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Community Political Organization in the Rimbey District, 1930-35

by Robin Hunter

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Liberty Hall: Card parties, dances and radical politics. For most of this century the rural community centres or community halls of Central Alberta have been a focus of social activity for life on the farms, and in the towns, villages, and hamlets. This essay began as an examination of one community centre near Rimbey, Alberta, but became a broader look at the community's politics at the provincial level, culminating in the election of the Social Credit government in 1935. David Ridley, of the Provincial Museum of Alberta, and I began by looking at Liberty Hall, which is still standing, just north of Highway 611, near Hoadley. At Ralph Carr's farmhouse (almost across the road from Liberty Hall) we met five or six old-timers who have been in the district for several decades. Because they shared an interest in local history, they were able to give us an oral background to the hall's history.

We started with one item, which was perhaps a bit of a false start, the radical history of Liberty Hall. It was rumoured to have been a milieu for a group of local radicals (perhaps the Communist Party), although nobody we contacted seemed very clear on the matter. It was as if they were reluctant to implicate people who were, or had been, neighbours and friends, who had, in their youth, given vent to some behaviour which was no longer as acceptable as it once had once been. Or perhaps because "times are different now," they were really loath to centre on this phenomenon, lest they give a distorted impression of their community. This is a common response, for radical modes of dissent can create tension and conflict in the community. Our discussants' reticence suggests that the "radicals" of Liberty Hall had this effect. Practically everybody we spoke with from the area remembered something. It was just that they had not been involved themselves, and had not even been that close to the people who were.

A few of the people we spoke with elsewhere had some left-wing memories. For example, Lorne Wiley, who grew up during the late 1930s in Monte Vista, near Rimbey, had parents who were democratic socialists, and were in the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) and later the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and New Democratic Party (NDP). Lorne remembers an immigrant family with very left-wing sympathies, just down the road from his parents' place. One member of that family used to decorate the garden with flower arrangements in hammer-and-sickle patterns, but Lorne's memory has no particular links to any family in the district now. He remembers Liberty Hall, but has no recollection of ever being inside it. Ralph Carr was also reluctant to dwell on local radicalism. True, there had been radicals around, some of whom he had known, but what he emphasized to us was that these were real people, not the cardboard cutouts of some Cold War memory. Some of the radicals' families had endured extreme hardship in the Depression, he argued, and they responded in distinct ways — including their political opinions — which Ralph had obviously not shared. Yet he stressed the sociability and neighbourhood spirit of the local radicals he had known, and stated that often they had played a real role in the building of community spirit, which had helped everyone in the community through the Depression. The people at Ralph's were in accord on this point, and that there had been a radical milieu, which they associated with Liberty Hall, but generally they did not recall the details of what it was their neighbours had done that made them radicals.

We can speculate, of course. Strong talk, even in trying times, has always been a lightning rod that can pull in a reputation for unorthodox political persuasions. Other types of activity which might add to such a reputation would include holding political discussions, selling subscriptions to political newspapers, distributing pamphlets with a particular political slant, and sponsoring outside speakers with an unpopular viewpoint. The local press is disappointingly mute on such activities at Liberty Hall, which was mentioned in the Rimbey Record only for its card parties and the occasional dance in the period from 1930 to 1934. The only exception to this is November 24, 1933, when a Hoadley report mentions a meeting of "the three locals of the Farmers' Unity League" as having been "a complete success," business having been "carried out with despatch" at Liberty Hall.

The Farmers' Unity League (FUL) was a radical organization that endeavoured to speak for farmers. Its position on many issues was generally in agreement with the Communist Party, and in a less kind day would have been referred to as a "Communist front group." (A historian of the Canadian Communist movement calls it "party-sponsored," and it no doubt contained whatever local party members there were in the district C. I have no direct evidence there were, although it seems probable.) However, as those familiar with the history of such "fronts" are well aware, the fact of an organization's association with the Communist Party by no means guaranteed lockstep agreement with the party's policies. Local membership and the contemporary ups and downs of political events could have been the primary factors forming this organization's opinion on most issues.

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