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John Bracken

The last episode, I looked at Gordon Graydon, the man who was the Leader of the Official Opposition, but who did not lead his actual party. The party leader was another man named John Bracken. Bracken had become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1942, one year before Richard Hanson left as Leader of the Opposition, but it would take three years for Bracken to earn a spot in the House of Commons, creating an unusual set of circumstances.

Bracken may be remembered for a generally forgettable time as the Leader of the Opposition, during a time when the party was at a low point, as the Liberals had dominated federal politics since 1935 and would continue to do so until 1957. The truth is that he had not only a long career in politics, but he has the distinction of being the longest serving premier in the history of Manitoba, but we will get to that.

John Bracken was born in Ellisville, Ontario on June 22, 1883, to Ephraim and Alberta Bracken. The Bracken family had come from New York State following the War of 1812, and Bracken was named for the paternal great-grandfather who made that trip.

Bracken had been born in a log cabin, but the family would save its money and eventually move to a 240-acre dairy farm where Bracken would grow up.

Bracken would speak of those years in his life in 1941, stating quote:

“These years of hard work were of more value to me than any other years of my life. I realized the need to work and equip myself for life.”

As a young boy, Bracken was educated in the same one-room school his father attended, before moving to a two-room school closer to the family farm. In the area, he was known for being a determined young man, who was a skilled cyclist and athlete. Bracken’s mother would also instill in him a strong sense of loyalty and duty. He would say later in his life that his mother was, quote:

“The greatest woman he ever knew.”

At the end of his schooling, Bracken finished fifth out of 40 children, good enough to allow him to go to Brockville Collegiate. During his first term at the school, he did not do well but after Christmas Holidays he began to improve. He would eventually leave the school and return home to oversee the dairy operations of the farm.

Bracken’s cousin would describe in him 1922, quote:

“Johnny seems to have a faculty for landing on his feet right side up. When Johnny was a youngster, he was running on a board across the silo when he struck his head on another, he hadn’t noticed above him. He fell a good many feet to the bottom, but he didn’t hurt himself beyond spraining his wrist. Lucky boy, I’ll tell you.”

In 1902, he would attend the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, and earned honours in all his subjects, while also serving as a star player on the rugby team. In his second year, he won the Governor General’s Medal, placing first in the academic standing of his studies. In his final two years, he was chosen by his classmates as the Best All Round Man, and he would graduate in 1906. At the time, he was considered to be one of the best running halfbacks in the country. His love of sports would continue throughout his life, eventually going from contact sports to the more relaxed golf.

Professor A.H. MacLellan, who taught Bracken, would say of him, quote:

“As a half-back, he was perhaps the best and certainly one of the cleanest sportsmen who ever passed through the college. There have been other good ones, but Bracken was a prince of good fellows, a gentleman and a powerful player.”

He would also be a lifelong Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan. He would work briefly in Manitoba for the Department of Agriculture, earning $75 per month, before going on to Regina to work for the Stock Breeders’ Association where he was making $150 per month.

On June 22, 1909, he married Alice Bruce. The couple would have four sons, John, Allan, William and George.

One year after his marriage, he became the professor of animal husbandry at the University of Saskatchewan, where he would remain for the next decade.

After a move to Manitoba to serve as the president of the Manitoba Agricultural College, Bracken began a major survey of the farm conditions of Manitoba, which greatly raised his profile. During this time, he also wrote two books, Crop Production in Western Canada in 1920 and Dry Farming in Western Canada in 1921.

Bracken was an expert on agriculture in the province. He would say quote:

“Every 40 million bushels of wheat shipped out of Manitoba takes from her soil plant food constituents that would cost more than $12 million to replace. If we were shipping butter instead of wheat, the valuable fertilizing constituents shipped away would cost less than $40,000 to replace.”

Circumstances would soon change Bracken’s life. Prior to 1922, Bracken had little interest in politics and had actually been too busy to even vote in the provincial election that year.

In 1922, the United Farmers of Manitoba were hoping to make progress after becoming a party in 1920. Expectations were low for the party, and they did not select a leader going into the election that year. For decades, the Conservatives and Liberals had alternated leadership of the province, and no one expected much from the United Farmers.

