After Arthur Sifton chose to pursue politics at the federal level, Charles Stewart was tapped to take his place. The third premier in Alberta’s history, and the third Liberal premier, it is likely Stewart did not know the place he would have in history.
When he took office in 1917, change was on the horizon and, as a result, he remains to this day the last Liberal premier in the history of Alberta.
It is likely, that is a distinction that is not going to change any time soon.
Charles Stewart was born on Aug. 26, 1868 in Strabane, Ontario to Charles and Catherine Stewart. His father was a farmer and stonemason who worked on many of the local buildings around the community.
As a young child, Stewart went with this father to hear Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald speak. According to the family’s own story of this event, Macdonald said to Stewart that he was a fine boy who would make a good politician one day.
The story was famous enough it would be related in a story on Stewart on Oct. 15, 1929 in Macleans magazine.
Whether this is true or not is up to debate, but it makes for a good story for the start of a lifelong politician’s life.
When Stewart was 16, he moved with his family to Barrie, Ontario.
As a young man, Stewart was described as never having much of an imagination but always being ready to work hard. As the oldest son, he was often in charge of the farm while his father was working in villages nearby.
Stewart would say of his schooling,
“Our teacher got his early training pulling pine stumps and believe me, he was strong on the hide. Nevertheless, he was a great man, and I have never forgotten many of the lessons that he drove home with a hickory switch.”
At 13, his father had to leave for a job that would take some time, so Stewart was taken out of school and put in the entire crop, by himself.
He also had a spirit that called for adventure. Macleans wrote,
“To him, life was a great adventure, to be lived with hope, but not with regrets. He took it in that spirit. He met failure and success with the same imperturbable good humour.”
In 1884, his father died and Stewart was left in charge of the family and the farm. He would spend his time improving the farm and ensuring that it was successful.
Then, in 1898, on a very hot day, the sky darkened and a tornado struck the farm, destroying all the farm buildings and partially collapsing the house. No one was injured but it was clear that he had to start over.
On Dec. 17, 1891, he married Jane Sneath and together the couple would have eight children together.
On July 8, 1905, Stewart move his family out west to Killam, Alberta.
In Killam, the future premier and his family were so poor that they lived in a shack where the warmest spot was the kitchen table. They kept their baby there to keep it warm. When the spring came, hail destroyed half the family’s crops.
With no success at farming, Stewart decided that he would use the skills his father taught him to work as a stonemason in the new province. He found more success in this venture, helping to build the High Level Bridge in Edmonton and dug the town well for Killam.
Stewart would say,
“The farmer who cannot turn a hand to something else is liable to be hard hit at any time.”
With the money he began to make, he was able to invest in real estate and start a farm implement dealership. Then, in 1912, he bought a larger farm for his family, expanding from 160 acres to 1,000 acres.
In 1909, his profile was high enough in the area of Killam that when the Alberta Liberal party arrived looking for a candidate to run for election to the Legislature, Stewart agreed and was elected by acclamation in the provincial election.
Soon after he was elected, the province erupted into the Alberta and Great Waterways Scandal, leaving the Liberal Party split between the supporters of Premier Alexander Rutherford and those who opposed him.
Initially, Stewart supported Rutherford and remained loyal but as new details emerged over the scandal, he stopped supporting Rutherford and got behind the new premier, Arthur Sifton.
In 1912, Sifton expanded his cabinet and Stewart was rewarded for his loyalty with a post as Alberta’s first Minister of Municipal Affairs.
In his new cabinet position, he advocated for public ownership of utilities, which was something the Conservatives supported by Sifton did not. He would also eliminate the country system and he divided the functions discharged by the county council between the province and municipalities.
He would say,
“I am proud of that work. We have too much government in this country. It is inefficient and expensive.”
In December 1913, Stewart was moved over to the railway portfolio, and he played a major role in the incorporation of the Alberta Farmer’s Co-operative Elevator Company.
After the 1917 provincial election, which Stewart was easily re-elected in, the province suddenly dealt with the departure of its premier, Arthur Sifton, who moved on to federal politics.
Sifton told Lt. Governor Robert Brett who he felt would be a good successor and that person was Charles Stewart. Brett accepted this and Stewart became the new premier of the province on Oct. 30, 1917, only four months after the provincial election.
Like Sifton, Stewart supported conscription and the Union government on the federal level but he took no part in the 1917 federal election, while several of his cabinet ministers did, either for the Liberal Party or the Union Government.
The fact federal Liberals didn’t support conscription but Stewart did resulting in division within the provincial party.
Almost as soon as his government met for the first time, members of his party were criticizing him for various issues. Alexander MacKay criticized him for not pressing for the transfer of rights over Alberta’s natural resources from the federal to provincial government at the most recent conference of premiers. James Turgeon then attacked him for levying taxes for the support of the dependents of soldiers, which he considered to be a federal issue.
