Pioneers of Canada - Alberta
In the late 18th century southern Alberta was occupied by Aboriginal peoples, including the Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Gros Ventre. The Kootenay and other more western groups made regular bison-hunting expeditions into the area, while more southerly groups, like the Crow, came to the region to engage in warfare and trade. Along the North Saskatchewan River were the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), an offshoot of the Beaver who occupied central and northern Alberta. The northern fringes of modern day Alberta were inhabited by the Slavey (Slave Dene). These Aboriginal peoples felt the effects of European culture long before direct contact occurred. Metal tools and weapons brought by the major European trading groups, including the British Hudson’s Bay Company and the Montréal-based North West Company, were traded and re-traded for furs westward across the continent to the Prairies, reaching the isolated region of southern Alberta in the mid-18th century; similarly, and also by the mid-1700s, the horse moved north from Spanish Mexico, and became fully integrated in the hunting culture of the Blackfoot. Gradually groups close to Hudson Bay adopted European trade goods into their everyday material culture. Consequently, these groups sought new sources of furs as over-hunting began to decrease the availability of fur to trade with major fur companies. More than other nations, the Cree and Assiniboine (including the Stoney) acted as go-betweens for the Hudson Bay Company and the isolated Alberta Aboriginal groups in the 1700s. They moved up the North Saskatchewan River to trade, forcing the Sarcee and Blackfoot tribes south, and the Beaver north. The Chipewyan entered the northeast corner of Alberta, pushing the Beaver back towards the mountains. By the early 1800s, the Gros Ventre had moved south of the 49th parallel. These shifts were the result of new trade patterns facilitated by European exploration and the westward expansion of Central Canada’s fur companies.
The first European known to have reached present-day Alberta was Anthony Henday, a Hudson Bay Company employee, who, accompanied by a band of Cree, travelled through the Red Deer area and likely spent the latter months of the winter near the present site of Edmonton in 1754–55. In 1778, Peter Pond, an employee of the North West Company travelled down the Athabasca River and established the first fur trading post in the province. Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, was founded in 1788 and served as the jumping-off point for Alexander Mackenzie’s historic trip down the Mackenzie River in 1789, and his journey up the Peace River and through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean four years later. The Hudson's Bay Company countered the emerging dominance of the North West Company in northern Alberta by sending Peter Fidler and David Thompson to explore and map the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan rivers in the 1790s and early 1800s. The Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company built competing posts throughout northern and central Alberta until 1821, when the rival companies merged. Neither company successfully penetrated the southern half of the province, which lacked forests and thus valuable beaver furs. By the middle of the 19th century, Christian missionaries began to challenge the fur traders for possession of the territory. Methodist Robert Rundle became the first resident cleric in what is now Alberta in 1840. He was followed two years later by the Roman Catholic Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault. Missionary activity peaked in the third quarter of the century, and included the work of Catholic Albert Lacombe and the Methodist father-and-son team of George and John McDougall. Around the same time in American territory, an expanding northwest fur trade, led by the American Fur Trade Company, became increasingly interested in southern Alberta. In the mid-19th century American ‘free traders’ began moving north from the Fort Benton trading post in Montana Territory in order to trade with several Aboriginal nations, particularly the Blackfoot peoples, for bison hides. By the late 1860s, the American market for bison-hide robes greatly expanded, culminating in a mass influx of free traders across the border. These traders used ‘whiskey,’ a deadly combination of alcohol, dyes, medicines and poisons, as their primary trade item. Death, due to consumption, poisoning, violence, famine and disease, the effects of increasing alcohol dependence and social disintegration brought by the expanding liquor trade, plagued the Blackfoot, plunging the region into violence.
