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The Republican Monarchy of Manitobah

by Roland Michener

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 26, 1969-70 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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When I accepted your kind invitation to be here this evening, I specified that you should not expect me to compete with you on your home ground. You are the historians, and I am the layman who deals mainly in generalities. However, I do have some specific predilections for the West, having been born in the Northwest Territories (now Alberta) and raised with buffalo bones still in evidence.

Furthermore, the history of Manitoba from the earliest explorations to its entry into Confederation is unusually interesting and important to all us Prairie people. It was the Gateway to the entire West. There is at this time in the Public Archives of Ottawa a Centennial Exhibition about "The Birth of Manitoba." Your Lieutenant-Governor inaugurated it and it will come to Winnipeg in September, and I am sure you will find it as fascinating as I have.

This is your Centennial Year as a Province, and despite my diffidence, already expressed, I think I shall venture forth in your special domain to recall that the union in 1870 was not the first attempt to associate Manitoba with the rest of Canada. Indeed, among the documents just mentioned is one which deals with a little-known but intriguing episode in Manitoba's history. I refer to a petition addressed to Queen Victoria in 1866 by a worthy citizen of the Red River Settlement, Thomas Spence, and others, asking that the Settlement be made a Crown Colony, as a prelude to joining the other British North American colonies.

Spence is one of the many engaging figures of the time who busied himself with the establishment of governments. None of his exploits is more fascinating than his proclamation of the "Republican Monarchy of Manitobah" (with the final h), which he did at Portage la Prairie in 1867. I confess at once that I gathered my knowledge of this dramatic affair from a not entirely serious account contained in Robert Hill's highly readable Early Days in Manitoba, published in 1890. I have also referred to Mr. Spence's papers and to the contemporary public prints, especially the Globe and the Nor'Wester. So much for bibliography.

Mr. Thomas Spence, the organizing genius behind what the Nor'Wester called a "rude attempt at giving to all men in that district individual liberty" arrived in Fort Garry, I understand, in 1866. He had been by his own account (and who are we to doubt its veracity or modesty) a military officer in a Foot Regiment, a land surveyor, and a practitioner of the legal profession.

His first venture into active politics was undeniably of a most patriotic sort. On December 8th, 1866, he secured the use of the Court House at Fort Garry in order to hold a public meeting, whose purpose was to request the Imperial Government to arrange for the Red River Settlement to be received into the British North American Confederation then being mooted in the East. The memorial which emanated from the meeting demands some elaboration.

When the object of the meeting became known, it was soon apparent that a strong undercurrent of opposition was developing among local residents who advocated annexation to the United States. Mr. Spence, whose patriotism was apparently of the kind which does not brook a rival, called the meeting for 10:30 in the morning. Although he hotly denied the accusation, it appears that Mr. Spence and four other gentlemen arrived sharp at 9:30 a.m. and proceeded to business, passing the confederation resolutions and offering three cheers in honour of Her Most Gracious Majesty The Queen.

Having accomplished their design, the five loyal figures were leaving the Court House when they were met by the proprietor of the local hotel and a leading supporter of the annexation of the U.S.A., one Emerline by name, who was accompanied by numerous other citizens, most of whom, according to my sources, had partaken immoderately of a potion prepared by Mr. Emerline ["Dutch George" Emmerling] and known locally under the sobriquet "Oh Be Joyful." A discussion developed, first outdoors and then back in the Court House, during which the original resolutions were declared null and void.

However, it became obvious that the temper of the meeting was not to favour any specific set of new resolutions but to oppose any and all motions presented; confusion was compounded by rhetoric and followed by an exchange of decidedly personal comments. Mr. Hill states "after some time, the entire crowd sought a hasty and uproarious exit from the doors, some imagined with a view to continuing hostilities on a more extended scale outside, but the cooling influences of the December wind led them to seek shelter in Mr. Emerline's, where an orgy was instituted which ended about midnight in the demolition of his bar and the general destruction of his bottles and earthenware, not to speak of the damage done to his fluids."

