The situation might be a forerunner for the Reform Party of Canada— but it unfolded 70 years ago. At a time of widespread voter disenchantment with mainstream politics, especially in the West, a new federal party with a populist agenda was winning many converts. In 1921, the Progressive Party, formed the year before, shocked the mainstream Liberals and Conservatives by winning enough seats in the Commons to hold the balance of power. Drawing most of its support from angry Prairie farmers and rural Ontario, the party captured more than a quarter of the House seats and then propped up Mackenzie King’s minority Liberal government. The Progressives became the first in a long line of western-based parties to reap electoral success from the same harvest of resentment that now propels the Reform Party. Said University of Calgary historian David Bercuson: “Politics in Western Canada is about protest and alienation. Westerners perceive themselves to be alienated even when they are not.”
The Progressives were short-lived. Their contingent of 65 MPs in 1921 included many disaffected Liberals who represented farmers facing economic devastation. Eventually, King was able to attract many of them back into the party with promises of agricultural reform and cabinet postings. By the 1930 federal election, the Progressives were in such disarray that they elected only two western MPs, and ceased to be a political force. But the Prairie economy continued to be beset by drought, and later, the Depression. And westerners continued to complain that their fates rested with Easterncontrolled banks and political institutions. The demise of the Progressives opened the way for two new western parties during the Depression years—and they were far more lasting.
Chord: In 1933, a loose coalition of farmers, small trade unions, intellectuals and Christian socialists gathered in Regina for the first convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF’s original statement of principles, known as the Regina Manifesto, set out a dramatic program for fighting the Depression, including socialized health services, the nationalization of financial institutions and job-creation projects. The manifesto ended with the ringing declaration that a CCF government could not rest “until it has eradicated capitalism.” The platform struck an immediate chord: in the 1935 federal election, the CCF elected seven MPs, all of them from Western Canada. Then, in the 1944 provincial election in Saskatchewan, the CCF, led by a Baptist
preacher, Tommy Douglas, scored a major upset, capturing 47 of the 52 seats. The CCF remained in power in Saskatchewan for the next 20 years, and in 1961 became the New Democratic Party.
Radical: Meanwhile, another radical populist movement had taken root in Alberta. Starting in 1932, William (Bible Bill) Aberhart, a Calgarybased evangelist, used his weekly provincewide radio program, Back to the Bible Hour, to sing the praises of so-called Social Credit economics. Aberhart said that the key to ending the Depression was to put more money into the hands of consumers.
In the 1935 provincial election, the charismatic Aberhart led the newly formed Social Credit Party to a stunning victory, capturing 56 of 63 seats. A major factor was his promise— widely derided as a “funny-money” operation—to issue a $25-a-month dividend to every person in Alberta. He did not keep that pledge. Still, the Socreds, first under Aberhart and then under his successor, Ernest Manning— father of Reform Party leader Preston Man-
ning—governed Alberta for the next 36 years.
From the start, the free enterprise Socreds and the social-democrat CCFers were ideological opposites. Yet they drew from the same wellspring of western anger against Easterndominated banks and political institutions. “Both parties had a populist appeal,” said University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins. “They were both looking for a reasonably radical solution to very severe economic problems.” And once in power, both parties practised fiscal responsibility while promoting strong social programs, building better schools and hospitals and pioneering state-funded and supported health care.
Protest: Both the CCF and Social Credit enjoyed widespread success on the provincial level. But neither managed a similar triumph in federal politics. Indeed, another Prairie populist, John Diefenbaker, drew westerners’ support to the Conservative party and he became Prime Minister in 1957. But regional resentment against Central Canada remained strong enough to inspire new political movements. A decade ago, several western separatist parties, among them the Western Canada Concept, gathered momentum in Alberta in a protest against the federal Liberal government’s National Energy Program, which forced producing provinces to sell their oil at artificially low prices. The WCC, for one, shocked the nation when candidate Gordon Kesler, a former oil scout, won a provincial byelection in Alberta in February, 1982. But the party failed to make any inroads in Alberta’s next general election, held nine months later, and Kesler lost his own seat.
The other separatist movements fared no better. Noted Gibbins: “These parties tended to be led by malcontents and cranks. They did not get a sympathetic hearing because they were $ not plugged into mainstream I society.” By contrast, he added, Manning’s Reform Party o is in the mould of earlier § movements like the Progres^ sives, CCF and Socreds that managed to translate western disaffection into electoral support. The challenges now facing Reform are to emulate the federal breakthrough of the Progressives—and the staying power of the CCF.
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