David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Connected to a Larger World – The Growth of Brandon has been Quite the Journey

Brandon Sun, January 19, 2017 - David McConkey

“Globalization” is an expression that we associate with today. But Brandon has always been part of a globalized reality. At Brandon’s founding and during its development since, the city and its citizens have been linked to a larger world.
The location for Brandon was selected in the spring of 1881 by General Rosser of the CPR as a divisional point for the railway. By the fall of 1881, the first trains were here.

The railway would bring people from all over the world to Brandon to live, work and raise their families. The local society, agriculture and industry would develop in connection with global influences and global markets.
The first settlers were mainly from Eastern Canada and the United Kingdom. In the 1890s, immigrants from Eastern Europe who spoke Ruthenian (Ukrainian) and Polish started arriving. They moved to “the flats” in the North End, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” In 1902, the Brandon Daily Sun reported on “foreigners” living in Brandon’s Ghetto
Some of these new immigrants were unjustly interned as “enemy aliens” during the First World War. Hundreds of men were imprisoned at the Brandon Internment Camp in the Winter Fair buildings on Victoria Avenue between 10th and 11th streets.  

The Assiniboine River has been a big – sometimes unwelcome! – presence in Brandon. Before the railway, river steamboats provided transportation. Having a source of water made Brandon’s location attractive: first for railway steam engines, later for city residents.

Kids swam in the river on hot summer days; the beach at 16th Street had concessions and gas lighting for nighttime dips. In the winter, ice was cut from the river for cooling food in home ice boxes before the advent of refrigerators. Living with the river – and its flooding – continues as a central Brandon reality.

The surrounding agricultural region has always been important to Brandon. Farmers at first delivered their grain in sacks to elevators using horse-drawn wagons. The significance of horses and grain gave rise to Brandon’s nicknames: “The Horse Capital of Canada” and “The Wheat City.” Those monikers, Brandon’s agricultural exhibitions, and the Brandon Experimental Farm (now the Brandon Research and Development Centre) all date from the 1880s.

Some landmarks from the past, like the century-old buildings of the former Brandon Mental Health Centre, have been maintained and renovated for use into the future. Others, such as the City Hall and Opera House (1892-1971) at Eighth and Princess, live only in memory. The Prince Edward Hotel and train station (1912-1980) at Ninth and Princess exists today as a ghost in the skateboard park on that site. 

Another piece of the past seemed destined to be forgotten when it was torn down in 2000: the Brandon Indian Residential School. The United Church operated the school from 1895 to 1972. It is now receiving attention because of plans to re-develop the former site including identification of children’s graves. The issue of residential schools was the focus of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and will be part of the upcoming inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
As in any community, Brandon has experienced unsavoury features, like bigotry, corruption, prostitution, and the illegal sale of alcohol and drugs. Members of “the establishment” or “polite society” often treat these as taboo subjects, sometimes because they themselves are engaging in these activities! 
Occasionally, however, such topics come out of the shadows. In 1912, the entire Brandon police department (except for one new recruit) was fired because of complaints involving bribery and prostitution.

In another instance, the most famous person ever to grow up in Brandon – Sam Bronfman – became wealthy as a bootlegger. The Bronfmans smuggled alcohol, bribed judges and dealt with gangsters like Al Capone. But when he died in Montreal in 1971, Bronfman was a respectable businessman.
The growth of Brandon from a handful of people living in tents to a modern city of 50,000 has been quite the journey. Some elements of a community’s unfolding, however, are often hard to put one’s finger on. These are the global technological, economic, natural and societal forces that evolve over the years, shaping the way we live.

Since Brandon’s beginning, change has been a constant. We have become accustomed to on-going advancements in lifestyles, business, education, healthcare, sports, the arts and more. And we get used to a changing culture as we become more diverse, more understanding and more caring of one another.

During the community’s history, The Brandon Sun also has been a constant; the paper began before the city’s incorporation in 1882. For 135 years, the Sun has brought news of the world to Brandon. And the Sun has told the stories of Brandon to the world.

Tomorrow? There will be more stories to tell.

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See also: 

99 Years Ago: “Icy Ruins” in City

The Medium is the Message?

Reflections on the Great War

Citizen Active


Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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