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
The Social Credit Generation: 1935 to 1965
Historical Context: War and Division
To understand the reality of present-day politics in Alberta and its historical relationship to federal politics, we must begin with context of Alberta’s social and economic situation that facilitated the rise of Social Credit in 1935. Additionally, the evolution of Alberta’s identity, to be vulnerable to exploit by William Aberhart and Ernest Manning, begins with and stems from immigration.
American sociologist S.M. Lipset, who has often compared Canada and the United States, described the differences in political character between the two as resulting from their formative events. While Canada had a ‘natural birth’ owing to its relative continuity in the relationship with Britain, the United States experienced a ‘caesarian section’, a decisive break from Britain with the War of Independence. This owes to Canadians favoring a stronger governmental role, with reliance on Crown corporations and a mixed economy, than Americans do.
As the “Last Best West,” Alberta’s advertised prosperity attracted thousands of immigrants, particularly from the plains states of the United States. These immigrants flowed into southern Alberta, bringing their values of “radical ‘populist’ liberalism that stressed the individual rather than the community or the state” with them, and along with Alberta’s existing farming community, were distrustful of and blamed traditional political parties, banks, and corporate influence for their troubles, particularly during the Great Depression. Southern Alberta is known as a “Bible Belt” due to the concentration of evangelical fundamentalist Christians and Mormons in the region, who migrated to southern Alberta beginning in the late 1800s, solidifying the region’s “Bible Belt” nickname and resulting in increased voter influence of a religious right agenda. Particularly during the oil boom in Alberta, people migrating from Texas were often Mormon or evangelical Christians. Social Credit had always had Mormons within its ranks, and although the evangelicals and Mormons had theological divisions deep enough to keep them apart generally, the two came together when political objectives were at stake.
Beginning with the First World War, the Second World War on the heels of the Great Depression, and then the Cold War, war was the significant factor in shaping the mentality and corresponding social attitudes of Albertans. Radicalized by war, persecution and intolerance were rampant as patriotism became indistinguishable from paranoia of “foreigners” – anyone who was not of Anglo-Protestant heritage. In the 1920s, legal rights for women improved, such as securing the right to vote, dower rights, and equal guardianship of children, but this social progress did not extend to ethnic or religious minorities. Organizations such as the Loyal Orange Order and Ku Klux Klan intended to maintain Anglo-Protestant dominance, ensuring nativism coincided with racism. The KKK, aided by the Orange Order, experienced a surge in support in Alberta during the 1920s and 1930s, recruiting over 8000 members to target mostly Eastern European immigrants, Roman Catholics, French speaking Canadians, and African-Canadian ranchers. The KKK failed to take root in Alberta due to a sharp decline in immigration, the establishment of separate schools, and the onset of economic depression and war, which were more tangible threats. Due to internal feuds, the organization dissolved officially by 1933.
During the First World War, war had cemented divisions between Native and settler, farmer and trapper, and contributed to the resource exploitation that deepened the gulf between have and have-not by the end of 1917. While rural Alberta seemed prosperous in 1916, the war made many farmers both temporarily affluent and yet unwilling to risk sacrificing their own sons for the cause. Culturally and ethnically, the walls between Albertans were raised higher by the war, creating deep scars and distrust that lingered for at least a generation, as social reform and majoritarian democracy carried with it nativism and repression.
Conscription in Canada began in 1917, increasing polarization between Alberta and the ‘Eastern plutocrats’, as Albertans felt they had already contributed a lot to the war effort and needed men at home for farming and mining. Henry Wise Wood, an American originally from Missouri, became President of the United Farmers of Alberta party in 1916. The UFA would go on to form government under Herbert Greenfield, prior to Social Credit, in representation of the farm and labour constituency, believing that farmers would have to enter politics officially to be able to represent their grievances. A defining reason for why the populist UFA was replaced by Social Credit was because UFA was unable to establish significant roots, making Alberta increasingly the ‘odd man out’ among Western Canadian provinces where parties based upon the formal movements of workers and farmers played key roles in shaping provincial politics.
Though working-class, farm, and lower-middle class women and men alike formed much of the popular base of the Social Credit movement, its character was ultimately shaped by the cultic dogma of William Aberhart and Ernest Manning that had no ties to previous radical movements in Alberta. The popular-democratic, socialist, and feminist perspectives that important sections of the UFA represented gradually receded to the margins of Alberta politics. Farmers, who were the majority occupational group in Alberta, voted overwhelmingly in favour of Aberhart’s Social Credit, feeling betrayed by the UFA’s inability to improve their financial situation.
Alberta’s north-south division developed during this period. As the drought of the Great Depression had not extended to northern Alberta, farmers there proved less enamoured with Social Credit than their southern Alberta counterparts, which showed in Social Credit’s smaller margin of victory in northern ridings. Northern Alberta farmers joined the business community in questioning whether Social Credit’s belligerency towards finance might not harm the agricultural community, rather than help it. Another factor in the north-south division was the higher ethnic diversity in northern Alberta, such as those of French and Ukrainian descent, to whom the Anglo-Protestant Social Credit did not appeal.
The short-lived Turner Valley oil boom of 1914 was the defining moment for Alberta’s future. In 1924, Imperial Oil’s Royalite No. 4 near Black Diamond burst forth with over a million cubic feet of gas and upwards of six hundred barrels of clear naphtha a day. Other Turner Valley wells quickly followed, and by the late 1920s Alberta’s production of petroleum and gas greatly exceeded Ontario’s. Although this oil boom did not rival those of a later era, it encouraged oil explorers to carry on until they were rewarded spectacularly starting in the late 1940s. Moreover, the Turner Valley discoveries, starting with Royalite, made Alberta the ‘oil province’ and established the pattern for later developments in the oil industry, including the dominance of American capital and the role of Calgary as the industry’s management centre.
