Dirt farmer, research student, professor, Canadia-that's John Bracken, new leader of the new Progressive Conservative party
This Is Bracken
Dirt farmer, research student, professor, Canadia-that's John Bracken, new leader of the new Progressive Conservative party
JOHN BRACKEN, son of farmer Ephraim Bracken, is a dirt farmer. Nobody can begin to understand him or his career until they get that straight.
Those who know him best say that he is a leader through and through. For twenty years he has proved it, growing in stature, broadening in outlook and mellowing in mind. But he is a leader who lacks many of the obvious surface qualities that people expect of a political leader. He is no showman, for example, no great platform orator. His qualities of leadership are to be found beneath the surface.
Bracken became a leader in Manitoba because he was a practical farmer with an understanding of the agricultural background of the West He was chosen by farmers themselves. For twenty years he has represented their interests in a province where the rural vote greatly outweighs the urban. This has been to his advantage, politically. For more than a decade he has fought for the interest of
agriculture throughout the’ whole of the nation.
Necessity made John Bracken a politician in the twenties. Depression and the sufferings of the West made him a statesman in the thirties. The war and the oncoming shadow of the afterwar have driven him, against his personal inclinations but not against his will, into the national field as leader of the Progressive-Conservative Party. Deep mental conviction has driven him into that field, but he has also a very personal stake in the war effort. Mr. and Mrs. Bracken have contributed two sons to the armed services—Bruce, a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy, and Gordon, flying officer with the R.C.A.F. in Ceylon. A third son, Murray, is working in a defense industry in Montreal, while the fourth, Douglas, is a doctor in an important medical clinic in Winnipeg.
If you doubt that Bracken is a real farmer then drop down to his hide-out, that honest-to-goodness farm on the banks of the Winnipeg River near Great Falls, and watch him at work with the
Indians, clearing brush. You will find him with grease on his jeans, dirt deep under his fingernails, Manitoba gumbo and fertilizer plastered on his boots and sweat in his hair. On the farm he goes to bed early, about when the chickens do, and gets up at first light. He has two farms which he runs for profit, not as an amusement. The Great Falls farm, of course, is in Manitoba, the other one is in Saskatchewan.
People speak of him, sometimes, as a professor of agriculture. That is partly true. His ambition as a boy was to run the best farm in Leeds County, Ontario, where he was born sixty years ago, near the village of Ellisville. He attended high school in Brockville, then went to the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph, and to the University of Illinois because he wanted to be a good farmer, not a professor.
At Guelph he was a first-class student. He won scholarships. He was the stockjudging champion. їHe captained the football team. After that, the
colleges beckoned him; he did not beckon them. So in 1908 he turned up as a professor of sorts, but a very particular kind of teacher, a professor of field husbandry at the University of Saskatchewan. That is an earthy trade, calling for science, but calling still more for practical farming knowledge.
BRACKEN himself said the final word on this farmer-professor business. At a recent press conference he was asked whether he thought of himself chiefly as a teacher or a farmer. He replied: “I like to think of myself as a Canadian.” And that is just what he is. Brought up in Ontario and rooted in the West, he is as rugged a Canadian as 1 know. That is the whole feel of him—Canadian. That’s what he looks like: a spare, granite-hewn Canadian with grey hair, keen eyes, firm mouth, quiet mien.
1 suspect that the twelve years he spent as farmer-demonstrator in western Canada were the happiest of John Bracken’s from a personal point of view. In June, 1909, he married Alice Wylie Bruce, of Guelph.
At the University he was a familiar figure driving a democrat about the experimental farm plots and visit ing farmers throughout the countryside. Often he would ride horseback with a small boy perched on the horse ahead of him. That would be any one of his four sons.
Again, toward the end of these years, all six of the Bracken family would be seen bundled up in a buggy driving behind their favorite old horse Diamond, dropping in to pass the time of day with neighboring farmers. At home on his own farm there was always a pack of collie dogs: a mother
collie of his own and one pup for each of the children. The place, furthermore, was always well stocked with pigeons, rabbits, guinea pigs and other pets kept by the Bracken boys.
In 1920 John Bracken left. Saskatchewan to become President of Manitoba Agricultural College, a branch of the University of Manitoba. Before he had really taken root there he was drafted (in 1922), greatly against his inclination, to head up a United Farmer’s government. A group of twenty-seven leaderless Progressives, somewhat to their own
surprise, found themselves in office and needing a head man. They picked on Bracken because he knew the farmer’s problems.
To leave the Agricultural College while their children were still so young was a great wrench to the Brackens. It meant sacrificing much of their home life for public life. Yet Alice Bracken always managed to get home in time to see the children when they got back from school. “Thank Heaven,” she says today, “boys are so much easier than girls because they get out and around and have their own things to do.”
Listed New Faces
MR. BRACKEN and his lovely wife, who is such a great aid to him, set about learning the business of politics in a forthright, simple way. Every evening when the new premier came home, he and his wife sat down and wrote in a notebook the names of the people he had seen that day and what they did, whether they were civil servants, Members of the Assembly or just plain citizens.
Soon Mr. Bracken, greeting a couple of hundred delegates to a provincial reception, could shake each one by the hand and call him by name. And if, once in a great while, Mr. Bracken appeared to hesitate -and it was rare—Mrs. Bracken would be in there ahead of him with the delegate’s name.
He won his seat in the Manitoba Legislature in 1922 as a Progressive, headed a Progressive government for five years and carried the province again in 1927 for the Progressives. Not long after the 1927 election Liberals and Progressives came together provincially, and in 1932 Bracken again won the province, being returned with a LiberalProgressive following. In 1936, after a close elec-
tion, needing a majority, he sought and gained the support of the small Social Credit group, and remained in power by a delicate balancing feat.
Under pressure of war, in 1941, he formed the Bracken Nonparty Coalition with the support of Progressives, Liberal-Progressives, Conservatives, C.C.F. and Social Credit. This formidable nonpartisan alliance swept the province, and Mr. Bracken leaves it entrenched in power today despite the defection of the C.C.F.
In these twenty years John Bracken has not
merely given promise of leadership, he has proved it in practice. What are his chief characteristics as leader? The first is a most unusual combination of intellectual humility in making up his mind combined with iron firmness of judgment when it is made up. In spite of the fact that he has been premier of a province for twenty years, Mr. Bracken does not think he “knows it all.” On the contrary, the characteristic Bracken way, when confronted with any problem, is to seek advice.
He spares no pains to get the last i dotted in a brief, to get the last question resolved in an analysis. In contrast with his habits on the farm, he burns the midnight oil relentlessly when he is on the job in the city. He studies a subject in all its aspects and assembles all available information, particularly factual, scientific and practical data. Then, often after a long period in which he turns the thing over in his mind and revises and revises his draft policy, Mr. Bracken makes his judgment. Once he has made up his mind and set the course, he sticks to it with what his enemies call the stubbornness of a Missouri mule and what his friends call stout resolution.
John Bracken’s second outstanding quality as an administrator is the ability to surround himself with capable men and, certainly in recent years, to give them their heads. It took him some years to learn how to depute work to others. But, as he gained the confidence of his colleagues he also learned to trust them. This man whom his critics have called “a dictator” actually gave his colleagues in the Manitoba Government an infinitely freer hand in running their departments than anyone outside his former cabinet even suspects. In the old days his friends used to tell him, “You’ll kill yourself” because he tried to do too much himself. In recent years he allowed his associates to run the details of government while he himself framed only the major policies and made those decisions which affected the whole government. At the time of his resignation he headed no department of his own: he was just “Premier and President of the Executive Council.”
