HONEST JOHN BRACKEN
The Man Who Didn’t Want to Be Premier
By George Siamandas
Honest John Bracken, the man who did not want to be Premier, ran the province for 22 difficult years between 1922 and 1944. Bracken was born the son of a dairy farmer June 22, 1883 in Leeds Ont. He loved sports especially football and hockey. He was one who kept his feelings to himself. He went away to high school but failed his final exams returning home defeated. He took on the management of his father’s dairy farm and made into a success. Up at 4:30 in the morning and in bed by 9, Bracken tended the farm 7 days a week. Like farmers everywhere, Bracken had been raised on values of hard work, and self-reliance.
Later he applied to the Ontario Agricultural College where he became one of 300 students. There he applied himself and did well. He would later find a clerical error had occurred. He had in fact passed. He graduated with top marks and took on his first job. He went west in 1905 to head up the Manitoba a section of the Federal Seed Bureau providing better seeds to western farmers. He was then wooed further west to work in Saskatoon by WR Motherwell. He became a specialist in dryland farming writing several seminal texts. In 1920 he returned to head up Manitoba’s Agricultural College. He loved farmers and talking about farming. And he loved to work, taking time out only for his beloved curling.
MANITOBA’S PREMIER 1922-1942
After winning the 1922 election the United Farmers of Manitoba found themselves without a platform and without a leader. After approaching several agricultural leaders they decided on Bracken. Bracken who had no interest in politics and who felt as head of the Ag College he already had the best job in Manitoba, turned them down flat. He gave such a stirring speech why he wasn’t the man that the United Farmers of Manitoba realized they wanted this co-operative non-partisan even more.
The next day they presented him a petition asking him once again to become leader. And once again he refused. On the third try they made sure that they saw him at home with his wife present. Once again he said no. But then Mrs Bracken said: “John you should help these men out.” He agreed.
But first, Bracken who had never voted in his life before had to win a seat. He decided to run in The Pas. Bracken won his seat and won elections for 22 years including some with acclamation. Forty years later, Bracken would tell a reporter a familiar story. After the election, the part aboriginal mayor of The Pas had told Bracken that he had been offered $10,000 by the Conservatives to run against Bracken but the mayor decided not to run.
Bracken was at the helm for the most difficult times Manitoba faced. He introduced income tax and raised the gas tax. He reduced govt spending, fired civil servants, and cut back mother’s allowances. Within three years he was running a surplus. He was seen as arrogant, unable to forget his schoolmaster background and treated MLA’s as schoolboys.
After his long service in provincial politics, in 1942 Bracken was once again persuaded to serve another group’s needs, this time as the leader of the federal Conservative Party. He convinced them to add the name progressive, but he was disappointed in the partisan bickering and his performance was judged lacklustre. He lasted two years. Some saw him once again, as the wrong man in the wrong party.
Bracken gave Manitoba 22 years of unselfish govt. His influence lasted as Brackenism would become the philosophy of the Garson and Campbell govt that would follow for another 15 years. In 1954, Bracken the teetotaller headed a Royal Commission on Liquor. His report recommended the liberalisation of drinking laws. Years later he regretted the increasing rates of alcoholism. He retired to Manotick Ontario to breed horses and died Mar 16, 1969.