Capsules on Alberta's elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about elections and leadership races in Alberta.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1905 Alberta election
Alberta’s first election
November 9, 1905
When Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister, announced that two provinces would be carved out of the North-West Territories in 1905, it was understood that they would governed by Liberal premiers. After all, it was a Liberal MLA who was appointed to be Alberta’s first lieutenant-governor, and he accordingly named the new Alberta Liberal leader to be the new province’s first premier.
That man had been chosen in August 1905 at a convention in Calgary attended by about 150 delegates. These Liberals had to get a provincial organization up and running, and to lead it they chose Alexander Rutherford, an unflashy lawyer who had served in the territorial assembly since 1902. Aiding his rise to the party leadership — and thus the premiership — might have been the fact that Rutherford had ruffled few feathers in his brief time in politics.
He wasn’t too keen on the terms of Alberta’s entry into Confederation that had been decided upon by Laurier, who imposed separate schools on Alberta to protect the French Canadian Catholic minority and retained federal government control over Alberta’s public lands and natural resources. But, Rutherford was a Liberal and a team player.
After naming a cabinet, Rutherford set November 9, 1905 as the date of Alberta’s first election. His Liberals would be opposed by the Conservatives, who named a Calgary lawyer named Richard Bedford Bennett as their leader. Their convention was held in Red Deer, the first in a long list of Alberta political events held in the city.
Bennett and the Conservatives went on the attack against the Liberals and the Alberta Act which, they claimed, infringed on provincial autonomy. But Rutherford and the Liberals had a powerful ace up their sleeves: patronage. Even if they had only been in office for a few weeks, that time gave them the chance to reward their friends.
Alberta also happened to be, contrary to its modern political make-up, a pretty Liberal place. The influx of immigrants into the province from around the world gave the party that brought them to the country a natural constituency.
The 1905 Canadian Annual Review highlighted the mosaic that Alberta had become:
Victoria was largely Galician [Eastern European] in its vote. Vermilion had a population mainly American in character … Leduc was strongly French-Canadian in complexion and the local Conservative candidate, Mr. C. A. Simmons, was, by the way, a relation of Sir Charles Tupper. In Wetaskiwin there was a considerable Swiss vote … Stoney Plain was almost entirely German in its racial complexion. Cardston was largely a Mormon constituency.
Farmers were also pre-disposed to supporting the free-trade Liberals over the protectionist Conservatives. In the 1904 federal election, Laurier had carried three of the five seats that occupied what would become Alberta and was only a few hundred votes away from winning all five.
Ably run by Liberal MP Peter Talbot, who had been Laurier’s preferred choice for the premiership before he declined, the Liberal campaign focused voters’ attention on Bennett. Unlike the inoffensive Rutherford, Bennett had made enemies as a lawyer representing some of the most powerful (and hated) companies in Alberta — including the Canadian Pacific Railway.
To little surprise, Rutherford’s Liberals prevailed easily, winning 23 of 25 seats and about 58% of the vote. The Conservatives were only able to win two ridings: Rosebud, north of Calgary, and High River, south of it.
Bennett, running in Calgary, went down to defeat.
Though his time in office would be relatively short (he resigned in 1910), Rutherford would be the first Liberal premier of what would be Alberta’s first political dynasty. The party would remain in office for 16 years, until it was replaced by the United Farmers of Alberta in 1921.
More than 20 years after his defeat in Calgary, R.B. Bennett would go on to take over the leadership of the national Conservative Party. After winning the 1930 election and becoming prime minister, Bennett would be “rewarded” with leading the country through the Great Depression and being defeated after a single term in office.
1909 Alberta election
The last Liberal landslide in Alberta
March 22, 1909
In office since the province’s creation and the subsequent 1905 election, Alexander Rutherford and the Liberals had spent their first years in power setting up the institutions and infrastructure of newborn Alberta.
Lewis G. Thomas, writing in The Liberal Party in Alberta, said that heading into the 1909 election the Rutherford Liberals “could point to a record of achievement, to the foundations soundly laid for a new province. The province had acquired a publicly owned telephone system and extensive public works had been carried out. The interests of agriculture had been promoted and those of labour given consideration. A judicial system was in good working order, the educational system was functioning adequately although salaries were low and a scarcity of male teachers was feared.”
But a growing, bustling province meant there was a need for more railways. Just a few months before the election was called, Rutherford announced a new policy on the part of the Alberta government: it would guarantee the bonds for three railway projects and so gain these much-needed railways without a significant investment of public money.
It was the kind of safe, sound policy that Rutherford had come to be known for and the Liberals launched their campaign under the slogan “Rutherford, Reliability and Railways”.
