Early Life, Education and Family
William Aberhart, the fourth of eight children born to mother Louisa (née Pepper) and Prussian-born father William Aberhart, spent his early years in Perth County until the family moved to a farm near Egmondville in Huron County.
Aberhart attended Seaforth Collegiate Institute, where his physical size made him an important part of the school’s football team. In 1896, after two years at Seaforth, he switched to the nearby Mitchell Model School for a teaching apprenticeship. This was followed by four months at Chatham Business College, after which he returned to Seaforth Collegiate Institute to complete his high school education. He then attended the Ontario Normal School in Hamilton for more teacher training, graduating in 1898.
The Ontario Normal School was where Aberhart last studied in a classroom — all of his subsequent education was by correspondence. Without personal interaction with teachers and fellow students, he failed to develop analytical reasoning; instead, he depended on rote memorization, having an almost photographic memory. Aberhart became a compartmentalized thinker, sometimes holding contradictory positions at the same time in his later religious and political careers.
In 1901, Aberhart met Jessie Flatt, who had attended one of his football matches. They were married in 1902 and had two daughters: Khona (1903) and Ola (1905). Jessie’s social aspirations were higher than those of her husband, contributing to tension in the marriage. She also allowed their teenage daughters to flout their father’s puritanical objections to dancing and watching movies. Moreover, Aberhart’s busy career in teaching and increasing involvement in religion (and later politics) left little time for family life.
Aberhart began his teaching career in Huron County and, in 1901, accepted a position in Brantford, where he eventually became principal of Brantford Collegiate Institute & Vocational School. While there, he did a correspondence BA from Queen’s University (which he completed in 1911 after he had moved to Alberta). In a 1903 essay he wrote, Aberhart praised Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, suggesting that Cromwell’s military structure and discipline could be applied to the classroom.
In 1910, Aberhart accepted a more lucrative offer from the Calgary Board of Education and became principal first of Alexandra School and then of Victoria School. By 1915, he was the principal of Crescent Heights High School, where he organized everything, including student clubs. His micromanagement style frustrated some of the staff, eight of whom complained to the school board. After an investigation, three of his critics were transferred to other schools, but he was warned that he would be fired if complaints continued. Aberhart remained the principal of Crescent Heights High School until 1935.
Religious Beliefs and Activity
While teaching was Aberhart’s vocation, preaching became his passion. Although his parents had not been churchgoers, he had attended Sunday school at a nearby Presbyterian church as a boy.
Early in his teaching career, Aberhart was exposed to the sectarian theology of the Plymouth Brethren, likely through the apocalyptic novels of Sydney Watson, which he later promoted. He began preaching on weekends in and around Brantford. He had no theological training other than Cyrus Scofield’s correspondence course, which popularized Brethren ideas. Scofield explained legal contradictions in the Bible by dividing biblical time into various dispensations, with different regulations being operable in each dispensation. Dispensationalism became Aberhart’s core theology, even though it was at odds with the theology of the Presbyterian church to which he belonged.
After arriving in Calgary in 1910, he served as an elder at the prestigious Grace Presbyterian Church and continued his lay preaching and Bible teaching. After he was involved in a minor dispute (for which he was later exonerated), he left the denomination in 1912. For a while, he united with the Methodists, but his leadership and theology caused problems.
In 1915, Aberhart became the unofficial minister of Westbourne Baptist Church. Despite attempts by Baptist leaders to remove Aberhart from the church, his congregation remained loyal. After a brief association with a Pentecostal minister in 1920, Aberhart began introducing “charismatic” practices to the church, coupled with his dispensationalism and focus on biblical “prophecy,” much to the consternation of Baptist officials. He identified with the rising fundamentalist movement and became increasingly antagonistic to mainstream denominations.
In 1918, Aberhart began a Bible study group, the Calgary Prophetic Bible Conference, at Westbourne Baptist Church. When it grew too large for the building, he held his lectures in various theatres on Sunday afternoons. As early as 1923, he was teaching night school classes in theology in the basement of Westbourne Baptist Church. He also realized the possibilities of radio and, in 1925, began broadcasting his Sunday afternoon lectures on CFCN, the most powerful station west of Montréal at the time. That same year, he created the Radio Sunday School Mission, which sent correspondence lessons to children across Western Canada and the northern United States. By 1939, more than 9,000 children were actively enrolled in the program.
Since Aberhart needed a larger facility to house the Bible school and the crowds that were attracted to his Sunday afternoon meetings, he opened the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute in 1927 and taught many of its classes. The congregation of Westbourne Baptist Church also moved in. Aberhart controlled the church and institute and conducted radio broadcasts while still being employed as the principal of Crescent Heights High School.
By 1929, Aberhart’s religious activities were of growing concern to the Calgary Board of Education, especially after complaints that he been asking his students to stuff envelopes for his religious organization during school hours. While he was fighting to save his job, most of the congregation members at Westbourne Baptist Church broke with him and returned to their old building. Some of them were angry because they had lost money in a Ponzi scheme that he had promoted, while others opposed his attempts to place the church’s building fund in the scheme.
