After Charles Stewart and the Liberals lost the election, it was time for a new person to come in as premier. After some time, that person would be Herbert Greenfield.
Herbert Greenfield was born on Nov. 25, 1869 in Winchester, England. He initially began attending the local school but his father went bankrupt, resulting in the family pulling him from school.
In 1892, Greenfield began to work aboard a cattle boat and four years later, immigrated to Canada.
Finding work in the oil fields near Sarnia, he married Elizabeth Harris on Feb. 28, 1900.
Together, the couple had two children.
In Ontario, he found work as a hired hand, making between $7 and $10 per month.
In 1904, Greenfield and his family moved to homestead near Edmonton. At first, Greenfield worked at a lumber mill and then began to work on his homestead.
Unfortunately, during that first year on their homestead, a fire destroyed their home. Through the winter, they lived in an abandoned sod hut.
In 1906, the family settled near Westlock.
Around this time, Greenfield started to get involved with politics. He served for 12 years on the local school board, and as vice president of the Alberta Educational Association. He also co-founded the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts.
The Albertan stated,
“Not only did he till his land and raise his family but he played his full share in the community affairs and farm organizations.”
At first, he was a Liberal but as time went on, he grew disenchanted with the government’s treatment of farmers and was drawn to the United Farmers of Alberta. The party was very popular in rural Alberta, and sought to bring social, economic and political reform. The party was heavily opposed to high interest rates for farm credit, protective tariffs and party politics within government.
In 1919, he was elected to the organization executive and was in charge of a membership drive that proved to be highly successful.
When the 1921 election came along, he did not seek a seat in the Legislature.
The United Farmers had formed from the merger of the Non-Partisan League of Alberta in 1919 and entered the political arena of the province. At the point when election arrived, the party had two seats in the Legislature and were led by Henry Wise Wood who had refused to enter electoral politics. This created the situation where the leader of the party was not running in the election to lead the province.
By the time the 1921 election came along, the United Farmers were surging in popularity and Wise Wood said in a speech in Medicine Hat on July 8, 1921,
“Farmers may not be ready to take over government, but they are going to do it anyway.”
Many people in the province were unhappy with the Liberal government, especially considering the provincial deficit had reached $2.2 million.
Since the United Farmers of Alberta had surprised everyone by winning the 1921 election, gaining 36 seats to finish with 38, the decision was made to choose Henry Wise Wood, the UFA President, to be the premier. He declined the offer.
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.
Macleans would write,
“All the farmers demanded of Greenfield was an efficient business executive for the province, and Greenfield was told to go off by himself and lock himself up, so he chose his executive independent of race, creed, class, party pull.”
Herbert Greenfield had taken office with a great deal of expectations, with the Lethbridge Herald calling him the new Moses that would bridge the Red Sea.
On Dec. 9, 1921, Greenfield was elected by acclamation and began to sit in the Legislature. Now in the Legislature, he began to serve as premier, provincial secretary, provincial treasurer and Minister of Municipal Affairs.
Macleans wrote of the promise of Greenfield, due to his farming background,
“Premier Greenfield at this critical period in the farmer’s party progress. The new farmer premier knows farming from A to Z.”
Macleans would go on to describe him,
“Physically, Greenfield is big, muscular, powerful and weathered as to complexion. His mental makeup is a counterpart of his physical. He is big in vision, powerful in speech and thought, though slow like nearly all men in expression.”
Almost immediately, Greenfield was faced with the issue of his MLAs being rookies to the Legislature, and very independent. This made it hard for him to manage his caucus. Even when he selected his cabinet, his caucus believed he was going to appoint Liberals to it. Greenfield did name Irene Parlby to cabinet, making her Alberta’s first female cabinet minister.
Unfortunately for Greenfield, as soon as Legislature convened, he had to deal with the sudden death of his wife during a routine surgery. His performance was described as poor and he relied heavily on his attorney general John Brownlee.
Overall, his caucus objected to the concept of even having a caucus and this proved to be another issue for Greenfield as he tried to govern.
As premier, Greenfield relied on two factors. First, his support of farmers who he saw as an essential producer. Second, the women who were now voting. Greenfield saw women as a stabilizer and an important part of being elected for any party in the province.
Greenfield also felt that no matter where an Albertan came from, they must be completely Canadian and support Canada. At the time, 90 per cent of Albertans had come from outside the province in the previous 20 years.
At the time he became premier, Alberta was going through an economic depression. In southern Alberta, where 75 per cent of the wheat production was found, there had been five straight years of drought. At first the government offered $5 million in financial assistance and this nearly drove the province into bankruptcy. By 1923, this relief was discontinued.
Greenfield said in 1922,
“We will get away from the dull conditions quicker than any other part of the world, because the West is young and has all the mental, moral and physical recuperative qualities of youth, and because the West always has new opportunities to offer.”
At the time, over 50 per cent of the province’s arable land had not been plowed yet. Greenfield felt that if the cost of items could come down on products used in farming, then farmers would be able to break the land and the period of stagnation would end.
The Debt Adjustment Act of 1923 was passed to adjust the debt levels of farmers so they could pay back what they owed. Unfortunately, this act did little to help anything.
