Manitoba History: An Interview with Fred McGuinness

by Gerald A. Friesen
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Fred McGuinness is Vice-President of the Brandon Sun and a well-known journalist and public speaker. His “Neighborly News” programme on the CBC has made him a breakfast staple in many western homes. His syndicated column in the Brandon Sun has become an important institution in south-western Manitoba. Fred was born in Brandon and now works there but he has also worked in Winnipeg (in the 1940s), in Regina, (with the Golden jubilee programme 1952-55), and in Medicine Hat, (with the News, 1956-65). He has been a friend of prairie historical societies for over twenty-five years and has spoken at many meetings on local history writing and on popularizing prairie history. In his address to the Annual Dinner of the Manitoba Historical Society in May 1980, he emphasized the importance of anniversaries as vehicles of historical education and lamented that Manitoba was permitting a milestone—birthday number 110—to pass unnoticed.

Q. You left school in Brandon when you were in Grade Nine. Why?

My father died when I was twelve. I was at home with my widowed mother and five sisters, and it was as if a light had gone out in my life. I limped through grade seven and I managed to get through grade eight in two tries—up to this point I had always been a good student—but I took maybe three runs at grade nine and they finally suggested that I seek my vocation elsewhere. I quit, to my family’s horror, and got a part-time job as a railway telegraph messenger — a strange little job for $29.00 a month—but I think it changed my life, because when I was about fifteen a very kindly operator began to teach me the business of dots and dashes. The year that I promised faithfully I would go back, war broke out, and I came into Winnipeg and joined the navy and then went home and told mother about it—at the age of eighteen.

Fred McGuinness

Q. Where did you go?

Here I speak as one of those prairie boys who for reasons totally unknown even to me, joined the navy, got off the train and ran down to the end of the jetty, stuck my finger in the water and said, “By God, it is salty!” I went to Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg for three months of training and then to Halifax to signal school for maybe another three months and then onto a submarine chaser called HMCS “A la chasse” which means “To the hunt” as you should know if you’re a bilingual Canadian. We were on coastal patrol and our job was to go back and forth in the straits of Canso.

It was always thought that if a sub was going to attack us it would try to get close to Nova Scotia by going through those straits. So we really stayed pretty close to the mainland. We would see the convoys off and then hurry back to the area around Port Hawkesbury because we were not heavy enough to go into the real North Atlantic. We were wrecked in a gale in 1940 and one man was killed and four of us were quite badly injured and I spent a year in hospital in Camp Hill in Halifax and then home to Deer Lodge for surgery on my left thigh. That year in hospital was tremendously useful as well as tremendously boring because I realized that trying to face life with an eighth grade standing was clearly impossible.

Q. You then went to St. Paul’s High School. What did you learn there?

Well, the first thing I learned was that there was a group of men, who up to that time I had never heard of, called members of the Society of Jesus, and as a practicing Protestant this was a great introduction for me because I didn’t know anything at all about the Roman Catholic church or any of the Orders and to run into these men who for such a small sum of money—I hardly paid more than my board and room—would provide so much help was a revelation. They were prepared to meet me for sixteen hours a day if I wanted it and any time I wanted tutelage I’d go to the door of the priest who was the expert—I lived in the same house that they lived in—and I guess I had never before or since seen such dedication. They helped me find the direction to get through high school which I did with ease in two years.

Q. Were there any particular teachers or instructors who affected you in that time?

Oh yes, there was. I needed Latin because I wanted to go into pre-Med and there was a priest called Father Eric Smith, a Latinist of renown, and he took me every morning Monday to Friday for the hour from eight to nine and I got horrified after a while when I realized what his bill was going to be because this was special tutelage and he kept saying, “no, no, no, I won’t charge you yet but I’m adding it all up and I’ll get you at the end of the year” and at the end of the year, he said, “Look, if you give me money I have to give it to the Order because I have promised the life of poverty but if you give me a box of chocolates I don’t have to share it with those fellows down the hall”—and that was his pay for a year of excellent training.

Q. Did you enjoy History?

No, I was not really interested in history in high school despite the fact that we had a pretty good teacher because he wanted the answers by rote. I’ve never had all that much trouble with memory but to have to regurgitate chunks of Lord Durham’s report or the succession of Kings or things of this type caused me to think “gee whiz I’m missing the course because I don’t have any understanding, I’m giving him back things he already knows.” I still don’t know who won the Wars of the Roses or where the name came from. Perhaps I was turned off by the academic system of that type because l didn’t get a feeling for the human side of history.