It helped that the Conservatives weren’t really capable of putting up much of a fight. The party was effectively leaderless. After R.B. Bennett was defeated in 1905, Albert Robertson took over as leader of the official opposition in the legislature. But he wasn’t particularly beloved by Conservatives (musing about breaking the link with the British Empire, maybe even by annexation to the United States, didn’t help) and he was never permanently given the role. Even when the man they did have in mind declined at the party’s convention, the Conservatives weren’t willing to name Robertson as party leader. R.G. Brett, who was named president of the party, was nominally given the title.
Bennett, though, was still the leading attack dog and he led that attack from Calgary, charging that the Rutherford government had given favour to Edmonton over his city, what with the capital going to Edmonton and the University of Alberta going to Rutherford’s home town.
The Conservatives had some progressive policies in their platform, including the public ownership and operation of the railways, more direct democracy through recalls and referendums and pledges for significant government spending in building up Alberta’s infrastructure.
But the Liberals had all the advantages of an incumbent government and were ready for the campaign. They went on the attack themselves, charging that the Conservatives were in the pocket of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR was dead-set against the Liberals, in part because their government wanted to fund new railways that would compete with it.
The disarray on the Conservative side helped mitigate the fact that Rutherford, while respected, wasn’t an electrifying campaigner or great speaker. He was also more non-partisan than a lot of Liberals would have liked. Before election day, Rutherford appealed to Albertans in the Strathcona Plaindealer for “the elimination of selfish and partisan considerations. I appeal to you not as Liberals or Conservatives, but as Albertans. The Province must stand before the party.”
The Liberals had no trouble winning another huge mandate from Alberta’s (male) voters. The party captured 36 seats, with one Independent Liberal also being elected. The legislature increased in size significantly and the Liberals won nearly all the extra seats, including eight by acclamation. The party’s share of the vote was up slightly to just over 59% — or comfortably over 60% including the Independent Liberal candidates.
Only two Conservatives pulled off a victory. One of them was R.B. Bennett in Calgary, but neither Brett nor Robertson were elected to join him in the legislature. Bennett would take over as opposition leader before heading to Ottawa.
Among the small, motley crew of opposition MLAs were Charlie O’Brien, a socialist elected in the Rocky Mountain riding where the province’s coal mines were located, and future Conservative leader Edward Michener, who won this time as an Independent.
Rutherford’s big majority victory turned out to be no guarantee of security. Allegations of corruption (which remain unproven) and charges of incompetence (which appear closer to the mark) coming from a contract awarded to the Alberta & Great Waterways Railway undermined Rutherford’s authority. Exacerbated by divisions within the Liberal caucus, this forced Rutherford to resign as premier in 1910.
The Liberals would have trouble shaking off the A&GW scandal, though they would manage to win two more times before falling to the United Farmers of Alberta in 1921. But the Liberal dominance of Alberta was over — single-digit opposition caucuses in Alberta would be a thing of the past. At least, for a little while.
1962 Alberta Liberal leadership
Small-town mayor becomes Alberta Liberal leader
January 14, 1962
It’s been a long, long time since being an Alberta Liberal was easy.
The struggles of the Alberta Liberal Party are not just a recent phenomenon — and the blame can’t all be laid at the feet of one Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Take the 1959 Alberta election, for instance. In that vote, Ernest Manning’s Social Credit captured 61 of 65 seats on offer. The Liberals, then under Grant MacEwen, managed just 14% and a single seat. It wasn’t MacEwen’s.
So, the job of being the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party became vacant. And it stayed that way for more than two years.
By 1962, the Liberals decided it was time to fill that vacancy. The names of a few promising candidates were bandied about, but in the end it came down to just two.
One was Bryce Stringam, a former MLA who was elected as an Independent in 1955 and served for one term in the legislature.
The other was Dave Hunter. The mayor of the small northern community of Athabasca, Hunter was serving as president of the Union of Alberta Municipalities and was the odds-on favourite to win.
About 500 delegates gathered in Calgary in January 1962 for the convention, an event that was enlivened by a fiery performance by Ross Thatcher, leader of the Saskatchewan Liberals. Though himself only an opposition leader in Regina, he had reinvigorated the Liberal Party there and would eventually end the CCF’s long run of power in 1964.
For now, though, Thatcher’s job was to rally the Liberal troops in this neighbouring province. And it wasn’t his first time — in the previous fall, he had spoken at a rally in Edmonton where he “apparently inspired some members of the Alberta [Liberal] executive to the point where they were all set to go out and fight. Unfortunately,” wrote Andrew Snaddon, the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in Calgary, “they don’t seem to know what they are fighting about.”