It would appear that Mr. Spence was not unduly discouraged by this temporary reversal, for he shortly moved his residence to Portage la Prairie, which then lay outside the judicial district of Assiniboia, and had no laws except those the settlers chose to make themselves.

Mr. Spence rapidly gained election to the local council and rather shortly thereafter proclaimed the "Republican Monarchy of Caledonia," later changed to Manitobah. He himself, and this is undoubtedly a tribute to his political genius, became President. The boundaries of the new administrative creation included "hundreds of square miles extending indefinitely into the parallels of latitude and longitude. The only defining boundary was the eastern one which consisted of the Municipal District of Assiniboia." A council was also chosen, although we are not enlightened as to the democratic procedures employed, and an oath of allegiance was administered to all those who were prepared to take it.

Mr. Spence appears to have understood well the imperatives of power, for his first object was to erect a Court House and Jail. To achieve this laudable end he decided that a system of taxation and a customs tariff on imports should be instituted. Accordingly, a notice was served on all traders, including the Hudson Bay Factor at Portage la Prairie, concerning these tithes. However, the Hudson Bay man replied that he was not prepared to pay taxes or duties unless instructed to do so by the Council of Rupert's Land. This left the new Council on the horns of a dilemma, for without taxes they could have no jail; and they were determined to incarcerate the factor for refusing to pay taxes.

It was thus already in a spirit of some frustration that they were greeted with accusations by a shoemaker named MacPherson, to the effect that the money obtained through taxes, instead of being retained to build a jail, was being expended in the purchase of liquid stimulants for the use of the Government and Council of Manitobah, a report which was generally credited as being true. Apparently, expostulations with MacPherson by members of the regime were of no use, for he merely repeated his story with further elaborations.

At last the Government resolved to indict MacPherson on a charge of treason, and the appropriate warrant was issued. However, the two constables sent to effect the arrest had apparently been consuming some of MacPherson's evidence against the Government, for they made so much noise en route to this worthy's house that he was warned by his neighbors some time before their arrival and succeeded in escaping.

The matter was, indeed, never settled to the satisfaction of the authorities, for when MacPherson's trial took place, Mr. Spence was - may I say in all delicacy - physically forestalled in his attempts to see the affair to an expeditious conclusion, by acting as both judge and prosecutor. Reading between the lines, one gathers that the settlers soon began to ignore the Government, which broke the back of the Republic completely as a popular institution.

Nevertheless, in February, 1868, Mr. Spence as "President-elect of the people of the newly organized Government and Council of Manitoba in British Territory" wrote to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in London to inform Her Most Gracious Majesty of the establishment of his administration. The Duke of Buckingham's reply, referred to "a so-called self-supporting Government in Manitoba" and warned that "you and your co-adjutors are acting illegally in this matter, and that by the course which you are adopting you are incurring grave responsibilities."

This appears to have discouraged poor Mr. Spence. He himself wrote about it later in what I gather was his usual objective and unassuming fashion: "Leading journals in England and Canada severely criticized and condemned the Government for their action in the matter, under the circumstances, of a small Colony utterly isolated from other British bases on the continent and within 70 miles from the territory of the greatest power in America, supported only by the artificial boundary of a parallel of latitude; but what cared the authorities of Downing Street."

By February 1869, the Toronto Globe felt able to sum up the affair in a proper Torontonian manner with the comment: "Since [Spence's resignation] affairs have gone on as usual and will, we trust, go on 'til the Colony of Manitobah becomes the County of Manitobah with a regular county organization under the new Dominion."

I hope this amount of constitutional innovation and loyalty will commend itself to you in your professional capacities, and may perhaps inspire some monographs or perhaps even doctoral theses. In any case, if it is not already "old hat" in your annals, I offer it as my own small contribution to the Manitoba Centennial. With it go my best wishes for your continued enjoyment of the fascinating history of your province.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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