Political History

The province of Alberta has been the province of Alberta for only a little more than 100 years; established in 1905 as a province of Canada, the year it joined Confederation under inaugural premier Alexander Rutherford was hardly the beginning of its story.

More to the point is that, not long before it became a Canadian province, the district of Alberta had been engaged in a long and committed campaign for autonomy from the nascent Dominion of Canada, which acquired the territory from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870. As much as it longed for nationhood, Alberta finally gave in after the turn of the century, and so began the province's long-standing (and ongoing) resentment of the central Canadian government.


Alberta has always grumbled about being an afterthought in federal policy, at best -- and blatantly exploited, at worst. The worst of times came during the first oil boom, when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. In 1980, just before the boom went bust, Trudeau's government, the federal Liberals, instituted the National Energy Policy, which mandated Alberta sell its oil to the rest of Canada at less than world prices.

Needless to say, the policy didn't endear Albertans, fiercely independent-minded at the best of times, to their prime minister. Tension had been mounting for years; then-Calgary mayor Ralph Klein had intentionally stoked the flames of western alienation with a number of aggressive attacks on not only the federal government, but also the constant influx of easterners looking to cash in on Alberta's high times.

So when Trudeau took a tour through the west not long after the NEP was implemented, he was met with protest and ridicule in Alberta -- culminating in a famous moment when Trudeau answered his Albertan critics from the window of a train with a middle-finger salute.


Not surprisingly, perhaps, 1980 was the year that saw the birth of a new political party in Alberta, the Western Canada Concept. It meant exactly what it said: A mandate to sever the four western provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia) from what it saw as the exploitive and resource-sucking power centers of Ontario and Quebec in the east.

The WCC was no joke; in the 1982 Alberta provincial election, Gordon Kesler won a seat in the provincial legislature, running as a WCC candidate. Kesler lost his seat not long after, but western alienation had registered on the national radar as a very real, and very strong, political force.

Nobody could have guessed just how strong when, in 1987, Preston Manning, the son of Ernest Manning, a prominent Albertan politician and provincial premier for the right-wing Social Credit party from 1943 and 1968, founded the Reform Party, a resolutely arch-conservative party with western Canada at the top of its priority list.


Manning ran the party in federal elections, but initially placed candidates only in western ridings; in its early days, it was a clear protest party -- a statement by disgruntled Albertans that they believed none of the traditional parties had the west's interests at heart.

However, Reform took off. By 1993, with the Progressive Conservative government floundering, right-leaning voters fled en masse to Reform, handing them 52 of a possible 282 seats. The governing Liberals won 151, but Reform, a fringe project intended as protest only five years before, had arrived.

Then, in 2006, the impossible: Under the leadership of Stephen Harper, the former Reform Party, now merged with the badly weakened Progressive Conservatives under the banner of the Conservative Party, formed the government of Canada.


Founding Alberta

Needless to say, Alberta has been a hotbed of political fervor over the years. Resolutely independent-minded, the roots of the maverick Alberta spirit can be seen in how it came to be. Initially explored as part of Rupert's Land, the vast area of the far northwest plied by trappers from the Hudson's Bay Company and its rival North West Company, Alberta's founding fathers are descended from hardy stock.

How else to describe early settlers who first arrived in the mid-18th century to a frozen wasteland -- and decided to stay? Alberta's early draw was the fur trade, plied mostly in the far north, notably from Fort Chipewyan, a trading post so successful that it came to be known as "the emporium of the north" by trappers and explorers.


The far northern outposts were plied by disparate groups of French Canadians and Scotsmen from the Orkney Islands; while evidence of the French presence can still be found in bits and pieces throughout Alberta, the Scottish presence exists in full force. Scottish Presbyterianism, in fact, is the foundation of the relatively devout Christianity that's still deeply embedded in rural Alberta today. Curiously, though, despite its strong British heritage, the largest single religion in Alberta today is Roman Catholicism, with just over a quarter of the population laying claim to that faith.

While the Hundson's Bay Company and North West Company battled for economic supremacy in the north, another battle -- a spiritual one -- was emerging alongside the business concern. Both the Roman Catholic Church, from its base in Montreal, and the Anglican Church of Canada sent missionaries into the desolate hinterland in the hopes of converting Native Canadians to their faith. Relics of the contest can be found throughout the province: At Fort Chipewyan in the Far North, a surprisingly ornate Catholic Church, its ceilings painted a deep, celestial blue, sits on the shores of Lake Athabasca; in St. Albert, the body of Father Albert Lacombe, perhaps Alberta's most famous missionary, is entombed in the place where he first established a settlement in 1861.

