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b. 24 Feb. 1853 in Halifax


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BRETT, ROBERT GEORGE, physician and surgeon, businessman, politician, and lieutenant governor; b. 16 Nov. 1851 near Strathroy, Upper Canada, son of James Brett and Catherine Mallon; m. 26 June 1878 Louise Theodora Hungerford (d. 1935) of Watford, Ont.; d. 16 Sept. 1929 in Calgary.

Robert George Brett’s Irish parents immigrated to Upper Canada in 1846, settling first in London and then on a farm near Strathroy, where Brett was born. They moved into town when Brett was ten years of age so that he could attend the Strathroy Grammar School. The lad greatly admired the family physician, Dr Friend Richard Eccles, and was apprenticed to him. He attended Victoria College medical school in Toronto, graduated md in 1874, and briefly practised with Eccles. Later in 1874 he established a practice at Arkona in Lambton County, where he would serve a term as reeve. In 1876 he took postgraduate training in New York and Philadelphia, demonstrating an interest in upgrading his skills that he would repeat in 1894 when he studied surgery and gynaecology in Vienna. In 1878 he married Louise T. Hungerford. All four of their children predeceased them: Genevieve died in infancy in 1881, Blanche Guinevere at the age of two in 1886, Robert Earle in 1912, and Reginald Harry in 1925.

In 1880 Brett had moved to Winnipeg, perhaps to seek larger professional opportunities in the rapidly developing west or to participate in the real estate boom of the period. He did open a practice there, and in 1883 was one of the founders of the Manitoba Medical College, in which he held the chair of materia medica and therapeutics and later was professor of gynaecology and obstetrics. He served for some years as a councillor and member of the board of studies at the University of Manitoba. He had apparently lost his investments in real estate with the collapse of the boom in 1881 and had to use his practice to pay off his debts. He was appointed assistant surgeon for the 90th (Winnipeg) Battalion of Rifles. A Conservative in federal politics and an Anglican in religion, he was also a freemason and a founding member (1880) of the Winnipeg Lodge of Perfection, with which he long remained affiliated.

In 1883 Brett was appointed a company physician for the Canadian Pacific Railway, then still under construction; ultimately he became chief surgeon for the CPR in the Banff region, including the collieries at Canmore, Anthracite, and Bankhead (Alta). In August 1883 he arrived at the end of steel in Calgary, on the first passenger coach to cross the Bow River there. Near the Continental Divide was a temporary construction community called Holt City (Lake Louise), where he established a small hospital. During his travels along the line of construction in the mountains he became interested in the sulphur hot springs at Banff and at Halcyon Hot Springs on the Arrow Lakes, B.C., and thought that they might be developed as great spas, rather like those in Europe and the United States. In 1886 he settled in Banff and built the Banff Sanitarium on the south side of the Bow River. Developed as a combined hotel and hospital specializing in the treatment of ailments such as arthritis and certain skin problems which benefited from the hot mineral waters, the sanitarium averaged about 2,200 registered guests per annum before 1900. It was described on its letterhead as “an elegantly equipped Private Hospital, with a staff of trained nurses in attendance,” and as “the most complete Bathing establishment in the Dominion, where Turkish, Russian, tub, plunge, shower, and douche baths are given, with water from the Hot Sulphur Springs, under medical supervision.” In 1909 Brett built nearby the Brett Hospital, at which he was chief surgeon. The sanatorium continued mainly as a hotel and was renamed Bretton Hall in 1915.

Brett was a genial and popular personality with some political ambitions. He was elected in 1888 to the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories for the constituency of Red Deer, which then included Banff. Almost immediately the assembly was embroiled in a controversy over the extent of its powers. Federal legislation passed in May had allowed it to deal only with the small income derived from territorial taxation. The far larger annual federal grant remained under dominion control and was to be expended under the authority of the lieutenant governor. Furthermore, the lieutenant governor was empowered to select an advisory council which would be severally responsible to him, not collectively responsible to the elected assembly. The first council, appointed in November by Lieutenant Governor Joseph Royal*, included the able and determined young Frederick William Gordon Haultain*, who was prepared to take confrontational measures to force the federal government to concede both local control of the federal grant and a council responsible to the assembly. Royal at first seemed willing to allow the substance of Haultain’s demands with respect to federal funds, but in 1889 he made it clear that he must govern according to the limitations imposed by the federal statute. On 29 Oct. 1889 Haultain and his colleagues resigned. Royal consulted with Haultain about a successor, and, he told Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald*, “we both agreed that Dr. Brett, of Banff, seemed to possess the qualifications required.”

