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William Aberhart

The Honourable
William Aberhart
A bald man in a suit with round spectacles
William Aberhart in 1937.
7th Premier of Alberta
In office
September 3, 1935 – May 23, 1943
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Lieutenant Governor William L. Walsh
Philip Primrose
John C. Bowen
Preceded by Richard Gavin Reid
Succeeded by Ernest Manning
Alberta Minister of Education
In office
September 3, 1935 – May 23, 1943
Preceded by Perren Baker
Succeeded by Solon Earl Low
Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta
In office
March 21, 1940 – May 23, 1943
Serving with James Mahaffy, Fred Anderson, Andrew Davison, John J. Bowlen
Preceded by Edith Gostick, Ernest Manning, Fred Anderson, John Irwin, John J. Bowlen, John Hugill
Succeeded by James Mahaffy, Fred Anderson, Andrew Davison, John J. Bowlen
Constituency Calgary
In office
November 4, 1935 – March 21, 1940
Preceded by William Morrison
Succeeded by John Broomfield
Constituency Okotoks-High River
Personal details
Born (1878-12-30)December 30, 1878
Kippen, Ontario
Died May 23, 1943(1943-05-23) (aged 64)
Vancouver, British Columbia
Resting place Forest Lawn Cemetery, Burnaby, British Columbia
Political party Social Credit
Spouse(s) Jessie Flatt
Children Ola Janet Aberhart, Khona Louise Aberhart
Residence Calgary
Occupation Educator, evangelist
Religion Christian

William Aberhart (December 30, 1878 – May 23, 1943), also known as Bible Bill for his outspoken Baptist views, was a Canadian politician and the seventh Premier of Alberta between 1935 and 1943.[1] He was the founder and first leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party, which believed the Great Depression was caused by ordinary people not having enough to spend. Therefore, Aberhart argued that the government should give everyone $25 per month to stimulate the economy. Aberhart also campaigned for and instituted several anti-poverty and debt relief programs during his premiership.


  • Early life 1
    • Childhood, education, and family 1.1
    • Teaching career 1.2
  • Religion 2
    • Early religious views and adoption of Dispensationalism 2.1
  • Political career 3
  • Ideology 4
  • Electoral record 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading/other sources 9
    • Primary sources 9.1
  • External links 10

Early life

Childhood, education, and family

William Aberhart was born December 30, 1878, in Tuckersmith Township (now part of Huron East, Ontario) to William (c. 1844–1910)[2] and Louisa (c. 1850–1944)[3] (née Pepper) Aberhart.[4] William Aberhart Sr. had immigrated to Canada from Germany with his family at the age of seven, while Louisa Pepper was born in Perth County, Ontario.[5] Historian Harold Schultz describes the Aberharts as "prosperous," while biographers David Elliott and Iris Miller says they "lived better than the average family."[6][7] The fourth of eight children, William Aberhart Jr. delivered milk to his father's customers before school each day.[8] At school, he was a hard-working but average student.[9][10] Mathematics was one of his strengths, though his approach involved more rote learning than reasoning. Elliott and Miller suggest that this tendency stayed with him his entire life, and that he "never really acquired an appreciation for inductive intellectual analysis."[9] Aberhart was not a social child.[11] Though he excelled at soccer,[12] he generally preferred solitary pursuits such as reading or teaching himself to play musical instruments.[13][14]

In 1896, Aberhart attended three months of model school in Mitchell. Although this training qualified him to work as a schoolteacher, he instead enrolled in business college in Chatham, from which he withdrew after four months of successful study.[11] In 1897-98, Aberhart attended Seaforth Collegiate Institute, where he was nicknamed "Whitey" (for his blond hair) and broadened his athletic prowess to include the long jump, shot put, 100-yard dash, high jump, cycling, and football.[14]

On July 29, 1902, Aberhart married Jessie Flatt, whom he had met in 1901 at a football game.[15] A daughter, Khona Louise Aberhart, was born in the winter of 1903, and a second, Ola Janet Aberhart, followed in August 1905.[16]

On July 20, 1910, William Aberhart Sr. died in an accident at a pharmacy owned by his son (William Jr.'s brother) Charles. Prohibition was in effect, but pharmacists were permitted to provide alcohol for "medicinal purposes." Charles kept a bottle of whiskey for William Sr. to drink whenever he was in the store. One day a clerk rearranged the bottles, and the illiterate William Sr. took a swallow of carbolic acid; he died within minutes. William Jr., by now in Calgary, did not make the trip east to his father's funeral.[17] Louisa Aberhart died February 20, 1910, outliving William Aberhart Sr. by less than a year.[18]

Teaching career

In the fall of 1901 Aberhart was hired as a teacher at the Central Public School in [16]

