‘Bible Bill’ Aberhart’s legacy of anti-Semitism in Alberta

Alberta Premier William Aberhart, centre right, and his Social Credit cabinet pose for a picture on the steps of the Alberta legislature in Edmonton in 1935.

In 1935, although he was too young to vote at the time, my Zayda, Cecil Kline, was standing in the basement of Calgary’s Jewish community centre with his friends, cheering as William (Bible Bill) Aberhart’s Social Credit party swept to power in Alberta’s provincial election. Little did they know that they had just ushered in the most overtly anti-Semitic government in Canadian history.

In the midst of the Great Depression, alternative economic and political systems were gaining popularity worldwide – communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany. Perhaps none were as crazy as social credit theory, the brainchild of British engineer Maj. C. H. Douglas.

Douglas’ economic theories – which were, perhaps intentionally, complex and have been thoroughly discredited – were predicated on the idea that the world’s financial troubles were caused by an international conspiracy led by a cabal of – you guessed it – Jewish bankers. (For a time, many thought social credit would be adopted as Nazi Germany’s economic system, but after Hitler wrote the theory off, Douglas accused him of being part of the Jewish conspiracy.)

Although the Alberta Social Credit Party never enacted any explicitly anti-Jewish policies, it attracted its share of anti-Semites.

When he started championing social credit theory in 1932, Aberhart was the host of a popular evangelical radio program that reached hundreds of thousands of listeners throughout Western Canada, and the founder of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute. After he started preaching social credit ideas on his radio program and in his sermons, they went, as we would say today, “viral” (Aberhart himself once remarked that his movement “spread like measles”).

Whether intentional or not, part of the movement’s ultimate success stemmed from the fact that Aberhart did not initially form a political party, but instead set up social credit study groups and started lecturing members of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), the party that had been in power since 1921. In an effort to placate the movement, Premier John Brownlee even initiated an inquiry and invited Douglas and Aberhart to speak to the legislature in 1933.

It wasn’t until the last minute that it became clear that Aberhart had created a political party that would field a full slate of candidates in the election. In 1935, on the promise of hope in the face of economic disparity – and $25 for each Albertan – Social Credit dominated at the ballot box, winning 56 of the legislative assembly’s 63 seats and wiping the UFA off the electoral map. It was Prairie populism at its finest.

Alberta Premier William Aberhart addresses the crowd at a rally in Calgary.

Although the Alberta Social Credit Party never enacted any explicitly anti-Jewish policies, it attracted its share of anti-Semites and its messages were peppered with anti-Semitic tropes, led by the party’s propaganda outlet, Today and Tomorrow, which regularly published articles about the Jewish financial conspiracy.

While Aberhart bought into Douglas’ theories about the conspiracy, many historians believe he rejected the idea that it was run by the Jews, and Aberhart consistently maintained that he and his party were “not anti-Semitic.”

He was, however, an evangelical Christian who believed that “the Jewish race must yet acknowledge that the Christ … was the son of God, their messiah,” and many of his statements were tinged with anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Yet as premier he had a pretty good relationship with the Jewish community, writing holiday greetings in the Jewish press, speaking at the Canadian Jewish Congress’ (CJC) conference in Calgary in 1939 and saying that Alberta would welcome Jewish refugees if the federal government signed on.

Despite Aberhart’s complicated, and often contradictory, views on the Jewish people, it’s fairly clear that the party’s source of anti-Semitism was not its leader, but the economic theory in which it was rooted.

Maj. C. H. Douglas visits Edmonton in 1934.

As time went on, it started to become clear that Aberhart was unable to put that theory into practice: the government never found the funds to fulfil its promise to give $25 a year to each Albertan and many of its policies, such as its attempt to set up a central bank, were struck down by the courts.

Following a revolt from within his own party in 1937, Aberhart hired L. D. Byrne, a vehement anti-Semite and one of Douglas’ lieutenants, and created the Social Credit Board to oversee the implementation of social credit policies. (Douglas famously refused to help put his crackpot economic theories into practice, telling Aberhart that his only advice was to tax the rich and watch out for the Jews).

Yet the hateful rhetoric coming from the likes of Byrne and the Social Credit Board led to increasing calls from the media, the Jewish community and the CJC for Aberhart to purge the anti-Semitic elements within the party. But it was not until after Aberhart’s death in 1943 that his successor, Ernest Manning, actually took action, disbanding the Social Credit Board and firing Byrne, along with a number of anti-Semitic MLAs.

The party, however, continued its dynastic rule until it was swept into the dustbin of history in 1971, when Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative party came to power in another wave of Prairie populism.

Jesse Kline is an editor at The Canadian Jewish News and a proud Albertan at heart.