Former Prime Minister Joe Clark has a reminder in his Ottawa office that sometimes the small guy can beat big government.
On his wall is a framed copy of a Pulitzer Prize from 1938 awarded to 90 Alberta community newspapers — including The Macleod Gazette — and six dailies for their role in stopping legislation limiting the freedom of the press.
“It has always affected my view of the role of journalists and politicians,” said Clark, whose grandfather Charles A. Clark founded the High River Times in 1905. “I realize they have a different job than a politician does. My grandfather talked a great deal about the importance of the freedom of the press.”
Freedom of the press was put to the test in the 1937 Alberta fall legislative session when Premier William Aberhart passed the Accurate News and Information Act.
The act would force papers to reveal to the government all sources, and, if requested, names and addresses of reporters who had written articles for the paper.
As well, the government could have equal space and prominence in a paper — absolutely free — to counter-attack any criticism of the government printed in a paper.
The act prompted the 90 Alberta weeklies, the dailies led by the Edmonton Journal, and Canadian Press to take court action, resulting in the act being ruled ultra vires, not within the responsibilities of provincial jurisdiction on March 4, 1938.
“It was seen as an act that attacked Freedom of the press” said Pat Brennan, a professor of history at the University of Calgary. “Editors and publishers across Alberta were galvanized against the bill. They saw it as dangerous. And their motives were legitimate — on what they saw as honest to God principle.”
Community newspapers such as The Macleod Gazette took a dim view on what the media was calling the “Muzzle the Press Act.”
“The Press Act in its demands for a certain amount of free space was one form of racketeering,” High River Times associate editor Hughena McCorquodale wrote in the paper’s Jan. 13, 1938 editorial. “Exactly the same as if a proportion of the merchants’ goods were demanded weekly or a toll made on the farmer’s grain.”
Being criticized by the High River Times, The Macleod Gazette and other newspapers was nothing new to Aberhart. He had been harshly criticized since his Social Credit Party came into power in 1935. The party’s economic policies were seen as a threat to big businesses in Alberta. “Aberhart believed the economy was in the power of ‘The 50 big shots’ in Alberta,” Brennan said. “He saw it as a function of the government to get rid of the ‘economic power of the few’ concept — the Social Credit was seen as a threat to the banking program.”
Big businesses, in the form of Southam Inc., were not only the owners of the two biggest papers in Alberta, The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, they were also major advertisers in newspapers across the province. It didn’t take long for community newspapers as well as dailies to criticize legislation that not only hurt big business but also cut into advertising.
“A luxury tax will be placed on liquor and this is said to range around five cents a dozen pints on beer and 25 cents a quart on hard liquor,” read a front page article in the Oct. 31, 1935 edition of the High River Times. “It is hoped to raise $300,000 in this manner by next March. Mr. Aberhart has confirmed that newspapers will be prohibited from advertising beer and liquors. Inasmuch as the government demands for a great part of its revenues on its liquor sales, it seems somewhat inconsistent to deprive 100 little newspapers of a revenue which amounts to about $75,000 scattered throughout the province.”
The Times went on run items such as the lead story in the Aug. 26, 1937 edition which had the headline “Social Credit Bills In Substance Are Glaring Evidences of Dictatorship.”
Criticism from the press was common during the Aberhart era, prompting the passing of the Accurate News and Information Act in the fall of 1937. “The press in Alberta said Aberhart’s concerns concern weren’t about accuracy, they were about criticism,” Brennan said. “There was a large amount of negative news towards Aberhart — but they dealt with his legislation and they were true. The press weren’t making up stories.” The act not only caught the attention of Alberta newspapers, it also caught the attention of the American press.
“When the case went to the Supreme Court it received extensive coverage in the papers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune,” Brennan.
“American reporters were coming to Edmonton to cover the legislature.
That was unheard of. They paid little attention to Canada let alone Alberta. The Rocky Mountains could have collapsed back in those days and it wouldn’t have been reported . . . The Americans saw it as a threat to them. Their thinking was, ‘If this can happen in Alberta, can it happen to us?’”
The result was the 90 Alberta community newspapers and dailies were awarded a prestigious Pulitzer Prize in May 1938.
“It’s a tribute to the courage of the publishers of the Alberta weeklies,” Brennan said. “They were more dependent on the government revenue from advertising than the dailies. Readers were bigger supporters of Social Credit than those in Calgary an Edmonton . . . But weeklies took the position that this is a free country and they would not support this act . . . They took the moral high road.”