During the 1850s and 1860s, while the liquor trade was emerging, the British and Canadian governments, realizing that the Hudson Bay Company’s license would be terminated in 1870, began investigating the agricultural potential of the Northwest. In 1857, an expedition headed by British Captain John Palliser, and one led by Henry Youle Hind, explored the Northwest. Their reports were, in part, responsible for the British government refusing to renew the Hudson Bay Company license, as the fur trade was becoming less lucrative and settlement more likely. While Palliser was pessimistic about the potential of the region, the Canadian government, as well as land-hungry Canadian expansionists, envisioned an agricultural hinterland in the region. However, the Canadian government first had to obtain the land from the Hudson Bay Company, halt the liquor trade, open the region to peaceful settlement and establish transportation infrastructure to tie the region to central Canada. On 23 June 1870, the Canadian government took possession of the entirety of the Hudson Bay Company’s territory, including all of the future province of Alberta. The following year the region between the new Province of Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains was organized as the Northwest Territories of Canada, with its administrative centre first at Winnipeg, then at Battleford and finally at Regina. The Dominion Lands Policy of 1872 created the legal framework to begin settling and cultivating the land. In 1874, after dozens of reports by missionaries, administrators and explorers highlighting the violence and dangers present in southern Alberta as a result of the American-dominated bison robe and liquor trade, the Canadian government moved to halt the exchange of liquor, establish law and order, and ensure peaceful settlement. In July 1874,, the North-West Mounted Police, led by George French and James Macleod, marched west across the Prairies to the present-day area of Lethbridge. They established their first Alberta post at Fort Macleod in 1874. In 1875, the North-West Mounted Police established forts at Calgary and in Edmonton. By 1875, the liquor trade had been suppressed and the Canadian government, with the aid of the North-West Mounted Police, began to prepare for negotiations for land treaties. Treaty No. 6, which covered the Cree lands of central Alberta was signed in 1876. In 1877, Treaty No. 7, covering the Blackfoot, Sarcee and Stoney of southern Alberta, was negotiated; and in 1899, Treaty No. 8 covered most of northern Alberta (see Land Claims). During the 1870s, only small settlements, linked to the limited but lucrative market provided by the isolated North-West Mounted Police, emerged. By 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway had reached Calgary and was completed in 1885. Settlement was expected to begin in earnest, but from 1885 to 1896 remained slow. In 1881, just before the arrival of the railway, only about 1,000 non-native settlers resided within the boundaries of the present province of Alberta; a decade later, in 1891, that number had grown, but only to 17,500. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of settlers that had been expected in 1885 did not begin until 1896 as a result of the development of fast-maturing varieties of hard spring wheat, the exhaustion of good available land in the American West, the easing of the 22-year economic depression that had gripped North America and the aggressive immigration policy of the federal government under the direction of Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton. From 1896 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Alberta and other parts of the Canadian prairies were the beneficiaries of one of the most important and dramatic population migrations in modern North American history. Settlers poured onto the open prairie farmlands and into its bustling towns and cities. Many came from Ontario and other parts of eastern Canada, others from the United States and Great Britain, and others from continental Europe; the great variety of linguistic and religious backgrounds imposed an indelible multicultural stamp on Alberta life. Alberta's population rose from 73,022 in 1901 to 373,943 in 1911 and 584,454 in 1921.
The creation of the province of Alberta on 1 September 1905 was the logical result of the great immigration boom, and an answer to the political campaign for autonomy that had developed in the Northwest Territories. Political controversies at the time of provincehood centred on the rights of the Roman Catholic minority to publicly funded separate schools, the boundary with the new sister province of Saskatchewan (Albertans sought long. 107°W but had to settle for 110°), and Edmonton's victory over Calgary for the site of the new provincial capital. While these issues left a legacy of bitterness toward perceived federal interference in local matters, none was as contentious as Ottawa's decision to retain control of crown lands and natural resources. The retention of the crown lands and resources, which had been granted to provincial dominion in the cases of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Québec, Ontario and British Columbia, was done, according to the federal government, to continue to promote settlement through the Dominion Lands Policy. However, provincially, the retention of crown lands and resources was seen as an attempt by the federal government to limit the autonomy of the new prairie provinces, stimulate the economic strength and dominance of central Canada, and ensure the West remained an economic hinterland. In 1930, the control of the remaining crown lands and natural resources was granted to the province after a 25-year battle by Albertan premiers. The result was the beginning of western alienation from the federal government, and a strong sense of provincial rights which persist to this day. Alberta’s first decade as a province was prosperous; immigration accelerated, grain harvests were bountiful, new communities sprang up and a network of railway lines rapidly expanded. Yet resentment grew among farmers, who believed that their status as independent entrepreneurs was being jeopardized by the railways, banks and grain-elevator companies. The rise of the United Farmers of Alberta as a political party, and their victory over the Liberals in the 1921 provincial election, was in part a result of this unrest. On a federal scale, during the 1920s, Alberta supported the Progressive Party of Canada in their battle for more populist policies, and a reduction in the national tariff and freight rates that served the interests of central Canadians but not those in the West. Alberta’s dissenting role against the policies of the federal government continued. From 1896 to 1914, the Canadian West experienced unprecedented growth. During the First World War, Alberta played an important role in supplying men, materials and grain to help serve the war effort. However, following the war, grain prices fluctuated and the once-important coal mining industry declined. The worldwide depression of the 1930s, accompanied by prairie drought, soil drifting and grasshopper plagues, accelerated an economic decline that had begun in the post-war years. The Social Credit League won the 1935 provincial election by promising to fight the Great Depression (and the perceived eastern control of Alberta's economy) with a mixture of religious fundamentalism and radical monetary theory. However, Social Credit could not combat the global nature of the Great Depression. In 1939, the world plunged into war again, and increased employment, whether in the military or wartime industry, helping to alleviate the harsh economic conditions that dominated Alberta in the 1930s. The discovery of oil at Leduc in February 1947 began the process of transforming Alberta's economic base from agriculture to petroleum. The resulting exploitation of oil and natural gas resources produced huge increases in provincial revenue from royalties, brought prosperity to most segments of the population, and transformed the cities of Edmonton and Calgary into prosperous metropolitan centres. The 1973 worldwide oil-pricing crisis brought an even greater prosperity that lasted until the general economic recession of the early 1980s. Many Albertans felt their economic situation was exacerbated by the National Energy Program introduced at the time. However, the combination of increased oil revenues and radical cuts in public spending by the provincial government in the 1990s led to a huge budget surplus in 1996. Since then Alberta’s economy has steadily expanded as a result of high world prices for oil and natural gas.