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“Honourable John”

by Grant MacEwan

Manitoba Pageant, April 1960, Volume 5, Number 3

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Reprinted with permission, from Grant MacEwan’s Fifty Mighty Men, published by Modern Press, Saskatoon, 1958.

Manitoba’s “man of the hour,” in the ‘80s of last century was John Norquay, school teacher, trader, farmer and ultimately, premier of his province. Not to be overlooked was the fact that this man with qualities and gifts of statesmanship was a native son. He was Manitoba’s first native-born premier and for half a century, the only one.

Three hundred pounds of fighting Conservative was the way some people saw this man. Indeed, Sir John A. Macdonald at Ottawa and Honourable John Norquay in the new province of Manitoba, made a combination to awaken students to the importance of that period.

John Norquay - Premier of Manitoba
1878-1886

The Norquays were Orcadians in origin. The first Norquay in Rupert’s Land was Oman Norquay who came with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1791. He was the grandfather of John Norquay.

The boy who was to be premier was born in a log house at St. Andrews, about midway between Upper and Lower Fort Garry, on 8 May 1841. Life there on the riverside was not without its moments of excitement. There was the annual buffalo hunt in which every able-bodied man and many of the women, children and Red River dogs took part; there was almost constant activity on the river highway; there were local contests of strength—wrestling and fighting. And when a barn-storming buffalo bull wandered into the settlement and locked horns with one of the domestic Ferdinands, men and boys turned out to witness the struggle. What spectators saw was a buffalo pitching the bellowing barnyard hero into the Red River and they watched helplessly while the paralyzed victim was carried to his death by drowning.

Young John was powerful and athletic. He played ball and he swam in the Red River. And when there was a dance in the community, John Norquay was almost sure to be present. It was his custom, in going to a dance, to carry something in his hip pocket—an extra pair of moccasins. He was light on his feet, notwithstanding his great size, but he was a man of unusual vigor and he knew that before a Rad River dance broke up about the time of sunrise, he’d probably have worn out one pair of moccasins and a man wouldn’t want to be caught at a dance in bare feet.

At an early age John Norquay was left an orphan. At that time he was taken and brought up by Mrs. James Spence and, as good fortune would have it, he came under the sympathetic and interested eye of Bishop Anderson. The result was a better than customary education for that time and place. He attended St. John’s School and then St. John’s Academy where he struggled with French, Greek and Latin in large doses. At the age of 17 he began teaching at the parish school of St. James. They were short of readers for the pupils at the school so they used Bibles for reading exercises, there being no community shortage of the good books.

After a year, John Norquay accepted a teaching appointment at Parkdale and about that time, a young woman entered his life. She was Elizabeth Setter, whose family belonged to pre-Selkirk Orcadian stock. Her home was at High Bluff—not very handy—but now and then during his teaching career, John walked from Parkdale to High Bluff for a short weekend visit with his sweetheart. Hitch-hiking had nothing to offer, unless a person had so much time to spare that he could be attracted by a ride with some ox-driver on the trail. Under the circumstances a lover’s devotion could not be questioned and in June 1862, John Norquay married the young woman and discontinued the long weekend walks.

Teaching was all right for a while but Norquay wanted to farm. He went to High Bluff and settled on land of his choosing, determined to remain. But to augment revenue from his cultivation, he devoted some time to fur trading and called himself a mixed farmer.

He was getting along well. He loved that farm but it was increasingly apparent that he possessed the stuff from which politicians and leaders are made. Everybody knew the young province needed leadership—needed it urgently. John Norquay had a smiling personality; his honesty had never been questioned and he was an orator. More than that, he could speak the Cree language and Saulteaux and Sioux. And if there was good reason, he could carry on a semblance of conversation with other tribesmen. Gaelic was the only language heard about Red River in which he could not participate. With his qualifications for leadership, there wasn’t a chance that he would be left to his farming.

In the first election for Manitoba’s legislative assembly, in December 1870, John Norquay was elected for High Bluff. Thus he was one of the 24 representatives, 12 English and 12 French, who met in the first Legislative Session, in a Winnipeg building owned by A. G. B. Bannatyne, in March 1871.

In the legislature, his fine speech was soon recognized; his voice was clear and musical and his enunciation was fine. In December of 1871, he was invited to enter Premier Henry J. Clarke’s government as minister of public works and before long he was given the portfolio of agriculture also. He held one cabinet post after another until 1878 when he was asked to form a government and become Premier.

Although he never lost an election, he had one very narrow escape—when his majority consisted of a single vote. It was learned later that a certain citizen with loyalties to Norquay’s opponent, was on his way to the polls when chased by a neighborhood bull and forced to take refuge in a tree. The bull, with what must be seen as a fine sense of public responsibility, took up guard at the base of the tree and when the settler was finally able to come down from the branches, it was either too late to vote or his interest in democracy had deserted him, because John Norquay was able to say later, “I owe my election to Scott’s bull.”

