Manitoba History: “An Aboriginal Past and a Multicultural Future”: Margaret McWilliams and Manitoba History
by Mary Kinnear
In 1990 the Premier of Manitoba argued that a new Canadian constitution must recognize “an aboriginal past and multicultural future.” This theme was already present in the historical work of Margaret McWilliams, who became president of the Manitoba Historical Society in 1944. Her own studies and organizational leadership enabled her to see dimensions of the province’s aboriginal and multicultural history before either became part of any received wisdom.
To the position of president McWilliams brought a thirty-year record of public service and commitment. Her career was launched when, at the age of thirty-five, she arrived in Winnipeg with her husband in 1910. In 1898 she had been the first woman to graduate with a degree in political economy from the University of Toronto. For five years she earned her living as a journalist in Minneapolis and Detroit, then married Roland McWilliams, a barrister and old university friend. For the first seven years of their marriage they lived in Peterborough, where he was involved in municipal and provincial politics. In 1910 they came west, and Margaret McWilliams established a power base in three important women’s organisations: the Women’s Canadian Club, the Local Council of Women, and the University Women’s Club. She was founder and first president of the Canadian Federation of University Women and first vice-president of the International Federation. She produced a book of women’s history, Women of Red River, in 1923, a book with her husband on impressions of Russia in 1927, a history of Manitoba in 1928, a blueprint for Canadian social and economic reform in 1931, and a book on the political institutions of Canada in 1948. 
During the 1930s, McWilliams served four consecutive terms as a Winnipeg alderman, the second woman to be elected. She chaired the Health and Unemployment Relief committees. Her husband in 1940 was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the province, and she took on duties of public hospitality in addition to her continuing public service. In 1943 she chaired for the federal government a committee on the Post-War Problems of Women, and in 1944 she was appointed Canadian delegate to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration conference. Between 1915 and 1947 she ran a unique Winnipeg institution: her Current Events classes for women, where, each year between October and April, she would conduct bi-weekly lectures and discussions on current events. After 1940 these classes were held in the ballroom of Government House. She died, suddenly, in 1952 at the age of seventy-seven. 
Margaret McWilliams came to the Manitoba Historical Society through her love of history. History was important:
History also kindled her imagination and was able to cast a spell of enchantment. When she first travelled to Europe in 1922, McWilliams described her feelings of exhilaration at “the sudden sense of possession of the great things of the past” The ruins of Bannockburn inspired her to evoke
History gave McWilliams explanations for the politics of the present. For her, history could also evoke wonder, and celebrate human accomplishments, of women as well as men. She was the dominant spirit behind the production of Women of Red River by the Winnipeg Women’s Canadian Club in 1923. The author, provincial librarian W. J. Healy, acknowledged himself as a hired hand. “Not only was the idea of the book of your origination;” he wrote to her, “but the energy and power of carrying the thing through to success came from you.”  The book was “written from the recollections of women surviving from the Red River era.” McWilliams organized the interviews with old-timers, many of them aboriginal and Métis. To their Canadian Club interviewers the Red River women described in vivid language and detailed observations their social and economic life and commented on the education, church, morality, and politics of nineteenth century Rupert’s Land.
Women of Red River was more than a tribute to pioneers. It also represented the extraordinary vision of McWilliams and her colleagues that women, aboriginal and white, were worthy of contributing both to the raw material of history and to its interpretation. The Women’s Canadian Club members were perhaps more adventurous than they realized in their recognition of women as repositories and conduits of happenings that could be considered historical. Women were both the historical subjects and the historians, and successfully so. The first printing of the book was sold out within a couple of months, and there were two further printings within a year. The reviews were favourable. The Toronto Globe noted “the Muse was in happy frame of mind” in recording “romance, adventure, chivalry, courage, and thrilling episodes.” The magazine Saturday Night called it “this entrancing history.” Professor Chester Martin wrote in the Canadian Historical Review that
Women of Red River was a collective project. For Manitoba Milestones, McWilliams did all the research and writing herself. Published in 1928, it was an accessible, readable account of how Manitoba came to be the way it was in the early 1920s. There were no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. McWilliams considered such attributes to be off-putting scholarly paraphernalia, and she did not want to be considered “academic.”  When McWilliams wrote books, she intended them
McWilliams’ explicit aim was to write “the story of the growth” of Manitoba. She took as her subjects explorers, fur traders, settlers, the Red River era before 1860, and the Riel Rebellion as well as the late nineteenth century transformation of the province into a modern agrarian and commercial industrial economy. Manitoba Milestones was a combination of the occasionally dry scholarship of nineteenth century authors and the readable and effusive tone found in the popular series, Chronicles of Canada.