What happened instead was arguably one of the biggest upsets in Canadian electoral history. The UFM was opposed to partisanship and the party also endorsed candidates with the Progressive Association. Fielding candidates in only two-thirds of ridings, the United Farmers won 28 out of 55 seats, suddenly becoming the ruling party in the province with a majority government. This created a problem since the party didn’t have a leader, and as a result, there was no premier for the province. Several Members of Parliament turned down the offer to lead the party and the province, so the party looked to the man who was making a name for himself in the province, John Bracken.

On July 21, Bracken received a phone call at midnight asking him if he wanted to become premier. The caller was W.R. Clubb, a stranger to Bracken, and an MLA in the Legislature now.

Bracken at first refused, as he had no interest in politics, but after talking with his wife he decided that he should at least consider it. The next day Bracken was in a church basement being interviewed by the new United Farmers caucus. Bracken had gone from being a relative nobody, to the premier of the province in one day.

The choice of Bracken was well received in the province, as he was considered an outsider to the political establishment.

On Aug. 8, 1922, he became the 11th premier of Manitoba, a full two months before he was even elected to the Legislature. The United Farmers of Manitoba, which would govern as the Progressive Party of Manitoba, along with Bracken, would control provincial politics for the next two decades.

As premier, Bracken was conservative and cautious. Rural interests dominated the party and labour interests did not get a lot of sympathy from his government. He had little in the way of sympathy for the Winnipeg General Strike members from 1919, and he would fire several government workers to show that he was independent from organized labour. He would also make the repayment of the provincial debt a priority, which at the time he came to power was costing the province $3,500 a day in interest payments.

In his first speech from the throne, he said that he wanted to work with the opposition and that he disliked the politics of class and self-interest. His first speech in the Legislature was poor, but considering Bracken had no political experience, that was expected. He would soon find his footing.

Bracken would say later in his life, to describe his governing style, quote:

“I want to know how the low-salaried, unorganized, white-collared worker is getting along. I want to know how the unorganized labourer is faring.”

Bracken was never interested in the day-to-day business of politics and hated the handling of party affairs. For him, at least according to an interview with Maclean’s in 1941, the joy came in finding he was making a real contribution to the country and the Prairie Provinces. That Maclean’s article would state quote:

“He has a talent, rare among Canadian political leaders, for analyzing problems and presenting them in a way which common folk can understand. He never appeals to emotions or to local loyalties.”

Throughout the 1920s, as leader, he would increase taxation, create the provincial income tax and he would lower spending in health, education and welfare. His government also created a censorship board to regulate movies, ended the prohibition on alcohol but mandated that alcohol had to be sold in provincially controlled outlets, and he created a pension plan for all citizens over the age of 70.

Bracken put special emphasis on industries such as mining, timber and fishing, while also putting a heavy focus on hydroelectric power. As part of his focus on industry, he would have the Hudson’s Bay Railway create a branch to Flin Flon in order to access the new copper and zinc mine located there. He would also influence the decision by his future political rival, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to give the Prairie Provinces control over Crown lands. As part of that, on July 15, 1930, Prime Minister King delivered a settlement cheque worth $4.7 million to the province, which would be worth $72 million today.

In 1929, Bracken’s Progressives increased their seat count by one, maintaining a majority government.

In 1931, as part of his focus on non-partisan, his party formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, and the two parties became one. In 1940, a wartime coalition government would be formed that included all the parties.

The new Liberal-Progressive Party increased their total seats under Bracken to 38, with the Opposition members shrinking to only 15.

In 1935, angry with the Conservative government of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, he actively campaigned for the Liberals, calling for lower tariffs and an expansion of export markets.

In 1936, Bracken would suffer his first set back on the election stage when his party lost 15 seats, falling to 23, earning a minority government for the first time. The Great Depression played a major part in this, as many were suffering great hardships as the economy was in the middle of tanking through the 1930s. Bracken would form an alliance with the Social Credit Party in order to remain in power.

By the time that Bracken left provincial politics, the Legislature had only five opposition members because of this focus on non-partisan politics. One of the most amazing facts about this coalition was that it outlasted the Second World War, continuing until 1950.

By 1942, Bracken was enough of a major political figure in Canada that the federal level was coming to him. Arthur Meighen, former prime minister of Canada, would ask him to take over leadership of the Conservative Party in 1942. He stated that he would seek leadership of the party, but only if it changed its name to the Progressive Conservative Party.

