Party of One

The curiously unheralded life of Alberta's longest-serving premier.

By Alex Rettie

Ernest C. Manning (1908–1997) was an Alberta MLA and cabinet minister for 33 years and the province’s premier for 25 years. When he first joined the provincial cabinet as provincial secretary and Minister of Trade & Industry in 1935, he was, at 26, the youngest cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth. When his fellow Social Credit caucus members chose him to lead the party on the death of William Aberhart in 1943, he was, at 34, the youngest premier Canada had seen. After retiring from provincial politics, he served in the Senate for 10 years. Quite the success story for a Saskatchewan farm boy who never got closer to a college education than the time he spent studying at Aberhart’s non-accredited Prophetic Bible Institute. Add to his successes the fact that throughout his political career Manning was also a radio evangelist with an audience of one million, and the fact he was father to Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party of Canada. You have to wonder—why is Brian Brennan’s The Good Steward the first book-length biography of Manning?

There are a lot of answers to the question, of course, and two of them—Manning’s consistent political success and quiet personal life—are bad news for the Calgary-based Mr. Brennan and readers of his book. Manning’s life doesn’t have the kind of narrative arc that makes for a satisfying read. A biography of Churchill or Lincoln will have early chapters like “Years of Struggle” or “A Voice in the Wilderness” that make the later “The Tide Turns” and “Phoenix Risen” even more satisfying. Brennan, once he sees Manning out of his early twenties, has to make do with chapter headings like “The Politics of Oil and Gas” and “Citizen Participation Dividends.”

A dearth of sheer narrative interest can sometimes be made up for by an abundance of amusing anecdote—think of the “Once, after several brandy-and-sodas” kind of story that keeps the average Churchill biography going between 1918 and 1933. Brennan, the author of several volumes of biographical sketches also published by Fifth House, has a natural talent for this sort of thing, but the material’s just not there to exploit. Manning, a lifelong teetotaller and devoted family man, may, as Brennan claims, have had a “dry sense of humour,” but there’s very little of it on the public record. There are suggestions in the book of a certain tendency in Manning to cut off those close to him—he evidently had no contact with Aberhart’s family, with whom he had lived for years, after Aberhart’s death, and had little contact with his own parents and brothers—but again, there’s not enough material to really say anything about his personality.

A more substantial reason why Manning hasn’t been the subject of a biography until now is the lack of any easily-pointed-to legacy from his years in office. Most politicians who remain in the public memory can be connected to a particular achievement—abolition of slavery, introduction of Medicare, the New Deal, what have you—but Manning’s premiership featured no initiatives that make for easy copy for a biographer. Indeed, it’s a lot easier to point to what Manning, and the Social Credit movement as a whole, didn’t achieve than to what it did.

Social Credit clearly regarded itself as “constituting” rather than “representing” the popular will.

What didn’t Social Credit achieve? The best place to begin is perhaps the movement’s failure to achieve any of the reforms to the credit and monetary systems that were its original aims. Calgary high school principal and lay preacher William Aberhart, Ernest Manning’s mentor, began the Alberta Social Credit movement under the inspiration of the writings of Major Clifford Douglas, a British amateur economist, anti-Semite and all-around crackpot. Aberhart, Manning and the collections of farmers and small-town businessmen who formed the core of Social Credit in Alberta were far from the only people to be inspired by Douglas’s theories—the American poet Ezra Pound was also a fan—but they were the only ones who attempted to put them into practice. This proved impossible, because a) the theories themselves—in a nutshell, that the value of an individual’s potential labour should be harnessed in monetary form—lacked any clear application; and b) provincial governments in Canada have no jurisdiction over the money system. It’s unclear, in fact, whether any of Douglas’s preferred policies would be legal in any Western democracy. Douglas himself was of the opinion that they would require a coup d’état to implement.

When the United Farmers of Alberta dynasty collapsed under the weight of the Brownlee scandal, the Depression and provincial bankruptcy in 1935, the Alberta public turned to the Social Credit movement started by Aberhart. The movement has often been characterized as a populist one, and its beginnings were certainly in church halls and community halls rather than in chambers of commerce and smoke-filled backrooms. But Social Credit, unlike the original UFA movement, the Wheat Pool or even the Western Canada Concept or the Reform Party, was far from being a flowering of the will and creativity of average Albertans. Aberhart, with his preaching protégé Manning as his right-hand man, was committed to giving legislative substance to foreign economic theories that were little understood by his constituency—who were largely drawn by the movement’s emphasis on overthrowing the power of Eastern bankers without instituting socialism. “Alberta Goes Crazy” was the Boston Globe’s succinct comment on the 1935 election.

Ernest Manning as a member of William Aberhart's Social Credit cabinet (1935).

Ernest Manning as a member of William Aberhart’s Social Credit cabinet (1935). (Glenbow/ND-3-7103B)

Despite its absolute commitment to free enterprise and its emphasis on the individual as the most important unit of society, Social Credit theory was oddly similar to Marxism-Leninism. The movement aimed at educating “the people,” who, under the tutelage of the few initiated into the proper “scientific” economic theories, would defeat the rule of oppressive elites by replacing those elites with a Social Credit governing elite. Social Credit’s candidates in Alberta in 1935 were hand-picked by Aberhart and Manning rather than put through the sort of nomination process that is usually regarded as one of the hallmarks of democracy in the English-speaking world. The government the movement formed clearly regarded itself as “constituting” rather than “representing” the popular will—it reversed itself on electoral recalls when electors threatened to recall Aberhart himself, passed an unconstitutional Act limiting freedom of the press and brought in economic legislation based largely on the advice of outsiders. None of the legislation which was to transform the old order saw the light of day—it was struck down by either the courts or the federal government as being outside provincial jurisdiction. The Edmonton Journal won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a non-US recipient for its fight against Aberhart’s unconstitutional Accurate News & Information Act, which would have muzzled Alberta media. One of the few economic reforms the party did achieve was the establishment of Alberta Treasury Branches as a way of extending the credit supply to rural Albertans.

