Tag Archives: Joseph Doucet

William Aberhart University of Alberta Honourary Degree

Before David Suzuki there was the William Aberhart honorary degree scandal at the University of Alberta

The decision by the University of Alberta Senate to grant environmentalist, scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki an honorary degree has the university community tied in knots. University President David Turpin responded to criticism with an open letter today, but criticism from Dean of Business Joseph Doucet and Dean of Engineering Fraser Forbes gives the impression of an open revolt (or at least an attempt to appease unhappy donors from the oil and gas sector).

David Suzuki University of Alberta Honorary Degree

David Suzuki

But the Suzuki controversy of 2018 is nothing compared to the slight created when the Senate refused to grant an honorary degree to Alberta Premier William Aberhart in 1941.

What should have been a routine exercise erupted into a full blown controversy in 1941 when members of the University Senate voted against granting Aberhart an honorary degree after he had already been informally notified of the honour by University President William Kerr.

A Senate committee’s recommendation that Aberhart be given an honorary degree was rebuked with one week left until convocation.

Until that point in history, three of Aberhart’s predecessors, Alexander Rutherford, Arthur Sifton, and John Brownlee, had received honorary degrees from the University during their time as elected officials.

The committee’s recommendations were said to be based on Aberhart’s record as an educator and his role in reforming the school system, including certifying teachers into a professional class and introducing a teachers’ pension system.

But it would have been hard for members of the Senate to ignore the rest of Aberhart’s record as Premier.

Alexander Rutherford University of Alberta

Alexander Rutherford

During its first decade in government, Aberhart’s Social Credit Party implemented a radical agenda that followed a fringe economic theory created by Major C.H. Douglas, tried to print its own currency, legislate control over the media, nationalize the banking system and ban alcohol sales. It is also well known that many early Social Credit MLAs harboured deep anti-semitic and racist attitudes rooted in the belief of a global banking conspiracy.

It was a strange time in Alberta’s political history.

Scrambling to deal with the huge political problem the rejection might cause the University, the Senate quickly passed a motion that no honorary degrees would be granted that year.  It was possibly, “the first time in the university’s history that no address will be given at convocation,” an Edmonton Journal report speculated on May 14, 1941.

Presiding over that year’s convocation on May 19, 1941 at McDougall Church was University Chancellor Alexander Rutherford, who had served as Alberta’s first premier from 1905 until he was forced out of office by a railway scandal in 1910. President Kerr resigned the following day.

John Robinson MLA Medicine Hat

John Robinson

An editorial published in the Edmonton Bulletin on May 14, 1941 stated that “…there is an affront to dignity of the University in this sorry affair. There is an affront to Dr. Kerr who was unwittingly made the instrument of what could only have been a calculated insult to Alberta’s self-respect. There is an affront to the the people of Alberta who are made ridiculous throughout Canada.”

Aberhart responded to the slight the next year by introducing Bill 57: An Act to amend and consolidate The University Act, which reorganized university governance and stripped the Senate of much of its powers, with the exception of its responsibility of selecting honorary degree recipients.

“The citizens of Alberta are now looking to the legislature to see to it that never again will it be possible for the senate of the University of Alberta to present a display as petty, so childish, so humiliating,” said Medicine Hat Social Credit MLA John Robinson told the Bulletin on Feb. 3, 1942.

The University Senate’s behaviour was “political prostitution,” Robinson told the Calgary Herald on Feb. 4, 1942.

Reportedly expressing pain at at Aberhart’s failure to obtain an honorary degree from the U of A, Willingdon Social Credit MLA William Tomyn told the Herald on Feb 3, 1942 that “never in the history of any nation was there a greater scandal.”


(Note: Most of the historical material included in this post was found in Walter H. Johns’ excellent book A History of the University of Alberta 1908-1969, and through the Alberta Legislature Library Scrapbook Hansard and the Google Newspaper Archive).

CBC National News Anchor Peter Mansbridge reacts to the results of Alberta's 2015 provincial election.

2015 was a great year for Progressive Politics in Alberta

It was an exciting year to be a progressive in Alberta.

Rachel Notley Alberta NDP leader

Rachel Notley

May 5, 2015 marked the first time since the 1930s that a conservative party did not win a provincial election in Alberta. The defeat of the Progressive Conservative government, which had been in power since 1971, by Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party represented a significant shift in Alberta’s political environment.

October 19, 2015 marked the first time Calgarians elected Members of Parliament other than conservatives since 1968. Newly elected Calgary Liberal MPs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang were joined by fellow Liberals Amarjeet Sohi and Randy Boissonnault from Edmonton to represent Alberta in a federal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Thomas Dang MLA

Thomas Dang

As someone who has been writing about Alberta politics for ten years and advocating for more progressive politics in our province, this year’s provincial and federal elections produced strange and exciting results.

A year ago, I never would have predicted a real progressive political party would win a provincial election in Alberta in 2015. Actually, on June 1, 2014, I wrote that it was probably impossible. On January 28, 2015, I predicted the PCs would win another majority.

In this case, I am very pleased to have been wrong.

Albertans rejected a conservative political establishment that had become stagnant and entitled after years of controversy, scandals and resignations. But instead of turning to the right-wing Wildrose Party, which was a few embarrassing comments away from winning the 2012 election, Alberta voters embraced a moderate progressive platform put forward by Ms. Notley’s NDP.

