Monday, August 24, 2009

Alberta's Cooperative Commonwealth Failure: Part 2 of 12

Part 2 of a twelve-part series examining the rise of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, and its counterpart's electoral failure in Alberta.

This section looks at depression-era conditions in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as a means to determining the relative poverty levels comparatively, the different ethnic fragments and their influence in each province, as well as the later influence of the oil and gas industry on the developing Alberta polity.

The Alberta & Saskatchewan Agrarian Experience

One oft-cited myth that must be immediately dispelled is that Saskatchewan farmers were more destitute - meaning that the relative electoral radicalism was a natural off-shoot of that poverty. In fact, the socio-economic experiences of the prairie farmers (the bulk of the electorate in Alberta and Saskatchewan through the depression years [i]) were largely comparable in the provinces during that period of radical political development.

As such, one must presume that while Alberta does contain a larger amount of prime agricultural land[ii], both provinces’ farmers felt the destitution and desperation of the depression similarly.

Farmers may have felt less of the ‘dustbowl’ effects in Alberta, but grain prices were still abysmal, and many Albertans had a larger burden of debt that still had to be paid, regardless of global commodity prices[iii].

Another oft-cited focus of the failure of socialism in Alberta is in regards to ethnicity, along with the Hartz-Horowitz theory of the formation of political culture through the “fragment” waves of settlers are alleged to have transported from their point of origin.[iv]

A wave of American settlement to Alberta at the turn of the century seems to account for Alberta’s strong liberal fragment, but the numbers were not much different in comparison to Saskatchewan’s, leaving the importance of this fragment in question. In 1921, nearly a quarter of Alberta’s farmers were of American origin, compared to 16% in Saskatchewan[v]; thus, unless the fragment was a radical one purveying the ideals of the Non-Partisan League movement of the northern states, this interpretation must be discounted as a primary factor in the development or non-development of socialism in the two provinces. As noted by Young, the cultural characteristics were more or less the same.[vi]

More significantly, the membership of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) prior to its disintegration as a political entity possessed an inherent radicalism, manifest in countless resolutions at conventions over the course of the UFA’s political career, from the nationalization of industry and cooperative-themed resolutions of 1921, to the pledges of farmer-worker solidarity in 1927. [vii] The convention of 1932 defined the term “Co-operative Commonwealth”, and special note was made of the fact that “under our present social system… luxury-starvation, ease-overwork, wealth-poverty, abundance-scarcity, gluttony-malnutrition, (are) all inherent in a product of the same economic environment… (F)undamental changes in the social system are impending.”[viii]

Thus, the rank and file members of the UFA can be said to have maintained their radicalism, while much of the elected caucus, and most certainly the premier and his cabinet, did not. Macpherson made much of the differences between the farmer and the worker, especially in their different relationship to the means of production. The Alberta farmer, despite the mass destitution of the 1930’s, retained one crucial distinction from the labourer, namely that of ownership. A Central Alberta farmer described farmers from the area as “probably the most fiercely independent people you could meet.”[ix] This independence has been “strengthened (at least in a psychological sense) by the all the pressures on his economic position,” yet: “(H)e must sell his products in a world market and buy and borrow in a restricted eastern Canadian market.[x]

The farmer is certainly distinct from the worker who draws an industrial wage, while experiencing directly the division of labour, but the farmer is also separate from the entrepreneur whose interests the farmer is generally “subordinate” to.[xi] Macpherson called this “an illusion of independence”, and attributed the conservative/radical political oscillations and lack of class consciousness in Alberta to this dynamic.[xii] Instead, this agrarian consciousness is a staple of the farmer’s real class position, that within the petite bourgeoisie.[xiii].

But what then are we to make of the success of the CCF in Saskatchewan? T.C. Douglas’s CCF administration has taken a significant amount of criticism from the left as having retreating into conservatism, being far from his perceived position as revolutionary socialist. Doctrinaire Marxists were even further appalled at the reformism of Douglas, and it is suggested in Seymour Martin Lipset’s analysis in 1950 that the Douglas regime shifted away from socialism to a brand of left-populism.[xiv] Yet, from the right-wing, Robert Tire accused Douglas of maintaining a “disturbing trend towards statism”, with origins in the Regina Manifesto of 1933, resulting in the lack of free enterprise and economic development, state regulation, and patronage in the bureaucracy (despite the irony of his own privileged vantage point as a 'liberal' civil servant in a ‘socialist’ state).[xv]

