How Manitoba Got Its Name
by Frank Hall
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1970, Volume 15, Number 2
The origin of the name Manitoba, like the origin of the province itself, is rooted in controversy. There is a mystery as well about the source of the name. Where does it come from? What does it mean? Why was it fixed to a province which before its union with Canada had an old and honourable name of its own?
The first List of Rights, issued on 16 November 1869, by the representatives of all the families in the Red and Assiniboine parishes, contained the preliminary draft of the terms on which they would be willing to join confederation. There was, however, no mention therein of a name for the new political unit. The delegates decided to call their district a territory, not a province, and they chose this name because it seemed to express the purpose and function of the loose political entity they wanted; one in which the benefits of self-government within Confederation would outweigh the restrictions and obligations. In making this choice of name they had also in mind the prospect of gaining suzerainty over the natural resources of the Northwest. Such a proposal, as a condition of provincial status for Assiniboia itself, would certainly be rejected by the Dominion Government, but it might be granted as a condition of territorial status for Assiniboia and the Northwest. Such was the ploy!
In a second List of Rights, drawn up at Upper Fort Garry on 25 January 1870, no mention was made of a name for this new addition to the Dominion of Canada. The Red River Settlement and the District of Assiniboia were each referred to by name, but for the purpose of entry into confederation each was dubbed a territory.
It was not until a third List of Rights was issued that a specific name for the new province was given primacy over nineteen other articles. By this time an arbitrary change from territory to province had been forced on the convention by Riel. He had held out alone in the beginning for entry into the Dominion as a Province, but when he saw that the convention had rejected his point of view and had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the territorial designation, he became angry and threatened to use the Métis buffalo hunters to enforce his will—by show of arms if necessary.
At this point the delegates reluctantly agreed to support his demands and passed the following resolution: “That the territories known as Rupert’s Land and the North West shall not enter Confederation except as a province to be styled and known as the Province of Assiniboia, and with all the rights and privileges common to the different Provinces of the Dominion.” By winning this point on the strength of resort to force of arms, Riel alienated the support of the English-speaking settlers (and some of the French-speaking settlers) as well. He never regained the support of the English-speaking settlers, and the small group of dissenting French-speaking settlers did not rejoin him in support of his provisional government until persuaded to do so by their parish priests.
Despite the clash of conflicting passions on this and other issues, there was substantial evidence, nonetheless, of a popular will to preserve in the new political entity the old name of Assiniboia. This was the name given originally by Lord Selkirk to that large area of 116,000 square miles in the heart of Rupert’s Land which he had secured from the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the mid-western section of this territory, at a place to be known as Point Douglas, his colony was planted in 1812. Its leader, Captain Miles Macdonell, was the first Governor of Assiniboia.
Later on, after Lord Selkirk’s heirs had transferred Assiniboia to the Hudson’s Bay Company, a much smaller area, having a radius of fifty miles from the fork of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, was known as the District of Assiniboia. This was not a political unit in the generally accepted sense of the word. It was in fact a quasi judicial district, governed by an appointed council, supposedly representative of the people, but designed essentially to safeguard the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
It was the name of this small district of 11,000 square miles that the Red River delegates wanted preserved when in their third List of Rights they fixed Assiniboia on the new province to be. However, in spite of this apparent show of unanimity, the name Assiniboia became lost. Somewhere along the line between the third List of Rights and the fourth List of Rights the name disappeared.
The fourth List of Rights, the one taken to Ottawa by the Red River delegates for discussion with the Dominion authorities on the terms of union, contained no reference whatsoever to a name for the new province. The first article simply read: “That the territory of the North-West enter into the Confederation of the Dominion of Canada as a province, with all the privileges common with all the different Provinces of the Dominion.” Throughout the remaining nineteen articles the new province to be was variously referred to as the Province of the North West and as the Territory of the North-West, now called Assiniboia. No specific recommendation was made, however, regarding a name.
The name Manitoba therefore comes into the picture after the delegates left Red River for Ottawa, and the history of its appearance probably runs like this. On 18 April 1870, in a letter to the Reverend N. J. Ritchot, one of three delegates who went to Ottawa to negotiate for the admission of the territory into the Dominion of Canada, Louis Riel wrote as follows: “The name of the country is already written in all hearts, that of Red River. Fancy delights in that of “Manitoba,” but the situation seems to demand that of “North-West.” Friends of the old government [Hudson’s Bay Company] are pleased with that of Assiniboia, but it is not generally liked enough to be kept. Choose of the two names “Manitoba” or of “North-West.”
Later the same month (April 1870), Father Ritchot, when making his marginal notes on the twenty-six clauses of the Manitoba Act, put opposite Article I the following observation: “The name Manitoba would be quite appropriate, and it seems desirable that it should be adopted to designate the first province that is proposed to form in that part of the Territory watered by the Red River and its affluent.” It would seem therefore that the name for the new province had been fairly set before the debate on the Manitoba Bill was introduced by Sir John A. Macdonald on 2 May.
