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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 statementsto 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.
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.
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.
From the columns of Postmedia newspapers to the halls of the United Conservative Party caucus, the the spectre of communism and socialism is striking fear in the minds of political elites who see Bolsheviks breeding in every corner of Alberta, from City Council chambers to voluntary blood donor clinics.
Last week, Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo UCP MLA Tany Yao described labour unions and advocates opposed to his private members’ bill to legalize corporate for-profit blood donation clinics as socialists who want to harvest organs from people without consent.
This was not the first time Yao had warned against the perils of the Red Menace.
In July 2020, Yao stood on the floor of the Assembly and claimed that Edmonton-Ellerslie NDP MLA Rod Loyola was the former leader of the Communist Party. Yao was later forced to withdraw his claim because it was not true.
Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland UCP MLA Shane Getson posted on Facebook that there was a “VIP section” in hell awaiting the “Socialist NDP.”
Red Deer-South UPC MLA Jason Stephan referred to the NDP’s elected term in government as a “socialist occupation” and described other provinces as “hostile, parasitic partners” that depend on Alberta for welfare payments.
Former UCP cabinet minister Tanya Fir has referred to the former NDP government as a “socialist dumpster fire.”
Former Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis, who led the votes in Alberta, published an op-ed in the National Post that accused Trudeau of plotting a “Socialist coup” in Canada.
Even Premier Jason Kenney is known to toss around flamboyant warnings about the rise of ‘bohemian Marxism’ or radical European green-left eco-socialists who have undue influence over the international banking system. A fixture on the libertarian think tank symposium circuit, Kenney frequently indulges in attacks on socialism in his responses to the opposition in Question Period.
Of course, this kind of rhetoric is nothing new.
It appears that there could be a competition among UCP MLAs about who can sound the most like a paranoid Social Credit MLA from the 1950s.
In Alberta, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Of course, it has been a long time since any major political party in Alberta could have been described as socialist or communist.
UCP claims that Rachel Notley and the NDP are dangerous socialists are meant to marginalize and discredit the opposition or bait their opponents into a debate. But it is increasingly clear that in the minds of some government MLAs, the talking points have become reality.
The anti-communist terminology is from another era and, quite frankly, it is very weird.
As a government and now as official opposition, the Alberta NDP were only slightly to the political left of the Progressive Conservative Party it defeated in 2015.
In reality, the NDP government only moved Alberta to the mainstream of labour laws compared to other provinces and the only industries it ever seriously mused about nationalizing were driver’s road tests and hospital laundry services.
In most other provinces, the Alberta NDP would be considered closer to a centre-leftish Liberal Party than anything resembling anything Karl Marx wrote about.