The Alberta Liberal Party's History

Here you will find a detailed history of the Alberta Liberal Party's history in Alberta, including their origins, significant moments, and significant figures. It is important to note that while this is a fairly comprehensive history, it is not the entirety of the story, nor is it necessarily perfect. If flaws are found, they will corrected as soon as possible. These histories are the best presentation of the facts as APAH could find, but will be updated and improved as time goes on and more resources become available.

          The Alberta Liberal Party is the province’s oldest party, having formed Alberta’s first provincial government back in 1905 after part of the Northwest Territories was divided into Saskatchewan and Alberta. It was tied with the Progressive Conservatives, who had also been in Alberta since 1905 despite a name change (from Conservatives), but the Liberal Party outlived the PC in 2017 when the PCs merged with the Wildrose Party. While other parties can trace their origins back throughout the decades of Alberta’s politics - such as the NDP, who can be connected to the United Farmers of Alberta who formed government throughout the middle of the twentieth century - none hold the distinction of the Liberals in maintaining both a name, the party, and a near-constant presence in the Alberta political sphere since the birth of the province. The Liberal Party of Alberta has run candidates in every election except one (1944), elected representatives to the Legislature in all but six elections (obviously 1944, but also from 1971 until 1982 and in 2019), and has formed the government or Official Opposition sixteen times out of twenty-nine (four and twelve times, respectively).

          In other words, this is a party that has a long history in this province. On one hand, this means that this history has to go from the start of the province to the modern day; on the other, it’s going to be so much more linear and easy to follow since we’re not following origins from multiple parties or name changes. Before we get into the party itself, it’s important to note that, while the Liberal Party of Alberta shares a name with the Liberal Party of Canada, they are not the same party. The Liberal Party is a shared name, but the two parties aren’t “integrated”, which means that they act independently of one another. This is in contrast to the NDP, who are integrated - this means they share a membership and are connected to a central organization, among other things. As such, this history will focus specifically on what happened in Alberta specifically, and will only consider the federal party of the same name when they get involved in Alberta or their actions affect the Albertan party.

          So, with that, the origins of the Liberal Party of Alberta stretch back to when Alberta was a part of the Northwest Territories - when Alberta became a province along with Saskatchewan in 1905, the Liberals would form Alberta’s first government. The election was hotly contested, with a series of controversies - Liberals were accused of vote tampering and had several key figures arrested as a result, while the Conservatives lost their leader to Saskatchewan when the provinces were created and so were under the guidance of a new leader, Richard Bennett. Interestingly, Bennett would go on to become Prime Minister of Canada (although not an especially successful one in the eyes of many historians). The Liberals, led by Alexander Rutherford, met with the Conservatives and several independents in 1906 for the first sitting of the Alberta Legislative Assembly - however, they had neither a Legislature to meet in or a capital city to build it in, and so our first government met in a school gymnasium in Edmonton, which had temporarily been declared the capital.

          Regina had been the capital of the Northwest Territories before the split, with Calgary having previously contested it - with the split, Calgary saw another chance to secure its place as the capital. It wasn’t alone, though; Edmonton, Medicine Hat, and Red Deer mounted serious opposition campaigns, with plenty of other cities expressing interest. Ultimately, it came down to Edmonton versus Calgary. Albertans with an interest in history will know the two cities have had a rivalry going back well into the 1800’s, most notably when the Canadian Pacific Railway was deciding between which city to pass through (they ended up picking Calgary at the time, boosting their population in a way that we still see today). Today, we still see that rivalry reflected during sporting events between the two cities. The origins of this rivalry were a factor as well - the Liberals hoped to build a third transcontinental railway that would run through northern Alberta, while Calgary saw itself vote Conservative in order to preserve its status as the economic powerhouse of the province. Calgary voting hard against the Liberals eventually turned around to bite them, as the Liberals would respond by making Edmonton the province’s official capital in 1906, with the Legislature being completed in 1913.

          In 1909, the Liberals would maintain a strong lead over the Conservatives that would continue until 1921. Under Rutherford and his successor, Arthur Sifton, the Liberals flourished. However, Charles Stewart would take over the party in 1917, and four years later led the party into a devastating loss to the United Farmers of Alberta. Stewart would immediately resign his position, and the leadership would be taken over by John R. Boyle. For the next three years, Boyle was in frequent contact with the Liberal Prime Minister at the time, William Lyon Mackenzie King, although his letters were characterized as largely being substanceless. However, these letters can be credited with leading to the downfall of then-UFA leader Herbert Greenfield - Boyle predicted that the UFA would fail in the 1924 election unless Greenfield could negotiate a deal where the province would gain control of its natural resources (something other provinces usually gained when formed, but something Alberta and Saskatchewan had not been given in 1905), and while the UFA didn’t lose their government until more than a decade later, Greenfield was forced out by his party shortly after returning home with no deal.

