Prosperity bonus

Alberta premier Ralph Klein has done something a former premier dreamed of doing — issue a “prosperity cheque” to the people, although in the case of William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, it was called a “dividend.” 

And, while Klein has promised every man, woman and child a one-time payment of $400, Aberhart had a loftier vision of delivering $25 a month in perpetuity to every adult Albertan. In the spirit of Aberhart, Klein mused later on in the week that the one-time cheque could become a yearly occurrance if oil and natural gas prices remain high.

Klein has one advantage that Aberhart lacked — Alberta is now swimming in oil money. In Aberhart’s day, the only thing Alberta was swimming in was debt as the province wallowed in the misery of the Great Depression. 

Of course, Alberta wasn’t alone in its misery, but the big difference was that the province had such a massive debt that it defaulted on a bond issue, the first province to do so in the history of Canada. If he were alive today, Aberhart would look enviously on Klein’s Alberta which is the only province now debt-free. Perhaps as a debt-free province, the Social Credit premier could have tried to implement his version of the monetary policy advocated by British engineer, Major C.H. Douglas, and issue social dividends.

After the Socreds swept the provincial election on August 22, 1935, Albertans were so convinced they were to receive their dividend that they lined up the next day outside city hall in Calgary to collect their first $25 installment. This action showed the desperation of people mired in the poverty of the Great Depression and why they voted for Social Credit in the first place. But, they should have stayed home. When confronted with the reality of the provincial debt, Aberhart put the dividend on hold.

Even if he wanted to start the province on the road to Social Credit, the flaws in the monetary proposal were so extensive that no one really knew where to start. Aberhart appealed for help from Douglas, but he was consistently refused, although Douglas did send over a couple of “technicians” to develop a plan for the implementation of Social Credit.

G.W. Peterson, the editor of the Farm and Ranch Review in November 1937, reflected the attitude of most of the province’s newspapers, and concluded that “no one can give a rational explanation” of Social Credit.

“Certainly, all the members of the legislature, from the Premier down, confessed not long ago that they had not now, and never had, any feasible working plan and were utterly unable to frame one and actually had to send to England for ‘experts.’ Those so-called ‘technicians’ have now been on the job for several months and have not, as far as I am aware, given to the public any indication whatever of knowing more about the subject than the rest of us ...,” wrote Peterson.

The less-than-clear Social Credit message — it was so complex and bewildering that “classes” had to be held to “teach” its nuances; it’s thus no surprise that teachers were a major component of the Aberhart government — caused other North American newspapers to also express an adverse opinion. When Aberhart and his followers were elected, the Boston Globe declared in a banner headline Alberta Goes Crazy.

“I fear our people are getting to a point where they are sacrificing their judgement to their emotions on the terrible experiences through which they have passed (the Great Depression),” said Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, who hailed from Alberta.

The newspaper criticism was so widespread and vocal that Aberhart felt compelled to enact legislation with the intent to muzzle the press. The newspapers continued in their attacks to the point that five urban dailies and 90 weeklies were together awarded the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, the highest prize for North American journalism.

“... I hereby serve notice on the legislative lunatic asylum in Edmonton, that, law or no law, they will turn the Review into a filthy, political propaganda sheet only over my dead body,” wrote Peterson.

The gag laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court as was legislation to change the economic order in the province to fulfill Social Credit.

Disillusioned Social Credit MLAs urged Aberhart to bring about the separation of Alberta from Canada. While Aberhart had told Ottawa upon the election of his government to keep its “hands off Alberta,” he refused to advocate such a drastic step. Klein has also faced similar calls for separation, but, like Aberhart, has not openly supported the cause. It also should be noted that Klein issued a similar sounding warning, when he told Ottawa to keep its hands off Alberta’s oil wealth.

When Aberhart died in 1943, Ernest Manning, the father of Reform Party founder Preston Manning, abandoned the economic theory of Social Credit and turned the party sharply to the right.

Even before that, Aberhart had become resigned to the realization that the Social Credit dividend scheme would be impossible to implement. Decades later, Albertans are to finally receive a dividend, although one based upon the solid economic reality of oil wealth, rather than the “voodoo economics” of Social Credit theory. Despite the vast difference in economic situation and theory that brought about the dividend, Aberhart must be smiling in his grave.