CRISIS IN ALBERTA
The Prophetic Premier, William Aberhart, in action.
W. A. IRWIN
Mr. Speaker, this resolution is a defiance of the. law of Canada; it is plainly seditious . . . Social Credit is a great movement toward the upbuilding of the Christian brotherhood of man . . . Fascism is rising in our midst . . . We can carry out the program without the necessity of a bloody revolution . . . Defy the Dictators! Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God . . . Excuse me while I close this transom; this place is a hotbed of spies . . . My child, God made Bankers’ Toadies, just as He made snakes, slugs, snails and other creepy-crawly, treacherous and poisonous things. Never, therefore, abuse them; just, exterminate them . . . You holy, holy hypocrites who have been swallowing Aberhart's baloney, can you take it on the chin? ... I challenge the directors of the banks and the directors of all financial institutions to take up arms personally and come up here and tackle the people of Alberta ... I want to assure you, sir, that the Members of this Government have no intention and will not tolerate the idea of secession or sedition ... I realize that the Government of which I am a member is virtually at war ... If this principle is ever established, it will be the end of the tyranny of international finance . . . It's a Frigid, Calculated, Verminous Lie . . . We THE PEO PI E demand the monthly dividend and a lower cost to live . . . These creatures of mental hydrophobia will be taken in hand and their biting and barking will cease . . . Aberhart let me keep my farm, what do I care about the constitution? . . . TAX THE BANKS! It costs them nothing . . . It's a wild-eyed declaration of treason . . . God has prepared a way. We must learn to keep calm and use our heads. Use our heads, I said. Can we doit? Allright. Now, Mr. Hutchison, would you make the call for the offering?
NO, MY FRIEND, this is not a mad fantasy conjured up in a fevered dream.
All the above quotations are literal transcripts of statements which this reporter either heard uttered or read in the public prints, while trying to unravel the mysteries of a Social Credit crisis during a recent trip to the Province of Alberta.
Not, of course, one voice speaking, but many.
And if the record suggests a fantastic jumble of bitter conflicts, fanatic credulity, wild unreason, passionate hope and hysterical hatred, it will have served its purpose.
For all this, and more, is to be found in Alberta in the third year of the rule of William Aberhart, the Prophetic Premier.
From Preacher to Premier
BEFORE WE get tangled in the intricacies of a tale that might have been told by the Mad Hatter, let's try to get the broad picture clear in our minds. Five years ago. William Aberhart. Calgary radio preacher, read a book by Maurice Colbourne, an English actor, on the economic theories of Major C. H. Douglas, Scottish production engineer. The Calgary evangel found the matter good, and straightway proceeded to spread the glad tidings of a new economic faith.
Such was the effect of his proselytizing that in August, 1935, fifty-four per cent of Alberta’s electors voted into power a Government committed to the pursuit of an elusive financial abstraction called Social Credit. Preacher Aberhart became Premier Aberhart, triumphant leader of fifty-six Social Credit legislators in a House of sixty-three.
In essence the Aberhartian faith which thus manifested its power was simplicity itself. Social Credit, once captured, would be actualized in the form of a $25-a-month dividend to every man and woman in the province. In the process “the octopus of finance’’ was to be roped, thrown, and dragged helpless at the wheels of Alberta’s new-found chuck wagon. In the end, a new heaven and a new earth were to emerge in the shadow of the foothills, and Alberta would lead a bewildered world to sanity, sanctity and prosperity.
For two years and some months the pursuit of this objective has now continued. Thus far, there has been no capture, no Social Credit, no dividend, little sanctity, less sanity, and only that measure of prosperity which derives naturally from Alberta’s possession of a considerable store of the means to real wealth.
For reasons which we’ll examine later, the first eighteen months of the effort to achieve economic salvation by faith, was devoted mainly to futile forays down a series of blind alleys. This was awkward for Prophet Aberhart, since he had promised that eighteen months would see the dividend program actually put into effect. So awkward, in fact, that it almost cost him his job as Premier. Early this spring, the left wing of his Legislative following, docile no longer, revolted; and insisted that the prophet deliver the good he had promised. Three of the more conservative Ministers left the Cabinet, the Government was reorganized, a Social Credit Board clothed with sweeping powers was set up, and early in August a belligerent Assembly “cracked down” with three of the most drastic statutes ever adopted in a Canadian legislature. These imposed a rigid system of licensing on the banks of the province, denied to unlicensed bank employees the right of appeal to the courts, and prohibited challenge of the legislation on constitutional grounds without the consent of the Government.
