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From 1873 to 1905, the map of Canada changed little. Beyond some provincial border changes, the provinces mostly stayed the same. There were no new provinces, none left, and everything remained somewhat static.

Then, on Sept. 1, 1905, two new provinces were carved out of the prairies, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The past five weeks, I have looked at the first premiers of Prince Edward Island. Now, it is time to shift to the next five premiers, this time of Alberta.

We begin all of that with Alexander Cameron Rutherford, the first premier of Alberta.

Born on Feb. 2, 1857 in Osgoode, Carleton County on a diary farm to James and Elizabeth Rutherford. His parents had come from Scotland two years previous, and his father immediately joined the Liberal Party of Canada.

Rutherford spent his youth attending public school, and then moved on to Woodstock College and McGill, where he earned a law degree. For Rutherford, diary farming was never something he wanted to be a part of.

In 1885, Rutherford was called to the Ontario Bar, becoming a junior partner in Hodkins, Kidd and Rutherford.

In 1888, he married Mattie Birkett, the daughter of former Member of Parliament Thomas Birkett. Together they have three children, two of which lived to adulthood.

From 1885 until 1895, he lived and worked in Kentville.

Then, he made the move to a new place, Edmonton in the District of Alberta. The move was not without planning. Rutherford had visited the Canadian West in November 1886 when he travelled to British Columbia after his cousin disappeared from the province. In 1894, he once again came to the prairies and visited South Edmonton, also known as Strathcona.

He found he was taken with the growth of the community and how the dry air helped his bronchitis.

One year later in 1895, with his reluctant wife and children, he journeyed west to Edmonton. The family arrived on June 10, 1895.

Ten days after he arrived, Rutherford opened a law office, bought four lots of land and had a home built for him and his family.

Arriving so early in the community, Rutherford was the only lawyer in Edmonton, giving him a lot of business and growing his importance in the community. In his first three years in Edmonton, he was the president of the South Edmonton Football Club, the secretary-treasurer of the South Edmonton School Board, the vice-president of the South Edmonton Literary Institute and the auditor of the South Edmonton Agricultural Society.

During his first years in the community, he advocated for South Edmonton to be incorporated, which it was in 1899 as the Town of Strathcona.

Rutherford had a typical view for his time that married women belonged in the home, taking care of the children. That being said, he was also progressive in his hiring of single women to work as secretaries at his form, in a time when clerical workers were almost always male. He also defended an Indigenous man accused of murder after other lawyers refused to even see the case.

With his prestige in the community growing, Rutherford began to go into other ventures including moneylending and gold mining along the North Saskatchewan River.

In 1896, Frank Oliver, the MLA for Edmonton in the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, resigned to focus on being elected to Parliament. With the seat open, Rutherford, thanks to the encouragement of others, agreed to run. His only opponent was Matthew McCauley, the former mayor of Edmonton. Rutherford promised to improve roads and increase educational funding if he was elected.

Rutherford lost, with 40 per cent of the vote, but his desire for politics had been sparked. In 1898, Rutherford once again ran against McCauley and this time he campaigned on a call for the redrawing of the electoral boundaries of the territory. He also supported the push to create a province from the territories following the 1901 census.

Once again though, Rutherford lost to McCauley.

Finally, in 1902, he ran in the new riding of Strathcona and had a similar platform to that of 1898. This time though, he easily won the election and found himself in the Legislative Assembly. In the three years before Alberta became a province, Rutherford served on several standing committees and he was elected deputy speaker. He also launched successful efforts to extend the boundaries of the Town of Strathcona. At this time, he also supported the new two province proposal, rather than one large province in the middle of the prairies.

In February of 1905, legislation was introduced to create Alberta and Saskatchewan. Several candidates were put up to be the first premier of Alberta. Frank Oliver was the most senior Liberal in the new province, but he was the Minister of the Interior and had no interest in becoming premier. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was favourable towards Rutherford but not enthusiastic.

In August, Lt. Governor Bulyea was appointed and that same month, the Alberta Liberals chose Rutherford as their new leader.

On Sept. 2, one day after Alberta was born, Bulyea asked Rutherford to form government. With that, Rutherford assumed the mantle as premier of Alberta.

The Edmonton Bulletin stated,

“Mr. Rutherford is a Baptiste in religion and is a man of sterling integrity whose character is above reproach and under whose administration the province of Alberta is assured of clean, competent government.”

There was no Legislature yet, so the opening ceremonies for the government were held in a skating rink, and the first sessions in a local schoolhouse.

Rutherford said years later,

“We were a cosy little group.”

Among the group of 25 who made up this first government, only Rutherford and two others had political experience.

