It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Alberta was in the depths of a crippling depression, drought was ravaging the province’s agricultural industry — a much more powerful lobby in the 1930s before oil became king — and the deeply conservative government of the United Farmers of Alberta had proven themselves wholly unable to address the radical challenges of a worldwide economic collapse.
Fast-forward to 1935, and desperate Albertans were ready to try out one of the more bizarre political movements to emerge from the 1930s in Canada — Social Credit — and its flamboyant, evangelist saviour William “Bible Bill” Aberhart. Among the SoCred’s first pieces of legislation was the Recall Act, and it had figured prominently as a plank in the 1935 election.
By 1937, the bloom was definitely off the rose for many voters, and the SoCred’s quirky economic theories and failure to deliver on many of their lofty promises like the vaunted $25 per month had deflated much of the enthusiasm that had accompanied the party’s historic 1935 win. Premier Aberhart was still embroiled in a backbencher’s revolt against his inability to move the idea of Social Credit from theory to practice when the voters of his home riding of Okotoks-High River decided to avail themselves of the new Recall Act.
Aberhart already had some egg on his face regarding plans for an extravagant mid-depression trip to King George VI’s coronation, and this was obviously more than the voters of Okotoks-High River could stomach. In April 1937, their petition was accepted by the riding’s SoCred constituency association and by the fall had gathered the needed signatures of two thirds of the electorate.
Aberhart’s days at the commanding heights of the province appeared to be numbered, and his government was staring at the embarrassing possibility of having their own leader and sitting premier removed from office through legislation they themselves enacted.
But in what must rank as one of the more partisan acts in Alberta’s political history, the SoCreds quickly moved to repeal the Recall Act and stifle the voters of Okotoks-High River. While one suspects this move did much to reinforce people’s cynical view of politics, Aberhart’s weak justification didn’t help matters, claiming oil companies had intimidated workers into signing the petition and arguing fraud regarding the residency of some signatories.
That probably sounds familiar to anyone who has cast a passing eye at the clown-college antics of the most recent U.S. election. In a final footnote to Aberhart’s recall affair, when the 1940 election rolled around he knew better than to test his luck in Okotoks-High River, and ran in Calgary. Predictably, his replacement in the riding was soundly defeated.
Recall legislation has been a sacred cow for many conservative movements across North America in recent decades, and the UCP constituency association of Taber-Warner put forward a policy resolution at the October AGM seeking just that, which passed with a vote of 71 per cent of the membership. Also in 2020, the government announced it will introduce a bill allowing recall elections for MLAs, municipal governments, and school boards.
Recall will always be popular among the electorate; it has the odor of accountability about it and gives voters the added hire-or-fire power of potentially turfing mid-term any MLA who doesn’t live up to expectations. And it seems like a no-brainer political plank for any party seeking office. However, political popularity has the troubling tendency to rapidly evaporate.
Alberta’s UCP MLAs, and perhaps Jason Kenney himself, would do well to remember that recall might sound good when staring across the floor from the opposition side of the house, but it’s a much different story when it comes to your job being potentially on the line.
Just ask the ghost of Bible Bill.