The rise and fall of Social Credit

Surging “On to Ottawa” just a year ago, the west’s wonder party now seems headed for destruction. Maclean’s Ottawa editor reports on the oddly assorted men and mixed ideas that created, briefly, a unique political phenomenon

BLAIR FRASER May 10 1958

The rise and fall of Social Credit

Surging “On to Ottawa” just a year ago, the west’s wonder party now seems headed for destruction. Maclean’s Ottawa editor reports on the oddly assorted men and mixed ideas that created, briefly, a unique political phenomenon

BLAIR FRASER May 10 1958

The rise and fall of Social Credit

Surging “On to Ottawa” just a year ago, the west’s wonder party now seems headed for destruction. Maclean’s Ottawa editor reports on the oddly assorted men and mixed ideas that created, briefly, a unique political phenomenon


Last month a question came up that is of only marginal interest in the rest of Canada, but of central concern in British Columbia and Alberta:

Is Social Credit finished, as a political force? Does the elimination of a small splinter party at Ottawa, which nevertheless had endured as such for twenty-three years, mean the doom of provincial governments that won smashing majorities only two and three years ago, and as lately as last May were confidently trumpeting “On to Ottawa”?

Even before the deluge of March 31 swept away all nineteen of Social Credit’s federal seats, there were hints that the answer might be yes. It is a bad sign for a ruling political party when opponents begin to speak well of it. A certain tone, a patronizing. retrospective, obituary note comes into the voice of the enemy and foretells grave trouble for the regime.

During the past winter, this deadly tolerance became audible in Victoria and Vancouver. A year ago Socialist, Liberal and Conservative politicians were calling the Bennett government a gang of power-mad demagogues and temperamental fascists. In March some of the same men would shrug their shoulders and allow that the ministers were not really a bad lot, just inept—not crooks and grafters, as some folk were saying, but decent souls trying to do a job in their clumsy way.

All these smug expressions of pity may turn out to be premature. Dead or alive, Social Credit won’t have to lie down for two more years in Alberta and three in British Columbia, if Premiers Manning and Bennett choose to put off elections until their legislatures expire, and by that time the wheel may have turned in their favor. For the moment, though, the fashionable question is not “Where is Social Credit going?” but “How did this queer political mongrel ever get as far as it did?”

Undeniably, the party is a set of strange bedfellows. In Alberta it enjoyed for nearly twenty years, and only lately began to lose, the support of conservative businessmen who like to be called “hard-headed,” though it began in a crusade it never wholly abandoned against the banks and the moneyed interests. In British Columbia it is led and dominated by conservatives who, until recently, were also Conservatives with a big C, but it also includes men who have as fair a claim as any in Canada to the title of crackpot.

Of course, crackpottery is part of the tradition of western Canada. Of the tiniest and crankiest religious sects in the land, Alberta has double the average share of members and British Columbia is not far behind. Unpublished records of the 1951 census show that the two western provinces have all of Canada’s continued on page 96

The rise and fail of Social Credit continued from page 26

Alberta’s government long ago gave up trying to enact Social Credit laws; B. C. never tried

Zoroastrians, Kabalarians, Primitive Christians and Yogi, and two thirds of The Great I AM. a cult founded in 1934 by a traveling salesman from Chicago. Technocracy, an economic cure-all of some notoriety in the 1930s but long

since forgotten in most places, is still preached in a hall two blocks from the Hotel Vancouver.

Maybe it's not surprising, then, that the governments of British Columbia and Alberta are unique in the whole world,

kindred only to each other. Nominally at least they are plighted to a doctrine first elaborated forty years ago by a Scotsman named C. H. Douglas. Douglas began with an idea that certain changes in the monetary system would

cure most of humanity’s troubles; he ended, some twenty years later, in the belief that democracy is a fraud and a failure, and that humanity’s troubles are deliberately caused by an international Jewish plot to rule the world.

From time to time Social Credit movements in Canada are plagued by little groups of diehard “fundamentalists” who follow Douglas all the way, and who have to be expelled from a party trying to appeal to the Canadian electorate. Enemies of Social Credit like to believe that these heretics are the “real” Social Crediters, and that their crime is merely saying out loud what their more respectable brethren believe but do not say. But this notion, however attractive for political combat, leaves a number of facts unaccounted for.