Q. Your telegraphy came in handy by enabling you to work your way through United College but why were you in the pre-med course?

I was under the influence of an uncle for whom I had an endless respect. He was a doctor and I visited with him regularly and it just seemed to be the thing to do. And by the time I got into second year I came to the horrible conclusion that I was in the wrong course but unfortunately 1 didn’t know what the right course was.

Q. What were you good at in United College?

I was good at student politics. I had a tremendously interesting experience as a student politician and I think the training in human relations helped me tremendously in later years, certainly more than most of the course content.

Q. Did any particular course influence you?

No, not really. We had a professor of physics called I. F. T Young whom I found tremendously entertaining and I learned some Botany in the after hours from a D. Dudley and there were the days of Professor J. L. Phelps ... I have an idea that education is like a commodity—it has to be sold—and the mere fact that a professor knows his subject doesn’t make him a good teacher because I think the challenge is his to make the subject interesting. Well J. L. Phelps was acknowledged as an expert in the English language, especially Shakespeare, but he was also a showman, he was an entertainer, and so it’s surprising that 35 years later I should tell you that while he was entertaining us he was implanting in our minds a real reverence for the English language and so I say now there is the hallmark of a great teacher.

Q. You worked on the planning of the Saskatchewan’s Golden Jubilee from 1952 to 1955. What was that like?

Well, I know this is supposed to be serious and so I’ll try not to be facetious but there was a day when I could honestly say that I knew Saskatchewan from A to Z and that’s when you travel the line from Abbey to Zealandia. I’ve been to Piapot, I’ve been to Punnichy and in 1955 we had 604 birthday parties in places like Smoking Tent and Star Blanket and places you’ve never heard of. This was really the crash course, not only in prairie history but also in a province and the tremendously warm characters that they had there, people like George Shepard who started the Western Development Museum and George Spence who started the PFRA and Father Athol Murray of Wilcox and I guess I had never been exposed to characters of this strength before and all of a sudden I thought “gee whiz, people who live in the prairie cities don’t really have an appreciation, generally, for the whole province in which they live because they get caught up in the milieu of local activities.” To get to know the prairies you’ve got to get off the black top, you’ve got to get into the little places where all you’ve got is an elevator and a little huddle of houses around it: that’s the real Saskatchewan and that’s where you find the characters.

Q. Was this when you became interested in local historical writing and the collection of a library devoted to local history?

Oh the Jubilee was the greatest crash course on prairie history that anyone could possibly have because every day I was in the Saskatchewan Archives, Regina, or the Saskatchewan Archives at the University of Saskatchewan. I worked a day a week with Professor G. W. Simpson, who may be one of the wisest men I ever met in all my life, and I worked on a daily basis with Dr. Lewis Henry Thomas and Dr John Hall Archer. There simply had to be some osmosis between those learned men and myself and out of this came a particular interest in prairie history. A personal note if you don’t mind: I had occasion one day to take a look in the land titles office at the documentation for section 22, 15 and 2 west of the second meridian and there was my grandfather’s signature on his homestead title and my grandmother’s signature and as I got to know more about the period of settlement, I started to realize that goodness gracious I had known people—I had sat on their laps—who had bought a team of oxen and a load of lumber in Brandon and had walked west 110 miles to an area north of Wapella and had taken up homesteading with no fuel, no water, no promise, too late in the year to put in a crop, but they survived and I thought “my goodness I’ve got a heritage which previously was unknown to me,” and this seemed to spark an interest in the human side of history which academic history did not set alight.