The new council under Brett announced that it would act as an executive only with respect to locally raised finances and such duties as were assigned by the territorial ordinances to the lieutenant governor in council. Brett and his three colleagues actually agreed that ultimately responsible government must be granted, but they believed in working for it gradually and within existing law. Moreover, they thought that full responsible government would be premature. The assembly promptly voted, 13-8, a motion of no-confidence, thus raising explicitly a question previously only implicit: was the council responsible to the assembly or to the lieutenant governor? On 11 November Brett sent Royal a letter of resignation; Royal the next day declined to accept it, on the grounds that the council had not had time to carry out any acts of administration that would merit a vote of no-confidence and that to accept the resignation would undermine his prerogatives. On 16 November Royal told Macdonald that “Dr. Brett is holding his own with firmness and much ability” and claimed that “in Regina public opinion is in favor of Dr. Brett’s attitude, and from all I can hear this is also the opinion generally in the country.” Nevertheless, the assembly refused to pass the territorial estimates until it had a full accounting of the supply vote of the previous year, which Royal had refused to provide. The Brett council tendered its resignation a second time, and it was accepted on 16 November.

No member of the assembly now could be found to form a council unless Royal would agree to account for the expenditures of 1888-89 and allow the assembly control of the preparation of all estimates and expenditures. The assembly also passed an ordinance requiring a council of two, to be selected by the assembly (which then named Thomas Tweed and John Ryerson Neff); this measure was disallowed by the federal government. In discussion with Royal, Tweed “earnestly advised that I should send for Dr. Brett whom he highly praised for his ability, moderation and popularity.” Once more, Brett agreed to form a council, which he had done by early February 1890. “They are good men,” Royal told Macdonald, “and are in perfect accord with me as to the law being strictly adhered to.” Since the assembly was not in session, this council was able to govern with few problems through most of 1890. When the house again met, at the end of October, opposition to the council was uncompromising: its members and supporters were not allowed to serve on committees, its motions and legislative proposals were refused. Brett responded that he and his colleagues knew themselves to be within the law and would carry on in spite of the abuse to which they were subjected. It was a mistake for the assembly to have attempted to choose the Advisory Council, he argued, because under the act it was clear that the lieutenant governor had this right. He affirmed that if the assembly was willing to be governed by the law as it was, he and the other members of the council would willingly resign; otherwise, they would continue as long as the country needed them. The session closed at the end of November.

Clearly the territories were becoming ungovernable, and some change was essential. In May 1891 Brett and fellow councillor John Felton Betts travelled to Ottawa to try to induce the government to permit responsible government. They requested that the assembly be able to control moneys voted for schools, roads, bridges, and other local expenditures, that the lieutenant governor be empowered to dissolve the assembly, and that the Advisory Council be made responsible to the house. In addition, they asked for a hospital grant, a grant of land for a university, and a generous three-year subsidy for the purposes of government in the territories. Amendments to the North-West Territories Act in September only partially met these requests: the lieutenant governor now could dissolve the assembly; the federally appointed legal experts who had sat with the assembly since 1888 were removed; and a significant portion of the federal grant was placed under control of the house. However, the lieutenant governor retained authority over part of the dominion grant. New elections were held on 31 October, and, in the words of historian Edmund Henry Oliver*, “the old Advisory Council simply dropped out of existence when the old Assembly itself ceased to exist.” Late in December Royal called on Haultain to form what was now called the Executive Committee, and Brett’s brief and difficult career in government ended.

Brett continued in the assembly until 1899: he was re-elected for the new Banff constituency in 1891 and 1894, and narrowly defeated Arthur Lewis Watkins Sifton in 1898. However, Sifton contested the election on the basis of corrupt practices and prevailed over Brett in the by-election held on 27 June 1899. Brett had remained a strong advocate of responsible government for the territories, which had finally been granted in 1897, but particularly favoured separate provincial status for the District of Alberta. He was for several years the leader of the opposition in the assembly, but he also was responsible for the shaping of public health legislation.