The Liberals recognized that they were unlikely to defeat Social Credit. The party had governed Alberta for more than a quarter century and Manning looked (and, as it turned out, was) unbeatable. But the Liberals had more hope at the federal level, believing that John Diefenbaker’s unpopular Progressive Conservative government was vulnerable. The PCs had swept all of Alberta’s seats in Diefenbaker’s 1958 landslide, but both the Liberals and Socreds believed they could win a few federal seats back in the upcoming vote.
That test was in the future, though. In January 1962, the Liberals had to choose their local standard-bearer to give the brand some new energy. And they chose Hunter by a substantial (unreported) margin.
Snaddon thought Hunter had potential.
“Athabasca is in the northern part of the province,” he wrote, “good Liberal ground in days past. He also has an advantage in rural-dominated Alberta in that he does not come from Calgary or Edmonton, for city interests are conflicting with rural ones.”
However, the Liberals faced an uphill climb.
“Mr. Hunter is not a spectacular orator, nor is he likely to be an inspirational leader,” Snaddon opined. “But he is said to be a determined man and a hard worker.”
The Liberals failed in their first test in the 1962 federal election. While Diefenbaker’s PCs were reduced to a minority, they only lost two seats in Alberta — both to Social Credit.
In the next provincial election in 1963, Hunter would have only limited success. The Socreds won 60 of 63 seats and 55% of the vote, leaving the Liberals with just 20% support and two seats — neither of them Hunter’s.
His leadership would come to an end in 1964 when Hunter failed to win a seat in a byelection.
But Hunter’s short-lived leadership did get the Liberals back their official opposition status, even if it was with just two seats. It wouldn’t last for very long, however, and it would be another 30 years before the Liberals would be awarded that role again.
1974 Alberta Liberal leadership
Alberta Liberals choose Taylor
March 2, 1974
Alberta has been a tough place for Liberals for, well, a pretty long time. The Alberta Liberals haven’t won an election there for over a century. And, judging by recent election results in the province, they could be in the wilderness for another century.
But on this day 48 years ago, the Liberals chose a leader they hoped would get them back to the promised land, a leader who would turn out to be the only Alberta Liberal who would take the party into four election campaigns.
The 1971 provincial election was a watershed moment in Alberta, as it ushered in the Progressive Conservatives and ended the decades-long Social Credit dynasty. For the Liberals, though, it was a disaster. The party ran a small slate of candidates and managed just 1% of the vote, failing to win a single seat for the first time in the party’s history.
Bob Russell, the leader, resigned after yet another failed attempt win himself a seat in a byelection, finishing with just 6% of the votes in Calgary-Foothills in 1973.
Despite this, the Liberals were still confident that, with a dynamic new leader, they could replace the spiralling Social Credit Party as the chief opposition to Peter Lougheed’s PCs.
The 1974 Alberta Liberal leadership contest had just two candidates.
There was Calgary-based oil executive Nick Taylor, an outspoken 17-year veteran of party politics. Taylor was a 46-year-old father of nine and someone seen as a bit of a “renegade” within the party.
The other candidate was John Borger, a petroleum and engineering consultant from Edmonton, who also happened to be a former football player for the Calgary Stampeders.
According to the Edmonton Journal, while Taylor served “stomach-warming fuel” at his suite at the convention in Edmonton, Borger “doesn’t drink or smoke. He proudly serves only coffee and cookies at his receptions.”
In addition to style, it was the two candidates’ positions on collaboration with the Liberal Party of Canada that distinguished them. Taylor wanted more separation between the provincial and federal wings, saying that a Robert Stanfield-led PC victory in the upcoming federal election would be helpful, since “then I’m rid of the albatross of having to explain every asinine move Ottawa makes.”
Borger wanted a closer relationship with the two parties with an eye toward electing both provincial and federal Liberals in Alberta. He didn’t want to be a spokesman for Pierre Trudeau in the province, but instead be a “representative from Alberta in the councils of the national party.”
When the votes were counted, Taylor emerged as the victor with 366 votes to 293 for Borger. Another 78 delegates — more than the gap that separated Taylor and Borger — abstained.
Of course, Taylor was taking over a struggling party with no representation in the legislature. Personally wealthy, the party would have to lean on Taylor’s own resources for support.
But he was still realistic, telling reporters after his victory that after the next election he “wouldn’t be unhappy with 70 Tories in the government and five of us on the other side at first.”
Even that modest ambition, though, turned out to be beyond his capabilities. In the 1975 election, the Liberals were again shutout and won only 5% of the vote. That improved slightly to 6% in 1979 and dropped back again to 2% in 1982.
