Their Own Schools of Democracy

by Roger Epp

There is nothing about the Avonroy Hall's appearance that suggests a place in Alberta political history. Its wood-shingled outer walls are sun-bleached and threatened by weeds in summer. In size and architectural pretense, Avonroy Hall is no match for the provincial legislature. It now serves mainly to mark a sideroad several kilometres east of Camrose. There is no commemorative historic-site cairn on its grounds, and, to be sure, nothing singularly remarkable may have ever happened there. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, it was a place for lectures, public meetings, and, on a designated Sunday each spring, the annual picnic of the United Farmers of Alberta local, at which, between games, entertainment, and food, capitalist competition was denounced and cooperation promoted. In 1933, Chester Ronning, the first MLA to be elected under the farmer-labour coalition that became the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, returned home to this hall from Regina to present the new CCF manifesto as a "document in which any red-blooded Canadian can take pride."1 It is precisely in being so typical of many other country meeting places that Avonroy Hall represents a tradition of radical-democratic, agrarian-populist political practice now buried two generations deep in rural Alberta.

The landscape is still filled with such visible remains, or artifacts, of a political tradition almost lost to local memory. As with all artifacts from an unfamiliar time, however, their meaning is interpreted all too easily within the prevailing cultural framework of the day--one in which politics has become a dirty word, television has displaced the local meeting, and the "average prairie citizen has converged to the North American norm" of minimal participation beyond voting. The political dimensions of those visible remains are no longer self-evident. They must be unearthed from the stories found in community histories, archival records, microfiche copies of period newspapers, and the recollections of a passing generation. Where a small, faded rural hall might now be imagined only in terms of box socials and wedding dances, the stories about halls like Avonroy, or Liberty near Rimbey, or Bittern Lake west of Camrose, suggest otherwise. At the latter, for example, the labourite MP William Irvine was a regular speaker, and the Gwynne local of the UFA sponsored well-attended formal debates on a wide range of political subjects, including, in 1932, the merits of Soviet-style planning in agriculture--proof at least of a desperate sense of openness to alternative ideas. Where a Co-op store might be imagined only in terms of groceries and dry goods, the story from Killam suggests otherwise. Inspired by a variant of British socialism, its cooperative grew from a bulk-buying society in a rural district to become the cornerstone of the provincial movement, whose members created Alberta's first credit union after pooling their capital to defend it against bank foreclosure.

Where the one-room schoolhouses now marked by a profusion of roadside plaques might evoke sentimentality about Christmas programs and field days, or else regret about what must have been an uneven education delivered by poorly-prepared, poorly-paid teachers, the stories again suggest another dimension. School districts were also understood as important sites of local governance and participatory practice--part of the institutional fabric of self-directed community affairs that made democratic politics an experiential reality. As a UFA pamphlet urged its locals in 1920, the school should be made a "centre where the community can regularly meet and discuss all public questions," and thus "carry out the ideals of democratic government." Debates, organized courses, and readings would "develop the mentality, public spirit, and power of self-expression of every member." Agrarian self-defence against the vagaries of world markets and the indifference of a distant national government would be at the same time an "object lesson in true democracy."6 Doubtless the schools and school boards could also be sites of intimidation and family rivalry. But that does not diminish the central place they occupied in locally-anchored political strategies and the hope reasonably invested in them.

The idea that rural communities should be such intensely political places flies in the face of both recent experience and deeper cultural prejudice. The geography of the modern state suggests that political power is concentrated in a metropolitan capital from which legislation emanates. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's wry observation in The Social Contract [1762], that for every stately palace required by this centralization he saw "a whole rural district laid in ruins," is a rare historical protest against what otherwise appears a natural feature of political life. Geography in this case is reinforced by language. Much of our inherited political vocabulary--the civic realm, the citizen--shares its root with the word city. But meanings mediated over millenia are sometimes deceiving. While the ancient Greek polis, most notably, is conventionally translated as a "city-state," the word referred primarily to a way of life, an association, rather than to a certain density of population; and the novel democratic practices of its most famous example, Athens, emerged from a program of land reforms and debt emancipation that created a population of smallholders. Indeed, there is an intriguing recurrence at several points in Western history of strong democracy around small-scale agrarian communities: from the landgemeinde colonies of the late-medieval North European frontier to the homesteading settlements on the northern plains of this continent.