Brett’s interest in politics continued after his defeat. Only ill health prevented him from contesting the by-election occasioned by Sifton’s appointment to the territorial government in 1901. When the status of the North-West Territories was being considered in 1905 and it was rumoured that two new provinces would be created, he went to Ottawa to lobby for Banff as the provincial capital of Alberta. After the passage of the Autonomy Acts later that year he was a candidate in Banff for election to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta but was defeated. In 1909 he was chosen president of the Alberta Conservative Association and ran unsuccessfully for the Cochrane riding in the provincial election.

In 1908 and again in 1912 Brett was appointed to the senate of the University of Alberta, which in 1915 conferred an honorary lld upon him. He had been instrumental in 1889 in founding the North West Territories Medical Association, of which he was first vice-president and president in 1891 and 1897. He served as the first president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Alberta in 1906-7, and held the office again in 1919-20. He also was president of the Alberta Medical Association, 1906-7 and 1914-15. In 1905 he had been licensed as a pharmacist, undoubtedly to facilitate the development of a drugstore in connection with his hospital. In July 1913 he was named a licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada, and in 1921 he became its president. He was active as well in the Canadian Medical Association.

On 6 Oct. 1915 Brett succeeded George Hedley Vicars Bulyea as lieutenant governor of Alberta, a position he would hold until 20 Oct. 1925. In 1918 he leased his medical properties, including the Brett Hospital, two drugstores, and the Canmore Hospital, to his former professional associates: his surviving son, Dr Reginald Harry Brett, and Dr Gilbert McIntosh Atkin. In 1914 he had become president of the Alberta branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society, and he actively used his position as lieutenant governor to raise money and supplies for the charity’s war effort. He also became chief scout of the Boy Scouts in Alberta, an organization in which he took considerable interest. On 19 April 1916 he was made an honorary colonel of the 82nd Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Interested in redeveloping the flow of immigrants to the land in western Canada, he became in June 1923 a founding director of the Canada Colonization Association, under the presidency of Sir Augustus Meredith Nanton. One of his last activities as lieutenant governor was to participate in October 1925 in the inauguration of long-distance telephone links between Edmonton and the northern United States. In 1927 the federal government conferred on him the title of “Honourable” as a gesture, in Canada’s diamond jubilee year, marking “the important place held by the Provinces in the Federal system of Canada.”

Even before the end of his term Brett had been under medical care for heart problems. For two or three years after his retirement he lived in California, but he returned to reside in Banff. He died in hospital in Calgary on 16 Sept. 1929 and was buried in the family mausoleum in Banff. By the time of his death his active political career seemed remote; he was remembered both for his identification with the development of Banff and, by an affectionate public, as a man who was amiable, kind, approachable, and “the most democratic” of lieutenant governors of his time. Mount Brett, west of the town of Banff, was named in his honour. A painting of Brett by Victor Albert Long hangs in the Legislature Building in Edmonton.

David J. Hall

[The two most useful collections of Brett’s papers are the Brett family fonds at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Arch. and Library, Banff, Alta (M1/V83) and the Brett fonds at the GA (M 131–32); the Brett file in the PAA (69.282) is negligible. Yet these collections are frustratingly incomplete, including virtually nothing on Brett’s political career. There are extensive family photograph albums in the Banff collection, but a large number of the pictures are unidentified. The small collection of Mrs Brett’s papers there are of some limited use. Newspaper accounts in the Banff Crag and Canyon (1900–5) and the weekly Calgary Herald (1886–1925) proved more helpful in piecing together certain aspects of Brett’s career.

Among secondary sources, Brett’s brief period of prominence in the North-West Territories between 1888 and 1891 is covered in E. H. Oliver, “The contest between Lieutenant-Governor Royal and the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories, 1888–1893,” RSC, Trans., 3rd ser., 17 (1923), sect.ii: 81–118. Also useful is L. H. Thomas, The struggle for responsible government in the North-West Territories, 1870–97 (Toronto, 1956). The most thorough article on Brett’s enterprises in Banff is F. C. Harris and G. M. McDougall, “The Banff Sanitarium Hotel,” in G. M. McDougall et al., Medical clinics and physicians of southern Alberta (Calgary, 1992), 181–204. H. C. Jamieson, Early medicine in Alberta: the first seventy-five years ([Edmonton, 1947]), is essential for understanding the context in which Brett practised medicine. There is no serious study of Brett’s term as lieutenant governor.  d.j.h.]