Using her skills as a journalist to keep the reader’s attention, she was not above describing an imaginary landscape with birdsong and blossom to heighten the atmosphere she wished to create. A flowery style did not disqualify the book from serious readers. One reviewer said it was “splendidly organised” Professor W. L. Morton called it “first among its kind,” achieving a “fair balance between the ‘romantic’ story of the fur trade and the more realistic and more significant story of settlement.”
Professor Gerald Friesen considered the “sweep and balance” of the book not so much the personal achievement of McWilliams, as “measures of the sophistication of Manitoba society in the 1920s.” 
After the publication of Manitoba Milestones, McWilliams for the first time took office with the Manitoba Historical Society and until 1933 served as a vice-president.  During this time she presided, in French, at joint meetings with the St. Boniface Historical Society.  McWilliams major involvement with the Society came thirteen years later.
After 1936 regular meetings of the Society had ceased. As Professor Friesen said in his presentation to the Society in 1979, “it withered in face of hard times.” Eight years later times had altered. Friesen pointed to “a change in the relationship between state and culture;” manifest in a variety of ways in North American and Europe. The American Association for State and Local History was founded in 1940; the Ontario Historical Society, which had disintegrated in the late 1930s, was revived in 1944; and during the forties, “the British Government did more to commit itself to supporting the arts than it had in the previous century and a half.” In Canada the Commons Committee on Reconstruction of 1945 indicated interest in future government assistance for culture.  The 1944 rebirth of the Manitoba Historical Society may be seen in this context of budding public interest.
“The inspirers of this latest revival,” declared W. L. Morton in his presidential address to the Society in 1953, “were the late Mrs. R. F. McWilliams, Mr. J. L. Johnston, Legislative librarian, and the Honourable Ivan Schultz, then Minister of Health.”  Morton modestly omitted his own name, but in fact his involvement was critical. It was he and Johnston who assembled eight people together in February 1944, and afterwards Morton who drew up an agenda for the Society. 
Looking back over that first year in her presidential address, McWilliams noted success “to a degree totally unlooked for even by your most hopeful and energetic council.” She attributed the progress above all to the sympathy and efforts of Ivan Schultz, by then Minister of Health and Public Welfare, who had arranged for a government grant of $3700, and had promised continued financial support for the society’s aims. First object was a study of the contributions made by various ethnic groups to the life of Manitoba; second was the gathering of personal records of early communities; third was support given to archeological excavations; and fourth was the preservation, and removal, of Ross House, a Red River home and first post office of Winnipeg.  Of these several initiatives, by far the most significant was the promotion of multicultural scholarship.
Fellowships in ethnic history were to be awarded, and as McWilliams said in 1945, “this type of project has not been undertaken before by any of the provincial historical societies.”  It is not entirely clear whose ideas this was. One later president, Dr. Ross Mitchell, said “the undertaking was inspired by the late Mrs. McWilliams.”  Another president, Dr. Steward Martin, thought “the catalyst for the embarkment upon ethnic studies did not come from Margaret McWilliams” since she was “very much a WASP.”  However, McWilliams’ intellectual and historical curiosity took her far beyond cultural stereotypes, in this as in so many areas. The recipient of the Hutterite Fellowship, Victor Peters, who was acquainted with McWilliams in the 1940s, noted her genuine interest in the first ethnic study of the Mennonites, and her “recognition that we did not know enough about the human resources of (the province’s) people.” He always assumed “that Mrs. McWilliams initiated the ethnic study series.”  However, E. K. Francis, recipient of the Mennonite fellowship, thought that W. L. Morton “was largely responsible for the ethnic groups program,” and this is probably true.  Morton admired the “newer stocks” of the population. They were
Whoever had the idea in the first place, the support of a public figure with the reputation and energy of McWilliams was probably just as important as the financial encouragement of Ivan Schultz, who had been a political colleague of Morton’s father. 
McWilliams was correct in identifying Manitoba as a pioneer in the promotion of ethnic studies. Professor H. C. Pentland, the Society’s president in 1965, called the commitment “an act of great courage;” and the first fellows had to create their own models of scholarship.  This could, and did, involve considerable discussion and dispute, particularly over the work of the first recipient, E. K. Francis.
