The political history of Alberta is filled with larger than life characters. I read a lot about Alberta history, and while politicians like William Aberhart, Ernest Manning, Peter Lougheed, and Ralph Klein dominate the history books, I have frequently come across some really interesting lesser known characters. I thought it would be interesting to share are a few of those names with you today.
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).
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.
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.
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).
The current debate around the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline centres around political posturing, provincial jurisdiction, investment priorities, climate change, coastal protection and consent by First Nations communities, but when the pipeline was originally being built in 1952, civil defence and the threat of war with the Soviet Union was a going concern.
According to reports by the Edmonton Journal and Canadian Press, Liberal Party leader Harper Prowse stood in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly on March 27, 1952 to question whether the Trans Mountain Pipeline terminus east of Edmonton could represent a concentrated target for Soviet bombers in the event of a war.
Prowse questioned the wisdom locating the eastern terminus of the Trans Mountain Pipeline near three refineries, a new chemical plant and two other pipeline terminals, the area many Albertans now know as ‘Refinery Row.’
The minister in charge of civil defence, Clarence Gerhart, was reported to have said that “every consideration” had been given to the situation and that asking companies to relocate their operations elsewhere would be an insult and lead the companies to invest in other provinces.
Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald was reported to have declared “this business of companies being ‘touchy’ about going somewhere else can be over-emphasized. Too many companies come into the province thinking they know everything and telling local authorities what they can do and what they can not do. We shouldn’t be too much impressed by their threats.”
While the debate began on the topic of strategic location in the event of World War Three, the debate shifted as MLAs began debating whether the United Nations as a bulwark against communist world domination or part of a conspiracy to form a world government.
Social Credit MLA for Leduc, Ronald Ansley, a frequent critic of the UN, argued that a third world war would results in “world dictatorship” by either Communism or the UN. Prowse responded to Ansley’s remarks by arguing that the UN represented an attempt to bring to the nations of the world a chance to bring about the rule of law instead of the rule of force.
“Nothing would make the communist world happier than if the Western nations should adopt the idea there is something sinister about the United Nations and that the free countries should go their way alone,” said Prowse, who was first elected in the 1944 Army, Navy and Air Force election.
“Even in peace-time we in Canada are losing some of our national sovereignty through the United Nations. Those who want world dictatorship have two arms working for them,” Ansley is reported to have replied. “Communism on the one hand and the United Nations on the other.”
“Not only our democracy but the whole of Christendom is at stake,” Ansley said.
CCF MLA Aylmer Liesemer argued that the UN was not infallible, “but to me it is the best hope of mankind to voice the horrible holocaust that would result from another war.”
[This post was originally published on Feb. 16, 2010]
The annual Family Day long-weekend is something that many Albertans look forward to. The many Albertans who take for granted the holiday on the third Monday of February may be surprised to know that the idea of creating Family Day was incredibly controversial when it was first introduced in 1989. It may be his greatest legacy as Premier, but when Don Getty introduced the Family Day Act on June 1, 1989, it generated some intense debate on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. Here are some quotes from the debate, care of Hansard:
June 5, 1989
Laurence Decore (Liberal MLA Edmonton-Glengarry): “It seems to me that when your province is in difficulty, when you know that you’re going to be experiencing the lowest economic growth rate in Canada, something should be brought forward to excite and energize and stimulate Albertans. The family day Act doesn’t do that.”
June 6, 1989
Kurt Gesell (PC MLA Clover Bar): “The promise of the throne speech of love of family, home, community, and province facilitates these choices. The family day Act is an excellent start, and forms part of the measures stressing the importance of Alberta families. I want to applaud our Premier for the introduction of this initiative.”
June 7, 1989
Don Tannas (PC MLA Highwood): “Government alone cannot create a true family day. It can merely provide the opportunity for others to make it a family time, and therefore it is an important step to bring focus to the fundamental importance of the family, through family day. Many of our Christian denominations emphasize having at least one day a week devoted to family activities. A family day once a year provides an ideal opportunity for all families to focus on themselves, to look at reconciling their differences, to take joy in their common ancestry, to participate in shared activities, and to focus on all the members of their extended family on a day other than a family funeral. No, Mr. Speaker, a government cannot do it by itself. Family day must grow in the hearts and minds of all Albertans, and I’m proud that this government has taken this important step.”
