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Alberta Politics

The United Farmers of Alberta formed government 100 years ago today

“Farmers may not be ready to take over government, but they are going to do it anyway” – Henry Wise Wood, July 8, 1921

A lot of Albertans might recognize the United Farmers of Alberta as a farm-supply retail cooperative with gas stations, fertilizer plants and retail outlets scattered across Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan. But 100 years ago today, the UFA won its first election in Alberta and formed a majority government by shattering the Liberal Party and breaking the mould of provincial politics in the prairies.

UFA Election Declaration

The 1921 election marked the first of only five times Albertans have voted to changes parties in government. The results of that election marked the start of Alberta becoming an electoral testing ground for anti-establishment ideologies and political projects.

It would not be until 1971 that a nationally-mainstream and nationally-affiliated party would again form government in Alberta. 

Founded in 1909, the UFA was an influential farmers’ lobby group that reluctantly entered electoral politics after years of frustration with the establishment Liberal Party that had governed Alberta since the province was formed in 1905.

Part of a broader national progressive cooperative movement, the UFA was the first of the prairie farmers parties to break through and form government. The United Farmers of Manitoba would form government in 1922 and Saskatchewan would buck the trend until the election of Tommy DouglasCooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1944.

Until 1921, the Liberal Party had dominated elections in the three prairie provinces, with the Conservative Party only occasionally forming government. A 16-year old Alberta Liberal Party government already damaged by years of internal power struggles and still reeling from the conscription crisis was shocked to be swept out of office.

Thirty-eight UFA MLAs were elected, with 15 Liberal MLAs, 4 Dominion Labour MLAs, 3 Independents and 1 Conservative forming the opposition (one Dominion Labour MLA, Alex Ross, was invited to join the UFA cabinet and served as Minister of Public Works).

Despite the incumbent Liberals winning 34 per cent of the vote compared to 28 per cent for the UFA, the UFA won 38 seats compared to 15 for the Liberals. The lopsided popular vote was due to a new electoral system which gave voters in Calgary and Edmonton the ability to cast votes for five candidates and voters in Medicine Hat the ability to vote for two candidates. The UFA did not run any candidates in the two largest cities.

Being new to electoral politics, the UFA did not actually have an official party leader at the time they won the election (this would become a trend in Alberta politics, as neither did the Social Credit Party when it won in 1935).

Wanting to do politics differently, the newly elected UFA is said to have approached defeated Liberal Premier Charles Stewart to ask if he would remain in the job. Stewart, who had been a member and supporter of the UFA before they became his political opponent, declined.

UFA President Henry Wise Wood also declined, wanting to stay out of the partisan political side of the organization.

UFA Vice-President Percival Baker was next in line, but died one day after being elected as the MLA for Ponoka from injuries caused by a falling tree.

George Hoadley was considered a potential premier due to his previous experience as leader of the Conservative Party, but it was likely his pre-floor crossing connections that cost him the job.

Herbert Greenfield was named interim vice-president after Baker’s death and was selected by the UFA Caucus to become the next Premier. Without a seat in the Legislative Assembly, Greenfield ran in a December 1921 by-election to become the MLA for Peace River.

The UFA’s election also marked the beginning of a political wave that would sweep over Alberta and the prairies, with the UFA-allied Progressive Party electing 8 Members of Parliament in the December 1921 election and forming official opposition in Ottawa.

It’s record as government in Alberta was mixed. It ended prohibition, formed the Alberta Wheat Pool, founded the first provincial parks, and introduced elements of proportional representation into the provincial electoral system. But it was also responsible for the formation of the Alberta Eugenics Board, marking the start of a dark period in our province’s history.

The UFA’s political fortunes would also suffer from the Great Depression and number of high-profile sex scandals that would dog it until the party’s defeat in 1935 and subsequent retreat from politics.

I will be sharing more thoughts over the next few days about the election of the UFA in 1921 and how it reshaped politics in Alberta for decades to come.

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Alberta Politics

The Truth, the Coal Truth and nothing but the Truth

The Government of Alberta Trade Branch once operated a COAL TRUTH OFFICE in Winnipeg in an apparent effort to market the sale and defend the reputation of Alberta mined coal for domestic use.

A full-page newspaper ad from the Alberta COAL TRUTH OFFICE (published in the Winnipeg Tribune on Nov. 13, 1923)
A full-page newspaper ad from the Alberta COAL TRUTH OFFICE (published in the Winnipeg Tribune on Nov. 13, 1923)

Today it is easy to ask why the office was located in Winnipeg of all places, but when the office opened in 1920, the Chicago of the North was the third largest city in Canada, a centre of trade and commerce, and a major stop in the Canadian railway.

