He’s a Premier at Forty-two
Twenty-three years ago, John Brownlee was a village school teacher; to-day he is the head of a Farmer Government in Alberta
FREDERICK B. WATT
IT TAKES a good skipper to determine the flood of that elusive tide in the affairs of men of which the poet spoke, but it takes a better one, a man well versed in the art of navigation and a man possessing more than a usual amount of natural sagacity, to safely follow the tortuous course that leads on to fortune. Men lacking confidence have a habit of waiting too long and finding themselves stranded; others, too bold, are tempted to sail ahead of the tide and fail to reach port.
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. Hard work, courage, and a generous supply of natural ability have fitted him for each succeeding promotion. When the flood tide was reached he was ready, and to-day finds him a seasoned mariner, his ship trim beneath him and the storm clouds of an election, successfully weathered, disappearing on the horizon. Incidentally, it finds him the youngest premier in the British Empire, which in itself bespeaks his rapid rise.
Like many successful skippers, Premier Brownlee is quiet, and reserved almost to the point of taciturnity. He wastes no words and what he has to say is delivered in a terse, direct manner that conveys his meaning unmistakably. He is a big man, physically and mentally. Well over six feet in stature and built in proportion, of sombre mien, he presents at first glance, a formidable front. Yet he is anything but formidable if one is not a ‘glad hander’ or a time waster. Even the casual observer will detect an occasional softening of the features and an elusive glint in the eyes which reveal a quiet sense of humor. Forceful yet unostentatious, he impresses one as being a scholar or a big business'executive rather than a politician and, as a matter of fact, that impression is correct. He is a politician in spite of himself.
He Won the Farmers’ Confidence
TF J. É. BROWNLEE had shaped his course solely -*■ by the star of the almighty dollar he would not be occupying the office of Alberta’s chief executive to-day. He would be located in Winnipeg as the general manager of Western Canada’s wheat pool, which handled 190,000,000 bushels of last year’s crop in the three prairie provinces. This position has twice been offered Mr. Brownlee, and during recent months the West, and Alberta particularly, has been waiting in suspense as he considers a third proposition. It is a well-known fact that the financial reward of the job is several times greater than his remuneration as premier. •
Honorable John Edward Brownlee, B.A., K.C., is, in modern phraseology, a ‘go-getter’; not the breezy, more or less offensive type of business man that the term ordinarily brings to mind but a dignified, determined worker who sets an objective and refuses to allow anything to interfere with his direct method of achieving it. The wheat pools are nothing new to him. In the days of their formation, when they were regarded with a good deal of suspicion and there were times when it appeared that the movement was liable to fall flat on account of lack of support, Mr. Brownlee, then attorney-general of Alberta, gave two or three months to the campaign for contract signatures, and no man played a greater part than he in putting over the idea behind the pool. He has been recognized as the logical head of the great co-operative movement since its inception.
There is a direct connection between his rise as a business and professional man and his success as a politician. The flood in the tide that carried him on to fortune was reached in Calgary in 1911 when, as a law student in the firm of Muir, Jefferson and Adams, he was given a small case to handle for the Grain Growers’ Grain company.
Young Brownlee had always been deeply interested in farmers and their problems. He had grown up among them in Ontario, his birthplace being Port Ryerse, a village on Lake Erie. He sold them books in Manitoba in order to raise funds to put himself through the University of Toronto. He had arrived in Calgary while acting as a traveling salesman, peddling store fixtures in the farming districts of the Dominion so he knew something about farmers. Always thorough in his work, he took a
special interest in this small Grain Growers’ case and settled it satisfactorily out of court.
The net result was that he got more of the Grain Growers’ work to handle and by the time he was called to the bar in the following year he was attending to all of the legal business of the*Calgary branch of the organ-
ization. He was well satisfied with the turn events had taken. A criminal practice had never appealed to him and there was sufficient work in his new line to make it unnecessary ever to plead in the criminal courts. In 1913, the Alberta Farmers’ Co-operative Elevator company was formed and, mainly because of his previous association with members of the directorate, Mr. Brownlee was appointed company solicitor, still retaining his connection with the Grain Growers.
The Tide of Affairs
THIS was decidedly rapid progress for a young man who had arrived in Calgary five years previously, a total stranger to the city and with his three years’ articleship ahead of him. Back in Sarnia, Ontario, where he had attended collegiate institute, there were still teachers who thought of him as ‘young Brownlee’ and to many a native of the village of Bradshaw, where his father still kept the general store, it seemed only a year or two since the youth had left his four-hundred-dollar-a-year job as village dominie to go up to the University at Toronto, where Victoria College had welcomed him and done its best to season him before sending him West, an honors graduate in Political Science, to joust with Fortune.
