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Manitoba History: Archival Resources for Women’s History in Manitoba

by Vera Fast
Archives of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 11, Spring 1986

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Scattered throughout Manitoba, from Flin Flon to Boissevain and from Steinbach to Killarney, are thirty-six locations with recognized archival deposits. All of them possess items of value to the women’s historian. Many more papers and records are located in libraries and museums which have not formally committed themselves to the collection of archival materials. It is necessary to emphasize the importance of local holdings. Veronica Strong-Boag maintains, “Region and local repositories have a special responsibility to rescue the lives of average Canadians from oblivion, for their intimate knowledge of their local communities can be employed to identify the essential oral as well as written documents.” [1]

While limitations of space dictate a description of holdings in only a few arbitrarily chosen repositories, excellent material is located throughout the province. Indeed, one of the problems inherent in an overview such as this is its necessary selectivity.

The oldest holdings in Manitoba are, of course, those of the Hudson’s Bay Company. [2] From its journals and diaries, letters and reports, come the lively and informative fur trade family histories of Jennifer S. H. Brown and Sylvia Van Kirk. It is possible to glean much knowledge, as they have done, not only about women’s work and marriage, but also about attitudes toward women prevalent during various fur trade periods. Governor George Simpson’s cavalier references to his “bits of brown” and “unnecessary and expensive appendages” still rankle, as does his intolerable scurrility on leaving a very pregnant Margaret Taylor in 1826: “Pray keep an Eye on the commodity,” he requested John McTavish, “if she bring forth anything in proper time and of the right colour let them be taken care of but if anything be amiss let the whole be bundled about their business ...” [3]

Fortunately, however, not all traders were cast in the same mold. Warm and caring relationships are also documented. The dictatorial John Rowand Sr. left much to be desired as a husband, but his comment about Louise Umphreville on her death strikes a particularly attractive note. He refers to her as “my old friend, the Mother of all my children.” [4]

Detailed descriptions of trading-post life, anecdotes and titillating gossip spice the letters of Letitia Hargrave, wife of York Factory’s Chief Trader in the 1840s. Photocopies of these letters are found in the Margaret Arnett MacLeod Collection in the University of Manitoba Archives (Mss Collection) together with much biographical information on the Hargrave family, and numerous photographs.

Jean Louis Riel with his grandmother, Mrs. Louis Riel Sr., née Julie Lagimodière.

Jean Louis Riel with his grandmother, Mrs. Louis Riel Sr., née Julie Lagimodière.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Although Letitia did not spend many pages in describing native family life, her skeletal references may be fleshed out through use of numerous HBCA holdings, reports in the records of various Roman Catholic Orders, reports to the Church Missionary Society on microfilm at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM), and, for a later period, records in the Anglican Diocesan Archives of Rupert’s Land, Brandon and Keewatin, and the United Church Archives.

An example of twentieth-century native community life is found in the “Annual Report of the Keewatin Diocesan Branch of the Women’s Auxiliary” (Diocese of Keewatin Archives). When Jack River mission celebrated Christmas in 1926, “They had a Christmas dinner charging $0.50 for adults and $0.25 for children. They served beaver and rabbit pies, meat stew and potatoes, stuffed roast rabbit, pies and cakes, jellies and jams ... All widows and their children and the poor, were guests of honor. Boxes of left-overs were sent to the shutins ... We never spent a happier day ...”

Native life in the twentieth century is also well documented by taped interviews and records. The PAM holds a 75 RPM record, “Bungee Stoves” (A.V. C1) recorded in 1950 by Mrs. John McAllister, mixed-blood daughter of Premier John Norquay. In the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature (MMN) one finds phonotapes of Métis folksongs, Cree and Ojibway songs, and a group of Chipewyan Indians at North Knife Lake reciting, sending messages and singing. They are also taped “at card games.” Another group at Tadoule Lake beat drums, and tell stories and “personal thoughts.” [5]

In the same collection are the reminiscences of Jemima Folster and Ellen Apetagon, Cree residents of Norway House, who compare their own education and value systems with those of younger native women. On still another tape Jessie Yorke tells of pounding meat to obtain lard, of making cooking utensils from clay and clothing from animal hides. Flora Balfour of the same band remembers her trapping, fishing and recreational activities. [6] An oral history project related to Manitoba Métis, currently in progress at the PAM, will further add to present knowledge of native peoples in our province.

