There was a time in Alberta’s history, when government interference in newspapers nearly resulted in the loss of the freedom of the press to print a story. It was in the 1930s and the man at the heart of it was Bible Bill Aberhart.
This is the story of that premier and his attempt to change how newspapers printed the news.
Of course, we need to begin with Bible Bill himself.
William Aberhart, who I will only refer to as Bible Bill from this point on, was born in Ontario in 1878 and would go on to have a teaching career, teaching across the prairies and eventually finding his way to Alberta where he worked as a principal in Calgary, earning $1,400 per year. He would become principal of several notable schools including Crescent Heights High School in the city.
During the Great Depression, Bible Bill became interested in politics, especially as he saw the harsh conditions that Albertans farmers were dealing with. As a result, he was drawn to the Social Credit theories put forth by British engineer C.H. Douglas, which would be the precursor to the ideology of today’s New Democrats.
From 1932 to 1935, he would lobby the United Farmers of Alberta to adopt the social credit theories, citing that prices rise faster than income and that the purchasing power of individuals should be supplanted to allow for this.
His efforts were successful so he formed the Social Credit Party of Alberta, which would run in the 1935 provincial election and go to a landslide victory, taking all but seven of the seats in the Alberta Legislature. The Social Credit Party had not expected to come close to winning, and as a result had no leader, so the province was without a premier at first. Bible Bill was the logical choice as he was the driving force behind the party and on Sept. 3, 1935, he was sworn in as premier of Alberta, despite not having a seat in the Legislature. In a Nov. 4 by election, Bible Bill won the Okotoks-High River seat.
Bible Bill was known for belief that the Great Depression was caused by ordinary people not having enough to spend. The social credit ideas he wanted to implemented couldn’t be though because of the poor financial position of the province. One of those was an effort to give every Albertan $25 per month to spend to stimulate the economy. It was as premier that he would earn the nickname Bible Bill for his outspoken Baptist views.
Bible Bill did implement efforts for relief programs to help out people who were dealing with poverty through public works and a debt relief program. Of course, Bible Bill was deeply religious and he would push his ideas including incredibly strict restrictions on alcohol sales. One such item was the banning of alcohol sales on planes while they were flying over Alberta, something that would remain in place until the 1960s.
Now, what does this mean regarding the Press Act? Well, let’s get to that right now.
Formally called the Accurate News and Information Act, but known currently as The Press Act, was a new piece of legislation put forward in 1937 by the government. Essentially, this act would have required newspapers in Alberta to print clarifications of stories that a committee of government officials had deemed inaccurate, and sources would have be revealed to these government officials if demanded.
Why was this put forward? Well Bible Bill and the press did not get along.
Prior to the 1935 election, Bible Bill began to lay out his economic plan based on the theories of social credit but he did this in vague terms. Premier Gavin Reid tried to force him into giving a specific plan and the Calgary Herald began to do the same, even offering Bible Bill a full page of space to lay out his approach. Bible Bill refused to do so stating that the Herald’s coverage of him had been unfair. In speeches throughout the province, he would frequently attack the newspaper. On April 28, he went so far as urging followers to boycott it and any other newspaper he felt was unfriendly. This actually was a successful strategy and one newspaper went out of business.
The Calgary Herald would respond as such in an opinion piece.
“Is everyone opposed to the political opinions and plans of Mr. Aberhart to be boycotted? He has invoked a most dangerous precedent and has given he people of this province a foretaste of Hitlerism, which will prevail if he ever secures control of the provincial administration.”
The Calgary Herald wasn’t alone in its criticism. The Medicine Hat News, Lethbridge Herald and Edmonton Journal, along with many local newspapers, were all highly critical of the Social Credit Party and stated that if elected, it would wreck Alberta’s chances for economic recovery.
The Social Credit Party was very unhappy with this and they would found their own newspaper, the Alberta Social Credit Chronicle, to spread their own views. Oswald Mosley was one of the columnists of that paper. He was also the British fascist leader. Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic priest, was another columnist.
