A cowboy's memoir

Despite his political leaning, Mack Bryson's glad he never got elected; he's got a whole other life to look back on

If Mack Bryson's name isn't branded into political memory, it's only because he didn't get elected when he ran, first for provincial, then federal office in Kamloops.

In media parlance, people who don't get elected are described as "failed candidates," which always seemed a bit harsh for someone intent on public service.

Bryson, who packs a lifetime of stories into A Cowboy's Life: Memories of a Western Cowboy in an Empire of Grass (FriesenPress, Victoria, 2013, 297 pgs.), figures he's the lucky one.

The book is not a political memoir. Quite the contrary, the author takes readers on a journey back to a simpler time and place, when the Bryson family ran the remote and vast Empire Valley Ranch southwest of Williams Lake from 1956 to 1967. The ranch runs through the personal narrative like the mighty river - the Fraser - that borders it, with all sorts of tributaries leading to adventure, heartbreak and accomplishment.

Next door to B.C.'s largest spread, the Gang Ranch, Empire is no ordinary pasture by the side of the road. At age 23, Mack became cow boss of B.C.'s third largest cattle ranch - more than 12,000 hectares of mountain wilderness rangeland.

"Ranching was done in the old-fashioned way with horses and dump rakes and one old tractor," he recalled. "The rest was done with horses."

Family ties to ranching date to the 1860s, when his maternal great-grandfather, Robert Carson, settled on Pavilion Mountain near Lilllooet. Carson's new wife, Eliza Jane, laid down the law: "Either the whisky goes or I go," she said, providing a memorable opening line for Bryson's book.

There is so much B.C. history woven into A Cowboy's Life, the book almost needs a timeline to represent the people and places graphically. Carson, for example, was part of the famous but failed Lillooet-Burrard Trail cattle drive over the mountains to Vancouver in the 1870s. Many of the cattle did not survive the drive. The trail, never used again, was looked upon as a scandalous waste of money, the largest publicly financed project in the new province.

"It was a disaster, that was," but a historically significant one that is still marked with a cairn at the trailhead in North Vancouver.

Eventually, time caught up with the Brysons on the ranch.

"It was so far away from anywhere. Dad got ill and my mother wasn't too healthy. They made a decision that we had to get out of there. It took a while."

There are a few footnotes that place the cowboy squarely within the political history of the Thompson-Nicola region, even though he was not elected to office.

"I was going to become a lawyer, but I didn't get good enough marks," he said. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me. Then I didn't get elected, and that was the second best thing."

He's a straight-shooter, he explained. He calls it as he sees it, an attribute that can be a handicap in the political spotlight.

"I like to call a spade a spade," he said.

Bryson had ambitions, to be sure. The son of Clarence Bryson, a Nicola Valley Liberal hay farmer and politician, he attended UBC in the 1950s and befriended another young agriculture student, Len Marchand. Like Marchand, Bryson became a Liberal Party of Canada member and, as a 1968 convention delegate, helped to elect Pierre Trudeau.

"That's what got me involved in Len's election," he added, recalling how they overcame a formidable challenge from E. Davie Fulton, a minister of justice in John Diefenbaker's cabinet.

"We had a good committee and we beat him," he said.

"And a good candidate," his wife, Liz, hastened to add during a Daily News interview.

The following year, Bryson threw his hat into the provincial election race against Phil Gaglardi and thought at one point he might topple the Social Credit highways minister. It was, after all, to be the last term of the W.A.C. Bennett dynasty and change was in the offing.

"We had a parade right from Thompson Park Mall right into North Kamloops and into the mall with about a thousand people and trucks."

A news reporter arrived at his campaign headquarters and told him, "Mack, you're going to win in a landslide."

Concerns about vote splitting - fears that a Liberal vote would help either the NDP or Social Credit - became a factor late in the campaign, depriving him of critical support, he believes.

He went on to serve as Senator Len Marchand's constituency assistant in the late 1970s, but doesn't go into detail about that period in a book that remains true to its title.

Long retired after a varied career that included teaching at Valleyview secondary, Bryson makes no bones about it - he'd climb back in that saddle if he could.

"It was very hard for me (leaving), not for my wife . . . she's a city girl. I'd go back to the ranch right now if I had my choice, but I'd be all alone because I don't think anyone would go with me," he said.

At next year's Kamloops Cowboy Festival, his father Clarence will be among ranching pioneers posthumously inducted into the B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame.

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