This being the centenary year of the death of Louis Riel, it is appropriate to review the rich archival holdings in Manitoba related to the Riel family. Located mainly in the Provincial Archives, the papers have been gathered in various ways. The last material to be added was thirty-eight letters or drafts of letters discovered in the old Riel home in 1966. The collection includes letters by Riel to his mother and other family members, letters from his sister Sara (Sr. Marguerite Marie), from his aunt, Mrs. John Lee, from Riel’s mother, and so on. Although some work has appeared in French language journals on the correspondence of Sara Riel, and Parks Canada has collated two interesting and informative volumes of research on the Riels and Lagimodieres, [7] very little has been published on the women of the Riel family. This is a timely subject for the researcher fluent in French.

The archives of the various religious orders comprise another rich source of information for the study of women in Manitoba. The largest and oldest of these repositories is that of the Grey Nuns (Sisters of Charity of Montreal), a French order which sent four nuns to Red River in 1844 at the request of Bishop Provencher. Located at 151 rue Despins in St. Boniface, these holdings are extensive enough to require an index of over 200 pages and include information relevant to such areas as education, health care and family life, not only during the early period of the province but also up to the present time.

All archives maintained by Orders with a Mother House in Manitoba contain biographical files on every Sister who has served in the Ecclesiastical Province of St. Boniface. The Grey Nuns, for example, hold the papers of Sr. Marie-Josephine Nebraska or Anapo (Little Dawn), daughter of Swift Eagle. Anapo joined the Grey Nuns in 1885, the first Sioux to become a professed religious. Biographical data generally includes date and place of birth, date of confirmation and of entering the Order, other personal and family information, details concerning the dowry brought into the Order and, of course, photographs. There are also hand-written Books of Vows, Renewal of Vows, and the Noviate Journals.

In the archives of Our Lady of the Missions on Adele Street, these Noviate Journals begin in 1919 and continue until the 1950s. They describe day to day activities and offer a very personal and sometimes intimate look at convent life, often bringing humour into an otherwise wretched situation. For example, a Sister in the kitchen accidentally spilled pepper on the stove and the nuns in chapel, at prayers and chanting hymns, dissolved one by one into paroxysms of sneezing and coughing, were finally forced to abandon the service in undignified disarray.

In these religious archives are detailed plans and reports of the work in which each Order specializes, such as homes for unwed mothers, hospitals, half-way houses for delinquent girls, schools, etc. Most of this, as well as some of the other material mentioned, is restricted, subject to written permission from the Mother Superior, but much of it is also freely available to the accredited researcher.

The archives of the Roman Catholic Orders are illustrative of the unique position Manitoba holds in regard to repositories of various religious groups. Not only has Winnipeg the oldest Catholic records in the West, but those of the Anglican Province of Rupert’s Land also date from the early nineteenth century. The United Church of Canada, Manitoba and Northwest Ontario Conference Archives, although more recent, include the records of the first Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist congregations. Occasionally it is necessary to be reminded that it was women from the various religious groups who initially organized social services we now take for granted, such basic needs as children’s homes, health clinics, homes for the aged, and matrons for women prisoners.

Although Mennonites constitute an insignificant percentage of Canada’s population, Manitoba’s statistics reveal a concentration of this religious group in the province. Quite naturally, therefore, Winnipeg houses the national archives of the two largest Canadian branches, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada and the Mennonite Brethren. Both hold the usual family papers, diaries and photographs, church records including church homes for immigrant women, and similar material.

