Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Nine years into serving his post as the fifth premier of the province of Alberta, Canada, John Edward Brownlee was forced to resign after Vivian MacMillan, a stenographer in the attorney general’s office, filed suit claiming Brownlee seduced her over a two-year period. Questions remain as to whether Brownlee was set up for political sabotage or was indeed guilty of violating the revised 1922 Alberta Seduction Act.

Summary of Event

By July of 1930, John Edward Brownlee had been serving as Alberta’s premier for five years. He was forty-six years old and married. Vivian MacMillan, the daughter of the mayor of Edson, Alberta (Allan MacMillan), was eighteen years old. According to the young MacMillan, she had met Brownlee at the home of her parents, whom Brownlee had been visiting. She later claimed that she was dissuaded by Brownlee from pursuing a career in music or nursing and was instead urged to go to business school in Edmonton. Brownlee purportedly promised her a job with the Alberta government. The young MacMillan followed Brownlee’s advice and graduated a year later from the school, having become a welcome guest of the Brownlee family. She took a position as stenographer for the attorney general’s office in Alberta. Brownlee, John Edward MacMillan, Vivian MacMillan v. Brownlee (1934) Alberta, Canada;Brownlee scandal [kw]Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee (July 10, 1934) [kw]Brownlee, Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier (July 10, 1934) Brownlee, John Edward MacMillan, Vivian MacMillan v. Brownlee (1934) Alberta, Canada;Brownlee scandal [g]Canada;July 10, 1934: Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee[00580] [c]Sex;July 10, 1934: Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee[00580] [c]Government;July 10, 1934: Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee[00580] [c]Politics;July 10, 1934: Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee[00580] [c]Law and the courts;July 10, 1934: Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee[00580] [c]Public morals;July 10, 1934: Sex Scandal Forces Resignation of Alberta Premier Brownlee[00580] Macmillan, Allan D.

According to MacMillan, Brownlee seduced her for the next two years, using her job as leverage for the seduction. Along with her father, she filed a lawsuit against Brownlee, generating intense scandal, forcing Brownlee from office, causing his party to lose the next election, and turning sour MacMillan’s fiancé’s affection for her.

In the fall of 1932, MacMillan had begun a romantic relationship with Caldwell, John John Caldwell. A third-year medical student, Caldwell had proposed marriage around Christmas of that year but had added they would wait to marry until he had completed his degree. In January of 1933, MacMillan told her fiancé of her relationship with Brownlee. Caldwell first insisted MacMillan take legal action against Brownlee, then he broke off his engagement to the twenty-one-year-old, but not before participating in what was supposed to be an undercover sting operation, or possibly a head-on confrontation.

On July 5, two men followed Brownlee as he escorted MacMillan to his car to give her a ride home. The two men were MacMillan’s fiancé and her soon-to-be courtroom attorney, Neil MacLean. Evidence would later show that Caldwell and MacLean stood to gain financially were they to contribute to the ruin of Brownlee’s reputation.

By August, MacLean had mailed Brownlee a letter notifying him the Macmillans were suing him Vivian seeking ten thousand dollars in unstated damages and costs and her father seeking five thousand dollars under Alberta’s revised Seduction Act of Seduction Act of 1922 (Alberta) 1922. On September 22 the Supreme Court of Canada Supreme Court of Canada issued a writ, charging seduction of an eighteen-year-old and naming Brownlee as defendant. MacLean filed the statement of claim at the courthouse that day. As the rumors continued after escalating for some time Brownlee, who denied all charges, filed a countersuit accusing MacMillan and Caldwell of fabricating the story for financial gain. Brownlee made a counterclaim for ten thousand dollars in damages, alleging that the claims by MacMillan and the others amounted to nothing more than attempts to blackmail him and harm his political reputation.

With the start of the trial on June 25, 1934, MacMillan offered the details of how Brownlee came to the MacMillan home, disapproved of her plans for a musical career (there was no money in it, he admonished) and of her considering going into nursing (too difficult a life for a young girl, he said), and recommended she study business in Edmonton. MacMillan also testified about his offers to act as her guardian, invite her into his home so she would not be alone in a strange city, and ensure she did not get into trouble. After the first round of suggestions, MacMillan testified, she and the premier attended a dance. On the dance floor together, Brownlee repeated his invitation and also told her she was beautiful and that he hoped she would come to Edmonton. She defined the relationship that ensued for more than two years as one in which she never loved him and, she believed, he never loved her.

