If you’re unlucky enough to either know me in real life or read my posts on Facebook, you have probably noticed that I am lately obsessed with William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, Social Credit Premier of Alberta from 1935-1943. Well, there are a lot of reasons. I really do think he’s one of the most interesting characters in Mainland political history – Smallwood remains the eternal wacky premier of my heart. I have a thing for 1930s-40s radio demagogues, I guess. Anyways, I thought I’d share a short excerpt from a project I’m working on that (partly) highlights why I dig Bible Bill.
Oh and I’m also working on my dissertation proposal, stay tuned because I might post that eventually. Right now my draft reads more like a manifesto than a research proposal for the social sciences but that’s just how I roll.
The Great Depression had stretched the constitutional structure of Confederation to its absolute limits. By 1935, the only thing standing between the provinces and total bankruptcy was the federal government. Ottawa had suddenly found itself in the position of ‘lender of last resort’, forced to continually bail out provincial governments in order to keep them from defaulting on their debts. Naturally, the federal government was not pleased with the fact that the provinces could borrow whatever they liked while Ottawa was left to absorb the damage. Prime Minister Mackenzie King moved to put a stop to this, and in 1935 brought forward a proposal to establish a federal loan council – a board would be established in each province to oversee the loan process, staffed by someone from the provincial government and someone from Ottawa. This would give the federal government some oversight with regard to how the provinces borrowed money, and in exchange the provinces retained some financial autonomy and were now backed by the credit rating of all of Canada. King assumed it was a straightforward win-win situation.
[Alberta Premier William] Aberhart, however, balked at the idea that Ottawa would increase its control over Alberta’s finances. The Social Crediters saw the federal government as beholden to the Big Banks of Eastern Canada and felt they would leverage Ottawa’s power to destroy the Social Credit movement. Aberhart refused to play ball and never signed on to the loan council; accordingly, Ottawa refused to bail out Alberta, and on April 1, 1936 it became the first province in Canadian history to default on its debt. Aberhart felt this gave him some legislative leeway, so the province then unilaterally reduced interest payments on all outstanding debts in Alberta.
This was immediately placed before the courts and ruled unconstitutional, but Aberhart ignored them and continued passing similar laws. This was a recurring theme, and part of Aberhart’s political genius. Given that control of monetary policy was both the central mechanism for implementing Social Credit and unambiguously a power reserved for the federal government under the 1867 constitution, it was basically impossible for Aberhart to institute many of his policies. But he had found a clever, if contentious and crude, legislative loophole.
The biggest priority of Social Credit was always to reduce the worst pressures of the Depression on farmers, small businesspeople, and homeowners. The average Albertan’s biggest problem was an inability to make interest payments on their debts, leading to the banks seizing their assets, which often included farms and homes. Aberhart’s government made a point of passing legislation that barred the banks from collecting interest payments until people had enough money to actually make them. Like earlier legislation on provincial interest payments, these laws were brought to court and quickly struck down. But there was a catch: as long as that legislation was before the Assembly or the courts, it was considered legally effective, and the banks couldn’t seize any assets in Alberta. So every time the courts struck down a law, Aberhart would introduce another one that was virtually identical and stall the banks all over again.
It was a dirty trick, but it worked. In many cases, there was a statute of limitations on debt, and often it would expire while Aberhart’s legislation was still in play. This gave many Albertans enough breathing room to scrape by until better crop prices and economic conditions put them in a position to pay off the banks. Thousands of homes and farms were saved this way, and the banks themselves came out of it no worse for wear. He may have never have won in court, but Bible Bill at least won this battle on behalf of his people.
(Not all of Aberhart’s legislative abuses were benign, however. He occasionally used state power towards incredibly petty ends. In an effort to silence internal critics, Aberhart attempted to pass the ‘Accurate News and Information Act’ in 1937, which would have forced Albertan newspapers to print government press releases alongside regular columns to “correct misinformation” – ie. anything in the papers that Aberhart didn’t like – as well as forcing reporters to name their anonymous sources. When the lieutenant-governor refused to give Royal Assent to the bill, Aberhart cut off his expense accounts and kicked him out of his official residence. Even the party faithful balked at the tyranny implied in these bills, and in the end they never became law.)