Rolf Wallgren Bruhn, Pioneer and Politician
The story of Rolf Wallgren Bruhn illustrates some of the challenges and opportunities facing pioneer British Columbians in the first decades of this century. Bruhn arrived in Canada as a penniless immigrant from Sweden and became--through hard work and persistence--a prosperous businessman and a prominent provincial politician.
First elected to the legislature in 1924 as the Conservative Member for Salmon Arm, he held office continuously until his death in 1942. He was a minister first in the Simon Fraser Tolmie cabinet (1928-33) and later in the John Hart coalition cabinet (1941-42). Bruhn's political philosophy contained elements of conservatism and socialism, as well as a deep-seated belief in non-partisanism. He was, as the Vancouver Sun noted "...a man who had almost become a legend in his own lifetime--a man who had been a sturdy success in a period of pioneering which has drawn to a close, and a politician whose honesty, independence and sincerity was never seriously questioned even by his most bitter political foes." (Vancouver Sun, August 1942)
However, his life was not without adversity and disappointments; indeed, one such reversal was instrumental in bringing young Rolf Bruhn to British Columbia.
Rolf Wallgren was born in Resterod, Sweden in 1878, second youngest of ten children born to Axel and Henrique Wallgren. Axel was a Crown Reeve, a position of considerable importance in nineteenth century Sweden. The position came with an official residence and a salary sufficient to maintain a large household with several servants. Family circumstances were dramatically altered in 1890 when Axel was accused of embezzlement. As a result of this affair, Axel fled to Canada without his wife and family, adopting in the process the surname Bruhn.
The affair left Henrique and her children in difficult straits. They moved to Goteborg where she operated a bakery; the children also had to do their part to make ends meet, including young Rolf, who worked as a street vendor after school. Rolf left school in 1894, and worked as a deckhand on merchant freighters. The following year, he had the good fortune to win a lavish sailboat in a yacht club raffle. He promptly sold the boat, and gave the bulk of the proceeds to his mother, but on a sister's advice also bought a ticket to Canada.
After his arrival in Canada, Rolf (who, like his father, adopted the surname Bruhn) worked as a sailor on the Great Lakes and as a railway labourer, miner and logger in the west. In 1898, he settled on a homestead in Malakwa, likely after visiting his father, who was already farming in the area. In 1902, he married Anna Treat, a recent immigrant from Missouri. They had three children: Ted was born in 1903, Frederick in 1906 and Alvera in 1911.
Farming at the turn of the century was generally a part-time occupation in the Shuswap, supplemented in Rolf's case by government road work. The latter provided an initial taste of what was to become a lifelong interest: building roads. In 1910, the family sold their farm and moved to Salmon Arm, where Bruhn was employed as a road foreman, and later, as road superintendent. Sadly, Frederick died shortly after this move in a scarlet fever epidemic which swept through the Shuswap.
In addition to building roads, Bruhn also got his first experience with elective office in Salmon Arm. He won four one-year terms as alderman between 1914 and 1918, twice topping the polls and twice winning by acclamation.
When the Bowser Conservative government was defeated by the Liberals in 1916, Bruhn--a Conservative since 1908--received another short-term setback when he, along with road superintendents across the province, was fired by the incoming administration. While certainly disappointing at the time, Bruhn's forced retirement from government road work opened a new chapter in his life.
The Bruhn family moved to Sicamous in 1917 and launched a new venture: providing cedar poles to the B.J. Carney Pole Company. Again, however, he was forced to overcome initial adversity before achieving success. In May of 1918, Bruhn was severely burned by a gas explosion and fire aboard his launch Anavana. The boat burned to the water line and Bruhn narrowly escaped with his life by diving into the water. Burns to his head, face and hands required months of hospitalization and surgery. These operations were only partially successful: obvious facial scarring remained, and one eye could not close and required special care. His physical scars were a lifelong concern, but were also symbolic of his personal and political courage.
During the difficult months that followed the accident, Anna Bruhn stepped into the breach to keep the fledgling company going during her husband's convalescence. It not only survived this initial setback, but also expanded over the next decade into a diversified forest company based in Sicamous with products which included poles, logs and railway ties. A lumber mill at Canoe was soon added. Bruhn was an entrepreneur in the right place at the right time, and his company grew and prospered through the 1920s.