King would write in his diary, quote:

“He owes his long tenure of office to the Liberals, who have supported him, and the Progressives. He owes nothing to the Tories. He has made a fool suggestion that the party should be called the Progressive Conservatives. This, after being a leader of the Liberal Progressive Party.”

Bracken would sum up his decision to have the party’s name changed, stating quote:

“It stands for the preservation of what was best from the world of yesterday and the adoption of what is best in the world of today.”

King would suggest in his diary as well that Bracken was nothing more than a puppet of Meighen.

Bracken did not know if he would actually run for the leadership of the party until the day of the convention. He had told the party to change their name and party members were hesitant, so he told them if they didn’t, he would not be leader. Bracken would tell those close to him, quote:

“If I’m there for nomination tonight, you’ll know I’ve decided yes. If I’m not there, it’ll mean I’ve decided no.”

At 7:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the 8 p.m. deadline, Bracken put his name forward.

During the convention, Bracken would tell the gathered delegates, quote:

“If you hadn’t adopted that plank, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve touched on one or two of my views. I have others. I just want to say that if you take me, you’ll have to take them too.”

He would add that he wanted a more progressive party, hence the name, that matched his values. He would tell the crowd, quote:

“I did not leave my western home to lead a party whose primary asset would be the incapacity and incompetence of its political opponents. I would like you to understand that the party is being built up not just to win elections, but to serve Canada. Personally, I don’t want the Progressive Conservative Party to win elections unless it deserves to win.”

In that leadership contest, he did not have any major challengers, with Alexander MacPherson, the former Attorney General of Saskatchewan, being the biggest threat to his leadership bid. King was in fact so sure that MacPherson would win that he had drafted a telegram to send to MacPherson upon his victory. John Diefenbaker would also challenge but most felt he had little chance of becoming leader. In fact, he would have to wait a decade and a half for that to happen.

On the first ballot, Bracken would take first place with 420 votes, with Macpherson and Diefenbaker taking 222 and 120. On the second ballot, with the endorsement of Howard Green, who had dropped out in the first ballot when he finished with 88 votes, Bracken cruised to victory with 538 votes. Several of Diefenbaker’s supporters went to the side of MacPherson to stop Bracken from winning but this failed.

For the next three years, Bracken would serve as the leader of the Progressive Conservatives but despite the custom of running in a by-election in a safe riding after another MP stepped down, Bracken chose not to run in the House of Commons until after the 1945 election. In his diary, King would refer to Bracken as “The Absentee Leader”

King had a friendship with Bracken from his time as premier, but for the rest of his life King would feel that Bracken was truly a Liberal who had betrayed the party. Unlike previous leaders, King did not send a telegram to congratulate Bracken, instead drafting a message to the press stating he would wait until Bracken was in the House to reserve judgement. King would write, quote:

“I shall write him privately saying I was surprised at his running at all, and equally at his appointment, but will refer to the friendship of past years and express pleasure in the thought that we will be able to work together in the House of Commons in a manner which will maintain the best tradition of British Parliamentary Government.”

Why didn’t Bracken take a seat? There are several reasons for this that were put forward. The first was that he wanted to tour the country to meet with party members and become familiar with regional concerns. He also wanted to address supportive audiences. He may have also worried that with Meighen taking on the leadership and losing in a by-election, the same would happen to him. This would have been unlikely as King openly disliked Meighen and put resources into the Co-operative Federation opponent to ensure Meighen lost in the by-election.

King would write on Jan. 17, 1944, that Bracken not coming into the House would only help the Liberals. He would write, quote:

“I think our chances have greatly improved by Bracken’s failing to come into the House.”

Even though he was the leader of a major political party, Bracken still worked two farms, one in Manitoba and one in Saskatchewan, and when reporters would find him, he often had dirt under his fingernails, grease on his jeans and fertilizer plaster on his boots.

Bracken would create the People’s Charter for the party, which would outline the principles of the party. Some of these included that every man had a right to a job, that farmers had a right to a fair share of the nation’s income, the right of every child and youth to equal opportunity for health, the right of every citizen to security against loss of income, and the right of future generations to a world of plenty and of peace.

Most analysts felt that Bracken would make a good prime minister but was a poor opposition leader. Blair Fraser for Maclean’s would write on May 1, 1944, quote:

“His qualities are those of a prime minister rather than those of an Opposition Leader. He hasn’t the temperament for Opposition. His instinct is to co-operate. It is no accident that he was the first Canadian premier in this war to form a wartime coalition government…His preferred technique has been teamwork, consultation, unity. A slow and careful speaker, who likes to have a text which he has pondered for days and which every word has been weighted. He has neither talent nor liking for the fast, petty thrust and parry of Parliament today.”

