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Ten: Grant MacEwan

Ongoing Legend

Author of 32 books, master livestock judge, lieutenant governor of Alberta, historian of Western Canada, mayor of Calgary, agricultural scientist and husbandry professor, broadcaster and public speaker extraordinaire, conservationist, leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, outdoorsman and hiker -- Grant MacEwan remains an ongoing major institution in his adopted province of Alberta. The list of his accomplishments, moreover, is incomplete without mentioning his more than 2,500 newspaper columns, 5,000 speeches and 1,000 broadcasts, as well as uncounted magazine articles and contributions to scholarly, technical, and popular publications.

As one of countless examples of the MacEwan phenomenon, he was in early 1986 invited to participate in events at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton. Rising at perhaps 5 a.m. at his home in Calgary, he boarded a Greyhound bus for the four hour trip to the provincial capital. There, he visited the several campuses of the college for "Grant MacEwan Day" and was dropped off at the Edmonton public library to do some research. Declining to be put up by the college overnight at the local YMCA (where he invariably stays to protest personally the practice of people on travel expense accounts to indulge in luxury and because he finds overnighters there interesting to visit with), he changed his clothes in the library public washroom and was picked up there to attend an elegant college dinner where he was the guest speaker. He spoke for 20-25 minutes without notes on public service and Tommy Douglas (who had recently died) and was then driven back to the bus depot to catch the late bus for home, doubtless arriving well after midnight. He was 83-years-of-age at the time.

MacEwan would probably be surprised to learn that anyone would make something out of such a day. From all recent indications, he continues to live at the same pace, chopping wood for his fireplace, riding barely broken horses, building log cabins and hiking or walking large distances. He credits his constitution and undiminished stamina to his grandparents so this brief account of the life of an extraordinary Western Canadian begins with his forebears.

George MacEwan left the highlands of Scotland in 1857 and settled in Guelph where, as a youth of 12, he first earned his living as a blacksmith before becoming an engineer with a sewing company for 40 years. His wife, Annie Cowan, whom he met in Canada was also from Scotland. Their oldest son, Alexander, was determined to be a cowboy in the American west as a boy so no one was surprised in 1889 when at eighteen he joined others from the Guelph region in boarding a west-bound train of the recently-completed Canadian Pacific Railway. He was bound for the American west, but fortunately for Canada his small savings gave out as the train pulled into Brandon, Manitoba. His first job as a farm hand near Brandon paid twenty dollars a month plus room and board; he stayed four years. When a homestead then became available nearby, he invested his savings in a deposit and with a team of horses managed to break the entire quarter section the first summer. He harvested his first crop with a cradle and a flail the next fall and within two years had done so well financially he was able to return to Guelph for a visit with his parents.

Bertha Grant of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, moved to Brandon at about this time and entered the first nursing class at the Brandon General hospital. Her brother James, who farmed near Alex, was particularly impressed with the care his bachelor neighbour took of his Clydesdale horses. One day as the team was passing, James rushed out to invite the driver in to meet his sister. They were married in an auspicious month, January, 1900; Grant was born in the summer of 1902 and his brother, George, in 1907.

It was a near perfect rural setting: two tightly-knit families, rolling land, good wheat crops, excellent neighbours, hard work, Brandon and its fall fair within view, and countless outdoor experiences. Bertha MacEwan was a strong Presbyterian and, as Grant later wrote, "The church and its organizations loomed large in my early life. For years, I had a perfect attendance at Knox Presbyterian Church Sunday School." There were to be sure in the district barn dances, ball games and picnics, but next to Christmas the annual Sunday school picnic was clearly the most important day in the year for the MacEwan family.

The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I were truly the most golden for the prairie West. The region was then most important to Canada as a whole; the master switch of national progress appeared to many, both in and out of the West, to lie for once in our national history somewhere on the Prairies. The family farm became the dominant institution as more than half of the inhabitants of the Prairies lived either on farms or in agricultural centres like Brandon. Free land offered anyone willing to work hard a fresh start. It was also a region afforded full blown utopian status by author Charles W. Gordon, the Winnipeg church minister who wrote under the name Ralph Connor. His books glorifying western communities sold over five million copies.

