Manitoba History: Book Review: Jim Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage - Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development 1870 to 1930

by Nicole C. O’Byrne
University of Victoria

Number 52, June 2006

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Historian W. L. Morton argued in The Canadian Identity (1961) that the Canadian shield had made an indelible mark on the Canadian psyche and that “the main task of Canadian life has been to make something of this formidable heritage.” [1] Morton also contended that the challenge posed by the economic development of the North shaped Manitoba’s provincial character. In his work, Morton constructed a vision of the North in which the development of natural resource industries was an integral component of Manitoba’s identity. In the introduction to his book Formidable Heritage, James Mochoruk admits that he has been strongly influenced by Morton’s ideas about the north. However, he takes Morton’s ideas further by asking an essential question: What was the impact of the development and exploitation of the natural resources of northern Manitoba on the people who lived in the region? In other words, Mochoruk wants to explore the “cost of development” in political, ecological, and socio-economic terms.

Theodore A. Burrows (1857-1929) was a prominent lumberman, land commissioner for the CNR, and Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba.
Source: G. Bryce, A History of Manitoba: Its Resources and People, 1906. The Canada History Company.

Whereas W. L. Morton asserted that development was essentially beneficial, Mochoruk challenges this assumption in the introduction by offering a strong central thesis:

When all of Manitoba was given in 1670, sight unseen, to a group of entrepreneurs whose primary goal was to exploit the natural resources of the region, a precedent was set that would be replicated all too many times in Manitoba’s history, for this grant was both careless and callous in regard to the region’s resources and to the rights of its inhabitants. While this precedent would not be replicated in every detail – governments would make different types of arrangements with business people as both the nature of the state and of capitalism evolved over the next 260 years – these differences were usually but variations on a theme. [2]

In nine meticulously researched chapters, Mochoruk proves this assertion. He begins with a background chapter on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the national policy, and the settlement of the West. In the subsequent chapters, Mochoruk describes the anomalous constitutional position that Manitoba found itself in at confederation and how this influenced the course of resource development. (Manitoba was the first province to enter confederation without the control and administration of its natural resources. The federal government retained control and collected all of the revenues derived from the lands and minerals. In 1930 the natural resources were transferred to the province, and Manitoba received an annual subsidy as compensation.) In a richly detailed narrative, Mochoruk describes the impact that this federal control had on the people of northern Manitoba. In the sixty years Mochoruk covers, the federal Department of the Interior failed to adequately invest in the area or manage the natural resources in a responsible way. This led to virtually unchecked development by private business in the fishery, fur trade, timber, and mining industries. Mochoruk also describes the effects that this had on the First Nations people whose traditional lands were increasingly encroached upon by settlers and by entrepreneurs.

This book represents economic and regional history at its finest. Mochoruk weaves together individual stories in order to create an engaging and nuanced picture of evolution of northern Manitoba from 1870 to 1930. Based on his doctoral dissertation, Mochoruk has done a remarkable amount of archival research for this book. The thoroughness of his research combined with a sophisticated grasp of the interplay between law, policy, and economics has resulted in what is bound to become a seminal work in western Canadian history. Mochoruk’s knowledge of his subject matter allows him to shed new light on many complicated issues, such as race relations. He is able to go beyond stereotypes of First Nations’ peoples in order to explore the complexities that lay behind their deteriorating socio-economic situation. For example, he illustrates that it was the inability of First Nations to secure capital that hampered their ability to compete with white entrepreneurs in the fishing, lumber and fur industries (the title to reserve land was held in common and could not be used as collateral). Insights such as this are presented throughout the book and provide the reader with a deeper and fuller understanding of the myriad forces at play in the economic development and race relations. Mochoruk is also able to integrate the constitutional and legal history of the region in order to situate many of the choices made by the political leaders and entrepreneurs in the period. These aspects are often ignored by historians in an era when social history predominates.

In a convincing conclusion, Mochoruk ties together the various themes that he has explored in detail throughout the book. He blames the monumental greed and shortsightedness of private developers and governments for the environmental and economic problems in the area. He argues that “Capital, be it represented by the monopoly mercantile capitalism of the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] in the seventeenth century or by the industrial capitalism of the HBM&S [Hudson’s Bay Mining and Smelting] in the twentieth, had always been able to convince political leaders to give it rights and privileges that superseded those of all others.” [3] Some reviewers have criticized Mochoruk for being ahistorical on this point. They have argued that Mochoruk judges historical actors by today’s standards. I would argue that Mochoruk presents the past with great regard for the historical context that shaped the events that unfolded in this period. However, he does not shy away from claiming that the “cost of development” was extremely high and that it was the greed of the private developers and the complicity of various governments that created many of the economic and social problems that still trouble northern Manitoba. For this reason, Mochoruk’s book is timely and relevant. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the socio-economic, constitutional, environmental, or political history of Manitoba.

The steamboat Isabelle, used by entrepreneur Peter McArthur to transport lumber on Lake Winnipegosis in the late 19th century, sits at Whiskey Jack Island.
Source: Winnipegosis Museum.


1. W. L. Morton, The Canadian Identity, 2nd ed. (Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), p. 5.

2. Jim Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage – Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development 1870 to 1930 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2004), p. xiii.

3. Mochoruk, Formidable, p. 378.

Page revised: 16 June 2012