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Local History


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Manitoba History: The Manitoba Historical Society: A Centennial History

by Professor Gerald A. Friesen
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 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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One hundred years ago in the late fall of 1879, the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, then about six months old, announced that its next meeting would hear an address by John Macoun, who was just returning from a summer on the prairies of the western interior. The event is a convenient occasion by which to take the measure of this Society, to analyse its origins and to assess its achievements in the intervening one hundred years. On the appointed night, the old City Hall on Main Street was “completely filled” by a distinguished audience which was said to include “much of the worth and intelligence of Winnipeg.” [1] The citizens parked their carriages and tied their horses on either side of the wide, rutted street and jumped onto the board sidewalks, boot heels ringing in the frosty air Ignoring the shouts from several nearby taverns, they entered the lamplight at the door and mingled with the other leaders of Manitoba society. It was an exciting evening, precisely because it was all so new. Manitoba itself seemed a new world. Of the oldtimers, McTavish of the Hudson’s Bay Company was gone, James McKay of Deer Lodge was on his death bed, and Louis Riel, now in exile somewhere near the Missouri River, was little more than a name. With few exceptions, these citizens had arrived in the province within the decade. To them an old-timer was John Christian Schultz, who had come to Red River in 1859, or Jim Ashdown, who had walked from St. Cloud to Red River in 1868. The number of native-born Red River citizens in their midst, like the metis Premier John Norquay, was tiny. This audience crackled with excitement because John Macoun would provide the first real assessment of the worth of their empire.

Unveiling the Seven Oaks Monument, 1891
Source: Archives of Manitoba

As the gentlemen settled in their oak armchairs, Chief Justice Wood introduced their guest in his inimitable prose. The burden of his message lay in a peroration that brought his listeners to life: “we are now waking up to the conviction,” he said, “that our North-West is destined to be one of the most important parts of the globe ... and with the older eastern Provinces ... will soon be the right arm of the British Empire.” [2] John Macoun took up this theme where the Chief Justice had left off. He responded to the hearty applause with a few jokes, told stories about his trek across the vast plains to the west and, as everyone hoped, he provided enthusiastic reports about the potential of the prairie soil and the salubrity of prairie climate. Here was the confirmation of the best features of the Hind and Palliser reports that Winnipeggers had awaited. Macoun was assuring them that the West would soon contain an agricultural empire. His concluding comment, a statement attributed to Lord Beaconsfield, described this imperial frontier as a land of “illimitable opportunities.” [3] His words provoked cheers from the audience.

In this event can be seen one important reason for the foundation of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba in 1879. The leading citizens of the prairie province were proclaiming that theirs was the next great frontier of empire. Like Nova Scotia historians a half-century earlier the founders of the Society wished to correct the false impressions of a national and international audience about their distant land. [4] By conducting thorough historical and scientific analyses, they would not only set out the truth - and the promise - of the region but also would demonstrate that, as scholars and gentlemen, they were the equals of their readers. The leaders of the Historical and Scientific Society were ready to take their place as partners in the international pursuit of truth and the advancement of nation and empire. Thus, for a few brief years, the Manitoba Society was the West’s equivalent of Britain’s Royal Society and various museum institutions, of Quebec’s Institut Canadien, and of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution. It enquired into the physical and social foundations of the western frontier - classifying its fauna and flora, defining its geological strata, estimating its potential fertility, solving such engineering problems as sanitary water supply and hard-surface roads and, of course, recording its past. Members devoted many hours to the collection of specimens which were exchanged with museums across the continent: they wrote learned papers, sought reference works and went on field trips which could best be described as scientific expeditions. [5] The Society was a central institution in the advancement of western claims upon international attention.

A second important reason for the foundation of the Historical Society lay in the exigencies of a relatively unsettled Victorian community situated on what was perceived to be the “frontier of empire.” Living in a world accustomed to metaphors which contrasted the “arts” of London with the “savagery” of the Khyber Pass, recent arrivals in Winnipeg were very much aware of the delicate state of their transplanted civilization. The leaders among them accepted the responsibility for ensuring that the new way of life would be established upon the firm foundations of a millennium of British achievements. These self-appointed “better elements” in local society were responsible for the definition and promotion of cultural standards. The Historical Society, with its elected members. its comfortable clubrooms, and its large library stacked with current newspapers, journals and reference books was thus an instrument of their cultural imperialism.