The 1986 election, though, turned out to be the turning point for Taylor and the Liberals. The party won four seats — including Taylor’s riding of Westlock-Sturgeon — and 12% of the vote, placing them as the third party in the legislature behind Don Getty’s governing PCs and Ray Martin’s New Democrats.
Before long, though, Taylor would face a leadership challenge and was replaced by Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore. In 1993, Decore would lead the Liberals the closest to power they have ever been since their 1917 election win, returning the party to the role of the official opposition.
Staying on as an MLA for a few more terms, Taylor would later be named to the Senate by Jean Chrétien. He passed away in 2020. (Dave Cournoyer of Daveberta.ca has a good retrospective here.)
The Alberta Liberal Party that Taylor led for nearly 15 years is now a shadow of its former self, once again shutout of the legislature and coming off an election in which it earned only 1% of ballots cast. It could use another Nick Taylor.
1979 Alberta election
Lougheed scores 74 in ‘79
March 14, 1979
In 1979, Alberta was due for an election, even though its outcome was in little doubt.
Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives had been in office since 1971, facing little in terms of opposition after winning 69 of 75 seats in the 1975 Alberta election.
In seeking a third term, Lougheed ran on the slogan “Now, more than ever”, asking Albertans to give him a solid mandate to fight the federal government’s designs on Alberta’s oil and gas resources. The campaign was centred around what to do with the billions in revenues filling the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, with Lougheed arguing for prudence to prepare Alberta for the day when oil revenues would dry up.
He warned against the opposition’s reckless spending plans. But whether there should be an opposition at all was perhaps more of an election issue than what the opposition intended to do if it formed government, something no one thought likely.
While publicly hoping for inroads or even an upset, the opposition parties had few realistic chances of defeating the Lougheed PCs. In fact, there were some concerns that Lougheed would sweep all 79 seats on offer.
There were two main opposition parties. Social Credit was still the official opposition, though in its last stages of life. Bob Clark was its leader, after he had finished second to Werner Schmidt in the party’s 1973 leadership race. An MLA since 1960 and a former Socred cabinet minister, this would be Clark’s first campaign as party leader and the party would focus on Calgary and southern Alberta.
For Grant Notley (father of Rachel), this would be his third election as leader of the NDP. Running under the slogan “Send them a message”, Notley was hoping to emerge from the campaign as no longer the party’s sole MLA, which he had been since 1971. His party’s best chances were in the north and in Edmonton.
The Liberals had some limited expectations of a breakthrough after they made some small gains under Nick Taylor in the 1975 election. The Liberals would run a full slate and wage a provincewide campaign, but would not be a major factor, ending with just 6% of the vote and zero seats (again).
As expected, the PCs with their fully-funded war chest won a big victory. The party captured 74 seats, a gain of five from 1975 (four seats had been added to the map). Lougheed’s share of the vote dropped five points to 57%, but the PCs were able to sweep both Calgary and Edmonton again. The party also experienced a bit of rejuvenation, as nearly half of the outgoing caucus didn’t run for re-election.
Social Credit retained its official opposition status, winning the same four seats it had at dissolution: three rural seats in the south and a suburban seat near Edmonton. Its share of the vote increased two points to 20%, what would out to be a last hurrah for Social Credit.
Notley would return to the legislature as its only New Democrat, winning his seat in the northwest of the province. The party’s vote share increased three points to 16% and the NDP finished second in nearly all of Edmonton’s ridings. But it couldn’t finish first in any of them. “I’m too old to cry,” said Notley, “but it hurts too much to laugh.”
The 1979 election would be the last in which Social Credit, that colossus that governed Alberta from 1935 to 1971, would play a major role. It would fall apart before the next election, failing to run a full slate and falling short of even 1% of ballots cast.
Lougheed would stick around to fight the Pierre Trudeau Liberals (along with his minuscule domestic opposition) for a few more years, leading the Progressive Conservatives to an even bigger majority victory in 1982, his last election as leader. That campaign would also prove to be Notley’s last, as he led the NDP past the flailing Social Credit to finally form the official opposition — with two seats.
1982 Alberta election
Lougheed’s last dominating victory
November 2, 1982
By 1982, the province of Alberta was already deep into its fourth political dynasty. The Progressive Conservatives had been in power since 1971, the turning point election that saw Social Credit’s long 36-year run in power come to an end.
In the decade that followed his victory, Lougheed coupled Alberta’s booming economic growth due to the expansion of the oil and gas industry with fights with the federal government led by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals to produce huge majority wins. Under Lougheed, the PCs captured 69 of 75 seats in the 1975 election and 74 of 79 seats in 1979.
