Memorable Manitobans: John Norquay (1841-1889)
MLA (1871-1874), MLA (1875-1878), MLA (1878-1879), MLA (1879-1883), MLA (1883-1886), MLA (1886-1888), MLA (1888-1889), Premier of Manitoba (1878-1887).
Born at St. Andrews on 8 May 1841, second son of John Norquay and Isabella Truthwaite, older brother to Thomas Norquay, his parents died when he was very young and he was cared for by his grandmother, the widow Spence. He was a veritable giant of a man, over six feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds. He spoke a number of languages, including English, French, Cree, and Saulteaux. Norquay was known as one of the province’s finest speakers, possessed of a “soft, clear, musical voice, notably resonant.”
The first Premier born in the province, he received his primary education at St. John’s Collegiate School where he studied under Bishop Anderson and won a scholarship in 1854. After graduation he taught at Parkdale. In search of a better salary he quit teaching and entered the fur trade in the service of a Mr. House at White Horse Plains. He was not actively involved in the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870. He farmed at High Bluff and was acclaimed for High Bluff in the first provincial election held in December 1870.
In the legislature he assumed the leadership of a major bloc of Anglophone Metis. With the resignation of Alfred Boyd he was appointed a member of the Executive Council and to ministerial portfolios of Public Works and Agriculture on 14 December 1871. He held these positions until 8 July 1874, when the ministry resigned. Re-elected at the December 1874 general election, he joined the cabinet of Robert Atkinson Davis as Provincial Secretary in March 1875, by which time he was acknowledged as leader of one of the Anglophone factions in the province — the Metis — which had an equal number of legislative seats (eight) to the Francophones and also to the new settlers from Ontario. He resigned his position in May 1876 to become Minister of Public Works.
When Premier Davis resigned in October 1878, Norquay formed the new government in conjunction with Joseph Royal and held the offices of Premier, President of the Executive Council, and Provincial Treasurer. He presided over a province that was growing rapidly and shifting demographically towards Anglophone Protestants. Politics centred around railroads, with all Manitobans seeking a share of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s hoped-for competitors. Ottawa disallowed Manitoba railroad charter legislation in 1882. The railroad controversy eventually brought Norquay down in 1887, when he was unable to find financing for the Red River Valley Railway, which was intended to link Winnipeg with the United States, thanks to the intervention of Prime Minister Macdonald.
He was an unsuccessful candidate for Marquette in the federal election of 1872. He sat for High Bluff in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, 1870-1874. In the general election of 1874 he was returned for St. Andrew’s, and was re-elected or acclaimed in the elections of 1878, 1879, 1883 and 1886. Norquay resigned the Treasury portfolio on 27 August 1886, and was appointed Railway Commissioner on 10 September 1886. Norquay resigned his remaining portfolios on 14 December 1887, and was succeeded by David Howard Harrison. Norquay was re-elected in the 1888 general election, in the riding of Kildonan, and became leader of the Opposition.
In June 1862, he married Elizabeth Setter (1842-1933), daughter of George Setter and Isabella Kennedy, niece of William Kennedy. They had eight children: Thomas Norquay (1863-?), Isabella Jessie Anna Norquay, John George Norquay (1865-?), Alexander Norquay (1867-?), Horatio Clarence Norquay, Caroline Ellen Norquay (1871-1960, wife of John Edgar McAllister), Andrew James Norquay, and Aida Theodora Norquay (1881-1883). He was a founding member of the Manitoba Historical Society, in 1879, and a member of the Manitoba Club and Anglican Synod and Executive Committee of Rupert’s Land.
Norquay died unexpectedly on 5 July 1889 and was buried in the St. John's Cathedral Cemetery. At the time of his death he was the only MLA who had continuously held a seat in the Legislative Assembly since its inception. He is commemorated by Norquay Street, Norquay School, and Norquay Park in Winnipeg, and a commemorative plaque on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature. His papers are at the Archives of Manitoba.
A Political Manual of the Province of Manitoba and the North-West Territories by J. P. Robertson, Winnipeg: Call Printing Company, 1887.
The Story of Manitoba by F. H. Schofield, Winnipeg: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
Obituaries and burial transcriptions, Manitoba Genealogical Society.
We thank Nathan Kramer and Gerald Friesen for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 12 January 2023