City & Politics, Essay

Honey, Nazis, and the Manitoban identity

Photo: Manitoba Premier John Bracken, left, with finance minister Stuart Garson, 1942. Credit: Archives of Manitoba


In 1939, a bright-eyed leader from the Allied world told his finance minister to saddle up, and prepare for a business trip to Nazi Germany. It was summer, and the fields that stretched across his homeland were ripe with crops to be harvested. The only problem was that nobody was buyin’….

The dawn of World War II may have signaled the dusk of the Great Depression, but it took a while before the necessities of war kickstarted the world’s decrepit economies. Until then, many a government held steadfast to a trade protection policy. This made a sour wine ever so slightly less sour for some domestic businesses, but it produced acidic vile for agricultural export economies.

And so Manitoba Premier John Bracken and his minister of finance, Stuart Garson, did what they thought was best: Promote barter exchange. In Berlin. With the Nazis. A few bushels of wheat, add some honey and butter to sweeten the deal, and the province could receive three-hundred thousand dollars’ worth of electrical equipment to be used for public utilities. 

Now, three-hundred grand was a substantial amount for the province’s coffers in the thirties, but Adolf Hitler was also a substantial amount of genocidal maniacness to be in a business with. A snapshot of local headlines provide the highlights for how things unfolded:

“Bracken seeks Barter Deal Despite Protests: Says Ottawa Objection Won’t Halt Plan to send Produce to Germany,” Tribune (Not the Spectator, which was still an idea waiting to happen. For the record, though: we would’ve kept all ‘toba honey in ‘toba), 13 July 1939.

“Bracken Still Hopes for Barter,” Free Press, 20 July 1939.

“City Council Opposes Bracken Barter Deal” (In fairness, Bracken probably didn’t know about the sell-’em-a-house-in-Arizona tactic), Tribune, 25 July 1939.

“Brandon Hopes: Bracken Denies Plan is Pro-German” (Interesting that that — not the  aforementioned genocidal maniac bit — was an issue) Free Press, 1 August 1939.

“Major Praises Trade Deal,” (if this headline meant ‘Mayor’ then perhaps Bracken figured out the Arizona thing), Free Press, 9 August 1939.

“Barter Deal Not Necessary,” The Financial Times, 18 August 1939.

Oh, well. Times were tough. ‘Twas worth a shot.

The point here is not just about the intriguing stories scattered throughout history, it’s about the intriguing stories scattered throughout history in our own backyard. How many other jurisdictions had their leader bargain over crops and machines with the Fuhrer on the doorstep to World War II? If they did, I’m sure it’s an anecdote that threads into their cafes and out of their hair salons on a weekly basis. But not in Manitoba. Our own stories tend to slip under the radar.

I remember with regrettable clarity sitting in a fourth-year poli sci class, watching an enthusiastic prof paint a boisterous picture of prairie politics to a lacklustre crowd.

“It wasn’t like that,” interrupted an especially dour Honours student, who was in the unfortunate habit of pushing the self-deprecating-Winnipeg-thing to places even a Weakerthans’ song wouldn’t go.

“It wasn’t like what?” muttered the prof, taken aback. He was still breathing heavily after  an especially rousing version of the 1885 Metis North-West Rebellion, which saw freedom fighter-people founder-rabble rouser extraodinaire Louis Riel return to Canada from Montana to try his Manitoba magic in Saskatchewan.

“The grandeur,” said the student, “it didn’t have that sort of grandeur. This wasn’t Lincoln, or the Constitution or something.”

It is diagnostic of either an unhealthy dose of unflappability, or a misguided sense of politeness that I did not immediately tell said student that it’s very difficult to see any sort of grandeur with one’s head so far up one’s ass.

That said, his response is not unique.

The grandeur ‘n gumption of a story is a function of how well it is told to be sure, but also how it is plugged into a larger narrative. It isn’t that the stories that fill the history of the prairies, and in particular the history of Manitoba, contain any less umph than those of eastern Canada and the States, it’s just that our stories are less frequently told. And so when they are told it is difficult to place them into a salient narrative, one that makes the stories we hear fit with who we are, or who we were, or who we might be. Tragically, when our province’s stories are told we don’t really believe in them.

What’s the cure to this depressing state of affairs? It’s simple. We have to tell our stories, and we have to tell them more often. There’s no need to craft some artificial plot that unites us all, or mirror someone else’s story we know well. Such projects reek of inauthenticity. But in simply telling the stories of what events have transpired and are transpiring within these borders (and giving them their full due in the telling), we will see what exactly it is that makes us who are.

Rand Dyck, an expert on Canadian provincial politics, writes that “if Manitobans have a self-image, it is probably one of a moderate, medium, diversified, and fairly prosperous but unspectacular province.” His fellow political scientist, Jared Wesley, a specialist in political culture (which is, he would admit himself, the ‘personality test’ niche within the discipline), adds to this by writing that “Dyck is not alone. Many define Manitoba by its ambiguous mediocrity rather than by any unique political personality.” Such a statement is no cause for lament. It’s an opportunity; it means we aren’t constrained.

Manitoba’s so-called ambiguity need not be vulnerable to knee-jerk characterizations that capitalize on our  plummeting temperatures, our summer mosquito population, or our new hockey team. Indeed, there have been those who’ve surmised this ‘ambiguous landscape’ and discerned something complex, something authentic, something worthwhile, going on here. Legendary University of Manitoba professor W. L. Morton is one of them:

If it is too much to assert that a Manitoban can be recognized abroad, it is still true that life in Manitoba forces a common manner, not to say character on all its people. It is the manner, or mannerism of instant understanding and agreeableness at meeting, and rises from the need for harmony in a society of many diverse elements. This superficial friendliness is common to all North Americans, of course, but in Manitoba, a truly plural society, it is a definite and highly conscious art. 

The product of such observation may be different today, but it is Morton’s process that we should pay attention to. “History is not an academic mystery,” he wrote, “it’s what the community thinks about itself, how it sorts out its ideas.” That’s all Manitoba needs to do more of: think about itself, sort out its own ideas, and see what comes out at the other end.


Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at