Alberta Legislature building, EdmontonView larger
Anchoring the northwestern edge of the Great Plains and nestled against the Rocky Mountains, the province of Alberta, Canada, is a unique blend of European and North American influences, a blend that has produced a political system characterized by strong leaders, strong political parties, and strong governments. Interestingly, this uniqueness can be traced to the influence of those who settled the Great Plains on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel. It is a prime example of how geography and human migration have intersected to produce new political behavior.
Canada is a federal state. Like other federations it has a system of government that constitutionally divides power between central and constituent governments. In Canada the latter are called provinces. The institutions of government are modeled largely on the British parliamentary system as it existed in the nineteenth century. There is an elected legislature in each province, with a cabinet consisting of a premier and ministers who are members of the House. Although the Queen is nominally the provincial head of state, in practice this position is occupied by an appointed official called the lieutenant governor. Elections are held on a regular basis, usually every four years, and are contested by several political parties, many of which have unique roots in the province.
Alberta was created in 1905 as one of the new provinces carved out of the old Northwest Territories, which had stretched from Manitoba north to the Arctic Ocean and west and south to the Rocky Mountains. For political reasons the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier ignored the advice of those supporting a single province and created several provinces instead. The result was Alberta, Saskatchewan, and an enlarged Manitoba, increasing the number of provinces in Canada by two.
Initially the politics of Alberta followed the traditional British and Canadian model, with elections contested by the Liberal and Conservative Parties. The Liberals, under the leadership of A. C. Rutherford, were in power between 1905 and 1921. However, powerful social and economic forces, together with the influx of settlers from the midwestern United States, changed the system dramatically after World War I.
Alberta, like most of the Great Plains jurisdictions, was a society rooted in the agricultural development of the incredibly fertile land of the Prairies. It was a society largely dependent on the production and export of grains. As with any such society, it was subject to the boom and bust cycle of a single industry. Thus, when prices for agricultural products dropped dramatically after 1919, farmers and their supporters looked for solutions to the economic crisis.
They found their solution in radical populist politics. The person most responsible for promoting this approach was Henry Wise Wood, an immigrant from the midwestern United States, who brought with him strong ideas about individualism and group government. These found resonance and took root in the Alberta of the 1920s. Together with other farmers he founded the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), a movement that contested and won the 1921 election. In defeating the Liberals the UFA began a trend that continues to this day. No political party that has been elected to govern Alberta has ever returned to power after it was defeated.
Populist politics dominated the Alberta scene from 1921 until after World War II. In the mid-1930s the UFA faltered as a result of a series of internal scandals. It was completely wiped out in the 1935 election. Its place in government was taken by a new political party called Social Credit, which ran for the first time in that year under the leadership of William Aberhart, a Protestant minister. Social Credit won a stunning landslide victory in its first electoral contest.
Although Social Credit was a populist party, it differed in many important respects from its predecessor. Its basic ideology was taken from the teachings of Maj. Clifford Douglas, an Englishman who proposed a comprehensive monetary policy for dealing with the role of government in society. While these ideas were soon discarded in practice, the party continued to espouse them in theory until the late 1960s. Finally, while the UFA had been radical democrats, Social Credit was more plebiscitarian and less tolerant of political dissent. After the death of Aberhart in 1943 the party elected E. C. Manning, a protégé of his. (In 2000 his son, E. P. Manning, headed the Reform Party at the national level in Canada.) Social Credit stayed in power until 1971.
The discovery and exploitation of huge oil and gas reserves in Alberta after World War II dramatically changed the economic and social landscape of Alberta. In twenty years the province moved from a largely rural agricultural society to an urban, resource-based community. This brought with it some political changes. In 1971, after thirty-five years in office, the Social Credit Party was defeated. Peter Lougheed, a Calgary lawyer, led the new Progressive Conservative government. It was strongly particularistic and protective of the oil industry and its benefits. It had several confrontations with the federal government over natural resources and the revenue from them.
After 1982, when the New Democratic Party under Grant Notley became the Official Opposition, politics in the province seemed to be adjusting to a left-right division. Notley's death in 1984, and the inability of his successors to hold on to their position, however, resulted in a return to one-party dominance. The Liberal Party, which has not regained power since 1921, is now the Official Opposition, but the Progressive Conservative Party has been firmly in office for twenty-seven years.
The history of politics in Alberta has been dominated by two characteristics. The first is a strong sense of political alienation. Albertans have tended to see their role in Canada as undervalued and ignored. This strong sense of grievance has led them to elect representatives who are prepared to "fight for Alberta and the west." The second is the plebiscitarian nature of politics in the province. Most governments have received strong mandates, with little opposition. However, once rejected, parties have forever remained excluded. In a sense, despite the present strong economic base and the obvious wealth of the province, Albertans continue to exhibit the political behavior of an earlier, more marginal time. Grievance and alienation, once instilled in a political culture, are difficult to remove.
The politics of Alberta today is as fascinating as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. It is a prime example of how the geographical features and settlement patterns of the North American Great Plains have shaped social and political behavior to create unique and interesting societies.
Howard A. Leeson University of Regina
Calderola, Carle. Society and Politics in Alberta. Toronto: Methuen, 1979.
Dyck, Rand. Provincial Politics in Canada. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada, Inc., 1995.
MacGregor, James G. A History of Alberta. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1972.