Decidedly rapid progress, yes, but not phenomenal progress! Every man has a particular talent and J. E. Brownlee’s long suit was farmers. Always his hobby, he had made a study of their problems his life work and already he had won the confidence of his farmer associates as few professional men have ever done.
It was shortly after receiving the appointment from the elevator company that the young solicitor sensed a quickening in the tide which he had chosen to ride. The first intimation of the fact came with the formation of the non-commercial United Farmers of Alberta. A few farsighted people saw the possibilities of the new movement but for the most part the old line politicians barely noticed its commencement.
“My whole success in life dates back to the days when these organizations were in the process of formation.” Mr. Brownlee admits frankly, “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 of the West.”
“A warm friendship sprang up between the late •James Speakman, first leader of the United Farmers of Alberta, and myself. I began to go into the problems of agriculturists in other than a legal way. In doing so I came constantly in contact with Hon. T. A. Crerar, of the Grain Growers, E. J. Fream and C. Rice-Jones, of the Alberta Elevators, and H. W. Wood, who was to suucceed to the leadership of the U.F.A. on the death of Mr. Speakman.”
“These men, with whom I had been associated in a business way, became close personal friends. Besides listening to their opinions at meetings, as I had done in the past, I spent many evenings with them around their own hearths and became more and more intimate with the aims and ideals of the fa-mers’ movement. The time came when I was allowed to sit in on the meetings of the boards of directors and was given a free hand to investigate the various departments of the businesses.”
So, unknown to the masses, the young lawyer was rapidly becoming one of the best informed authorities on the farm situation in the West. His was no superficial knowledge. He was intensely thorough, even for a man of law.
In 1916, at the age of thirty-two, Mr. Brownlee was able to cast loose from his old firm, in which he had become a partner in the meantime, to set up an office for himself in Calgary. This was largely the result of the amalgamation of the Grain Growers’ Grain company and the Alberta Farmers’ Elevator company. Throughout the negotiations he acted for the Alberta organization and, on the completion of the amalgamation, he was President Crerar’s choice as general counsel for the new company. Within four years of his having been called to the bar, J. E. Brownlee was rated a very successful lawyer.
During the next five years his prestige increased—as did his income. As far as the political activities of the U.F.A. were concerned, he gave the officials any legal advice they sought but did not ally himself with them; nor, when the election of 1921 loomed, did he go on the stump or participate actively in the campaign.
“Public life never appealed to me,” says the premier, “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. My father, who always impressed upon me the duty of a citizen to take a decided interest in the affairs of the country, was an oldline Liberal who regarded the Toronto Globe as being only second in value to the family Bible. He is still a Liberal —although I am inclined to believe that he has had leanings towards the Farmer party since the last premier of Alberta was chosen.
“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. I heard the results of the fight in the Colonist office on election night. The next morning a wire arrived from President Wood, of the U.F.A., asking me to return immediately to Calgary where a meeting of the newly-elected Farmer members was to be held.”
In their first political assault the Farmers had carried everything before them and had swept into power in the Alberta legislatute with dramatic suddenness. Their solicitor naturally was greatly elated at the spectacular success and, no doubt, realized that it was almost bound to help him personally in no small measure. But he was unprepared for what awaited him on his arrival in
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Calgary. President Wood, who was the likely choice for the leadership of the new government, met him with the proposal that he, Brownlee, should take over the task of prime minister.
It was something new in the annals of politics for a man who had never taken an active part in an election to be suddenly faced with the opportunity of stepping in as the chief executive officer of the province. Mr. Brownlee, however, refused to even have his name considered by the meeting and Herbert Greenfield, vicepresident of the U.F.A., was chosen as premier. The solicitor’s attempts to keep out of public life were futile, however. Tillers of the soil may become provincial secretaries, ministers of agriculture and so forth overnight but it requires a lawyer for the office of attorney-general, and Mr. Brownlee was the one man for the job. Premier Greenfield, a great personal friend, insisted on his entering the cabinet and he finally consented.
So, despite himself, he became a public man. He was nominated for the electoral district of Ponoka and took his seat in the house without having to put up a struggle for it, as the opposition allowed an acclamation.