From among the religious/ethnic archives, however, I would like to single out for special attention those of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada. [8] Some of its holdings are on location; most are on deposit with the PAM. From among the many items of interest—memories of matchmaker marriages, marriage contracts, the Esther Robinson Jewish Orphanage, etc.—I would like to focus on the continuing three-generational oral history project.

The questionnaires designed for the interviews include one for each generation, each approximately eight pages in length, and each containing sections on family background work, trade unionism, marriage, living accommodations, leisure, community involvement, education, politics, and religion. While it is impossible to detail all the specific questions, those for the first-generation section on marriage will indicate the comprehensive nature of the interviews. The following is a slightly adapted version of this section:

1. When did you marry?

2. What was your spouse’s occupation?

3. How did you meet him/her?

4. Was it an arranged marriage?

5. Was a dowry involved?

6. How old were you when you married? And your spouse?

7. How many children did you have? Did they all survive?

8. Today young people limit their families by using various birth control methods. Was this a concern of families in your day?

9. In every home there are certain tasks which must get done—cooking, cleaning, shopping, decorating, yard work, painting, ets. Which tasks did you do regularly?

10. After you were married, how often did you and your spouse visit family?

11. Were the marriages of your children arranged?

The second and third generation questionnaires add the following: If you married a non-Jew, did your spouse convert? Why or why not? What was the reaction of family and friends? What kind of wedding ceremony did you Have? Religious or Civil?

Material such as this is the answer to a social historian’s prayers. More information of a similar nature may be found in the oral history tapes held by approximately seventy individuals and organizations in Manitoba, many of which are listed in the Moving Images and Sound Division of the PAM. Less personal information is available in newspapers of ethnic groups, in collections such as those held at the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Society or the Icelandic Archives at the University of Manitoba, in museums such as Daly House in Brandon or the J. A. V. David Museum in Killarney, and in institutional archives such as the splendid one in the Brandon Mental Health Centre.

Yet while commendable repositories already exist in Manitoba, much remains to be done in searching for and recovering documentation which will enable Manitoba women to “rediscover” their heritage. The Provincial Archives of the province has designated this as a priority area, and hopefully, many regional and local archives will follow suit.

Mrs. James Rutherford

Mrs. James Rutherford.
“Mrs. James Rutherford, a native of the Red River Settlement, came to Moose Factory by canoe in the 1840s. She was a domestic in the household of Chief Factor Robert Miles and during her lifetime was a staunch and loyal H.B.C. employee. Her duties were many, ranging from the supervision of the large diary to the nursing of the sick. During the fruit season she supervised the making of all jams, jellies, etc. for the Officers Mess, and at the annual slaughtering time looked after the preparation of all meals, etc. A first class seamstress and barberess, she was kept busy summer and winter. In the social life of the Bay she shone par excellence, a beautiful dancer, and an expert demonstrator of the famous Red River Jig’. She married James Rutherford, the Company's blacksmith.”
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba


1. Veronica Strong-Boag, “Raising Clio’s Consciousness: Women’s History and Archives in Canada,” Archivaria, no. 6 (Summer 1978), p. 76.

2. The permission of the Hudson’s Bay Company to quote from the archives is gratefully acknowledged.

3. HBCA, B2391c11, fo. 283.

4. HBCA, D5/20, fo. 82d.

5. MMN, tapes 487, 488, 495, 496, 562, 687.

6. MMN, tapes 685, 686.

7. Robert Gosman, “The Riel and Lagimodiere Families in Métis Society, 1840-1860,” Parks Canada, vol. 177, 1977; Diane Payment, “Riel Family Home and Lifestyle at St. Vital, 1860-1910,” Parks Canada, vol. 379, 1980.

8. The permission of the Society to quote from its archives is gratefully acknowledged.

Page revised: 1 October 2023

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