John E. Brownlee was the dominant figure in the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) Government during its 14 years of power. His greatest accomplishment as Premier was negotiating the transfer of the ownership of Alberta's natural resources from the federal to the provincial government.
John Edward Brownlee was born on August 27, 1883, at Port Ryerse, Norfolk County, Ontario. He was the son of William James Brownlee, a general merchant, and Christina Shaw. In 1890, his family moved to Bradshaw, Ontario. John E. Brownlee was a Methodist.
John Brownlee attended public school in Port Ryerse and Bradshaw and graduated from the Sarnia Collegiate Institute. He then attended the Sarnia Model (teacher training) School and taught public school at Bradshaw from 1902 to 1904. Afterward, he attended Victoria College at the University of Toronto and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1908.
In 1909, he secured an articling position with the Calgary law firm of Lougheed, Bennett, Allison, and McLaws. Later, he transferred his articles to the firm of Muir, Jephson, and Adams and, after three years of study, was admitted to the Alberta Bar in 1912.
After Brownlee was admitted to the Alberta Bar, he continued to work for the firm Muir, Jephson, and Adams, eventually becoming a junior partner in 1913. During his early years of practice, he did a considerable amount of legal work for the Alberta Farmers' Co-operative Elevator Company Limited, which eventually became the United Grain Growers Company (UGG) Limited in 1917. By 1917, Brownlee became the General Counsel for the UGG. As well, he was legal counsel to the United Farmers of Alberta and played a prominent part in the organization of the Alberta Wheat Pool.
In the provincial election of 1921, John E. Brownlee was not a candidate. However, following that election, he was asked to serve as Attorney General in the new United Farmers of Alberta Government. In a by-election on December 9, 1921, he was elected, by acclamation, as the Member for the electoral district of Ponoka. The former Member for Ponoka, Percival Baker, had been killed in an accident. Following the resignation of Premier Greenfield, John E. Brownlee was appointed Premier of Alberta by Lieutenant-Governor William Egbert effective November 23, 1925. As well as serving as President of Executive Council, John E. Brownlee was also Attorney General (1921-26) and Provincial Secretary (1926-34). He was re-elected in 1926 and again, by acclamation, in 1930.
Premier Brownlee’s first government (1925-30) succeeded in passing drought relief legislation and, in 1929, sold the financially burdensome Alberta and Great Waterways Railway Company, the Edmonton, Dunvegan, and British Columbia Railway Company, the Central Canada Railway Company, the Central Canada Express Company and the Pembina Valley Railway to the Canadian National Railway Company and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In 1929, he successfully negotiated the long-sought transfer of the control of Alberta’s natural resources from the federal to the provincial government. This transfer took effect in 1930. And, in 1933, he served on the Royal Commission on Banking and Currency. However, during the latter part of his second administration (1930-34), the UFA Government was perceived as not dealing effectively with the problems created by the Great Depression, which had begun in 1929. Following a civil suit which was brought against him in 1933, John E. Brownlee resigned as Premier effective July 10, 1934. He then continued to serve in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta as a Private Member until he was defeated in the general election of August 22, 1935.
After he left politics, Brownlee returned to the practice of law in Edmonton. Within a year, he was Legal Counsel for the United Grain Growers once again and, in 1948, he was appointed president and general manager of the same firm. He served in that capacity until 1961. In 1946, he joined the Canadian delegation to the United Kingdom, where he assisted in the creation of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers. Brownlee continued as an adviser to subsequent Canadian delegations negotiating international wheat agreements.
John E. Brownlee was appointed King’s Counsel in 1922. He was a member of the Victoria College Alumni Association and of the National Productivity Council. Brownlee was an honourary life member of the United Farmers of Alberta. He was also a member of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon of the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons; the Kiwanis Club; the Edmonton Golf and Country Club; and the St. Andrew’s Golf and Country Club in Calgary. In 1960, he was made a member of the Order of the Buffalo Hunt by Duff Roblin, Premier of Manitoba.
John E. Brownlee died on July 15, 1961, in Calgary, Alberta, and was buried in the Evergreen Memorial Gardens. A provincial government building in Edmonton is named in his memory.