By 1908, after 15 years of mostly successful farming, Alex had earned enough to retire at the age of 37. He had no intention of putting his feet up for the rest of his days, but, as his elder son would himself demonstrate many times, change was good for people. The farm and its contents were sold at a public auction in the fashion of the day, then and now. Soon afterwards, Bertha took her two young boys by train to Nova Scotia to visit her parents. Grant would note years later that his "mother was so clannish I thought I was a Nova Scotian". His biographer, Rusty Macdonald, believes that except for frugality, which clearly came from his father's side, the personal qualities of the Grant side of the family tended to dominate in young Grant MacEwan.

The family move to "The Wheat City" of Brandon was ultimately anything but a financial success and indeed almost led to bankruptcy for Alex. His venture into the making and selling of fire extinguishers thrived only as long as the city's building boom in wooden structures, which lasted until the outbreak of war in 1914. Unfortunately, his profits from it went mostly into buying lots around Brandon and they became unmarketable almost overnight when speculators from London and Paris took their investments home as the war loomed. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 was also a heavy blow to confidence in both Brandon and Winnipeg because it meant that henceforth not all goods going to B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan had to go by rail through them. Economic conditions generally in Brandon and other prairie cities deteriorated quickly for the business community with the outbreak of war: freight rates rose, employees became hard to find, wages climbed, and so on. On the land, however, the effect of war was exactly the opposite: wheat rose in price; horses, cattle and sheep sales soared. Alex, if not Bertha, was delighted when he managed to trade his Brandon lots for what was represented by the seller as a good working farm at Margot, Saskatchewan, 400 miles to the northwest of Brandon.

When Grant and his father reached their new home by train, they were dismayed to find, as Grant put it, "to our horror, the fences were down, the home was a shambles and uninhabitable, the horses didn't exist, the land was not ready for crop - nothing was as represented." They reloaded their animals and equipment on a rail car and journeyed on to Melfort, 50 miles east of Prince Albert, where Alex had bought an unbroken section of land years earlier and which he knew to contain rich black soil. Bertha and George arrived and the family began the endless work of building a new farm again. Unfortunately, they missed most of the excellent crop of 1915. The next year's one, which carried much of their hopes, was destroyed by "stem rust" which killed the wheat kernels in their stems. The family's only cash income that year came from the sale of surplus eggs and milk from their cows.

Things went better thereafter. Their 1916 crop of Number Two Northern Wheat sold for about $5000. A decent farmhouse was quickly built, although Bertha and her boys continued to walk four miles every Sunday to church in Melfort in order to rest the horses one day a week. In 1918, when the Borden government lowered the tariff on lower-priced tractors and helped with shipping costs, the family, following the common family arguments about its worth and cost, bought a Fordson tractor for $755. The excellent 1918 crop brought fully $6000 into the family coffers, but in 1919, hail, rust, late rains and early snow decimated most of it. Better ones would come later and the family persisted with a characteristic determination.

Later on, Grant, allowing himself a rare personal note in his writing, would sketch a loving portrait of his father in his first book on early western pioneers "Sodbusters". The chapter, "Another Unknown", dedicated to his father, honours "that host of pioneers whose names as individuals will never appear on the pages of history".

"The editor of "Who's Who" never heard of this one. Here was a Sodbuster who never won a sweepstake for wheat. He never won a championship for bulls and he never won an election. He won a homestead and a lifetime sentence tending his soil and fighting weeds and growing food to nourish human bodies...But he is typical of an army of brave men who congregated with him on the frontier in the '80's...I said I wasn't going to identify this Sodbuster. I've almost changed my mind. I'll tell this much about him. He gave me my first spanking".

