There are a number of factors that provide evidence for Alberta being “a culturally distinct region”, as the Buffalo Declaration puts it. This distinctiveness is not as obvious as that of Quebec – which has its own language, culture, and even law (i.e., the civil code rather than the common law). Alberta broadly shares the language, culture and legal system of the broader Anglosphere, but it is nevertheless unique within Canada.
Alberta’s political culture differs to some degree from the rest of Canada. Alberta has long had a reputation for political conservatism, and its historical voting record has overwhelmingly favoured parties on the right. At the provincial level, the Social Credit Party and then Progressive Conservative Party held power from 1935-2015. The United Conservative Party picked up this torch again in 2019. With the exception of the brief NDP interregnum, left-leaning politicians had to take power within the governing conservative parties, as Allison Redford did from 2011 to 2014. Federally, right-leaning parties (Social Credit, Progressive Conservative, Reform, Canadian Alliance, and Conservative) have held the overwhelming majority of seats over that same period.
Even the 2015 provincial election which resulted, sadly, in an NDP government, saw the combined vote of the two main right-leaning parties at about 52 per cent verses 40.6 per cent for the socialists. In the 2012 election, the combined PC-Wildrose vote totalled nearly 80 per cent. Only the temporary collapse of the Wildrose following the mass floor crossing in December of 2014 made an NDP government possible.
How can Alberta’s unique political culture be explained? In my view, the best single explanation is offered by political scientist Clark Banack in his book, God’s Province: Evangelical Christianity, Political Thought, and Conservatism in Alberta, which was published in 2016 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. This book surveys Alberta’s political history and notes that evangelical Christian leaders have played a leading role in the province’s politics.
Christian leadership of this sort goes back to the early days of the farmers movement. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) was founded as a lobby group in 1909 but subsequently decided to run candidates for election. It won the provincial elections of 1921, 1926 and 1930, but after losing the 1935 election it withdrew from electoral politics. The UFA lingers on selling gasoline and farm tractors today.
From 1916 until 1931, the president of the UFA was Henry Wise Wood, and was the Alberta farmers movement’s most respected and influential leader. Wood had a much more conservative perspective than most other agrarian leaders in the West, many of whom were influenced by socialism to one degree or another.
Wood believed that an ideal society could only be realized by the voluntary cooperation of godly citizens. Since socialism is based on government coercion rather than voluntary association, it could not lead to the best form of society.
The agrarian movement in Saskatchewan was dominated by leftist thinking that favoured government action and socialism. Alberta had many farmers movement leaders who shared that perspective. But Wood actively fought against socialist solutions and – because of his popularity among Alberta farmers – he prevailed.
According to Banack, Wood’s efforts to derail support for socialism among Alberta’s farmers had a long-term impact on Alberta’s politics: “Wood rejected both the secular intellectual solutions of Marx and the Christian-based social gospel calls for socialism and placed the onus squarely on the individual to bring about the perfect democratic and economic system. In doing so, Wood helped to steer early Alberta society in a decidedly anti-socialistic and more individualistic direction by harnessing the Prairie-wide utopian and co-operative hopes of Alberta agrarians to a stern emphasis on individual responsibility.”
Thus, the origin of Alberta’s generally anti-socialistic perspective goes back at least 100 years to the leadership of Henry Wise Wood.
Around the time that the UFA’s political efforts were falling apart, William “Bible Bill” Aberhart of Calgary was starting the Alberta Social Credit Party. Aberhart was a public school principal who was best known as a popular Christian radio broadcaster with a huge listening audience in the province. When the Great Depression caused widespread hardship and despair, Aberhart began to use his radio program to promote social credit economics as the solution.
In short, the idea of social credit economics was to replace credit issued by private banks with credit issued by the government. In this way – it was believed – the financial system could be orchestrated for the benefit of all citizens rather than for rich bankers. Unsurprisingly, government control of credit, as well as certain other aspects of Social Credit, appeared socialistic to some people. Indeed, the Social Credit Party was not obviously conservative in its earliest years, but a more clearly conservative perspective emerged later.
When the Alberta Social Credit Party won the 1935 provincial election (ousting the UFA which had by then abandoned Wood’s anti-socialism), Aberhart became premier. He remained premier until he died in 1943. Throughout his term as premier he continued preaching the gospel on his radio broadcast.
After Aberhart’s death, his chief lieutenant Ernest Manning became Alberta’s premier and head of Aberhart’s radio ministry. Manning – like Aberhart before him – continued the vital work of radio evangelism throughout his tenure as premier.
The Social Credit Party under Manning was decidedly opposed to socialism and this reinforced the free enterprise spirit of the province. According to Banack, “working from a distinctly religious position that guided their thinking about politics, Aberhart and especially Manning did much to guide Alberta on an anti-collectivist trajectory that is largely unique among Canadian provinces.”
Manning retired as premier in 1968 after serving one of the longest premierships in Canadian history. Five years later, Ted Byfield founded a weekly news magazine called the St. John’s Edmonton Report that would evolve into Alberta Report, the spiritual predecessor to today’s Western Standard. Although he was not a political leader as such (or even an evangelical, for that matter), Byfield became one of the most influential Alberta opinion leaders during the latter part of the 20th Century. His magazine, which was published in one form or another until 2003, had a distinctly conservative and generally Christian perspective.
Due to its popularity and large circulation, the Alberta Report had a substantial impact on Alberta society and politics. Referring to the days before the internet, Ted Morton – the University of Calgary political scientist and former provincial finance minister – is quoted by Banack as saying, “Alberta Report was our Internet, it was our website, Facebook and Twitter…in those early years [of conservative activism], almost all roads passed through Alberta Report.”
Besides his work with the Alberta Report, Ted Byfield played a key role in the creation of the Reform Party of Canada in 1987. However, Preston Manning (the son of former Premier Ernest Manning) was the first and only leader of the party. Like his father, Preston was an evangelical Christian and his religious views influenced his political views.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, governments at both the provincial and federal levels were accumulating massive deficits. Preston Manning correctly argued that high, deficit-fuelled spending was unsustainable and would lead the country into financial disaster.
The Reform Party elected 52 MPs in the 1993 federal election, and later became the official opposition after electing 60 MPs in the federal election of 1997. Although it never formed the government, the Reform Party’s arguments for reduced government spending were so sensible that even the Liberal government of the time brought federal finances under control. It’s unlikely that would have happened without the Reform Party’s strong showing in the 1993 and 1997 elections.
Summarizing the overall conservative influence on Alberta’s political history, Banack writes, “It is quite significant to note that a certain religious interpretation has undergirded this populist, pro-market sentiment from Wood, through the thought of Aberhart and Ernest Manning, and into the thinking of Preston Manning in contemporary Alberta.”
Alberta has rightly been seen as having a generally more conservative political culture than the other provinces. Clark Banack’s book does an excellent job of explaining why this has been the case historically. The most significant factor in his view, is the strong influence of conservative Christian political and opinion leaders.
There is much more to Alberta than conservative political and religious influences, of course. But God’s Province provides an excellent introduction to the political and religious factors that have contributed to Alberta’s status as “a culturally distinct region.”
Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’