When Herbert Greenfield was pushed out of the UFA as leader, John Brownlee took over. Brownlee was arguably the best UFA premier in Alberta’s history, and some consider him one of the best premier’s Alberta ever had.
That being said, he is most remembered for one of the biggest scandals in Alberta’s history, but we will get to that.
John Brownlee was born on Aug. 27, 1883 in Ontario to Bill and Christina Brownlee, who owned a general store in the community.
Brownlee loved his childhood in the store, and often took in the political talks of his parents with neighbours, and read many of the books in the store.
In fact, he hated spending time with other children and being outside so much that at one point, the village children grabbed him and threw him in Lake Eirie.
In 1880, with the community dying as the age of railroad superseded the age of ports, Brownlee and his family moved to Bradshaw, Ontario, where he began to attend school. At his school, he was the only student not from a farm.
At the age of 14, he entered high school in Sarnia, which was so far away he boarded with another family and only saw his parents on holidays and some weekends. As a student, he was not socially popular, but he was described as diligent and brilliant by his teachers.
After high school, Brownlee enrolled at the Sarnia Model School to train as a teacher. After 15-weeks, he graduated second in his class and within a month, was working at his local school.
Standing at six-foot-four, with blue eyes and a serious work ethic, Brownlee was an imposing figure in the school. Unfortunately, he was unhappy with his $400 per year and chose to leave the school after two and a half years on the job.
It was at this point he decided that he wanted to attend school and he moved to Toronto to attend Victoria College.
At the university, he pursued an honours program, specializing in history and political science. He also studied mathematics, biology, English literature, Latin and two other languages, German and Hebrew. He could also speak French. In order to pay for his college, he sold books to farmers in Ontario and Manitoba.
Interacting with farmers would influence him later in his life, as he studied the problems in their work and won the trust of many farmer associates in the prairies.
At the end of his four years at college, he once again graduated in the top tier of his class, having chosen law as his profession.
In 1908, Brownlee snuck off on a canoeing trip with his female classmate Isabella Govenlock. When they returned, they announced they were engaged which shocked their friends. Unfortunately, by the winter, the engagement was off and Brownlee pursued Florence Edy, an arts student at McMaster.
In 1909, Edy and her family moved to Calgary and Brownlee chose to follow her.
On Dec. 23, 1912, they married and Brownlee settled down into his life in Calgary. Together, the couple had two sons, John and Alan. Alan dealt with poor health and was an invalid for much of his life.
In Alberta, Brownlee loved his life but Florence missed her friends and family, and her health suffered over her worry for the health of her sons.
On Dec. 16, 1912, Brownlee was called to the Alberta Bar and worked Bennett Allison and McLaws. At the law firm, Brownlee worked with Sir James Lougheed, whose grandson Peter would become premier himself, and R.B. Bennett, who became prime minister in 1930.
Despite his friendship with Bennett, Brownlee was not happy with the work and moved to Muir, Jephson and Adams, where he practiced commercial law. In 1914, he became a partner in the firm.
One of the firm’s clients was the United Farmers of Alberta, which was then a lobby organization. Brownlee began to become closely involved with the organization and he was part of a delegation in1 913 to lobby the government of Arthur Sifton to grant a charter to the UFA to operate the province’s grain elevators. This became the Alberta Farmers’ Cooperative Elevator Company.
Brownlee became the principal lawyer for the new company and he would help it merge with the GGG to form the United Grain Growers.
Brownlee said in 1927,
“My whole success in life dates back to the days when these organizations were in the process of formation. I saw the tremendous possibilities for their development and growth and realized to a large extent the great influence they would eventually have in the life of the province and the west.”
Through his work with the UFA and the elevator company, Brownlee started to sympathize with the farmers of Alberta and agreed with their view that the business establishment of eastern Canada was hostile to the interests of Alberta farmers.
In July 1919, Brownlee left the law firm and started to work full-time for the United Grain Growers, earning $6,000 per year. Today, that amounts to $92,000 today. A few months later, he received a raise to $7,500 and became the general manager of the company.
Through his work with the United Grain Growers, Brownlee worked closely with the United Farmers and its leaders, especially Henry Wise Wood, the organization’s president. Brownlee often joined Wise on speaking tours through the province in 1919 and 1920. Working closely with Wood began to increase the interest Brownlee had in the political side of the UFA.
Despite his growing interest in politics, Brownlee went on vacation to Victoria, B.C. as the UFA was preparing for the pivotal 1921 election.
Brownlee had little interest in the election. He gave no speeches, and stated in later years it was a case of the office seeking the man, not the other way around.
At the time, he still saw himself as a lawyer and businessman, rather than a potential politician.
“When the campaign of 1921 was pretty well spent and it was apparent that my services would not be required until after the election, at least, I figured it was a good time to get in some badly needed holidays and took my family to Victoria.”
There was also the belief by Brownlee, through talking with Wood, that the UFA wouldn’t win more than 20 seats. In the end, it won 38 and became the government of Alberta. Brownlee heard the results in the Victoria Colonists news office. The next morning he got a wire from Wood to get back to Calgary immediately.
While Wood was the president, he did not want to be premier and he suggested Brownlee become premier. Brownlee declined, feeling the new MLAs, mostly farmers, would not want an urban lawyer leading them.
After Herbert Greenfield was chosen as the new leader of the UFA, he chose Brownlee to become the attorney general of the province and Brownlee was acclaimed in a by-election in Ponoka.
As attorney general, Brownlee resisted measures that would give the power of decision making to the caucus, rather than government departments. He also opposed efforts to change the Westminster system of Alberta. He also dismissed the idea of a government owned bank.
Brownlee was also the chief negotiator with the federal government over the transfer of the natural resources of Alberta back to the province. As attorney general, he was unsuccessful in that but would have more success as premier.
He also played an important role in the creation of the Alberta Wheat Pool.
Overall, Greenfield relied heavily on Brownlee and many in the government found this embarrassing and it began to divide the caucus.
By 1924, the UFA backbenchers were pushing for the resignation of Herbert Greenfield and wanted him replaced by Brownlee. They then contacted Brownlee and told him their plan to get Greenfield resigned. He responded that if Greenfield resigned, he would as well.
In 1925, the group came forward directly to Greenfield and asked for his resignation. He agreed and Brownlee stated he would resign as well. Henry Wise Wood then came forward and asked Brownlee to reconsider, and Brownlee said he would if Greenfield himself asked him to become premier. Greenfield did, stating he never wanted to be premier in the first place.
On Nov. 23, 1925, Greenfield resigned in a tearful speech, and Brownlee replaced him.
Macleans wrote a glowing portrait of Brownlee, stating,
“A skipper with full qualifications is the present captain of the Alberta ship of state, Premier J.E. Brownlee. He has climbed the ladder from cabin boy to commander and at no position has he been found incompetent.”
As premier, he was known to be quiet and reserved, but his stature of over six feet gave him a formidable look despite his demeanor.
Brownlee said at this time,
“Public life never appealed to me, and doesn’t even now. I dislike it intensely. I always had been keenly interested in politics as a citizen but until the time of my entering the Alberta government, I had never sided definitely with any party.”
One year later, he would be thrust into his first election and the first test for the new UFA government to see if its 1921 win was a fluke.
Brownlee campaigned on the record of the United Farmers over the previous five years, stating,
“I am in the happy position of saying in the face of the people of Alberta that for five years there has not been one occasion either in the house or in the public platform or in the daily press of Alberta during this campaign that the government has been accused of not being honest, sincere and conscientious.”
While the United Farmers were popular, the opposition attacked them over their policy in the dry areas of the province where drought was especially bad.
There was worry that Brownlee was not healthy, as he had to cancel several engagements during the campaign but Brownlee was quick to assure voters he was simply dealing with a sore throat.
In the June 28, 1926 election, the UFA ensured their 1921 election win was no fluke. The party was able to pick up four seats to finish with 43, once again enjoying a majority government. The party also increased its share of the popular vote, earning an extra 10 per cent.
The 43 seats won by the party was the most won by a party in the history of the province to that point. It would be nine years before a party finished with more seats.
“Although the results are not as yet all in, the government seems to be returned and for that I want to thank you. But the feeling of elation is mingled with one of great responsibility.”
During Brownlee’s first term, he was able to cooperate with the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, which allowed Alberta to finally gain control over its provincial resources. King needed the UFA as he had a minority government supported by the Progressives, many of whom were supported by UFA supporters in Alberta.
Gaining the natural resources was still not easy though. After an agreement was reached in 1926, it was soon scuttled because the federal government added a clause that Alberta continue to support separate Roman Catholic schools. This clause would cause it to go back and forth until 1929, when a compromise was reached.
Macleans wrote in 1930,
“When premiers Brownlee, Alberta and Bracken, Manitoba, last December 14, walked into the Privy Council chamber in the East Block of Parliament Hill, met Premier Mackenzie King and together sat at the great circular table to sign the resources agreements, there was in the air a consciousness that an event of great historic importance was being enacted.”
When Brownlee returned from Ottawa having finally gained Alberta control over its natural resources, he was greeted by 3,000 cheering people.
Brownlee’s government also took over the direct operation of the CPR and CNR lines in 1927, and in 1928 with the lines now showing a profit, he sold the lines to the CPR for $25 million.
The sale of the railways and the control over the natural resources allowed the province to have balanced budgets. Despite this, Brownlee continued to push for the federal government to have a greater share of new social programs, which gained him the image of a penny pincher.
His government would consolidate the thousands of school districts into only a few districts as well.
One dark aspect of his first term was the passing of the Sexual Sterilization Act, which allowed for the sterilization of anyone the government deemed to be a, quote, mental defective, unquote. This act was supported by many, including Suffragists such as Nellie McClung and would remain a dark chapter in Alberta’s history until it was finally repealed in 1972.
When the election of 1930 came along, things were still early in the election that the full force of what was coming was not quite known, but that didn’t mean the first sings weren’t beginning to appear.
In the election, the UFA lost five seats to finish with 39, which still gave the party a majority government. The party had only ran one candidate in Edmonton, who won, and no candidates in Calgary.
While the election was a victory for the UFA, The Great Depression was getting ready to reshape the politics of Canada.
The major export at the time for Alberta was wheat, and the price had fallen from $1.78 per bushel in 1929 to 45 cents by the end of 1930. The Alberta Wheat Pool guaranteed a minimum price of one dollar, and it was now facing bankruptcy due to the decline in the price of wheat. Banks soon stopped providing it with credit, and farmers were unable to buy seed by the time the seeding season arrived in 1931.
Early on Brownlee stated that the future was bright and the Depression was only temporary.
When Brownlee tried to get a federal government to provide a minimum guarantee of 70 cents per bushel but Prime Minister R.B. Bennett refused this, wrongly believing that global oversupply was the cause of the price decline.
In December 1932, with people abandoning farms and coming to cities, 1,000 unemployed men and women marched in a Hunger March to the Alberta Legislature. Brownlee asked that such protests be prohibited, while also saying he was sympathetic to the ordeal of workers.
Brownlee saw the first deficit of his premiership in 1931 of $2.5 million, a number that increased in 1932. The province also came within hours of defaulting on a $3 million bond, and only avoided that scenario when the federal government provided a loan. To save money, Brownlee closed most of the agricultural colleges in the province, laid off 30 per cent of the civil service, cut provincial employee salaries and disbanded the Alberta Provincial Police.
It was at this time that a schoolteacher and evangelist with his own radio show, William Aberhart, started to tout the benefits of social credit. That man, and his party, would reshape Alberta politics forever but that is a story for another episode.