Norquay continued as Premier of Manitoba until December 1887, only little more than a month before his death. As premier he saw the rails come to link Manitoba with the south and then with the east. He saw the tide of settlers rolling in and he saw troops moving westward to put down an uprising. Eventful years they were, when every new siding in the west country was a potential town, and a railway siding supported by a post office and more than one store gave promise of nothing less than a city.

Eventful years, and, in politics, stormy years! Manitoba, the new-born, was struggling for its rights. The young province wanted control of public lands; it wanted reduction of duty on agricultural implements and building materials; it wanted extension of provincial boundaries to Hudson Bay and it wanted the right to grant local railway charters.

“Disallowance” was a bitter issue. The dominion government con-tended that no province had the right to grant charters to railroads which would extend beyond local boundaries or connect with foreign rails. Naturally, the Canadian Pacific Railway with a monopoly clause in its charter and a huge investment, was opposed to competitive railways. There were those people who supposed that CPR traffic would never “pay for the axle grease” it needed and sooner or later it would fail. Manitobans who wanted some further guarantees of transportation, asked noisily if the interests of the country were to become subservient to those of the monopolistic rail corporation.

Norquay and most Manitoba people at that time were opposed to monopoly in anything, furs, trade or rails. Citizens were mad. The crack of a pistol might have started rebellion. Norquay, at first, was inclined to defend federal policy but he grew impatient when he recognized Manitoba’s urgent need for rails. He resolved to break the mono-poly. He was determined to start something even though there was grave political danger in so doing. His government would undertake to build the Red River Valley Railway to the international border, build it without outside assistance if necessary. At the same time plans were being drawn for the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railroad. But funds ran low and construction work was halted. Norquay’s popularity waned and, faced with failure in completing the rail ventures, he was deserted by many from whom he might have expected loyalty. He resigned in December 1887. Dr. Harrison was chosen as leader and formed a government which had but a short life.

During those years of Norquay’s premiership, another strong roan was gaining prominence in Manitoba. He was Thomas Greenway from Crystal City. He, too, was a farmer and he, too, an orator of note. Like Norquay, he was a huge man in physical bearing. There is no record of Norquay and Greenway ever sleeping in the same bed although the result would have been roughly the same as when Norquay made his first campaign speech at Brandon and was obliged to share a bed with Sam Bower, reported to weigh close to Norquay’s 300 pounds. The proprietor of the new Royal Hotel recognized the risk to his property, that close to one-third of a ton of Conservative man-power would be a test for any bed. But, so it is told, the bed suffered from nothing worse than a permanent bulge to the springs.

It could be said of Norquay and Greenway, however, that though on opposite sides of the political street, they presented a united front when Manitoba’s interests were threatened. There were many opportunities for the two political leviathans to work together.

Norquay had few betters in oratory. One of the pioneers remarked that he had listened to Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper and the best of them and the only one who could rival John Norquay on the platform was D’Arcy McGee. One may try to envision the young Norquay making a maiden speech at High Bluff. There was the threat of Fenian raids. “We will be unworthy representatives of our forefathers if we allow the invaders to defile our soil with their rebel feet.”

And as for stories, nobody could tell them better. When he was about to tell one, he’d have a good laugh at it first and all 300 pounds of him would shake. His laugh was contagious and everybody would laugh. Then he’d tell the story and all would laugh some more.

He was about to address a political meeting which opposition forces were determined to ruin. There was to be an organized evacuation when Norquay began to speak. As he mounted the platform, an opposition henchman shouted: “Clear the hall; the meeting’s over.” People began to move toward the entrance. But John Norquay was not asleep. His powerful voice filled the hall as he began to tell one of his famous stories. The people sat down to enjoy it and as the hall refilled, the speaker eased from story to his address and had a successful meeting. Those who came to jeer remained to cheer.

John Norquay, a man who worked to place politics on a high plane, a man with whom Manitoba’s welfare was above all else, a man with a big heart, died at age 48. Death followed appendicitis and peritonitis and Manitoba was cheated by so early a call. He was the father of five sons and three daughters; otherwise, he died a comparatively poor man. But what he left in example and tradition was better far than gold. He was buried at St. John’s Cemetery where a monument bears this message:

“To the Memory of The Hon. John Norquay
Who was for many years Premier of Manitoba.
By his sudden and all too early death
His native land lost an eloquent speaker
An honest Statesman and a true friend.
Born May 8, 1841, Died July 5, 1889
This monument is a Public expression of his sterling worth.”

His roots were deep in the soil of the west, exactly how deep is not entirely clear. In the course of one heated debate in the legislature, a member of the opposition shouted, “Now you’re showing your Indian.”

The Premier bared his arm and raised it saying slowly, “I am proud of every drop of blood that flows in my veins.” Whether that was intended as an acknowledgment or denial of some Indian ancestry has been debated. But it doesn’t matter in the least. Far more important was the demonstration that western soil could produce the stuff from which great premiers and statesmen are made.

Page revised: 25 December 2013

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