Ernest Charles Manning (Obituary)

As a political leader, Ernest Manning was a quiet colossus. First elected to the Alberta legislature in the Social Credit landslide of 1935, he served as premier for 25 years - from 1943 until 1968 - and won seven straight elections.

Manning, Ernest Charles (Obituary)

As a political leader, Ernest Manning was a quiet colossus. First elected to the Alberta legislature in the Social Credit landslide of 1935, he served as premier for 25 years - from 1943 until 1968 - and won seven straight elections. But longevity was only one measure of a remarkable political career. Manning, who died of cancer in Calgary on Feb. 19 at age 87, led Alberta from the lingering devastation of the Great Depression to the unparalleled prosperity of the postwar oil boom. He built roads, schools, hospitals and cultural institutions, and helped turn Alberta into a confident, dynamic province. Yet he remained a modest, unassuming leader whose integrity was beyond reproach. "Ernest Manning was a master builder," said Reform party Leader Preston Manning at his father's funeral last week in Calgary. "He presided over a change in the role of Alberta - from bearer of grievances to an advocate of solutions."

Although he achieved national prominence as a politician, Manning's first calling was religion. Raised on the family farm in Rosetown, Sask., Manning left home in 1927, when he was 18, to study for the ministry at the Prophetic Bible Institute in Calgary, founded by charismatic evangelist William Aberhart. Amid the misery of the Great Depression, Aberhart formed a political movement known as Social Credit and won 56 of 63 seats in the 1935 election - in part by promising a $25 monthly dividend to every Albertan. Manning, 26 at the time, ran successfully in Calgary and was named provincial secretary. "He came into politics very young and in a utopian movement with unfulfillable goals," said University of Calgary political science professor Thomas Flanagan. "And out of that, he made himself an extraordinarily competent province-builder."

Manning became premier after the death of Aberhart in May, 1943, and initially concentrated on delivering sound and reliable government. The discovery of a major oilfield at Leduc, 40 km south of Edmonton, in February, 1947, however, gave him the opportunity to do much more. The Leduc find, among others, transformed Alberta from a have-not province into an economic powerhouse.

Manning used the resource windfall to improve social services, cultural institutions and infrastructure. Yet, he was a fiscal conservative who kept taxes low and paid off Alberta's Depression-era debts. He is also credited with establishing innovative rules to ensure the proper long-term development of the province's petroleum reserves. "Mr. Manning brought in an oil-and-gas land rights system that is a model for resource development throughout the world," said former premier Peter Lougheed, whose Conservatives defeated the Socreds in 1971.

Throughout his political career, Manning delivered weekly sermons on his Back to the Bible Hour program, carried by radio stations across the country. He remained politically active long after retiring as premier. Manning served as a senator from 1970 until 1983 and acted as a key adviser to his son after he was elected founding leader of the Reform party in 1987. And in his eulogy last week, Preston Manning said that, if his father could offer one last piece of political advice to his fellow citizens, it would be this: "Do not let internal discord do to Canada what wars and depressions were unable to do. Continue to build. Continue to build."

Maclean's March 4, 1996