Alberta, possibly more than any other province, goes through watershed elections that alter the landscape of the political map for years, even decades. The election of 1921 is one such election.
Since 1905, the Liberal Party had led the province but residents were itching for a change and with the First World War over, that change would come from a new party that didn’t exist in the last election, the United Farmers of Alberta.
At the time, Charles Stewart was the leader of the Liberal Party, having taken over from Arthur Sifton on Oct. 30, 1917, who had moved on to the federal level. At the time, the conscription crisis was the biggest issue in Canada and Stewart was a supporter of it but he took no part in the debate on the federal level like Sifton did. Nonetheless, the fact federal Liberals didn’t support conscription but Stewart did resulting in division within the provincial party.
During the first legislative session with Stewart as leader, he came under attack from members of his own party. His members weren’t just angry about the conscription support, but also the failure to press for transfer of rights over Alberta’s natural resources from the federal to provincial government. The issue came to a head when Stewart fired the Attorney General of the province.
Irrigation projects began on a large level while Stewart was premier, including the plan to irrigate 500,000 acres of land in Lethbridge County.
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.
The Conservatives were led by Albert Ewing, who had served in the Legislature since 1913.
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.”
The Conservatives criticized the Liberals during the campaign for being wasteful and extravagant with their spending.
“This kind of thing can’t go on without paying the piper. We must pay the cost of the government’s extravagance.”
The party also made every effort to remind the public about the telephone pole scandal. If elected, the Conservatives promised to reform the provincial tax code.
Under the Block Voting System that had been implemented, each voter in Edmonton and Calgary could vote for up to five candidates, while Medicine Hat voters voted for up to two candidates. This would result in a skewing of the number of votes where there were 120,000 more votes counted than there were voters voting. In Calgary alone, 17,000 voters cast 76,000 votes.
No party in the election ran a full slate of candidates, with the UFA choosing to run more rural, and the Liberals and Conservatives running more urban.
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 Conservatives completely collapsed, losing 17 seats to finish with only one. Albert Ewing, the party’s leader, lost his own seat in the election. The party would also lose 30 per cent of the popular vote from the previous election.
The Dominion Labour Party picked up three seats to finish with four.
As for the UFA, they surged ahead suddenly with a gain of 36 seats, finishing with 38 and a majority government. While the party lost the popular vote to the Liberal Party due to the Liberal support in cities, the UFA did gain 29 per cent of the popular vote.
The 38 MLAs elected for the UFA voted unanimously for Henry Wise Wood to lead the province as premier. He declined.
“I have received no instructions from the elected members as to any action they wish to take regarding calling a conference but I have no doubt they will very soon take the necessary steps to meet the situation.”
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.”
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 wouldn’t be the end of his political career as he moved to the federal level under the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King. He would serve in Parliament until 1935, including as the Minister of the Interior and Mines. He would pass away on Dec. 6, 1946.
Ewing, after losing his seat, would join the Supreme Court of Alberta and passed away on Oct. 26, 1946.
From this year until 1971, the Alberta provincial government would not be the same as either of the two largest parties in the House of Commons.
As the next election rolled around, there were same changes in Alberta politics. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
On Nov. 23, 1925, Greenfield resigned in a tearful speech, and Brownlee replaced him.
Brownlee had spent the previous four years in politics, serving as the attorney general. He was highly popular and influential within the party, making him a natural successor to Greenfield.
The Liberals were now led by Joseph Shaw, who had served in the First World War and was a Member of Parliament from 1921 to 1925, having defeated R.B. Bennett in Calgary West by only 12 votes. After he lost to Bennett in 1925, he was chosen to be the leader of the Liberals in Alberta. Almost immediately, he attacked the ruling UFA as a government of a class rather than a government of the people.
The Conservatives, still trying to recover from the previous election were led by Alexander McGillivray. He had become leader of the Conservatives in 1925 and despite not having a seat, tried to rebuild the party after its terrible 1921 election.
Lastly, there was Fred White, who led the Dominion Labor Party. White was an alderman on Calgary City Council at the time, and also served in the Legislature since 1921.
At the time the election was called, there were six vacant seats due to MLAs leaving to run in the 1925 federal election.
Brownlee would campaign on the record of the United Farmers over the previous five years, stating,
“I am in the happy position of saying in the face of the people of Alberta that for five years there has not been one occasion either in the house or in the public platform or in the daily press of Alberta during this campaign that the government has been accused of not being honest, sincere and conscientious.”
While the United Farmers were popular, the opposition attacked them over their policy in the dry areas of the province where drought was especially bad.
There was worry that the premier was not healthy, as he had to cancel several engagements during the campaign but Brownlee was quick to assure voters he was simply dealing with a sore throat.
In the June 28, 1926 election, the UFA ensured their 1921 election win was no fluke. The party was able to pick up four seats to finish with 43, once again enjoying a majority government. The party also increased its share of the popular vote, earning an extra 10 per cent.
The 43 seats won by the party was the most won by a party in the history of the province to that point. It would be nine years before a party finished with more seats.
