By Ken Tingley
In Alberta, certain provincial elections have assumed mythic proportions over the years. This certainly holds true for the summer campaign leading to the landslide Social Credit victory on August 22, 1935. It inspired a novel, a play, and, in 2000, the reissue of the novel - a reminder that the fateful summer was a turning point in Alberta's history.
Born in 1925, Bruce Allen Powe was raised in southside Edmonton, attending local schools before serving in the Canadian army in the Second World War. His novel, The Aberhart Summer, first published in 1983, evokes the emotions of those heady months in 1935 in Alberta. Last year, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton produced Conni Massing's play adapted from the book, and now NeWest Press has republished Powe's book.
T.C. Byrne, in his study of "Alberta's revolutionary leaders," sums up his impression of the election campaign which raged during the Aberhart summer as "the most bitter campaign in the history of Canadian politics." He believes such deep emotion was partly due to the heated polemics of Aberhart's famous radio addresses. Byrne also credits the source of anger and frustration that allowed Aberhart's "transformation of a political battle into a type of religious warfare…the despair of a people who, longing for a saviour and having found him, became hostile toward anyone or anything that might prevent his accession to power."
Sociologist John A. Irving wrote the first comprehensive study of the Social Credit phenomenon in 1959, when memories were still fresh among the participants. Irving doubted the Social Credit movement would have succeeded "had the people not previously developed a perception of its leader as a Man of God."
William Aberhart was a school principal in Brantford, Ontario before moving to Alberta in 1910. Five years later he became a Baptist minister and high school principal in Calgary, and began broadcasting his influential 'Radio Sunday School" in 1925. He opened the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute in 1927 and, two years later, on the eve of the Great Depression, founded his own fundamentalist sect, the Bible Institute Baptist Church.
"Bible Bill" Aberhart preached Social Credit doctrine on his radio show as a way to end the Depression. Based on economic theories developed by Major C.H. Douglas, a Scottish engineer, Social credit held that since people lacked enough money to buy all the goods that could be produced by modern industry, governments should issue money to everyone in the form of "social credits", to enable a return to economic prosperity. Aberhart created the Social Credit League, which promised each Alberta citizen a monthly $25 "basic dividend." Social Credit won 56 of 63 seats in the 1935 provincial election. Aberhart remained the leader of the Social Credit Party until his death in 1943. Ernest Manning then succeeded him as premier until 1971.
Interviews conducted by Irving during the 1950s confirm how deeply split the community was by the Social Credit movement. Social Crediters insisted that their speakers were threatened with physical violence, and one prominent Social Credit speaker told Irving that on several occasions he was warned that he would be beaten up if he spoke in certain towns. Even in farming communities, "the customary courtesies of rural folk were often suspended." A farmer in southern Alberta related, "If you were a U.F.A. man and your car was broken down on the road, a Social Crediter who came along would not help you." Such deep divisions were only somewhat less noticeable in the larger cities.
Powe sets his novel, a "story of political ambition," within this charged atmosphere. It is told through recollections of Doug Sayers, a veteran of the Depression and the Second World War. The setting is Alberta in the throes of political change. The narrative lines weave through the lives of real men of the time, such as Aberart and Manning. But it is also Sayers' story of shocking personal tragedy as he deals with the mysterious death of his best friend, Babe Roothe. "He was the best and the brightest," Power says of the character.
The novel's subtext is the approaching global war and growing political unrest at home. That summer, the newspapers were full of the Abbysinian crisis, Mussolini preparing to attack Haile Selassie's little country, the League of Nations powerless to intervene. Anti-Jewish riots were reported across Germany. Edmonton newspapers printed "extras" describing the Regina Riot, during which police attacked striking relief camp workers in that city's Market Square. William Aberhart complained of no "just price" on articles sent to Alberta through mail order catalogues and threatened to set up his own provincial postal service if elected.
The Aberhart summer became the focus for a political uproar which would surpass anything previously seen in Alberta politics. On the eve of the election, the Edmonton Bulletin warned that Aberhart could "plunge the people of Alberta in to the craziest and most fallacious scheme ever put before an electorate in any part of the British Empire."
Powe begins his novel with an account of a famous meeting in Edmonton. The Social Credit League opened its election campaign with a picnic rally on July 6, at the Edmonton Exhibition grounds. A crowd of over 5,000 were there.
For the thousands who came, it was a reminder of the qualities the world had taken away from them: mirth, hope, decency, and the prospect of a returned prosperity. God knows they needed it. As they sat there on the hard seats, blankets over their shoulders against the chilly, damp night, I don't think they had any inkling that they were being prodded in a mass along vast chutes to a foggy arena.
Crowds and meetings occur often in Powe's novel and provide powerful insights into the dynamic which led to the radical changes which came that year. As Irving noted, the response of the majority of Aberhart's followers to his role as a religious leader was usually fairly restrained, but "there was always the tendency, under the stimulation of great mass meetings, for more or less normal people to behave like the most fanatical of Aberhart's followers."
Powe also tackles the early flirtation with fascism and anti-Semitism of Social Credit followers. The big Sunday rally at the South Side Park on August 4, described in the book, is "exactly what happened" according to Powe's research. However, Powe feels that Aberhart himself always rejected anti-Semitism.
In the novel, narrator Sayers recalls that "obscure jargon such as 'monetization of credit' or 'Just Price' filled kitchens with an exotic aroma. Those who couldn't talk with knowledge or supportively of these new ideas, or at least nod their heads in agreement, were outcasts." As one character in the book reflects, "The burning light that shone on people…is tough to see now. Maybe the whole world was getting like that, and we had to have this war to purge ourselves of fevers of the mind so intense something had to give. And because we were so distant and alone away out there on the prairie, the pressures were all the more intense."
Powe feels that the politics of the time have not contributed a direct legacy to today's political parties, however. "I don't think there is one today at all," he says. The right wing movements of today no longer attack the big interests, they support them. And they've focused on things like taxes and so on, whereas Social Credit was addressing a much broader problem of the control of the financial system."
Powe's own book, The Aberhart Summer, does offer a legacy: certainly a reminder of the events that ushered in the longest political dynasty in Alberta's history and a compelling literary portrait of the people of the times.
Ken Tingley is an historical resources consultant in Edmonton
Reproduced with the permission of the author, and Legacy Magazine