Ms. Notley proved to be a smart, likeable and charismatic leader on the campaign trail. I would argue that she was then and remains now her party’s greatest asset.

Jim Prentice Alberta Premier

Jim Prentice

Voters opted for wholesale change by choosing 75 new MLAs, a huge turnover, to serve in Alberta’s 87 seat Legislative Assembly. The NDP started the election with 4 seats and ended it with 54 seats, including every seat in Edmonton, 15 seats in Calgary, seats in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer, and a handful in rural Alberta.

The PCs lost a total of 60 seats and were relegated to third place with 10 MLAs (9 after leader Jim Prentice resigned on election night) and the official opposition Wildrose won 21 seats, four more than the party won in 2012.

A record number of women were elected to the Legislature, including 26 in the 54 MLA NDP caucus and 7 of 13 cabinet ministers.

Thomas Dang, age 20, became the youngest MLA in Alberta history.

Three openly gay MLAs were elected, believed to be a first in Alberta politics.

Stephanie McLean NDP Calgary Varsity

Stephanie McLean

Stephanie McLean made headlines when she became the first MLA in Alberta history to be pregnant while in office.

Optimism was in the air as thousands of Albertans showed up to the Legislature Grounds to watch the new Premier and cabinet be sworn-in to office.

In their first session as government, the NDP banned corporate and union donations, restored $1 billion in health care, education and human services funding cuts made by the PCs, increased Alberta’s corporate tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent and announced a phased in $15 per hour minimum wage by 2018.

Ms. Notley demonstrated an ability to reach outside NDP circles for expert advice by appointing Alberta Treasury Branches President & CEO Dave Mowat to lead a Royalty Review Panel, respected economics professor Andrew Leach to lead a Climate Change Panel, and former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge to provide advice on infrastructure investment. Calgary Liberal MLA David Swann was asked to co-chair a review of the province’s mental health services and Joseph Doucet, Dean of the University of Alberta’s School of Business, was tapped to chair the Premier’s Advisory Committee on the Economy.

David Swann Liberal MLA Calgary-Mountain View

David Swann

The PC Party patronage machine ground to a halt. University and college boards of governors are still dominated with well-connected conservatives, but some high-profile appointees have been replaced. For example, Alberta’s representative in Washington D.C. Rob Merrifield, a former Conservative MP, was replaced by Gitane De Silva, a former Deputy Minister of International and Intergovernmental Affairs and Canadian Consul General to Chicago.

On the financial front, the NDP government faces serious problems inherited from the old PC government.

After years of poor long-term planning and over-reliance on royalty revenues to fund the province’s operations budget, the sharp decline in the international price of oil had a huge impact on the government’s coffers. The drop in the price of oil has also led to significant job losses in Calgary and northern Alberta, which have impacted tens of thousands of Albertans.

Rob Merrifield Alberta Washington DC

Rob Merrifield

Instead of dealing with the drop in revenue by cutting budget funding and slashing public sector jobs, like the Wildrose and PC parties proposed, the NDP have decided to invest in public infrastructure, such as highway, school and hospital construction.

As well as keeping many Albertans in the construction industry employed during the economic downturn, investing in building public infrastructure now means the government will spend less time playing catch up when the next oil boom arrives. Ironically, this is similar to what Wildrose leader Brian Jean argued in favour of when he resigned as Fort McMurray’s MP in January 2014.

Not unexpected for a new government, especially for the first new government in 44 years, mistakes have been made. The NDP brought in a few too many out-of-province operatives to fill top political jobs, softened their position on carbon capture, and seriously fumbled Bill 6, the agri-industry and farm safety law. And rookie cabinet ministers planted their feet in their mouths on a few occasions, something they will need to learn to do less of in the new year.

Brian Jean Wildrose LeaderDespite a constant barrage of criticism from conservative critics, who claim the NDP election win was simply a fluke, a recent poll showed the NDP with a narrow lead in Calgary and a wide lead in Edmonton. The poll was not fantastic news for the governing party, but it undermines the argument that the NDP were elected by accident. The NDP appear to be developing a solid base of support among moderate and progressive voters in urban Alberta.

This election was a reminder that Alberta has defied its stodgy political stereotype and has rapidly become a young and urban province.

As Calgary political strategist Corey Hogan noted last week, “Alberta is the only province where baby boomers are outnumbered by their children.” The median age in our province is 36 years old, a number that is now more accurately reflected in the age of the government caucus.

The city of Calgary, long known for its conservative political roots, has now elected progressive politicians in the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government, something that would have been unheard of in past years.

According to Statistics Canada, in 1961, 53 percent of Albertans lived in rural areas. As of 2011, 83 percent of Albertans lived in urban centres with only 17 percent of our province’s population living in rural areas. This is a massive population shift that has and will continue to impact our political map for decades to come.

The year’s election was a rejection of establishment politics and a reminder that Albertans are largely politically moderate and more populist than conservative, which is an important distinction that the ruling PCs forgot after 44 years in power. It was also a reminder of how dramatically voters can abandon their traditional patterns of voting and embrace change.

This year was filled with many exciting firsts for progressive politics in Alberta. And while it is impossible to tell what the next year will bring in Alberta politics it is clear that our province changed in a significant way in 2015.


 

I had the pleasure of joining Ryan Jespersen on 630CHED on Dec. 16, 2015 to talk about the past year in Alberta politics. Take a listen and let me know what you think about what happened in 2015.