In his first cabinet, Rutherford brought in party members from across the province, all the way down to Medicine Hat.

Even though he was premier, Rutherford had to go through an election. On Nov. 9, he would go up against the Conservatives. For the Conservatives, they were in a difficult situation as their leader, Frederick Haultain, who had been the premier of the North West Territories from 1897 to 1905, had moved to Saskatchewan. The man they chose to lead them was a young Calgary lawyer named R.B. Bennett.

The two main issues for this campaign were education within the new province, and the capital city. At the time, Edmonton had been named the temporary capital of Alberta until a decision could be made by the elected provincial government.

Both Edmonton and Calgary wanted to be named the capital, due to the impact it would not only on the local economy, but the reputation of the city.

The Liberals campaigned on Edmonton becoming the capital, with Attorney General Charles Wilson Cross assuring crowds in the city that Edmonton would remain the capital. All 13 northern Conservative candidates supported Edmonton as the capital as well, as it was beneficial to them since their constituents wanted to be closer to the capital if it was in Edmonton.

In Southern Alberta, Bennett told residents of Calgary that if he were elected, his Conservative government would ensure that Calgary became the capital. William Henry Cushing, a Liberal MLA and Minister of Public Works, also promised that Calgary would become the capital since he represented residents there as well.

In the Nov. 9, 1905 election, the Liberal Party under Rutherford won 22 seats, taking 55.9 per cent of the popular vote. With the support of the electorate, Rutherford would remain as premier of the province.

Once the election was won by the Liberals, Premier Rutherford stated that the capital would be chosen through an open vote. For the next several months, newspapers campaigned heavily for their city to be named the capital.

On April 25, 1906, MLA Cushing made a motion to move the capital to Calgary. A second motion was made by John Thomas Moore to move the capital to Red Deer. In the vote, eight members voted for Calgary and 16 voted for Edmonton, ensuring that the capital would stay in its current location.

After its first election, the Liberals were tasked with the first ever mandate for the province. After the issue of the capital had been settled, the next major decision was where to place the provincial university. After Calgary had lost out on becoming the capital, it was believed that the city would receive the university. There was criticism that a four per cent tax would be in place to pay for this new university, but Premier Rutherford felt that if he delayed establishing a university, denominational colleges would fill the void. 

A bill to create the university was passed in the Legislature, but the location had to be chosen. Instead of choosing Calgary for the location, Strathcona, the hometown of Rutherford, was chosen for the location of the university. Needless to say, residents of Calgary were not happy.

In 1906, Rutherford’s government dealt with the organization and administration of the provincial government, while incorporating Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Wetaskiwin. The government also established 32 km/h as the speed limit for vehicles. Arthur Lewis Sifton was also appointed as the first Chief Justice of Alberta. This won’t be the last time you hear his name in this series.

During this first mandate for Rutherford and the Liberals, 140 schools were established, and a Normal School was set up in Calgary to train teachers. Education was an incredibly important passion for Rutherford, and he served as Minister of Education for the province.

On the spring of 1906, he introduced legislation to create the University of Alberta, which would receive its assent on May 9. In 1907, legislation was passed to purchase a river lot for the construction of the university.

Early in the province’s history, labour unrest became a problem, specifically at the coal mines that dotted the landscape in western Alberta. In April 1907, The Canada West Coal and Coke Company locked out miners in Taber, and work was also stopped at their mine in the Crowsnest Pass. By April 22, 3,400 miners were off work as they demanded increased wages and eight hours of work a day rather than 10. They also wanted proper safety measures in place, especially when dealing with explosives.

In commission was created, headed by Chief Justice Sifton, and by May, most of the miners had returned to work with increased pay. The commission released its report in August, recommending the end to child labour in mines, posting of inspection reports, mandatory bath houses and improved ventilation inspections. Rutherford and his government then legislated an eight-hour workday and passed workers compensation legislation.

One of the largest accomplishments for Rutherford was the creation of Alberta Government Telephones, which would exist until the 1990s when it was privatized and Telus was created. Rutherford and his government also passed legislation to layout a framework for new railways in the province, as settlers were starting to flood in and wanted access to global markets with their crops.

After four years, Rutherford was ready to lead the Liberals into another election in 1909. The campaign kicked and Rutherford spent most of his time on the campaign trail in Southern Alberta where the Conservatives were strongest. The slogan for the party was Rutherford, Reliability and Railroads.

Through the campaign, Rutherford appealed for the removal of the sectional spirit of Alberta that divided north and south. Rutherford would say at a speech in Calgary,

“So far as this government is concerned, we have treated all parts of the province fairly and I challenge any one to put up a proposition for new lines that is more fair than the one I am advocating tonight.”