Following the election of the Social Credit Party, the reaction from many media outlets were negative. The Calgary Herald went on to say “the people of Alberta have made a most unfortunate decision and may soon see the folly of it” Newspapers outside Canada were also negative in their coverage. The Boston Herald ran a headline stating “Alberta goes crazy”
The Herald would continue to take a negative stance against Bible Bill, even hiring an animator from Disney, who was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to be their full-time cartoonist. He would often ridicule Bible Bill in his cartoons.
In response, Bible Bill decided to focus on the Calgary Albertan, the one paper to show support as he saw it. He would form a company that acquired an option to purchase it and he used his weekly gospel radio show to promote the purchase through shares of Social Credit supporters. This was the same program where he once said in January 1936 that he would be “glad there will be no newspapers in heaven.”
The plan for purchase was widely criticized but the Calgary Albertan would become the official mouthpiece of the Social Credit Party nonetheless, and would see its circulation double.
On Sept. 20, 1937, Bible Bill stated on his radio program, “these creatures with mental hydrophobia will be taken in hand and their biting and barking will cease.” The creatures he referred to were the press. On Sept. 24, he would put forward the Accurate News and Information Act.
This act would allow the chair of the Social Credit Board to require a newspaper to reveal the names and addresses of its sources, as well as writers. If a newspaper did not comply, it would result in fines up to $1,000 per day and prohibitions on the publishing of the newspaper. The Act would also require newspapers to print any statement which, as the act says, “has for its object the correction or amplification of any statement relating to any policy or activity of the Government of the Province.”
Not surprisingly, the act was attacked immediately by opposition politicians who called it supporting fascism. International newspapers jumped on the criticism as well. One newspaper in England called Aberhart, “a little Hitler”
The Edmonton Journal would state in an editorial, “if this Bill should pass and stand, where then would be freedom of speech and liberty of the press? Where then would be the liberty of the citizens to free expression of opinion. The press bill now before the legislature is a dictatorial challenge to every freedom-loving Canadian whose home is Alberta.”
John Bowen, the Lt. Governor of Alberta, understood that this would be a very controversial issue so he reserved royal assent of the act until the legality could be tested at the Supreme Court of Canada. This would be the first time in the two decades of Alberta’s existence that the power of reservation was used.
Bible Bill was not pleased by this and in 1938, he announced the elimination of the official residence of the Lt. Gov, his government car and his secretarial staff. It was never stated publicly but it is felt this was in direct response to the reservation of assent.
While the Act was suspended with the reservation, that did not stop Bible Bill from attacking the press. On March 25, 1938, the Social Credit Party ordered that Don Brown from the Edmonton Journal be jailed, as they stated, “during the pleasure of the assembly” for misquoting a Social Credit backbencher. The government stated he committed scandalous misrepresentation and the RCMP was ordered to deliver Brown to a provincial jail in Lethbridge. He was to be held there, without trial, indefinitely. He was never actually jailed and the very next day, due to the immense negative publicity from across Canada, a new resolution was passed to release him from custody.
It was around this same time that the Supreme Court ruled that the Accurate News and Information Act was beyond the power of the Alberta government and found that the Canadian constitution included an implied bill of rights that protected freedom of speech as being critical in a parliamentary democracy.
Several judges on the Supreme Court cited the Constitution Act of 1867 as a reason to deny the act, stating that,
- It attempted to curtail the right of public discussion
- It reduced the political rights of Albertans compared with residents of other provinces
- It interfered with the workings of Parliamentary institutions
The act was also compared by the judges to an enactment of criminal law and since crimes are under federal jurisdiction, the legislation was unconstitutional on that ground.
For their fight against the act, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the Edmonton Journal a bronze plaque, the first time a non-American newspaper was ever honoured. In addition, 95 newspapers around the province were presented with engraved certificates.
As for Bible Bill, he would pass away unexpectedly as premier of Alberta in 1943. He was succeeded by Ernest Manning, who would serve as premier from that year until 1971. In 1974, Aberhart was named a Person of National Historic Significance.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, the Edmonton Journal, University of Calgary,