Politician had farming deep in his soul – The Kingston Whig-Standard

Author of the article:

Susanna McLeod

Publishing date:

Jul 28, 2021  •  56 minutes ago  •  6 minute read

An undated handout photo of Manitoba Premier John Bracken, who was the 11th and longest-serving premier of Manitoba (1922–1943) and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (1942–1948).
An undated handout photo of Manitoba Premier John Bracken, who was the 11th and longest-serving premier of Manitoba (1922–1943) and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (1942–1948). Courtesy CPAC

Career plans were tossed out the window when it seemed that John Bracken failed the matriculation exams. Unruffled, the teenager instead operated and enhanced the family farm in Leeds County northeast of Kingston (now known as the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville). His passion for agriculture led him from hands-on farming to college principal and other impressive posts. Then Bracken steeped up to become premier of Manitoba for more than 20 years.


Born in the log cabin of a dairy farming family at Ellisville, just northeast of Seeleys Bay in Leeds County, on July 22, 1883, John Bracken was the first child of Ephraim Bracken and Alberta Gilbert. One of Bracken’s “early childhood memories was a trip to nearby Kingston to attend the funeral of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald,” editors Barry Ferguson and Robert A. Wardhaugh said in Manitoba Premiers of 19th and 20th Centuries (University of Regina Press 2010). The boy’s father was a Conservative voter, but young Bracken had no interest in politics.

A serious, hard-working teenager who excelled in sports, Bracken was fortunate that his family could afford his high school tuition at Brockville Collegiate Institute. His first term in 1897 was a challenge. Far from home at 14 years old, he enjoyed the athletics, but his grades flagged. At home on Christmas break, Bracken was able to refocus. By the end of spring term, he was ready to write matriculation exams for university entrance. Examining the list of successful students in the Brockville Times newspaper weeks later, Bracken’s name was not there. He readjusted his plans. Further education to become a physician or lawyer was out and farming was in.

“Resolving to make his family’s farm the best in Leeds County, he asked his father for permission to take over management of its daily operations,” Robert Wardhaugh and Jeremy N. Marks wrote in Dictionary of Canadian Biography (University of Toronto/Université Laval, Vol. 19, 2003). The plan worked out well for his father.


In 1900, Bracken’s father Ephraim was elected reeve for the county. Working in Brockville, he had scarce time for farm chores. The senior Bracken “had purchased the first milking machine in the community (and) the work was strenuous and demanded long hours, seven days a week.” His son happily took the reins.

Inspired by farming, Bracken enrolled at Ontario Agricultural College in 1902. Thriving, he earned “honours in every subject and a reputation as a star rugby player,” Wardhaugh and Marks wrote. To continue his goal of a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, Bracken needed to pass the matriculation exam, the same test that troubled him years earlier.

Returning to Brockville Collegiate, the young man received unexpected news. He had not failed the exams. Bracken had passed! A newspaper printing error had left out his name six years earlier, and that mistake changed the path of Bracken’s life. Completing studies at OAC, Ferguson said “he graduated in 1906 with an impeccable record.”

Bracken’s experience and degree in agriculture quickly brought a job offer with the federal government’s Department of Agriculture. Earning $75 per month in 1906 (approximately $2,200 in today’s dollars) with the Seed Branch, Ferguson said, Bracken soon received an offer to move to the branch in Winnipeg. It was as if a ladder of opportunities unfolded for the expert. Bracken climbed up the rungs through administrative agricultural departments and associations.


The next year, the agronomist was hired by Saskatchewan’s minister of agriculture. Touring the province for two years, Bracken shared improved farming methods through science at meetings, saying, “The land will produce 40 bushels to the acre or it will produce 10; the difference in the production is you,” Ferguson said.

Engaged by the University of Saskatchewan in 1909, Bracken was appointed professor of field husbandry, holding the job for 10 years. Before he moved to Saskatoon, Bracken returned briefly to the Ontario Agricultural College, not to teach but to marry his sweetheart, a typist at the school. Alice Wylie Bruce and Bracken wed in Guelph on June 22, 1909. They would have four sons over their long marriage.

Among many skills, Bracken’s expertise was in dry-land farming — in the methods of growing crops in drier conditions with less precipitation. As well, the Prairies presented problems for farm businesses, including extra costs for rail shipping and high tariffs. The University of Manitoba enticed Bracken away from Saskatchewan in 1920, and moving to Winnipeg, the professor launched into an intensive survey of farming methods. Two years later, the jangle of Bracken’s telephone woke him from a deep midnight sleep. Politics was calling.

The Great War, the Depression, budget deficits and political wrangling all left Manitoba in a political quagmire. Days before the phone call to Bracken, the United Farmers of Manitoba party had taken the provincial election. “Since the UFM had the most seats, they would be obliged to form the government and their leader would become the premier of Manitoba,” John Kendle described in John Bracken: A Political Biography (University of Toronto Press, 1979). Bracken was one of three men considered for the top post. He was astonished. Busy with his work, he paid no attention to political concerns … and hadn’t even found time to vote.


Bracken “had never been actively involved in politics and had never indicated any interested in becoming so,” Kendle said. After interviews with UFM members, Bracken was offered the job, and the agreement was confirmed by voters in The Pas in early October 1922. The farmer from Ontario was starting at the top of provincial politics: John Bracken was premier of Manitoba.

“In his first speech from the throne, he signalled that a new, non-partisan era in Manitoba politics had begun, and he declared his willingness to co-operate with members of the opposition,” Wardhaugh and Marks stated. Governing as the Progressive Party of Manitoba, the UFC and Bracken brought in positive changes to advance mining, fishing, hydro-electric power and much more. The province petitioned the federal government for control over natural resources, too.

Disinterested in the day-to-day operation of government, Bracken applied his strength as a professor, “analyzing problems and presenting them in a way which common folk can understand,” Grant Dexter wrote in “Manitoba’s Bracken,” Maclean’s magazine, June 1, 1941.

“He always argues his cases and he likes to hold his meetings in the country schoolhouses with a blackboard and pointer handy.” Likable and kind, Bracken was also regarded as ruthless when a goal was in mind. The premier proved himself to be “a formidable campaigner.”

In late 1941, former prime minister Arthur Meighen asked Bracken to run as a federal Conservative member. “Meighen explained that with support for the CCF surging in the cities, the Tories needed Bracken in order to guarantee the rural vote,” Wardhaugh said. The premier was reluctant. Over a year later, Bracken left his provincial leadership post. He warned the federal party “that he would prove a disappointment.”


Winning a seat as Opposition leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in the federal election in 1945, Bracken was one of only a handful of Conservatives in government. In his own style, he refused the parry and thrust of politics and would not attack opposing party members. Senior members of his own party wanted him to step down. In the 1948 election, the politician lost his seat. Relieved, he returned to private life.

John Bracken died at his Manotick home on March 18, 1969, at age 85. Although he was Manitoba’s longest-serving premier, Bracken had fields and farming deep in his soul. Growing award-winning alfalfa, he also raised Jersey cows and palomino horses to the end of his days.

In posthumous honour, in 1980, Bracken was inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame. He was also featured on a 45-cent stamp in the Canada Post series “Premiers of the Canadian Provinces” issued in 1998.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.