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Manitoba History: Review: Allan F. J. Artibise, Gateway City: Documents on the City of Winnipeg, 1873-1913

by Barry Potyondi

Manitoba History, Number 3, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Gateway City, the latest offering of the Manitoba Record Society, continues a fifteen-year tradition of providing a documentary record of Manitoba’s history. Consisting of an overview of Winnipeg’s development before the Great War, twelve documents and a brief pictorial section, it pays homage to recent concerns about the urban dimension of our prairie past. Dr. Artibise, an acknowledged leader in this field and intrepid booster of Winnipeg history, provides further evidence of his not inconsiderable ability as an orchestrator of historical collections.

The introduction, which sets the stage for the documents that follow, reflects Artibise’s steadfast admiration for the work of the noted American urban historian, Sam Bass Warner, ]r. Warner has long argued that while civic leaders were usually adept at developing vibrant local economies, they were much less skillful at resolving the social inequities and tensions that invariably accompany rapid urban growth. Artibise presses this template against the Winnipeg elite and carves an identical pattern. He describes the successful struggle for a rail connection with eastern markets, the rise of the grain trade, the development of municipal hydro-electrical power, the growth of financial and commercial institutions, and vigourous campaigns to induce immigrants to settle in Winnipeg and on the prairies to the west. Against these material successes, he sets the “ghettoization” of the city, the undemocratic nature of its government, its lack of adequate educational institutions and social services, and the rise of its militant labour movement. The contrast is stark and supports the conclusion that “in the final analysis it was the overriding commitment to growth for its own sake that provides the most profound reason for Winnipeg’s failure to develop an all-encompassing community life in the first forty years of its history.” Those familiar with the Artibise corpus on Winnipeg will find no surprises here, and initiates need look no further than these opening remarks, for they not only reproduce his abiding thesis but whole paragraphs of previous works as well.

Source: Manitoba Museum

The twelve documents are representative of the primary sources that underpin the editor’s thesis, but they display no other unity. Included are the Act of Incorporation, a Board of Trade annual report, two booster pamphlets, reports on typhoid epidemics, prostitution, city planning, All People’s Mission, immigration policies, labour unions, industrial development, and a self-congratulatory article on local millionaires. Most (nine of twelve) are documents of this century, yet no justification for this chronological imbalance is offered. Each document is preceded by a paragraph or two setting it in context, and footnotes serve to unsnarl complicated issues, to provide background knowledge and point out further sources of information for those whose curiosity has been aroused. In the case of the entertaining document on millionaires, the footnotes also provide a much-needed factual counterpoint.

If there is a problem with this collection, it is that it serves no clear purpose. This may derive from the editor’s attempt to give the reader both “an insight into and feeling for life in Winnipeg in the pre-World War I era.” The insights that can be gleaned from isolated documents such as these are fragmentary at best, and it is puzzling the editor did not choose instead to focus on a single theme illustrated by a broad presentation of related documents, or to present sequential annual reports from a single organization. Certainly either decision would have produced a collection of substantially more use to those without ready access to Winnipeg documents. As for a “feeling for life in Winnipeg,” it is undeniably absent from most of these spiritless annual reports and balance sheets. Only the All Peoples’ Mission report, with its accounts of poverty, degradation, drunkenness and prejudice, offers a glimpse of life in the lower-class inferno of Victorian Winnipeg. As such, the book is less than a success.

Page revised: 23 April 2010

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