A redistribution of provincial electoral boundaries prior to the 1924 election, including the creation of the new riding of Salmon Arm, provided Bruhn with an opportunity to return to politics. He was offered nominations by both the Conservative and the Provincial parties and chose the former. In his first provincial campaign, Bruhn articulated themes which persisted throughout his career. He stressed that he was independent of any party machine and, to underline his independence, insisted on paying all his own election expenses. As in future campaigns, Bruhn steered clear of mud-slinging, describing his opponents as "men of sterling quality, who would undoubtedly do their best for the riding if elected." (Salmon Arm Observer, 19 June 1924, hereafter cited as Observer)
The voters of Salmon Arm appeared receptive to his message and style. Despite an overall Liberal victory, Salmon Arm bucked the trend and elected Bruhn; he polled 822 votes, compared to 746 and 680 votes for the Provincial and Liberal party candidates respectively. (Observer, 26 June 1924)
As a Conservative backbencher in Victoria, Bruhn retained an independent approach. When government bills were, in Bruhn's estimation, worthy of support, he broke party ranks to vote with the government, despite a certain amount of criticism levelled against him. On more than one occasion, he reminded local Conservatives that he accepted their party's nomination on the conditions that he pay his own campaign expenses and that he reserve the right to vote as he saw fit. (Observer, 18 June 1925 and 29 September 1927)
Bruhn's independent spirit apparently did not trouble Salmon Arm Conservatives, as they again unanimously nominated him as their candidate for the 1928 provincial election. In this contest, Bruhn's candidacy was boosted by a new Conservative leader, Dr. Simon Fraser Tolmie, and by a strong campaign--his nomination papers, for example, were signed by nearly 500 constituents. The result was a lopsided victory for Bruhn over his Liberal opponent by a margin of 1598 to 594. (Observer, 21 June and 18 July 1928) Elsewhere in the province, sufficient Conservatives were elected to form their first government in a dozen years
In the first Tolmie cabinet, Bruhn was appointed President of the Executive Council, a more prestigious position than "minister without portfolio" but without particular departmental responsibilities. Within two years of its election, the government was struggling with the effects of world-wide economic depression. In a speech to the legislature in 1930, Bruhn advocated the channelling of unemployment relief into public works projects, particularly acceleration of Trans-Canada highway construction. (Observer, 3 April 1930)
Bruhn got a chance to put theory into practice after his appointment as Minister of Public Works in October of 1930. He quickly found that major public works initiatives required federal assistance, and this was not readily forthcoming, even after the election of the R.B. Bennett Conservatives. To Bruhn's frustration, public works camps were closed and replaced by direct relief, which he regarded as "...a dole system with all its attendant evils..." He traveled to Ottawa to make his case and succeeded in a partial reopening of the camps. (Observer, 3 March 1932)
The effects of the Depression were well evident in the Shuswap. Bruhn's timber business suffered a serious decline, but consistent with his views in the public policy realm, he attempted to keep as many people employed as possible. As an MLA, Bruhn received numerous pleas for assistance from his constituents. When government could not or would not help, he frequently provided assistance from his own resources. Fay Mabee, a pioneer resident of Sicamous, recalls many examples of Bruhn's generosity, always extended with no thought for recognition or credit. "I remember being at a picnic in Magna Bay, and the women asking him for money because they didn't have any. It was during the Depression and things were tough. He'd ask, 'How much do you need? Will the baby need a pair of shoes?'" Hanna Huhtala worked in the Bruhn home, located near the railway in Sicamous, during the early 1930s. In a recent interview, she recalled Bruhn's instruction that, when anyone came to their door seeking food, at least a sandwich should be provided.
The economic and social dislocation of the Depression soon produced demands for a political realignment. In July of 1932, a meeting of Salmon Arm businessmen and farmers produced a request for a Liberal-Conservative coalition. The request fit well with Bruhn's personal views, although his initial enthusiasm was circumscribed by the principle of cabinet solidarity. (Observer, 21 July and 4 August 1932) By October of 1932, at least in part through the urging of Bruhn, Tolmie and the cabinet were committed to "union government." However, their prospective partners, the Liberals led by Duff Pattullo, promptly rejected the idea.
Bruhn was deeply frustrated by Tolmie's failure to forge an alliance with the Liberals. This failure, he believed, largely stemmed from Tolmie's reluctance to give up the premiership. Bruhn was also frustrated by cabinet's refusal to adopt "...a much more vigorous and progressive programme..." to combat the depression. Bruhn's proposals, including extensive public works and minimum wages, were too radical for his Conservative colleagues. These differences led Bruhn to resign from cabinet in June of 1933 and to sit, and later run, as an Independent. (Observer, 29 June 1933)
Bruhn's actions were supported by many of his constituents, including most Conservatives and some Liberals. While the conservative government was decisively defeated by the Pattullo Liberals in the 1933 election, Salmon Arm returned Bruhn with 1357 votes as compared to 907 and 610 for his Liberal and CCF opponents respectively. (Observer, 9 November 1933) Provincially, even more surprising than the magnitude of the Conservative defeat was the success of the CCF, winning official opposition status in its first provincial campaign.
