The Alberta Elections (Part One): The Liberal Era

Play episode
Hosted by


On Sept. 1, 1905, Alberta was officially declared to be the newest province in Canada, along with Saskatchewan. Carved out of the Northwest Territories, this new province needed to have an election.

Alexander Rutherford, the leader of the Liberal Party, had been appointed as the premier of the province by George Bulyea, the Lt. Governor of Alberta, on Sept. 2, 1905.

While Alberta had its premier, there still had to be an official election.

Before getting to that election, a few things had to be ironed out as the new province came into being. The two main parties were the Liberals and the Conservatives, but in the North West Territories assembly, there had been the Liberal-Conservatives. Many of those MLAs jumped over to the Liberals when the Liberals formed the initial government on Sept. 2. Why were the Liberals asked to form the government? That comes down to the fact that at the time, the federal government was led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a Liberal prime minister.

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.

An interesting compromise arose in Red Deer, where the candidates campaigned to have the capital placed there, as it was located halfway between Calgary and Edmonton. There was little interest in most of Alberta for Red Deer to become the capital.

In regards to education, minority faiths were secured the right to separate schools under the Alberta Act by Parliament. The Conservatives were against this, but they did not make the repealing of this a major issue of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Liberals campaigned on accepting the decision of Parliament in regards to the schools, and stated they would find an efficient system for public schools.

Through the campaign, the Liberals chose to promise to recognize that public ownership of utilities was what residents wanted and should be considered. They would also advocate for the agricultural industry and against incurring any sort of provincial debt. The party was endorsed by the Calgary Albertan and the Edmonton Bulletin.

The Conservatives chose to focus on opposing the decision of the federal government to retain public lands and resources, and followed the Liberals in calling for government-owned utilities. One issue for the Conservatives in the election was the perception of their leader, who was a lawyer for several large companies including the CPR, Bell and the Calgary Water Power Company. Some newspapers illustrated him as a corporate connection, and the Liberals would connect Bennett extensively with the CPR. They did this because the CPR was widely disliked in the west for several reasons. Bennett also had problems with the newspapers that endorsed him, including the Calgary Eye-Opener, which backed him but also said he was a poor leader. Liberal newspapers also accused the Conservatives of corruption. There were also accusations that Conservative organizer William L. Walsh attempted to bribe Daniel Maloney to run in the St. Albert riding.

In order to vote in the election, any male British subjects over the age of 21 could vote, as long as they had lived in the North West Territories for the previous year, and for three months in the district they were voting in. Voting was done by putting an X on a blank sheet of paper using either a blue pencil for Conservative or a red pencil for the Liberals.

In the Nov. 9, 1905 election, the Liberal Party under Rutherford won 22 seats, taking 55.9 per cent of the popular vote. Premier Rutherford remained as the leader of the province, a position he would hold for the next five years.

The Conservative Party would win two seats, finishing with 37.1 per cent of the vote. As for Bennett, he would not be successful in his attempt to be elected as not only premier, but an MLA in the Legislature. The vote was a close one, with Cushing defeating Bennett by only 37 votes. Bennett would end up just fine though. He would be elected to the Legislature in 1909, serving until 1911, during which time he once again served as the Leader of the Conservative Party. He then moved on to Parliament, where he served from 1911 to 1917. He would return in 1927 and served as the 11th Prime Minister of Canada from 1930 to 1935, and the leader of the federal Conservative Party from 1927 to 1938. He would eventually become a Member of the House of Lords in England, from 1941 until his death in 1947.

Several issues came about during the election. Voters in Calgary and Southern Alberta accused the Liberals of vote tampering and interfering with Conservative voters. In Calgary, recounts took over a month and caused the number of seats to swing back and forth. William Cushing’s campaign manager was also a returning officer at a Calgary polling station, which should not have been allowed. A Liberal organizer was also convicted of bribery for paying  a voter $10 not to defend his ballot which had been challenged during the recount.

In Peace River, the election results between James Cornwall and Lucien Dubuc was overturned. Dubec had won but irregularities were found and the seat sat vacant until another election was held on Feb. 15, 1906. Thomas Brick would run in the riding as a Liberal and he faced James Cornwall, also a Liberal, who was trying to win the seat he had before Alberta was a province. He would end up losing, but the Liberal Party won, since only their candidates ran in the riding.

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.

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.

The Conservatives were no longer led by R.B. Bennett, but he was not quite out of the picture yet. Albert Robertson now led the party, having taken over from Bennett on March 15, 1906. Since only two Conservatives were elected to the Legislature in 1905, one of which was Robertson, there was not much to choose from. As opposition leader, Robertson was a vocal critic of Rutherford, especially the funding to Roman Catholic schools and the resources of the provinces being controlled by the federal government.

Now, when I saw that he led the Conservatives, it is a bit misleading. He was seen as the leader of the two man caucus but there was no official leader and effectively, the party went into the election leaderless.

