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President's Report on the Occasion of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba

by W. L. Morton

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 9, 1952-53 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 As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers.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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Your Council has planned in this, the seventy-fifth year of the Society, to take some note of the Society's past achievements. To study the past is in some measure to shape the future and when the Council requested me to prepare a brief presidential address for this evening, it was their wish that I should not only refer to the past development of the Society, but should also attempt to state its present purposes. It is proper to do so, both because its seventy-fifth year is a mile-stone of some significance in the history of the Society, and also because your Council feels that the Society must now take important and definite steps to secure the adequate continuation of its work.

The Society was organized as a historical and scientific society. Its object, as then defined in the Act of Incorporation under which the Society still functions was: "the collection and preservation of publications, MSS., antiquities, curiosities, specimens of natural history and the formation of a library and museum", provided all such pertained to the "sound political and natural history of America".

The inaugural address of the first president, Hon. Chief Justice W. B. Wood, had as its topic the simple subject of "History", but history in its original meaning of enquiry. That meaning covered both "natural history" and "civic history", all the forms of knowledge which depended on observation and description. The double-barrelled name of the Society then, comes down to us from a day before the experimental sciences had risen to their present prestige. And for over twenty-five years the Society performed much of the work of what would nowadays be called a research institute. It provided means and encouragement for its members, and indeed the interested public, to pursue historical and scientific studies and attempt original work. The assembling of its own library, the provision of a public reference library, the housing of the Isbister Library of the University of Manitoba, the creation of a museum of natural history, the publication of seventy-two papers was a fine accomplishment for a society of amateurs, who did all the administrative work themselves, aided only by a small annual grant from the Province. The Society did rather well for its day, and I think it may be claimed, a body of work now divided among the Public and institutional libraries, the University of Manitoba, and the various more specialized societies of which ours was, as Dr. D. A. Stewart phrased it, "the forerunner, if not the progenitor". The process of devolution was carried out rapidly with the creation of the Faculty of Science in the University in 1900-1904, the formation of the Natural History Society in 1903 and the Winnipeg Public Library in 1905. The great creative period of the Society was over, the first generation was weary, and the Society declined gently to become inactive after 1913.

In its decline the Society had become an historical society exclusively. When, in 1926, it was revived by Dr. C. N. Bell, one of its early and most indefatigable members and officers, it was, of course, as a historical society. A further decade of fruitful work followed in which no less than thirty-eight historical papers were read before the Society, although unfortunately only a few were published. The Society no longer enjoyed a grant, however small, from the Province, and did not succeed in raising by fees, contributions, or exhibitions, the revenue it had once commanded. The Society could no longer hope to keep the central scholarly group of a small if vigorous community, as Dr. Stewart indicated in his retiring presidential address in 1934, and could no longer play the part it had once done. Perhaps the judgment was formed on too modest an estimate of the place of historical studies in modern societies but in its general outline it was sound.

At any rate, after a second period of inactivity, the Society was revived a second time in 1944, this time to play a part not incomparable with that of its first great period. The inspirers of this latest revival were the late Mrs. R. F. McWilliams, Mr. J. L. Johnston, Legislative Librarian, and Hon. Ivan Schultz, then Minister of Health. What marked this revival was not only the coming together again, as in 1926, of those who were studying the history of Manitoba, but the grant by the Province of funds for special projects to be administered by the Society. These were the study of the contributions made by the ethnic groups of its population to the Province, of which the first to be published, Prof. Paul Yuzyk's The Ukrainians of Manitoba, appeared this year, the support of archeological or pre-historical research, in particular the distinguished work of Mr. Chris Vickers of Baldur, and the collection of the materials of local and provincial history. Thus the Society was given the means to encourage valuable work within its own field of interest, diminished though that was from the days of its foundation. In the preservation of the Ross House as a monument of Red River days and as an attraction to tourists the Society also began a fruitful line of work, at once proper to the Society and much needed in Manitoba with its long picturesque and sadly neglected past. During the same period the Society has heard and has published forty papers in its Third Series of Transactions not counting those, as yet unpublished, of last year.

It would not be seemly, as it is not timely, to attempt to assess the value of the work of this third and latest revival of the Society's work, which I am sure we all hope will be indefinitely prolonged. But it must be noted that the two periods of inactivity in the past occurred only after prolonged effort by members who gave of their leisure freely in what was a public service and well as a private interest. Each one of us can give only so much in such a contribution. The fine membership the Society has enjoyed in recent years, and the number of new and younger members, afford hope that the interest and effort given to the Society's work will indeed be prolonged. But there are necessary deficiencies in service given in leisure time, the want of that promptness, continuity and detailed attention even a small job of administration requires.

For these reasons I would suggest, with the concurrence of your Council, that the Society must now concern itself with three present and, I believe, urgent purposes over and above its present activities. These are the arousing of public interest in its work, the extension of its membership, and the employment of a permanent secretary. We must, I suggest, exert ourselves to make the Society well known and popular throughout Winnipeg and Manitoba. We must not be, or even seem to be, a small circle or closed group, still less a purely Winnipeg Society. And we must extend our membership, not only by increasing the members, but by winning members throughout the Province. We have not had, since 1944, two hundred active members in a given year, practically all from Winnipeg, but we have had, I suspect, a sufficient turn over of members, to have given an average of over two hundred a year. I feel confident that we might work up to a membership of five hundred a year in the next ten years, if we could maintain the programme and the effort now under way.

The Society, however, can increase its influence and membership only if, in my opinion, it can find the means to appoint a permanent and well qualified secretary. If funds are to be administered, correspondence handled, memberships renewed, archives collected, works of restoration and preservation undertaken, someone must be free all the time to give the necessary thought and attention to the detail and planning. The proposal is simple and modest. The history of the Society points to its necessity; our present work requires it; it is not too much to ask of the 800,000 people who now dwell in security and unexampled prosperity where 50,000 pioneered in 1879 and 7000 lived precariously in 1853.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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