Alberta's Top Ten Historical Innovations

AN ABSI Fellows Blog

inspired & supported by Al Etmanski 

Never retract, never explain, never apologize - get the thing done and let them howl.
— Nellie McClung, Canadian suffragette and author

Do you believe social change grows differently in Alberta? Al Etmanski does. He believes social change is the result of local relationships and connections between geography, climate, heritage, landscape, and people past, present and future.

Rather than only transplant or import social innovation from elsewhere, he suggests we also pay close attention to what type of change grows best where we are. And...if we do decide to import social innovation techniques and methods from other places, we - like any other community - are to make sure that they are adaptable to our local social innovation terroir.

As young Albertans examining current social innovations across the province; we were intrigued by Al's suggestions, and they got us thinking about the history of social innovation throughout this beautiful and complex province we call home. How has our past informed our present? And where we'll go next?

So - we asked Al if he would like to play around with us and do some brainstorming to identify some of Alberta’s top social innovations from the past - as he has done for other parts of Canada.

Al believes social innovation is a mixture of the old and the new with a dash of surprise. Looking into the best of Albertans' contributions to each other and this country gave us a renewed appreciation for our collective ability to borrow from the 'old', invent the 'new' and create the 'surprise' elements that we'll need to make Alberta, and indeed the world, a better place.

Enjoy the history lesson!

Alberta’s top heritage social innovations and innovators:

1. The Alberta Research Council

Now referred to as ‘Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures,’ The Alberta Research Council (ARC) was originally established in 1921 by Dr Henry Marshall Tory. It was the first provincial research council in the country, established to help the province capitalize on its rich resource base by recording Alberta’s natural resources and mines for industry. Eventually, they evolved into one of Canada’s leading innovation organizations, making major headway on research in energy, life sciences, sustainable development, and enabling technologies to function as a bridge between scientific research and commercial markets. A public sector pioneer in harnessing the value of relationships, openness, and future-forward thinking!


2. The Banff Centre

“We are a community that inspires each other to push boundaries, to take risks, and to develop new ideas and solutions for the present and future” (The Banff Centre)

“We are a community that inspires each other to push boundaries, to take risks, and to develop new ideas and solutions for the present and future” (The Banff Centre)

Starting with a single drama course on offer, The Banff Centre was founded in 1933 by the University of Alberta, with grant funding from The Carnegie Foundation. Eventually, additional art programs were added and, by the 70’s, their programming became more and more diverse and innovative, offering courses promoting creativity in the Arts, Sciences, Business, and the Environment. Today, the Banff Centre is a world-renowned institution, offering boundary-pushing training and experiences for impact leaders by converging culture, place, environment, leadership and craft in one beautiful location.

Latest program of interest? The 28-day ‘Getting to Maybe’ Social innovation Residency!

Source: &

3. The Calgary Homeless Foundation

Intended to be a united front to reduce homelessness in Calgary, Arthur R. Smith founded the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) in 1998. In 2007, CHF joined forces with other homeless-serving agencies and community partners to develop a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Stewarded by The CHF, the plan embodies collective impact principles and a commitment to innovate to try and end homelessness. One of their more recent creative endeavors is the Resolve Campaign - a  funding collaboration with nine partners, focused on working together to raise $120 million from the private sector to build affordable housing for 3,000 homeless Calgarians. A beautiful expression of Alberta’s incredible barn-raising spirit!


4. Community Leagues

The Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues was first established in in 1921 and has since grown from one league to 147 memberships spread throughout the city. Community Leagues in Edmonton are the longest-standing and most strongly established in Canada. “A unique approach to citizen participation in community affairs,”community leagues have have spawned such critical programs as Neighbourhood Watch, School Patrols and the Community Police Radio Network, exemplifying community innovation in action.


5. Douglas Cardinal

“We are limited only by our lack of creativity. Our buildings should symbolize the exuberance of a free nation that encourages individual effort and creativity.” (Douglas Cardinal)

“We are limited only by our lack of creativity. Our buildings should symbolize the exuberance of a free nation that encourages individual effort and creativity.” (Douglas Cardinal)

Although he currently resides in Ottawa, Douglas Cardinal was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, and has dedicated his entire life to creating “beautiful, thriving harmonious built environments.” He was one of the first architects in North America to bring computer technology into his design process and has won numerous awards and accolades for his designs. As he expanded the boundaries of architecture, he shattered convention and opened up our built environments to a new realm of possibility, creativity and expression.


