PRESTON MANNING on how religion and reform have cut through the mindscape of Alberta like a runaway river
BIG WEST COUNTRY
PRESTON MANNING on how religion and reform have cut through the mindscape of Alberta like a runaway river
THEY HAD FRONT-ROW SEATS to much of the modern history of Canada’s West. On occasion, they even held the conductor’s baton. Preston Manning, as he notes here, literally grew up in the seat of government—his dad, Ernest C. Manning, was Alberta’s longest-serving premier (1943 to 1968). Preston Manning, of course, went on, in 1987, to found and lead the Reform party, and to orchestrate its successor, the Canadian Alliance, in the process turning federal politics in the West on its ear. Roy Romanow took a different route. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, he grew up on the other side of the tracks in Saskatoon and was taken early with Tommy Douglas’s siren song. As a young man, he would even carry Douglas’s bags on speaking engagements and, like his idol, grew up to become premier of Saskatchewan, from 1991 to 2001. Since then he has headed a royal commission on health care.
Maclean’s asked both men to pen personalized histories of their respective provinces over the last half-century or so, to mark the centenary of Alberta and Saskatchewan becoming provinces on Sept. 1,1905. Here are their remembrances, and observations.
IN 1943, WHEN I was less than a year old, my father, Ernest Manning, became premier of Alberta, a job he held for the next 25 years. I thus had the privilege of growing up with an inside view of Alberta during a period of momentous change, and access to a political gene pool of politicians and public servants who had known Alberta from its very beginnings as a province.
In 1935, when my father was first elected to the legislature, it was in the midst of the Great Depression. At 27, he was the youngest minister in the government, but his deputy, Eddie Trowbridge, had been clerk to the territorial government before Alberta became
From the start, prominent Albertans had dreams as big as the Prairie sky
a province and had known every premier of Alberta and Saskatchewan from 1905 to 1935. He never tired of telling my father that the best leader the West ever produced was Frederick Haultain. As a youngster, I came to recognize his austere portrait hanging in the legislature in Edmonton, and would nod respectfully in passing. Fred Haultain came west from Toronto in 1884 to practise law in Fort Macleod in the old North-West Territories. In 1887, he was elected to the Territorial Council, where he
championed “responsible government”: that cabinet should be responsible to the legislature and the legislature to the people.
In 1891, Haultain became “premier,” from where he presided over the struggle by the territories to attain provincial status. As Trowbridge reminded my father, Haultain’s vision of the future was as big and expansive as the West itself—and on a par with those of John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. At the heart of that vision was responsible democratic government, constitutional equality for the West with the older provinces of Canada, and unification of the West into one big province strong enough to counterbalance the weight of Quebec or Ontario.
Haultain argued this last point most vigorously in a famous debate with Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin at Indian Head, Sask.,onDec. 18,1901. At the time, the federal government was playing one sectional interest off against another, thereby weakening the West’s capacity to bargain for better terms and conditions of provincehood. Haultain called those territorial politicians who went along with this strategy, in return for federal patronage or out of personal ambition, “Little Westerners.” He appealed to his audience to act as “Big Westerners” to pursue provincehood and constitutional equality as “the joint demand of a united West.”
While Haultain won the debate at Indian Head that cold December night, he and his Big Western followers lost the Battle for the West to the Laurier Liberals and the Little Westerners. One hundred years ago, the Prairie West was divided into three provincesan expanded Manitoba and the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. All three were denied constitutional equality with the rest
of Canada as Ottawa retained ownership and control of their natural resources.
Fred Haultain should have been the first premier of either Alberta or Saskatchewan. Instead he was relegated to the political sidelines. But his sound and principled ideas— responsible government, constitutional equality, and the importance of a united West—entered Alberta’s political psyche,
and profoundly affected the attitudes and actions of citizens and politicians (myself included) from that day on.
THOUGH I grew up in a political home in Alberta, I nevertheless heard as many sermons as stump speeches. At a critical time in Alberta’s history, religion and politics became closely entwined as folks leaned on both to see them through the hard times of depression and war. In the 1920s and ’30s, two particularly spiritual streams cut across the Prairies as do the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, leaving an indelible impression on the political landscape. One came to be named the Social Gospel Movement; J. S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister from Winnipeg, was one of its main proponents. He helped found and lead the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a new federal party that later became the New Democratic Party under the leadership of another man of the cloth, Baptist minister Tommy Douglas, a former premier of Saskatchewan. From the socialgospel perspective, the most important dimension of the Christian faith is social justice —the horizontal dimension of faith, as it’s been called—meeting the needs of the young, the sick, the poor and the old.
At around the same time, another spiritual stream, later labelled the Evangelical Movement, rolled across the Prairies. One of its key proponents was William Aberhart. Born and educated in Ontario, he became a prominent
The Mannings in the 1950s; Haultain in his robes; ‘Bible Bill* Aberhart at work
high school principal in Calgary and a pioneering radio broadcaster whose weekly religious appeals helped knit together isolated Prairie homes. For evangelicals, the primary dimension of faith is the relationship between individuals and God—the so-called vertical relationship of personal salvation—a prerequisite to being able to effectively do God’s work on Earth.
People like my parents, who grew up on the Canadian Prairies during this period, could hardly avoid being influenced by these movements—the one stressing collective responsibility, the other individual responsibility-each with political, as well as religious, ramifications. My father was a teenager living on his family’s homestead near Rosetown, Sask., when he heard one of Aberhart’s broadcasts and “committed his life to Christ,” as Aberhart urged his listeners to do. When Aberhart started a school in Calgary to train ministers, my father enrolled
and went off to Alberta to study. He later became Aberhart’s executive assistant, in the process meeting my mother, a concert pianist who helped Aberhart with the musical portion of his radio program.
When the Depression came along, Aberhart started a soup kitchen through his school. And he became more and more distraught as he saw in the lineups many of his former students now “riding the rails” in a vain search for employment. As a result, he began to add the horizontal dimensioneducational and political instruction—to the vertical aspects of his religious work. To get at the causes of the Depression, he established economic study groups across Alberta under the banner of Social Credit. Another movement, it advocated a sort of poor man’s Keynesian economics to stimulate the economy by expanding consumer purchasing power.
As Aberhart’s assistant, my father became involved in all this activity as well. And when those study groups ran candidates in the 1935 provincial election, my father ended up as a government member in the legislature, where he stayed for 33 years, 25 as premier. He had come to Alberta to become a minister of the Gospel, and ended up a minister of the Crown. What is the point of remembering and telling all this? Simply that it is an integral part of the spiritual and political heritage of Alberta and the Canadian Prairies, a heritage that continues to play itself out in our national politics.
TODAY, Alberta is considered a “conservative” province strongly committed to a favourable climate for free enterprise, balanced budgets, low taxes, free trade, and universal health care via a two-track (public and private) delivery and payment system. After attending hundreds of meetings over the years, I have come to appreciate, however, that Alberta is “conservative with a difference,” its peculiarities shaped by its constitutional, religious, economic, and political experience.
The movement by farmers in the 1920s and ’30s to gain more control over their livelihoods expressed itself provincially through the creation of the United Farmers of Alberta and nationally through the Progressive Party of Canada. On the one hand, the UFA and the Progressives were strong advocates of co-operatives and government intervention to break the monopolistic practices of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the grain companies. They were also, for the most part, ruggedly independent farmers who fiercely believed in the private ownership of land. What were these farmers, socialistic capitalists or capitalistic socialists?
In the midst of the Depression, both the socialists of the CCF and Aberhart’s Social Crediters bitterly denounced the banks and what they called the failure of capitalism. In both Alberta and Saskatchewan, religiously motivated “social concern” was the driving force that created both the social credit and the social democratic movements. Yet in Alberta this became wedded to the idea of reforming capitalism through monetary policy and other radical measures, whereas in Saskatchewan the social democrats aimed at replacing it altogether.
“Social conservatism” in Alberta did not originally mean what it means today. In my father’s day, it meant ffee-enterprisers with a social conscience, politicians with hard heads and soft hearts. Although Alberta governments for at least the past 60 years have espoused conservative economic principles, the province has invested heavily in education, health, infrastructure and research. In
recent years, Alberta’s per-capita spending in virtually every public service category is among the country’s highest.
By the time oil was discovered in substantial quantities at Leduc in 1947, most of the petroleum resources in both Alberta and Saskatchewan had been publicly owned by the provincial Crown since 1930, when Ottawa relinquished its authority. After the long struggle to wrest control from the
Leader to be, Preston, 21, speaks at a rally for his dad in Edmonton in 1963
federal government, there was never any question in either province of privatizing resource ownership.
îer’s government was In Alberta, my fa committed to attracting and using private enterprise to exploit Alberta’s oil. This was not always the case in Saskatchewan.
What are the adaptations Alberta conservatism will have to make to meet future needs? One of the most important will be the challenge of marrying a growing public demand for environmental conservation to the province’s market-driven approach to economic development. Pessimists will say it can’t be done. But optimists will point to the fact that “conservation” and “conservatism” come from the same root, and that it has never been wise to bet against Alberta when it comes to public policy innovation.
RESPONSIBLE government, that lofty concept for which Haultain fought so hard, became only the first of a long list of democratic reforms—political rights for women, recall, citizens’ initiatives, referenda, electoral
reforms, free voting by caucus members, Senate reform—championed by Western movements as diverse as the Progressives, Social Credit, the CCF and the Reform Party of Canada. All but the CCF put down strong roots in Alberta. But even it had its founding meeting in Calgary, in 1932.
In recent years, Albertans have continued to champion federal democratic reforms, especially by pushing Ottawa to adopt an elected and accountable Senate. But Albertans have been strangely quiescent at the provincial level. This is misleading. Alberta politics is unlike that of any other province—long periods of one-party government, then a major upheaval, with the ruling party thus far being replaced by a new group with new ideas rather than by its traditional opposition. Alberta practises “long cycle” change, and the candidates for the next big idea to grip Alberta will no doubt include democratic reform as well as firewall building, bridge building, and the marriage of conservation and conservatism.
According to T. R. Glover’s Democracy in the Ancient World, democracy is first and foremost a “frontier phenomenon.” The early Greek experiments began among the hardy farmers in outlying regions who first begat and reinforced the notions of equality and self-government. These notions were then carried back through trade to the city states where they were either rejected or incorporated into the governing structure.
Fast forward to the Canadian West, which had its political and economic beginnings as a colony of central Canada. The frontier conditions of the West, like those of ancient Greece, developed a more natural equality and independence than that which existed in the older, more stratified societies of Eastern and Central Canada. Those conditions generated the democratic impulses that shaped much of Alberta’s political culture, and continue to fuel its demands for “reform”—including more democratic and equitable federal processes and institutions—to this very day.
How will the older more established parts of Canada—how will federal institutions like Parliament—react to the demands for democratic and other reforms coming from 21st-century Alberta? Will it be continued skepticism and resistance, or will it be measured acceptance and accommodation? As Alberta celebrates its first 100 years, the answers to these questions will shape its future and its place in the Canada to come. IÎÏÏ
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