In the years running up to the 1982 election, Lougheed took part in the negotiations to repatriate Canada’s constitution and went to war against the federal government’s National Energy Program, which tried to centralize control over the country’s energy industry and oil prices — and cost Alberta billions in revenues.
The economy was starting to slow in the early 1980s and the NEP was despised in the province. Disputes with the government in Ottawa gave rise to separatism in Alberta and the emergence of the Western Canada Concept. This party shook Alberta politics when it scored a victory in a February 1982 byelection in the rural riding of Olds-Didsbury. Gordon Kesler, the WCC candidate, took away a seat that had previously been held by Social Credit.
When Lougheed launched the election in 1982, well ahead of the end of his term in office, he took aim at Kesler and the WCC, arguing that voting for a separatist party to stick it to Ottawa would only lead to disruption and chaos in Alberta.
But he still had a delicate balancing act to perform — he couldn’t go after the federal government as he might have in the past and risk pushing votes to the WCC.
Instead, the campaign largely focused on provincial issues. The PCs waged a relatively low-key campaign, with Lougheed turning down debates with opposition leaders and PC candidates keeping away from all-party forums. Even big rallies were shelved in order to avoid them being disrupted by small, but vocal, anti-government protesters.
Still, Lougheed faced little real opposition. Only two other parties ran a full (or nearly full) slate of candidates: the Western Canada Concept, and the New Democrats under Grant Notley (father of Rachel Notley, the current Alberta NDP leader).
Notley was the NDP’s only MLA at dissolution, but despite leading the party to just that single seat in the 1979 election Notley was nevertheless taking the NDP into its fourth election with him as leader.
The Liberals, under Nicholas Taylor since 1974, had been struggling for years under the shadow of the unpopular Trudeau government and didn’t run a candidate in a majority of ridings. Neither did the once mighty Social Credit, which was riven by internal feuding and on its way to oblivion.
But with 74 of 79 seats in the previous election, it seemed that the PCs had nowhere to go but down. The controversies and scandals that had piled up after 11 years in office had taken a bit of a toll and the party was expecting some losses. Unnamed observers cited by The Globe and Mail posited that the opposition parties might even be able to win as many as 18 to 25 seats, if the NDP made inroads in Edmonton and the WCC picked up enough of the Socred vote in southern Alberta.
Instead, in an election that featured considerably higher turnout than in 1979, the PCs won the biggest election victory they would ever win. The PCs picked up one seat, finishing with 75, and 62.3% of the province wide vote. That was up nearly five percentage points from three years earlier.
The PCs made two seat gains — they lost a seat to Ray Martin of the NDP in Edmonton — and one of those gains was Olds-Didsbury, the seat where Gordon Kesler and the WCC had made their byelection breakthrough.
While the NDP’s two seats and 18.8% of the vote might not have met the lofty expectations of some, it was still enough for Notley to become the leader of the opposition. The last time the party had accomplished that was under the old CCF banner.
Social Credit was wiped off the map, taking less than 1% of the vote. Two former Socred MLAs, Walter Buck and Raymond Speaker, decided to run as Independents and were successfully re-elected.
The Western Canada Concept was shut out of the seat count, but the party still captured 12% of the vote. This remains the best performance by any Western separatist party.
The Liberals were also shut out, but Taylor was philosophical on election night, recognizing the PC advantage and that “none of the kings and sheiks of the Middle East have been thrown out of power and as long as you have nature’s goodies to give out, you look pretty good to the electorate.”
While the pinnacle of their electoral careers, the 1982 election would be the last campaigns for both Lougheed and Notley. In 1984, still only 45 years old, Notley died in a plane crash near Slave Lake. Ray Martin, the party’s only other MLA, took over and led the NDP to a breakthrough and 16 seats in 1986.
Lougheed had stepped away by then. After the 1982 election, the Alberta premier would stay on for three more years until resigning in 1985 and being replaced by Don Getty. With more than 14 years in the job, Lougheed remains second on the list of longest-serving Alberta premiers — after Ernest Manning, the master of the political dynasty Lougheed’s PCs had put to an end.
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NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from Elections Alberta and J.P. Kirby’s election-atlas.ca. Historical newspapers are also an important source, and I’ve attempted to cite the newspapers quoted from.
In addition, information in these capsules are sourced from the following works:
Alexander Cameron Rutherford: A Gentleman of Strathcona, by D.R. Babcock
Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century, edited by Bradford J. Rennie
John E. Brownlee: A Biography, by Franklin Foster
The Good Steward: The Ernest C. Manning Story, by Brian Brennan