The Constitutional Conflict
HIS precipitated a constitutional crisis of the first magnitude. Stung by rejection of his advice that the acts were unconstitutional, the Social Credit Attorney-General resigned and moved over to the Opix>sition. The Dominion Government at Ottawa, which thus far had adhered to a “hands-off” policy, in the person of the Governor-General-in-Council, promptly exercised its powers under the British North America Act and disallowed the three statutes; in other words, declared them null and void.
In September, the Aberhartians countered with another session of the Legislature. the fifth in less than two years. Following a bitter debate during which charges of sedition and treason were
hurled across the floor of the House, the Government majority formally denied the existence of the right of disallowance, offered to submit their contention to the Supreme Court of Canada, and re-enacted the bank-licensing law in amended form, limiting its operations to “credit institutions” and “the business of dealing in credit.”
Then, a thoroughly defiant Assembly passed a bill imposing annual taxation of more than $2,000,000 on the banks operating in Alberta. This was followed by the adoption of a statute unprecedented in Canadian history, “The Accurate News and Information Act,” under the terms of which the Government could force publication of its own statements in the newspapers of the province, compel the disclosure by the newspapers of news sources, prohibit publication of any newspaper which contravened the act, and prohibit the publication of the work of any proscribed newspaper writer.
Again the Crown intervened, this time in the person of Hon. J. C. Bowen, Lieutenant-Governor of the province, who, exercising his discretionary power, “reserved” assent to the three new bills; in other words, refused to sign them and referred them to Ottawa “for the signification of the Governor-General’s pleasure.” Thus was raised for the second time and in acute form the constitutional issue centring around the right of disallowance, which the Assembly had formally denounced only a few days before.
Said Premier Aberhart from his radio pulpit the following Sunday:
“Have the people of Alberta any more need to elect representatives, or shall we have a Governor sent here to rule you? . . . Even the King of England would not dare, and the Governor-General would not dare, to refuse his assent to the Prime Minister of Canada; but the Lieutenant-Governor has assumed more authority than any of his superiors . . . The present situation reflects dangerously near the point of challenging representative government.”
Democracy in Travail
MEANWHILE, two of the keymen in the Social Credit organization had become involved with the law. The same week that the Lieutenant-Governor refused to implement the disputed legislation, G. F. Powell, Douglas’ agent and chief technical adviser to the Government, and J. H. Unwin, M.L.A., Government Whip, were arrested on charges of seditious libel, defamatory libel and counselling to murder. The charges arose out of publication of a leaflet carrying the words, “Bankers’ Toadies— Exterminate Them,” and naming nine prominent Edmonton business and professional men active in opposing the Government. Both men were released on bail and their trials were pending at the time of writing.
Add to all this the facts that the Government has defaulted payment of $5.600,(XX) of Alberta bonds; that successive attempts to reduce interest and debt payments have been met by mixed failure and success; that the Legislature is seeking withdrawal from the province of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with a view to using its own provincial police force to impose its will; that Government policy is being dictated by a politically inept Scottish engineer issuing orders from Fig Tree Court, London, England; that the Social Credit movement is still animated by a fanatic emotional fervor akin to the fervor of a religious crusade; that considerable numbers of the opposing groups are in a state which can only be described as a mass neurosis with marked symptoms of hysteria; and you will probably agree that “Crisis in Alberta” is no misnomer for this story of democracy in travail.
What the immediate outcome will be, it is impossible to predict. At the moment of writing, the Dominion has not declared itself on the reserved legislation. The Alberta Government has formally asked for a court reference on the disallowance issue, and has intimated that it would not object to similar treatment of the press control law. It is insisting, however, that the bank taxation and credit regulation bills become law, and be tested in the courts only after actual infringement.