In 1921, Grant, then 18 years, resolved to study at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph and worked his rail passage down as a herdsman to a load of Toronto bound cattle. Alex's parting comment was: "Well, there he goes to that Eastern college - and he'll come back a damned fool". The fool designate plunged into campus life, attempting everything available on campus before returning to Melfort for the summer. The next year he did so well, he resolved to enter the degree course selling nursery stock for his expenses. By his third year, he had become fully independent of his family. When his brother, George, died tragically of spinal meningitis, Grant rushed home to comfort his parents. When his OAC studies were later on completed, he returned to Melfort where he judged cattle and generally distinguished himself in the community before working for the election of a successful Liberal candidate in the 1926 federal election. He looked after the farm and 100 head of cattle for his parents who had not had a vacation since 1915. One day in Regina, he met William Rutherford, dean of agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, who suggested he apply to do graduate work at Iowa State College. He left for Iowa soon after his acceptance. On finishing, he received three job offers, the one taken being an assistant professorship in animal husbandry at the University of Saskatchewan from Dean Rutherford.

MacEwan's period in Saskatoon was a happy one from start to finish. He judged cattle and horses at countless fairs around the province. He was an interesting and popular lecturer for the students, inspiring them with the importance and dignity of agriculture. In the year he was offered a junior professorship, he bought two quarter sections of land in the province. Fortunately, neither his position nor salary suffered during the depression and drought of the 1930's. He became an elder in the Knox United Church. During 1930, he also met Phyllis Cline, a primary school teacher and his future wife, at a Halloween masquerade party. Their five year courtship ended in marriage in 1935. Ever frugal, the bridegroom somehow persuaded her to do most of the honeymoon trip to the West Coast on a bus. On returning to Saskatoon, he continued his busy life to such an extent that his bride once counted forty nights in succession in which he was away on some sort of community service.

The year 1937 was beyond doubt the cruelest of the "Dirty Thirties" for most Prairie Canadians, including Grant as manager of a university farm. He noted that no rain came to the Saskatoon area when needed with the result that "from 1000 acres of crop we did not harvest a bushel of grain" Noticing that desperate cattle could survive on the Russian thistle weed, he researched the matter and then used radio and newspapers to publicize this phenomenon throughout the province. The next year, under the influence of the historian, A.S. Morton, he began a love affair with western history which would last the rest of his life. He visited with Morton a number of historic sites around the province. He also gave his first speech on western history in Moose Jaw when directed by his dairyman host to speak on any subject but cows or dairying. In 1942, CBC radio invited him to do four broadcasts and he chose to talk about notable pioneers of the West. Due to the series' popularity, it was extended over a two year period into 1944. The sketches were later published as Sodbusters, which became the first of numerous books by Western Canada's most prolific popular historian. The MacEwans' only child, Heather, was born in 1939.

When war was declared by Britain on September 2, 1939, Grant was at 38 slightly overage and did not enlist. He had no desire to kill anyone and genuinely felt that by contributing to Canada's ability to feed its war machine at the university in livestock feeding, breeding and production he could make his best contribution. He served on a number of food production committees. In 1941, he published Breeds of Farm Livestock in Canada, the first book of its kind in Canada. During the war, he also sold his two parcels of Saskatchewan land in favour of a section of land on the Highwood river in the foothills southwest of Calgary and another half section of Priddis, closer to Calgary, with the secret intention of becoming a full-time writer in Alberta later on. His aging parents sold their own farm, which had long since become a model one, and moved to White Rock, B.C.

In 1942, he showed how well he had bridged the normal town and gown gap by being elected as the unpaid president of the struggling Saskatoon Exhibition and brought both considerable new life to it and an unexpected profit. Earlier, he had declined an invitation to run for the provincial Liberals and did so again for both the federal and provincial party in 1943. He met during 1944 with John Bracken, the new national leader of the newly-named Progressive Conservative party, and found that they agreed on agriculture policy and pay-as-you-go spending, but after two weeks of reflection decided not to run. In hindsight, his biographer concludes that he most probably would have lost any of the three contests offered because of the rise of the CCF both provincially and federally in Saskatchewan in the years 1943-44. After the provincial Liberal rout, much pressure was put on MacEwan, who was now known from one end of the province to the other, to run for the leadership of the provincial Liberal party. In fact the weight was so great that for once in his life he turned tail and ran to a Saskatoon hospital for some elective surgery while the leadership convention was beginning without him.