June 8, 1989
Ray Martin (NDP MLA Edmonton-Norwood): “I’ll stand up in the Legislature and give them credit if it’s anything close to what we’re doing in Bill 201. I point out that just like your so-called family day, Mr. Speaker — I recall them running that Bill down, but then for once they did the right thing and brought it in, the midwinter holiday. So I’m hopeful after the eighth try that they might take a look at a Bill like that. Again, government members, if you don’t understand the problem and you think everything’s okay, you’re just not listening to the public.”
June 19, 1989
Norm Weiss (PC MLA Fort McMurray): “I hope we’d see such things as family cards for family days, as we see for Valentine Day and Father’s Day and Mother’s Day and instances like that.”
Bettie Hewes (Liberal MLA Edmonton-Gold Bar): “We still are beset with runaways, with dropouts, with an increase in teenage pregnancy. Yet it doesn’t seem to me our Family Day will in any way help those problems that are a consistent source of stress in family life in Alberta and an increasing source of stress. Mr. Speaker, I ask the Premier and the members of the Legislature what Family Day will do to alleviate the need for respite for young families who’ve been encouraged to keep mentally or physically handicapped children at home.” … “This government’s commitment to strengthen family life has yet to materialize. With regret, Mr. Speaker, this particular family Act doesn’t accomplish it in any way.”
Derek Fox (NDP MLA Vegreville): “It’s not enough to pay lip service to the family in Alberta, just to say, “Well, we love the family; therefore, everything’s going to be wonderful for families in Alberta” or “We’re going to name a holiday Family Day, and everything will be wonder- ful for families in Alberta.””
Don Getty (PC MLA Stettler): “The members opposite from the Liberal and ND parties are surely a hesitant, fearful, timid group, unable to bring themselves to look at something in a positive way. I guess they’ve been in the opposition that long that they just can’t turn around their minds in a positive, thoughtful way and think of the kinds of things they could have raised to support Family Day and talk about the exciting things that will happen in the future in Alberta on Family Day. Instead we heard a series of complaints and fears, and that’s really sad.”
“We will have this thinking of Family Day, thinking of the importance of the family. Both the NDP and the Liberal members said: will people participate; will they actually get together as families? Their view is: force them to; use state control in some way. Force litem to. Make it the law that you’ve got to get together. Now, what kind of nonsense is that? Surely that’s the kind of centralist, socialist thinking that is so wrong and the reason why they’re where they are, Mr. Speaker.”
Marie Laing (NDP MLA Edmonton-Avonmore): “…all too often the member of that family that is forced to work is the mother or the woman, because they are employed in the retail trade. So we have to say: what kind of a Family Day do you have when the mother has to be at work and cannot be with her family?”
August 10, 1989
Mr. Weiss: “…the proposed amendment, as introduced by the hon member, certainly would create chaos. She went on to say, and I quote how would it help battered women, those sexually abused? I would like to say to all hon members of the Assembly that I really don’t know. Does any body know? But maybe just the reality of knowing one day has been designated as Family Day will shock both sides of a broken family into the realities that there are problems in this world, and as a realist we don’t run from them, we try and work towards improving them and bettering them from all sides It’s not just “empty rhetoric” as quoted by the hon member.”
Mr. Decore: “It is that not everybody is allowed to celebrate the holiday. The moms and the dads and the grandmothers and the grandfathers and the uncles and the aunts and the children aren’t able, many of them, to come back to that family unit to participate in that Family Day. Therefore, the Act isn’t fair; it isn’t fair to the thousands of people who must work.”