Compromise, leading to a series of court hearings, would
provide a breathing spell. Should Ottawa refuse to recede from the position taken last August, however, one would normally expect that the Aberhart Government would appeal to its constituency in an election which probably would raise the cry of the Crown versus the people. But the Social Credit Government is not a normal government; and there is evidence to indicate, moreover, that it is genuinely concerned about taking action which might lead to irreconcilable conflict with the Dominion.
Whichever the immediate course of events, however, the forces which have created the present impasse will not dissolve in a moment. What are these forces? What manner of men stride through this drama of political turmoil? What is this thing called Social Credit? How did Alberta get that way? And how is Alberta taking it?
These are questions of vital concern to every Canadian, for, make no mistake about it, the issues now being fought out on the plains of Aberhart, all denials to the contrary, are of such fundamental importance that they affect the structure of Confederation itself.
A Land of Startling Contrasts
IN SOME respects. Alberta is taking it very well. Physically, this province of three quarters of a million Canadians scattered over an area as large as the British Isles and Norway combined, is a land of startling contrasts. In the southand middle-east, where drought has taken its toll, you’ll find utter desolation. In the southwest, in the irrigated districts, and to a lesser extent on the western side of the province generally, the earth this year has brought forth abundantly. West of Lethbridge a few weeks ago, wheat yields as high as forty bushels to the acre were being reported. Lethbridge itself was rolling up its sleeves in anticipation of a good winter. Superficially, the streets of Calgary, bustling now as always, present no signs of economic strain. The Turner Valley oil field offers one of the most spectacular mass attacks of man against nature that this observer has seen in many a long day. In the hotel lobbies of Edmonton you’ll meet men who speak casually of week-end air journeys of a thousand, two thousand miles to the far-off Eldorados of the North. In the drought areas are near-destitution and near-despair, with most of the population existing on subsistence relief.
'Faking the province as a whole, its wheat lands this year have yielded just under ten bushels an acre—76,(XX),000 bushels—which at current prices means money in any man’s language, Social Credit or otherwise.
Outside of the oil fields and the new mines in the North there has been little or no new capital investment, but retail business in general is moderately active. Aggregate sales for the province in 1936 advanced ten per cent over those of 1935, and this year’s totals will probably do better. Albertans are driving more cars than they were in 1935; are using more radios significantly, perhaps. Despite successive flights of bank deposits and securities, one in February, 1936, the second in February and the third in August of this year—all due to fear of the possible consequences of Government action— bank debits for the first eight months of this year were up nearly eight per cent over those of the corresponding period in 1936.
No definitive figures on the extent of capital flight have been published. One bank official estimated the total at between “fifteen and twenty-five million dollars in deposits, with several times that in securities.” But, as he himself pointed out:
“Tliis does not represent an economic loss to the province. The income from securities lodged in Vancouver or Winnipeg still comes into Alberta; Albertans can still draw on their outside deposits when they want to spend their money. And in spite of withdrawals, if you take the last three years, the total deposits in our Alberta branches have shown a steady increase. The withdrawals in the cities, incidentally, were heavier than in the smaller centres. It’s the white-collar capital that’s been jittery.”
“Exhorts, Chastises, Cajoles”
TURNING TO the other side of the picture, however, “jittery” is scarcely the word to describe it. Behind the façade of “business as usual,” is an emotional tension so foreign to the normal Canadian scene as to be scarcely credible to anyone who has not lived in the midst of it. At one extreme, a fanatic following of a prophetic political economist fumes at each obstacle placed in the way of Pilgrim’s progress; chortles with glee at each discomfiture of “the enemy.” It’s the kind of following that of psychological necessity must have a personal devil; there’s many a back-country Social Créditer to whom the banker or “the big shot” occupies that role. Theirs is “The Christian Premier” wrestling with the forces of Satan.
Sunday after Sunday the Prophet Premier exhorts, chastises, cajoles his flock by radio. If it’s not the Premier, it’s his man Friday, Hon. E. C. Manning, who stepped from the post of secretary of his leader’s Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute to that of Provincial Secretary. When one broadcasts from Calgary, the other ditto from Edmonton, and vice versa.