“Although the results are not as yet all in, the government seems to be returned and for that I want to thank you. But the feeling of elation is mingled with one of great responsibility.”
This day was also significant as it was the same day that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King resigned, although he would be back in power within only a few months.
The Liberals dropped two more seats, finishing with seven. This was the worst showing for the party, by far, in Alberta elections but the worst was yet to come for the Liberals.
The Conservatives, who had no seats in the Legislature, finished with four, and gained 11 per cent of the popular vote. This would remain the second most seats the party would win until 1971.
As for the Dominion Labor Party, they earned an extra two seats, finishing with five.
Due to the new voting system, the UFA had 15,000 fewer votes in 1926 than in 1921 and the Liberals had 54,000 less. While the Liberals swept Edmonton in 1921, the new system resulted in the Liberals winning only one seat, while the UFA, Conservatives and Labor also picked up a seat.
The new system also meant the counting of votes was much slower, especially in rural ridings where three or more candidates ran and split the vote, meaning no candidate took the majority of votes on the first count.
In Medicine Hat, the seats were split between the Liberals and Conservatives, while Calgary had only Conservative wins.
Things had changed a lot in Alberta since the last election. Gone were the Roaring Twenties, as the province, the country, and the world entered The Great Depression.
When the election of 1930 came along, things were still early in the election that the full force of what was coming was not quite known, but that didn’t mean the first signs weren’t beginning to appear.
John Brownlee continued to lead the United Farmers. During his first term, he was able to cooperate with the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, which allowed Alberta to finally gain control over its provincial resources. King needed the UFA as he had a minority government supported by the Progressives, many of whom were supported by UFA supporters in Alberta.
Gaining the natural resources was still not easy though. After an agreement was reached in 1926, it was soon scuttled because the federal government added a clause that Alberta continue to support separate Roman Catholic schools. This clause would cause it to go back and forth until 1929, when a compromise was reached.
When Brownlee returned from Ottawa having finally gained Alberta control over its natural resources, he was greeted by 3,000 cheering people.
Brownlee’s government also took over the direct operation of the CPR and CNR lines in 1927, and in 1928 with the lines now showing a profit, he sold the lines to the CPR for $25 million.
The sale of the railways and the control over the natural resources allowed the province to have balanced budgets. Despite this, Brownlee continued to push for the federal government to have a greater share of new social programs, which gained him the image of a penny pincher.
His government would consolidate the thousands of school districts into only a few districts as well.
One dark aspect of his first term was the passing of the Sexual Sterilization Act, which allowed for the sterilization of anyone the government deemed to be a, quote, mental defective, unquote. This act was supported by many, including Suffragists such as Nellie McClung and would remain a dark chapter in Alberta’s history until it was finally repealed in 1972.
The Liberals were now led by John W. McDonald, replaced Joseph Shaw after his resignation. He had only been leader since March 28, 1930, leaving him very little time to prepare for an election.
David Duggan, now led the Conservatives, having previously been the mayor of Edmonton from 1920 to 1923.
The Edmonton Journal wrote,
“Mr. Duggan always has been a Conservative in politics, in which he has taken a very keen interest at all times. He has also devoted a great deal of time and attention to municipal affairs during the 25 years he has lived in western Canada.”
For the Dominion Labor Party, they were still led by Fred White, but many did not give the party much of a chance of being elected.
This election, like the previous election, used the Single Transferable Voting system in Edmonton and Calgary, but not Medicine Hat. Alternative Voting was used outside the two cities.
Brownlee was acclaimed in his nomination, along with three others with the UFA.
Throughout the province during the election campaign, Brownlee was greeted by large crowds who came to hear him speak. At one point, he was joined by Irene Parlby in Barrhead, where he gave a review of the past years for the party and its success leading the province.
During the election, the Conservatives and Duggan attacked the UFA over the use of provincial funds for the wheat pool guarantee. Duggan stated that the cost had increased from $8.5 million in 1921 to $17.1 million in 1926. Duggan stated that there needed to be a tax cut, a revision on teachers pensions and a revision of the revenue basis.
In the election on June 19, 1930, the UFA lost five seats to finish with 39, which still gave the party a majority government. The party had only ran one candidate in Edmonton, who won, and no candidates in Calgary.
Brownlee was able to carry his entire cabinet to success in the election, except for Irene Parlby who tied her opponent in her Lacombe riding. She would win her riding, and continue to serve until 1935.
“To the citizens of the province, it is a great pleasure for me to stand before the microphone and to again say a word to the men and women of the province. I want to particularly thank them very sincerely for the renewal of confidence which they have expressed towards the government which I have the honour of leading.”
The Liberals gained five seats, finishing with 11 to form the Official Opposition in the Legislature.
The Conservatives also won two more seats, finishing with six but they lost the largest share of the popular vote, dropping by seven per cent. Every party lost popular votes in the election compared to 1926.
“I am particularly gratified over the magnificent vote given to Conservative candidates.”
As for Dominion Labour, they lost one seat, finishing with four seats.