Bob Hawkesworth (NDP MLA Calgary-Mountain View): “…it’s really a shame to me that they would miss the real opportunity that this Bill could provide to create a genuine Family Day, not just some bogus, poor substitute for something that we once had once a week in this province. It’s a shame to me and a tragedy to me that this government over the years has failed to act in this important way. I think it’s highly regrettable. Here is some small
way that they could rectify an injustice.”
August 15, 1989
Mr. Getty: “…the hon. Member for Edmonton-Centre [editor’s note: the MLA at the time was William Roberts] has such a hesitant, fearful, timid view of the capacity of the people of Alberta that he would want in some way to pass legislation that forces people to do certain things. It’s the socialist, state-control thought, and it’s wrong. It has been wrong in the past, and it’s wrong now. You have to have faith in the people of the province that they will develop this family day, that they will work. The government merely provides the framework; it’s the people who do it. It’s not people against their employers. Surely they’re all the people of Alberta. They work together, and together they’re going to develop family day. I know that someday in the future that poor, timid, hesitant Edmonton-Centre MLA, wherever he will be in those days, probably . . . Well, no, I won’t even speculate, because we’d probably have to help him to the food bank.”
February 1, 1990
Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid wrote about the first Family Day: “The premier failed to consider a few realities of modern family life – little things like children, work, school and day care. These matters refuse to vanish just because the couch potatoes in the legislature want another holiday and the premier waves his wand.”
Months before the end of the Second World War, the largest global conflict in human history, the Alberta government conducted a vote of Alberta-residents serving in the three branches of the Canadian armed forces. The vote was held to elect representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force to serve as Members of the Alberta Legislature. Tens of thousands of Albertans were serving in the Canadian forces across the globe at the time.
The Soldier vote, also known as the Serviceman vote, was the second phase of the 1944 election that took place in 1945 and was sanctioned through Orders-in-Council from the provincial cabinet of Premier Ernest Manning. The cabinet order temporarily increased the number of seats in the Assembly from 57 to 60. A bill was passed through the Assembly after the vote in order to legally create the three new MLA positions.
“There men are fighting for all we hold dear in democracy and political expediency is a sorry excuse for depriving people, particularly soldiers, the right to vote,” Calgary Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald told the Legislature in March 1943, according to Edmonton Journal reports.
Voting conducted overseas was counted in England and sent to Edmonton by telegraph. In total, 7,985 votes were cast by servicemen (6,125 army votes, 1,207 air force votes, and 653 navy votes).
When the votes were counted, Captain James Harper Prowse was elected as the Army MLA, Wing Commander Frederick C. Colborne was elected as the Air Force MLA, and Chief Petty Officer Loftus Dudley Ward was elected to represent the Navy. They served as Independent MLAs until their terms expired in 1948.
Once in the Assembly, the MLAs raised issues ranging from housing, employment and education for veterans who returned to Alberta after the war ended.
Two of the MLAs continued their political careers after their terms ended in 1948, Mr. Prowse as a Liberal MLA from Edmonton until 1959 and Mr. Colborne as a Social Credit MLA from Calgary until 1971.
Mr. Colborne served in numerous cabinet positions, including Minister of Public Works and Minister of Municipal Affairs. He represented the Calgary-Centre constituency from 1959 until 1971. He was defeated in his bid for re-election in the new Calgary-Currie constituency in 1971.
Mr. Prowse served as Liberal Party leader from 1947 to 1958 and leader of the Official Opposition from 1952 to 1958. He would run for Mayor of Edmonton in 1959, finishing second to Mr. Roper, one of the strongest proponents of the Soldier vote. He was later appointed to serve in the Canadian Senate.
Saskatchewan also had a Soldier Vote
A similar vote was held in the Saskatchewan election of 1944, which saw three MLAs elected from geographic region of service (1 MLA for soldiers serving in Great Britain, 1 for soldiers serving the Mediterranean Theatre, and 1 for soldiers serving in Canada outside of Saskatchewan).
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.”
A new Edmonton-based history podcast was launched today. Let’s Find Out is hosted by our city’s Historian-Laureate Chris Chang-Yen Phillips and the first two episodes of the podcast can be found on the podcast website or on iTunes.
