When the United Farmers of Alberta swept to power in the 1921 election, they did not have a leader. Following the election, the UFA looked for someone to become premier of the province. Henry Wise Wood, the UFA President, declined the position. John E. Brownlee was approached, but since he was a lawyer rather than a farmer, he declined.
Greenfield was president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and an interim Vice-President of the UFA. He hailed from Westlock, in northern Alberta, where the UFA had less support. Previously he had been a municipal politician in Alberta and Ontario. He was asked to lead the party, and accepted, becoming Premier of Alberta in 1921. Because he had not run in the 1921 election, he had to enter the legislature through a by-election. Greenfield's government improved roads, schools and hospitals. It also repealed prohibition, and established the Alberta Liquor Control Board to regulate the sale of alcohol. The government reneged on a promise, however, to establish a government-owned bank that would issue low-interest loans to farmers.
Divisions arose between the government and UFA on policy issues. As well, beginning in 1923, Greenfield was often absent due to illness. In November 1925, UFA Members of the Legislative Assembly approached Brownlee about becoming the new Premier, and Greenfield agreed to resign.
Greenfield School, an elementary school for Kindergarten to Grade 6 students in south Edmonton, was named for Herbert Greenfield. A painting of Greenfield hangs in the school office.
Herbert Greenfield was born November 25, 1869, in Winchester, England. The son of John Greenfield and Mary Leake, he attended Wesleyan School in Dalston, but dropped out as a result of his father's bankruptcy. He worked aboard a cattle boat in 1892, before immigrating to Canada in 1896.
In Canada, he worked in the oil fields near Sarnia, Ontario, and as a farmer in Weston. In 1904, Greenfield went west for economic reasons, and homesteaded near Edmonton. He found work in a lumber mill, and would later turn to farming. His first year in Alberta, a fire destroyed his home, and he and his wife spent the winter in an abandoned sod hut. In 1906, they resettled to a large home four kilometers south of Westlock.
While still living in Ontario, Greenfield had married Elizabeth Harris February 28, 1900. The couple would have two sons, Franklin Harris Greenfield and Arnold Leake Greenfield. In 1922, while Greenfield was Premier, Elizabeth died suddenly as a result of routine surgery, devastating him. He remarried in 1926, to Marjorie Greenwood Cormack, who had two children of her own.
Herbert Greenfield entered public life on a local level soon after moving to his new farm. He was elected to the local school board, where he spent twelve years, including stints as chair, secretary, and treasurer. He also served as Vice President of the Alberta Educational Association. He served as President of the Westlock Agricultural Society and as co-founder and President of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts. He served as an officer of the province-wide Association of Local Improvement Districts, which advocated for such reforms as a change to an eight hour work day (from ten), on the grounds that many LIDs were having trouble competing with railways for labour.
Provincially, Greenfield was originally a Liberal, but, along with many other farmers, began to grow dissatisfied with the Liberal government's treatment of farmers. He became involved with the United Farmers of Alberta, which prior to 1919 was a non-partisan lobby group that eschewed direct involvement in the political process. He was elected to the organization's executive in 1919, and chaired its mass conventions in 1920 and 1921. He followed this by heading an immensely successful membership drive, and was named interim Vice President of the organization upon the sudden death of Percival Baker. Despite this involvement, he did not seek election to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in the 1921 election, the first in which the UFA ran candidates. When the UFA, which as part of its resistance to old-style politics had contested the election without designating a leader, won 38 of 61 seats, it found itself needing to form a government without knowing who would head it. The logical choice was UFA President Henry Wise Wood. However, Wood had little taste for the minutiae of government, preferring to remain at the head of what he saw as a broader political movement (noting that he'd "sooner be President of the UFA than the USA"), and saw party lawyer John E. Brownlee as the best choice. Brownlee, who, like Wood, had not contested the election, felt that the Premier must be a farmer for the aspirations of the UFA's base to be fulfilled. A Calgary meeting of the UFA caucus selected Greenfield as its choice, and he took office as Premier August 13, 1921.
