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United Farmers of Alberta

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The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) is an association of Alberta farmers that has served different roles in its 100-year history - as a lobby group, a successful political party, and as a farm-supply retail chain. As a political party, it formed the government of Alberta from 1921 to 1935.

Since 1935, it has primarily been an agricultural supply cooperative headquartered in Calgary. As of 2012, UFA operates 35 farm and ranch supply stores in Alberta, over 100 fuel stations in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and 25 outdoor adventure sporting goods stores in Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

Founding as lobby group

UFA was founded in 1909 as a government lobby group following a merger between the Alberta Farmers' Association and Alberta branches of the Canadian Society for Equity. The UFA began as a non-partisan organization whose aim was to be a lobby group promoting the interest of farmers in the province. In 1913, under president William John Tregillus, the UFA successfully pressured Alberta's Liberal government to organize the Alberta Farmers' Cooperative Elevator Company (AFCEC), which joined with other Prairie elevator companies to eventually become the United Grain Growers. Tregillus was the first president of the AFCEC.

The UFA was a believer in the co-operative movement and supported women's suffrage. In 1912 women founded the parallel United Farm Women of Alberta, and in 1914, women were granted full membership rights in UFA itself.

By 1920, UFA had become the most influential lobby group in Alberta with over 30,000 registered members.

Political history

Entry into politics

Under pressure of losing influence to the upstart Alberta Non-Partisan League - which ran in four rural constituencies in the 1917 provincial election, winning two - and dissatisfied with the existing political parties, UFA entered the political arena in 1919. Some prominent UFA members (including its president, Henry Wise Wood) at first opposed entering into direct politics, as opposed to lobbying, however, because they thought abandoning the UFA's non-partisan policy would cause the UFA to break up.

In 1919, the UFA won a by-election in the Cochrane constituency. In 1921, Robert Gardiner won a seat in a federal by-election, becoming UFA's first Member of Parliament. Encouraged by this, UFA ran in 45 of Alberta's 61 ridings in the 1921 provincial election. To the surprise of nearly everyone, including themselves, UFA took 38 seats in the election, winning a majority government, and sweeping the Liberals out of power after almost 16 years. UFA and Progressive party candidates also captured all but two of the Alberta federal seats in the 1921 federal election (the other two were taken by Labour candidates).

Majority governments

As was the case with other United Farmer governments in Manitoba and Ontario, the UFA was elected unexpectedly and without a leader. To form its cabinet, it, like the other United Farmer governments, went outside the Legislature to recruit a Premier. UFA even approached Liberal leader Charles Stewart to remain as premier. Stewart declined, however, not wanting to lead the assembly as a member of the opposition. UFA President Henry Wise Wood also declined, and Vice-President Percival Baker, an elected MLA, died 24 hours after the election. Ultimately, UFA executive member Herbert Greenfield was named the first UFA Premier. Among his cabinet were Irene Parlby, the second female cabinet minister in the British Empire, and Calgary Labour Party MLA Alex Ross as Minister of Public Works.

The United Farmers government initiated several reforms, including improving medical care, broadening labour rights and making the tax system fairer. It made good on its promise of electoral reform, bringing in a measure of proportional representation through the STV. In 1923, the government formed the Alberta Wheat Pool and upset some of its support base by ending Prohibition, replacing it with open sale of alcohol through government-owned liquor stores and carefully regulated beer parlours, and refusing to establish a provincial bank, a bank owned by the provincial government, despite UFA conventions calling for it.

In 1925, John E. Brownlee, who was already widely believed to be the "true" leader of the United Farmers, succeeded Greenfield as Premier. Brownlee led the party to a second majority government in the 1926 election.

In 1929, after years of negotiating, Brownlee gained control over Alberta's natural resources. This was a right other provinces were granted at Confederation or upon entry into Confederation, but which Alberta and Saskatchewan were denied when they became provinces in 1905, instead receiving a yearly cash subsidy from the federal government. This deal would later become a critical factor in Alberta's economic success as the province's oil deposits were exploited.

