Series: Political Myth and Consequence in Alberta
Myth is powerful. Leading up to Alberta’s 2019 provincial election, the story Albertans have told about themselves and been told by others since becoming a province is firmly connected to events transpiring today.
The following interpretation of Alberta’s dominant political and cultural history highlights and traces the contextual, defining features and nuances in the evolution of Alberta’s identity through reconstruction, as Albertans seek to rise from the ashes once more at the ballot box this spring.
This series will be featured in the following sections:
1. Foundations of Alberta’s Conservatism: Confederation to 1935
2. The Social Credit Generation: 1935 to 1965
3. Progressive Conservatism: Lougheed and the Oil Boom
4. Return of Ideology: The Wildrose Alliance Party
5. The Re-Merge: Jim Prentice to the United Conservative Party
Foundations of Alberta’s Conservatism: Confederation to 1935
Alberta’s conservative tradition began with Canadian Confederation. Conservative Party Leader, Sir John A. Macdonald, was a leading figure toward Confederation, having drafted the majority of the resolutions for the framework for national unity. He became Canada’s first prime minister through a Conservative-Liberal coalition.
Macdonald’s nineteen years as Prime Minister, from 1867 to 1873 and again from 1878 to 1891, were formative for Alberta. Macdonald advocated a strong, central government that attempted to balance English and French interests, with a willingness to spend money on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the creation of the North West Mounted Police (the predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Protectionist policy was aimed at learning from the American experience to establish a distinctive economy and role of government in Canada. Macdonald’s National Policy utilized the new trans-continental railway to rapidly develop agriculture in western Canada and placed high tariffs for imported items, which unintentionally caused a rift between Ottawa and western Canada as the region developed unequally from other provinces and territories. The National Policy, therefore, was the first root of western discontent.
Two Albertans simultaneously shaped both the province’s and Canada’s political futures. Richard Bedford (R.B.) Bennett, a young Conservative Party member, became law partner to Sir James Lougheed in 1897. Lougheed, who had campaigned for Macdonald while living in Ontario, was a Conservative Senator well-known for voicing the interests and concerns of the West, a proponent for provinces having control over their natural resources, and later, a federal cabinet minister.
When Alberta became a province in 1905, Bennett became the first leader of Alberta’s Conservative Party. At the time, provincial politics were reflective of federal politics, of domination between Conservative and Liberal parties, with the Liberals governing in both Alberta and Canada. Alberta’s Conservatives were strong proponents of Alberta’s rights within Confederation through Bennett (these rights later came in the late 1920s under UFA Premier Brownlee), though the issue was not of great importance to most Albertans at the time due to an economic boom. In the 1909 election, only three Conservative candidates were elected, but won 13 seats and 45% of the popular vote in 1913. Bennett moved on to federal politics, having been elected into Canada’s House of Commons in 1911, though returned to Alberta to campaign for the provincial Conservatives during the 1913 election. In 1930, Bennett was elected Prime Minister, a year into the Great Depression.
By 1921, Alberta politics had quickly unravelled. Disunity within the provincial Conservative Party had set in between a traditional faction and a more radical faction, which determined the party’s decline to near non-existence until its revival in 1965. The provincial Liberals had also been brought to near-ruin, to the benefit of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), whom Liberal voters threw their support behind, boosted by UFA’s successful negotiations for Alberta’s ownership of its natural resources from Ottawa in 1929 under Premier Brownlee. The Great Depression had made Albertans desperate for a political leader who could relieve their distress.
Prime Minister Bennett’s government had also become unpopular and was defeated in 1935 despite government intervention – control and regulation – toward the expansion of state responsibility for the economy and for social welfare in response to new perceptions of what the role of the state and the economy should be. Bennett had introduced legislation to establish the Bank of Canada to regulate monetary policy, the creation of the Canadian Wheat Board to create a market and establish a minimum price for wheat, a minimum wage and maximum working hours per week, health and unemployment insurance, grants to farmers, a progressive income tax and expanded pension program, but it was too late in the minds of voters.
Provincially, Social Credit took hold in Alberta in 1935. Federally, the Liberals returned to power and remained so until 1958.