With Aberhart speaking on his radio show about the benefits of social credit, residents of Alberta began to pressure the government to look into it as a solution to the troubles of The Great Depression.
In 1933, 54,000 residents signed a petition asking Brownlee and his government to investigate the principles preached by Aberhart and to determine if it was plausible for Alberta. That same year, 70,000 signed a straw ballot approving of social credit.
For Brownlee, while The Great Depression was decimating his support in the province, it was the sex scandal that ended his career in 1934.
That year, Brownlee was sued for the seduction of a family friend named Vivian MacMillan. She was a clerk at the attorney-general’s office and she stated that Brownlee seduced her in 1930, in an affair that continued until 1933.
MacMillan stated that Brownlee persuaded her to sleep with him in his Studebaker touring car, telling her he was lonely and could not have relations with his wife. He stated it would have killed his wife due to her poor health, and by sleeping with him, she was saving the life of his wife.
She said during the trial,
“He played with me as a cat plays with a mouse. He seemed to have me under some sort of spell.”
Brownlee stated that the story was not true, and that the lawsuit was part of a conspiracy involving the Liberal Party.
The trial that followed was highly publicized and sensationalized in the newspapers. It found in favour of MacMillan and awarded her $10,000, and her father $5,000, but Justice William Carlos Ives, who presided over the trial, disregarded the ruling and stated MacMillan had not suffered any damage. Eventually, appeals reached the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal at the time, where MacMillan was victorious.
After the trial was finished, Brownlee had no doubt that his time as premier was over. He stated he would resign as soon as a successor was chosen.
On July 10, 1934, Richard Gavin Reid replaced him as premier of Alberta.
After his resignation, Brownlee maintained a low profile while still serving as an MLA. Brownlee was made the chief strategist for the party against Aberhart and his social credit policy. Despite his efforts to show that the policies of Aberhart were unconstitutional, the Social Credit Party won the 1935 election, ending the era of the UFA leading Alberta and beginning almost 40 years of Social Credit power in the province.
In that election, every single UFA candidate was defeated, and Brownlee lost to his Social Credit opponent 2,295 votes to 879.
After his election defeated, Brownlee went back to law and opened a firm in Toronto. He soon became the general counsel for the United Grain Growers and by 1940 he had restored his career to where it had been before he entered politics. As general counsel, he restructured the capital of the organization, which helped limit capital inflow and created two classes of share to help impoverished farmers.
In 1942, he was appointed to the board of directors for the organization, and became its vice president. In 1948, he was made the president of the United Grain Growers.
Brownlee worked constantly in his position, often arriving at work with a briefcase full of dictation machines for secretaries to transcribe. As president, he expanded the company, built new grain elevators and bought existing ones. He also increased the organization’s presence in centres such as Regina, Brandon and Winnipeg.
In 1957, the first of several major surgeries began for Brownlee. At this point, his mind started to fail him and he relied on his wife to help him with things he would forget.
In his later years, Brownlee received several honours including induction into the Order of the Buffalo Hunt in Manitoba, and an appointment to the National Productivity Council by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
He continued to serve as president until June 21, 1961, when he resigned due to ill health.
Less than a month later on July 15, 1961, he was dead.
The Edmonton Journal wrote,
“With the passing of Mr. Brownlee, Alberta has lost a truly outstanding citizen.”
A special train was set up to bring mourners to the funeral, which was held in Calgary, before his body was taken to the family plot in Edmonton.
Today, Brownlee is mostly remembered for the sex scandal but some historians regard him as the greatest premier in Alberta’s history thanks to negotiating the transfer of resource rights that brought prosperity to Alberta for much of the 20th century.
In 2005, the University of Calgary ranked him as the third greatest premier in Alberta’s history after Ernest Manning and Peter Lougheed.
Information from Macleans, The Great Depression by Pierre Berton, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald