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Henry Marshall Tory with Library staff

The immediate years leading up to Alberta’s provincial status and the subsequent implementation of a University Act were punctuated by a series of canny political manoeuvres, good weather, technological advances, and a federal government that was keen on populating the North-West.

Until 1896, eastern Canadians, Americans, and Europeans trickled into the North-West Territories, which was later divided into the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. As Canada approached the 20th century, a number of factors contributed to a massive influx of settlers.

While Clifford Sifton recognized the Anglo-Canadian preference for British, American, and northwestern European settlers, he also actively publicized free land in Canada to central and eastern Europeans.

Advertised as the “Last Best West,” immigrants flocked to a land that in a few short years would be given provincial status. Settlers, agricultural expansion, development of resources (particularly coal), and rapidly growing towns and cities provided the backdrop for demands that the North-West Territories be given more political autonomy.

In 1888, when the North-West Territories legislature was established, Albertans were represented. Territorial elections gradually increased the number of Albertans in the assembly. Fredrick Haultain, a non-partisan politician and lawyer who was practicing in Fort Macleod, continually pressured the federal government for the Territories to have more control over their political affairs. The federal government tried to ease some of Haultain’s criticisms by granting responsible government to the Territories in 1897. Haultain became Premier, Attorney-General, and Commissioner of Education.


Historically, little attention has been given to Haultain’s political contributions and progressive thinking. For example, in 1903 Haultain introduced a bill to establish a university. Although his bill was not enacted, it did identify the importance of establishing a secular, centralized university.

Haultain wanted to keep partisan politics out of the territorial legislature. He had Conservatives and Liberals in his cabinets. The federal government’s concession, however, did not give Territorial Premier Haultain the per-capita grants that provinces received or the authority to charter railways.

Settlers entered this political fray by lending Haultain their strength-in-numbers voice. Haultain wanted the Territories to be one huge province, with enough clout and votes to make their demands felt by the federal government. The Territories desperately needed money to accommodate services to the growing population. Settlers were also demanding more rail lines so they could get their grain to market.

Worried by the settlers’ agitation and by Haultain’s growing identification with the federal Conservatives, Liberal Prime Minister Laurier relented. Laurier did not want the Territories to harness too much power so it was broken into two provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan. Laurier also placed a condition on granting provincial status. The condition was that the Territories would return the Liberals to power in the 1904 federal election. Laurier won and remained Prime Minister of Canada until 1911.

On November 9, 1905, Mr Alexander Cameron Rutherford and his Liberal party won twenty-three of twenty-five seats. In addition to his position as Alberta’s first premier, Rutherford was also Provincial Treasurer and Minister of Education. Much to the chagrin of Calgary residents, Rutherford secured his political base in Strathcona and Edmonton. Edmonton was chosen as the capital of Alberta on March 15, 1906.

Turning sod

Rutherford had strong opinions, the desire, and the power to promote the idea of Alberta having a university. These factors, combined with a fortunate meeting with Henry Marshall Tory, a McGill professor of mathematics and physics, laid the foundation for the creation of the University of Alberta.

In 1905, Tory and his wife Annie were touring Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia to check prospects for establishing McGill University affiliates. Rutherford wasn’t premier yet, but the rumour mill indicated that he was front runner as premier designate.

During a visit to Strathcona, Tory attended a meeting of the McGill Graduates Society of Strathcona and Edmonton. Tory and Rutherford were introduced at this meeting and they immediately recognized their shared convictions about how a centralized, secular university could be and should be organized in Alberta. Following this serendipitous meeting, Tory and Rutherford stayed in contact.

Both men felt their envisioned university should avoid religious affiliations and it should be centralized or risk having numerous religious colleges scattered throughout Alberta—each claiming they had university powers. Although Rutherford and Tory were devout Christians, they agreed that an overriding religious focus for a university could impede unbiased educational growth. Removing denominational strictures would provide university researchers and thinkers with a wider scope of exploration. Additionally, financial opportunities could be expanded because public funds would not be used to support and advance a particular religious organization.

Rutherford and Tory felt a modern, competitive university should embrace teaching: English, Classics, Modern Languages, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Natural Sciences, and Chemistry.

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