We now know that burning dirty coal to generate electricity is a big driver of climate change and that open-pit coal mining has horrible impacts on the environment and drinking water. But one hundred years ago, the Alberta government was aggressively marketing the sale of coal for domestic and industrial use in Manitoba and Saskatchewan while facing stiff competition from already established coal sellers.

Even though this story took place a century ago, there are some similarities to our current day that are unmistakable, namely that the current United Conservative Party government is enthusiastically jumping back into the open-pit coal mining business and indulging in its own oil propaganda office and inquisition.

Easily accessible public records about the provincial government’s Coal Truth Office are sparse, but I have cobbled together some of what I was able to uncovered about Alberta’s original Energy War Room.

According to media reports from the time, the Winnipeg-based office was established in 1920 and maintained “a staff of Fuel Engineers for the purpose of assisting you in any problems which you may have particular to your equipment or fuels.”

The office also published a book, COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE, which was sold for 50 cents and included lengthy instructions about how to use Alberta coal and why Alberta coal was a superior coal.

“Statistics quote the Province of Alberta as having 70 per cent of Canada’s visible coal resources. While this represents an enormous number pf tones of coal, it must be remembered that civilization is using fuel at an alarming rate,” wrote Provincial Secretary Herbert Greenfield in the 1923 edition the propaganda booklet. “Therefor the need for economy.”

The Alberta government even attempted to brand Alberta coal as more ethical and efficient than coal from other sources. 

An image in COAL TRUTH: ALBERTA STORED SUNSHINE
An image in COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE

“There is no country in the world that has such an abundance of similar coals. There are no raw coals in the world which have such desirable characteristics for domestic purposes as Alberta Domestic Coal – NOT excepting hard coal,” wrote George Pratt, the chief engineer stationed in the Coal Truth Office.

“Coal is the greatest necessity of Canada, yet the coal consumer takes the least interest in it, his policy being to leave it to whoever cares to take a hand,” Pratt wrote. “The individual coal buyer must be made to realize that he must get out and do something to help himself if he wishes to safeguard his interests.”

The Coal Truth Office was also active in defending the reputation of Alberta coal companies when, in the early 1920s, the federal government launched a public inquiry into an alleged price-fixing combine by Alberta-based coal companies.

The Alberta government’s legal representative in Winnipeg, J. B. Hugg, even urged the Commissioner to move the public inquiry’s activities into a private setting so that the publicity would not damage Alberta’s interests.

An image in COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE
An image in COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE

Hugg argued that advertisements published since the commission commenced investigations were misleading, deceiving and defrauding the public.

“I am instructed to say that the government of Alberta is deeply concerned in the Alberta coal industry,” Hugg was reported by the Winnipeg Tribune to have told the inquiry.

“By a series of advertisements, the coal buying public are being mislead, deceived and defrauded,” Hugg argued. “Alberta domestic coals of the highest value with long established records, are being slandered and grossly and deliberately misrepresented, and at the same time foreign coals wholly unsuited for domestic use are being passed off on the public and are being falsely represented as being most satisfactory and most efficient.”

“The government of Alberta urgently requests that you immediately investigate the activities of those persons who are misleading the public with regard to Alberta coals and endeavouring to reap a quick and unjustifiable profit out of the prejudices which they are arousing by making statements  to the public regarding the very matters which are subject to this investigation,” Hugg continued.

It does not appear that the Public Inquiry’s Commissioner accepted the Alberta representative’s argument that a veil of secrecy should be drawn over the inquiry.

The rapid expansion of Alberta’s coal industry in the 1910s and 1920s did not come without strife.

Striking coal miners in Drumheller
Striking coal miners in Drumheller (source: Glenbow Museum)

In 1919, more than 6,500 Drumheller coal miners went on strike under the banner of the One Big Union to fight for better working and living conditions, and higher wages. The striking miners were brutally repressed by “special constables” hired by the largest mining companies in the Red Deer River Valley. The RCMP and Alberta Provincial Police turned a blind eye to the violence by the para-military mining company police.

Coal mining communities in the Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, like Blairmore and Nordegg, would become hotbeds for radical politics over the next two decades. Radical Labour and Communist candidates were routinely elected to municipal councils and the provincial legislature during this time.

A poem on the back cover of COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE
A poem on the back cover of COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINESUNSHINE

Somewhat mirroring the current political debate over oil pipelines, transportation of coal became an issue of concern.

