It was in 1935 that a well-organized group of unhappy citizens decided to try for foothold representation in the Alberta general election. The group waved a relatively unknown political flag named Social Credit and voiced strange theories about new ways to finance government.
It had no president, but a leader in the rank and file who was a fire and brimstone evangelist named William Aberhart. He was among thousands of other citizens stunned when the votes were counted, and the returning officer announced Social Credit would form the new government with 56 seats in the 63 seat Legislature.
The Liberal Party held five, Conservatives two. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), in power since 1921, elected zero. It was the first time a sitting government had lost every seat it held.
Within a few days, a seatless Aberhart called for a general meeting of the victors who enthusiastically elected him their party president thus automatically making him premier without a seat. That problem was quickly solved with the resignation of a newly elected Socred and polite agreement of Liberals, Conservatives and the UFA not to contest a byelection.
Premier Aberhart was in by acclamation, and the temporary truce was over. Aberhart had bigger fish to fry than seven MLAs who could be overwhelmed in the Legislature. His larger enemy was “the press” which was already challenging his strange ideas on banking regulations and economic theories.
In 1935, radio as a means of transmitting news and information was weak, and television was not a factor. The press – large circulation dailies and modest rural weeklies – were all that stood in the way of dictatorial government decrees and stepped up to meet the challenge.
Edmonton Journal Publisher John Imrie and Editor A. Balmer Watt dismissed Aberhart and his Socred economic theories with derision and references to half-baked populists seduced by pseudo-economic theory.
Aberhart fired back from every pulpit he could find. In words (that echo in 2019) he said they were just “the mouthpiece for financiers … publishing falsehoods that are entirely unfair and untrue. If this is done in the name of liberty of the press, we must question that liberty. The calibre of the men who are managing these newspapers is so low … they should not be at large!” (Not quite “lock her up,” but close).
Aberhart backed his rhetoric in 1937 with three pieces of legislation – two dealing with financial matters, and a third draconian law to bring the press under government control. All three moved through the Socred-dominated Legislature under heavy attack, but safe on the final vote in the legislature.
The Accurate News and Information Act required newspapers to be government licenced, compelled reporters to hand names and addresses of their sources to government investigators, forced editors to permit government-appointed editors to have final say on the wording of all political reporting including editorials and opinion columns – and the right to suspend the publication of any newspaper indefinitely.
There was a list of substantial fines for violators.
Lieutenant Governor John C. Bowen slowed Aberhart’s grab for press control by refusing to grant Royal Assent to all three bills, but that didn’t quench the premier’s desire to test his strength against existing law.
On March 24, 1938, the provincial government issued a warrant for the arrest of Edmonton Journal columnist Don Brown. He was to be taken to Lethbridge provincial prison and held there without trial “at the pleasure of the legislative assembly.”
Officials from the Journal were called before the Legislature for questioning and informed their columnist was going to be charged with “scandalous misrepresentation.” He had poked fun at two MLAs, they said.
An hour before midnight on March 25, 1938, Liberal MLA Gerald O’Connor quietly ended debate with a motion that the charge be withdrawn. And without objection it was, but with a warning note from Aberhart that while he was pleased to offer Brown clemency, he wouldn’t hesitate to take further action against the writers and publishers of “false information.” Any opportunity for him to do that was denied when all three bills were declared unconstitutional.
Six weeks later on May 2, the United States Pulitzer Prize committee awarded a special bronze plaque to the Journal for its defence of press freedom plus special certificates to the Calgary Herald, the Lethbridge Herald, three smaller dailies and 50 Alberta weeklies for their robust defiance of bad law. They were the first Pulitzer awards outside the USA.
This story is retold here as a memorial of times past when newspapers were strong, their reports reliable, the communities they served the richer for their presence. And, with regret that the electronic world has drowned so many once clear voices with its endless vanity of social gossip.
And the people who once supported their strong collective voice don’t seem to know what they have done – or care.