The Society wished to sponsor first rate scholarship. In the announcement calling for applications, the Society identified its object as
They wanted the research to result in a book on a par with a doctoral thesis.  The Fellow was supposed to work full-time at the project for twelve months, with the possibility of renewal, and for this would be remunerated at a level comparable to a beginning Lecturer at the university: $2000 per annum.  The selection committee was composed of three academics A. R. M. Lower, Head of History at United College, W. J. Waines, Head of Economics at the University of Manitoba, and W. L. Morton of the University of Manitoba with McWilliams herself in the chair. The first competition was won by a man with outstanding academic credentials.
E. K. Francis was a thirty-nine year old Roman Catholic Austrian refugee involuntarily separated from his family. He held a doctorate from the University of Prague, was con-versant in several languages, had published articles on peasants and religious orders and was well-qualified in rural sociology. He proposed to study the Mennonites in Manitoba.  The Society appointed him its first Fellow in August 1945 under conditions which were later to become irksome and contentious. Stated expectations were that his work was to be full-time, and completed within twelve months, and that a short preliminary report would be submitted before February 1946.  What was not stated at the time of appointment, but was part of the Society’s understanding, was that all Francis’ notes and writing on the Mennonites were the property of the Society. Nor was there a specific undertaking concerning the arrangement for publication, or under what circumstances.
From the beginning it became apparent that these expectations, both clear and tacit, needed modification, and the Society accommodated many, if not all, of Francis’ requests. The Society permitted him to accept a small, two hours per week, teaching post at the university, and agreed to an extension beyond the original twelve months after Francis found that Mennonites were too busy to see him at harvest time, and that his field work would have to be deferred. The Society did not accede to his request for a car and driver, to expedite research in the Mennonite areas.  Despite the lack of private transportation, Francis proceeded at a fast pace and by April 1946 had drafted four articles for submission to learned journals, with the Society’s permission.  His fellowship eventually terminated at the end of February 1947 at which time Francis submitted a long manuscript, accompanied by appendices and charts, which the fellowship selection committee considered “a distinct contribution to knowledge of considerable historical and sociological value.”  That summer Francis left Manitoba for an academic position at Notre Dame University in Indiana. His departure was followed by an increasingly acrimonious correspondence between Francis and Morton, secretary of the Society.
This first ethnic studies fellowship produced a puzzle. In 1945 Francis, a scholar of advanced and impressive academic credentials, was appointed Fellow and his research and manuscript were completed eighteen months later. He reported on his research in a talk to the Society in 1946-7 and had articles accepted for publication by top rate academic journals.  His record was distinguished enough for a good American university, and later the University of Munich, to appoint him to their staff. Yet there was a delay of eight years in the publication of his book on the Mennonites. Possible explanations were that the manuscript was too unwieldy and long; or that its language and style were infelicitous; or that its substance was vexing and unwelcome to its proprietors, the Manitoba Historical Society, or to possible publishers; or that severe personality conflicts impeded the publication process. The actual explanation is probably a combination of all four factors, together with the added factor of the difficulties of convincing a conservative academic profession of the merits of a novel kind of research.
Certainly the manuscript was lengthy, and although Francis himself revised it, McWilliams wrote to an editor at the University of Toronto Press that “we will hope to find a way of cutting it in two.”  However, its language and style were acceptable to publishers’ referees.  Francis himself suspected delay occurred because the theme of his book was unwelcome to some officers of the Society. He understood that McWilliams considered the book anti-Anglo-Saxon, and too pro-Mennonite.  He had found that Mennonites were not imminently about to submerge their identity into “Canadian” mainstream. ‘Acculturation among the Manitoba Mennonites;’ he wrote, “had by no means led to any significant degree of assimilation.” He considered a strong sense of community identity as a positive resource for both Mennonites and social stability generally. 
For her part, McWilliams had an ideological commitment to the assimilation of ethnic groups. Like so many other university-educated Canadians of her generation, she was dedicated to nation-building. Precisely at the time of Francis’ fellowship, she was writing in her last book, This New Canada,
McWilliams was pro-Canadian rather than anti-Mennonite, but her emphasis was open to misinterpretation.
A possible conflict over content was reinforced by Francis’ personal dislike of McWilliams. This in turn was exacerbated by the difficulties of long-distance correspondence and by pre-computer technology. The number and form of carbon copies of manuscripts assumed an importance hard for us to recall now that it is so easy to edit and reproduce documents on personal computers.