The hopeless back and forth of this argument will not continue in this study. We will assume for our purposes that the kind of public ownership and redistribution policies begun by the Saskatchewan CCF (over 60% of the 1948 Douglas budget was spent on social programs) represent the definition and likely outcome of Alberta socialism, were it to come to pass. [xvi] Lipset’s work also makes much of the farmer-labour-socialist coalition’s cooperation in electing the CCF in Saskatchewan, which certainly never occurred to the same extent within the class/industrial organization of the UFA. In the first UFA administration, the leadership maintained the pretence of a unified class government by inviting a Labourite to serve as the province’s Minister of Labour, but this did not last past the government’s first re-election. It was the ideology of UFA leaders such as Henry Wise Wood, UFA President from 1916-1931, to maintain the separation of the two groups, despite grassroots cooperation within selected ridings.[xvii]

It could be argued that Labour was not as significant a force as the farmers in Alberta during this time-period, and perhaps not as numerous a demographic to warrant electoral consideration, but labour in Saskatchewan was even less prominent.[xviii] The potential power of labour was lessened further during the Depression years by craft union tendencies among the leadership of the established unions, who refused to bring in unemployed workers, saying instead: “We do not want a lot of people brought in just to get a few votes, but must insist on our members having the Labour discipline and our principles at heart.”[xix]

The Alberta Labour Party and other labour candidates did however enjoy considerable support in both Edmonton and Calgary at various periods, as well as through the coal mine districts of Drumheller, Lethbridge, the Crowsnest area and Banff – but received little to no support on tactical issues from the UFA government, despite their connectedness through the CCF during later years.[xx] On a number of separate occasions, the rank-and-file of the UFA entered into alliances with labour. For example, in 1932, a march to the legislature drew some 1,000 farmers and workers, while later on that year farmers and labourers again found similar political ground at the CCF inaugural meeting.

The Alberta Labour News, the Alberta Federation broadsheet edited by Elmer Roper (a future mayor of Edmonton and prominent member of the CCF), also tended to not over criticize the conservatism of Brownlee, and instead offered profile space to the more radical members of the UFA.[xxi] William Irvine, a UFA member elected to represent East Calgary for Labour in 1921, personified the cooperative relationship that could exist between farmers and labour.[xxii] Irvine and like-minded others were able to bridge both movements throughout a career in activism, while the leadership seemed unable or unwilling. President Wood, as well as Premier Robert Brownlee, instead retained the UFA’s focus on a class organization style, which did not reflect “a consciousness of the goals of organized labour”.[xxiii] A resolution calling for an official farmer-labour alliance in 1927 was in fact narrowly defeated on these grounds,[xxiv] and a “showdown” between Brownlee and Irvine was predicted by Irvine himself in 1932, although this never publicly transpired.[xxv]

Thus, Macpherson’s analysis may in part explain the consciousness of the farmer, but it ignores how the leadership could have molded agrarian consciousness into radical social change in Alberta. Macpherson attributes the failure to inherent differences of class, while understating the capacity of the farmer radical to understand the focal issues of labour. In actuality, only the leadership of the UFA did not possess this ability.

American Capital and the Oil Industry

The role of Alberta’s oil and gas industry in maintaining government adherence to the dictates of a free market economy has been an oft-cited charge in the CCF-NDP’s failure to consolidate as a viable political entity.

Gas was discovered in the Turner Valley in 1914 by an area farmer, which led to the establishment of Calgary’s first refinery in 1923, built by Imperial Oil.[xxvi] Still, it was not until the discovery of Leduc Number One in 1947 that the industry began to transform Albertan into a province of “blue-eyed Arabs”, changing Alberta, previously one of Canada’s poorest provinces, into one of its richest.[xxvii]

Up until 1941, farming retained the largest proportion of the provinces’ gainfully employed, and many of those farms remained quintessential family operations.[xxviii] Adding to this, from the beginnings of these refineries and drilling operations it was next to impossible for labour organizers to even approach the industry’s workers, in part because of the intervention of a young future Prime Minister.

