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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Mutuals

Alberta has played host to a variety of telephone companies over the years, especially during the Depression when the provincial government sold its rural lines to 60 "mutuals," such as the Lethbridge and Cardston Telephone Company, the Pincher Creek Telephone Company, and the Clyde Telephone Company.

These companies—their official designation was "mutual telephone associations"—had their origins in the WWI policy of Alberta premier Charles Stewart (1917-21), who also took on the duties of minister of telephones.

After 1915, the government of Arthur L. Sifton (1910-17) had moved away from constructing rural telephone lines, allowing instead, farmer-built lines to connect long-distance subscribers, provided the lines met Alberta Government Telephones standards. Twenty of these associations were in business when Stewart took office, and he modified the Companies Act so that the mutuals were recognized and registered without having to meet the standards of a limited company. Construction standards were also abolished, further encouraging the growth of the mutuals.

When the mutuals were finally in place, they tended to operate in clusters. A quarter of these companies were in the area west of Sylvan Lake, with another large grouping located to the north of Drumheller.

The institution of the mutuals, originally conceived as a temporary measure, occurred at a time when AGT’s business volume had increased but not its physical expansion. Popular historian Tony Cashman, in Singing Wires, tells us that revenue rose from $992,000 in 1914 to $1,265,000 in 1917.

The rationalization for the mutual approach to the Alberta telephone business, was simple, writes Cashman. "The idea was that as soon as the government had more money it would buy up the cheap temporary systems at $20 per phone and replace them with genuine AGT construction. However, it would be half a century before the government would be so rich. And in the Great Depression which was to mar the 1930s the province would be so poor it would have to abandon the rural lines entirely and leave them to mutual telephone companies …"


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