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'Their Own Schools of Democracy':  The Visible Remains of Political Practice in Rural Alberta

by Roger Epp

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There is nothing about the Avonroy Hall's appearance that suggests a place in Alberta political history. Its wood-shingled outer walls are sun-bleached and threatened by weeds in summer. In size and architectural pretense, Avonroy Hall is no match for the provincial legislature. It now serves mainly to mark a sideroad several kilometres east of Camrose. There is no commemorative historic-site cairn on its grounds, and, to be sure, nothing singularly remarkable may have ever happened there. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, it was a place for lectures, public meetings, and, on a designated Sunday each spring, the annual picnic of the United Farmers of Alberta local, at which, between games, entertainment, and food, capitalist competition was denounced and cooperation promoted. In 1933, Chester Ronning, the first MLA to be elected under the farmer-labour coalition that became the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, returned home to this hall from Regina to present the new CCF manifesto as a "document in which any red-blooded Canadian can take pride."1 It is precisely in being so typical of many other country meeting places that Avonroy Hall represents a tradition of radical-democratic, agrarian-populist political practice now buried two generations deep in rural Alberta.

The landscape is still filled with such visible remains, or artifacts, of a political tradition almost lost to local memory. As with all artifacts from an unfamiliar time, however, their meaning is interpreted all too easily within the prevailing cultural framework of the day--one in which politics has become a dirty word, television has displaced the local meeting, and the "average prairie citizen has converged to the North American norm" of minimal participation beyond voting.2 The political dimensions of those visible remains are no longer self-evident. They must be unearthed from the stories found in community histories, archival records, microfiche copies of period newspapers, and the recollections of a passing generation. Where a small, faded rural hall might now be imagined only in terms of box socials and wedding dances, the stories about halls like Avonroy, or Liberty near Rimbey,3 or Bittern Lake west of Camrose, suggest otherwise. At the latter, for example, the labourite MP William Irvine was a regular speaker, and the Gwynne local of the UFA sponsored well-attended formal debates on a wide range of political subjects, including, in 1932, the merits of Soviet-style planning in agriculture--proof at least of a desperate sense of openness to alternative ideas.4 Where a Co-op store might be imagined only in terms of groceries and dry goods, the story from Killam suggests otherwise. Inspired by a variant of British socialism, its cooperative grew from a bulk-buying society in a rural district to become the cornerstone of the provincial movement, whose members created Alberta's first credit union after pooling their capital to defend it against bank foreclosure.5

Where the one-room schoolhouses now marked by a profusion of roadside plaques might evoke sentimentality about Christmas programs and field days, or else regret about what must have been an uneven education delivered by poorly-prepared, poorly-paid teachers, the stories again suggest another dimension. School districts were also understood as important sites of local governance and participatory practice--part of the institutional fabric of self-directed community affairs that made democratic politics an experiential reality. As a UFA pamphlet urged its locals in 1920, the school should be made a "centre where the community can regularly meet and discuss all public questions," and thus "carry out the ideals of democratic government." Debates, organized courses, and readings would "develop the mentality, public spirit, and power of self-expression of every member." Agrarian self-defence against the vagaries of world markets and the indifference of a distant national government would be at the same time an "object lesson in true democracy."6 Doubtless the schools and school boards could also be sites of intimidation and family rivalry. But that does not diminish the central place they occupied in locally-anchored political strategies and the hope reasonably invested in them.





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