Writing from Indiana in October 1947 Francis expressed to Morton his fear that McWilliams and Schultz, “for personal reasons wish to kill the publication.”  Over that winter Francis made further revisions to the manuscript, and in May 1948 did not conceal his antipathy towards McWilliams. To Morton he wrote of “her inclination of getting what she wants by high pressure policy.  Francis resisted the Society’s request to hand over all notes and by September 1948 was demanding that the Society communicate with his lawyers.  Francis himself retained confidence in Morton, although the latter had become exasperated to the point of wishing to resign as Secretary of the Society over “the difficulty with respect to the manuscript of the Mennonite study.” McWilliams persuaded him to stay. 
On the issue of substance, if McWilliams disagreed with Francis on the subject of assimilation, there is no evidence that she impeded publication. Indeed, after she ceased to be president of the Society, she still tried to get the University of Toronto Press to publish his book.  Despite a favourable report from an outside assessor, the Press was not forthcoming with a contract. The length of the manuscript was seen as the main problem.  After McWilliams’ death in 1952, relations between Francis and the Society deteriorated further, culminating in an angry charge from Francis that the Society was “delaying publication until doomsday,” and a curt response from Morton denying “that the Society has ever acted in a manner either indecent or ungentlemanlike ... There is nothing more to be said between us.”  To his credit, that was not in fact Morton’s final word. When Ted Friesen of the Altona printing firm, who had accompanied Francis on much of his 1946 field work, agreed to publish the book, Morton was able to write a Foreword and said that the Society was “happy to be associated with its appearance.” 
Because of these delays, Francis’ was not the first of the ethnic studies to appear as a book. That honour belonged to Paul Yuzyk’s study of the Ukrainians. He was appointed a Fellow in 1948, and McWilliams had the satisfaction before her death of learning that publication plans, by the University of Toronto Press aided by a contribution from the Ukrainian Canadian Committee, was well underway. When The Ukrainians in Manitoba was published in 1953, it was dedicated to the memory of Margaret Stovel McWilliams. 
Altogether the Society’s sponsorship of ethnic studies fellowships resulted in six monographs. In order of publication, the other four were on the Jews (1961), the Hutterites (1965), the Icelanders (1965), and the Poles (1967).  McWilliams had served on the committees which selected the writers of the last two, Wilhelm Kristjanson and Victor Turek. Their experience made the eight year delay in publication of the Mennonite study seem relatively brief. Between the time of their fellowships and their eventual books, eighteen and seventeen years respectively passed by. All were works of pioneering scholarship in ethnic studies. The academic reputations of two in particular, of the Hutterites and the Mennonites, remained assured. Of the Hutterite study, the Oxford historian H. L. Trevor-Roper wrote he was fascinated by the “clear and perceptive book ... I congratulate the Manitoba Historical Society which ... launched a series of such studies.”  Of Francis’ book, contemporary reviewers spoke of “a major contribution to knowledge in this field.”  A generation later, present day scholars point out that the work was innovative, cited everywhere in the ethnic literature, and rightly international in stature.  For the entire ethnic group history project the Society received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. 
Ethnic studies were only one of the initiatives started when McWilliams was president of the Society. She took a close interest in another major development, the gathering of records of early communities. Ivan Schultz also was interested in this. He personally tried to persuade an agent of the Icelandic government to prepare “a study of the Icelandic peoples” around Baldur, his own home town.  That particular plan fell through, and was in effect subsumed under the 1947 ethnic studies fellowship awarded to Wilhelm Kristjanson. Other plans were more successful. Between 1945 and 1947 Helena Macvicar prepared material on Millford and the Portage district; Grace Watson studied Oak Lake; Mrs. George Clingan did research on Virden; W. J. Sisler researched pioneers in the Interlake.  A measure of McWilliams’ own commitment was that she corresponded personally with the local historians. After her presidential term ended, she declared to Watson, “I will continue to look after the things I started, among which is to be counted your story of Oak Lake.” 
In view of McWilliams’ conviction of the importance of history, and of the preservation and retrieval of records, an irony of her life was in a failure to construct her own life story. She knew her career was unusual and she thought it was important to demonstrate that women’s involvement in the public world of work and politics was possible and desirable. She continually urged other women to follow her example as an office holder in public life, even on “the lowest rung of the ladder” as alderman.  Yet she made no direct effort to order her own documents and correspondence, nor did she write a retrospective memoir of her own life. There is an apparent paradox in the President of an innovative Historical Society urging others to conserve and maintain historical records yet neglecting to follow her own advice.