Harken to the Premier of Alberta speaking from his Calgary pulpit to his radio audience on the Sunday preceding the climax of the September session of the Legislature:
“Laws on our statute books intended for the money monopolists alone, are vicious and must be remedied (applause) . . . Human beings treat their temptations and their besetting sins just the way that some are treating our constitution today—just exactly the same. The Scriptures tell us: ‘There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man, but God is faithful and will not suffer you to be tempted above that which ye are able to bear.’—are you listening?—‘but while making the temptation, will also make a way of escape.’
“There’s a way around it, you see, God says. There is ahvays a way around your difficulties. It’s no use sitting down beside your temptation and folding your arms and
saying, ‘Well, I can’t help it, it can’t be changed, it’s got to be this way.’ That’s no excuse, sir. God says you must find the way around it. If you can’t remove the temptation, if it’s solidly in your road, then you must plow around it, and God has prepared a way around it. How would it be to have a little music now7, after all that?”
And when his opponents protest the broadcasting of politics on Sunday, the Premier retorts that they can turn off their radios if they don’t like it; and adds, Wouldn’t we all be better off if we had more religion in our politics?
Hysteria and Hatred
OVER AGAINST this, are fear, hysteria and positive hatred. Move through the business and professional communities of Calgary and Edmonton, which are almost solidly against the Government, and you will find two types of reaction. The more objective individual takes things coolly enough, says that too many businessmen are paying too much attention to Social Credit and not enough to their businesses. He may even express resentment at the constant publicity Alberta is getting in the Eastern press. “For the love of all that’s reasonable,” said one, “why can’t they leave us alone? We’ll pay for our own sins; we’ve got to fight this thing out ourselves.”
Many such will analyze the reasons for the rise of Aberhartism dispassionately; criticize what they characterize as the slowness of Eastern financial interests to realize the seriousness of the West’s economic problem; argue that readjustments in our national economy are necessary; lament the intrusion of party politics into the effort to achieve a united opposition.
The less objective type of individual, on the other hand, lives in the shadow of a menace. He feels that the very foundations of his economic well-being are threatened. The Aberhartian appeals to sanctions other than those of the reason drive him frantic, for he is unable to reply in kind. The very incoherence, the fantastic contradictions of Government policy, add fuel to his fury. He’s like a man living on the slopes of a volcano which threatens constantly to blow up but never actually erupts. And the strain is beginning to tell.
Doctors in Edmonton have a name for the resulting nervous condition. They call it “social credititis.” “There’s no doubt,” said one, “that the strain has materially shortened the lives of considerable numbers; it’s a definite neurosis.”
I myself met individuals with obvious symptoms. “You have no idea what it is like,” exclaimed one lawyer. “For two years we’ve been living in hell. And I can’t stand it any longer. I’ve got to get out.” The voice cracked. “That man is . . . ” The rest is not quotable. One group of wives in Calgary told me that they did their best to keep the morning paper from their husbands, becau e the reports of what “that man” was doing or saying would send them to the office so wrought up they wouldn’t do any work before lunch.
“Sedition” and “Treason”
THE LANGUAGE used on both sides privately, and in many cases openly, is wildly intemperate. Threats of physical violence are not uncommon. Intermittently there appears for open sale on the streets of Calgary and Edmonton an anti-Government paper which for sheer violence of political invective belongs in the class of the near-incredible. Why it hasn’t been sued for libel and worse is a puzzle. A recent issue called on “good citizens” to resist the Government by force. And it is openly supported by the contributors who are men of standing in the province, some of them national figures.
In the Legislature men speak deliberately, bitterly, of “sedition,” “treason,” “cowardice,” “dictatorship, fascism and the destniction of democracy;” of “legalized robbery.” “That’s untnie.” shouts a Minister of the Crown. “You are lying.” retorts an Opposition Member, and stands unrebuked by the Speaker. “There is only one means of defense for the people who are subjected to such legislation as this and that is to refuse to abide by it.” Thus another Opposition Member.