6. The Pembina Institute

The roots of the Pembina Institute began in 1982. In reaction to Amoco Canada and the Provincial government's inadequate response to a major sour gas leak near Lodgepole, Alberta, 200 community members banded together to speak out. After demanding and finally obtaining a full-scale inquiry into the leak, and ensuring the resulting recommendations from the inquiry were adopted, The Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development was formed in 1984. Today, they are one of Canada’s most trusted and valued resources for guiding evidence-based approaches to environmental policy and regulation, working regularly with governments, communities, research and non-government organizations on a sustainable and healthy way forward for Canada.


7. Social Credit

Led by Baptist preacher William Aberhart, Alberta’s social credit movement began during the Great Depression with the basic premise that citizens have the right to a portion of the dividends that their labor produces. With so many labourers, especially farmers, struggling to make ends meet across the province, study groups devoted to the theory behind the movement were created and began to lay the foundation for the Social Credit League of Alberta. In 1935, they became first Social Credit government in the world and governed until 1971. 


8. Joni Mitchell

Clouds Album Cover

Clouds Album Cover

Rolling Stone has called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever.” Roberta Joan “Joni” Mitchell is a world renowned songwriter and painter from Fort MacLeod,  Alberta. She started her career playing music in the western clubs of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

From there, she went onto busk in the streets and dives of Toronto, before moving to the States in 1968 and being signed. Her first album Settling in Southern California featured “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” which were defining protest songs of an era. Joni Mitchell’s music poetically captured the emerging truths driving cultural movements across North America - women’s power and equal rights, environmental protection and stewardship, individuality. From matters of the soul to matters of society, Joni Mitchell’s perceptivity continues to provoke, inspire and motivate reflection and action.


9. Women’s Rights

"The purpose of woman's life is... to make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living." (Louise McKinney, MLA)

"The purpose of woman's life is... to make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living." (Louise McKinney, MLA)

Now known as ‘The Famous Five’, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Irene Parlby were originally dubbed ‘The Alberta Five’ after winning their groundbreaking ‘Persons Case’ - a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate.  These five women, who called Alberta their home, were and still are an important symbol for women’s rights for generations of women worldwide. 

Sources: & &

10. United Farmers Association (UFA) & United Farm Women (UFW)

Established in January 1909 in Edmonton, the United Farmers of Alberta emerged as an amalgamation of the Canadian Society of Equity and the Alberta Farmers’ Association (UFA). The UFA began as a nonpartisan group whose aim was to support, advocate for and promote the interests of farmers in the Province.

Today, it is one of Canada’s largest co-operates with a mission to provide "quality products, services and solutions that support our owners and customers and serve the rural community."

UFA has a storied history of influence on Albertan political, social and economic life - from highways to the Provincial flower to advocating for women’s suffrage. UFA granted women membership rights to the UFA in 1914, four years before women won the right to vote. Irene Parlby of the "Famous Five” and a leader of the United Farm Women of Alberta went on to become Canada's first female cabinet minister. The UFA lead by example that together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.



I’m Alberta Bound/This piece of heaven that I’ve found/Rocky Mountains and black fertile ground/Everything I need beneath that big blue sky
— Paul Brandt

We feel that these historical innovations represent the deep roots of innovation that exists in Alberta, yet our top ten may not be your top ten.  

What did you think?

What did we miss?

What surprised you?

We want to hear what you loved,  hated, or thought was missing… Sharing is caring and building a stronger future for social innovation in Alberta!

Borrowing from Al...


I would walk to the end of the street and over the prairie with the clickety grasshoppers bunging in arcs ahead of me, and I could hear the hum and twang of wind in the great prairie harp of telephone wires. Standing there with the total thrust of prairie sun on my vulnerable head, I guess I learned—at a very young age—that I was mortal.
— W. O. Mitchell

Literature, meets song, meets dance in this homage to the prairies at the 2010 Winter Olympics