His school's principal died in 1905, and Aberhart was selected to replace him; his salary increased to $1,000 per year.[16] This figure had reached $1,200 by 1910 when, in response to glowing reviews from his colleagues, the Calgary Board of Education offered him a principalship at $1,400 per year. In response to a petition from his staff and students that this offer be matched by Brantford, Aberhart was offered a raise to $1,300; he declined it, and moved to Calgary that spring.[20] His family followed later, after he purchased a two-storey wooden house and Khona finished her academic year in Brantford.[21] 1910 Calgary was a frontier town that smelled of horse manure and in which public drunkenness was common; though Aberhart's sensibilities were less shocked by this than his wife's were, he also had to make some adjustments: in Brantford he had always attended church in a silk top hat and frock coat, but he quickly abandoned this custom after discovering that he was the only one in Calgary to do so.[17]

Aberhart was to become principal of Mount Royal School, but it was not yet complete at the time of his arrival, so he became the principal of Alexandra Public School immediately on his arrival.[17] Mount Royal was still not completed by the fall, so he took over the principalship of Victoria School,[22] which he held until becoming principal of the new Crescent Heights High School in 1915.[12][23][Note 1]

Elliott and Miller write that Aberhart took a less rigid approach to discipline at Crescent Heights than he had in Ontario,[23] though Schultz says that as principal he was "authoritarian in manner and a strict disciplinarian."[24] His love of organization persisted,[12][23] and his penchant for it enhanced his reputation as "an able administrator."[24] Crescent Height's students scored very well on departmental examinations, though some members of the school board believed that he achieved this at least partly by culling weaker students with a preliminary qualifying examination.[26]

One way Aberhart applied his organizational prowess was in creating one of Calgary's first and largest Parent-Teacher Associations, which had an average of two hundred parents attend each meeting; Aberhart had a generally good relationship with parents.[27] His standing with his staff was more mixed: he had a habit of "talking down" to them, dominated the school to the point that teachers were left with little initiative, and, as Elliott and Miller put it, "never entered the staff room except to issue an order."[24][26] Many of his teachers, while respecting his abilities an administrator, thought very little of him as a man, and some believed that his domineering approach stemmed from a fear of people smarter than him.[28] In 1919, eight Crescent Heights teachers wrote the school board requesting an investigation into Aberhart's work; the resulting inspection led to the transfer of three male teachers—with whom Aberhart had a particularly poor rapport—to other schools, and stated that persisting problems would lead to a request for Aberhart's resignation.[26] A follow-up investigation two years later found a substantial improvement in conditions and reported favourably on Aberhart's abilities.[28] Despite this uneven relationship, Aberhart was not all together closed-minded, and would entertain—and sometimes even be convinced by—arguments from his staff.[23][29]

Besides his administrative duties, Aberhart taught English and math.[23][24] True to form, in doing so he emphasized rote memorization at the expense of independent reasoning, to the point that one of his teachers once likened him to a dog trainer.[12][23] He cared for his students and provided extensive extra tutoring, especially for students in whom he saw a genuine interest in learning the material.[24][30] Outside of the classroom, he applied his talents to organizing picnics and games,[24] and in 1922 organized an elected dividend of 25 cents per share. He urged his students to adopt four axioms he followed in his own life: "be enthusiastic, be ambitious, develop a distinctive personality, [and] have a hobby and ride it hard."[24]

In the assessment of John Barr, a Social Credit staffer years after Aberhart's death who later wrote one of the first histories of the party's years in power, "Aberhart generally had the respect and admiration of a broad following of parents, teachers, and students."[29] Schultz claims that the only area in which all 61 people he interviewed in researching Aberhart's career agreed was that he was an excellent high school teacher.[24]


Early religious views and adoption of Dispensationalism

Though his parents were not churchgoers, as a child Aberhart attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church.[31] Under circumstances that are not clear to history, in high school he became a devout Christian.[32] He initially adopted Biblical literalism, though while at normal school he was exposed to more liberal versions of Christianity that taught the existence of internal inconsistencies in the Bible; for several years he adopted the approach of a Bible teacher who counselled him to "treat [the] Bible as [...] a nice plate of fish" and "eat the meat and leave the bones for the dogs."[33] Though at first he subscribed to the notion of unconditional election, and worried about whether he was destined for salvation, he later adopted the Arminian doctrine of conditional election, and became confident that, through his faith, he would be saved.[34]