Analysis of the membership further confirms the central place of the Society in prairie public and cultural life. This was not an egalitarian community of rustics with limited education and rough-hewn manners. Fully one-half of the members in its first and most active period, 1879 to 1886, could be described as professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers. clergymen, accountants, civil engineers - and another one-third were clearly members of time business community, whether merchants, real estate dealers, bankers or small-scale manufacturers. Thus, over 80% of the members were businessmen and professionals. Of over 500 individuals who were members at some time in this era and whose occupations can be identified, only one was a labourer, one a farmer, one a dressmaker, and five were railway engineers or conductors. [6] When we consider that in the entire city of Winnipeg in 1886, only one quarter of the population was engaged in professional or business pursuits. The select nature of the membership is even more apparent. [7] In those days when professions were just beginning to create formal rules for the training of their members, and when such training was still not available in this capital city of 20,000, a surprising proportion of the papers presented to the Society and the research trips which it sponsored were undertaken by qualified professionals: Rev. George Bryce in history, Ernest Thompson Seton on animal life, Dr. Kerr on Public Health, and J. Hoyes Panton, M.A., on the geology of the Red River Valley. These men, by training or by a period of apprenticeship, were specialists in their fields. As such they set a high level for the conduct of public meetings. Another way to express this emphasis upon education and exclusivity is to note that, as far as can be determined, only eleven women joined the society in this period. Winnipeg was not a frontier where, as in Kentucky or Cincinnati, women and clergy were alone supposed to be bearers of culture. When defending the admission of the first two women in 1883, the Manitoba executive explained the recruitment of Dr. Lillian Yeomans and Miss Sinclair was “not for the purpose of swelling the numbers of society, nor yet out of mere compliment. It is believed that there are ladies of education, literary habits and good powers of observation who might be of much service .... All workers will be cordially welcomed.” [8] This was a serious public society, devoted to the extension of cultural standards and, therefore, like the Board of Trade and the City Council, a male preserve.

George Bryce (centre) and the Manitoba College Football Team, 1896-97
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Though the Society was almost entirely middle-class in its social composition, its statement of purpose suggests that it should also be seen as an educational agency for the entire community. Like the Mechanics’ Institutes of Nova Scotia in the 1830s or the public museums which sprang up in England in the 1840s, the Historical Society was expected to elevate the character and raise the aspirations of all classes of citizens. [9] The Society’s founders hoped that many citizens in their new community would learn to triumph over the cravings of the senses. and achieve the sweet reason for which God had created them. To this end, the Society sponsored lecturers, organized an archaeological and geological museum, presented the first art exhibition in western Canada and, most important of all, established a public library. Each of these endeavours was marked by the strong sense of purpose that distinguished the presentation of learned papers. The library collection of magazines, for example, despite the odd title like Punch or Grip, was said to contain “the very marrow of intellectual life”; the book selection policy was to acquire “not only works of fiction to attract the idle, the inquisitive and frivolous but works which invite the scholar instruct the diligent enquirer and detain the serious.” [10] One can feel the pride of Rev. George Bryce when he announced in 1886 that, as a result of the Society’s initiative, “almost any important book on the North West is now within reach of the historian without leaving the Provincial boundaries.” [11] The library held over 10,000 volumes by this time, including many gifts from the Smithsonian Institution and the American government, the 4,000 volume Isbister collection (on loan from the University of Manitoba), and 300 works on Canada and especially the North West provided by the Hudson’s Bay Company and individual donors. The library, like the other initiatives of the Society, demonstrated the determination of these newcomers to create a vital literate culture as quickly as they built an agricultural economy.

The three-fold role of the Historical Society as public relations and scientific institute, as cultural standard-bearer and as educational mission was attested by the financial statements of the early years. The numerous publications, the expeditions, the comfortable rooms and the growing museum collection were paid from two principal sources, a membership fee and government grants. The actual work of the society, aside from a clerk-librarian, was carried out by volunteers. Thus, in a budget that ranged from $1,000 to $3,000 per year, the Province of Manitoba contributed about $250 and the City of Winnipeg about $500, this latter specifically to support book purchases and the librarian’s salary. Naturally, a Society which counted the Premier and most of his Cabinet in its membership was not bashful when it found itself short of funds. At the end of 1881, for example, the executive announced that “in view of the work undertaken ... a fair obligation rests on the Provincial Government to increase the annual grant.” And the grant was doubled. [12] In the hey-day of Victorian Canadian culture, when the arts were seen as instruments of national glory and public education was becoming a civic responsibility, official interest in and support for the Society was not disputed.