NA, MG 26, A; H; J; MG 27, II, D15. Univ. of Alta Arch. (Edmonton), 509.1 (R. G. Brett file); file 2315-5 (honorary degree recipients). Univ. of Toronto Arch., Reg. of students. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Arch. and Library, Maps of Banff, 1922, detailing Bretton Hall and Brett Hospital. Calgary Albertan, 17–20 Sept. 1929. Calgary Herald, 17 Sept. 1929, 16 Nov. 1935. John Blue, Alberta, past and present, historical and biographical (3v., Chicago, 1924). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, reports of the Dept. of the Interior, 1886–1900. Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins), 1901–29. CPG, 1888–99, 1915–25. Directory of the Council and Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories, 1876–1905 (Regina, 1970). Dominion Illustrated (Montreal), 21 Sept. 1889. G. S. Fahrni, Prairie surgeon (Winnipeg, 1976). F. W. Gershaw, “An early convention,” Alberta Medical Bull. (Edmonton), 19 (1954), no.1: 38. J. M. Gibbon with M. S. Mathewson, Three centuries of Canadian nursing (Toronto, 1947). Ernest Ingersoll, The Canadian guide-book, part II: western Canada . . . (New York, 1892). G. R. Johnson, “Place names up to 1930 commemorating medical men who have practised their profession in Alberta,” Alberta Medical Bull., 18 (1953), no.2: 53–54. R. C. Johnson, “Resort development at Banff,” Alberta Hist. (Calgary), 23 (1975), no.1: 18–24. G. E. Learmonth, “The fiftieth anniversary of the Alberta Medical Association,” Alberta Medical Bull., 20 (1955), no.3: 51–57. C. C. Lingard, Territorial government in Canada: the autonomy question in the old North-West Territories (Toronto, 1946). E. G. Luxton, Banff: Canada’s first national park; a history and a memory of Rocky Mountains Park (Banff, 1975). A. O. MacRae, History of the province of Alberta (2v., [Calgary], 1912), 1. Jim McDonald et al., Hotsprings of western Canada: a complete guide (Vancouver, 1978). H. [M.] Neatby, “The medical profession in the North-West Territories,” in Medicine in Canadian society: historical perspectives, ed. S. E. D. Shortt (Montreal, 1981), 165–88. G. H. W. Richardson, “The Conservative party in the provisional district of Alberta, 1887–1905” (ma thesis, Univ. of Alta, 1976). Dean Robinson, “Early ‘C.P.R.’ doctors of Alberta and the west,” Alberta Medical Bull., 18, no.3: 24–27. Patricia Roome, “A report on Dr. Robert George Brett (1851–1929) and the Sanitarium Hotel” (typescript, 1970; copy in the Brett family fonds in Banff). Edward Roper, By track and trail: a journey through Canada (London, 1891). Saturday Night (Toronto), 9 Aug. 1924: 3. Douglas Sladen, “The hot springs of the Canadian north-west,” Dominion Illustrated, 19 Sept. 1891: 276–78; On the cars and off: being the journal of a pilgrimage along the queen’s highway to the east, from Halifax in Nova Scotia to Victoria in Vancouver’s Island (London and New York, 1895). G. D. S[tanley], “Medical pioneering in Alberta: Dr. Robert George Brett (1851–1929),” Calgary Associate Clinic, Hist. Bull., 4 (1939–40), no.1: 5–12. [H. C. Stovel], 50 Switzerlands in one: Banff the beautiful, Canada’s national park . . . (Banff, [1914?]). H. H. Thomas, From barnacle to Banff (2nd ed., [Calgary?], 1945). Univ. of Alta, Calendar (Edmonton), 1908/9, 1912/13.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David J. Hall, “BRETT, ROBERT GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brett_robert_george_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brett_robert_george_15E.html
Author of Article:   David J. Hall
Title of Article:   BRETT, ROBERT GEORGE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   February 24, 2024