Irene Parlby, agrarian populism, 1921

Following the First World War, drought, low prices, and a general distrust of old line politicians gave rise to agrarian populist parties. They were anti-politician, agitating against rigid party discipline and patronage. They argued against protective tariffs, which they believed pampered Canadian industries, and in favour of free trade, which they said would benefit farmers. Irene Parlby was a cabinet minister in the United Farmers of Alberta government. She delivered this campaign speech in Medicine Hat, Alberta, on 25 June 1921. It was broadcast widely in the province on the advancing medium of radio.

Strong party government does not interest us at all”

I feel honoured . . . to speak to this splendid gathering of men and women, and I feel thrilled to be taking even this small part in your fight for real representation in the government of this country . . . This election is showing that the people are no longer content for the old party machine to nominate a representative who has been hand-picked as likely to make the most docile follower of the dictates of the party caucus. It is showing that the people are no longer content to vote meekly on election day for the man the machine nominates, and then, having by their votes elected him, send him to Ottawa with their blessing, while they go back to work and forget all about him (unless they are in the need of some patronage) until the next election comes around . . .

Outmoded system

The two-party system has no doubt played a useful and important part in the development of government, but evolution does not stand still in government, any more than in any other phase of life. The old party contests and the old party cries are losing their hold on thinking people. We are watching in this contest a further development of government, the representation in Parliament of an economic group. Our critics say that this development is contrary to, and is a first step in the destruction of the British Constitution. On the contrary, it seems to me to be only another step in that long series of triumphs of the British Constitution, which through its elasticity has, during a long history, shown itself capable of adapting itself to new needs . . .

Bankrupt statesmanship

The present administration, since they have been in power, have been urging the farmers and other workers to produce, produce, produce, as the only way of salvation for the country. Today we find the granaries overflowing, the packing houses overpacked, the farms overstocked, industrial plants and warehouses overflowing with unwanted goods, and this situation has been created principally by bankrupt statesmanship and by ignorance of the true principles of economics, by the greed of a few men who really control the destiny of the country. The farm people can hardly sell their produce even below the cost of production. Thousands of other workers cannot work, and yet with all the abundance, a high tariff wall keeps the necessities of life at a level at which the majority of people cannot afford to buy them.

With this situation before them our brilliant representatives, absolutely devoid of any sense of humour, sit at Ottawa solemnly voting large sums for the building of a merchant marine to carry goods to markets which they have done their utmost to destroy, ships which must necessarily sail the ocean on their return voyage with empty bottoms, because the people as patriots are told they must only buy made-in-Canada goods.

You would think a child would have sufficient sense to see through the folly of this combination of high protection—the buying of only Canadian-made goods by the Canadian people—and the development of an expensive merchant marine, which if the two previous policies are carried out, can only idly float in our harbours.

Protective tariff

This policy of a protective tariff, although it has enriched a small percentage of the population, and has worked great hardships on many is, however, likely to act as a boomerang in the near future if continued, for in these days there is no getting away from the fundamental fact of community of interests and a policy which callously destroys the industry of agriculture in a country such as this brings the whole social structure to ruin, for agriculture in debt, its farms mortgaged, its purchasing power destroyed, means closed factories, hungry breadlines for other workers. So, if for no other reason than survival in the fight for existence, all other workers should join forces with the farmers in the fight for sending real representatives of their own to Ottawa . . .

Healing the wounds

The world is staggering blind and maimed from the injuries of the Great War. It needs sympathy and understanding to heal its wounds. It needs imagination to reconstruct its ways. It needs the wide vision of true men and women working not for party and power, but for the welfare of the whole people. And it needs the spirit of tolerance and the loyalty of man to man.

Tolerance, imagination, sympathy with the electorate, breadth of vision, have not been known in the past as attributes of those who hold the political creed of the government now in power, yet if the country is ever to be brought back to health, is ever to fulfill the promises of her youth, all these qualities must be forthcoming in our legislators, and first and last and all the time, they must possess breadth of vision, for without vision surely the people shall perish.


Parlby later participated in the persons case, in which five women fought a legal battle all the way to the Privy Council in Great Britain to be declared “persons” who could be appointed to Canada’s Senate. Her otherwise stellar reputation is tarnished by her support for eugenics and the forced sterilization of people she considered mentally deficient.


United Farmers of Alberta, Progress or Reaction?, an Address Delivered by Mrs. Walter Parlby, June 25, 1921, Housed at Library and Archives Canada.

More information

The Canadian Encyclopedia, Irene Parlby

A Scattering of Seeds: The Reluctant Politician: The Story of Irene Parlby [Video]

Irene Parlby, Eugenics Archive

Photo credit

United Farmers Historical Society

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