One success for Greenfield in this area though was the establishment of the Alberta Wheat Pool in 1923.
Coal mining was also going through a difficult time in the province and less than half the mines in the province were profitable. Most mines only made one cent per ton on coal. This led to growing labour unrest and most felt that a stronger leader than Greenfield was needed to bring industrial peace to the province.
The resources of the province were also a problem for Greenfield and his efforts to get the rights the resources of the province transferred from the federal government to the provincial government.
“I would say emphatically that one of the most vital questions that could be settled permanently in one way only is the return of the natural resources of the prairie provinces to their rightful owners.”
He spoke with Prime Minister Mackenzie King several times with it, which King recorded in his journal. On Jan. 3, 1924, he wrote,
“Greenfield offered to accept transfer without accounting at paying of six years subsidy instead of three, as offered a year ago, and refused then. I told him the three was not a standing offer, but that nothing beyond it could be entertained.”
A few months later in May 1924, King told Greenfield that there would be no introducing of the transfer of natural resources in the next legislative session.
By the end of the year, Greenfield was more accepting of terms. King wrote in his diary,
“On Tuesday Greenfield brought me a letter accepting transfer of Natural Resources to Alberta on the terms we laid down and which I have refused under pressure to lessen. Another good piece of work.”
It would still be two years before any real progress was made and Greenfield would be out of office by that point.
Greenfield put forward a referendum in 1923 asking Albertans if they wanted prohibition, and they overwhelmingly chose to repeal it, despite the fact that the UFA supported having prohibition.
The Calgary Herald reported,
“Premier Herbert Greenfield told a deputation of some 200 prohibitionists that while the Alberta government had always been favorable to prohibition, nevertheless its conduct in handling of the beer petitions before the house must be governed by the absolution impartiality.”
Despite the high expectations for Greenfield, by the time the next election was approaching, his prestige had fallen heavily. By 1924, his backbenchers were pushing for his resignation and wanted him replaced by his attorney general Brownlee. They then contacted Brownlee and told him their plan to get Greenfield resigned. He responded that if Greenfield resigned, he would as well.
In the press, Greenfield denied there was a split in the party. He stated there was simply a few members who were sore over his decisions.
In 1925, the group came forward directly to Greenfield and asked for his resignation. He agreed and Brownlee stated he would resign as well. Henry Wise Wood then came forward and asked Brownlee to reconsider, and Brownlee said he would if Greenfield himself asked him to become premier. Greenfield did, stating he never wanted to be premier in the first place.
“It had become increasingly evident that there is not the full accord between supporters of the government and myself which is essential to the successful continuation of my administration.”
On Nov. 23, 1925, Greenfield resigned in a tearful speech, and Brownlee replaced him.
The Calgary Herald wrote of him,
“Greenfield was not a good political captain, but he had a poor set of officers and a mutinous crew.”
In 1926, he married Marjorie Cormack, whom he would remain married to for the rest of his life.
After his time as premier, Greenfield was appointed as Alberta’s Agent General in London in 1927. Many felt it was a patronage reward from the UFA, and it generated controversy.
Despite the controversy, Greenfield proved to be highly capable and well regarded in the position. It was felt that his personality was suited for duties in the position.
It was expected that he would remain in the position for one year, but would remain for several years due to the success of the program. For Greenfield, this was his first time to his birth country in 25 years.
He would say,
“We are first of all going to feel our ways and just what definite lines of action will be followed it is now too soon to say. There will be consultations with the people over there who are already in touch with emigration problems.”
As the Agent General, he also welcomed Albertans who were visiting London, including Brownlee, when the two met together with British immigration officials. He would also do tours of Europe, including through Scandinavia, to encourage immigration to Canada.
The Edmonton Journal wrote years later,
“Whatever may be said of Mr. Greenfield’s five-year term as premier, he did a fine job for Alberta during the five years he was the province’s representative in London. He was able to attract a considerable number of immigrants and to interest English capital in Alberta.”
In 1931, the office closed and Greenfield moved back to Canada, settling in Calgary. At this point, he took on director positions in the oil and gas industry and was the president of the Calgary Board of Trade.
Upon returning home, he would give a speech with the Alberta Oil and Gas Association, stating,
“While a few years ago the British investor looked with suspicion on many of the Canadian investments, today he looks up on Canada, and Alberta oil developments, with the greatest of interest and anticipation.”
Through this part of his life, he became known in Calgary for his enthusiastic gardening and could often be found working in his garden at his home along Elbow Drive.
He later served as the president of the Alberta Petroleum Association, and was a vital part of Alberta oil royalties being listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1940.
On Aug. 23, 1949, he died after a brief illness.
E.W. Kolb, secretary treasurer of the Western Canada Petroleum Association said,
“I knew him well during his Alberta government career…He was a man ever ready to lend a helping hand. I consider his passing a very great personal loss.”
Dr. Frank Morley said,
“Men like Herbert Greenfield, pioneers and makers of Canada, came to this country with courage, faith and hope, seeking not social security, but adventure and a fuller way of life.”
In 1968, Greenfield School in Edmonton was named for him.
Information from Macleans, Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, The Albertan,
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