Yet hard times and changing circumstances undermined the Society just as it seemed destined to lead cultural developments in Manitoba for the next generation. Within a decade of its creation, it foundered. Where, in the early 1880s, it could count on two to four hundred active members to undertake commitments and to pay full membership fees, by the end of the ‘80s only about fifty to seventy active members paid their fees in any given year The recession of 1887 must have had some influence; the creation of associate memberships ($2.00 rather than $5.00), gave library privileges but not voting rights and undoubtedly encouraged many to ignore the public meetings; grant of free library access to University of Manitoba students, part of the arrangement that placed the University’s prized Isbister library on the Society’s shelves, was blamed for a drop in interest because students could borrow books for the whole family; [13] but, above all these reasons was the fact that Winnipeg had passed beyond the frontier stage of social development. Though the committed scholars and the more prominent business leaders retained their memberships, no doubt out of interest but also from a sense of duty, many others ceased to feel responsible for support of the Society. The era when any scientific knowledge was welcome - when John Macoun could pack a hall simply by describing the vegetation and climate of the plains - had been succeeded by the regular rhythms of an established community. With many clubs and institutions to claim their attention, with regular working hours to keep and an income to win, and with the prospect of increasingly esoteric topics of research at its meetings, numerous citizens had come to see the Society as simply another voluntary interest group among many.

This second era lasted from the late 1880s until the utter collapse of the group in 1910. In these two decades, the important institutions created by the Society either gravitated away from it or disintegrated. The pride of the Society, its library, underwent a series of organizational changes, from joint City-Society sponsorship to City control. And, finally, when the Society was asked to leave the now-overburdened City Hall in 1905, most of the library was moved to the new Carnegie Library building. [14] At this point part of the reference collection was placed in Manitoba College under the paternal wing of Rev Bryce. Part of the Society’s geological collection moved to the University of Manitoba and much of its museum collection was placed in the basement of Mrs. A. C. Hutton’s house on Donald Street. And with the move out of City Hall, home for almost two decades, the Society was without a permanent office for the first time since its establishment. It seems an appropriate image for this trying period. The executive toyed with the idea of building a reproduction of the Upper Fort around Fort Garry Gate which might serve as a headquarters, and even sent George Bryce to ask Lord Strathcona for the money but, in the end, this scheme too, evaporated. [15]

The Society had lost the sense of purpose which it had had in 1879. Its function as public relations and scientific research institute had been taken over by a dozen agencies including the government experimental farms, the University, the many local newspapers and other journals. Its function as a public educational service had been assumed by the civic library and the school system or was being shared by other specialized interest groups such as the Manitoba Society of Artists. [16] Indeed, when some upstarts founded a new Natural History Society in apparent competition with that section of its own group, the Historical Society executive dispatched one its members to set the matter right. He returned with the sobering news that the upstarts had no intention of giving way. [17] Finally, the Society’s function as a cultural standard-bearer was not being fulfilled to the satisfaction of the younger leaders of Winnipeg. In the view of a Dafoe or a Woodsworth, the city’s social problems no longer revolved around the assertion of “civilized” standards of behaviour in the face of frontier roughness, as might have been the case in 1880; now the crucial issues concerned the European immigrant and his children, the use of alcohol, the relations between capital and labour, and the place of women in political life. [18] The Historical Society, led by the old men of an earlier era - George Bryce of Manitoba College, the retired fur trader Isaac Cowie, and Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor Camsell - was not attuned to the new language nor was it equipped to respond to the new needs.

If the Society was failing as an agency of social action, it was discovering a new role in this era. Like historical societies in other parts of North America, it acquired a broader purpose in the last years of the nineteenth and the opening decades of the twentieth century. These groups continued to act as collectors of documents and preservers of sites and artifacts, a role which had always been theirs, but they also assumed an aggressive stance in the definition of the community’s particular character In Ontario, the reorganized Ontario Historical Society embarked upon an ambitious publication and education programme in 1898. And in the following sixteen years it devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to the stimulation of Canadian patriotism and imperial loyalty through Empire Day celebrations and gifts of Union lacks to the schools, the publication of numerous volumes of central Canadian history, and the sponsorship of public festivals. [19] The Manitoba Historical Society was unable to match this energetic public campaign but it did respond to the intellectual challenge of defining the community’s character. Particularly through the lectures and books of George Bryce, but also through the work of R. G. McBeth and others, the peculiar place of the western interior within Confederation - separate from eastern Canada and British Columbia and yet still an inheritor of the British tradition - was established. This was the first significant historical interpretation of the region to be written within the prairies. It emphasized the British-ness of the West and especially the debt to Lord Selkirk’s pioneer colonists; it preferred the Hudson’s Bay Company of England to the NorWesters of Montreal, and thus underlined western independence from eastern economic organization in an age - the opening decacle of the twentieth century - when eastern power seemed oppressive. It treated the natives as little more than simple cyphers who moved at the commands of the European new-comers; the metis and Riel were seen as dupes of the Roman Catholic Church; and not surprisingly, the schools question was said to be further proof of priestly designs upon Manitoba. The Historical Society may not have been a leader of the local community after the mid-1880s but, thanks in particular to the work of George Bryce, it had contributed to the popularization of a “western interpretation” of Canadian history. [20]

