Manitoba Historical Society
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Prelude to a Province

by Frank Hall

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1969, Volume 14, Number 3

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The confederation of four small provinces in the eastern part of British North America meant nothing to the western hinterland in 1867. It meant little at the time to that small area south of Lake Winnipeg which three years later was to join the infant union as Manitoba - the fifth province.

Rumors about a federal union between Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had been circulating in the west for several years, but when this prospect actually came to issue it roused no deep emotions among the settlers at Red River or among the officers and servants of the Hudson's Bay Company at widely scattered trading posts throughout the west and the northwest.

There had been periodic rumblings about changes in the governance of Rupert's Land; the rank and file of the HBC's traders walked uneasily from time to time as revisions in the corporate structure and powers of the Company were argued in parliamentary committees and in the stock exchange. But among the resident traders, the prospects of change (in 1867) were grounded more in personal hopes or fears than in the force of rumors born abroad.

The metis were perplexed about the security of their land, title to which was but loosely held by prior right of occupancy. They were also worried about the buffalo. A few small herds, now far out on the western plains, were the last of the seemingly unceasing millions from which they had taken meat and made pemmican - staple food for themselves and the fur trade. The French Canadian clergy were fearful of the already manifest trend toward a pre-dominantly English Protestant society at Red River. The Hudson's Bay Company was worried about the increasing competition from American traders and free traders. All these things as well as the recurring threat of floods, drought, and grasshoppers raised more conversation (and concern) than the founding of the Dominion of Canada.

The people at Red River were not worried by fear of seizure by this new political entity (a thousand miles away), though they wondered, nonetheless, what its territorial aspirations might mean to them in the future. Thirty-three years before they had also wondered what it might mean to them when Assiniboia was returned to the Hudson's Bay Company by Lord Selkirk's heirs. Yet the transfer of sovereignty in 1834 wrought no fundamental change. The old proprietary government of the House of Douglas was superseded by the new proprietary government of the Hudson's Bay Company and the people went on living the same as they had before.

Now it was 1867 and again the people were wondering about the future of their settlement. Suppose, after all, they were not as safe as they thought they were; suppose the Dominion of Canada were to reach out and take them into its fold, would life be the same under the new rule of Canada as under the old rule of the Hudson's Bay Company?

The rule of the Company had been a stern but benevolent paternalism; it had been as well a sort of cooperative commonwealth. During several long periods when there had been no courts, no judges, no lawyers, no policemen, the Company ruled by the consent of the people and only by their consent was it able to rule at all. At other times, when machinery was set up to check the activity of those who were illegally trading in furs, a few arrests were made. On the rare occasion, however, when an offender was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced, his friends would rally to his side and release him from custody. Following such breaks as these (and there were several) no subsequent action was ever taken to rearrest the miscreant or apprehend his rescuers.

An attempt to establish a rudimentary form of justice was made as early as 1817 when James Sutherland, a Justice of the Peace, came to Red River under the auspices of the Hudson's Bay Company. Any hopes that may have been held at this time for the orderly administration of justice at Red River were, however, dashed to the ground when Sutherland, who was commissioned by the Church of Scotland to officiate at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, spent most of his time tending his flock, to the wanton neglect of his first charge - the administration of justice at Red River.

In 1836 when the first jury trial in Assiniboia found Louis St. Denis guilty of theft, he was sentenced to be flogged in public, but when this indignity was being administered, his friends stoned the floggers and set him free. On another occasion when Adam Thom was Recorder (Judge) of Assiniboia, he found Guillaume Sayer and some others guilty of illegally trading in furs. This was an unpopular verdict. Therefore, when public demonstrations were mounted against it, Thom wisely dropped the case "in favor of the restoration of tranquillity in the settlement."

From 1858 to 1861 there was no judge in Rupert's Land, but Dr. John Bunn, Chief Medical Officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, fulfilled the judicial function (without legal training). In 1867 the Reverend John Black of Kildonan, "with a little legal training behind him in Scotland," was both judge and pastor.