While in Brantford, Aberhart studied at Zion Presbyterian church,[13] where he became interested in Biblical prophecy, which in turn led him to Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism held that history was divided into seven dispensations, during each of which God made a covenant with man, and during each of which man broke the covenant.[35] That the terms of the covenant were different in each dispensation resolved Aberhart's earlier concerns about the Bible's internal inconsistencies.[34] His views were heavily influenced by a correspondence course he took offered by American Dispensationalist Cyrus Scofield; Elliott and Miller speculate that such a course would have appealed to Aberhart by reducing "difficult theological problems to a matter of memorizing questions and answers".[36]

In 1911, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Aberhart had aspired to take ministerial training at the Presbyterian Knox College Divinity School, but the church in Brantford was reluctant to take on the support of both him and his family in the four-year training period. He became fascinated with prophetical teaching in the Bible and studied a correspondence course by the American evangelical theologian Cyrus Scofield. He had been introduced to this system while attending a men's Bible Class at Zion Presbyterian, taught by Wiiliam Nichol, an elderly physician.[37]

In 1910, Aberhart accepted a position as principal of Alexandra School in King on the topic.[41]

Political career

Aberhart became interested in politics during the Great Depression in Canada, a time which was especially harsh on Albertan and Saskatchewan farmers. Particularly, he was drawn to the Social Credit theories of Major C. H. Douglas, a British engineer. From 1932 to 1935, Aberhart lobbied for the governing political party, the United Farmers of Alberta, to adopt these theories, but it is doubtful that Aberhart fully understood the theories.[42] The basis of Douglas's A+B theorem is that prices rise faster than incomes when regarded as a flow, and individuals' purchasing power should be supplemented through issuance of new credits which have not derived from the productive system. Aberhart's lobbying to encourage the United Farmers to adopt Social Credit principles was not successful. He then helped found the Social Credit Party of Alberta, which won the 1935 provincial election by a landslide with over 54% of the popular vote.[43]

Not even Social Credit had expected to win the election. It had not even had a formal leader during the campaign, and now had to elect one who would become premier. Aberhart was the obvious choice, as he had been the party's founder and guiding force. He initially didn't want the job, but was finally prevailed to accept the mantle of leadership. He was formally sworn in as premier on September 3 (11 days after his August 22 victory) but was not an MLA until a November 4 by-election win in Okotoks-High River, prior to the first sitting of the Legislature after his party's rise to power. That riding's MLA, William Morrison, resigned to give Aberhart a chance to get into the legislature, a standard practice in Westminster systems when the leader doesn't have a seat.

Aberhart served as his own Minister of Education and, starting in 1937, Attorney General. His government was unable to implement much of the party platform since the social credit concept relied on control of the money supply and of the banks, both of which are a responsibility of the federal government of Canada under the British North America Act. It has been said that Premier Aberhart knowingly went beyond constitutional limits with his proposed legislation, yet he did so as it won him popular support among the electorate. Lieutenant Governor John C. Bowen refused to give Royal Assent to three government bills in 1937. Two of the bills would have put the province's banks under the control of the provincial government, while a third, the Accurate News and Information Act, would have forced newspapers to print government rebuttals to stories the provincial cabinet deemed "inaccurate". All three bills were later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. For its leadership in the fight against the latter act, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald, the Red Deer News, Lethbridge Herald and the province's weekly newspapers a Special Citation, the first time it was awarded outside the U.S.

Aberhart instituted a variety of relief programs to help people out of poverty, as well as public-works programs and a debt-relief program that froze some debt collections and mortgage foreclosures. This, like Tommy Douglas' similar program in Saskatchewan, was later overturned in the mid-1940s by the Supreme Court, although it aided people for a number of years during and (for a short time) after the Great Depression.

Alberta's Social Credit government brought in legislation under which an MLA could be recalled by a portion of his/her constituents. Under this legislation, Aberhart was the first Canadian politician to be threatened with recall from office. The government then retroactively repealed the recall legislation rather than have Aberhart removed from his seat.[44]

In keeping with his evangelical views, Aberhart added a heavy dose of social conservatism to Douglas' original ideas. Most notably, he enacted very tight restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Indeed, the only stricter law in Canada at the time was in Prince Edward Island, where the sale of alcohol remained completely banned until 1948. Well into the 1960s, commercial airlines could not serve alcohol while flying over Alberta.

By late 1937, relations with the Lieutenant-Governor became so strained that Bowen even threatened to dismiss Aberhart's government, which would have been an extraordinary use of his reserve powers. An analogus situation occurred in 1932 in Australia between Jack Lang and Sir Philip Game, the Premier and Governor, respectively, of New South Wales. However, Bowen did not follow through on his threat due in part to Social Credit's immense popularity with the people. Had he dismissed Aberhart, it would have triggered fresh elections that Social Credit would have almost certainly won. Aberhart's government was re-elected in the 1940 election with a somewhat reduced mandate.