The Catholic presence might seem particularly odd, given the fact that the province is named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But over the years, the western frontier has drawn immigrants from all corners of the globe, notably Ireland, Poland, and the Ukraine. But the Scots win the prize for place naming: Calgary, Airdrie, Canmore, and Banff, to name but a few, have the Scottish stamp (though the Princess scores points for Lake Louise and the tiny farming hamlet of Caroline, along the Cowboy Trail).


Alberta's eventual arrival at provincehood can be attributed to two men: Sir Frederick Haultain, the premier of the western territories, and Frank Oliver, the owner of Edmonton's Bulletin newspaper at the time. Their lobbying finally convinced Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to include Alberta and Saskatchewan in Confederation on September 1, 1905. True to Alberta form, though, it wasn't without intrigue: Laurier, a federal Liberal, appointed Rutherford, also a Liberal, as the first provincial premier (Haultain, the more natural choice, was a Tory conservative).

Together, Rutherford and Oliver ensured that Edmonton, a largely Liberal town, would become the provincial capital over Tory Calgary (the grand Parliament buildings in Edmonton are the signature architectural landmark in the city). The political split -- and the bitterness in Calgary -- endures to this day.

Law, Lawlessness & the Native Presence


In its early days, Alberta was truly the wild west. Settlers had to contend with all the ornery varmints of any Hollywood western: Cattle rustlers and horse thieves, gunslingers, and, of course, a Native Canadian presence that didn't always take kindly to the newcomers' claims on a land they had always imagined as their own.

With a mind to encouraging agricultural development in the west, when the Dominion acquired the territories in 1870 it began negotiating treaties with various native bands, offering them reserve lands -- tiny fractions of the province's geography -- and perpetual government support in exchange for the vast majority of Alberta's best, most arable lands.

Around the same time a new plague was being brought upon the natives, already decimated by western disease like smallpox, by hunters and traders filtering in to Alberta from the American frontier. With them came whiskey -- firewater, as the natives came to know it -- which debilitated many tribes due to its abuse. All around them, the world they knew was falling apart; growing numbers of settlers and opportunistic hunters -- some of them killing just for the thrill of it -- were driving once-plentiful buffalo herds, the native population's primary food source, to near extinction. No small task, considering they had numbered in the tens of millions before the arrival of the white man. Callous "sportsmen" would open fire on herds from the window of their train, felling dozens of the giant creatures for a laugh, their carcasses left to rot.


With the growing invasion and scarcity of food, the tensions between native bands themselves ratcheted up, culminating in 1870 with the Battle of Belly River (now the Old Man River), within the civic boundaries of modern-day Lethbridge. The resident Blackfoot tribe, devastated by smallpox, was set upon by a war party of Cree people looking to take advantage of the Blackfoot's weakness.

The war party stumbled across a Peigan tribe camp and, whipped into a frenzy, decided to attack without sending word back to their main camp. As the battle was waged the news spread to nearby main camps, including the Peigan, Blood, and Blackfoot, the initial targets. As these bands joined forces the Cree war party was decimated; 300 Cree warriors were killed trying to escape.

It was the last battle between native bands on Canadian soil. But the tension it represented was starting to worry Ottawa, concerned about the uneasy mix of settlers, natives, and opportunistic Americans running wild in its newly acquired territories.


Then, in 1873, came the defining moment: In June, a party of American wolf hunters stormed into Saskatchewan, enraged that a large number of their horses had been stolen from their camp in Northern Montana. Unable to track their trail, the hunters arrived in the Battle Creek area, in the Cypress Hills, where two active trading posts were located next to a camp of about 300 Nakota people. An evening of too much whiskey and an argument about the missing horses resulted in the drunken hunters, along with local whiskey traders, opening fire on the Nakota camp. Twenty-three Nakota people were killed, along with one hunter.

It was called the Cypress Hills massacre, and it outraged Canadians across the Dominion, furious at the insult to their sovereignty that the reckless American hunters represented. The incident became the impetus for Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, to found the North-West Mounted Police, initially headquartered right there in Cypress Hills. The North-West Mounted Police endure to this day as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- or Mounties, as they're known, famous for their jodhpurs, red coats, and wide-brimmed hats.

Charged with policing the whiskey trade and enforcing the agreements the government had established with various native bands, the NWMP brought a great degree of calm to a rabidly lawless land.


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