Albertans don't vote, they stampede. Is the herd ready?

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Calgary Stampede Rodeo 2009

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has lately been making the assertion that 'Alberta is not an NDP province.' Well, it's not exactly a PC province either.

True, the PCs remain undefeated at the polls for the past 44 years. But in those 44 years, and over the course of 12 electoral campaigns, the Tories have secured relatively large majorities only four times (winning the popular vote in the high 50s or low 60s). And by looking at the popular vote of three of the past 12 elections, the Tories have won only the skimpiest of majorities (always hovering around 50 per cent of the votes Albertans actually cast).

And if we look further, in five of the past 12 elections, the Tories have actually won less than half of the popular vote.

What these numbers mean, of course, is that nearly half of the time more Albertans have voted against the Tories than have voted for them. And that's not even mentioning the generally low voter turnout in Alberta.

But numbers aside. Lurking beneath Prentice's assertion that Alberta is not an NDP province (and, presumably by extension, his assertion that Alberta is a PC province) lies a set of 'truthy,' to borrow comedian Stephen Colbert's word, assumptions:

1. That Alberta is and always has been a one state, one party, one ideology kind of place.

2. That Alberta's political character is inherently 'conservative.'

3. That this inherent conservatism represents an unchanging truth.

4. That Albertans by their very nature don't want change.

Such characterizations are clearly frustrated by how Albertans have actually cast their votes in elections past. So let's look at some important elections in the province's history when Albertans clearly wanted (and seized) change.

In this story, Alberta's past political history is one of dramatic, sometimes unexpected wins by new parties, and corresponding massive and devastating defeats for old parties.

In the beginning it was the Liberals. The federal Liberal administration under Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier appointed Alberta's first premier, Liberal lawyer Alexander Rutherford, in 1905. Thereafter, the Liberals would need to run successful election campaigns by taking their vision to the voters and getting elected. And they did, winning the next three elections.

By 1921, Albertans wanted change. But their desire for change was no mere whim. Instead a particular set of historical contexts together conspired to bring the great Liberal machine down and replace it with a new United Farmers of Alberta administration.

What lay in back of the change? For one thing, many rural Albertans were deeply disappointed that the federal government refused to dismantle the much-hated tariff that forced farmers to buy on a protected market, but sell on an unprotected one.

For another thing, Alberta's basic demographic features were in flux, in large measure because of demobilization patterns after the First World War. This meant, in part, that new Albertans weren't necessarily inculcated into the province's political culture, as it were.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the so-called "farmers' revolt" laid bare many rural Albertans belief that neither of the 'old line' parties could speak to their interests. So they formed their own 'farmers' party, and subsequently formed government.

The UFA swept to power in mid-July, 1921, winning 38 seats in a legislature of 57 seats. They won the following two elections, in 1926 and 1930, with even larger majorities than the first contest. But the intractability of the Great Depression of the 1930s and a charismatic leader of a new political party with new political ideas together brought about a second sea change in the province.

In the first instance, Albertans were not alone in seeking new ideas to deal with the Depression. No fewer than seven of Canada's nine provinces changed their government by the mid-1930s. And Canadians tossed Prime Minister R.B. Bennett's Conservatives from power at Ottawa in 1935 as well.

But the nature of change in Alberta was different.

In the early 1930s, Baptist pastor and school teacher William 'Bible Bill' Aberhart became attracted to a potential cure -- 'Social Credit' -- for the Depression's economic ills. He was, by most accounts, a powerful and gifted orator, hosting an extraordinarily popular radio broadcast -- 'back to the bible hour' -- on Calgary-based CFCN every Sunday morning.

Social Credit theory, developed by British engineer Major C.H. Douglas, claimed that the Depression wasn't caused by large-scale contradictions within the industrial capitalism system. Instead, the nub of the problem was, simply, that consumers didn't have enough money to buy the things they needed and wanted. Essentially, consumers lacked the purchasing power to keep the capitalist market going.

So, to aid consumers, Social Credit theory advocated, among other things, a $25 dividend for every Albertan to boost their purchasing power, and get the economy back on track. After trying, unsuccessfully, to get the governing UFA to implement Social Credit policies, Aberhart, together with the backing of many Albertans, formed a Social Credit Party, and contested the province's 1935 election.

The results were nothing short of astonishing. Albertans overwhelmingly backed Aberhart in particular, and the Social Credit Party in general, giving the upstart party 56 seats in a 63 seat legislature, and shutting out entirely the United Farmers of Alberta. The So-Creds formed Alberta's government for the next 36 years, through the province's (mostly) good times. Post-war prosperity, the discovery of oil on a cold February night in Leduc in 1947, and, following national trends, the implementation of a modest welfare state in Alberta.

But in 1971, Albertans orchestrated another sea change moment to their legislature. The particular historical contexts here, too, are important. Alberta was far less rural and far more urban than it had been in 1935. And new arrivals to the province through especially the 1960s meant a voting public, again, unfamiliar with Alberta's supposed longstanding political culture, and quite prepared to reject it if it didn't meet their needs or interests. The population also tended to be younger -- attracted by Alberta's oil and gas industry -- and didn't necessarily see the socially conservative Social Credit Party as especially attractive.

Finally, PC leader Peter Lougheed exuded what appeared to many to be a cosmopolitan, urbane, and modern style of governance for a cosmopolitan, urbane, and modern Alberta. Social Credit, with its finger wagging social conservatism appeared, by contrast, dated.

Peter Lougheed's PCs secured 49 seats in a 75 seat legislature, reducing the long-standing Social Credit Party (then under leader Harry Strom) to 25 seats. It was a whopping victory. The Tories, like their predecessors, have weathered good times and bad; the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s, runaway inflation, the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, the booms of the 21st century (and the busts of the 21st century).

Is Alberta in 2015 at another moment of change? I'm a historian, so I need time and space to make those sorts of conclusions. Political scientists and pollsters have made their speculations. Privately, I think a change is afoot.


Eric Strikwerda is Canadian historian at Athabasca University.

Image: Flickr/Duncan Kinney

Further Reading

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