Anyway, when I was with the Jubilee committee, I as a non-academic was able to do something that the academics had trouble in doing. They had an idea that it was possible in Jubilee year to encourage the writing of local history but the trouble was they couldn’t quite get this program off the ground. And so that’s where I got into the act as a communicator and I guess you could call me an enthusiast for the subject. We were able in our country travels and by using the weekly press, (who by the way deserve all the credit for the Saskatchewan Golden Jubilee), to get people to start writing local history and because I went to so many of their meetings, they started sending me copies of their publications. The early efforts would astonish you—oh, I think of one called the History of Heward. It’s six pages, done on old fashioned school duplicating equipment with purple ink. They really were publications from the heart; they had no style and no class but they had good content. And I started putting these away. I became fascinated with books that were titled Life Along the Dog Hide, and an absolutely delightful one called Climax Before and After. Anyway I started collecting local history at that time and I had either as gifts or purchases a couple of hundred. Then I acquired an additional number in Alberta. I came to Manitoba and believe it or not ten years after the Saskatchewan experience the habit was being spread in Manitoba through the Women’s Institutes and the first thing you know I would be visiting by request in Arrow River, Hamiota, Miniota—all over the place—as WI groups took on the job of writing local history. They were good enough to send me copies because I was helpful to them somewhere along the line and I guess I ended up with maybe 3500 or 4000 local histories. As a matter of fact the team from Canada’s archives not too long ago worked through the lists of them because there are some volumes I have which never got into the Saskatchewan Archives or the Library of Parliament.

Q. What is the reason for the present interest in local history in the prairies?

Well, I have several theories on this and I wish I knew I had the correct one but assume with me that you and your wife went out as settlers and then you got raising a family and you helped to form a municipal government, and a hospital board and the school board and all those things and all during your life you were just beset with problems, the problems of settlement; then you went through the Depression, and most prairie residents were so totally occupied that they had no time for leisure and they surely had little affluence. And I’ve got an idea that in the late 40s and early 50s, people started turning to leisure pursuits. And along with the availability of some funds and some time came the questions of “who am I,” “from whence have I sprung,” “I wish I knew more about my roots.” I think the two Golden Jubilees, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, stimulated the process. These things are addictive and once you start a person down the road with genealogy don’t ever think that he or she some day is going to say “Eureka, I’ve got it! I quit!” They become, as Alice’s friends did, “curiouser and curiouser,” and start going back the other side of William the Conqueror. I think if you take, well, affluence, leisure, yearning for hereditary roots, nostalgia, and add in the Canadian Centennial in 1967, Manitoba’s in ‘70, Saskatchewan has had another one, and British Columbia, then you can see that heritage is “in”. You know, Canada has taken more direct benefit from national and provincial milestones I’m sure than any other country in the world. Every community has got a park, a pool, a library, or an auditorium which was built to commemorate one of our many public anniversaries. I say that’s good business, but this has also sold heritage.

Q. Is there a conflict between amateur and professional historians in this local history boom?

I’m sure that most professional historians at some time stand aghast at what local groups do and call history. In the meantime, I keep coming back to my own experience: before anybody becomes enthusiastic about something they have to have an introduction, you have to take the primary course. And I’ve got an idea that it would be easier for you to teach serious political history to a group of persons excited by local history than the other way around. So. I think that the amateurs are just dabbling in the waters as it were and that a few of them will go on to show you that it is possible for a serious amateur to do some very interesting work close to the professional level.

Q. What is the role of the Manitoba Historical Society in rural areas of the province?

I went to your annual meeting and I was able to identify only a couple of people from Brandon and a couple from Carman and apart from that it was largely Winnipeg which is mildly disturbing. I say this as a member of the Manitoba Motor League which I keep insisting is the Winnipeg Motor League because we’ve got about 95% of our members in here. It bothers me if you’re going to call yourself The Manitoba Historical Society if you don’t do more out beyond the perimeter highway. And you’ve got endless people who would be happy to support you. I think, if you would take the initiative and make it easy for them to meet you.

Q. What can the MHS do?

Well, the first thing we need is what you just have developed and that is a publication which is going to be of high interest to a lay audience. If it’s too academic, you’ll scare them away and if it’s too popular you might lose some of your serious members. So somebody very skillfully has to edit a publication that is as interesting to a farmer in Swan River as to a professor living in Fort Garry.

I am not at all certain that we have reached the crest yet on the wave of local history writing and now that we have people playing in this game, what we have to do and I presume it would come through the Historical Society is to get them to raise their sights, to do more analysis, to think what is the significance of their town’s development in the development of Manitoba. I keep telling various audiences that if they are only going to write for themselves and their neighbours then it scarcely warrants the use of the word “history.” They’re going to deal mainly with local gossip, so they have to reach beyond the local environs and start trying to find the place of their home town in the history of Manitoba.