Imperial Oil (ESSO) itself was formed as a result of the anti-trust breakup of the Rockefeller-controlled Standard Oil Company by the government of the United States from 1892-1911.[xxix] Following the defeat of the Laurier government in 1911, the former Minister of Labour (and future PM) William Lyon Mackenzie King was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York (the Rockefellers maintained a controlling interest in nearly all of the new miniature Standard Oil companies).[xxx] King then set out to transform employer-employee relations in the energy industry with the support of the Rockefeller Board of Directors, by the creation of industrial councils with joint representation of workers and management. This led to the proliferation of the so-called “company unions” within oil refineries, a condition which lasted in the United States until 1937, when legislation was passed to prohibit them.[xxxi]

However, these company (or "donkey") councils still remained the standard in Canadian operations, “including all but one of Imperial Oil’s (refineries - ed: Strathcona Refinery)”.[xxxii] This obstacle to union organizers in Alberta had a two-pronged effect on the later CCF-NDP. One, organized labour in the burgeoning oil and gas industry was few and far between, and two, workers in these industries were subject to some of the most vehement anti-socialist/anti-CCF propaganda disseminated in Canada, helped along by Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning, who likened the CCF to Hitler’s National Socialism.[xxxiii]

In retrospect, certainly the transformation of the province’s economy may have contributed to the further decline of the CCF, but had the UFA/CCF not made its’ operational miscues in the early 1930s, they, perhaps, would have been the party in power reaping the rewards of resource revenues. The muscle of the American oil industry has certainly made itself felt since the discovery of oil in Alberta. Howard and Tamara Palmer, as cited in Harrison’s Of Passionate Intensity, note:

"The relatively few Americans who came to Alberta in the post-war era had a notable social and political impact. In the early years of the boom, a majority of the senior management of oil companies … were from California, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. From 1955 to 1970, nine of the 15 presidents of Calgary’s exclusive Petroleum club were Americans… Like their counterparts in the United States, they often held strong right-wing views.”[xxxiv]

The oil and gas boom has subsequently acted as a buttress to every party in power since its discovery, as a government’s lack of skill in economic management can often be substituted by consistent royalties and an ample treasury. Still, the failures of the CCF pre-1935 must be attributed to factors other than the oil industry. The oil age in Alberta had simply not yet arrived.

[i] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta,

[ii] Stewart, Murray. Energy Council of Canada. Presentation to Peak Oil Summit. (Red Deer College: March 31, 2005). [iii]

Young, Walter D. Democracy and Discontent. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978), 47.

[iv] Horowitz, Gad, “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation,” The Canadian Political Tradition: Basic Readings. Ed. Blair, R.S., and McLeod, J.T. (Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1989), 172-195.

[v] Rennie, Bradford James. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farmers and farm Women of Alberta: 1909-192. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 96.

[vi] Young, Democracy and Discontent,

[vii] Preistley, Norman F. and Swindlehurst, Edward B. Furrows, Faith and Fellowship: The History of the Farm Movement in Alberta, 1905 – 1966. (Edmonton: Co-op Press Limited, 1967), 111.

[viii] Preistley and Swindlehurst, Furrows, 108.

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

[x] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta, 221-222.

[xi] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta, 222.

[xii] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta, 224.

[xiii] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta, 229.

[xiv] Lipset, Seymour Martin, Agrarian Socialism, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 149.

[xv] Tire, Robert. Douglas in Saskatchewan: The Story of a Socialist Experiment, (Vancouver: Mitchell Press Ltd., 1962), 1.

[xvi] Whitehorn, Alan. Canadian Socialism: Essays on the CCF-NDP. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992), 148.

[xvii] Mardiros, Anthony. William Irvine: The Life of a Prairie Radical. (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company) 114.

[xviii] Young, Democracy and Discontent, 71.

[xix] Finkel, Alvin. Obscure Origins: The Confused Early History of the Alberta CCF,” Building the Cooperative Commonwealth. (Regina: University of Regina Duplicating Services, 1985), 107.

[xx] Mardiros, William Irvine, 189-190.

[xxi] Finkel, Obscure Origins, 104.

[xxii] Mardiros, William Irvine, 265.

[xxiii] Mardiros, William Irvine, 265.

[xxiv] Preistley and Swindlehurst, Furrows, 99.

[xxv] Mardiros, William Irvine, 190.

[xxvi] The Applied History Research Group, Calgary and Southern Alberta, (Calgary, University of Calgary 1997)

[xxvii] Young, Democracy and Discontent, 102.

[xxviii] Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta, 12.

[xxix] Freeman, J.M., “Economic Continentalism,” in Canada and Radical Social Change (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1973), 145.

[xxx] Freeman, “Economic Continentalism”, 146.

[xxxi] Freeman, “Economic Continentalism”, 146.

[xxxii] Freeman, “Economic Continentalism”, 146.

[xxxiii] Finkel, Alvin. (Finkel, 11).

[xxxiv] Palmer, H. and Palmer, T. As cited in Harrison, Of Passionate Intensity, 31.


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