          After this, Boyle was appointed to the Supreme Court of Alberta, and was replaced by Charles R. Mitchell, who would only remain leader for another two years before joining the judiciary as well. Between losing power in 1921 and the UFA loss in 1935, the Liberals ran through a total of six leaders - Boyle, Mitchell, John C. Bower (albeit as interim leader), Joseph Tweed Shaw (a former independent MP), and William R. Howson, who would go in to lead the party in the 1935 election - an election that would define Alberta’s future for decades to come.

          In Howson’s defence, the Liberals were not the only party who were run over by the newly-formed Social Credit Party in 1935 - nor were they the most affected. The UFA would go from a thirty-six seat majority to zero seats in a historically bad showing, while the Liberals and Conservatives both lost more than half of their seats. The Labour Party of Alberta, a relatively small party during this period, would also go on to lose all of their seats. This dramatic shift from left-wing social democracy (for reference, the UFA are largely the predecessor to the CCF, which in turn became the NDP) to a socially-conservative right-wing government was a surprise to everyone - including the Socreds, who, like the UFA before them, hadn’t actually expected to win the election, and entered government without a leader.

          It’s important to note as we move into the Socred era that there had been discussions towards the end of the UFA’s time in government to form a coalition of opposition forces - however, the Liberals at the time were seeing success with Howson at the helm, and so refused to join, and the idea fell to the backburner. After 1935, though, the established political parties in the province began to start pushing for this idea once again. This idea would become known as the Unity Movement or the Independent Movement - as those names would suggest, this movement was centered around the three former main parties of the province (UFA, Liberals, and Conservatives) working together and running candidates together as independents. The idea was that this was the only way for the three parties to potentially pose any serious competition to the massively popular and successful Socreds - by removing one another as competition and coordinating, they might be able to take them out of power.

          However, the Liberals refused to fully buy into this coalition, choosing to only support members of the Independent Movement that it had helped nominate, and allowing the constituency associations to determine independently whether they wanted to support the Independent running in their constituency. As well, the Liberals ran two candidates under their own banner - party leader Edward Grey, who’d been elected as leader in 1937 with a lot of Conservative support and had supported the coalition, and Joseph Tremblay - and won one seat (Tremblay’s in Grouard).

          Despite the Independent Movement allowing the three parties to combine forces, they were hindered by the Liberals not fully committing as well as the new Cooperative Commonwealth Party (the aforementioned successor to the UFA and predecessor to the NDP) taking away many former UFA votes and supporters. There would be nineteen independents elected in 1940, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that all were from the Independent Movement - some were legitimately independent. This left the 9th Legislative Assembly in an interesting position of the Official Opposition not really being a party, and by the election in 1944, it became obvious that a “party” made up of three opposite parties would struggle to display a united front. After Gray left the Liberals in 1941, the party became even less interested in remaining a part of the coalition. Two of the independents would re-join the Liberal Party over the course of the 9th Assembly, and by 1944, the Liberals effectively separated from the coalition but had agreed not to run any candidates - marking the only election in Alberta’s history that the Liberals didn’t contest.

          In 1945, the federal Camrose riding association called for the executive of the Alberta Liberal Party to officially separate from their political alliances, which they did shortly after. The party had been without a leader since 1941 and had to re-build a lot of the organization, meeting early in 1946 to figure out how they would compete. In 1947, the party elected James Prowse - a veteran of the Second World War and an MLA who had been elected under a serviceman vote as the Army’s MLA (the Navy, Army, and Air Force each elected their own MLAs). All MLAs elected by the serviceman vote were independents, but Prowse became a member of the Liberals in 1947 to run for leader, giving the Liberals some representation in the Legislature - meaning that, despite not actually participating in the 1944 election, they still managed to get a candidate in the one election they didn’t run anyone in. Under Prowse, the Liberals briefly became a political force to be reckoned with once again, and in 1955 the Liberals would take over 30% of the popular vote and fifteen seats. This was short-lived, as the controversial 1959 election would see the Socreds come through with a whopping sixty-one of the available sixty-five seats. This was in part because of the resurgence of the Progressive Conservative Party from the ashes of the Conservative Party, which split the vote between Liberals and PCs, and left both with only one seat. The Liberals had replaced Prowse with John MacEwan in 1958, only for him to resign in 1960 after this loss.

          This was symptomatic of a much bigger issue that the Liberals were facing going forward - namely, the need to revamp their image. Like many other Liberal parties across the country, the Alberta Liberals were seen as being an older, more traditional party compared to their contemporaries, and were having trouble finding a concrete identity that distinguished them from the increasingly social democratic left and socially conservative right. The Liberals went through a bit of an identity crisis throughout the 1960’s, going through a number of leaders before settling on Michael Maccagno (who didn’t want the leadership) who would become the only Liberal leader to actually win an election as leader between 1955 and 1986 when he and two fellow Liberals took seats in 1967.