The closing phase of this chapter of the Society’s existence was even more difficult. Attempts to assemble a program in 1910 apparently collapsed and the plan for a great exposition on the centennial of the Selkirk settlement produced little enthusiasm. Nothing more was heard of the Society until 1913 when a few loyal souls tried to reorganize. This effort, too, came to naught and, once the Great War began, it was simply allowed to disappear. [21] The students of natural history twice reestablished their own separate movement, in 1915 as an Audubon Society and in 1920 as a Natural History society (forerunner of the present Manitoba Naturalists), but the historians were unable to regroup. [22] Thus, from 1910 to 1926, the Historical Society was moribund.

In 1926, as a result of the efforts of Dr. D. A. Stewart, C. N. Bell, W. J. Healy, and Professor Chester Martin, a revival of the Society was attempted. Though it survived for a decade, the interwar version of the Historical Society was much weaker than its predecessor. Its declaration of purpose emphasized not research but the collection and preservation of historical records; the study of local history was to be encouraged not because it was a respectable discipline but rather because it would foster “local patriotism;” publication of Manitoba studies was noted in the declaration but, to judge from the three slim papers which were produced, was not important. [23] In an age when professional historical studies had suddenly risen to prominence, when membership in the Canadian Historical Association and research in Ottawa’s Public Archives and publication in the Canadian Historical Review had been made hallmarks of professional achievement local historical societies suffered a corresponding reduction in scholarly status. [24] The Manitoba Historical Society had thus become an agency for public historical education.

When we consider the times and the resources at its disposal, the record of the Society in the interwar years was certainly respectable. Though operating without government assistance, (the Bracken government refused a request for aid in the late 1920s), and with a nominal membership fee of one or two dollars, it stretched its annual budget of several hundred dollars to support a variety of activities. Chief among these was the annual series of public lectures, now aimed at popular surveys rather than original scholarship. To cite the example of 1930, Manitoba’s Diamond Jubilee, members heard such programmes as J. W Dafoe’s review of “Sixty Years of Journalism” and Dean McKillican on “Sixty Years of Agriculture.”

Another prominent activity was the placement of plaques to commemorate certain sites and events in Manitoba history. The Society had sponsored only one plaque in its early years, (The Seven Oaks Monument, 1891), but it now joined with its French equivalent, La Société Historique de Saint-Boniface, and the national Historic Sites Board to hold elaborate unveiling ceremonies as part of its public education programme. La Vérendrye’s Fort la Reine, (Portage la Prairie, 1928), the first Western Indian Treaty (Lower Fort Garry, 1928), the Dominion Land Survey (near Headingly, 1931) the first grain export from Winnipeg (Lombard Street, 1933), and a number of other sites were marked in this fashion. [25] Thus, as the Depression deepened, the Society continued to operate on a reduced scale.

Regular meetings ceased around 1936. Aside from the general circumstances of the time, explanations for the failure are not obvious. A close examination of the membership demonstrates little significant change in social composition since the late nineteenth century. As in the early years, three quarters of the members, seventy-five of one hundred, were business and professional people. Teachers now played a much more prominent part, twenty five per cent instead of about five per cent, and the proportion of women had increased to twenty percent from one per cent, but the membership rolls tell us little else. [26] We might conclude that the Society was sustained by teachers and interested laymen in this era and that, lacking a larger purpose than the diffuse goal of historical education, having no fixed headquarters nor office staff nor material expression of government support, it withered in the face of hard times.