A new Act for voting was passed, solidifying the voting rules that were present in the North West Territories before 1905. It would also continue to not allow judges, prisoners and the Indigenous people to vote.

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.

Oddly, Paddy Nolan, a lawyer in Calgary and supporter of the Conservative Party, actually campaigned actively for the Liberal Party in the 1909 election.

As for the Conservatives, their party platform actually agreed with the Liberal government policy for the most part but they did campaign on bringing in government ownership of railways and telephones. Their platform was called Initiative, Referendum and Recall. Prohibition appeared for the first time in this election as part of a platform when the Conservatives stated they would hold a plebiscite if elected on liquor trafficking.

Robertson would have problems almost immediately when it was found there were irregularities with his papers to run in Nanton since his papers were signed by three voters and a fourth who was not a voter.

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.

The Conservatives gained no seats, but lost none either, finishing with two seats once again. Neither Conservative MLA who was in the Legislature from the 1905 election would be re-elected. Robertson lost in High River, where his Liberal opponent was elected. George Hoadley was elected in Okotoks, a riding he would serve in until 1935, becoming a legendary figure in Alberta politics. The other Conservative was R.B. Bennett, who was elected in Calgary and would soon lead the party into the next election.

After the election, a major change was coming to Alberta all thanks to the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway. It could be said, this would be the first scandal and it would bring down Alberta’s first premier.  


Since the creation of Alberta, Alexander Rutherford had been the premier of the province. He was the most prominent man in the province, but even the premier isn’t immune when it comes to scandals.

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.

He was replaced by Arthur Sifton, who was the Chief Justice of the Alberta Supreme Court.

Sifton had his work set out for him, needing to re-unite the party. He would take on the portfolio of Public Works and Provincial Treasurer. Sifton appointed those who were against him to cabinet, helping to alleviate the pressure on the party and preventing it from splitting further. Sifton would also run for a seat in the Legislature, winning in Vermilion.

Sifton had come west from Ontario to work as a lawyer, settling in Calgary in 1889. He had quickly become involved in politics, serving in the North West Legislative Assembly. In 1903, he was made Chief Justice of the North West Territories, and continued on in that role from 1905 to 1910 when he became the first Chief Justice of Alberta.

After Rutherford resigned, Sifton was asked to become premier. In order to be elected, he had to run in Vermilion in a by-election prior to the election campaign. He officially became the second premier of Alberta on May 26, 1910.

Macleans would describe him as,

“A certain niceness about him, from the clean-shaven face to the immaculate button boots, makes him appear quite proper in almost any position. His delicate hands, with rings on both little fingers, are as dainty as a woman’s. His double-breasted coat is a perfect fit.”

After becoming premier, he smoothed out the divisions in the party after the scandal and resignation of Rutherford. He would attempt to break with the railway policy of the previous government, but this was prevented by the courts, so he continued on with the previous railway policy. He was also unsuccessful in transferring the rights to the province’s natural resources from the federal government to the province.

The Conservatives were now led by Edward Michener, who had served as mayor of Red Deer from 1904 to 1906, and then moved on to the Legislature in the 1909 election. When R.B. Bennett resigned as leader of the Conservatives in 1910 to pursue a seat in the House of Commons, Michener, an independent, crossed the floor and joined the Conservatives. He was soon chosen as their leader.

The Socialist party was led by Charles M. O’Brien, who had the only seat for the party, having been elected in the 1909 election.

Prior to the election campaign, the Liberals conducting gerrymandering to put the odds in their favour in terms of ridings. The bill to create the new ridings was pushed through the Legislature and was given Royal Assent on the same day that the writ was dropped, March 25, 1913. The new ridings were not equal in population in many cases. One riding, Clearwater, had 74 people in it, while Calgary Centre had 20,000. The northern half of the province, more likely to vote Liberal, had 30 seats, while the southern portion of the province had 26.

The major issues for the campaign were the growing debt of the province that had grown from $2 million to $27 million, and the lack of infrastructure building in southern Alberta.

Overall, Michener proved to be popular throughout Alberta, much more than any Conservative leader so far in Alberta. The Calgary Herald reported on April 10, 1913,

“The Vegreville Opera House Tuesday night was packed to the doors when nearly seven hundred people gathered to hear E. Michener, Conservative Leader, discuss matters political. He convinced his hearers on every point.”

Former leader R.B. Bennett also campaigned for the Conservatives, stating that Premier Sifton was a miserable failure who mocked constitutional principles.

The Calgary Herald was noted for being highly critical of Sifton, at one point stating,

“If there is one admirable thing about Premier Sifton, it is the completeness of his contempt for the intelligence of anyone but himself.”

The Calgary Alberta, in contrast, supported Sifton and constantly referred to Michener as a man who flip flopped on issues.