Social Credit has established in Alberta, and tried hard to establish in B. C., the reputation of a safe, solid, businessman’s government. Alberta is already free of debt, thanks to oil royalties. British Columbia’s Premier W. A. C. Bennett, who is his own minister of finance, plans to retire the last of B. C.’s direct debt by 1960, in spite of a program of capital expansion that has multiplied indirect or contingent liabilities many times.

Bennett was a Conservative MLA and a contender for the B. C. Conservative leadership until a few months before he joined the Social Credit League in December 1951. Although he pays a vague lip service to its principles and to catchphrases like “anything that's physically possible is financially possible,” he makes no pretense of knowing much about Social Credit theory. Few public men in Canada look less like a doctrinaire fanatic than Cecil Bennett, or more like a practical, vote-getting politician.

“I sat near the premier at a dinner not long ago,” said a lady who is not one of Bennett’s followers. "We had steaks that must have been two inches thick. The premier finished his before anyone else, and never stopped smiling for one second.”

Of his twelve cabinet colleagues only three were Social Crediters before 1951. Attorney-General Robert Bonner was an active Conservative like his leader, and so were three back-bench supporters of the government—one, Mrs. Buda Brown, ran as a Conservative against a Social Credit opponent in the federal election of 1953; another, Arvid Lundell, beat the same Social Créditer in the provincial election of 1952 and sat as a Conservative MLA in opposition to the first Bennett government. Three other Ml.As now in Social Credit ranks were former Liberals, of whom one, W. J. Asselstine, was minister of mines in a Liberal cabinet. Just to complete the picture, another three MLAs were formerly known sympathizers of the CCF. The rest had no politics at all until the sudden rise of Social Credit in B. C. seven or eight years ago.

Never in British Columbia, »and not for more than twenty years in Alberta, has the government even tried to enact Social Credit legislation. Attempts by Alberta cabinets to tamper with banking and monetary policy were either disallowed by the federal government or ruled invalid by the Supreme Court long before the death of Premier William Aberhart, the founder and prophet of

Social Credit in Alberta. Since then, any resemblance between Social Credit theory and Social Credit government policy has been purely coincidental.

Moreover, if Social Credit is now on its way to extinction in Canada, as the loss of all its federal seats would suggest. the decline is no more related to doctrine than was the rise. The Manning regime in Alberta has some infirmities of old age, complicated by depresión in the oil industry. The Bennett regime is in trouble for quite commonplace reasons, things that could have happened to any orthodox party—some ill-chosen economies, some ill-conceived legislation, and (most of all) a scandal in forest management.

Yet in spite of all it has in common with old-party governments, in spite of its dominant group of ex-Conservatives and its rather self-conscious air of "business as usual,” the government of British Columbia is unmistakably and inescapably Social Credit. No other party in Canada could have produced quite this group of men. nor operated in quite this fashion. No less than the AberhartMtinning dynasty in Alberta it traces its origins back for many years, to the Great Depression and to the postwar readjustment. to the honest indignations and the rather naive convictions of a few earnest, studious and mainly selfeducated men.

Social Credit came to British Columbia about the same time it came to Alberta. but in less auspicious circumstances. In Alberta one of its converts was William Aberhart, a radio preacher who had a devoted audience of thousands and who instantly mingled Social Credit with the gospel he taught in his Sunday broadcasts. This gave the new political doctrine the evangelical tone it has never lost. It also brought, in Alberta. an early triumph at the polls and a seemingly interminable term of office —-the Edmonton government can, if it wants to. celebrate a Silver Jubilee before it faces the people again, for the present legislature will not expire until I960.

In British Columbia the case was different. There, the early converts were obscure and humble men. Most of them still are.

One who has emerged from obscurity is l.yle Wicks, minister of labor and railways in the Bennett cabinet. Among old hands he is a relative newcomer who didn't join the movement until 1944. but otherwise he is a fairly typical Social Credit original.

Wicks was a trolley-bus conductor; his membership in the Street Railwaymen's Union is one reason he was chosen for the labor post. Now forty-five, he grew up in the depth of the depression with a great distrust of the old parties and a great wish for economic reform. But he came of a devout Methodist family, and he was horrified by the rather pedantic socialism preached in those days by B. C. spokesmen of the CCE. It was pure dialectical materialism, and Wicks could not stomach it.

He remembers the very moment he discovered Social Credit. It was the night of Roosevelt's fourth election in 1944; a friend remarked that it wouldn't have made any difference if Thomas Dewey had won, since the old parties were all alike. The friend was a Social Créditer. Within three weeks, "after twelve years of looking for a party,” l.yle Wicks was a Social Créditer too. Two years later he was vice-president of, the Social Credit Association of British Columbia.

The party in B. C. was still tiny, but it was heading for a split that looked at the time like a death-blow. It included a group of so-called "purists” who followed Major C. H. Douglas even in his later stages, and who believed in the existence of the Protocols of Zion, the world plot of International Jewry, and the rest of the vicious claptrap that Hitler made so hideously familiar. By no coincidence, the Social Credit leadership had also fallen into dictatorial ways— the president wouldn't call conventions: he ran the organization to suit himself

and generally behaved like a fuehrer, or so his opponents thought.

"We were really getting pretty close to a Fascist organization in those days," a veteran Social Créditer recalled recently.

Another point at issue in B. C. was whether or not to go into active politics. The orthodox Douglasites shared Douglas' own contempt for democracy and his belief that Social Credit should not even try to be a political party. The opposing faction wanted to follow the example ol Aberhart and Manning, put Social Credit candidates in the field and try to

become British Columbia's government.

Lyle Wicks is a slight, spare man with pale blond hair and a diffident smile, but he became the leader of a revolt against the Social Credit leadership in B.C. By the spring of 1949 the movement was split wide open. Luckily for Wicks one of its few lawyers, the late William Savage. was on Wicks’ side. He had had the foresight to copyright the name Social Credit, so that when the two factions separated Wicks and Savage took the name and formed the Social Credit League, pledged to political action.

In the circumstances it was hardly surprising that Social Credit candidates didn’t do very well in the two elections of 1949. The party ran sixteen of them in the provincial election and two in the federal, but all were soundly beaten. However, they weren’t greatly discouraged. Almost unnoticed by the older parties, .Social Credit in B. C. had begun to roll like a snowball, soon to become an avalanche.

Pier Payntcr, the party’s chief organizer, recalls those days with fond nostalgia.

“I would drive into a strange town and ask somebody, usually a filling - station attendant, if there were any Alberta people in town,” he says. “When I found someone from Alberta, as I usually did, I almost always found a Social Credit sympathizer. By the time I left within a day or two, he’d have a Social Credit organization going.”

The party grew too fast for its own secretariat to keep up with it—for sheer lack of money and staff, records of membership in those days of rapid growth are sketchy and incomplete. In January 1952, only six months before they took office as the government of British Columbia, I had a talk with Eric Martin, now minister of health and then a leading member of the Social Credit League.

"We don’t know how many members we have, or who they are,” he said. "We learn about conventions naming Social Credit candidates that we never heard of.”

It turned out that the unknown candidates were mainly of two sorts, each typified by members of the present B. C. cabinet.

One arch-type is the Hon. and Rev. Philip Gaglardi, the fast-talking, fastdriving. uninhibited extrovert who is now minister of highways. The portfolio is no coincidence—before he was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, Gaglardi was “one of the best bulldozer operators in the province,” as he cheerfully admits. He is proud of his skill as a mechanic, proud that he once built "eight hundred feet of woods road in eight hours,” and by no means ashamed that he has been working for a living since he was twelve years old, though he continued to spend part of his time at school until he was sixteen.

Gaglardi was born into a Roman Catholic family, though his parents were converted to an Evangelical Protestant sect while he was still a boy. He himself, by his own account, became a bit of a heathen—"a fighting, drinking fool until I was about twenty-two.” Then he saw the light, spent a year and a half at a Pentecostal seminary in Seattle, and came back to Canada in the late 1930s to travel about as an evangelist. He was minister of a Pentecostal Church in Kamloops when, early in 1952, he was invited to join the Social Credit movement and run as a provincial candidate.

“1 heard a discourse by several spokesmen for Social Credit,” he says in his curious mixture of formal and colloquial English, “and it seemed to fit in with my ideas of the basic principles of a political party.” He ran in Kamloops, and won.

As minister of highways, Gaglardi does not hesitate, from his experience as a bulldozer operator, to tell his engineers how to build roads. He rushes about from job to job at breakneck speed —twice arrested for speeding within recent months, he had his license suspended for the second offense.