The spirit of the Society in this era was epitomized by the most important Manitoba provincial history of the interwar period, Margaret McWilliamsManitoba Milestones. [27] The author a leader in voluntary associations and cultural activities, was a dedicated lay historian whose balanced view of society contrasted sharply with the Scots-ness of George Bryce and R. G. McBeth. Like them, it is true, she commenced her book with European “discovery” and, like them, she ignored native history, but her treatment of post-1870 Manitoba was detailed and, despite her membership in the British and “respectable element of the population,” balanced. Her discussion of ethnic immigration was not marred by the overt racist sentiments of Rev. Wellington Bridgeman; her outline of the 1890 schools issue explained the Roman Catholic position and avoided the militant tones of Dr. Bryce; and, even in her treatment of the 1916 debates over language in the schools, where she obviously supported the Norris government decision to establish a unilingual English system, she explained the concerns of Norris’ opponents with clarity if not sympathy. This concern for both sides of an issue was not quite as evident, however, in her treatment of the 1919 general strike. Nevertheless, the sweep and balance of Manitoba Milestones were measures of the sophistication of Manitoba society in the 1920s; the work undertaken and sponsored by the Historical Society in the preceding half-century was to a considerable degree responsible for the maturity of Mrs. McWilliams’ study.

Lieutentant Governor and Mrs. McWilliams with the Duke of Kent, 1941
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection

The modern era of the Manitoba Historical Society began at an informal meeting in the Legislative Building in 1944. [28] Professor W. L. Morton of the University of Manitoba, and J. Leslie Johnston, Provincial Librarian, collaborated with Mrs. McWilliams, whose husband was at that time the Lieutenant-Governor, to reconstitute the organization. Despite the adverse circumstances of wartime, they were most successful. Joined by a number of distinguished citizens in the following years, they imparted an enthusiasm and a sense of purpose to the Society that has sustained it for the intervening generation. Why these individuals should have come together at this time and should have experienced such success is not explained by any obvious circumstance and yet one is struck by the similar experience in other communities. The Ontario Historical Society disintegrated in the late 1930s and was revived in 1944. [29] The American Association for State and Local History was founded in 1940. [30] And, perhaps most striking of all, state aid for cultural activities became popular in many jurisdictions in the 1940s. Janet Minihan discovered that “in a single decade, during and after the Second World War, the British Government did more to commit itself to supporting the arts than it had in the previous century and half.” [31] Canada experienced this same awakening of state interest in culture: out of the House of Commons Committee on Reconstruction and Reestablishment of 1944 (the Turgeon Committee), had come the interest in government assistance for the arts that eventually led to the Massey Commission. [32]

While it is beyond the purview of this paper to explain this revolution in state activity, some of the reasons for the new government stance might be noted. The war itself had made evident the vast size of the audience available for government-sponsored artistic and cultural events and suggested that the state could define cultural ideals. The prospect of building a new society after the War encouraged citizens to consider policy innovations. The place of radio in the development of cultural policy cannot be ignored. In Canada, as in Britain, radio opened the eyes of the state to the importance of culture in national life and to the manipulative powers of this new communications technology. State regulation followed quickly and, once begun, its extension into new realms of cultural expression was only a matter of time. [33] The growth of government activity in all realms of life was paralleled by the development of what is now described as the “leisure culture,” and the availability of free time, in turn, made possible mass interest in the arts. Thus, one might have predicted that governments would see the advantages of using art to foster “national identity,” to encourage “loyalty,” and to create “the symbols of integration” in their societies. [34]

Can such explanations be related to the re-establishment of the Manitoba Historical Society? In a general way, the answer is yes. History had been an important source of moral and patriotic lessons in Canada as elsewhere and there is little doubt that the three leaders of the Manitoba Society looked upon it in this light. Moreover, their alliance with a Manitoba cabinet minister should be noted. The interest of the Hon. Ivan Schultz in Manitoba’s ethnic groups and his contribution of government funds resulted in the first scholarly enterprise of the new Society, a series of historical works on provincial ethnic groups. [35] Thus we can conclude that a change in the relationship between state and culture occurred in the mid-twentieth century. One modest illustration of the change and one beneficiary of government interest was the Manitoba Historical Society.

Government interest in cultural activities was supplemented in this era by strong academic support for local historical activity. Under the direction of Johnston and Morton, for example, the Society had pressed for the establishment of a proper provincial archives. In 1946 a part-time archivist, Mr. James A. Jackson, was appointed [36] to supervise archival operations and in 1952, after Jackson’s departure for the Winnipeg schools system, Hart Bowsfield was named as a full-time Provincial Archivist. [37] Agitation for proper space and an aggressive collections policy was maintained thereafter and, in 1975, the present handsome facility was opened. [38] That it contained as well the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company was a stroke of fortune unprecedented in the history of scholarship in the province.