On this day, when the Prime Minister rose in the House of Commons to tell the members about the negotiations leading to the framing of the Bill, he made two leading observations, one on provincial status, the other on the name. “I rise, Sir, with the consent of the House, to submit the result of our deliberations for the framing of a constitution for the country heretofore known as Rupert’s Land and the North West Territory. In moving leave to introduce this Bill, of which I have given notice, I may premise by saying that there has been a discussion going on as to whether we should have a Territory or a Province. The answer we made on behalf of the Canadian Government was that such a thing as a Territory was not known to the British colonial system, that the expression was not recognized, that the expression was Colony or Province, and that we thought it would be better to adhere to the old and well known form of expression—well known to us as colonists of the Empire—and not bring in a new description on our statute books. It was not, of course, a matter of serious importance whether the country was called a Province or a Territory. We have Provinces of all sizes, shapes and constitutions. There are very few provinces with precisely the same constitution in all particulars, so that there could be anything determined by the use of the word.”
Then, on the question of the name, Sir John continued as follows: “it was thought that was a matter of taste and should be considered with reference to euphony and with reference also as much as possible to the remembrance of the original inhabitants of that vast country. Fortunately the Indian languages of that section of the country give us a choice of euphonious names and it is considered proper that the province which is to be organized shall be called Manitoba. The name Assiniboia, by which it has hitherto been called, is considered too long, involving confusion, too, between the River Assiniboine and the Province Assiniboia. I suppose, therefore, there will be no objection to the name that has been fixed upon, which is euphonious enough in itself, and is an old Indian name, meaning The God Who Speaks—The Speaking God.”
On the same day that Sir John A. Macdonald made the foregoing remarks, Sir Stafford Northcote, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, went to the House of Commons to hear the debate, the outcome of which was so vital to the destiny of the Company.“ ... I was just in time to bear Sir John A. Macdonald’s speech introducing the North-West Bill. He seemed feeble and looked ill, but spoke with great skill. He makes no pretension to oratory, but is clear and dexterous in statement, and gave a very ingenious turn to his difficult points. The new province, Manitoba, (Dieu qui parle)—The Speaking God—is to contain 11,000 square miles.”
At the same time that Sir Stafford Northcote was in Ottawa looking after the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company, another gentleman of a very different ilk was also there looking after other interests. This was James Wilkes Taylor, a special agent of the United States, who was reporting to his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, on the course of events caused by the Red River Resistance. (Taylor is remembered in Manitoba today because he was the one who first made popular the prairie crocus by presenting corsages of this early spring flower to the ladies of his acquaintance. A portrait of Taylor used to hang in Winnipeg’s old ginger bread city hall, and in the lower right-hand corner a crocus identified Taylor as the first publicist for Manitoba’s floral emblem.)
On 5 May 1870, Taylor sent a letter to Hamilton Fish in which he reported on two major developments in the debate on the Manitoba Bill—the change in the boundaries and the source of the name. “The Government, after twenty-four hours consultation, have modified the Manitoba Bill by extending the Province westwardly three-fourths of a degree of longitude—from 98½° to 99°—retaining the other boundaries. The line first proposed excluded the settlement of Portage la Prairie containing some 120 families who are mostly Canadian, and it was charged by the opposition that their exclusion was intended to make French ascendancy in the province more certain. The Government claimed in reply that there was reason to believe that the Portage people were adverse to political connexion with the Red River Settlement - the distance between the two points is about sixty miles—and cited the fact that two years ago there was a provisional organization at Portage asserting independence of the colony from Assiniboia and taking the name of the “Republic of Manitoba.” However, there were parties here in Ottawa, who are residents of the Portage la Prairie, and as they expressed a decided preference for connexion with the new province, the above change of boundary was made.”
Other substantial changes were made to some of the articles in the fourth List of Rights, and the Bill which arose from these changes contained major compromises at several points which ran contrary to the wishes of the people at Red River. Alexander Begg reports that there was general agreement in Ottawa that the new Province was to be named Manitoba following a suggestion of Riel. So Assiniboia, the first choice of the people, fell by the wayside.
Another sweeping change was made in Article I which asked for the admission of the North-West as a province. Begg says: “The acceptance of this article as it stood would have brought into Confederation a province much larger than either Ontario or Quebec ... and since the provinces of the Dominion controlled their own lands and forests, it would have given control of the natural resources of an enormous area to the representatives of some 15,000 people [at Red River].” The control of the lands of the North-West by the Dominion Government was regarded as a prerequisite to the construction of a railway across the west and to the placement of farm settlers along the right-of-way and beyond. So held Ottawa. “The outcome was a compromise,” continues Begg, “by which provincial status was granted, but only to a province of an area [13,000 square miles] a little larger than the old District of Assiniboia.”
The Manitoba Bill was brought down in the House of Commons on 2 May 1870, as has been previously noted; it became law on 12 May, and was proclaimed on 15 July. “On this date the authority of the Great Company ended,” says Morton, “and Rupert’s Land and the North Western Territory became part of the Dominion of Canada, which from that date extended to the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic Ocean.”