Aberhart founded his own sect, the Bible Institute Baptist Church, but its hired ministers revolted against his dominance and ideas frequently over the next 10 years.
The Great Depression and Social Credit
The Great Depression was devastating for the farm-based economy of the Prairies, and misery was widespread. The inability of political parties to find solutions to the problem of “poverty in the midst of plenty” drove Albertans to seek alternative remedies, and they became attracted to economic ideas that Aberhart began to spread in his religious broadcasts.
In 1932, the previously non-political Aberhart became interested in the monetary-reform doctrines of a British engineer, Major Clifford Hugh Douglas (1879–1952), who believed that conventional capitalism would fail because private control of credit would lead to chronic insufficiencies in purchasing power. Douglas’s solution was state supervision of credit and increased purchasing power for consumers through a cash stipend called the National Dividend. His economic assessment was fundamentally flawed and seemed to be driven in part by his anti-Semitism.
Aberhart, who was opposed to anti-Semitism and knew little about Douglas’s real views, adopted his simplistic economic analysis and buzzwords. He popularized Social Credit theory with his own proposal that each citizen be given a basic monthly dividend ($25) to purchase necessities.
In 1933, Aberhart outlined his ideas in a small anonymous tract called The Douglas System of Economics, also known as the “Yellow Pamphlet,” which communist H.B. (Hilly) Hill helped him write. The pamphlet proposed total regulation of the economy, including converting personal bank accounts into provincial bonds that would expire at the death of their owners, abolishing life insurance and inheritance and placing limitations on the maximum amount of personal earnings. Credit would replace money, and money would only be used by the government for extra-provincial transactions. All credit, in the form of dividends or earned wages, would have to be expended or converted into government bonds by the end of the year or it would be confiscated. Citizenship would be “clearly defined and rigidly enforced” and denied to “unworthy individuals.” Citizens would “be taught profitable occupations” and “direction in the use of leisure time.” Nonconformists would be heavily taxed.
Aberhart’s proposal amounted to a totalitarian bookkeeping system run by a state credit house. There were certainly influences from the Manifesto of the Communist Party, but another important source of Aberhart’s thinking came from the utopian novels of American author and socialist Edward Bellamy (1850–98), which he had read before 1929. Groups in North America and Europe tried to turn Bellamy’s ideas into political realities.
Aberhart’s Social Credit ideas generated so much discussion that the Alberta government invited him and Douglas to address a legislative committee in 1934. Private correspondence shows that the actual purpose of the hearing was to expose their differences and discredit Aberhart in particular. When Douglas and Aberhart met, they did not get along, as predicted. Publically, Douglas stated that Social Credit could only be instituted by a military coup or complete control over the federal government. Privately, Douglas repudiated Aberhart’s views and accused him of misrepresentation. In a cynical move to derail Aberhart’s influence, the provincial government hired Douglas as an economic adviser.
Aberhart was undeterred. Rejecting Douglas’s military solution (but still claiming Douglas’ support), he built a grassroots movement to promote Social Credit. Aberhart created satirical radio dramas and toured the province, meeting many of his radio listeners for the first time and gaining a large following. The Calgary Board of Education was once again concerned that he was taking too much time away from his duties and suggested that he resign.
When the existing political parties (particularly the governing United Farmers of Alberta) rejected his economic proposals, Aberhart took Alberta’s Social Credit League into the political arena in 1935. He promised that, if they were elected, Douglas would be asked to come over to operate the system.
In the provincial election on 22 August 1935, Aberhart’s Alberta Social Credit Party candidates took 56 of the 63 seats in the Alberta legislature and swept the United Farmers of Alberta from office. Aberhart himself had not run in the election, as he didn’t want to give up his position as principal unless they won. He became premier and assumed the education portfolio. A safe legislative seat was quickly vacated so that he could run in a by-election (which he won by acclamation).
Premier Aberhart and the Social Credit Government
Immediately after the Alberta Social Credit Party won the election, Aberhart telegraphed Douglas, but he refused to come to Alberta to help him. Aberhart had no plans in place, and people were demanding their $25 dividends. He found that the provincial treasury was empty — investors had cashed in Alberta bonds and transferred their bank accounts out of province, fearing what Aberhart might do. To meet government expenses, he had to beg the federal government for emergency funding.
In 1936, Aberhart’s government stipulated that Albertans would have to sign a “registration covenant,” which pledged allegiance to Aberhart’s government to qualify for the promised dividends. People signed these pledges, fearing that they would lose their civil rights. They also had to apply for permission to travel outside of the province for more than one month.
Aberhart tried a number of dubious schemes to get the economy rolling. In 1937, he faced a caucus revolt after his “prosperity certificates” failed. Stores and even government agencies would not accept the certificates (known as “funny money”) as legal tender. The revolt resulted in the creation of the Social Credit Board, which approached Douglas for help. Douglas sent two emissaries from England, who took control of the cabinet — something unheard of in a democracy. Douglas’s first (yet unsuccessful) directive was to replace the RCMP with a Social Credit police force that would do his agents’ bidding.