Brownlee had insisted from the start that there was not one word of truth in the allegation. He said that what he had to face would enable him to come to grips with the rumors and was prepared to “defend the action to the limit.” Having submitted a file of defense on November 13, 1933, Brownlee not only denied all charges but also made his statement of defense to allege that MacMillan’s claim was indeed false, vexatious, and scandalous. Furthermore, he argued, the claim was frivolous and an abuse of the process of the courts. He added that the claim should be expunged from court records.

On cross examination by defense attorney A. L. Smith, MacMillan twice broke into tears, requiring a court recess. Smith rigorously pursued contradictions and inconsistencies in her testimony, and he successfully had MacMillan admit that she had not resided in the maid’s room at the Brownlee home in October of 1931, when Brownlee’s wife, Florence, was away. She also admitted that she had not gone to the premier’s bedroom during the night. Conceding that she must have slept in Florence’s room, MacMillan still did not retract the claim that there had been “improper intimacies” between her and Brownlee. In addition, the defense produced Diaries;John Earl Brownlee[Brownlee] diaries for the years between 1930 and 1933, which showed that Brownlee had been away from Edmonton, engaged in official business, or involved in personal or other engagements and therefore could not have been, as MacMillan had alleged, driving her around in his car. Also untrue, Brownlee said, was MacMillan’s claim that she had become a great friend to Florence and had become close as a family member, even a niece. Furthermore, he testified, there had been “nay intimacies” with MacMillan in his car, any other car, his home, his office, or any parliament building.

On July 3, after four hours and forty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Brownlee guilty of seduction, upheld the action, and awarded the MacMillans fifteen thousand dollars in damages. However, Judge William Carlos Ives overturned the decision, deciding that the MacMillans were to pay Brownlee’s legal expenses. Though the Court of Appeal would concur with Ives, the supreme court would not. On March 1, 1937, it awarded Vivian MacMillan ten thousand dollars plus legal costs. Brownlee’s 1940 appeal to Canada’s highest appeals court, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, was to no avail.


It is difficult to speculate who was the victim in this scandalous affair, one of the most sensational trials in Albertan history. Even more difficult to determine is the question of who suffered the most. For Brownlee who had worked hard to effectively control Alberta’s natural resources, to lead a successful United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) to political victory, and to remain staunchly conservative during times of economic and agrarian depression the sex scandal impelled his resignation from the provincial ministry (effective July 10, 1934), led to the failure of the UFA to win a single seat in the legislature, and ultimately destroyed his reputation. Brownlee died in 1961, almost unnoticed.

For MacMillan, though she won the case and was awarded ten thousand dollars, the scandal prompted her fiancé to break off their engagement, caused her to have a nervous breakdown, and despoiled her personal reputation. She returned to her hometown of Edson, recovered from her breakdown, and married a druggist, with whom she had a son. She divorced him then married again and lived in Calgary for several years. She died in Florida in 1980 at the age of sixty-eight. The Brownlee-MacMillan debacle left neither defendant nor plaintiff the solitary victim or the sole victor. Brownlee, John Edward MacMillan, Vivian MacMillan v. Brownlee (1934) Alberta, Canada;Brownlee scandal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brennan, Brian. “John Edward Brownlee: Fallen Premier 1883-1961” and “Vivian MacMillan: Government Stenographer 1912-1980.” In Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta’s Past. Calgary, Alta.: Fifth House, 2002. Included among Alberta’s juiciest scandals, these accounts of the lives of the sex scandal’s players dig deep into two personalities who helped to characterize Alberta’s past.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brode, Patrick. Courted and Abandoned: Seduction in Canadian Law. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2000. A unique history of legal cases involving “breaches of duty leading to liability for damages for seduction.” Includes the chapter “MacMillan v. Brownlee,” with detailed information on the scandal and its legal history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Herk, Aritha. Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. Toronto, Ont.: Viking/Penguin Books Canada, 2001. A unique take on history by way of narrative and character analysis of the pioneers, progressives, and perpetrators who made up the western Canadian province of Alberta.

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