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The Early Years 1905-1935

It started very badly for the Conservative Party when Alberta became a province in 1905.  Because the federal government was Liberal, Alberta’s first government was also Liberal, under Premier A.C. Rutherford.  His administration was to serve for two months until the first election, which was held on November 9.


R.B. Bennett. Photo courtesy of the Glenbow Archives

The Conservatives had a ‘young and politically untried’ leader, R.B. Bennett of Calgary (later to become the Prime Minister of Canada).

The campaign was a bitter one. The Liberals accused the Conservatives of being pawns for the Canadian Pacific Railway, whom Bennett had been a lawyer for.

The Conservatives accused the Liberals of bribery with government highway funds.

For the Conservatives, the election was a resounding defeat. The Liberals were better organized (the election was a “triumph of the machine” according to the Conservative press). The Liberals also had the advantage of already being the government in a booming, new province. The Conservatives elected two MLAs out of twenty-five. Among the defeated Conservative candidates was party-leader Bennett.

Despite the defeat, the Conservatives had one issue that would be seen many times again as a fundamental Conservative stance- the rights of Alberta within the Confederation.

Unlike Ontario, Quebec and the other provinces, Alberta had not been given ownership of its natural resources. As R.B. Bennett said in 1905, Alberta got its boundaries “but not a pound of coal, or a stick of timber”. Conservative newspaper said that Bennett’s “brilliant fight for the constitutional principles will yet stand to the credit of the Conservative provincial leader.”

But in 1905, Albertans were in the flush of their boom, and they were not so concerned about provincial rights. Bennett’s own Conservatives replaced him as leader and instead chose A.G. Robertson, a lumber merchant from Nanton. Bennett made a comeback in 1909; this time he was elected while leader Robertson was defeated, and Bennett again became Conservative leader.

Going into the 1909 election, the Eye Opener wondered “why the Grits are so anxious for another term of power. There is nothing left to steal. Everything is cleaned up. What then is their objective?”

Even so, 1909 was hardly a success for the Conservatives, as only three members were elected.

By 1910 the Liberals were beginning to change their stance on ownership of natural resources. In a book called Home Rule for Alberta, one Liberal MLA wrote in 1911: “In the debate which took place in the local House, great credit is due to the spirit in which the Conservatives received this tardy repentance of the Liberals… If both parties will endeavour to keep this question seperate from the party arena and not endeavour to make party capital out of it, there may be some hope that a united front will have some effect in Ottawa.”

Unfortunately for Alberta, the united front was not enough. It was not until the late 1920s that Alberta got the same rights as other provinces.

Conservative party leader Alexander A. McGillvray 1925-29. Photo courtesy of the Glenbow Archives

In 1913 the Conservatives had a positive turn in their fortunes, winning 18 seats and 45% of the vote. One of the Conservative planks was a plebescite on prohibition. In 1917, the Conservatives continued to improve their number of seats under leader Edward Michener of Red Deer.

But then, party disunity set in. There were two Conservative camps, one more traditional and one more radical. Bob Edwards explaining in a 1920 Calgary Eye Opener that he had been an active Conservative but was no longer. “There is no Conservative Party to belong to. It is dead as a mackerel. As a party to be reckoned with it is non-existent.”

The Liberals were also in serious trouble, because of a recession and even more because rot had set in and there were scandals. The United Farmers of Alberta, disillusioned by the Liberal ‘machine’, fielded their own candidates.

The 1921 election was one of those Alberta elections where everything goes haywire. Former Liberal Premier Rutherford spoke on behalf of the Conservative candidates in Edmonton. the Conservatives did not run in rural constituencies, leaving them to the United Farmers.

The Conservative campaign called for “Clean, Honest Government”. That’s what Albertans wanted but they opted for the United Farmers, who swamped everyone else.

The Conservatives were reduced to one MLA, General Steward of Lethbridge. In the election of 1926, the Party managed four MLAs; in 1930, six. In fact, for the next fourty-five years the Conservatives never exceeded six seats in a general election.

In 1926, the Conservatives, under leader A.A. McGillivrary, concentrated on ‘stability’ as their main issue, not a platform that aroused a great deal of excitement. By 1929, the United Farmers were even more popular after they had negotiated Alberta’s ownership of its natural resources from Ottawa.

But in the thirties, the United Farmers collapsed. In 1934, the once-popular Premier Brownlee was forced to resign over a personal scandal. Alberta, like other provinces, was burdened by the world-wide depression. R.G. Reid, Brownlee’s successor had little chance in the 1935 election.

The Liberals were optimistic that they would get back into office in 1935. The national Conservative government of R.B. Bennett was exremely unpopular because of the depression. All across Canada the Liberals had been winning provincial elections and Alberta was the only province that was not Liberal.

But, in 1935, Alberta produced another one of its unpredictable political turns. A new political movement emerged, the Social Credit Party led by William Aberhart of Calgary.

In the August 23, 1935 election, Social Credit took 56 of the 63 seats. The Liberals took five. The Conservatives were once again left in the wilderness, with only two seats. The United Farmers were decimated, with no seats at all.

The Edmonton Bulletin wrote that “in the conservative camp, things were quiet, the tents torn down, and the troops quietly slipping away.”

Campaign HQ and Conservative supporters, July 1930. Photo courtesy of the Glenbow Archives