Q. You are familiar with the newspaper business in western Canada. What is the present state of prairie journalism?

I had an idea ten or fifteen years ago that we were witnessing the end of an era in communications because the weeklies—I thought—were dying. They now are stronger than they ever have been before and I’m tremendously pleased by what I see. So all of this is quite an important message: the closer that you can get to your readership or to your purported readership the greater your chances of success. Well, nothing is closer to your readers than the average weekly newspaper. Now you ask me the reasons why. You have the miracle of off-set printing which gives you a much better-looking product. You have the electronic type setter which means that a girl just out of high school with six months training can do most of the setting on a paper now. You have passed through a generation of the old editors —and we’ve now got young people, a lot of them university trained, and they are running good businesses. If you take the prairies right at the moment, we’ve got a score of award winning papers in the major sizes and we’ve got little ones that are getting stronger by the week.

I think that the brightest thing that’s happened in Manitoba journalism in a number of years has been the two year course called “Creative Communication” at Red River Community College. Yesterday at an agricultural do near Brandon, I met with people from a number of weeklies and farm papers and fully half of them were from that Red River course. Now the industry has a source of persons who are trained, (and by the way, great credit is due to Neil Harris who used to teach this course and to Mrs. Alice Poyser who now teaches it). to have a good sense of curiosity, good writing skills and a yearning to communicate.

Q. What about the daily press?

You’ve got a tremendous variation: some are lively and bright and some are dull and definitely unbright. I think that in some cases you have an abuse of a monopoly—you have papers that really make no pretense of covering the local scene and will fill their columns with CP wire copy. this really distresses me. Let’s go first to Calgary where you have a completely extraordinary picture with a giant of a Herald which some days brings out 120 pages: it’s hard for me to imagine that on a week day, but it does and it’s surprising to me that the quality remains so high because you get into page 72 or 84 and you’ll find fresh features in there written for that purpose. They are doing an excellent job. I think, from a news point of view. But I would have to criticize them, as I would criticize the editorial page of the Edmonton Journal for seeming to be in Premier Lougheed’s pocket. Now I happen to know the editors and publishers of both the Edmonton and Calgary papers and I know that they are not owned by any person but so vocal have they become on behalf of Alberta rights that I really have to question their editorial positions.

Q. Can the Free Press serve as Manitoba’s daily voice?

I would have to reflect on that a moment ... the last couple of years there’s been such a change of management there ... there has been a sharp improvement in the Winnipeg news coverage in the Free Press in the last couple of years and in my opinion it was spurred to make improvements by those being made over at the corner of Smith and Graham. Now, as to whether or not it maintains its present level, I’m sorry I can’t tell you. Of course, as a person who lives outside of your perimeter highway I am aghast at the number of things which go on in rural Manitoba—and I think here particularly of municipal affairs and agriculture—which a paper like the Free Press usually turns its back on. This causes me great anxiety when I see them act more as a Winnipeg paper than as a Manitoba paper.

Q. Is there a gulf—a division in sentiment —between Winnipeg and the rest of Manitoba?

I think the division between Winnipeg and the rest of Manitoba is only brought into sharper focus with the death of the Tribune because we lost another voice at a time when we need good communications between what we call the “hicks and the slicks.” I’ll give you an example: now, if there is a major event occurring in rural Manitoba, and by rural I mean outside of Metropolitan Winnipeg, I know that there is a chance that the CBC will be interested in it. I have no assurance that any Winnipeg private radio station will be interested in it, unless one citizen kills another or unless the elevator burns, those are the conditions that you must meet to have a rural story on a private Winnipeg station. The loss of the Trib means that we have lost one print voice and this bothers us very much because, if it wants to, the Free Press can turn its back on rural Manitoba. It has no competitive reason for going out to the boondocks and getting the stories.

Q. What are the main themes in recent prairie history?

Petroleum, and potash, and wheat as the basic export products: you’re going to have the story of the burgeoning west and of the problems of national unity which have developed when two provinces, maybe three, begin to assert their rights (B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan to a much lesser degree). At the moment we are a little economic island trying to tell the rest of Canada that no longer is the eastern preference (as in the tariff preference for eastern manufacturers) acceptable and that we want those jobs out here now, close to the prairie provinces.

I have to be really quite sanguine because I say if we have food and we have fuel and we have the zeal to make those things work then certainly our future should be secure. Power for the prairies.

Q. Are you a western separatist?

Oh no, and I cannot imagine this nation hanging together in any segments whatsoever. I’m a nationalist.

Page revised: 23 March 2011