The Farmer party took over an enormous responsibility when it set out to govern Alberta. With a very few exceptions, it was composed of men who had sprung into prominence in a day, of men who had but a superficial knowledge of the basic principles and inner workings of a government. How much they depended upon their attorney-general will probably never be known—they are a singularly tight-lipped party—but it is general knowledge that Brownlee was the man who revealed the shoals that lay on all sides and kept the hastily built and nonetoo-seaworthy ship of state in the centre of the channel.
The Pool and the Premier’s Chair
'T'HE year 1922 saw the business side of -*■ Brownlee’s life again crossing the path of his political career. In that year the Alberta wheat pool was formed and it got away to a splendid start, thanks largely to the new attorney-general’s aggressive personal efforts. The next year Saskatchewan and Manitoba swung into line and the sign-up was completed in 1924. The central selling agency was finally organized at a meeting in Calgary. Throughout the entire progress of the movement the tall unhurried but grimly vigorous figure of Hon. J. E. Brownlee stood out in the background.
That the pools needed his undivided service became increasingly apparent. In the latter part of 1925, however, politics made a new demand upon him. A crisis that had been looming in the Alberta government came to a head and Premier Greenfield, feeling that he no longer had the whole-hearted support of his party, resigned. It was a foregone conclusion that Mr. Brownlee would be asked to fill the office, but it took a considerable time to persuade him to accept it, the urging of Mr. Greenfield proving the deciding factor. He was sworn in as premier on November 23, 1925.
He had barely time to prepare for the approaching session and the election which followed. It was no easy task. The novelty of government by farmers had worn off and the issue had to be fought on facts and figures. To the credit of the new leader, the agriculturists were returned with an increased majority.
It is a subject of frequent complaint that it is impossible to lure successful business men into accepting the responsibilities and poor salaries of public service. J. E. Brownlee was much better off financially before he entered the Alberta Gov-
ernment. Since that time it has become an increasingly great sacrifice to remain, even as prime minister. Should he succumb to the offers of the wheat pools, he could not be blamed. But it would be a great blow to the U.F.A. and to the province that has shown so very definitely that it wants him to remain in his office on Capitol Hill.
Recently the writer sounded out the premier on this point:
“One would hardly hold it against you, Mr. Brownlee, if you chucked public service and looked out for yourself.”
“I suppose not,” replied the premier, “and I am not saying that I won’t. I would dislike, though, to desert all of the men who have worked with me in the U.F.A. and”—a slow smile lighted up his rather sombre features as he gazed out of his office window at the beautiful valley of the North Saskatchewan in all its autumn glory—“it would give me a wrench to leave Alberta.”
Although Eastern-born, no one, not even his most bitter political opponent, can doubt Premier Brownlee’s love for his adopted province, the birthplace of his two sons.
A Truly Human Premier
AS THE writer was leaving the office TA 0f Alberta’s chief executive after securing the interview on which this article is based, another man awaited admittance. It was Hon. Herbert Greenfield, the former premier, who is still in the government service. The latter was about to enter the long, dignified room in which he had once directed the fortunes of the U.F.A. administration, to seek counsel of the man who had displaced him.
“Hello, John—” the visitor’s greeting floated out as the door closed behind him.
John! Until that moment it had seemed impossible to the writer that the premier’s Christian name had ever been used other than in biographies. Yet, the salutation revealed the side of the man seldom, if ever, seen by the great majority of citizens, accustomed to a deep-voiced commanding person who arouses respect without affection.
Apart from his natural interest in them, his sincerity and his frankness, J. E. Brownlee’s hold over the farmers can be traced to an inborn understanding of them, professional man though he is. He displayed this understanding early in life when, as a student seeking funds to put himself through the University, he pedalled a bicycle through Manitoba selling books to the men whose eyes scarcely had time to leave the sky with its promise of good crops or its threat of poor ones. He developed it as a rural school-teacher in his native Ontario.
It is significant that he was never once ordered off anyone’s front doorstep in his bookselling days and that he never failed to make sufficient money to carry him through his next year’s courses.
“Everyone has a human strain in him somewhere and even a man selling books can uncover it if he knows how,” is his explanation.
Romance is not confined to lovers and pirates. At forty-two years of age, when most men are just beginning to get ahead, Hon. J. E. Brownlee stands at the cross-roads. He may continue with an outstanding political career or step into the most responsible business position in the West. The great majority of Canadians deceived by his refusal to neglect the business at hand and to pose as a pompous figurehead, brand him as a dull, uninteresting fellow whom Fate, in a precocious moment, chose as a favorite. The truth of the matter is that Fate had no alternative.