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The Early Manitoba Legislature

Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2

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.

This article consists of excerpts taken from "The Story of the Manitoba Legislature" by M. S. Donnelly published in Number 12, Series 3 of "Papers read before the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba," 1957.

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:

"We should not refer to the events of 1869 and 1870, further than to say that they left behind them memories of the most painful character, and that a portion of the people felt that the time had come to exact a return for the sufferings. The excitement was still further increased by the presence of large bands of roving Indians scattered up and down through the settlement. These savages had been drawn up to the front by the prospects of war, had been appealed to for support and had received promises impossible to fulfill. They were hovering about the settlement in a state of near starvation living by pillage and making hideous noises with their frightful orgies. The antagonism between the English and French races divided the country into two hostile camps — not only arrayed against each other but subject to the danger of collision with the hungry savages who were prowling the settlement."

The residence of the late Hon. A. G. B. Bannatyne made available for the use of the first Legislature, March 1871 - December 1873.

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:

"Was there ever before a responsible ministry resting on a House of whose constituents more than half were liable to be hanged or sent to penitentiary ... are the electors to exercise their functions with ropes around their necks ... you can hardly hope to carry on responsible government by inflicting death penalties on the leaders of a majority of the electors."

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:

"I watched the opening of the new born Legislature at Winnipeg. The approach of the Lieutenant-Governor was announced by a series of explosions intended to represent the firing of a cannon but made, I understand, by letting off gunpowder with a hot poker. The Lieutenant-Governor read his speech from the throne in French as well as English. I suspect the effect on the French ears was like that of the Irish Major's address (in French) upon Prince Napoleon who in reply deplored the Major's ignorance of the Irish language."

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 2009

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