Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
J.J. Bowlen — queen's representative in Alberta
Rancher was first Catholic to serve as lieutenant-governor
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The Hon. J.J. Bowlen, a Catholic from Prince Edward Island, became a successful Alberta rancher and farmer. Bowlen began his working career as a hired hand and ended it serving as lieutenant-governor for nine years before his death in 1959.
When meeting people during his travels around the province, Bowlen frequently talked about the necessity for racial and religious tolerance, notes Edmonton author Tony Cashman in his 1957 book Vice-Regal Cowboy.
"You don't hear much about tolerance in Alberta, except from the queen's personal representative, because it's taken for granted," Cashman wrote. "But J.J. talks about it because he can remember when it wasn't. 'Start to take a thing for granted,' he will tell you, 'and somebody's going to take it away from you.'"
First elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1930, Bowlen was a Liberal MLA for 14 years and served as a leader of the opposition for two years. He and his wife Caroline Suive married in 1900 and had three children.
During his term as lieutenant governor - the only Catholic to serve as the queen's representative in Alberta - Bowlen was named an honorary doctor of laws by the University of Alberta. The Blood Indians of southern Alberta made him an honorary chief.
A towering giant of a man, Bowlen was born in Prince Edward Island in 1876 and left home at the age of 15. After spending his early years working as a hired hand in Boston, P.E.I. and Manitoba, Bowlen purchased a farm near Muenster, Sask., in 1906. To maintain this farm, he began buying and selling horses.
In 1910, he purchased a ranch near Rosebud, Alta. He sold this ranch in 1917 and bought a 100,000-acre ranch that straddled the Alberta-Saskatchewan border along the boundary with the United States.
In 1920, he sold that ranch and purchased another one near Alderson, which he named the Nine-Bar. It eventually became the largest horse ranch in Canada. In 1922, he also began raising cattle on a ranch near Pincher Creek and bought a farm near Claresholm.
When the demand for horses declined in 1929, he began raising sheep at the Nine-Bar Ranch.
Between 1942 and 1945, he sold most of his property and tried to retire. In 1946, he bought a farm on the Bow River near Carseland. While he was lieutenant governor, he maintained this farm as well as grain farms at Cochrane, Alta., and Macklin, Sask.
Bowlen was an unsuccessful candidate for the electoral district of North Battleford in the 1914 federal election.
He was first elected to the Alberta Legislature as a Liberal in the general election of June 19, 1930, for the multi-member Calgary electoral district. The United Farmers of Alberta were still riding high when he took his seat. They had 42 members led by Premier J.E. Brownlee while the opposition Liberals only had 15.
Bowlen was one of only six opposition members to hold his seat in the Social Credit landslide of 1935. He was house leader for the Liberals in 1936 and 1937.
He was re-elected as an independent in 1940, but was defeated in the 1944 election. "He campaigned with vigour but without excitement and was crushed when he was defeated," writes Cashman. "He failed to gain a seat by only seven votes."
After that defeat, at age 68, Bowlen decided to retire and began selling his farms and ranches. But soon he realized he and retirement were incompatible. He began scouting the country for a farm again. He bought a 2,200-acre farm near Carseland. In 1947 he was appointed to the board of governors of the CBC, which brought him back to public life.
In 1948 he again entered the political arena and again was in his role as a maverick, running against the tide. The arena was the Liberal convention, called to choose a successor to William Lyon Mackenzie King.
King had already chosen a successor. It was Louis St. Laurent and there was not the slightest doubt that the convention would ratify the choice. Bowlen, however, campaigned on behalf of his old friend Jimmy Gardiner, the former premier of Saskatchewan, for the party's leadership.
St. Laurent won but he didn't make Bowlen pay for his choice. Eighteen months later, on Feb. 1, 1950, he was appointed lieutenant governor of Alberta on the advice of St. Laurent. Bowlen later received a second term.
He had many associations and received many honours. He was vice-president and honorary president of the Western Stock Growers' Association, governor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the first western Canadian to be on the executive of the same organization.
He was associate director of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, and a member of the Calgary Public Library Board. He was also a member of the Kiwanis, Elks, and Canadian clubs, as well as the Knights of Columbus.
Bowlen died in office on Dec. 16, 1959, in Edmonton and was buried in St. Joachim's Cemetery. A provincial government building in Calgary and a Catholic junior high school in Edmonton are named in his memory.