70 years after rift, family donates artifacts to Alberta

The fallout from a constitutional crisis in Alberta more than 70 years ago came to a quiet resolution during the term of former Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong, who retired last week.
John Campbell Bowen was appointed Alberta's Lietenant Governor in 1937. ((Government of Alberta))
It's taken more than 70 years but the fallout of a feud between a premier of Alberta and his lieutenant governor that led to a constitutional crisis came to a quiet resolution during the term of the province's last lieutenant governor, Norman Kwong.

Kwong, who wrapped up his term last week, not only mended the rift in 2008, but also helped win the return of several historical artifacts from that time.

The feud began in 1937, when John C. Bowen, Alberta's newly appointed lieutenant governor, refused to grant royal assent to three bills passed by William (Bible Bill) Aberhart's Social Credit government.

Bowen believed the bills were unconstitutional.

Two of the bills would grant the government control over banks. The third was even more contentious. The Accurate News and Information Act would force newspapers to print government responses to any article objected to by the Aberhart government.

"There was a fine for anyone who didn't comply with this of a thousand dollars a day," said Bowen's grandson John Neal. "In 1937, that was a lot of money and so the press not only in Alberta, but throughout North America, was incensed about this."

Bowen's refusal to sign the bills enmeshed the province in a political crisis and had lasting consequences for his family.

John C. Bowen's grandchildren Carol Bowen Mackenzie and John Neal. ((CBC))
His wife, Edith Bowen, spoke about the experience in a 1972 interview with the Alberta Archives that has never been broadcast until this week.

"I can remember that tension, that day, so well. People were anxious throughout the province," she said.  "My husband was getting phone calls, even. People so anxious about what was going to happen and we had people coming to the doors threatening us."

But it was the government of the day leading the charge.

Bowen's embattled family hunkered down in Government House. Bowen's granddaughter Carol Mackenzie was there. She was only seven months old.

"The government threatened to -- well. They did. They cut off the power and the heat and the telephones," she said.

Government House closed in 1938 - never to be the official residence of a vice-regal family in Alberta again.

Royal Visit stopped in Edmonton in 1939

The conflict between Bowen and Aberhart continued into 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stopped in Edmonton as part of a royal visit.

No one was quite sure how to handle the visit in light of the ongoing constitutional stand-off. Even the prime minister was troubled by the situation, John Neal said.

"Mackenzie King, I think, was quoted as remarking that he had to go back and forth between the Aberhart camp and the Bowen camp to sort of keep things relatively calm," he said.

Sean Moir, the curator of military and political history at the Royal Alberta Museum, holds Bowen's ceremonial sword. ((CBC))
Edith Bowen remembered a remark by the King to her husband as they drove in a motorcade through the city.

"He said to my husband, 'Do we pass Government House?'  So they knew all about it."

The Supreme Court of Canada eventually agreed with Bowen, ruling all three laws unconstitutional. Bowen soldiered on as Alberta's lieutenant governor until 1950.  He died in 1957.

Bowen and Aberhart never reconciled. But Carol Mackenzie said her grandfather's death prompted a gracious and surprising gesture from Aberhart's widow, Jessie. 

"There was a knock at the door, I think the next night and there was Mrs. Aberhart with a dozen roses for my grandmother. She just came to the door and thrust them at my grandmother and said 'I'm sorry I have to go.' So, it's quite beautiful."

Family changed mind after Government House meeting

The treatment by the Aberhart government stayed with Bowen's descendants.

In a 2009 interview with CBC News, Carol Mackenzie admitted the family still had bad feelings from those times.

"I felt very strongly my family's point of view and I didn't believe that the story had been told in its entirety," she said. "I felt that there was no sympathy for the point of view my grandfather had taken and for his refusal to give assent to those bills."

The family declined to donate a number of Bowen's historical artifacts to the foundation that runs Government House.

But the family changed its mind after meeting with Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong and his wife Mary in 2008. He assured them the true story of what happened would be told. Shortly afterwards, cousins John Neal and Carol Mackenzie decided to send their grandfather's artifacts back to Government House, including his ceremonial sword.

"I said, wow, finally this is official recognition so I said I feel perfectly comfortable in sending my grandfather's sword and the rest of the things that I have in my possession," John Neal said. "That's the place for them. That's their home and I felt really warm and good about a return of that."

For his part, Kwong downplayed his role.

Details of the handle of Bowen's ceremonial sword. (CBC)
"I was pleased to see the accomplishments of the Honourable John Bowen celebrated during my tenure as Lieutenant Governor," he said in a written statement earlier this month. "His place in the history of our province is important and deserves to be honoured and shared for generations to come."

Margaret Robinson, chairwoman of the Government House Foundation of Alberta, was thrilled to have the artifacts.

"I think the story points out the role of the lieutenant governor. Mostly ... he or she is seen as a figurehead but there is a role there and that role was exercised by Lt.-Gov. Bowen in 1938 and I think that's informative to the public," she said.

In a statement this month, Kwong acknowledged what Bowen must have gone through by refusing royal assent.

"As someone who has held the responsibilities of the office, I can only imagine the stress he went through in making his decision," Kwong wrote.

"As an Albertan and proud Canadian, I have nothing but the deepest appreciation for the role he played in defending our constitutional and democratic traditions."


With files from John Archer