“There was to be a new province with a Legislative Council and Assembly, a constitution similar to that of the old provinces, and representation in the Parliament of Canada. But it was to be a minute province, the old District of Assiniboia, which was to be enlarged to include the Portage settlement on the petition of Dr. J. S. Lynch, a Canadian from Red River, on behalf of the settlers there, and at the insistence of the opposition. The vast remainder of the Northwest was to be a territory governed by Ottawa and by Fort Garry. Thus was Riel’s demand for provincehood at once granted and made almost a mockery. The public lands of the province, contrary to the Canadian precedent, were to be controlled by the federal government ‘for the purposes of the Dominion,’ namely railroad building and land settlement. And the name of the province, at Riel’s suggestion, was to be, not the historic Assiniboia, but that of Thomas Spence’s upstart government of 1868—Manitoba—the Spirit Strait of the Crees, the Lake of the Prairie of the Assiniboines.”
So, as Morton somewhat reluctantly admits, the new province became Manitoba. That was the name and that was the spelling. But the many different spellings, as listed on the accompanying chart, reflect the tonal variations in Indian words as caught by English ears. As fur traders, explorers, settlers, and others, whose mother tongue was English, sought to convert these strange sounds into representative combinations of English letters, they did so phonetically but not by phonetic rules. The English syllables they selected to represent Indian sounds, (as tonal units in themselves), were varied. They contained also different points of accent when they were united in polysyllabic words. In the word Manitoba, for example, the last syllable was ba to one; baw to another; and yet both bah and bow to others. Some people placed the accent on the last syllable, using the preceding Manito as a light introductory phrase. Others gave the heavy accent to the introductory Man, letting the following syllables trail off without accent. Yet others placed the weight on the pivotal tow as in Mani-TOW-ba.
Not all these variations were the outcome of different phonetic interpretations of the same Indian sound. They were to the contrary the result of various tonal representations of different Indian sounds for the same thing. For example, in one district no in Cree is numowelu or molu; in another it is numoweyu or nummu; in another it is numonu or nmuh. The personal pronoun I in one Cree dialect is ne-lu; in another it is ne-nu; in another it is ne-yu, while in another it is ne-thu. What phonetic ragtag and bobtail!
The Crees from Quebec to Alberta speak the same Algonkian language, but in this common tongue there are many local dialects. Three different dialects are spoken by the three major geographic divisions of the Cree nation—the Swampy Cree about the shores of Hudson Bay and James Bay and inland to Norway House and Cumberland House; the Wood Cree in the mid-northern forest belt; and the Plain Cree of the prairies. Among these three linguistic divisions there are substantial differences in pronunciation, hence in spelling, and each dialect has many words which are not common to the other two.
In some areas there are also sub-dialects. The Crees east of Hudson Bay have a different dialect from the Crees west of Hudson Bay. There are variations in the language spoken by the Crees of Moose Factory in Ontario and by the Crees of York Factory in Manitoba. Other variations exist between the Manitoban coastal Crees at York Factory and the inland Crees at Norway House and The Pas. The Plain Cree language has distinctive tonal characteristics which are generally softer and more musical than those of the other Cree dialects.
Modern Cree dictionaries recognize five dialects in the common language: Eastern Cree, Moose Cree, Swampy Cree, Northern (Wood) Cree, and Plain Cree. Within these five dialects many words which have the same or similar meanings are spelled differently and pronounced differently. Ojibwa (Saulteaux), also an Algonkian language, has developed its own variations of the parent linguistic stock. Moreover, where Ojibwas have lived close to Crees for many years, tonal variations have crossed over from Ojibwa to Cree, causing another hybrid dialect. The Assiniboine, on the other hand, speak a Siouan tongue, quite different from Cree or Ojibwa. Thus, in the face of all these variations, it is not difficult to see how differences crept into the spelling and pronunciation of the word Manitoba.
In this connection, some recent observations of Clifford Wilson are enlightening. In a letter to the author he writes: “I asked Philip Godsell why the name was pronounced Manitoba, [with the accent on to], when the name of the strait from which the name was derived was spelled in Hind’s book Manitobah, with the accent on the last syllable. He said he had been present at a discussion on the subject by a group of old Hudson’s Bay Company officers who had served the Company during the 19th century. They had pointed out that the emphasis on the word manito is on the last syllable not the first.” Hence Manitoba.
In spite of many variations in spelling and pronunciation, the current general usage—Man-i-to-ba, with its orderly progression of consonants and vowels, (almost equal weight being given to each), preserves the lovely cadence of its Indian origin. It retains as well the strong beat of an old, inherent impulse; strong as the voice of The God Who Speaks and of other kindred extractions: a good name for a good province—Manitoba.
The Life and Times of Confederation; P. B. Waite, University of Toronto Press, 1965.
Manitoba: The Birth of a Province; W. L. Morton, Manitoba Record Society, 1965.
Manitoba: A History; W. L. Morton, University of Toronto Press, 1957.
A Dictionary of the Cree Language; Rev. E. A. Watkins, edited by R. Faries, Church House, Toronto, 1938.
John A. Macdonald: Donald Creighton, Macmillan, Toronto, v. 2, 1966.
Page revised: 4 September 2014