Depression Years (1930–1938)
The Great Depression, or the “Dirty Thirties”, had a devastating impact on urban and rural Albertans. The New York Stock Exchange crash in 1929 was a factor that contributed to Alberta’s economic and social woes. The “crash” set off a global chain reaction. Investment capital dried up and world trade was inhibited. Many Alberta farmers, who had increased their holdings and debts to banks and mortgage companies because of the encouraging 1925 bumper crop, were ruined when banks called in loans and foreclosed on mortgages.
Alberta’s wheat pools suffered from plummeting prices. In 1929, Premier Brownlee’s government rescued the Alberta Wheat Pool from bankruptcy and garnered the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) a 1930 election victory. Railways and coal mines cut back operations. Masses of workers were laid off. Protest marches, communist-organized demonstrations, boycotts, labour unrest, hunger marches, family breakdowns, suicides, bankruptcies, riots, police conflict, and violence between strikers and supporters were living manifestations of a society that was in deep trouble.
In 1928, Dr Robert Charles Wallace took over as the University of Alberta’s second president. Compared to Tory’s tenure, which represented a spirit of growth and development, Wallace presided over the University during harsh times, severe budget cuts, and burgeoning student enrollment.
Wallace was a geologist who had, in addition to a PhD and academic teaching, a variety of experiences as a government administrator. When Premier Brownlee met Wallace as a candidate to fill Tory’s position, Brownlee gave a quick endorsement and a job offer was soon extended and immediately accepted by Wallace.
Brownlee, a former lawyer, was comfortable with Wallace’s management style. Wallace was a solid public speaker, was hard working, and had an excellent research record. Where Tory was exuberant and high octane, Wallace was low key and somewhat aloof. Considering no one knew how long the Depression would last, it was fortunate that Tory left Wallace with a good University governance model and a dedicated staff.
While economic conditions can have a black-and-white rationale, there is no reasoning with the weather. In addition to the stock market collapse, Alberta’s Depression era was intensified by a severe drought.
Alberta’s drought in the early 1920s paled in comparison to Alberta’s 1930s Armageddon-like world. Drought, hordes of grasshopper infestations, wind storms, and fires left much of southern Alberta a barren landscape. When rain did fall, the eroded or fire-scorched land could not absorb the water, which caused major flooding. People abandoned their homes. Towns disappeared. People living hand-to-mouth were on the move.
The majority of the University’s staff ranged from politically uninterested to politically conventional. The Depression, however, influenced some faculty members to examine their political leanings and direct their interest towards a new socialist party called the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). When Classics professor William Hardy Alexander (one of the four original professors that Tory hired) announced that he was seeking CCF nomination, President Wallace drafted a policy that the Board of Governors immediately passed. The new University policy prohibited full-time staff from actively participating in politics. The University maintained this policy and ensured that the University was politically non-partisan.
The Depression, and Brownlee's UFA government’s response to the crisis, did not win the respect of the masses. What further exacerbated the public’s lack of respect for Brownlee was a widely broadcast sex scandal involving him and Vivian MacMillan, a young government stenographer. In 1934, Premier Brownlee resigned and was replaced by Richard Reid.
The ethically untainted Social Credit Party, with William Aberhart as its leader, promised hope of economic and moral recovery to Alberta’s desperate masses. Aberhart was an educator, lay preacher, and radio personality. Social Credit swept into power in 1935. Wallace and the University not only had to communicate and negotiate with a different leader, but had to contend with a new radical party they did not respect or trust.
Premier Aberhart, or “Bible Bill”, as he was nicknamed, stayed in office until his death in 1943.
The University community, banks, most newspapers (including The Gateway), and society’s conventional elite condemned Aberhart and the Social Credit Party.
As it turned out, Aberhart respected the University and did not want to nurture a confrontational atmosphere. In addition to holding his position as Premier, Aberhart also took the Education portfolio.
In 1936, Dr Robert Wallace resigned. Dr William Alexander Kerr took over as President. As Dean of Faculty of Arts and Science and Acting-President when Tory was with the Khaki University (1918–1919), Kerr was likely, under the circumstances, the best man to fill this position. He maintained what Tory and Wallace had developed.
As the Depression deepened, Aberhart became engrossed in fighting with banks, courts, and Ottawa, and in suppressing the internal strife within his own party. Although Alberta experienced a slight recovery towards the end of the decade, little of it could be credited to Aberhart’s direct intervention. Most of his economic and social plans proved ineffective and too simple for matters so complex. The event that would eventually pull Alberta out of its economic crisis was World War II.