Newspaper columnists and political pundits alike, recently seem to have suffered from a convenient lapse of memory, in attempts to revise Alberta's political history and geography. In a concerted effort at historical revisionism and right wing 'political correctness' the right wing media and political commentators have characterized Alberta as a red neck province, dissatisfied with the power blocks in Eastern Canada, searching for a way to reform the Canadian body politic. While the later is true, the former is only a recent development, Alberta and indeed Western Canada was more 'red' than 'red neck'. The original reform movement in the prairies was based on a labour farmer, socialist alliance against both the political and business monopolies that dominated the Canadian political economy.

One can forgive the average Albertan for believing the wishful thinking of supporters of Ralph Klein and Preston Manning for believing that they have inherited the self anointed mantle of 'prairie populism'. In reality both the Klein Conservatives and the Manning Reform party have their roots in the Social Credit Party of Alberta. But the Social Credit movement too had its roots in an earlier left wing populism that gave birth to the original 'reform' party the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) the predecessor of the NDP.

Alberta first sent a 'reformer' to the House of Commons in 1921. He was William Irvine, a Calgary labour advocate and socialist. He joined J.S. Woodsworth in the House to be the voice of Western Canadian reform, a voice for workers and farmers. At the same time the Labour movement in Canada formed its own political party; the Canadian Labour Party. In British Columbia the Socialist Party had existed since the late 1890's, and had been both a power in the provincial Liberal minority government as well as an active opposition party.

In Alberta the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) were a farmer based reform party that came to provincial power the same year as Irvine and Woodsworth were sent to Ottawa. The UFA invited one of the four recently elected independent labour candidates, who ran under the CLP banner, to sit in the government. William Irving was active with both the CLP and the UFA, promoting the idea that individual MLA's should represent their constituents rather than the party.

In 1926 the Alberta Labour Party, the provincial arm of the CLP which had since been dissolved, saw six trade unionists elected to the Legislature. The UFA unfortunately was not so forthcoming in building an alliance between labour and farmers, and failed to invite any labour representatives into the government.

The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) the federation representing Gompers American Federation of Labor (AFL) and international unions, had by this time given up on direct political activity and abandoned the CLP to the Communist Party. Except in the Western provinces where the CLP was supported by provincial labour federations. As well a variety of socialist and social democratic parties had blossomed amongst trade unionists and immigrant communities.

In 1927 the All Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL) was formed opposed to the TLC. The ACCL represented Canadian based unions, in particular the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees being the strongest of those. The ACCL did not accept the TLC position of quiet abandonment of labour politics, nor Gompers refusal to engage in politics in favour of 'pure and simple' trade unionism.

In 1929 representatives of the ACCL, the Socialist Party of Canada, the Social Democratic Party of Canada, the remnants of the Canadian Labour Party, the Fabian League for Social Reconstruction, members of the UFA as well as other farmers organizations formed the Western Conference of Labour Political Parties, to build a socialist, worker-farmer alliance. The Western Conference spent the next several years hammering out differences, and promoting the idea that labour should have its own provincial and national political party.

The Western Conference met in August of 1932 at the Grain Exchange Building, still standing across the street from the Palliser Hotel in Calgary. At this conference the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, CCF, was formed. A draft call for a united Socialist Labour Farmers Party was put forth. The CCF met again a year later in Regina, and issued it's now famous Manifesto. The CCF was a provincial and Federal political party to be recond with. In the BC provincial election of 1933 the CCF won enough seats to become the official opposition. In 1934 it became the official opposition in Saskatchewan.

While the CCF members in Alberta still identified themselves with the provincial UFA, in Calgary and Edmonton municipal elections of 1935, CFF Labour candidates took the majority of seats and the Mayors office. But the UFA had become the status quo in power, and still had yet to build any real alliance with the labour movement. With the election of labour candidates in Edmonton and Calgary to City Council, and the success of the CCF in B.C. and Saskatchewan, the UFA government in Alberta faced a new labour farmer reform movement.

It was this left wing reform movement of workers and farmers that lead the fight against the old line parties. In Alberta the UFA had held power for 14 years, and had become the status quo. Faced with increasing hardships caused by the depression, and left wing opposition from labour and the Communist Party the UFA lost the 1935 election to the Social Credit Party. Many of those same labour and farmer reformers who had worked to form the CCF had been active in the grassroots Social Credit movement. Social Credit was seen as the new voice of rural urban resistance to the Eastern establishment, especially the banks.

As Elmer Roper, a founding member of the CCF and later Mayor of Edmonton, quipped at the time; " a vote for Social Credit was a protest vote". Indeed even the Communist Party saw significant gains in votes in the 1935 election.

The demand that MLA's be accountable to the electorate, the right to hold referendum on issues and recall of MLA's and M.P.'s originated with the Labour Farmer reform movements in Western Canada. That the current right wing Reformers should hearken back to these issues means that the populist reform spirit of Western Canada still is not satisfied with the political establishment. That Western Canada has always had reform and populist movements is our political heritage is true. What is not true is that this heritage is and always has been right wing and red neck. As trade unionists, as socialists and social democrats we have as much to be proud of in Alberta's reform heritage as the Preston come latelys.

red star

Originally published in Labour News, September, 1996.

THE CCF: THE ORIGINAL REFORM MOVEMENT is the work and sole property of Eugene W. Plawiuk. All rights are reserved. Except where otherwise indicated it is Copyright 1996 Eugene W. Plawiuk. You may save it for offline reading, but no permission is granted for printing it or redistributing it either in whole or in part. Requests for republication rights can be made to the author at: ""


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