The first episode delves into the history of Edmonton’s Snow Goose Chase (which I had never heard of until I listened to this episode) and the second tries to answer the question “has Edmonton ever had a black public school trustee?”
Chris is encouraging curious Edmontonians to email him with historical questions they want answered that could turn out to be inspirations for future podcast themes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.
As an avid fan of history and podcasts, I am looking forward to listening to more podcasts from Edmonton’s official historian and chief story teller.
Two other history podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class and Hardcore History with Dan Carlin, are also on my subscription list and are worth listening to. I would also recommend that history and journalism buffs take some time to listen to the BBCs War and Words podcast series.
Five years ago today, Ed Stelmach began the process of quietly stepping out of the political spotlight by announcing his resignation as Premier of Alberta after nearly five years in the office.
The mild-mannered farmer from the Village of Andrew dedicated more than twenty-five years of his life to municipal and provincial politics and led the Progressive Conservative Association to win one of its largest electoral victories in its forty-four years as government. Despite this win, his party’s Calgary establishment never forgave him for defeating their choice for leader in the 2006 leadership race.
On January 25, 2011, facing dangerous ideological divisions in his party and caucus, Mr. Stelmach announced his decision to resign. On October 7, 2011, he was replaced as premier and party leader by Calgary MLA Alison Redford.
While there were certainly controversies and missteps during his time as premier, Mr. Stelmach made a number of significant decisions that have had a positive effect on our province. Considering my history with the man, some readers may be surprised to learn that I believe history will be kind to Alberta’s thirteenth Premier. Here’s why.
Six reasons why Alberta history will be kind to Ed Stelmach
1) Mr. Stelmach reinvested in public services and infrastructure. After years of neglect, his government tackled the province’s growing deferred maintenance budget by investing billions of dollars into public infrastructure.
The Municipal Sustainability Initiative and the $1 billion GreenTrip Fund provided to municipalities allowed for the expansion of public transit in Alberta’s fast-growing cities. A series of 5% increases to the health care budget helped to stabilize the see-saw of unpredictable funding allocated by his predecessor, Ralph Klein.
2) The creation of the Capital Region Board helped de-escalate the tensions and narrow the deep divisions between the dozens of municipalities in the Edmonton region. While tensions still exist in some corners of the capital region, Mr. Stelmach helped usher a détente by forcing the municipal politicians to use a process for resolving grievances and planning the future.
3) The creation of the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness set a bold plan in motion to eliminate homelessness in our province by 2017. While homelessenss will not be eliminated by 2017, the provincial plan along with plans to end homelessness in Calgary, Edmonton and other cities, thousands of Albertans have been successfully housed through programs like Housing First.
4) The introduction of the Lobbyist Registry helped shine a spotlight into the shadowy world of political lobbying and horse-trading. Although not foolproof, the registry gives Albertans a chance to see who is being paid to influence their elected officials on a daily basis.
5) During his first year in office, Mr. Stelmach concluded a deal with the Alberta Teachers’ Association in which the province agreed to contribute $2.1 billion towards the $6.6 billion unfunded pension liability. In exchange, Alberta’s 34,000 teachers agreed to a five-year contract. This is a stark contrast to his predecessor and successor, who waged war on Alberta’s public sector workers, their pensions and their unions.
6) In the spirit of former Premier Peter Lougheed, Mr. Stelmach moved the Tories back to the centre of the political spectrum. While he did not stay to face them in an election, he recognized that to compete with the right-wing Wildrose Party, then led by Danielle Smith, he needed to move his party to the middle, rather than the political right. While this angered his opponents both inside and outside his party, this decision may have helped save his party from political defeat in the 2012 election. Had he remained leader of the PC Party, he might still be Premier of Alberta today.
While he never enjoyed the same level of personal popularity as Mr. Klein, I suspect the actions Mr. Stelmach took while in office will have a longer lasting positive impact in this province than those of his immediate predecessor.
(This post is an updated version of an article first published in 2013)