Friday, August 21, 2009

Alberta's Cooperative Commonwealth Failure: Part 1 of 12

Part 1 of a twelve-part series examining the rise of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, and its counterpart's electoral failure in Alberta.

Why Saskatchewan? Why British Columbia? Why Manitoba? And most importantly, Why Not Here?

In 1935, the electors of the province of Alberta overwhelmingly rejected the class government of the United Farmers, only to embark on a non-traditional political experiment of another kind, via the tenants of Social Credit[i].

To the east in Saskatchewan, a coalition of farmers, labourers and socialists also began the process of political re-organization, by the fruition of a dream with roots from the turn of the century in the western provinces[ii].

Ten years later, the fermentation of this movement would yield the first socialist experiment in North America, with a resounding provincial victory for Saskatchewan’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

Not much has changed 70 years later. The Progressive Conservatives, heir to the Social Credit throne in 1971, have maintained a ferocious grip on Alberta provincially through a succession of four premiers. The CCF, after undergoing a facelift in 1967 to become the New Democratic Party (NDP) (the federal section had changed in 1961), has held office in Saskatchewan for 47 years out of 65. Social Democracy in Saskatchewan has become an institution, while the NDP in Alberta holds a mere two seats (Alberta General Election of 2008).

Alberta has continued to be a breeding ground for populist movements – from Social Credit to the Reform Party, through to the folksy rhetoric of Ralph Klein - but anti-Ottawa neo-conservatism has displaced the left-wing in this version of reformist politics[iii].

The NDP has formed the government in every other western province and territory (except the Northwest Territories, which is without a formal party system), yet despite these successes, Alberta remains a wasteland for left-wing electoral success; a last bastion of Canadian neo-conservatism.

For many theorists and activists then, the striking anomaly inherent in these two provinces remains a difficult focus for examination. Many blame the fierce independence of the farmer or the financial sway of American oil capital for the repeated electoral disappointments of the CCF-NDP[iv].

Yet when examining the United Farmers and the rise of Social Credit, a pattern emerges that leaves the leadership and the grassroots socialists in the UFA far from exculpation. Thus, by this sequence of failed opportunity, misplaced activism, and the volatile consciousness of the impoverished farmers during the early 1930’s, socialism failed to institutionalize itself in the polity of Alberta; then, and subsequently, ever since.

Prairie Populism and Alberta’s Quasi-Party System

There has been much made of the peculiarities of the Albertan polity. C.B. Macpherson’s analysis of the movements encompassing the United Farmers and Social Credit led to his depiction of a quasi-colonial, quasi-party system. Macpherson described Alberta as a colony, with the inevitable oedipal-type resentment, concurrent with the maintenance of a united front against the perceived oppressor; namely, Central Canada[v].

A popular bumper sticker from the 1980’s castigating the “evil east” represents the anti-Ottawa campaigning tradition that ruling governments have upheld as a successful pre and post-election strategy since the fall of the provincial Liberal Party in 1921.

Similarly, prairie populism remains an oft-studied phenomenon. Sociologist Trevor Harrison’s depiction of prairie political culture illuminates the “political lag” theory in action on the prairies, which furthers the crisis of the established parties’ de-legitimation in Alberta[vi].

Harrison’s theory of populism need not be entirely rehashed, nor should Macpherson’s examination of the Social Credit movement (although they remain relevant, and shall be revisited). A question of more relevance to the province’s browbeaten and demoralized left-wing is one less examined. Just as socialists in the United States concern themselves with their failure to consolidate or institutionalize a left-wing party in the American polity[vii], so too must Alberta’s left.

Consequently, the obligatory question remains: How did the agrarian radicalism of the prairies transform into thirty years of reactionary right-wing rule? Was a left-wing alternative possible? Lastly, and more succinctly, what went wrong?

NEXT WEEK: The Alberta & Saskatchewan Agrarian Experience: A Comparison and American Capital & the Rise of the Oil and Gas Industry

[i] Macpherson, C.B. Democracy in Alberta: Social Credit and the Party System. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962),

[ii] McCormack, A. Ross, Reformers, Rebels and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical Movement: 1899-1919. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 118-164.

[iii] Harrison, Trevor. Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 23.

[iv] McBride, Phyllis. Interview with Author. (March 27, 2005)

[v] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta,

[vi] Harrison, Of Passionate Intensity, 26.

[vii] Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Marks, Garry, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).


2 Responses to "Alberta's Cooperative Commonwealth Failure: Part 1 of 12"
  1. daveberta said...
    August 21, 2009 at 12:50:00 p.m. MDT

    Former Sask NDP Premier Allan Blakeny gave a great lecture on this topic a couple of years ago in Edmonton. I'd have to look for my notes to remember his full argument, but I remember that much of it had to do with the different courses that AB and Sask took in the 1920s with downfall and continued success of their two Ottawa-implanted Liberal Governments.

    I'm looking forward to your series!



  2. Alberta Report Editorial Collective said...
    August 24, 2009 at 1:23:00 p.m. MDT

    Why thank you for reading and commenting Dave, please do look up those notes if you get the chance. Whitehorn's "Essays on Canadian Socialism" also delve into this, but the full study is distributed across so many different essays and publications that perhaps it's time for this kind of recap. Hope you enjoy this week's contribution.

    Best wishes,

    - AREC

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