In 1945, MacEwan was appointed a director of the Royal Bank to the shock of some colleagues on campus. At about this time, his thoroughly outward-looking attitude toward the wider community also ran afoul of a suddenly inward-looking trend among staff at the university. As president of the Saskatoon Kiwanis club, he was speaking in Winnipeg when the president of the University of Manitoba offered him the leadership of their College of Agriculture. He accepted immediately, thus ending 18 years of service to many groups in Saskatchewan. Saskatoon's Western Producer newspaper said that he was "widely known as a colourful, able educator and extension man". The B.C. farm journal Country Life, noting that the new dean was the ablest and best known judge of cattle and horses, said editorially that he "has rendered far more service to the primary producers of Canada than will ever be known or recompensed. His life is devoted to the welfare of others and he pays no attention to the sacrifices of time and energy he has to make".

From the start, MacEwan insisted that he had accepted the new challenge because he wanted to reorient the College of Agriculture toward the entire farm community of the province. He was soon riding his Palomino mare in the freshman parade, the only faculty member at the university to participate. He quickly improved the morale of the dispirited college staff by persuading them to work as a team. The curriculum was modernized and flexibility was created to allow students who lacked the normal academic requirements to be "admitted for reason". He and his wife, neither very socially minded, personally paid for yearly parties for staff and their families. In his first year in office alone, he ventured into the wider community for functions on 124 occasions. He also attempted without much success to bridge a longstanding gap between the college and the provincial agriculture department and to encourage farmers to contact the college directly if the department could not help them. When the Red River flood of 1950 submerged about one quarter of the entire city of Winnipeg, forcing a hundred thousand people to be evacuated, MacEwan was also found at the front. He boated out to the university and helped get the panic-stricken pigs, cattle and sheep to safety. Later, he helped assess damages for compensation purposes.

In 1948, the dean turned down an offer by the new Manitoba premier, Douglas Campbell, to join his coalition government as minister of agriculture. By 1951, however, a federal by-election in Brandon became necessary because of the death of the Liberal incumbent, L. Mathews; the Brandon Liberal Association invited him to run. He hesitated. Phyllis clearly wanted no part of it, judging that the inevitable criticism, reduction in income, family relocation to Brandon and loss of kindred staff and students at the University were simply too high a price to pay. Grant was attracted by the hints he received personally from Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent that a cabinet post awaited him if elected. His future son-in-law, Max Foran, has since observed that this incentive "plus a growing disenchantment with university work led him to contest a seat that presumably was his for the taking". In the meantime, the Board of Governors at the University of Manitoba held a special meeting to pass a resolution directing that if he accepted the nomination he must immediately resign his deanship. MacEwan was hurt by this reaction, noting later: "that with the taint of politics on my character, I could never return to the university. A father may take back a prodigal son, and the church will accept a backsliding sinner but for a proud University, a politician would be forever an outcast".

MacEwan lost the famous by-election to the Progressive Conservative candidate, Walter Dinsdale, by 8371 votes to 11,124. The post-mortems on what was supposed to be an easy Liberal victory were many. Some voters clearly regarded MacEwan as a Saskatchewan man parachuted in after a 37-year absence from Brandon and resented the implication that no-one from Brandon was fit to be elected. Brandon had a strong Liberal tradition and the party was clearly over-confident about their star candidate's prospects. Favouring Dinsdale were two very potent factors: he and his family were popular and highly-respected Brandonites, his father having died in office as Brandon's M.L.A. in the Manitoba legislature; he was himself a native son who not only hadn't left the community but had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work with the RCAF in World War II. The Liberal government in fact lost all five by-elections held that day; its grain marketing policies had made it particularly unpopular on the Prairies. MacEwan went to Dinsdale's committee room on election night to congratulate him, but afterwards was clearly concerned that, approaching fifty, he was now neither dean, MP, professor nor even someone with a job.

In what became the worst period of his life, the ex-candidate began a year-long search for a position. He was too late for the vacant post of managing director of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede which greatly appealed to him. He became briefly the agriculture editor of The Western Producer, a weekly farm newspaper published in Saskatoon. Shortly after this, he accepted the position in Calgary as general manager of the Council of the Western Section of the Canadian Beef Producers. A family relative, Wesley Nelson, noted pithily: "the defeat at Brandon was the best thing that ever happened to sent him back to the province where he had really always belonged."