In the early part of this century, American urban reformers had to make the case that a vigorous democratic life could be lived equally in city neighborhoods. The proposition was far from self-evident especially in the shadow of the Great Plains agrarian revolt of the 1890s--what the historian Lawrence Goodwyn calls the "largest democratic mass movement in American history" and its most vivid "demonstration of what authentic political life can be." The movement embraced smallholders and landless alike. It was organized at a time when "throughout the Western grainary the increasing centralization of economic life fastened upon prairie farmers new modes of degradation." It built cooperatives, sent farmer-lecturers across the continent, made overtures to southern blacks and urban workers, and, mostly in self-defence, fielded political candidates in state and national elections. Goodwyn writes that the 1896 election, in which the populist movement was partly defeated, partly coopted, marked the "political consolidation of industrial culture." This election saw the introduction of corporate campaign financing and mass advertising, and, with it, the "decline of individual political self-respect on the part of millions of people."

The agrarian populism that emerged a generation later in Alberta and Saskatchewan, shaped partly by the U.S. experience, has been described similarly as having "contributed more to Canadian thought about the nature and practice of democracy than did any other regional or class discourse." Much of that contribution was to highlight the central role of local institutions--cooperatives, municipal and school government, mutual telephone companies, and voluntary organizations--in sustaining participatory practices and creating counter-weights to the external forces against which farm families found common interests. The contrast with the Board-of-Trade boosterism that, at the same time, substituted for municipal politics in neighboring towns is particularly striking. In 1926, the editor of The UFA proposed that Alberta farmers had "gained a quiet confidence in their own ability to carry on their own affairs in their own way, . . . learned much in their own schools of democracy, [and] obtained a deeper insight into the methods and possibilities of democratic political action." This learning extended to women, who were involved at all levels in the UFA movement and in parallel locals active particularly around issues of medical care. As Nanci Langford writes, the locals "not only encouraged women to develop knowledge and skills for participation in public affairs, they also gave their members opportunity to do so." Overall, the period of the 1920s and early 1930s was one of citizen participation in office-holding and democratic political action throughout rural central Alberta to a degree reminiscent of ancient Athens.

Against this background, the anti-political face of contemporary rural Alberta is a puzzling one. Some of its roots, paradoxically, can be found in the contradictory cluster of agrarian populist doctrines imported from the American plains, which contained two opposing impulses: on the one hand, towards local autonomy and direct democracy; on the other, towards non-partisanship and technocratic, business-like government by experts. These contradictions frame much of the tension between the UFA locals and the cabinet during the period of UFA government between 1921 and 1935. At issue was not simply who set party policy, but equally whether the ultimate aims of the farmers' movement were to be carried out at the local or provincial level. The 1935 election, in turn, was an important crucible in Alberta political history. The depression-era mystique built up around the unfathomable economic theories of Major Douglas, the campaign that brought Social Credit to office, and the leadership of William Aberhart all pushed populism’s centralist, technocratic impulses to the fore at the expense of democratic ones. In the months prior to the election, Aberhart routinely addressed voters as consumers--promising to restore their purchasing power. He exhorted crowds to "put aside politics." As the election neared he forbade Social Credit candidates or study groups from debating with opponents. Social Credit supporters, meanwhile, brought numerous UFA rallies in country schoolhouses to a premature end by honking automobile horns or pounding on the walls. The 1935 campaign left a deep split in rural communities. While the CCF absorbed some UFA members, many others simply withdrew from active politics.