Although Aberhart was unable to gain control of Alberta's banks, his government gained a foothold in the province's financial industry by creating the Alberta Treasury Branches in 1938. ATB has become Aberhart's legacy, operating as an orthodox financial institution and crown corporation.

Aberhart died unexpectedly on May 23, 1943, during a visit to his adult daughters in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Burnaby as his widow intended to move to Vancouver to be close to her children.[45] He was succeeded as the Premier of Alberta by his lifelong disciple, Ernest C. Manning, who gradually moved away from Douglas' monetary theories. Social Credit would remain in office until its defeat in the 1971 election—one of the longest-serving provincial governments in Canadian history, and one of the longest-serving in the Commonwealth.

The Aberhart Centre, a long-term medical care centre at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, is named in his honour, as is William Aberhart High School in Calgary.

In 1974, he was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada. A plaque commemorating this sits inside Crescent Heights High School at 1019 1st NW, Calgary, Alberta.[46]


Elliott (1978) argues that the Aberhart’s Social Credit ideology was clearly antithetical to his previous theology, which was highly sectarian, separatist, apolitical, other-worldly, and eschatologically oriented. Elliott challenges the arguments of Mann (1955) and Irving (1959) that there was a definite connection between Aberhart's theology and political program. Elliott reports that Aberhart's political support did not come from the sectarian groups as Mann and Irving suggest, but rather it came from the members of established churches and those with marginal religious commitment.[47]

Electoral record

Nov. 4, 1935 Provincial By-election Okotoks - High River

1935 by-election results (Okotoks-High River)[48] Turnout N/A
Affiliation Candidate Votes %
Social Credit William Aberhart Acclaimed
1940 Alberta general election results (Calgary)[49] Turnout N.A.
     Independent Andrew Davison[Note 2] 12,465 27.1%
Social Credit William Aberhart[Note 2] 12,122 26.4%
     Independent James Mahaffey[Note 2] 3,645 7.9%
     Independent John J. Bowlen[Note 2] 3,447 7.5%
     CCF Frederick J. White 2,846 6.2%
     Independent Joseph Tweed Shaw 2,685 5.8%
Social Credit Frederic Anderson[Note 2] 1,939 4.2%
Social Credit Edith Gostick 1,605 3.5%
     Independent Norman D. Dingle 1,480 3.2%
Social Credit Mrs. Howitt D. Tarves 1,386 3.0%
     CCF Robert T. Alderman 1,298 2.8%
     Independent Harry Pryde 576 1.3%
     Independent Douglas V. Mitchell 251 0.5%
     Independent James M. Moodie 169 0.4%

See also


  1. ^ Schultz reports this date as 1927, saying that Aberhart was principal of "Balmoral Heights" from 1915 until then.[24] This confusion may be because when Crescent Heights opened in 1915, it occupied part of Balmoral School, an elementary school. Crescent Heights received its own building in 1929.[25]
  2. ^ a b c d e Calgary was a multi-member constituency that elected five MLAs using the single transferable vote electoral method. These candidates were elected.


  1. ^
  2. ^ , p. 409
  3. ^ Perry & Craig 2006, p. 410.
  4. ^ ,p. 3
  5. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 2.
  6. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 3.
  7. ^ , p. 185
  8. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 4.
  9. ^ a b Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 5.
  10. ^ , p. 37
  11. ^ a b Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 6.
  12. ^ a b c d Barr 1974, p. 37.
  13. ^ a b Schultz 1964, p. 186.
  14. ^ a b Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 6-7.
  15. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 14-15.
  16. ^ a b c Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 15.
  17. ^ a b c Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 23.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 11-12.
  20. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 20.
  21. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 23-24.
  22. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 24.
  23. ^ a b c d e f Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 44.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i Schultz 1964, p. 187.
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b c Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 46.
  27. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 45.
  28. ^ a b Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 47.
  29. ^ a b c Barr 1974, p. 38.
  30. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 44-45.
  31. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 7-8.
  32. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 7.
  33. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 8-9.
  34. ^ a b Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 9.
  35. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 12.
  36. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, pp. 13-14.
  37. ^
  38. ^ Johnson & McNutt 1979, pp. 50-51.
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^ Elliott & Miller 1987, p. 284.
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^ Aberhart, William National Historic Person. Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada.
  47. ^
  48. ^ , p. 99
  49. ^ Mardon & Mardon 1993, p. 33.

Further reading/other sources

Primary sources

External links

  • Encyclopedia of Alberta Online
  • Alberta Source
  • Alberta legislative assembly
  • Biography
  • William Aberhart Historical Foundation
  • CBC 1943 archival video clip on Aberhart's legacy
  • William Aberhart's papers digitized at the University of Calgary Archives
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