Manning as provincial secretary was a key player in all of these authoritarian and quixotic attempts at transforming Alberta—and, while he quietly shelved Social Credit theory as a basis for policy, he never expressed regret at the actions or intentions of Aberhart’s government. Indeed, upon his accession to the premiership in 1943 (decided on by caucus vote rather than party convention) he carried on the Aberhart tradition of top-down, one-person rule of Social Credit. Like Aberhart, he was an infrequent participant in legislative debates, preferring to think of himself as an administrator rather than a politician. Cabinet ministers and MLAs who crossed Manning were likely to find themselves summarily dismissed—the purge of the few remaining Social Credit purists in 1947 was a reminder that Social Credit was, when it came down to it, a one-man party.

While Manning didn’t achieve his stated aims of reforming the monetary and credit system, he did, as Peter Lougheed among others has pointed out, provide stable, orderly government to Alberta for 25 years during which the province was transformed from a poor and largely agricultural backwater to one of the economic powerhouses of Confederation. Most of the circumstances of Alberta’s rags-to-riches story owe little to Manning personally—he didn’t invent the Commonwealth Air Training Program, the Alaska highway or oil—but he should be given credit for his taking advantage of the opportunities at hand. The Leduc oil find of 1948 finally gave Alberta a chance to get its economic house in order (settling with its long-suffering bondholders was one of the first orders of business) and the oil-and-gas lease system Manning implemented (typically, he made himself Minister of Energy) is perhaps the longest-lasting of Manning’s accomplishments. It was maintained in place by the Lougheed Conservatives and remains substantially unchanged today. The friendly relations Manning fostered with US oil companies brought unprecedented prosperity to the province. Alberta has remained one of the best places in North America for oil companies to do business, as evidenced by the howls of complaint whenever a minor change in the favourable conditions is proposed.

Social Credit in Alberta was solidly against state intervention in the economy, including the accoutrements of the welfare state. Manning fought actively against the introduction of Medicare and was no great believer in unemployment insurance or handouts of any kind. Nonetheless, he did believe in giving people the tools they needed to better themselves. The Manning government instituted a pay-if-you-can system of medical insurance, improved education in Alberta through curriculum reform, school expansion and support for new post-secondary institutions, and was an innovator in the provision of community-based social services. Lougheed’s government (not Klein’s, unfortunately) followed Manning’s lead in the provision of social services. Manning’s successors also benefited from the professional, non-partisan and famously honest provincial civil service he created and nurtured.

Social Credit was against state intervention in the economy, and the accoutrements of a welfare state.

Ernest Manning was possessed of a strong sense of compassion and fairness that stemmed, as it turns out, from his deeply held Christian beliefs. It’s those beliefs that are the final reason for the lack of attention paid to Manning by biographers in the 40 years since his retirement from provincial politics. Canadian politicians at both the federal and provincial level (outside Quebec) have for the most part avoided discussion of their personal religious beliefs. The English parliamentary tradition has never, since the English Civil War at least, given rise to denominational political parties, and this tendency in the larger tradition has been magnified in Canada by the risk of Protestant/Catholic divisions exacerbating English/French ones. Canadians just don’t know what to do with a politician who believes, along with both Manning and his son Preston, that “if Christianity is giving you a new outlook on life, you can’t divorce it from anything,” including politics.

Ernest Manning was a career politician, but he considered his main mission in life the evangelical work he did through the Prophetic Bible Institute and, after its demise, through the “Back to the Bible” radio show started by William Aberhart. While Aberhart used his broadcasting fame as a platform to political success (to be fair, he believed absolutely in both his religious and his political message), Manning pursued both without mixing the two. Alberta may have a reputation as the Bible Belt of Canada, but the majority of Albertans during the Manning era belonged to mainline churches (Catholic, United, Anglican, Lutheran) that had and have very little in common with Manning’s fundamentalist (and prophetic) beliefs. While his work as a lay preacher may have strengthened the electorate’s trust in his honesty and reliability, there’s very little to suggest that many Albertans found the spectacle of their premier elucidating theories of the exact timing of the War of Gog and Magog (“Keep an eye on Israel!”) especially edifying or instructive. That the anti-communism and anti-socialism Manning’s faith engendered in him were in line with the small-c conservative thinking of most Albertans was, at best, coincidence.

There has been very little critical response, even in Alberta, to Brian Brennan’s The Good Steward. But Ernest Manning’s life in politics and his commitment to his faith are a key part of the Alberta story, and a reminder that social conservatism doesn’t necessarily imply social Darwinism. Alberta’s stingy and reluctant political response to human suffering—as evidenced by the homeless men and women shivering on our downtown streets, for example—would have been foreign to Manning, whose faith in the free market was always superseded by his faith in a loving, compassionate God. #

Alex Rettie is Alberta Views’s regular books columnist and a lifelong Albertan.


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