Another of the Society’s research responsibilities in the post-war years was the result of Mr. Chris Vickers’ devotion to scholarship. A lay student of archaeology, Vickers was so determined to preserve artifacts and to further the study of Manitoba prehistory that the Society and the government agreed to sponsor his work for a number of years. [39] The eventual result was the creation of a Department of Anthropology in the University of Manitoba, the establishment of a Manitoba Archaeological Society (1960), the appointment of a provincial archaeologist (1974), and the general acknowledgement of Vickers as the “Father of Manitoba archaeology.” [40]

And yet another Society contribution to research in this era lay in the realm of publications. Through its annual volume of Transactions, revived in 1944-45, its aid to the Manitoba Record Society (1960), its sponsorship of the Historical Atlas, the Centennial History, and the popular Extraordinary Tales, the Society has made available a wealth of historical material to professional and lay students within the province and beyond its borders. Archival development and primary research were thus important aspects of the Society’s work after 1944. Their success prompted W. L. Morton to recall the ambitious purposes of its founders in 1879 and to suggest that Manitoba was coming of age as a community and a culture. [41]

The impetus for the 1944 reorganization of the Society may have come from a librarian and an historian, and one focus of its activities may have dealt with professional scholarship, but another equally prominent purpose of the leadership was popular education. This involved interviews with pioneers and the collection of papers for the archives, in the first instance, but soon moved on to encompass plaque unveilings, an essay contest (the McWilliams awards), and encouragement to groups wishing to prepare local historical studies. In 1956, the award-winning magazine of local history, Manitoba Pageant, designed for use in the schools, was launched by Mrs. Alice Brown, among others, and in 1960 a programme to assist small museums, particularly to provide curatorial training, was begun. The rapid development of rural museums and, indeed, of local branches of the Historical Society, and even of junior or student societies, resulted from this outpouring of activity in the late 1950s and early 1960s. [42]

Scholarship, archival collections and public education were supplemented by renewed efforts in another realm. Historic preservation had been an interest of the Society since Fort Garry Gate began to disintegrate in the 1880s so it was only fitting that the revival of interest in that structure should have occurred in the 1940s. Ross House, the first Post Office in the North West, became the property of the Society in this era, too, and as a modest museum has attracted many visitors in the last quarter-century. There were failures, such as the destructions of Nellie McClung’s house in Manitou (1964) and, inevitably, there were moments when projects seemed beyond the resources of the Society. On these occasions, other jurisdictions were encouraged to take on such important tasks as the restoration of Lower Fort Garry and of Riel House in St. Vital. [43] As it happened, however, the greatest enterprise in Society history was one that should have been too large for this small group. The professional restoration of Dalnavert (Macdonald House) resulted from the determination of Society members to preserve the provincial architectural heritage and from their faith that a first-class Victorian museum could be built upon the resources of this community. Miss Kathleen Richardson, Mrs. Kathleen Campbell, Dr. Steward Martin and their many helpers have created a monument to a way of life and a considerable force for historical education. It is fitting that the capital debt of over a half-million dollars, a sum far larger than the entire revenue of the Society in its first one hundred years, should have been retired in this centennial year.

The scholarly work of Professor W. L. Morton, like that of Dr. Bryce and Margaret McWilliams, can be taken as representative of this era of Historical Society activity. [44] His Manitoba: A History, first published in 1957, immediately was recognized as Canada’s finest provincial history and his perception of his native province was undoubtedly the one espoused by his contemporaries and presented to a generation of students. Morton’s concern for agricultural history, his awareness of the very different societies created in rural and urban Manitoba, his interest in cultural developments and his sensitivity to ethnic identities, all of which were reflected in the book, were also important strains in the new provincial historical consciousness. Morton’s was the first truly “professional” history of the province and its academic value reflected the changing nature of historical study in Canada. One of Morton’s strengths was his ability to perceive relationships between local events and broader historical developments. Thus, his careful attention to the particulars of Manitoba life did not blind him to the historical themes of region, nation, empire and beyond: in his work, one had the sense that Manitoba’s past was a part of the history of the world.

