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A Brief History of Liberalism from Alberta's Point of View

Background of Liberalism

Liberalism is not only a political movement but also a moral/ethical and socio-economic concept. The definition of liberalism varies from country to country but at its core, the characteristics that define liberalism are equality, rule of law, liberty and individual rights. Two dominant branches of liberalism are classical and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism emphasizes individual rights, limited government and free-market capitalism. Modern liberalism also known as social liberalism stresses the need for a regulated market-orientated economy while expanding civil and political rights.

Liberalism in Eastern Canada

Historically speaking liberalism in Canada has had two phases. Up until the 1950s liberal politicians were mostly liberals in the classical sense. A shift towards social liberalism started to take place when Lester B. Pearson became prime minister. Politicians and society at large started to address Canada's legacy issues. This shift towards social liberalism took place both on the federal and provincial levels.

On the provincial level, this shift towards social liberalism mostly occurred in provinces east of Manitoba. The reason being most of Canada’s legacy issues affected provinces in the east. Issues that existed before and early into the confederation. Some of these legacy issues were and in many cases still are, French-language rights in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, the rights of provinces over the federal government, French language education and the Catholic school system outside Quebec, the role of the Catholic Church in Quebec, ending the segregation of Black students in Ontario and Nova Scotia and reconciliation with First Nations and Indigenous peoples.

Many of these issues have defined liberal parties in eastern Canada. Ontario Liberals have positioned themselves as the defender of Francophones' rights by establishing & funding French language post-secondary schools and passing the French Language Services Act. In Nova Scotia, the Liberal party was the first to establish the Ministry of African Nova Scotian Affairs and ended segregation in its school system. In Quebec, the Liberals played a huge role in the Quiet Revolution and ended the influence the Catholic Church had over the government. On the federal level, liberals implemented the Official Languages Act, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms adopted an official Multiculturalism policy and have taken steps to start the process of reconciliation with First Nations and Indigenous peoples.

These legacy issues have played an important role in defining liberalism in Eastern provinces and on the federal level as well. A lot of the civil and political rights we now enjoy have been greatly expanded by liberal governments. The opposite can be said about conservative governments. Conservatives have largely ignored these issues and did not have the political will to bring change. The NDP has had very little influence in Eastern Canada and to date east of Manitoba the NDP has only formed government twice. Once in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Each was a one-term government that failed to get reelected. Because of this history, historians and political analysts have often called Liberals the "natural governing party" in eastern Canada.

Liberalism in Alberta and Western Canada

Liberalism in Alberta and the rest of Western Canada has not had the same development as their counterparts in Eastern Canada. In the three prairies provinces, the last time Liberals formed a government was in 1964 in Saskatchewan. Liberals in BC have had a similar fate but managed to change course in 2001 forming government for the first time since 1941. What is also interesting at one point or another all four of the Western Liberal parties have locked out of the legislature in the 1980s. In the 1990s all four parties experienced a resurgence and formed official opposition except for the Manitoba Liberals. But today only the BC liberals have remained relevant while the other three parties have declined. 

Why have liberals struggled in Western Canada? The history and culture both socially and politically have developed differently from the rest of the country. Those legacy issues discussed early, for the most part, did not exist in Western Canada. All four provinces joined the confederation later with Alberta and Saskatchewan joining almost 40 years later. When Alberta and Saskatchewan joined the confederation they were denied the right to develop and own their natural resources and instead were given an annual cash subsidy by the federal government under Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Liberal) when it was their constitutional right. It wasn't until 1930 that Alberta gained the right to control its natural resources after years of negotiating.


In the 1980s Pierre Trudeau’s government implemented The National Energy Program and created Petro-Canada. Many economists have stated that the program cost Albertans over $75 billion and deepened Canada’s recession in the 1980s. Policies like these have largely alienated people and helped foster anti-liberalism sentiment and indirectly lead to the success of the NDP in Western Canada.

Western Canadians have a strong attachment to their land and resources. Policies implemented by federal liberals have either hindered resource development or exploited Western Canadians economically. These policies helped create the image of the “eastern elitist liberal” who only wants their resources and money. Today liberalism in Western Canada is viewed both by people and the media in the context of land and resource development making it hard for provincial liberals to differentiate themselves from federal liberals.

My Thoughts

The point of this paper is to give liberals in Alberta a better understanding of liberalism in the Canadian context. The foundation of a healthy political party is its beliefs and values. Most of the values that define the identity of Canadians such as bilingualism, multiculturalism, and equality have been championed by liberals. Liberalism as a brand has a lot of value but how do we make it work in Alberta? It's a hard question to answer but a good place to start is by looking at our own party’s history. In particular Alexander Rutherford and Laurence Decore.

Alexander Rutherford the first premier of Alberta has left a positive legacy in the province. He campaigned for the creation of a public telephone system, education and industrialization in the province. During his first year as premier, his government established over 100 schools and funding for free textbooks. Rutherford was so passionate about education that in the first session of the legislative assembly after being elected, he passed the University Act which led to the creation of the University of Alberta. His legacy of advancing education in Alberta exists through the Alexander Rutherford Scholarship which encourages students to pursue post-secondary education.

Another great liberal leader was Laurence Decore the former mayor of Edmonton. Decore led the party to win 32 seats. The best performance in the ALP’s modern history. He campaigned on fiscal responsibility, reducing the provincial debt and getting the government out of the private sector. Although the Decore campaign was not successful, he proved to Albertans that liberals are a viable option and can be fiscally responsible. In 2004 the city of Edmonton honoured Laurence Decore by designating a section of Saskatchewan Drive as the Laurence Decore Lookout Point.

Both of these leaders have proved liberals can find success in Alberta when we stick to our values of being a centrist party. The Alberta Liberal Party's website lists our values as, equal opportunity, free enterprise, fiscal responsibility and environmental responsibility. These values don’t contradict each other. 

The BC Liberals won on a platform that included free enterprise and introducing a carbon tax. The Yukon Liberals won on a platform that included cutting taxes and regulations for business, expanding environmental protections and working with First Nations on a government-to-government level. 

The Alberta Liberal Party can find success in Alberta but it has to find a way to define itself and control the narrative of what it means to be a liberal in Alberta.


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