Gaglardi is not embarrassed by these misadventures—they show, he says, that there is no favoritism under Social Credit rule; everyone is treated alike. He pays

no heed either to stories that his fine new church in Kamloops got donations of material from B. C. contractors who also bid to build roads. It would not occur to Gaglardi that there was any harm in thus expediting God’s work.

He is not alone in thinking of his party as a kind of secular branch of the church militant. Opposing politicians still recall, with bitter wonderment, the reverend MLA who called on people to “put God first” and vote Social Credit. It is not uncommon for candidates to campaign Bible in hand.

In Chilliwack in March I attended a fund-raising rally for Rev. Alex Patterson, pastor in the Church of the Nazarene and member for Fraser Valley of the last parliament. About two hundred people paid five dollars a plate for an ordinary church supper, served by the ladies’ aid in the United Church hall. The program was rather like a Sunday School concert-—one local entertainer did a routine of comic Scots numbers, another sang Christopher Robin Is Saying His Prayers—but there were a few brief speeches, one by the candidate.

“I look upon my work in Social Credit as a kind of substitute for the Christian ministry,” he said. "In 1953 (when he first ran for parliament) a door seemed to open and I entered a new phase of my life.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who joined Social Credit between 1949 and 1952 had the same feeling as Rev. Alex Patterson. Thousands more joined from quite different motives, and one of these was William Andrew Cecil Bennett. Bennett is a good United Churchgoer who doesn’t drink, smoke or swear. Like all Social Crediters he refers to his party as a “movement” and never as a “party,” but he is nevertheless a very practical politician and a man of the world. He went into politics in 1941, after he had already become rich and successful in the hardware business, because he was restless, energetic, and had wanted ever since he was a boy to lead a political party.

He tried twice to win the Conservative leadership, thereby made a bitter enemy of the actual leader, Herbert Anscomb,

and finally quit the party with a blast of withering invective in the spring of 1951. Meanwhile Social Credit, acquiring members faster than it could hire clerks to count them, was a party without a leader. The two seemed to go together like horse and carriage.

Actually it took more than a year to consummate the union. Some old hands in the Social Credit movement resented this Johnny-come-lately, and sternly rejected suggestions that he should join their army with the rank of general. They told him he could, if he liked, join the Social Credit League as an ordinary member of the Kelowna unit, which he did. He also got the local nomination as Social Credit candidate for the 1952 provincial election. But the party went into that campaign, from which it emerged victorious, still without a provincial leader — Rev. Ernest Hansell, then Ml’ for Macleod, Alberta, acted as a kind of temporary field commander. but the permanent leader was chosen only after the election, by a caucus of elected MI As. They chose Bennett.

He had a group of nineteen in the legislature, only one seat more than the CCF, but he had no trouble carrying on for the better part of a year and then winning the run-off election. For nearly five years, indeed, he got on so well that it almost seemed that Social Credit could work the miracles expected by its more devoted adherents.

Among other things, he launched a road-building program that even political opponents now call “terrific”—Bennett has spent more money on highways in less than seven years than all previous governments since Confederation put together, and the province now has 23,000 miles of road, half of it paved. He also rebuilt and revitalized the moribund PGE—the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, for decades a wry joke but now a going concern. British Columbia developed more new hydro-electric power last year than any other province in Canada. It pays the highest salaries to teachers, the biggest bonus to old-age pensioners, generally claims to have and give the most of everything.

But as Bennett himself says, “That’s not the miracle. The miracle was that we were able to do all this and still retire the provincial debt.” By making a somewhat mystical distinction between the direct debt of the province and the indirect or contingent liabilities (such as the guaranteed bonds of the PGE and of local school boards) he proclaims his determination to make B. C. free of debt in another two years.

All these achievements paid off. When he called his second election in the autumn of 1956 Bennett got a smashing victory — thirty-nine out of fifty-two seats, with the CCF reduced to only ten, the Liberals to two and the Conservatives zero (the odd one is held by a Labor Ml.A). Just a year ago, Bennett was organizing and helping to finance an “On To Ottawa” campaign by which he hoped to make Social Credit first the official opposition and then the government of Canada.

But in fact, even in this moment of seeming triumph, the seeds of defeat were already beginning to sprout. Bennett's 1956 election had been called after only three years, and without a defeat or threat of defeat in the legislature. It was called because Social Credit in British Columbia was defending itself against a major scandal.