Interest in history has not flagged in recent years, indeed it seems to have increased dramatically, but the funding of the Society has not kept pace. In the 1940s when the ethnic history scholarships were its chief financial responsibility, the Society received three to five thousand dollars annually from the government and raised a small additional sum from the membership. In 1953, when the Minister, Ivan Schultz, tired of this imbalance, he instituted a system of matching grants, dollar for dollar, to a maximum of three thousand dollars per year in government aid. The Society more than met the challenge in the 1950s and 1960s, so the government always paid the maximum, but the Society executive began to feel limited by this arrangement after it hired a part-time secretary (1956) and especially as it contemplated its extensive publishing programme and the increase in historical activity associated with the national and provincial centennials. In an important brief to the minister in 1964, Society President Dr. H. Clare Pentland raised the example of certain American state historical societies, noting the grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars (exclusive of aid to state parks), and he encouraged a reconsideration of the entire parks, tourism and cultural policy of the province. [45] This has taken place, at least to some degree, but the $15-$20,000 annual grant of the 1970s has not raised the Society above the status of a small voluntary interest group.

In Manitoba, as in other jurisdictions in Canada and abroad, the 1960s constituted another watershed in government cultural policy. Increasingly, as the decade proceeded, government interest in and support for the arts was translated into the creation of state-directed “ministries of culture” [46] as distinct from departments of education. The emergence of the concept of tourism as industry, and particularly the recognition of the boom in North American travel to historic sites in Europe, led governments to think of history as an adjunct of economic planning and to expand the functions of historic sites boards and historic parks. Thus, the revitalization of the historic sites programme in Manitoba in the late 1960s resulted in increased funding for the “history industry” but did little for the Historical Society. [47] Indeed, once the celebrations associated with the 1967 and 1970 centennials were past, the Historical Society was left with a diminished role. Government cultural aid would henceforth be channelled into large, highly-publicized agencies like the new provincial museum, the capital city’s art gallery and various performing arts organizations rather than the smaller voluntary societies. [48]

A pessimist might conclude that the Historical Society was, once again, doomed. The Provincial Archives and City Library now functioned on their own. The plaque programme and historic sites were handled by provincial and federal government agencies. Local museums, perhaps as many as one hundred, had been opened across the province and now found their leadership in the Museum of Man and Nature and Manitoba Museums Association. Heritage associations, ethnic group historical societies, archaeological and genealogical associations had taken on constituencies where once this Society’s members were pioneers. The Record Society was autonomous, the Atlas was published, Macdonald House was completed. But students of history need not be bound by the past. The Historical Society has always acted as a catalyst. It has taken stock of cultural conditions and defined what was needed to make a more humane, literate and congenial community. The purposes of the Society - education, preservation, scholarship - are unending tasks. The future, as John Macoun promised a century ago, remains one of “illimitable opportunities.”

Among the distinguished pioneers who were guests of the Rotary Club of Winnipeg on Manitoba’s 60th Anniversary were: His Grace Archbishop Matheson, Hon. Sheriff Colin Inkster, Sir Daniel McMillan, Mr. J. R. Bunn, Mr. R. D. Waugh, Mr. John McBeth, Dr. C. N. Bell, Mr. Jas. Frazer, Mr. T. Genthon, and Inspector Goulet. Dr. D. A. Stewart of Ninette was the speaker of the day, 15 July 1930.


This paper was written at the invitation of Dr. W. L. Morton, chairman of the Manitoba Historical Society’s Centennial Committee, and presented to the Society’s birthday party at Government House, Winnipeg, in October 1979. The author would like to thank Dr. Morton for his generous assistance, and particularly for several conservations about the Society’s activities. He would also like to thank the Society’s executive director, Mrs. Rosemary Malaher, and secretary, Miss Areen Mulder, for their assistance on numerous occasions. The time-consuming business of analyzing membership rolls as well as the investigation of the Society files, was undertaken by two graduate assistants at the University of Manitoba, Louella Friesen and Erna Buffie. They deserve special thanks for their unstinting help.


1. Manitoba Free Press, November 1879.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. D. C. Harvey, “History and its Uses in Pre-Confederation Nova Scotia.” Canadian Historical Association Report, 1938. I would like to thank D. A. Muise for this and other references to the Nova Scotia experience.

5. PAM. MHS Papers: these files of clippings and minutes of meetings are a remarkably rich source of information on Society activities in the 1880s.

6. I am indebted to Louella Friesen for her painstaking research in city directories upon which this statement is based.

7. Canada. Census of the Prairie Provinces 1885-86.

8. PAM. MHS Papers, Annual General Meeting, 13 February 1883. One American view of this issue is discussed by Louis B. Wright, Culture on the Moving Frontier (New York, 1955, 1961), pp. 12, 225-32.

9. C. Bruce Fergusson, “Mechanics’ Institutes in Nova Scotia,” Bulletin of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, no. 14 (1960).

