When William Aberhart became the Premier of Alberta in 1935, his Social Credit Party government began a series of measures to deal with the effects of the Great Depression on the Alberta economy. However, some of the government’s related legislative plans raised constitutional concerns. The response by two Alberta Lieutenant Governors to the government’s proposed bills helped establish Canadian precedents on the authority of Vice Regal offices in protecting civil liberties and ensuring the constitutionality of legislation. Both Lieutenant Governor William Walsh and Lieutenant Governor John Bowen had roles to play in the process.
Early into Premier Aberhart’s term in office, Lieutenant Governor William Walsh expressed concerns over the government’s Reduction and Settlement of Debts Act. In a 1936 letter to Premier Aberhart, Lieutenant Governor Walsh underlined the “ruthless” way that the Act proposed to deal with the rights of creditors. He suggested three options to the Premier: delay the bill until the next session, send the legislation for review to the Supreme Court of Alberta or do nothing in which case the Lieutenant Governor would likely withhold Royal Assent of the bill. The government chose to send the bill for review by the Supreme Court of Alberta and that court ruled that the proposed Act was unconstitutional. The government appealed the decision but those appeals were unsuccessful.
The Issue continued under the tenure of Lieutenant Governor John C. Bowen, who took office in March 1937. That spring, the Aberhart government introduced three bills to further its economic plans: the Credit of Alberta Regulation Act, the Bank Employees Civil Rights Act and the Judicature Act Amendment Act. The bills were eventually disallowed at the federal level by the Governor General-in-Council as they interfered with federal jurisdiction. The government re-introduced the bills in the fall 1937 session of the Legislative Assembly. Although the bills had been modified, they included new unconstitutional provisions. The new bills in question were the Bank Taxation Act, an Act to Amend the Credit of Alberta Regulation Act and the Act to Ensure the Publication of Accurate News and information.
The first two acts included provisions that interfered with federal jurisdiction over banks. The Accurate News Act included unconstitutional elements, such as a requirement for Alberta newspapers to publish “correction or amplification” of any story as requested by the Chair of the Alberta Social Credit Party. Newspapers would also be required to identify authors or sources within 24 hours as requested by the government. If a newspaper refused to comply, the offending writer or newspaper could be suspended from publication and fined up to $1000 per day. The proposed bill drew widespread negative public and media response. Coverage by the Edmonton Journal was particularly strong and eventually earned the newspaper a special Pulitzer Prize “for its editorial leadership in defense of the freedom of the press.”
On October 6, 1937, Lieutenant Governor Bowen announced that he was reserving Royal Assent on the three bills until they could be sent to the Supreme Court for review. The following spring, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that all three acts were beyond the legislative authority of the province.
The Aberhart government launched a legal challenge over the Lieutenant Governor’s power to reserve Royal Assent. On March 4, 1938, the Supreme Court of Canada supported Lieutenant Governor Bowen’s actions and ruled that the powers of reservation and disallowance of vice-regal offices were “subject to no limitation or restriction.” The Aberhart government had no choice but to withdraw the bills from its legislative agenda.
While the government of day had no way to counter the powers of reservation held by the Lieutenant Governor, it did control services provided to Government House, which served as official residence to Alberta’s first six vice-regal representatives. In the spring of 1938, the Committee of Supply of the Alberta Legislature eliminated all funds for the upkeep of Government House and Lieutenant Governor Bowen was informed that he and his family would have to vacate the residence by May 3. Lieutenant Governor Bowen refused to leave without an Order-in-Council while Premier Aberhart argued that such a measure was not necessary. To end the standoff, the Premier cut off the utilities to the building and fired the staff. The Lieutenant Governor finally signed the Order-in-Council and left Government House on May 9, 1938.
Alberta’s Lieutenant Governors have never returned to live in Government House. However, the contributions Honourable John Bowen offered as a guardian of Canada’s constitutional principles are shared with visitors to the house and stand as an important chapter in the nation’s vice-regal history.