The Early Manitoba Legislature
Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2
The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba began its existence under circumstances that were, to put it mildly, exceptional. In the first place its beginning was abrupt and sudden; on July 14, 1870, the area was, at its worst, little more than a primitive metis hunting ground, and at its very best, a tiny outpost of the British Commercial Empire. On July 15, it became a full-fledged province with the rights and responsibilities of full self-government. There was no intervening period of apprenticeship with representative institutions such as were found in Eastern Canada or with territorial government of the type that existed in what are now Saskatchewan and Alberta.
This late development of political institutions in Manitoba requires an explanation. In the West the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company retained full sovereignty for two centuries. The powers they had been given in 1670 remained substantially unchanged until 1870. These powers were full and complete. Within the Red River Settlement itself Company Rule, which was really little more than that of a seigniorial despotism, was tempered by a docile council. The functions of the government were minimal and amounted to rough-and-ready justice and a few public works. Municipal organization had never .been necessary and education was carried on by the church. Until 1860, the settlers remained unaffected by the growth of liberal thought in the world. Buffalo hunting was always of more importance than politics. It is astonishing that responsible government worked at all in the new province of Manitoba. A less favourable situation for provincial beginnings could scarcely be envisaged, as witness the following description by a local newspaper:
To this must be added the fact that all who had taken part in the resistance movement were in the eyes of the law criminals and remained so until 1875. Small wonder that the Lieutenant-Governor wrote Ottawa in a mood of complete exasperation:
It is, therefore, not surprising that there was a certain awkwardness and, on occasion, roughness in applying the techniques of responsible government under the parliamentary system. For example the tarring and feathering of John Bird, who was speaker in 1872, was scarcely in the best traditions of British parliamentary practice. The date of this outburst was 1872 and it was occasioned by the delay in the House of the bill to incorporate the city of Winnipeg. Mr. Bird, the speaker, was also Dr. Bird, a practising physician and he was lured from his house in the evening to see a man who was said to be ill. On his way to the patient's house, he was seized, carried off, and tarred and feathered. However, he carried on his duties the next day as usual.
Goldwin Smith was present at the opening of the first session and wrote in his Reminiscences:
According to a local newspaper the attempted regal setting of the first session contrasted sharply with the personnel of the assembly many of whom "appeared in rough suits, coats open, no vest, collar or tie, but with brightly coloured flannel shirts and around the waist the gay coloured sash worn on the prairies." During the first session one member is said to have sent a note to a colleague suggesting that a motion be made 'to go into connuity of the hole.' Another, on being called to order while somewhat inebriated, is alleged to have replied: "You may think I am a fool, Mr. Speaker, but I am not such a fool as the people who sent me here."
These irregularities are perhaps more amusing than significant. The Manitoba legislature during the first ten years of existence enacted a spate of legislation much of which has stood the test of time and laid the foundations for the growth of a provincial society. It must also be admitted that the legislature, in spite of its lack of sophistication, functioned reasonably well. Why was this?
The answer is, I think, to be found in the character and personality of Adams Archibald, the first Lieutenant-Governor, and Alexander Morris, who succeeded him. During his two years of office, Archibald was Prime Minister and cabinet rolled into one and the Legislature took orders from him. With certain reservations the same was true of his successor, Alexander Morris, and between the two of them they literally created the government of Canada's first new province. Each of these men steadily pushed his cabinet and legislature to accept full responsibility and in 1876, Morris stated that responsible government was carried on in this province as in others.
Page revised: 1 July 2009Back to top of page