The quickly developing oil and gas industry engaged, connected, and reshaped both urban and rural Alberta, requiring a significant rural-based work force. Soon, oil revenue filled the empty provincial treasury at such an accelerated rate that the government was able to rebuild neglected public infrastructure and build hospitals and schools. The province’s petroleum industry extended Alberta’s economic, political and social reference points beyond the western provinces to oil-rich American states, such as Texas, setting Alberta on a course increasingly differentiated from the other Prairie Provinces, strengthening its unique political identity. It was the petroleum industry that saved Alberta’s economy and allowed Albertans to be provided for, not Social Credit fiscal management.
Despite a post-Second World War influx of European immigrants and refugees into Canada, leading to a population boom and support for this boom to aid the post-war labour shortage, it would take at least a generation before most Albertans were prepared to substantially modify their attitudes toward ethnic groups. As the Cold War escalated, so did threat of atomic war and communist hysteria rhetoric, producing an environment that facilitated the re-customization of Social Credit to suit the communist threat. Having transformed its image – in words only – into a fiscally conservative and free enterprise party, Social Credit tightly held onto its social conservative roots by attempting to tighten censorship regulations, disallowing mixed drinking in public, and its failure to modernize the provincial child welfare system. What Manning would be unable to ignore completely, nor fend off permanently, was the slowly evolving social views of Albertans that the post-war wave of urban and generally well-educated immigrants, in addition to cosmopolitan views brought home by veterans.
Aberhart, and particularly Manning after him, manipulated the impressions of how these internal and external events were directly impacting Alberta to both shape Albertan’s mentality and feign an honest reflection of Social Credit government.
Ideological Context: Social Credit’s Brand of Christianity
There is a subculture within the religious right in Alberta that does not fit within mainstream denominations, an extremist brand of fundamentalist evangelical Christians who use politics as the engine to push their belief that only they can save humanity from the crisis they believe our society is in. This subculture was cemented in Alberta when William Aberhart started the Social Credit movement in the province and became Premier, followed by his protégé, Ernest Manning. The Aberhart-Manning brand of Christianity, disassociated from traditional and mainstream religious denominations, is defined as extreme fundamentalist, evangelical, and dispensationalist.
Fundamentalism is a movement characterized by its rigid adherence to and embodiment of a belief in the literal interpretation of every word in the Bible as the factual truth, and often accompanied by an intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism. Fundamentalists believe that the present experience should be changed by ideas that go beyond experience; often these ideas are impractical and unattainable, such as the desire to reform all of society to fit one fundamentalist, evangelical Christian model. They also believe that the dominant social and economic forces of the modern era run counter to Christian beliefs, and see concepts such as biblical criticism, evolution, humanism, and the social gospel as preparing the way for the Antichrist.
Religious scholar Karen Armstrong has pointed out that fundamentalism of every sort grows “in symbiosis” with secularization, saying, “the more it is thwarted, the more extreme it becomes.” Fundamentalists have been politically active, working to see their creedal and ethical beliefs legally enforced. Author Bruce Lawrence argues that in the United States, for instance, fundamentalists are particularly prone to adopting millennial expectations of the nation-state, seeing America as “the land of divine destiny” and working “for the realization of an earthly utopia.” They are generally conservative, advocating social action only when it is in line with their traditional national values. Fundamentalists do not recognize that their moral principles are never true, because truth is what is and morality is what ought to be.
The deepest contemporary political divide is not on matters of economics, but between the polar values of authority and autonomy – who has the right, and to what extent, to determine morality and for whom.
Dispensationalism is the linking of world history to various Biblical prophecies and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Dispensationalists believe that extreme weather, such as droughts and floods, are prophetic signs foretold in the Bible that prophesize Armageddon and the Second Coming, and to attempt to prevent these would be to defy divine providence. As John Nelson Darby said, “Why care about global climate change, when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture?” Darby’s theories are not mainstream, but persuasive enough to motivate high-profile dispensationalists, such as influential Canada Family Action Coalition President, Reverend Charles McVety, to agree, “The Bible talks about one-world government, and what we have developed is exactly that … The false religion is the worship of Mother Earth.”
The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement in the eighteenth century that challenged blind faith and obedience by encouraging reason, skepticism, and scientific thought, influencing particularly the religious and political realms. The Social Credit brand of Christianity opposes key tenants of the Enlightenment – skepticism, liberalism (the ideology of liberty, equality and democracy), modernity, and secularism, and also oppose idol worship. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the claim that decline is inescapable and championed the liberation of attitudes toward women. By contrast, traditional gender hierarchies and the suppression of sexuality are threads that bind fundamentalist movements. The extreme religious right veers between a realism that is fixed on the worst aspects of human nature, and an absolute idealism that sees nothing but the reflections of its own dreams.
In 1981, Ernest Manning claimed, “The idea of abolishing all respect or recognition of spiritual verities from the classroom on the grounds that this might be treading on somebody’s toes in the matter of religious convictions – we’ve paid a terrible price for it. Society wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today if we hadn’t taken that course.”
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Alberta Formed - Alberta Transformed; Alberta 2005 Centennial History Society; 2006
Alberta in the 20th Century; United Western Communications; 1991 – 2003
Like Father, Like Son; Lloyd Mackey; 1997
Major Douglas and Alberta Social Credit Ideology, 1932-1948; Bob Hesketh; 1993
Moral Clarity; Susan Neiman; 2009
Storming Babylon; Don Braid and Sydney Sharpe; 1991
The Armageddon Factor; Marci McDonald; 2011
The Ku Klux Klan in Central Alberta; William Peter Baergen; 2002
The Other Alberta; Doreen Barrie; 2006