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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

John Leedy: The Governor of Kansas who tried, tried and tried again to get elected in Alberta

Alberta’s political history is filled with colourful characters, but perhaps one of the most unlikely, and unlucky, was John Leedy. But before Leddy even arrived in Alberta in 1910, he had already served as the Governor and a State Senator in Kansas and a mayor and city attorney in Alaska.

Born in Ohio in 1849, John Leedy was elected to the Kansas State Senate in 1893 and served there until he was elected Governor of Kansas in 1897 while leading the Populist Party ticket to a full sweep in that year’s election. 

Asked what in his opinion caused the defeat of the Republicans in that year’s election, Leedy told the Kansas City Gazette in November 1896 that “I attribute the defeat of the Republican party in Kansas more to the fact that the sate of Kansas is for free silver, than to any other cause.”

John Leedy

“The next legislature will pass laws which will afford the people of Kansas, at least, an equal opportunity for existences long with the corporations,” Leedy said, referencing his criticisms that the large railway companies had too much influence over politics in Kansas.

Two years later, Leedy lost his party’s nomination and the Republicans regained control of the Governorship in Kansas.

Leedy moved to Alaska in 1901 following his first big electoral defeat in what some Kansan newspaper described as an “Alaskan exile.” He practiced law in Alaska, despite never having actually studied law. And he didn’t stay out of politics for long. 

He lost by one vote in his first bid for election as city attorney of the City of Valdez, according to a report by the Osbourne County Farmer. He was later elected as city attorney and served as mayor of Valdez.

He quit his job as city attorney in 1910 and applied to become a British subject in order to move to Canada to start a farm near Whitecourt, Alberta. 

Henry Wise Wood

Even in a different country, farming couldn’t quench his thirst for politics. He joined the United Farmers of Alberta and became very active in the farming advocacy group, serving on the UFA executive and working closely with UFA president Henry Wise Wood. 

The Kansas City Journal described him as a “fighting man,” “the kind that fights at the drop of the hat and drops the hat himself.”

So, true to character, he jumped back into electoral politics.

“Edmonton is so far north it would appear that even a Kansan’s desire to be a member of the legislature might be frosted,” wrote the Kansas City Star in April 1916.  “If he gets into the Alberta legislature the Conservative Canadians will head the Kansas language as she is spoke. For Leedy’s desire to go to the legislature shows that he is still a Kansan.”

Leedy ran in the June 1917 provincial election under the Non-Partisan League banner alongside fellow candidates Louise McKinney and James Weir.  He ran the southern Alberta district of Gleichen and placed third with 17 per cent of the vote.

Edmonton Journal, 1926

Months later he ran in the December 1917 federal election in the rural Alberta riding of Victoria, placing third with 7.9 per cent of the vote. He appears to have relocated from Whitecourt to Edmonton after these two electoral defeats. 

He split with Wise Wood shortly after the UFA’s surprise sweeping win in the 1921 election and resigned from the UFA executive. 

Following his split with the UFA, he became an enthusiastic promoter of monetary reform, calling for the creation of a smaller localized banking system over a centralized system dominated by central Canadian banks. He also clashed with evangelical followers of Social Credit theory during the big monetary reform debates of the 1920s and 1930s.

An April 1922 report in the Financial Post described Leedy as “one of those who has achieved a reputation in this country as a bank baiter,” having once published a pamphlet describing bankers as “our overlords” who “have skinned the farmer instead of shearing him.” 

Ad in the Edmonton Journal, 1925

After a break from electoral politics, he announced plans to jump back into electoral politics in 1925 as an Independent Progressive in Edmonton East in the federal election but he did not make it on to the ballot.

His next and final run for elected office would happen in 1926, when he advocated for monetary reform as an Independent candidate for MLA in Edmonton’s multi-member district. He eared 0.75 per cent of the vote and placed last out of 18 candidates.

Continuing to promote monetary reform theories, at age 83 he took his first trip in a airplane when flying back to Kansas in 1932 to give bankers monetary advice. 

In an Edmonton Journal article marking his 86th birthday, Leedy credited his longevity to “accepting his doctor’s advice to move to a colder climate.”

Leedy died in Edmonton on March 24, 1935 and is buried in the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery. His wife, Sarah Boyd Leedy died in 1941 and is also buried in the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery. 

Upon notice of his death, the Kansas House of Representatives voted to provide $1,000 to meet the burial expenses for him and his wife and erect a burial monument.

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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.