All of this grew to the point that resulted in the dismissal of the Attorney General by Stewart after he refused to fire two detectives in his department.
Irrigation projects began on a large level while Stewart was premier, including the plan to irrigate 500,000 acres of land in Lethbridge County.
In 1919, Stewart approved the establishment of the Alberta Industrial Development Association. This committee would study ways to expand Alberta’s economic base beyond agriculture and it led to the founding of the Research Council of Alberta in 1921. While this may seem like a small thing, the organization would eventually establish oil as the dominant industry of Alberta and lead to the eventual development of the oil sands project.
Just before the election, the Alberta Government Telephones scandal broke when it was discovered the Liberals spent AGT money to have telephone poles crated and shipped to remote communities with no intention of installing phone lines. This was done in the effort to garner support and votes from those communities.
After four years as premier, Stewart called an election for July 19, 1921. Nearly everyone expected that the Liberals would once again defeat the Conservatives, despite sagging numbers.
Farmers in the province were becoming angry with the government due to sagging prices on crops, and with the new United Farmers of Alberta having no leader, platform or plan for the election, it was expected Stewart would cruise to victory.
In the July 18, 1921 election, the political landscape of the province was completely altered. The Liberals won only 15 seats, the lowest in the party’s entire history. While this was a low point, it would take almost 70 years for the party to exceed that amount. The Liberals did win every seat in Edmonton, and several seats in major urban centres but were nearly shutout of rural areas.
The party would lose three cabinet ministers in the election
The Liberals would never again hold power in Alberta.
The 38 MLAs elected for the UFA voted unanimously for Henry Wise Wood to lead the province as premier. He declined. The party then chose the UFA vice president Percival Baker. Baker had unfortunately been badly injured when he fell out of a tree and died the day after the election. Herbert Greenfield, who did not run in the election, was chosen as premier.
After the election, Stewart stayed on as premier until the UFA could select someone to lead the party.
“It is my intention to continue in office until such time as the United Farmers are ready to take over the administration.”
Once Hebert Greenfield was chosen, Stewart resigned as he said he would.
This was not the end of his political career though.
After the 1921 federal election, new prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, after not winning any seats in Alberta, asked Stewart to join his cabinet as the Minister of the Interior and Mines. Stewart agreed and won a 1922 by-election in Quebec.
As a cabinet minister, Stewart worked to market the coal of Canada domestically and internationally, which gained him praise in the country and especially from the coal companies of Canada.
In 1925, he ran in Edmonton West and won his seat, and won it again in 1926 and 1930.
In 1927, he was Canada’s representative at the League of Nations. That same year, he oversaw the creation of Prince Albert National Park.
The Calgary Herald described him as such, stating
“He was a distinguished figure in Parliament, being more than six feet tall with wide shoulders. He was an authority on matters pertaining to the prairies. A convincing speaker, more by the clarity of his expression and obvious sincerity. Mr. Stewart was a strength to the front benches of the Liberal government.”
Ironically, considering the criticism of him over the transfer of resource control when he was premier of Alberta, he was part of the federal negotiation that allowed for the transfer control to come in place in December 1929.
Despite the fact he had moved on to federal politics, Stewart remained at odds and highly critical of the UFA government of Alberta. When Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King wanted to work with the Progressives to form a coalition government so he could stay in power after the 1925 election, Stewart opposed it. A large part of the Progressive’s base were UFA supporters in Alberta. He would often refer to the UFA and Progressives as “Liberals in a hurry”.
Overall, his relationship with King was frosty at best and King had little confidence in Stewart, to the point he almost appointed Stewart to the Senate in 1925 to get him out of cabinet and political involvement.
King would write in his diary in 1930,
“Stewart is worse than useless, is like an old woman, with no real control of situation.”
In 1935, he ran in Jasper-Edson but lost to Walter Kuhl of the Social Credit Party. After Stewart lost, King was happy that he no longer had to consider him for a cabinet post in the new government.
After his election loss, King George V appointed Stewart to chair the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission.
In 1938, Stewart became the chair of the Canadian section of the British Columbia-Yukon-Alaska Highway Commission.
On Dec. 6, 1946, Stewart died.
King wrote in his diary,
“They told me he had been unconscious for some time. The doctors gave them no hope and they were expecting he might pass at any moment. I expressed my regret at not having been out during the week, and my sympathy for them all. I am glad he was being spared suffering.”
For his public statement, King said,
“In more respects than one, Mr. Stewart’s career mirrored the development of Canada itself. It reflects the opportunities our country holds for those of her sons who are prepared to give of their time and talents to the promotion of her future.”
Mount Charles Stewart near Canmore, Alberta is named for him, rising to 9,216 feet.
I will end this episode with what Macleans said of him in 1929, stating
“He has known great place. He has walked with the kings of men. He has spoken for the people in negotiations with the industrial captains of the day. But he has never lost the common touch, nor his love for the common man.”
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Edmonton Bulletin, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Alberta Heritage And Culture,