Andrea Hasenbank joins the Daveberta Podcast to discuss radical politics and propaganda in 1930s Alberta, one of Dave Cournoyer’s favourite periods in Alberta politics. From the rise of Communist organizations and publications to the election of William Aberhart‘s Social Credit Party, the 1930s was a wild period in Alberta politics as our province became a testing ground for radical political, social and economic theories.
Andrea Hasenbank holds a PhD in English from the University of Alberta, focusing on the circulation of print and the reading publics that formed the leftist pamphleteering culture of 1930s Canada. Between 2015 and 2019, she worked as a political advisor within the Notley government in Alberta. She teaches courses on media history and the news and consults on learning design. Her new research continues to examine the intersection of print, readers, propaganda, and the state in interwar Canada.
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This is our last podcast of the season, so we will be taking a break over the next few months to enjoy the Alberta summer. We may pop in with an odd episode or two if there are any big developments over the summer, but otherwise we will return to our regular podcast schedule in the fall.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
William: Remember when the Man from Mars would ask why earthmen weren’t intelligent enough to accept Social Credit teachings as the solution to their problems? The whole family would huddle around the radio to listen?
Margaret: Right. I thought that died out a long time ago, like 70 or 80 years ago?
William: Not in the Social Credit Party.
Margaret: So from what I can surmise from what you’re positing, it’s like the Social Credit Party is almost an alternative universe. It’s like all the banks were nationalized and the newspapers are forced to print what the government tells them to? It’s like Peter Lougheed never existed?
William: Exactly! Welcome to the Social Credit Party!
While the Social Credit Party has sat on the conservative fringe of Alberta politics for much of the past four decades, the party fundamentally reshaped the politics of our province when it formed government from 1935 to 1971.
Upon learning of the election victory in 1935, 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. (this was a period in western history when it was not uncommon for political parties to have official uniforms).
During its first decade in government, Aberhart’s radical administration tried to print its own currency, legislate control over the media, nationalize the banking system and ban alcohol sales. The Social Credit Party also introduced the province’s short-lived MLA recall law and a provincial sales tax.
In response to what they claimed to be a “world plot” by “socialists and world finance” (which is coded language for Jewish) the Alberta government-funded Social Credit Board proposed in 1947 that the secret ballot and political parties be abolished. “The obvious remedy for the evils of party politics is the abolition of political parties dominated at the top as we know them today,” the report argued.
Under Manning’s leadership from 1943 to 1968, the Social Credit Party evolved into a generic conservative governing party, albeit with a social conservative bent.
Perhaps the most important lasting legacy of the Social Credit government today is the continued existence of the Alberta Treasury Branches, which was founded in 1938 after the federal government thwarted attempts by Aberhart to impose government control over banks operating in Alberta.
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.
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.”