delegates from Ontario and delegates from Quebec.
Conservative Party members hoped that his Catholicism and marriage to a French-Canadian, Yvonne Desaulniers, would help the party in Quebec where the perception of the Tories as being anti-French and anti-Catholic Orangemen had hurt their prospects. Manion entered the House of Commons through a by-election in 1938 in London. He subsequently campaigned against conscription despite the fact that he had joined the Unionists in 1917 because he favoured the draft.
Manion moved the Conservatives to the left and was criticized as a socialist due to his call for action against unemployment and his desire to, in his words, "bring a greater measure of social justice to all our citizens."
He hoped to come to power due to the unpopularity of the King government and his brokerage of an agreement with the Union Nationale Premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis in which he promised federal funds for unemployment relief in Quebec in exchange for the Union Nationale's support for the Conservatives in the federal election. The onset of World War II and the re-emergence of conscription as an issue in Canada stymied Manion's hopes. In the 1939 Quebec election the federal Liberals warned that the Duplessis government's support for Manion would lead to conscription, despite Manion's claims that he opposed mandatory military enlistment.
The defeat of the government of Maurice Duplessis in Quebec dashed Manion's hopes of building an electoral alliance with the conservative premier. As well, his stand against conscription turned much of the Tory base in Ontario against the leader.
King had promised Manion that he would not call an election due to the war but reversed his pledge and called a March 1940 general election taking Manion's Tories by surprise and unprepared. They campaigned under the name "National Government" with the platform of forming a wartime coalition government. The renamed Tories were unable to make any gains from their 1935 result, and Manion failed to win his seat, leading to his resignation as party leader two months later. Manion was subsequently appointed director of Civilian Air Raid Defence. He died in 1943.