Riding a wave of popularity resulting from this agreement, Brownlee led the United Farmers to a third majority government in the 1930 election, despite alienating socialists and labour groups as he led the party in a conservative fashion, and despite the quickly deteriorating financial conditions.

Decline

The Great Depression had a critical impact on the United Farmers' fortunes, as the crash in grain prices and simultaneous drought in southern Alberta hurt its support base, farmers. The government, with reduced tax revenue, engaged in cuts in services, staff and wages. The province was in debt after the grandiose spending of the relatively prosperous 1920s. The government also bailed out the hard-pressed Alberta Wheat Pool in 1929. Banks were repossessing the farms of many farmers who were unable to pay off their loans and interest when grain prices were lower than the cost of production. The governments Liberal and Conservative opponents grew louder and they hoped to become popular. At the same time, however, the government faced opposition from socialists calling for more interventionist anti-capitalist policies and for radical monetary reform. The latter stance was supported by William Aberhart's Social Credit movement, which in 1933-35 grew to a potent force among the province's farmers.

Henry Wise Wood retired as president of the UFA, more-radical-minded UFA MP Robert Gardiner, a member of the Ginger Group became president; the UFA conventions passed increased calls for strong government measures to address the province's widespread poverty; the UFA joined with the Canadian Labour Party and other political groups to help found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the first Canada-wide farmer/labour political party (other than the revolutionary Communist Party of Canada). Premier Brownlee on more than one occasion opposed the UFA's leftward slide. The final blow for Brownlee occurred when he was caught up in a sex scandal as he was accused of seducing a young clerk working in the Attorney General's office. Brownlee resigned in disgrace in July 1934.

Richard G. Reid succeeded Brownlee as Premier, however with many voters jumping to the new Social Credit, the United Farmers' fall in politics was as rapid as its rise. The party was wiped off the political map in the 1935 election, losing all of its seats and tallying only 11 percent of the vote.

Of the nine UFA MPs elected in the 1930 federal election, eight joined the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation after it was formed in 1932. All eight ran as CCF candidates in the 1935 federal election and were defeated by a Social Credit landslide. The ninth UFA MP, William Thomas Lucas of Camrose, ran as a Conservative and was also defeated by the Socreds.

Two years after the UFA government was defeated, the organization withdrew from electoral politics. In 1938, the CCF committed itself to run candidates in the next provincial and elections, setting up local riding clubs for that purpose. In 1939, UFA officially disbanded its political arm, still continuing as a farmers supply co-operative. Many of the left-wing members of the UFA organization joined the CCF, though that party would not win the support of most former UFA voters. Many right-wing and centrist members of the UFA joined the Alberta Unity Movement, an attempt to form a coalition between United Farmers, Liberals and Conservatives to defeat Social Credit in the 1940 provincial election.

Federal politics

The United Farmers of Alberta ran candidates in several federal elections in alignment with, but usually to the left of, the Progressive Party of Canada with a number of UFA MPs sitting in the House of Commons with the Ginger Group of left wing MPs.

Following Robert Gardiner's election in a federal by-election prior to the 1921 election, Alberta farmer ran 14 candidates (some as UFA, some as Progressive Party candidates) in the 1921 federal election, not running in two Calgary ridings where strong Labour candidates carried the farmer-worker banner. All the UFA candidates (and the two Calgary Labour candidates) were elected, the incumbent Liberal MPs and Conservative contenders not getting one seat. In 1926, the province's Progressive MPs ran for re-election as UFA candidates. Eight of the UFA's 9 remaining MPs joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation when it was formed in 1932. All eight ran as CCF candidates in the 1935 federal election and were defeated. The ninth, William Thomas Lucas, ran as a Conservative in 1935 and was also defeated by the Social Credit landslide that were elections in Alberta that year.