Most Famous Brandonite Born 125 Years Ago
February 10, 2014 - David McConkey
Who was he? And what was his connection to Brandon?
The story begins in the 1880s, when thousands of Jews from Russia escaped persecution and immigrated to Canada. Among those immigrants were Ekiel and Minnie Bronfman, who arrived in Canada in the spring of 1889. They had three children. (Five more were born later in Canada.) Their baby – the future famous Brandonite – was Sam, born on February 27, 1889.
The Bronfmans first moved to Wapella, Saskatchewan. They had been relatively well off tobacco farmers in Russia. But tobacco, as well as frozen-out wheat, failed in their new home. In search of better opportunities, the family moved to Brandon.
Ekiel Bronfman found work at John Christie’s sawmill and he made extra money selling wood scraps from the mill for use as firewood. The Bronfmans lived first in a tenement at Sixth and Pacific. Later they bought a small shack, which they moved to a lot in the Johnstone Estate, a new development south of Victoria Avenue.
In 1900, the family purchased a more substantial house at 550 11th St. They were beginning to prosper, but young Sam wore hand-me-downs and was teased at school for his torn clothes.
Ekiel and his sons began trading horses and later got into the hotel business. The Bronfmans noticed that the bar was the place where people went and the best profits were made.
The Bronfmans moved from Brandon to Winnipeg in 1906, and later to Montreal. They bought more hotels and sold more alcohol. (Interestingly, “Bronfman” in Yiddish means “whiskey man.”)
During Prohibition, their revenues were greatly boosted by smuggling liquor into the United States. The Bronfmans bribed judges and dealt with ruthless gangsters like Al Capone. A Bronfman brother-in-law was shot and killed during one rum-running escapade in Saskatchewan.
After Prohibition ended, the Bronfmans continued to expand their business, which was now legitimate. The family purchased the Seagram company, which brought established liquor brands and even more respectability.
(The transformation of the Bronfmans from bootlegging criminals to respected citizens is something to think about. We have “Prohibition” now – the War on Drugs – which is as much a failure today as Prohibition was in the 1920s.)
The Bronfmans have continued to make waves and the news. Their well-known whiskies included Seagram’s VO, Seven Crown, Chivas Regal, and Crown Royal. The Bronfmans financed Heritage Minutes on TV and brought history alive for Canadians.
In the 1990s, the Bronfmans allegedly spirited $2 billion tax-free out of Canada. This feat was aided by a generous contribution to the Mulroney Conservatives.
The extended Bronfman family today has several billionaires and dozens of millionaires. They took a hit recently when Sam’s grandson, Edgar Bronfman Jr., lost billions selling Seagram and buying into the risky world of entertainment.
Sam was the shrewdest of the four Bronfman brothers. He manoeuvred his brothers out of the business, and ensured that only his descendants would be involved.
“I don’t want my sons going to school with holes in their pants,” Bronfman said, remembering his own poor childhood in Brandon.
Bronfman became a leading philanthropist and headed the Canadian Jewish Congress for many years.
Bronfman was even the inspiration for Mordecai Richler’s novel Solomon Gursky Was Here.
But what of Bronfman and Brandon? Today, the memory of him has faded. Everything from the early Bronfman years here is gone, like the house on 11th St.
There is only one reminder here of the Bronfman link to Brandon.
In 1969, Brandon University conferred on Bronfman an honorary degree. Bronfman returned for one last visit to the city where he grew up.
At that time, Bronfman donated to Brandon University the sculpture “Explorer,” which Seagram had commissioned for Montreal’s Expo 67. The sculpture was displayed for years in front of the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium. It can be seen today in the university’s Kavanagh Courtyard.
Sam Bronfman died at age 82 on July 10, 1971. Booze bootlegger to billionaire businessman – quite the journey for the boy from Brandon!
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