The Bronfman family is known the world over for its business acumen and its substantial holdings in the global economy—with controlling interests in the Seagram Company, which employs over 30,000 people and is the largest distributors of spirits and wine in the world. While the Bronfman family business holdings have grown to a huge number of international conglomerates, their history is deeply rooted in the social fabric of Saskatchewan during the prohibition era.
The Bronfman family immigrated to Canada after fleeing Czarist Russia in 1889, the year Samuel Bronfman was born. His first foray into the business world was as a horse trader in rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba. By the early 1920s, Samuel and his brothers Harry, Abe, and Allan were owners of a successful “booze-by-mail” business. Samuel acquired the House of Seagram during the prohibition decade. The Bronfmans’ success in the liquor industry came at a time when social gospel proponents James S. Woodsworth, Salem Bland, Nellie McClung, and Emily Murphy spread the word about the evils of alcohol. Reflecting the spirit of entrepreneurship and adventure, the Bronfmans’ history is coloured with the resistance to social mores that defined the 1920s in North America: Samuel’s brother-in-law was shot to death at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Bienfait, Saskatchewan; Harry Bronfman was jailed for attempted bribery and witness tampering; and the four Bronfman brothers were charged with fraud and income tax evasion–although nothing was ever proven against them.
Despite controversial beginnings, the financial success of the Bronfman family from the 1920s to the new millennium is well charted in the annals of Canadian business. The Bronfman brothers’ sojourn in Saskatchewan will remain a colourful saga that helped build Saskatchewan’s social and economic communities. Liquor-runs to the States, back-street deals, and legends about using the famous tunnels in southern regions of the province make the Saskatchewan connection a permanent fixture in the lives of one of the most successful and powerful families in Canadian history.