If the Company ruled without trained judges, it also ruled without trained soldiers. In the year of Confederation, for example, there were no regular troops or militia throughout all of Western Canada (as we know it today) to put down civil insurrection, to quell Indian uprisings, or to check armed invasion should one or other of these emergencies arise. The Company ruled without the support of bar, bench, and bayonet, and though its authority was thus lightly held, it was never challenged by force of arms.

The Council of Assiniboia which ruled the area within a fifty-mile radius of the fork of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, though nominally representative of the people, was in fact an appointed body - appointed by the Hudson's Bay Company to safeguard its own interests. Elsewhere throughout the country the Chief Factors and Chief Traders were masters of their own trading posts and of the districts or departments they commanded. The rule of the Company "in sole and absolute proprietorship" was therefore maintained throughout all of Rupert's Land.

In 1867, the year of Canada's birth, all of the various problems and conditions which had arisen in Rupert's Land under the long proprietary rule of the Hudson's Bay Company were ripe for solution. A few leaders at Red River recognized this. So did Sir John A. Macdonald. He had been busy with Confederation during the first half of the year, but after the union had been proclaimed on July 1st, he turned (momentarily) to the problems of the west and wrote: "The Hudson's Bay Question must be settled and the rapid march of events and the increase in population will compel England and Canada to come to some arrangements respecting this immense country." Then, after penning this high-sounding sentence, he settled back and did nothing.

If the sovereignty of the Hudson's Bay Company were to end; if a new form of government were to be established at Red River, in Assiniboia, or throughout Rupert's Land, what would it be like? A Crown Colony, the form of colonial administration which had been recommended for Vancouver Island by the Select Committee of the British House of Commons in 1857, could have been introduced at Red River without unduly disturbing the old order. On the other hand, the whole of Rupert's Land might be united with Canada in a single province, just as had been urged by the old government of Upper and Lower Canada (under the Union Act of 1840). Finally, there was the radical proposition, fostered by Victorian anti-imperialists and by American agents and sympathizers, that the future alignment of Rupert's Land should be with the United States.

A highly vocal group at Red River, though not numerically strong, was in favor of this latter course. Union with the United States appeared to them to hold attractive opportunities for unfettered trade. Trade between Fort Garry and St. Paul was already well established by river route and overland trail, but the free flow of northbound goods was checked by a four per cent tariff at Pembina. Union with the United States would lead to the removal of this customs impost. Union would also open a way to the markets of the east where surplus Red River Valley grain, hauled by a new railroad to be built by American capital between St. Paul and Pembina, could be sold to millers at the American lake-head. The other prime advantage to union with the United States would be the protection afforded to the whole country by the establishment of American army posts throughout the territory.

The prospect of the Northwest becoming a Crown Colony had first been put forward to the Imperial government in 1857 by Sir Edmund Head, the Governor General of the united province of Upper and Lower Canada. Three years later, as Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, he repeated the proposal, and this time, supported by the Colonial Secretary, it seemed to be on the high-road to success. When, however, the Imperial government, refused to accept the financial obligations, it fell by the wayside.

Looking backward it would seem that a Crown Colony would have been the best form of government for Red River and the Northwest at the time. An appointed governor and council, the heart and soul of this form of colonial administration, would have served the country well. Law and order would have been maintained under civil institutions. A military force, domiciled in the country, would have preserved the peace. The vexatious free trade problem would have been settled, if not to everyone's satisfaction, at least to the degree that no doubt would have lingered as to the nature of the crime and the punishment. There is some evidence that the establishment of a Crown Colony at Red River would have received the support of both the white and metis population.

If there had been a Crown Colony at Red River in the years preceding the Confederation of Canada, some of its representatives would surely have been called to the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences to participate in the discussions leading to the founding of Canada. If this had happened, Manitoba might have become one of the founding provinces. It was, of course, left out, and only a postscript in the last chapter of the British North America Act,

... to admit Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory, or either of them into the Union," left the way open for Manitoba's subsequent admission, "... on such Terms and Conditions . . . as the Queen thinks fit to approve."

[Reprint, courtesy The Bison]

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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