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Grant MacEwan: The common touch

Though he was born and raised in Manitoba, few individuals have become so identifiable with the history and heritage of Alberta as John Walter Grant MacEwan – agriculturalist, teacher, scholar, writer, historian, conservationalist and folk hero.

Born on August 12, 1902, to pioneering parents just north of Brandon, his formative years were shaped by hard work and responsibility on the family farm. MacEwan’s education began with home-schooling taught by his mother Bertha, and he quickly learned the value of a strong work ethic. As a youngster his drive to succeed led him to several part-time jobs, including delivering newspapers and selling produce from a wagon, yet he still excelled at his school work. By his teenage years MacEwan became keenly aware of the gaps in public education’s treatment of Canadian history and was already laying the groundwork for rectifying that situation.

“The teachers in my public school years did nothing for me history-wise except to make me hate it – and the reason I think was fairly obvious,” MacEwan said in an interview with author Max Foran in 1983. “The only history I got in my school years was English history. There was no such thing as a recorded Canadian history. There was no textbook. The teachers didn’t know anything about Canadian history. I got English history until I confess I was fed up with it. Reviewing the names and records of kings didn’t appeal to me, and I left school with no love of history whatsoever. This changed when I became a little more mature and realized that I was growing up in a community where people around me were so much a part of history… particularly Western Canadian history. These were pioneer people. My own parents belonged to a generation which came in soon after the railroad arrived. I knew that they had a story and that there were people around me who made me laugh and inspired me with their stories, but nothing was happening to record their memories ...”

It would take some time, but MacEwan was determined to correct that. At 19 he left the family farm and headed to Guelph, Ontario, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture at the Ontario Agricultural College. From there he moved on to Iowa State University and received a fellowship towards his Masters degree in science, which led him back to the prairies. He accepted a job as an assistant professor of animal husbandry at the University of Saskatchewan and embarked on a teaching career that eventually led to the deanship of the department. On July 26, 1935, MacEwan married Phyllis W. Cline of Churchbridge, Saskatchewan. They had one daughter, Heather. Mrs. MacEwan died on October 12, 1990.

During his years of teaching at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, MacEwan travelled extensively throughout North America as an expert judge of livestock at summer fairs and became a popular writer and broadcaster with CBC radio. He also found time to serve as associate editor of Canadian Cattleman magazine, agriculture editor of The Western Producer, and to write a regular column in Farm & Ranch Review. Beginning in 1936 he became a prolific author of books focusing on agriculture, conservation and Western Canadian history.

Following 23 years of university service and an unsuccessful stab at federal politics as a Liberal candidate in Brandon, MacEwan moved with his wife and daughter to Calgary and accepted a position as general manager of the Canadian Council of Beef Producers. This was the beginning of a second career that would forever define him as a trail-blazing Albertan and one of the province’s most beloved public figures. He served on Calgary city council for a dozen years (1953-65) – including three years in the mayor’s chair – and from 1955-59 he was a member of the Provincial Legislature, including a stint as Leader of the Liberal Opposition. On the advice of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, MacEwan was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta on January 6, 1966 and spent the next nine years travelling to every corner of the province as the official representative of Queen Elizabeth.

It was during his tenure as Lieutenant-Governor that MacEwan established a well-earned reputation as a man of the people. He averaged more than one public function per day, seven days a week for nine years, but despite his growing wealth and political stature he generally insisted upon using public transportation and staying at local YMCAs while on official business.

While MacEwan’s contributions to Alberta as a politician can’t be overestimated, it was his gift for writing concise, thought-provoking books on everything from water conservation to the life of Sitting Bull that stands as his ultimate legacy. He authored a total of 56 books, including such timeless classics as Fifty Mighty Men (1958), Hoofprints and Hitchingposts (1964), Sitting Bull: The Years in Canada (1973), Metis Makers of History (1981) and Grant MacEwan’s West: Sketches from the Past (1990). He was the recipient of numerous awards and tributes, including honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from five Canadian universities, the Order of Canada, the Alberta Order of Excellence and the Governor General’s Conservation Award. A Calgary elementary school and an Edmonton college were also named in his honor.

Despite a lifetime of monumental achievements and the host of accolades they wrought, MacEwan never forgot his pioneer roots or lost the common touch. His dedication to his work, his province and his country defined him as the quintessential Alberta trailblazer, and through his tireless work in agriculture, conservation, history and politics, he truly lived up to his nickname as Alberta’s “Mr. Heritage.”

Grant MacEwan died on June 15, 2000, at Calgary. A lying-in-state was held in the rotunda of the Provincial Legislature on June 20, followed by a state funeral at Robertson-Wesley United Church in Edmonton. He was buried in the Union Cemetery in Calgary.

“People must have purpose in life. I think the pioneer had it. His purpose was to get his homestead broken up and fenced and a house on it, and make it a successful farm. He simply went on from there, effectively in most cases. I do wish that kids today could see more of a challenge and knew where to look for goals. They’ll be better citizens in God’s community if they have something to work for – an ideal.”
- Grant MacEwan, 1902-2000

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