Douglas’s men quickly drew up radical legislation against the press, banks and bank employees. Attorney general John Hugill resigned after stating that the legislation was unconstitutional. With no legal training, Aberhart became attorney general and tried to push the legislation through, only to have it disallowed by the federal government. Douglas’s influence was further reduced when George F. Powell, one of his emissaries, and Joe Unwin, the party whip, were arrested for criminal libel and counselling to murder. They published an incendiary tract that called for the extermination of “Bankers’ Toadies,” a group of nine prominent men who were opposed to the Social Credit government, including David Duggan, leader of the Conservative Party. Aberhart tried to block the prosecutions, but Powell and Unwin were convicted of criminal libel and sent to prison. Powell was subsequently deported by the federal government.
In 1940, Aberhart ran again and won with a reduced majority. Plans for Social Credit were shelved until the war’s end, which he would never see. Aberhart died on 23 May 1943 while visiting his family in Vancouver. His friend and protege, Ernest C. Manning, the first graduate of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute (and father of Preston Manning), succeeded him as premier. The Alberta Social Credit Party remained in office until 1971.
Under Aberhart and Manning, the Alberta Social Credit Party supported eugenics, as did a number of influential Canadians at the time (including social reformers Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung). In 1928, Alberta passed the Sexual Sterilization Act, which outlined conditions for the sterilization of inmates of mental hospitals. One condition was that the individual (or guardian/representative) had to give consent to the procedure. The Act was amended twice during Aberhart’s tenure as premier and attorney general, including the removal of informed consent among individuals considered “defective.” Support for eugenic sterilization continued under the Social Credit government of Ernest Manning. The law wasn’t repealed until Progressive Conservative premier Peter Lougheed was elected.
Was Aberhart a Fascist or a Dictator?
It’s difficult to know where to place Aberhart on the political spectrum. Early studies suggest Aberhart was right wing, but historical evidence shows that Aberhart was even to the left of the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). In 1933 and 1934, he had planned strategy with Alberta CCF leaders: they advertised each other’s meetings, and he allowed the CCF to use his Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute for meetings.
Once Aberhart came to power, the Moscow-based newspaper Pravda had its reporter in the press gallery cover this unusual leftist experiment. The left-wing tone of Aberhart’s government attracted support from the Communist Party. In 1937, its members distributed “Alberta blue pledges,” which had replaced the earlier “Alberta citizens’ registration covenant.” When Unwin was released from prison, Social Credit and Communist Party leaders celebrated together, calling each other “comrades.” Aberhart’s ideas and connections show that he was neither right wing nor conservative. He owed more to leftist thinkers like Karl Marx and Edward Bellamy than to Douglas’s version of capitalism.
Stewart Cameron, a cartoonist for the Calgary Herald, often depicted Aberhart in fascist and Nazi terms (for example, one of his cartoons, dated 28 September 1938, referred to Aberhart as “Oh—You--Nazi Man”). Aberhart’s association with Douglas was responsible, in large part, for the association with Nazism. A virulent right-wing anti-Semite, Douglas’s chief supporters, which included Oswald Mosley, Ezra Pound and the 12th Duke of Bedford, had high-level Nazi connections.
While Aberhart denounced Nazism, he adopted a political philosophy with dictatorial and totalitarian yet socialist overtones. When the press called his policies dictatorial, he was unapologetic: “The spirit of Christ has gripped me. I am only seeking to feed, clothe and shelter starving people. If that is what you call a dictator, then I am one.”
Like fascism, Aberhart’s party became the “state” and tried to control all facets of economic life. Internationally, Alberta was seen as fascist because its Douglasite legislation took civil rights from journalists and bank employees. For example, newspapers were forced to print anything that the government sent them and reveal all sources of information for their stories, as well as the names and addresses of all editorial writers and letters to the editor. Editors who refused to do so could be suspended from publication and fined up to $1,000 a day until they complied. Day-to-day operations of financial institutions were put under the dictates of the Social Credit Board. Limitations were placed on the independence of the lieutenant-governor for his refusal to sign other draconian legislation. In 1938, the American Pulitzer Prize for freedom of the press was awarded to the Edmonton Journal “for its editorial leadership in defense of the freedom of the press in the province of Alberta, Canada.”
Although Aberhart’s government was unable to implement Social Credit policies, it created debt relief and public works programs. But his debt moratoriums, which saved several homes and farms, were overturned by the federal government and the courts. He had also introduced some health care measures and enacted progressive labour legislation, but these had nothing to do with Social Credit. As the Minister of Education, he was praised for professionalizing teachers, amalgamating school districts and standardizing curriculums.
Aberhart had a marked impact on Canadian politics. The extreme radicalism of his government was one of the factors that had precipitated the Royal Commission on Dominion Provincial Relations in 1937. Outside of Alberta, a non-Aberhartite British Columbia Social Credit Party governed that province for many years, and Douglasite Social Credit candidates won scattered seats in federal politics.