Neither Aberhart's hold over Social Credit nor the homogeneity of the movement in the government's first term should be exaggerated. Backbench MLAs revolted; party supporters--urban and rural--collaborated formally and informally even with Communists. But the premier did leave a distinct imprint on Alberta political culture. He did not make a speech in the legislature until 1939. His preferred medium of political communication--not debate--was radio. Moreover, he understood the role of "the people" as being simply one of demanding "results," and deferring to government experts who would implement the right policy. It was left to the leader to interpret and invoke the general will of the people as the occasion required. Centralization of power in the hands of the provincial government was entirely consistent with this view. Laycock concludes: "The vacuity of public life contemplated for the average citizen in this vision indicates that Social Credit ideology also exceeded other prairie populisms in projecting frustrations with current politics into an antipathy towards 'politics.'" W. L. Morton's judgment is a similar one: "Social Credit was the end of politics in Alberta and the beginning of popular administration."

Significantly, one of the most controversial, now forgotten, pieces of legislation passed in the first year of Aberhart’s government struck at the heart of local democratic authority. It consolidated 3750 local school districts into a mere 50 administrative units. The legislation was passed despite the formal protest of 10,000 trustees--in itself a striking measure of participation in public office--and of the many more ratepayers who crowded schoolhouses to pass resolutions and sign petitions.15 While the government's pretext was economic efficiency during fiscal hard times, the move also had a clear political subtext. It was consistent with a skillful manipulation of populist elements in support of a more centralized, leader-dominated, managerial government that promised prosperity along with freedom from politicians. It was followed within four years by a similar consolidation of municipal government. Another round followed in the 1950s as improved road transportation helped diminish distances. What is now the County of Camrose, for example, absorbed all of four municipal districts (Evergreen, Lloyd George, Melrose, and Parkland) as well as parts of three others. The result in each case was to push further from reach local self-direction and settings in which political skills could be exercised.

The point is often made that populist parties in both Saskatchewan and Alberta moved in centralist directions once elected. There are differences nonetheless. In Saskatchewan the CCF government was bound to some extent by grass-roots direction at party conventions; it attempted no equivalent consolidation of local government; and it relied politically on the support of a strong cooperative movement--above all the Wheat Pool--in which democratic practices were also sustained. The other factor that would set Alberta apart economically and culturally was oil. Already by the 1950s, half of government revenues were derived from oil. The province's population grew rapidly and the composition of its workforce changed, putting farmers in the minority. The oil boom had three significant effects. It induced a dependence on the U.S.-based oil companies that were in a position to develop the resource. It provided a focus for uniting "the people" against real or imagined federal encroachments on provincial powers. And it gave successive Social Credit and Progressive Conservative governments the fiscal means to spend generously compared to other provinces on such ideologically acceptable staples as health, education, highways, and welfare--primarily for the elderly--without having to resort to onerous levels of taxation. Prosperity compensated for disillusionment with politics. It has resulted in vast improvements in infrastructure, while at the same time reinforcing what I call a process of political deskilling--a weakening of political capacity at the local level. The dominant mode of politics in rural Alberta has been a kind of patron-client relationship involving an exchange of government favour for passive support; but that mode provides fewer resources to people whose communities suddenly face serious threats in an age of government retreat and economic globalization.

The radical-democratic agrarian populism of the 1920s cannot be reinvigorated. It belonged to the rough equality of a frontier period to which there is no return. But its practices contain what are still exemplary lessons especially for rural people struggling to live well in a particular place. One is that their predecessors found ways to act collectively, creatively, and with some success against earlier manifestations of large, impersonal economic forces and indifferent governments. A second is the understanding that, as John Richards puts it, "the basis of a free society resides in forming a large number of people who can participate skillfully in democratic institutions." Here he adds an important caution: "But people only learn a skill if they practice it, and they will only practice democratic politics if democratic forums are locally available and they have jurisdiction over matters of substance." Over against the anti-political oscillation between passivity and resentment, and the deafening silence around the loss of meaningful powers of local governance in Alberta, the visible remains of country halls and schoolhouses still ought to signify more robust democratic possibilities.

This paper is partly extracted from a larger work, “Whither Rural Alberta: Political de-skilling, globalization and the future of local communities,” which was published as a research paper by the Parkland Institute in Spring 1999.