Being relegated to the back benches allowed Bruhn the opportunity to renew business interests. In 1936, he sold his lumber mill at Canoe to the Harris Lumber Company, while retaining operations in Sicamous. He also acquired a home in Vancouver (to which he added a back-yard pool shaped like Shuswap Lake) to direct his growing mining interests, including Sheep Creek Gold Mines and Baygonne Consolidated.
Bruhn also took advantage of new opportunities to travel. He visited his native Sweden twice in the mid-1930s and was, as he told the legislature, "profoundly impressed" by their "middle way" of socialized capitalism. (Observer, 12 March and 19 November 1936) However, this was not a sharp departure from the past for Bruhn; it was largely a confirmation of the views he espoused in resigning from the Tolmie cabinet in 1933.
He also professed considerable admiration for the moderate leader of the CCF, the Reverend Robert Connell. However, Bruhn drew a sharp distinction between reform of the capitalist system and its abolition, which he believed was the goal of more radical elements in the CCF. He feared that election of a CCF government "...may well wreck the province for generations;" the only way to avoid that eventuality, in Bruhn's opinion, was a union of the Liberal and Conservative parties. Bruhn attended the 1936 Conservative convention to promote this end, but the suggestion was promptly rebuffed. (Observer, 12 March and 9 July 1936)
When long-simmering personal and doctrinal animosities within the CCF split the party in 1936, Bruhn became closely allied with Connell and his fledgling Social Reconstructives. In a remarkable example of "red toryism," Bruhn not only participated in drafting the platform of the new party, but also joined Connell on a speaking tour during the 1937 election campaign. However, while "proud to be associated" with Connell, Bruhn did not join the new party and ran again as an Independent. (Observer, 7 January, 1 April and 27 May 1937) This proved a wise decision. Bruhn won re-election by a wide margin over his Liberal and CCF opponents, but the Reconstructives failed to elect a single candidate. (Observer, 3 June 1937)
Bruhn returned to Conservative ranks prior to the 1941 election, "...realizing that under our present system it is difficult for an individual to get proper consideration unless aligned with one of the two major parties." However, while he had ceased to be an Independent, he certainly retained an independent spirit. After winning the Conservative nomination by acclamation, Bruhn committed himself to a program which was strikingly similar to that of the 1937 Social Reconstructives. Bruhn also told the convention that "I have in no way changed my opinion in regard to the evils of the Party System as it has been practised in the past..." He believed that British Columbia's politicians, like those in Manitoba and Great Britain, should "...rise above narrow partisanship, select the best men available from all parties as a Government, and concentrate our united efforts on winning the war..." (Observer, 17 July 1941)
Bruhn always maintained personal friendships across party lines, both in his own riding and in the Legislature--an important factor in his political success. In the 1941 election for example, the Salmon Arm Liberal Association voted--amid some controversy--to support Bruhn rather than run its own candidate. (The vote was 20 to 5 in favour according to the Observer, 21 August 1941) The provincial Liberal executive subsequently overruled the local association and imported a candidate from Vancouver to challenge Bruhn. The unfortunate candidate reported to Premier Pattullo late in the campaign that "...conditions in the Riding are unbelievable. It is the general opinion that Mr. Bruhn is still the Minister of Public Works as far as this riding is concerned and it is common knowledge that Mr. Leary [Pattullo's Minister of Public Works] stays as a guest of Mr. Bruhn when in this riding and that they are almost inseparable..." (A.F. Barton to T.D. Pattullo, 8 October 1941, Pattullo Papers, British Columbia Archives and Records Service) The ultimate result was a lopsided victory for Bruhn, winning 1,447 votes as compared to 533 and 441 for his CCF and Liberal opponents respectively. (Observer, 23 October, 1941)
Provincially, the Liberals were reduced to twenty-one seats, four short of a majority. In wartime B.C., Liberal losses in combination with strong electoral gains by the CCF prompted calls for a new political alignment. A staunch opponent of such realignment, Pattullo soon found himself deposed from office by a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives under John Hart. Bruhn--long a lonely proponent of coalition--was invited to assume the post of Minister of Public Works in the new government, an invitation which he readily accepted.
Bruhn obviously savoured his return to Public Works, but his final year in office was not a happy one. In April of 1942, his son Ted died of hypothermia after heroically rescuing another man following a boating accident on Shuswap Lake. Bruhn also suffered a debilitating stroke in the months preceding his own death in August of 1942. In its tribute to Bruhn, the Vancouver Province described him as "...a very good politician...because mainly, in the old party sense, he was hardly a politician at all." (cited in the Observer, 3 September 1942) Never comfortable with the constraints of party discipline, Bruhn would have found that high praise indeed. Contemporary politicians, frequently preoccupied with partisan advantage, could learn much from the life of Rolf Wallgren Bruhn.
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