Not a Dictator
HERE are some of the things that Mr. Bracken is not—hearsay to the contrary. He is not a dictator. The overwhelming testimony of his Cabinet colleagues proves that. Many people, especially opponents in the Legislative Assembly, regard him as a “schoolteacher.” That is the wrong word. He is a combination of research student and practical man, with a dash of scientist in his insistence upon facts. He is not at all academic in a bookish way. But he is the kind of man who is determined to get and to understand the facts of any subject in which he is interested.
Not long ago he was taken by his son, Dr. Douglas Bracken, to visit the clinic where the latter works. One of the doctors who explained things to the new Progressive-Conservative leader related after the visit that Mr. Bracken spent twenty minutes examining an electro-cardiograph machine. He wanted to know how it worked and what it was all about. He refused to put up with highly technical, cryptic explanations. “It’s no use talking to me in long, scientific terms,” he said, “for I am not a scientist.” But at the end of the twenty minutes John Bracken really understood the principle of the electro-cardiograph.
He is not a great orator or platform performer but he does make first-rate speeches because of the sheer meatiness of what he has to say.
Now as to what John Bracken is. Throughout twenty years he exercised leadership through grinding hard work, integrity of purpose and honesty of mind. Bracken’s real monuments in Manitoba are things like the bound blue books of the Manitoba Economic Survey Board and Manitoba’s submission to the Rowell-Sirois Commission. He stands for a method in government, the method of harnessing experts to practical use. His philosophy is founded on the belief that you must have National Research Councils first and then really do something about putting their findings into practice in government.
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This Is Brachen
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For instance, when the RowellSirois Commission was set up, Bracken sent for foremost economists likeHanson of Minnesota, Viner of Chicago, McQueen of Manitoba, and set them to work. Then he got his provincial treasurer, Stuart Garson (who has succeeded Bracken as leaderof the ManitobaGovernment), to work with him on the brief. After looking over the brief himself Bracken appeared before the Commission. The result was a provincial brief that was truly national in scope and outlook. It was an all-Canadian document.
He takes endless advice, often keeps his advisers in suspense, then makes up his own mind. You can almost hear his mind click like a trap at the moment of decision.
Mr. Bracken has been in power for twenty years but has never been in opposition. How will he do as an opposition leader? That is the great question mark, of course. He is not likely to develop brilliance, nor even quickness in parliamentary repartee. I would guess that he will surround himself with able lieutenants to handle that sort of thing. But he has one outstanding quality which an opposition leader must have today. Friends and foes alike agree that he is a fighter to the last round. Also, he has the ability of getting to the core of any matter, in few words. That is his debating asset.
BEFORE the war Mr. Bracken thought nationally because the problems of the West forced him to do so. In his mind, second only to the need of all-out effort for victory, is the need of working, here and now, upon the problems of reconstruction after the war. Characteristically,
Mr. Bracken already has the economists and other experts at work on the detailed blueprint. That is his habit of mind and work. The nation will shortly see him unfold those policies.
John Bracken, until you get to know him, seems a somewhat austere man, abstemious in his habits, prefering work on his farm to the society of congenial companions, making his friends by hobnobbing with farmers in the country and with curlers in the city in the wintertime. (He is a canny, deliberate skip, and has been known to take fifteen minutes to decide upon his final shot, then throw the winning rock.)
By the nature of his office, John Bracken has had to stand somewhat aloof. At times, while he made many friends, he had to make political enemies. That is the way of politics. Mrs. Bracken, a woman of infinite charm and grace, makes friends easily. She is the kind of woman who runs a large and comfortable but modest house with only one hired girl as help. She does much of the housework herself and cooks dinner on maid’s night out. When her family was young she always did the children’s washing. As she says: “That is only what any
Canadian mother does.”
Yet, when Alice Bracken steps out in public, no one would mistake her for anything hut a gracious, great lady.
With Wedgwood blue eyes, fine complexion and beautiful white hair she looks stunning in an Elizabeth blue
dress and grey fur coat. If ever her husband were to come into power, Ottawa, after long years of bachelor prime ministers, would see once again a prime minister’s wife with a charm and grace more than capable of upholding the dignity of her husband’s office.
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