One of the most amazing speeches this reporter has ever heard in a Canadian Parliament was that delivered by Hon. Lucien Maynard, twenty-nine-year-old Minister of Municipal Affairs, on the resolution denying the right of disallowance. On a Monday he argued at great length that because the Statute of Westminster had made it impossible for the Crown in London to disallow Ottawa legislation, the Crown in Ottawa no longer had the right to disallow Alberta legislation ; and declared that Alberta would give effect to the disI puled statutes despite Ottawa’s disallowance. On Wednesday he announced that the issue would be sent to the courts; accompanied this reversal of position with a denial of the Government’s intention to foment armed revolt; then burst into a challenge to come out and fight:
“The directors of these financial institutions, the banks, the mortgage companies and the life insurance companies, are afraid to take up arms to combat the people of I Alberta; they are nothing but cowards .
I challenge the directors of the banks and of all financial institutions to take up arms themselves . . and come up here and tackle the people of Alberta.”
On Thursday Premier Aberhart himself ; brought down an amendment which in effect denied the denial in the original resolution, declaring:
“There is no intention whatever of defying any Government—there is no thought whatever of rebelling against anybody or any constituted authority. The Members of this Government have not the intention and will not tolerate the idea of sedition or secession.”
Undercurrent of Fear
J C UCH GY RATIONS are impossible to ^ understand unless one knows that it’s not the Government but the caucus of Government Members which rules the nx)st on the banks of the North Saskatchewan. And, in this case, the caucus having backed away from the secession issue as if it were the edge of an abyss, the Government had no alternative but to adjust its tune accordingly. Though, to do the Premier justice, he was probably speaking from the heart. Despite his diatribes, he’s not the kind of man you’d expect to find in the van of a march on Rome.
Beneath all this runs an undercurrent of fear, fear whose manifestations would suggest melodrama were they not so tragically real. Members of the caucus have signed a pledge of secrecy which declares:
“I also realize that the Government of which I am a Member is virtually at war, and that in war information which may appear unimportant is often vital. So I promise that I will not reveal to any unauthorized person any information whatever which is imparted to me concerning legislation until it is discussed in the Assembly.”
Some Members of the House are afraid to be seen talking to a stranger. Even the Premier scarcely knows whom to trust, and with reason, for he has more than a few enemies within his own ranks. His, too, the distrust of the stranger.
“No. I haven’t time; and anyway I’ve had such terrible treatment from journalists that I don’t know whether I ever want to see another one,” he said when, on a chance encounter in a hotel cafeteria, I suggested an interview. Later, when formally approached, he pleaded pressure of sessional business; but there was no mistaking his feeling about journalists.
There’s also fear of the informer. An ex-Ministcr of the Crown is being interviewed. I íe is seated in a hotel room, near an open window. Suddenly he bounces to his feet, steps across the room and closes the transom over the door. Afraid of the draught? No. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he explains, “but this place is a hotbed of spies.”
At lunch in an Edmonton downtown restaurant: “See that woman over there? She’s been sitting there every day for six weeks. She’s one of Abie’s spies.”
A friend had occasion to interview one of the highest educational dignitaries in the province. Business concluded, the talk turned to politics. “Yes,” said the educationist, “it’s silly; excuse me”—and he, too, got up and closed his door.
The causes of such fear may be real or imaginary; but the tragic fact is that the fear exists. And therein lies what is perhaps the most disquieting element in the whole picture. Men driven by fear are not easily
swayed by reason, and it will take more than a little reasonableness on both sides of the conflict to solve the fantastic dilemma in which Alberta’s democracy now finds itself.
Editor's Note: What is Social Credit?
Why did it find foothold in Alberta? What is the relation between Major Douglas and the Aberhart Government? Is the Aberhart Government losing ground? These and other related questions will be discussed by Mr. Irwin in a second article which will appear in an early issue.
Since the above article was written the Dominion Government has agreed to refer the right of disallowance to the Supreme Court for a ruling. It has also consented to court hearings on the “reserved” statutes dealing with bank taxation, regulation of “credit institutions” and control of the press, the understanding being that the cases will be carried to the Privy Council. In the meantime, the statutes are inoperative. They become void if no action is taken by the Dominion Government within a year.