The Alberta of 1914 that had existed at the outbreak of the First World War was gone forever.
In its place was a province transformed by the trials and challenges of war. Those four years of turmoil and struggle would cause much distress and misery, but would also lay the foundations of today’s province.
The major economic building blocks that would ensure Albertans regularly enjoyed the highest employment rates and the richest economy during the last 40 years were laid between 1914 and 1918.
Rory Cory, chief curator with the Military Museums in Calgary, said the demands of the Allied war effort turned Canada as a whole into the major food supplier for Empire troops, with Alberta in the forefront of such vital production.
“Canada became the world’s foremost exporter of wheat and timber, and the third-largest supplier of beef. We would have a huge part in feeding the Empire troops overall because Britain wasn’t self-sufficient at the time.
“Beef in particular came out of Alberta, and we also supplied most of Canada’s coal and oil, too. It would eventually provide a huge boost to the entire energy industry,” said Cory.
The effects went beyond grain, ranching, oil, gas and coal mining. The First World War even spurred Alberta’s connection to the horse.
“We actually exported 520,000 horses overseas because there was a huge demand for transport and there was a major push to increase the horse-breeding operations here. Sadly, of course, very few of those animals returned after the war,” added Cory.
And if the future of industry in Alberta was irrevocably changed, so were the politics of the province.
Prairie populism had been born. The old political order of rule by the Liberal Party would be swept away and, by 1921, a new party, running without a leader or much of an actual program would gain power. The United Farmers of Alberta swept away the old political order only for it to be relegated to history 14 years later by another populist political uprising, this time in the form of the Social Credit party.
Meanwhile, labour unrest erupted. Ordinary Albertans and returning veterans were angered by low wages, dreadful social conditions and a belief that big business had reaped huge profits during the war years at everyone’s expense.
In the spring of 1919, the first meeting of the national ‘One Big Union’ movement was held in Calgary. Two months later that would lead directly to the Winnipeg General Strike and the infamy of Bloody Saturday, in which two strikers were shot and killed by police and dozens more injured in a baton charge.
By 1932, at the recently built Legion No. 1 in downtown Calgary, the first national meeting of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was held. Years later, the CCF would emerge into a new political organization altogether — called The New Democratic Party.
The seeds for such remarkable changes were cast during those four years of war.