The Liberal campaign was dubbed as Siftonism by his opponents, stating it was a disease that had to be cleaned in Alberta. The media picked up on this and used it to attack the Liberal Party.

In the April 17, 1913 election, the Liberal were able to retain their hold on the Legislature, picking up six seats to finish with 39. The party also lost 10 per cent of the popular vote in the election.

The Edmonton Journal wrote,

“The government went into the fight with a strong organization and unlimited campaign funds. The power of patronage it exerted unscrupulously to its own end.”

The Conservatives did well, earning 11 more seats to finish with 17 for the first time and remained as the Official Opposition. This was, to that date, the most seats won by the Conservatives in a provincial election and until 1971, was the second most seats won by the official opposition in Alberta history.

For the Socialist Party, they would lose their only seat when O’Brien lost in his riding of Rocky Mountain. The party would never again have a person elected to the Legislature, and many of their members joined Communist parties in the 1920s.


The world was a very different place when 1917 rolled around. The country was embroiled in the First World War and Alberta was heading into another election.

Arthur Sifton continued to lead the Liberal Party and the province. Over the previous years, he had dealt with the rise of the United Farmers of Alberta, as well as the growing issue of prohibition. In 1914, due to a petition with 23,656 names on it, a referendum was called on the subject of prohibition. This referendum passed easily and in 1916, the Prohibition Act was enacted by the Alberta government.

Almost immediately, convictions for all crimes fell by almost 50 per cent, which lent weight to the arguments of those who supported prohibition. Sifton also dealt with the growing importance of women’s suffrage. In 1913, after the election, a delegation of women came to the Legislature ask for the vote. Sifton responded,

‘Did you ladies wash up your luncheon dishes before you came down here to ask me for the vote. If you haven’t, you’d better go home because you’re not going to get any votes from me.”

One year later in October 1914, another delegation arrived with 40,000 signatures. In February 1915, an even larger delegation arrived at the Legislature and occupied the seats of the MLAs, demanding that they be given the right to vote.

At this point, Sifton could see that the times were changing and in the spring of 1916, he introduced legislation to give women the right to vote in the province, which passed.

Macleans described Sifton at this time,

“Alberta is a hard province for premiers, it takes some guessing, but Premier Sifton has always been one guess ahead. He possesses in full measure the brains which made his brother, Sir Clifford, famous.”

The Conservatives were still led by Edward Michener, who had helped the party gain its greatest success to date in the previous election.

The Labor Representation Party also ran, as did the Alberta Non-Partisan league, which oddly had no leader.

The main issue of the campaign was conscription, which was very popular in Western Canada. Sifton did not follow the federal Liberals in opposition to conscription and instead supported Prime Minister Robert Borden’s push for it. The Conservatives in Alberta also supported conscription.

This may have been the only time in Alberta history where the main issue of the campaign was agreed upon by the two main parties.

This election was notable for many reasons though. First, 11 MLAs were re-elected by acclamation due Section 38 of the Election Act. This section stipulated that anyone serving overseas who was an MLA would be guaranteed re-election.

This would be the first election in which women could vote as long as they were British subjects and over the age of 20. Indigenous women could not vote though.

Sifton would state that the election was being held during wartime because of the Conservatives since the election didn’t need to happen until May 18, 1918. Michener would say to this,

“Premier Sifton is blaming the opposition for holding this election now. The premier’s explanations are something like the money brought from Africa, far fetched and full of nonsense.”

Michener would also accuse Sifton of using Alberta’s finances to help out his family friends, including his brother, the former Minister of the Interior, Sir Clifford Sifton.

Even women who had been granted the vote didn’t feel an obligation to vote for Sifton. A Mrs. Clyde Macdonald said,

“Why should we get down on our knees to thank the Sifton government for the franchise when we only received what properly belongs to us. Just a year ago a deputation of women was turned away coolly by Mr. Sifton.”

The Conservatives would make an appeal to the wives of soldiers, stating that a vote for their government could help their loved ones get home quicker.

In the June 7, 1917 election, Arthur Sifton and the Liberals were returned to power with 34 seats, a drop of five seats from the previous election. The Liberal Party did not know it, but this would be the last time to date that the party would win another election in Alberta’s history. There was change on the horizon but it was not coming from the Conservative Party, which still had another five decades to go before power came its way.

The Conservative Party did increase its seat count by two, finishing with 19 for another record high for the party. Michener was once again re-elected but this would be his last election as he chose to move on to become a Senator, serving from 1918 to 1947.

In the election, two women were elected to the Legislature, Roberta MacAdams and Louise McKinney, one of the future Famous Five. McKinney was elected as a member of the Non-Partisan League, along with James Weir, giving the party a seat count of two.

This is where the change was happening. The Non-Partisan League would only last until 1919 when it was absorbed by the United Farmers of Alberta, the party that would dominate Alberta politics for the entire decade of the 1920s.

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: