The recent news that Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party is flush with cash from Calgary-based corporations is both noteworthy and concerning. Due to that province’s lax political finance laws, the Saskatchewan Party is reported to have received at least $2 million in donations from Alberta-based energy companies since 2006. This is notable considering the Premier’s fierce opposition to the federal government’s plans to fight climate change and his frequent criticisms of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government (a government that has banned corporate donations to political parties).
Mr. Wall is not the first Saskatchewan politician to get his financial backing from Calgary. There was a time when the people of Saskatchewan faced another, more literal, political invasion from Alberta.
Seventy-eight years ago, Alberta Premier William Aberhart staged an invasion of Saskatchewan politics.
Mr. Aberhart’s Social Credit Party had swept the 1935 Alberta election, going from zero to 56 seats and forming a majority government during the height of the Great Depression. Upon learning of the election victory, the Social Credit Greenshirts in London were reported to have marched around the Bank of England Building holding torches and blowing their trumpets (no doubt inspired by the Battle of Jericho).
During its first decade in government, Mr. Aberhart’s radical administration tried to print its own currency, legislate control over the media, nationalize the banking system and ban alcohol sales.
Eager to spread the gospel of Major C.H. Douglas and Social Credit theory, Mr. Aberhart’s party propped up a Socred Party in Saskatchewan to contest the June 8, 1938 provincial election. The Alberta Premier viewed Saskatchewan as a beachhead for his party’s expansion across Canada and, eventually, to Ottawa.
While The Battlefords Member of Parliament Joseph Needham was party leader by default, the Saskatchewan Social Credit Party organization in that election was manufactured by Albertans. It was run by Alberta MLA and Provincial Secretary Ernest Manning, who would succeed Mr. Aberhart as Premier in 1943 and serve until his retirement 1968.
Nearly all of Alberta’s Social Credit MLAs and cabinet ministers hit the hustings in Saskatchewan, spending weeks campaigning for local candidates. Mr. Aberhart spent two weeks on the campaign trail, speaking to rallies across Saskatchewan along with a band of experts in Social Credit theory.
“The outlook in Saskatchewan is very encouraging,” Mr. Aberhart was reported to have said upon a brief return to Alberta in May 1938. “It would appear from the definite interest manifested by the people who gathered in such large numbers that they realize a change is absolutely necessary,” Mr. Aberhart said.
The “troupe from Alberta invading Saskatchewan,” as one Saskatchewan newspaper described them, did not go unnoticed and faced fierce opposition from local political establishment and opponents on both sides of the provincial border.
The intentions of Social Credit candidates on the ballot were called into question by The Leader-Post, whose editors asked in a June 6 editorial who they would be loyal to if elected. “Will their loyalty be given to the Alberta Premier or to the people of Saskatchewan?,” the editorial asked.
Saskatchewan’s Liberal Minister of Natural Resources, William Franklin Kerr, called Social Credit a disease and claimed that if its candidates were elected those MLAs would represent the Premier of Alberta in the Saskatchewan Legislature.
John Hugill, a former Social Credit Attorney General who had become an outspoken critic of Mr. Aberhart, said in May 1938 that the Alberta Premier “visualizes being the dominant force in the political life of Western Canada as a stepping stone to becoming the Hitler of Canada.”
On the eve of the election, Mr. Aberhart is reported to have spoken to a rally of 5,000 people in the Town of Melville. The rally was policed by party activists, wearing official Social Credit armbands, who tossed out protesters from the event. It is unclear if the armbands were accompanied by official party uniforms. This was 1938 after all.
“Mr. Aberhart and his government are a peril to the people of Alberta. Not only is he a threat to Alberta, but his actions coming into Saskatchewan and disrupting the affairs of neighbouring province has been a menace to Canadian unity,” J.T. Shaw told The Leader-Post in June 1938. Mr. Shaw was a Knight of Columbus who traveled from Calgary to campaign against the spread of the Social Credit menace in Saskatchewan.
On June 6, the Kerrobert League for Democracy, based in the town of Kerrobert, sent a telegram to the chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asking him to stop Mr. Aberhart’s radio broadcasts into Saskatchewan. “The law prohibits radio broadcasting of political propaganda for certain periods before election days,” the League wrote. “…Premier Aberhart of Alberta took unsportsmanlike advantage of situation by broadcasting his propaganda against Saskatchewan opponents from Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute Sunday…”
Mr. Aberhart earned his nickname, “Bible Bill” from his weekly Christian radio sermons broadcast from the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute in downtown Calgary.
Despite his best efforts, Mr. Aberhart’s Social Credit invasion of Saskatchewan was repelled. The Liberal Party led by Premier William Patterson was re-elected with a reduced majority of 38 seats and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation formed official opposition with 10 seats. The Social Credit Party earned only 15.9 percent of the vote and elected two MLAs.
“The Alberta-run Social Credit election effort in Saskatchewan provided only two Social Credit seats in a fifty-five-seat house… The Social Credit revolution had been stopped at the Alberta-Saskatchewan border,” wrote historian Alvin Finkel in his 1989 book The Social Credit Phenomenon.
The Leader-Post editorial on the day following the election read: “The result is also satisfactory because it means the repulse of an outside government that threw itself into the domestic affairs of a neighboring province and attempted to lure Saskatchewan into adopting a plan of government and economics that has failed signally in Alberta. Mr. Aberhart and his men can now go home and attend to the business of running the province of Alberta, where they will find plenty of work to do. Mr. Aberhart may now cease from his extravagant claims that the people of the west are clamouring for Social Credit.”