In the March 22, 1909 election, The Liberals gained 14 seats to finish with 36, commanding a massive majority in the Legislature and almost 60 per cent of the popular vote. Rutherford would continue to serve as the premier of the province.

As it turned out though, his time as premier would be much shorter following this election than he could have expected.

After the 1909 election, Rutherford and his government were popular with a massive majority. There were all signs that the government and Rutherford would continue leading the province for years to come.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as the Legislature met, things began to unravel.

John Boyle, a Liberal backbencher began to ask questions related to the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway Company and its agreement with the government. This was one of several companies that had been granted charters to build new railways in Alberta.

The support that the railway company was very generous, with more funds provided than for other established railways like the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway.

Boyle, along with other Liberal MLAs, alleged that there was favoritism at worst, and ineptitude at best, by the government over the matter. The MLAs pointed out that there was a sale of government-guaranteed bonds in support of the company. These bonds were sold at par value, even though there was a high interest rate. The government took the par amount, letting the company take the difference.

A motion of non-confidence by Boyle was sponsored. He and 12 Liberals voted for the motion but it failed and the government was upheld.

In order to deal with the uprising, Rutherford pledged to call a royal commission. This didn’t help and on May 26, 1910, Rutherford resigned as premier.

His last act as premier occurred on May 25 when he passed a resolution to express condolences for the death of King Edward VII, who had died on May 6. After the resolution, the Lt. Governor announced Rutherford was resigning as premier effective the next day, declared Arthur Sifton to be his successor and asked that he form the new government.

Overall, he fared well in the press for the action. The Edmonton Journal wrote,

“By this act, which involved considerable self-sacrifice, he not only saved his party from factionalism and destruction but heighted his own reputation for rugged honesty and absolute integrity of purpose. Alberta was fortunate in having Honourable A.C. Rutherford as its first premier.”

He had served for almost five years as premier and helped Alberta take its first steps as a province. He would continue to sit as a Liberal MLA in the Legislature and had the loyalty of several Liberals there but Rutherford was at odds with the government itself.

In 1913, he opposed the government of his successor Arthur Sifton in confiscating the Alberta and Great Waterways bond money and the revoking of its charter. In 1913, he was one of only two Liberals to support a non-confidence motion against the government.

As the 1913 election came along, Rutherford ran in Edmonton South, stating he would be a good independent candidate and a good Liberal too. He would run against Herbert Crawford, who in a shocking twist defeated Rutherford by 250 votes.

At this point, Rutherford had split completely from the Liberals. In fact, during the 1921 Alberta general election, he actively campaigned for the Conservatives and for his former opponent Crawford. He called the Liberals at the time, rotten and he continued to hold a grudge.

The Edmonton Journal reported on March 31, 1913,

“The Honourable A.C. Rutherford, ex-premier of the province, caused a sensational announcement to be made at the Conservative convention on Saturday afternoon, by stating in a letter to the association that he was a supporter of Mr. Michener, and in opposition to the Sifton administration.”

During one speech at Ardrossan on July 10, 1921 he stated that the Liberals were disorganized and responsible for the debt of the province. From 1910, his last year as premier, to 1920, the debt of the province had gone from $4.3 million to $41.9 million.

He also campaigned for the federal Conservative Party, which went through an election in 1910 as well. He stated that the only choice for the election was Arthur Meighen, prime minister at the time, and the Conservatives.

For the most part after he ended his political career, Rutherford worked at his law office with various law partners. Eventually, in 1923, his son Cecil joined him in the firm.

As always, education remained a primary focus for him and he was elected to the University of Alberta Senate in 1911. He would remain on the university senate until May 20, 1927 when he was chosen to be chancellor of the university he had founded. He was acclaimed in his position for the rest of his life.

Outside of his work and education, Rutherford was an active curler and tennis player into his 50s. He would take up golf at the age of 64 and was a charter member of the Mayfair Golf and Country Club.

In his later years, he suffered from diabetes and his wife would monitor his sugar intake.

In 1938, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and mute. He taught himself to walk and talk over the next two years.

Then, on Sept. 13, 1940, his beloved wife Mattie died of cancer.

In early June 1941, Rutherford suffered a seizure and his health quickly began to decline. On June 11, 1941, Rutherford suffered a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 84.

Many were surprised at his sudden death as he had played a round of golf with Lt. Governor J.C. Bowen only a few days prior to the seizure.

Due to his role as the first premier of Alberta, he has been honoured extensively in the province, including Rutherford Elementary School and the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta. In Jasper National Park, Mount Rutherford is named for him.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Biographi, Ottawa Citizen, Wikipedia, University of Alberta, Edmonton Journal, Edmonton Bulletin,

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