It was in the fall of 1955, almost a year before his electoral victory, that the first mutterings began against his minister of lands and forests, Robert E. Sommers. Gordon Gibson, a Liberal Ml.A, made a speech in the legislature charging corruption in the issuance of forest-management licenses to lumber companies. The government ordered a Royal Commission enquiry at which Gibson was unable to produce any witnesses to support his charges, and did not even appear himself. (He resigned his seat and ran in the ensuing by-election as a kind of “trial by ballot,” but he was roundly beaten.)

Hardly was the Gibson affair disposed of when the same charge came up from a different source. A Vancouver lawyer named David Sturdy produced a sheaf of affidavits charging outright bribery.

Publication of Sturdy’s charges set off a furor that has not yet died down. Bennett's attorney-general, Robert Bonner, denounced them as a political smear. Sommers himself resigned his cabinet portfolio (though not his seat in the legislature, which he still holds) but denied the charges in an impassioned speech and then sued Sturdy for libel.

Boomerang vote

The libel case was pending when Bennett called the 1956 election, and he tried with some success to maintain that any mention of “the Sommers case” would be in contempt of court. The success was only partial, however. Deane Finlayson, the young and inexperienced leader of the B. C. Conservatives, defied the threat and read all Sturdy’s charges to a political meeting; attempts to have Finlayson held in contempt of court were contemptuously dismissed by the court.

This victory seemed to do Finlayson no good at the time—he lost his own bid for a legislature seat, and so did every other Conservative—but it is being remembered to his advantage now. In fact there is some reason to think that the electoral victory of 1956 became a boomerang to Social Credit in 1958.

The Social Credit campaign of 1956 was run on the assumption, or implication. that the charges against Sommers were malicious lies. But when Sommers’ own libel suit against Sturdy came to trial, Sommers failed to appear to press

his charges. After a period of fluster, when a Royal Commission enquiry was first announced and then abandoned, the Attorney-General laid criminal charges against his former colleague—a prosecution that is still awaiting trial.

Whether or not Sommers is guilty of any crime is a question for the jury. Already, though, he himself has said enough to raise the question of propriety. He has admitted accepting a loan from a man who later obtained a forest-management license, and he told Bennett about this loan when the matter first came up.

Many a loyai Social Créditer has been shocked to learn that there was even this much truth to the Sommers story, and that the premier knew it before the 1956 election. One was Mel Bryan, a Social Credit MLA who formally left the party and now sits in the legislature as an independent. Three other MLAs remained in the Social Credit ranks but pointedly refused to vote for AttorneyGeneral Bonner’s estimates.

Simultaneously other symptoms of decay have appeared. Social Credit members have spoken out in the legislature against the government’s farm policies. Privately they have spoken just as strongly against its new mining legislation, which mining men say has brought the industry in B. C. to a standstill.

“Bennett was fine as long as everything was expanding,” one of his political opponents said. “His debt-reduction policy, for instance, was very popular—as long as he was able to maintain and increase provincial services at the same time.

"But now, revenues are falling off and he is having to choose. He’s been cutting down on provincial services, and the people don’t like it. He's in trouble.”

If Bennett is in trouble, who gains by it?

The CCF hopes to be the heir of Social Credit’s power—it came within one seat of victory in 1952, and CCF leader Robert Strachan thinks he can do better next time. His party normally commands something between a quarter and a third of the popular vote. If he can boost that to thirty-five percent, and he thinks he can, Strachan says he can win a majority of seats in a four-way race.

But that was what the CCF said last time, and the four-way race didn't quite materialize. The Liberals and the Conservatives almost disappeared, and Social Credit came up from nothing to power. Neutral observers think the same thing could happen again in reverse, with the Social Credit forces disappearing and the Conservatives coming up from zero.

Even as lately as two years ago Deane Finlayson, the B. C. Conservative leader, was in bad odor with his party’s federal leadership. He had quarreled with them publicly, charging that they were maintaining a tacit truce with Social Credit— a charge that had some truth in it. Today the party is devoutly grateful to Finlayson for identifying Social Credit as the enemy.

By I960, of course, the whole situation may be different. The Bennett government may be back in the ascendant— or. if threatened at all, it may be threatened by the Liberals or the CCF instead of by the Conservatives.

At this stage, only one thing appears certain: the bloom is off the Social Credit record. Whether or not it survives as an ordinary government of fallible men, as a communion of saints it is through, if