The explanation is complex. Recent scholars have emphasised how early career women had few models.
writes an American literary critic.  McWilliams had other difficulties. She was disinclined towards introspection, and she continued to lead a very busy life. To many, she appeared a “living dynamo!”  Her death in April 1952 was sudden and caught everyone by surprise. McWilliams had been unable to find the time to implement her own observation when, exactly this date forty-five years ago, she pointed out:
The Society recognized McWilliams’ stature when in 1955 it inaugurated the Margaret McWilliams awards for work in provincial history.  Your invitation to her biographer tonight serves as further acknowledgment of this remarkable woman’s talents, her own contributions to the Manitoba Historical Society, and her recognition of a province with dimensions both aboriginal and multicultural.
I thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada for financial assistance, and Cathy Chatterley for research assistance. I also thank Abe Arnold, Angela Davis, Leo Driedger, E. K. Francis, Gerald Friesen, Oleh Gerus, Rosemary Malaher, Steward Martin, Mrs. W. L. Morton, Victor Peters, W. Pickering, and J. E. Rea for help and advice.
1. W. J. Healy, Women of Red River. 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1970); Margaret McWilliams and R. F. McWilliams, Russia in 1926. (Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1927); Margaret McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones. (Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1928); Margaret McWilliams and R. F. McWilliams (Oliver Stowell pseud.), If I Were King of Canada. (Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1931); Margaret McWilliams, This New Canada. (Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1948).
2. Mary Kinnear, Margaret McWilliams: An Interwar Feminist. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991).
3. Margaret McWilliams and R. F. McWilliams, Russia in 1926, 9.
4. Margaret McWilliams, “A Cloud of Witnesses,” The Western Home Monthly, December 1922, 69.
8. Saskatchewan Archives Board. University of Saskatchewan. McNaughton Papers. Margaret McWilliams to Violet McNaughton, 11 September 1930.
9. J. Wilfrid Tait, review of Manitoba Milestones in North Dakota Historical Quarterly, 5,3, 1929,185-7; W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957,420; Gerald Friesen, “The Manitoba Historical Society: A Centennial History,” Manitoba History, 4,1982, 6.
12. Friesen, “Manitoba Historical Society,” 6; Bernard Ostry, (The Cultural Connection. Toronto: McClelland and Steward, 1978), 55.
13. 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 of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, series III,9,1954, 4.
14. PAM. MHS. Box 6. J. L. Johnston to Margaret McWilliams, 3 February 1944; Minutes of an informal meeting 9 February 1944.
19. Victor Peters to Mary Kinnear, 15 February 1992.
21. W. L. Morton, Manitoba, A History, 466.
23. H. C. Pentland, “Foreward,” Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965), viii.
30. PAM. MHS. Box 7. W. L. Morton to I. Schultz 10 March 1947.
31. Ibid; E. K. Francis, “The Russian Mennonites: From Religious Group to Ethnic Group”, American Journal of Sociology, LIV, 1050,101-7; E. K. Francis, “Mennonite Institutions in Early Manitoba: A Study on Their Origins,” Agricultural History XXII, 1948, 144-55.
35. E. K. Francis, In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba (Altona, Manitoba. D. W. Friesen and Sons, 1955), 275,278.
36. Margaret McWilliams, This New Canada, 300.
41. PAM. MHS. Box 7. Margaret McWilliams to C. W. Brown 3 March 1949.
45. Paul Yuzyk, The Ukrainians in Manitoba, 1953.
46. Arthur A. Chiel, The Jews in Manitoba: A Social History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961); Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life, 1965; Wilhelm Kristjanson, A Manitoba Saga: The Icelandic People in Manitoba (Winnipeg: Wallingford Press, 1965); Victor Turek, Poles in Manitoba (Toronto: Canadian Polish Congress, 1967).
49. Conversations with Abe Arnold 21 January 1992; Leo Driedger 16 January 1992; Gerald Friesen 4 February 1992; Royden Loewen 3 February 1992; E. J. Rea 4 February 1992; W. Pickering to Mary Kinnear 3 February 1992.
52. PAM. MHS. Box 1. Report of W. L. Morton, Secretary to Ivan Schultz 10 March 1948.
53. PAM. MHS. Box 6. Margaret McWilliams to Grace Watson 23 June 1948.
54. Mary Kinnear, Margaret McWilliams, 165-6.
55. Carolyn Heilbrun, “Non-Autobiographies of ‘Privileged’ Women: England and America,” in Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck (eds), Life/Lines: Theorising Women’s Autobiography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 70, 65.
Page revised: 11 September 2016