Things were by no means completely smooth sailing for the MacEwans in Alberta. The polio epidemic which swept the Prairies in the summer of 1952 hit Calgary at about the same time as they did; it and the hot weather caused them to take Heather, then aged thirteen, to their cabin at Priddis. His regular pieces in The Canadian Cattleman, which he enjoyed doing, were terminated when a new editor took over in late 1953. The fiercely independent western cattlemen balked at increasing their association's finding of the public relations campaign which MacEwan was to direct; in consequence, he decided within two or three years to ease himself out of the Beef Council work within two or three years.

At about this point, the Civic Government Association asked him to run for the Calgary City Council in the 1953 civic election. Still worried about his Brandon debacle, he protested that he was too recently a resident of Calgary. One of the delegation then used the novel, if not very flattering argument, "You had better run now; if people knew you better they probably wouldn't vote for you. This is your chance". MacEwan ran and received the second highest number of votes cast in the city. He found life on city council to be anything but tranquil, musing later on, "The alderman failing to attend all meetings will be scored for carelessness; if he attends avidly every call, he is a climber who is out to become mayor If he accepts all invitations to parties and receptions, he must be a 'booze- hound' and if he fails to attend he's a 'kill-joy'. If he votes against spending, he's a 'tightwad'; if he supports big spending, he's the reason for high taxes. If he supports salary increases for aldermen, he's 'money hungry' and if he votes against them, he's 'putting on a show'."

The next career step came when he was invited by some Liberals to contest the six-seat constituency of Calgary in the 1955 provincial election. After an aggressive campaign by all parties, he was elected as the fifth of six MLA's elected for the city on the twenty-first count of the proportional representation ballots cast. Despite some inevitable criticism, he opted to hold both his council and legislative assembly seats as the law entitled him to do so. In the new legislative assembly as one of 15 Liberals facing Premier Ernest Manning's 37 Social Credit MLA's, he spoke out on a number of issues, including the need to plant more trees around the province and to update surveys on soil erosion and wildlife. His reintroduction to partisan politics was abrupt. On one occasion, when his car broke down, he was obliged to hitch a ride with a farmer hauling a load of pigs. The driver, on learning that his passenger sat as a Liberal MLA, replied, "...if I had known you were a Liberal, the only place you'd get in this truck would be back there with the other swine".

He continued to commute between Calgary and Edmonton and managed in 1957 to publish a book, Eye Opener Bob, about Calgary's immortal editor Bob Edwards and the year after Fifty Mighty Men, character sketches of Western Canadians. His pattern of producing one book a year was set. In the 1957 civic election in Calgary, he topped the polls and he commented that "politics is like jail: once in, it is not easy to get out". When the Liberal leader, Harper Prowse, resigned in 1958, MacEwan threw his bat in the ring and was elected on the second ballot. A year later, however, a general election landslide for Premier Manning reduced the Liberals from 15 seats to one. Their leader was also defeated and he promptly resigned; he felt even worse than after the Brandon loss because this time his party had lost with him. A few years later, he abandoned his party affiliation altogether, noting that he found party discipline both objectionable and an obstacle to finding solutions. "If I ever ran again", he went on, "I'm afraid it would have to be as an independent."

The next political opportunity was as mayor of Calgary. Only 90 days after the provincial election disaster, MacEwan was re-elected as a Calgary alderman with the largest vote in the city. He also began a weekly column, mostly on conservation, in the Calgary Herald, which ran for twenty years, and later one on farm matters carried in fifty western weekly papers in all four provinces and the Northwest Territories. When Mayor Harry Hays resigned to enter federal politics in 1963, MacEwan was elected by the other aldermen to complete the term. He won the next election by 13,000 votes over a popular opponent, Art Smith, and was an honest, economy-minded and competent chief executive until 1965 when he declined to seek re-election. On one representative occasion, he was running to city hall with his brief case in the early morning when a police vehicle pulled up beside him. "Two rookie police constables," as Macdonald puts it, "seeing a tall suspicious character carrying a stuffed old brief case running at a fast clip through early morning gloom, questioned him: where was he going? To work. Where did he work? At City Hall. A flashlight shone in his face for a moment and then two embarrassed constable apologized to their mayor and offered to drive him the rest of the way".