With railway costs becoming prohibitive, Alberta’s Provincial Secretary and Grouard MLA Jean Cote stood in the Legislative Assembly in 1921 to call for the creation of a dedicated transportation corridor on the Saskatchewan River to transport coal from Alberta to Winnipeg and beyond.

It is not entirely clear when the Alberta Coal Truth Office was shuttered, but the final mention of it I have been able to find was a report in the Winnipeg Tribune that the building at 277 Smith Street that housed the Coal Truth Office had burned down in Dec. 1924. According to the news report, “included in the loss is a new issue of the “Coal Truths” booklet with the original drawings and other valuable material.”

It is unclear whether the Coal Truth Office ever reopened after the fire.

Categories
Alberta Politics

Nathan Cooper claims the throne in Alberta’s latest Speaker election

When MLAs gathered for the first sitting of the new Legislature today, the first piece of business they were required to conduct was the election of a Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who will preside over debates and ensure that the established rules of behaviour and procedure are followed.

The Speaker is elected by MLAs through a secret ballot held at the beginning of each legislative session. Candidates are nominated by their colleagues on the floor of the Assembly and voting takes place immediately afterward. 

It has been fairly well known in most political circles that Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA Nathan Cooper has had his eye on the Speaker’s Chair. Cooper made his intentions known shortly after the election and as former interim leader of the United Conservative Party and opposition house leader, he was well positioned to take on the role. His lack of appointment to the UCP cabinet earlier this month was a pretty definite signal that he would have the support of Premier Jason Kenney and most or all of the UCP caucus in this election.

Heather Sweet NDP Edmonton-Manning
Heather Sweet

As has become the norm in recent years, the opposition also nominated a candidate for the Speaker’s Chair. Edmonton-Mill Woods MLA Christina Gray nominated her New Democratic Caucus colleague, Edmonton-Manning MLA Heather Sweet in the election. Sweet had served as Deputy Chair of Committees during the previous Assembly. 

Not surprisingly, the UCP majority elected Cooper as Speaker.

The election of a Speaker through a secret ballot is a relatively new invention in Alberta politics. Before 1993, when the first secret ballot vote took place, the Premier’s choice for Speaker was typically acclaimed by the Assembly.

An exception that I discovered was in 1922, when a United Farmers of Alberta MLA surprised the Assembly when he nominated a Conservative opposition MLAs to challenge Premier Herbert Greenfield’s chosen candidate for Speaker. The Conservative MLA declined the nomination and Greenfield’s choice was acclaimed.

Here is a look at a few of the contested Speaker elections held since 1993:

2015: When MLAs gathered for the first sitting of the legislature following the 2015 election, Medicine Hat NDP MLA Bob Wanner was elected as Speaker. Wanner faced Calgary-Lougheed Progressive Conservative MLA Dave Rodney. The Wildrose opposition attempted to nominate others challengers in a strange attempt to disrupt the process. Wildrose MLAs Angela Pitt and Leela Aheer nominated NDP MLAs Stephanie McLean and Marie Renaud and PC MLA Sandra Jansen, all who declined their nominations.

Laurie Blakeman MLA Edmonton-Centre Liberal
Laurie Blakeman

2008 and 2012: Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman was nominated by her Liberal caucus colleagues in the 2008 and 2012 Speaker elections and was defeated by incumbent Speaker Ken Kowalski in the first election and Edmonton-Mill Creek Progressive Conservative MLA Gene Zwozdesky in the second election.

1997: Barrhead-Westlock PC MLA and former deputy premier Ken Kowalski was elected as Speaker on the second round of voting over Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg after Highwood MLA Don Tannas was eliminated on the first ballot. Liberal leader Grant Mitchell nominated then-Liberal MLA Gene Zwozdesky as a candidate for Speaker, but he declined to stand.

It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Kowalski’s over Clegg, who was seen as Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice. Kowalski’s comeback happened a short three years after he had been unceremoniously booted from Klein’s cabinet.

1993: Liberal leader Laurence Decore nominated Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Bettie Hewes as speaker in 1993, the first time the Speaker was elected by secret ballot. Hewes was defeated by PC MLA Stan Schumacher.


Speaker punches newspaper publisher over wife-swapping allegations, 1935

Oran McPherson
Oran McPherson

A glance through the history of Speakers of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly reveals some fascinating stories. One story really stuck out.

In 1935, Speaker Oran McPherson is reported to have engaged in a heated argument at the top of the rotunda’s grand staircase with Edmonton Bulletin publisher Charles Campbell, who McPherson accused of spreading lies about his divorce. McPherson punched Campbell and he hit a railing and banged his head on a pillar.

It had been reported that McPherson was arranging a “wife-swap” with the aide-de-camp to the serving Lieutenant Governor.