10. PAM. MHS Papers, Annual General Meetings, 8 February 1882.

11. Ibid. 9 February 1886.

12. Ibid. 8 February 1881 and 13 February 1883.

13. Membership totals are given in Ibid., 1884, 1885, 1886, 1888, 1889, and 1890. Discussions of the problem are reported in the Minutes of these meetings.

14. Cf. George Bryce, “A Great City Library.” Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba. Transaction No. 70 (1906); also PAM, MHS Papers, Executive Council Minutes, 1905-1909.

15. PAM. MHS Papers, Executive Council Minutes, 9 November 1906: “His Lordship was of the impression that Winnipeg was not getting along well enough if the people could not manage themselves in such an affair.” Bryce reported.

16. Angela Davis, unpublished MS. University of Manitoba, 1980.

17. PAM. MHS Papers, Executive Council Minutes 1903; Annual General Meeting Minutes, 9 February 1904.

18. Kenneth McNaugh, A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth. (Toronto, 1959); Murray Donnelly, Dafoe of the Free Press. (Toronto, 1968).

19. Cf. Gerald Killian. Preserving Ontario’s Heritage: A History of the Ontario Historical Society. (Ottawa, 1976).

20. Cf. Doug Owram. Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West 1856-1900. (Toronto, 1980).

21. PAM. MHS Papers, Executive Council Minutes, 28 March and 15 April 1913.

22. H. M. Speechly, “In Celebration of the Twenty-first Anniversary of the Natural History Society of Manitoba,” Natural History Society of Manitoba, 21st Anniversary Bulletin. (1941-42).

23. PAM. MHS Papers, Annual Meeting Reports, 1930-34, and Minutes of Meetings 1926-33.

24. Cf. Carl Berger. The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing: 1900-1970. (Toronto, 1976).

25. PAM. MHS Papers, Annual Meeting Reports and Minutes of Meetings, 1926-34.

26. I am indebted to Erna Buffie, who undertook the laborious task of analyzing city directories, for this information.

27. Margaret McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones. (Toronto, 1928).

28. PAM. MHS Papers, Minutes of Meeting, 9 February 1944.

29. G. Killian, Preserving Ontario’s Heritage

30. William T. Alderson, “The American Association for State and Local History.” Western Historical Quarterly, v.1, no. 2 (1970), p. 176.

31. Janet Minihan, The Nationalization of Culture: The Development of State Subsidies to the Arts in Great Britain. (New York, 1977), p. 215.

32. Bernard Ostry, The Cultural Connection: An Essay on Culture and Government Policy in Canada. (Toronto, 1978), pp. 41-64.

33. Frank W. Peers. The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting 1920-1951. (Toronto, 1969).

34. Ostry, Cultural Connection, p. 5.

35. Six volumes were eventually published under the direction of the series editor, W. L. Morton.

36. PAM. MHS Papers, Executive Council Minutes 1945-47 and “President’s Reports” in Transactions, 1945-53.

37. Manitoba Legislative Library, Annual Reports, 1947-75.

38. Ibid, 1975.

39. Numerous files on this relationship are contained in PAM, MHS Papers.

40. Fischel J. Coodin, “Introductory Message,” Manitoba Archaeological Society Newsletter. (1964); interview with L. Pettipas, Provincial Archaeologist, October 1979.

41. W. L. Morton, “President’s Address on the Occasion of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba 1879-1953.” Transactions Series III, No. 9 (1954).

42. PAM, MHS Papers, Administration Files 1944-64; see also the reports of the Presidents and Secretaries in the annual Transactions.

43. Manitoba Historical Society, Winnipeg: office files on projects of recent years remain in the Society offices, Museum of Man and Nature, Winnipeg.

44. Cf. Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History, and A. B. McKillop, ed., Contexts of Canada’s Past: Selected Essays of W. L. Morton. (Toronto, 1980).

45. Financial files are housed in both the PAM (MHS Papers), and the MHS office.

46. John Meisel, “Political Culture and the Politics of Culture.” Canadian Journal of Political Science v.11 (1974), p. 605.

47. Manitoba Department of Cultural Affairs and Historical Resources, Historic Sites Advisory Board, Minutes, 1946-70. The Historic Sites Advisory Board was organized in 1946 and revitalized in 1969.

48. For a discussion of the “bias in favour of bigness”, see Frank T. Pasquill and Joan Horsman, Wooden Pennies: A Report on Cultural Funding Patterns in Canada. (Toronto, 1973).

Page revised: 15 May 2014

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