Bracken, during his travels around the country, covered thousands of kilometres but he only made about half a dozen speeches. That being said, his unreported private talks with Canadians ran in the hundreds.

That same Maclean’s article would state quote:

“For better or worse, Bracken is carrying the ball. Whether or not he can carry it across the goal line, we’ll know in a few months now.”

In the 1945 election, the Progressive Conservatives finished with 67 seats, an increase of 29, but not near enough to topple Mackenzie King in his last election, when his party finished with 118 seats. In that election, Bracken ran in the Neepawa Riding, defeating his Liberal opponent who had represented the riding for the past 10 years.

The party was likely hurt by the promise that Bracken made to have conscription for the invasion of Japan. King had instead promised one division of volunteers to take part in the invasion, which was expected to be a years-long bloody campaign. The public was not keen on this idea. As it would turn out, Japan would be defeated only two months after the federal election thanks to the atomic bombs dropped by the United States, something Bracken would not have known was being planned, but King would have. Another major issue was the fact that Bracken did not go into the House of Commons for three years, greatly limiting his appeal. He also had a halting form of speaking, which many did not like, especially when hearing it on the radio.

In Bracken’s first speech in the House of Commons on Sept. 10, 1945, he would speak for an hour on the beautification of the capital. King would write, quote:

“His address, as intimated written out in full and read in the form of an essay.”

When Bracken had his first vote in the house, which supported the Liberal Party, he received an ovation from the members of the House except from the Co-Operative Federation.

Now in the House of Commons, Bracken quickly found that his party was more divided than before. Bracken was unable to lead the party in the same manner that he had led in Manitoba due to being a western populist, and he was distrusted by the eastern establishment of the party. His hold on being leader was even in danger as early as 1944, with several of the senior members of the party wanting him out. In 1943, George Drew had become premier of Ontario, and many in the party began to look to him as a possible leader. For Bracken, his days were numbered. During this period, Bracken’s health was strained as his party pushed him to attack the government, which was something he was hesitant to do. He was hard-working but he lacked the temperament for the often-cut-throat environment of the House of Commons.

On July 17, 1948, Bracken was pushed out of the party leadership and forced to resign, opening up the door for George Drew, the man who would lead the party for nearly a decade.

King would write in his diary after the resignation, quote:

“Bracken’s life as leader has really been a tragedy. He should never have left Manitoba. Was never fit for leadership in Ottawa. Has been a failure in every way.”

King had no animosity towards Bracken, but simply felt he had made the wrong decision. He would send a telegram of sympathy to Bracken upon hearing that he had resigned. King, who was also leaving his party after leading it since 1919, theorized on why Bracken was leaving and compared it to his own leaving, writing quote:

“Bracken is leaving because his party has no chance under his leadership. Were I to decide to stay on I think there is little doubt that we would again, as I believe we would in any event, win the next election. I am not getting out either from fear or defeat, or any dissatisfaction of my party.”

Unfortunately for Bracken, his riding would merge with Brandon’s riding before the 1949 election. In the 1949 election, he would be easily defeated by Liberal James Matthews, who picked up 4,000 votes in the riding he had held since 1938. As it turned out, Matthews would die only a year later. In the 1949 election, Drew and the Progressive Conservatives would actually lose seats, falling by 24 to 41, while the Liberals under new leader Louis St. Laurent earned the largest majority in Canadian history to that point with 191 seats.

Following the end of his political career, Bracken would serve as the Chair for a Royal Commission on the liquor laws in Manitoba. In 1959, he was the chairman of the Box Car Commission, which would investigate the distribution of railway cars.

Bracken would be inducted in the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame as well.

He then retired and spent his time in Ontario raising cows, ponies and horses. By all accounts, the last two decades of his life were happy years as he stayed out of the public eye, spending his days with his wife and his livestock.

Bracken would die on March 18, 1969.

In 1998, Canada Post released a stamp in his likeness. In 2016, a portion of Highway 10 in Manitoba was renamed the John Bracken Highway.

Information from Manitoba Historical Society, Canadian Stamp News, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Biographi, Library and Archives Canada, Dynasties and Interludes, Maclean’s,

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