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Finance Ministers Wearing New Shoes on Budget Day

The Library of Parliament is frequently asked about the origins behind the “tradition” of finance ministers wearing new shoes on budget day. Hoping to solve the riddle once and for all, we undertook a systematic search and discovered the following:

The notion that this practice stems from a British tradition can be laid to rest.

We have it from the British High Commission that Westminster tradition allows the Chancellor of the Exchequer to carry into the House an “old despatch box” and to take any liquid refreshment of his own choosing while delivering his budget speech. At least one Canadian minister of Finance, William S. Fielding (1898–1911, 1922–1923), somewhat followed this British custom by entering the House of Commons with his “little red despatch box.”

The Canadian practice of wearing new shoes seems to be fairly recent, and in spite of our efforts, its origin remains mysterious. In an attempt to solve this mystery, we spoke with every finance minister (or an assistant) from Douglas C. Abbott to Michael Wilson. From these conversations we learned that none of these ministers were certain of the origin of this practice. Some believe it is a British tradition, others say it isn’t a Canadian tradition at all, while still others state that the tradition is of fairly recent origin, dating back only to the fifties or sixties.

We checked Hansard from 1938 to 1970 and read newspaper reports of budget presentations since 1930. The first mention of new shoes appeared on March 31, 1960, when Donald Fleming was finance minister. A newspaper report refers to the new shoes as a budget tradition, but there is no indication as to its origin, nor details as to the type of shoes worn by the Minister. Our research shows that there is much room for variation, including an occasional tendency to interpret the type of shoes worn as an indicator of the content of the budget. 

Finally, in Minister Mitchel Sharp’s memoir, he indicates the following:

“I even managed to establish a Canadian tradition – unintentionally.  My staff had been told – probably by a shoe manufacturer – that it was traditional for a minister of finance when presenting his first budget to wear a new pair of shoes. I fell for it. So did the press, which gave enormous publicity to my new shoes. About five years ago an investigative journalist, searching for the origins of the tradition that most of my successors followed, could not find that any of my predecessors as minister of finance had worn new shoes at budget time. Was it traditional? Perhaps not in 1965. It is now, after more than a quarter of a century.”

  1. Wilding, Norman and Philip Laundy. An encyclopedia of Parliament. See Despatch box; Budget Box. House Magazine 10:1, March 15, 1985; Le nouveau budget britannique ouvre la voie à des élections anticipées. Le Devoir 16 mars 1987. p. 5.

  2. Idem. See Budget.

  3. Ottawa Journal March 2, 1943; June 21, 1946.

  4. House of Commons. Debates. Nov. 30, 1967. p. 4899.

  5. Robert Bryce, the Finance Dept. historian, having stated that no such practice existed during the thirties or before.

  6. Jeffries, Maurice. Fleming to reveal all tonight: Balance chief goal so auto, other levies stay high. Windsor Star, March 31, 1960.

  7. Beauchesne, Eric. Flaherty proving he’s family friendly. Regina Leader-Post, March 19, 2007, p. A1 and Beltrame, Julian. Flaherty ready to unveil a thrifty budget in re-soled shoes. Moose Jaw Times Herald, Feb. 25, 2008, p. A5.

  8. Sharp, Mitchell (1994). Which Reminds Me…A Memoir. University of Toronto Press, p.128.