Herbert Greenfield took office as Premier amid great expectations: the Lethbridge Herald called him "the only new Moses that can bridge the Red Sea", while the Calgary Herald noted that "No government ever went into office in this country carrying better wishes for its success". He also took office without a seat in the legislature. This latter circumstance was addressed through the voluntary resignation of Donald MacBeth Kennedy, who had won the riding of Peace River for the UFA. Greenfield won the seat by acclamation December 9, 1921. Once in the legislature, however, Greenfield faltered in his leadership of his caucus. The UFA MLAs came from a determinedly independent and non-partisan background, and proved nearly impossible to whip. Moreover, they were inexperienced and unfamiliar with the Legislature's processes: John E. Brownlee, Greenfield's Attorney-General and eventual successor as Premier, recalled an incident in 1922 in which a government bill had passed with no debate, only to have a UFA backbencher rise after the vote was taken on third reading to ask when he might have the chance to speak against. Despite the UFA's nominal majority position (and the four Labour MLAs' generally supportive approach to the government), many votes went against the government.
Greenfield became Premier at a time of agricultural depression, especially in the province's south. The region, which was responsible for approximately 75% of Alberta's wheat production, was in the midst of its fifth consecutive year of drought, and the farmers who had been responsible for putting the UFA into office were now demanding action. Initially, the government offered direct financial assistance, with $5 million provided in seed and grain relief by the end of 1922. However, this effort was driving the province close to bankruptcy, and in 1923 Greenfield announced an end to the handouts (the bill authorizing the last of these was the source of chagrin for MLAs from all parties, both because it marked the end of direct assistance for farmers and because the last of the assistance was itself so expensive). Farmers and political representatives from the affected areas criticized the government bitterly, referencing Greenfield's earlier pledge that "if the south country should fall, then we are prepared to fall with it".
The government did not give up on addressing the problem when it ended subsidies. It had previously commissioned a number of studies on the agricultural situation and related factors, and converted some of the results of these studies into legislation. The Debt Adjustment Act of 1923 was designed to adjust farmers' debts to a level that they could actually pay, thus allowing them to carry on while still ensuring that creditors received as much as was feasible. In the words of University of Calgary professor David C. Jones, the bill offered "solace, but no real satisfaction".
According to Jones, Greenfield's attempts to rescue southern Alberta from agricultural calamity were probably doomed to failure. Even so, Greenfield had called the situation his top priority, and his failure to bring it to a successful resolution cost him politically.
During Greenfield's premiership, Alberta's major non-agricultural industry was coal mining, and the industry was not prospering. Production was more than 50% greater than demand, and fewer than half of the province's mines were profitable. The industry as a whole was earning a profit of less than one cent per ton of coal. While miners' wages had more than doubled (in nominal terms) between 1909 and 1920, in the 1920s mine owners began to roll them back. Besides wages, miners were unsatisfied with working conditions in an industry that saw more than 3,300 workplace accidents per year. The result was labour militancy...and violence. A general strike in 1920 saw strikers assault strikebreakers, throw them off their bicycles, and launch rocks through the windows of buses. When police escorts were called in in aid of the strikebreakers, they were sometimes attacked as well; one constable was partially paralyzed from the beating he received. Provincial police commissioner W.C. Bryan was warned against inspecting one strike site in a note reading "You spoilt the strike, and if you go...you will be killed." He went anyway, and was greeted by an ambush in which three bullets were fired into his car, missing him.
Greenfield was at a loss as to how to respond to this crisis, complaining that both employee and employers were the most difficult people in the province to deal with, and that they showed "very little spirit of compromise". He was not aided by his own Minister of Public Works, Labour MLA Alex Ross, who took the side of the miners and objected to the government's provision of police escorts for strikebreakers. Though the problems originated before Greenfield took office, many Albertans felt that a stronger leader might have been more successful than Greenfield in appealing for peace.
Prohibition had been introduced in Alberta following a 1916 referendum, during which the UFA had advocated for the prohibitionist side. By 1920, however, it was becoming apparent that the policy was not working (or, as the Medicine Hat News noted, "Prohibition is now working smoothly. The only thing left is to stop the sale of liquor!"). Greenfield's own MLAs began to grumble about the policy - Archibald Matheson expressed in 1923 the view that "This government has acted as philosopher, guide, and God to the people long enough." The government resolved to repeal the Prohibition Act, a move that Greenfield attempted to make more palatable by proposing that liquor profits be shared with impoverished municipalities. However, the scheme proved unworkable, and the re-legalization went ahead without any such profit-sharing.