Now that the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Alliance parties have voted overwhelmingly to merge into what’s being called the United Conservative Party (UCP), it’s worth looking back at the history of Alberta conservatism and how the new UCP might fit into it.
Alberta is commonly seen as the most conservative province in Alberta, a place of hardcore free enterprise and social conservatism with little time for gay or Indigenous rights, or public intervention in the economy. However, as with so many other parts of Canadian history, the truth is much more complicated.
Alberta Premier William Aberhart was known as “Bible Bill” for his religious radio sermons before becoming premier. One of his major acts as premier was to create the Alberta Treasury Branch, which has the provincial government making loans and acting as a bank through a Crown Corporation like Hydro-Quebec. Aberhart also created the Metis settlements, providing the Metis in Alberta with their own distinct land base. To this day, Alberta is the only province in Canada that has land set aside for the Metis people.
Aberhart’s successor as premier, Ernest Manning, was known for his own strong religious views. However, he was also known for investing money resulting from the early Alberta oil booms into social services, including a provincial medical care plan. Manning was also quoted as saying that society needed to provide an acceptable level of social services that everyone could afford, and society was obligated to ensure that everyone had enough money to provide a decent living for themselves.
Peter Lougheed, arguably Alberta’s most iconic premier, was known for using oil money to heavily invest in social services and infrastructure. However, he was also known for increasing Alberta’s oil and gas royalties, using the extra money to pay for the government’s investments.
During Ralph Klein’s tenure as premier, the Supreme Court of Canada issued the Vriend decision, which directed Alberta to include gay rights in its provincial human rights code. Many social conservatives were outraged, and demanded that Klein use the Charter of Rights’ notwithstanding clause to overturn the ruling. Klein refused, but Albertans didn’t seem to mind, re-electing him in 2001 and 2004.
In the early days of the Reform Party, Preston Manning was speaking to party members when he asked for a show of hands to see how many Reformers wanted to completely abolish public health care, instead of just ensuring that Canada could finance it sustainably. Significantly, none of the audience raised their hands.
As these examples show, Alberta’s political history is much more complicated than either many of our critics or our supporters give us credit for. In his excellent book Will The Real Alberta Please Stand Up?, author Geo Takach remarked that Alberta’s political leadership is based on practicality rather than ideology. A defining issue of Canadian history has been how political leaders often shift towards the centre in their actions, and Alberta is no exception.
It’ll be interesting to see how UCP acts on this element of Alberta history.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.