Growth and War (1912–1919)
The University of Alberta was not the only large organization that was growing roots during Alberta’s formative years. Established in 1909 by Alberta farmers, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) grew into a powerful co-operative organization that tackled social, educational, business, political, and rural issues. The UFA built community halls, organized social events, supported the education of rural youth, practiced co-operation, and promoted self-help to farm businesses. Ultimately, the UFA helped shape and influence Alberta government policies for decades.
Dr Henry Marshall Tory had lost his great political ally when Premier Alexander Cameron Rutherford resigned in 1910 and was replaced by Premier Arthur Sifton. Tory and others were cognizant that Alberta farmers and rural communities should be part of a University outreach plan. For example, in 1910, Tory gave an address to the UFA in Calgary. His persuasive speech focused on the logistical importance of including a Faculty of Agriculture within the governance of the University of Alberta.
Some people, such as newspaperman Frank Oliver, thought a University was premature and that political will and financial backing should be directed wholly towards supporting Alberta’s agricultural industry. Rutherford and Tory felt an urban, centralized University and the province’s agricultural industry and rural communities could grow simultaneously. From the University’s beginning, faculty members travelled to, and were engaged in, giving lectures to many town and village residents throughout Alberta.
Notably, the University created the Department of Extension in 1912 and placed Albert Ottewell at the helm. Ottewell was instrumental in building travelling libraries and a huge selection of slides and motion pictures. The Department also organized debating societies throughout the province. Another important 1912 milestone was the University's first-ever convocation ceremony in which members of the first graduating class received their degrees.
From the outset, Rutherford and Tory had the foresight to include women as part of the University’s student body. Women students formed some of the University’s earliest organizations. A growing female consciousness and social voice was also occurring throughout Alberta’s general population during this period.
The United Farm Women of Alberta, formed in 1913 with Irene Parlby as president, campaigned for the equality of women and for the improvement of health care. Women, especially from Alberta’s early farm period, worked in their homes and outside on the family homestead. The idea of division of labour—with women working solely as homemakers and men as sole contributors to the family’s income — is a misconception.
Men often took outside labour jobs so they could purchase farm implements. When husbands were absent, the full burden of maintaining and running houses and homesteads fell upon women. Women ran farms, planted crops, cared for children, acted as veterinarians, fed livestock, grew gardens, cooked, cleaned, and everything in between. Yet in the eyes of the law, women could not sit on juries, could not vote, and lacked basic property rights. Until the Dowers Act was passed in 1917, a woman could be left penniless if her husband died. Until 1920, women did not have equal rights over their children.
The majority of Alberta’s population was rural and its main economy was agricultural. Farmers had political clout, which was displayed at the United Farmers of Alberta 1912 Convention. The UFA formally supported equal political rights for women.
Well-known Edmonton-based suffragist Nellie McClung also lent her voice and pen to the Suffrage Movement. In October 1914, men and women took their cause to Alberta’s legislature. They presented a petition signed by 1,200 people, with the demand that the Alberta Election Act change the word male to person.
In 1915, the same year that the University’s Arts Building was opened, another delegation went to Alberta’s legislature to petition for women’s right to vote. Alberta women were given the vote in 1916. That same year, a plebiscite endorsed Prohibition, which remained in effect until 1923.
During World War I (1914–1918), thousands of men and women volunteered at home and overseas. Overall, Alberta had 45,136 people serving overseas — one of the highest rates in Canada. The University of Alberta saw 484 of its staff and students join the war effort; 82 died in service or in action. The University continued to grow, but at a slower pace.
Many minority religious and ethnic groups, including First Nations and Métis, joined the war effort. Besides patriotism, economic conditions in Alberta contributed to the high enlistment. Wheat prices had dipped in 1912 and 1913; the western land boom had peaked around 1912; and many labourers found themselves unemployed after the transcontinental railways were completed.
With the war’s end, Albertans were faced with many social and economic challenges. The University of Alberta developed a number of strategies to ease returning soldiers back into campus life.
The complicated aftermath of war was compounded when Spanish Flu swept through the province in 1918–1919 and caused close to 4,000 deaths.
By degrees, life on campus began a renewal. Intent on bringing political reform to Alberta, the UFA began mobilizing as a political organization. Dr Henry Marshall Tory would soon be dealing with a different governing party and Alberta’s third premier.