          The brief moment of success was just that - brief. One Liberal MLA left the party to join the PCs, another died, and Maccagno himself left to run in the 1968 federal election as a Liberal in Athabasca only to lose to the PCs there, too. His successor, John Lowery, tried to make an arrangement with the Socreds only to face harsh criticism for it from his party, leading to him resigning as well. At the same time, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals would take power in the federal government, with a series of policies that were widely disliked by Albertans and hurt the chances of the Alberta Liberals even further - notably the Official Languages Act of 1969 that established Canada as officially bilingual (Alberta had declared English as the sole official language previously) and the National Energy Program of the 80’s, an energy policy that was seen as by many Albertans as a direct attack on the province’s economy and energy sector.

          In 1971, the Liberals would see themselves entirely shut out of the Legislature, and would fail to win even a single seat for another fifteen years - coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), this was from the beginning to the end of Pierre Trudeau’s time as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. In 1986, Nicholas Taylor led them as they broke back into the Legislature with four seats before being replaced by Laurence Decore. Under Decore, the party would again see a resurgence, doubling their seat count to eight in 1989 and then quadrupling it to thirty-two in 1993 - the best-ever showing by an Official Opposition in an election in Alberta. While the Liberals wouldn’t maintain their massive seat count going forward, they did manage to maintain their position as the Official Opposition until 2012.

          During this period, the Liberals began to see themselves evolving into what we currently know to be the modern Liberal Party of Alberta - a party that still maintains some old social democratic policies like empowering the public school system and reducing support to private schools, while still maintaining some of its old-school beliefs like economic freedom.

          As we cross into the 21st century, we see the Liberals mostly fighting to stay in second place - despite a decent showing in 2004, it’s worth noting that this election was also one where the PC leader, Ralph Klein, had lost his mother at the beginning of the campaign and being quiet throughout the election. In elections where the Liberals didn’t have the advantage of an opponent who doesn’t fight back or talk much, they failed to break into the double digits, but without serious competition they maintained a secure place in the Official Opposition. The Liberals would see representatives from the NDP as well as the Alberta Alliance joining them in the Legislature over this period, but even after their best showing in 2004 the two only sent a combined total of 5 MLAs to the Legislature, leaving the Liberals safe in second as they run through a series of leaders (Nancy MacBeth, Ken Nicol, Don Massey as interim, Kevin Taft, David Swann, and Raj Sherman).

          This changed for the Liberals in 2012 - or rather, it began changing in 2009, after the recently-renamed Wildrose Alliance Party suddenly surged in popularity. While the Wildrose Alliance had failed to maintain their sole seat in 2008, the party became massively popular after backlash against the PC government of the time that was led by Ed Stelmach, and grew strong enough to not just pose a threat to the Liberals in the Official Opposition but to the PCs, too. In 2012, under the leadership of Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Alliance would end a nineteen year-long run as the Official Opposition for the Liberal Party of Alberta.

          Sherman remained leader of the Liberals until early 2015 when he resigned - something that, at the time, wasn’t a big deal. Alberta wasn’t due for an election until 2016, but a surprise snap election called by PC Premier Jim Prentice for May fifth meant that the Liberals would be contesting the election with interim leader David Swann at the helm. The election would cause a massive shake-up, with the NDP - long a third or fourth-place party in the province when they managed to get elected at all - taking a surprising majority government to end a forty-four year long political dynasty for the PCs. For the Liberals, this was their worst showing since they had been shut out of the Legislature in the 80’s, only securing Swann’s seat in Calgary.

          The 2015 failure for the Liberals could be due to any number of reasons - perhaps Alberta’s left was strategically voting, or maybe the choice to not run in over thirty constituencies was the wrong choice, or maybe they simply weren’t prepared for an election - but nonetheless, they failed spectacularly. They tied the Alberta Party to take fourth place in the election with one seat each in 2015, only to move up to a three-way tie for third place that now included the remaining PC member Richard Starke after the PC-Wildrose merger to form the UPC in 2016. In 2017, they got pushed back down to fourth after the Alberta Party gained a second MLA, and by the time of the 2019 election will have been outnumbered by Independents for the majority of the session, and tied with the newly-formed Freedom Conservative Party and the soon-to-disband PC Party. Interestingly, the Liberal Party is the only party in the 29th Alberta Legislature to maintain a consistent membership count, never gaining or losing any members.

          The Liberals contested the 2019 election under the leadership of David Khan, whose first test as leader would be to run in the Calgary-Lougheed by-election of 2017. The by-election was called after the resignation of Dave Rodney to allow Jason Kenney to run for a seat in the Legislature after securing the UCP leadership. Khan would lose this election, but would go on to run again in Calgary-Mountain View in the 2019 election. Unfortunately for the Liberals, they were once again shut out of the Legislature in 2019 - this is only the fifth time they've failed to take a single seat in an election they participated in, and interestingly, all five times a Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada at the time.