The UFA During the Great Depression

While many have learnt about the Great Depression in the United States, caused by the stock market collapse of 1929 and lasting until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, it is less common to hear about how Alberta was affected by this difficult time in history. The Great Depression, also known as the “Dirty Thirties,” devastated the prairie provinces of Canada because many citizens of these provinces relied on farming for their livelihoods. During the early 1900s and into the 1920s, Alberta had a quick rise in immigration and these new citizens often started farms, finding success in what was called the “Bread Basket of North America” due to the abundance of wheat fields. Unfortunately, a long lasting drought as well as insect infestations became a major issue in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. These difficulties were an insult added to injury after the economic crash. Many men who were unable to get jobs or who had lost farms rode the railway across the country to try to find work further east. In some areas of the province, certain school districts closed down as farmers left their homesteads.

This photo of an employment protest has a note on the back that says it was taken during the “[t]rek of the unemployed to Ottawa,” which suggests it was during the 1935  “On-To-Ottawa Trek.” This was a massive movement where unemployed men took the trains toward Ottawa to speak to the Prime Minister at the time, R. B. Bennett, to protest against the lack of jobs in Western Canada.
(UF 2005.0049.35)

These strenuous times led to many social changes, including new theories on how the government or certain social programs should be run. They also motivated political reform and new ideologies gained popularity as the Depression continued. 

The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) entered politics in 1921 and stayed in office until 1935, during some of the toughest years of the Depression. Between 1930 and 1935, it is estimated that almost 750,000 farms were repossessed by banks or abandoned in Canada, with most of these farms located in Alberta and Saskatchewan. During the UFA’s time in government, they attempted to push for better education and health services, especially for rural communities. They also tried to tackle the economic situation that many farmers were facing, though this turned out to be a very demanding and contentious problem. 

John E. Brownlee in 1926. Brownlee was the Premier of Alberta from 1925 – 1934 (UF 2003.0090.0023)

The Premier of the UFA party from 1925 to 1934 was John E. Brownlee, who was a solicitor for the UFA before entering into politics. A major success of Browlee’s time in office was gaining mineral rights from the federal government in 1930. These rights included petroleum, natural gas, oil sands, and other minerals in 81% of Alberta. This tenure (meaning the system of owning mineral rights) became important for Alberta’s economy not only during the Depression but also long after.

Despite this success, the UFA government struggled to help Albertans as the Depression worsened. It became obvious that there were few ways to reduce the plights that citizens faced without increasing taxes, which many Albertans could not afford. The government was already in debt and could not pay out of pocket for more social services. Brownlee created the Debt Adjustment Act which gave farmers time before losing their farms to banks, but this only prolonged the inevitable. During this time, a divide started to grow between the UFA members and the UFA government.

Another way that Brownlee attempted to cut spending in order to help with relief efforts was to cut the Alberta Provincial Police and replace it with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which worked to decrease police spending. 

Although there were important successes for the UFA government, they struggled during the Great Depression and a new party was elected in 1935, the Social Credit party under William Aberhardt. To read more about the UFAs time in politics, see the 100th Anniversary of the U.F.A. Government.

An article in The U.F.A. from December, 1932 discusses mass meetings and plans for strikes to bring forward the struggles that farmers had been dealing with during the Depression. (The U.F.A. Limited Vol. 11, no. 14)

The UFA as a co-operative organization slowly began to change with the constraints of the Depression tightening. Norman Priestly was elected as vice-president in 1931 and he encouraged the organization to lean into commercial purchasing and retail services. In 1932 the UFA Central Co-operative Association Ltd. , was formed. It was a central purchaser that provided farm supplies at fair prices. During the mid to late 1930s, the UFA organization redoubled their efforts to help farmers. They started a partnership with Maple Leaf Petroleum in 1935 which gave farmers easier access to petroleum products.

Maple Leaf Service Station No. 6, one of the stations that gave farmers easier access to fuel and oils at a good price. (32-55)

The United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) also worked hard to advocate for rural communities during this time, focusing mostly on improved access to healthcare and education. Although membership for the women’s organization had declined  those that stayed with the UFWA supported social services in rural areas, ran events to help boost the morale of Albertans, and advocated for a variety of needs such as better salaries for teachers in remote areas and extending women’s legal rights.

The Board of Directors of the United Farm Women of Alberta, c. 1934. The UFWA were very active during the Great Depression, especially advocating for better healthcare and education for rural communities (UF 2004.0037.0157)

Although the UFA left politics in 1935, the organization continued their goal of advocating for the farmers of Alberta. Issues that were brought to the forefront during the Depression remained central to the UFA and UFWA, including increasing the quality of education and healthcare in rural areas, improving the economic conditions for farmers, and making services more accessible to rural communities. While the Great Depression hit Albertans hard, it brought greater awareness of common problems that Albertans faced and made space for social programs.

Written by Katherine Funk, Summer Archives Assistant

References and Further Reading:

“A Brief History: Mineral Rights in Alberta,” Alberta Oil Sands Tenure Guidelines, accessed July 22, 2022,

“A brief history – the great depression,” The Alberta Teachers’ Association, accessed July 19, 2022,

Belshaw, John Douglas, “The Great Depression,” Canadian History: Post-Confederation, accessed July 19, 2022,

“Dust and Depression,” Canada’s History, accessed July 19, 2022,

Howard, Victor, “On to Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed July 19, 2022,

Langford, Nanci, “United Farm Women of Alberta,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed July 19, 2022, 

MacPherson, Ian, “United Farmers of Alberta,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed July 19, 2022,

“Rise of Rural Power,” CBC Learning, accessed July 19, 2022,

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