In late 1965, while speaking to young students about Western Canada at the school where Heather taught, MacEwan got word that he was Alberta's new Lieutenant Governor. Hundreds congratulated him. From the start, he stubbornly insisted that his private and public personalities must remain the same. He continued to rise early to jog a mile or two, to breakfast on porridge, and to refuse to ride in the back seat of the vice-regal car. On one occasion, he asked his chauffeur, Henry Weber, to stop while he helped two teenagers push a minibus out of a ditch. When the MacEwans hosted parties, no liquor was served. When he spoke to someone, they had his total attention, with no attempt to look over a shoulder at whom else was present. When a cleaning woman arrived with her equipment at his office late one night ill, he asked Henry to drive her home and cleaned the office himself. He led numerous walkathons across the province to raise money for worthy causes.

In late 1967, the University of Calgary awarded him an honourary doctorate. In his convocation address, he referred to the naturalist religion which had developed out of his early Presbyterian faith partly as a result of discussions with Chief Walking Buffalo of the Stoney Indian tribe. Its essence was harmony with nature and all other living creations of God. He became a vegetarian in about 1956, which, as his biographer notes, was "a space-age step for a man who had spent a good part of his life instructing in the proper raising of livestock for slaughter". Later when an oil company offered him $10,000 to drill on his land, MacEwan refused telling them that it would disturb his fellow creatures. He wrote down his creed:

"I believe instinctively in a God for whom I am prepared to search. I believe it is an offence against the God of Nature for me to accept any hand-me-down, man-defined religion or creed without the test of reason. I believe no man dead or alive knows more or knew more about God than I can know by searching. I believe that the God of Nature must be without prejudice, with exactly the same concern for all His children, and that the human invokes no more, no less, of fatherly love than the beaver or sparrow. I believe I am an integral part of the environment and, as a good subject, I must establish an enduring relationship with my surroundings. My dependence upon the land is fundamental. I believe destructive waste and greedy exploitation are sins. I believe the biggest challenge is in being a helper rather than a destroyer of the treasures in Nature's storehouse, a conserver, a husbandman and partner in caring for the Vineyard... I am prepared to stand before my Maker, the Ruler of the entire Universe, with no other plea than that I have tried to leave things in His Vineyard better than I found them."

When the moment came, he agreed at 68-years-of-age to serve another term as Lieutenant-Governor. In the first, he had written fully five books in addition to his numerous other duties. In the second, he built a log cabin near Sundre using only natural materials with the purpose of leaving it to posterity as an example of the homesteads which covered the Prairies when he was born in 1902. He continued to write the history which has made Western Canada come alive for many. His motivation was stated clearly in his introduction to Between the Red and the Rockies: "The conversion of half a nation from wilderness to an enterprising agricultural community in a single generation is without parallel". His goal was to provide", he went on, "entertaining, academic and cultural values."

As one of our few western writers born in the region where his early impressions and outlook were formed and set, MacEwan writes about Western Canada out of his own experience. "He is a truly western Canadian writer"; wrote his biographer Macdonald, "When he writes, he does not look over his shoulder toward eastern Canadian publishers, critics, reviewers. Nor does he look toward New York and Hollywood or seek to impress colleagues as many other 'western' writers do."

Thousands of Albertans turned out to wish the vice-regal couple farewell as their second term ended in June, 1974. A book containing an estimated half million names of well-wishers was presented. Premier Peter Lougheed at the legislative grounds described the guest of honour as the most versatile man ever to call Alberta 'home'. The government then presented him with a luxurious car. The next day, he went to the car dealer and exchanged it for a smaller model that would both use less gas and look less gaudy, seeing to it that the difference in prices went to the Alberta treasury.

Virtually nothing would surprise us about the next phase of this best-loved resident of the West. While still living, he is already almost to Western Canada what Robbie Burns is to the Scots. "Loaned for a season to our region," to use his own phrase, he continues to work with the stamina, sense of urgency and enthusiasm of a man who wants his work done before the time of his "season" runs out.


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