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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter IX - The Forgotten Commonwealth of "Manitoba," and Other Provisional Governments


Spontaneous Rise of Local Provisional Governments—Neglected Settlements at Portage La Prairie—Thomas Spence—Protests and Petitions, 1867—Provisional Government Set In 1868— Interesting State Correspondence—Collapse of Spence's Government—Other Provisional Governments.

The settlers of Western British America have ever been characterized equally by the love of freedom and by distaste for anarchy. Consequently when on account of the remoteness of a settlement or its temporary political conditions, the arm of the central authority was paralyzed, local provisional governments have been established at various times.

In 1868 there existed in part of the North West a shortlived provisional government of this kind, the very tradition of which has been almost forgotten. Its brief history justifies recall.

It will be remembered that the ancient colony of Assiniboia was of very small geographical dimensions when compared with the enormous provinces into which the Xorth West is now subdivided. Beyond its western limits one of the first settlements of importance was that centering round Portage la Prairie, or Caledonia, as it was then called. Here the people did not even enjoy the perhaps doubtful advantages of being under the ancient Council of Assiniboia. They were subject immediately and only to the paternal despotism and forgetfulness of the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company.

The sturdy pioneers of Portage la Prairie objected equally to both despotism and forgetfulness. Their chief spokesman was Thomas Spence, an interesting character whom many old timers in the present Province of Manitoba well remember. While he never came to affluence nor to important office under any recognised government, he was a man of considerable parts, and was possessed of the essential qualifications of a successful agitator. He could recognise the anomaly of the existing state of affairs; he manifestly enjoyed helping his neighbors to see their grievances; he loved making speeches and writing letters; he had unlimited self-confidence and an imperturbable sense of his own dignity; and be would not and could not be silenced. He must have been a man worth knowing!

On the 31st of May, 1867, a group of the settlers of Portage la Prairie assembled in the little store of Thomas Spence, of Caledonia, to protest against the existing system of government, or lack of it, and to make their grievances known afar. Mr. Spence occupied the chair, and at the close of the proceedings, the records showed that he received the formal thanks of his fellow citizens for "the dignified manner in which the meeting had been conducted." The settlers crystallized their views in a series of interesting resolutions. One of these sets forth that "already efforts had been made by tbe people to organize and carry on a local government." Of this experiment we know nothing except what is contained in the last clause of this resolution, wherein we read the mournful news that the settlers of Portage la Prairie had "failed to continue the same successfully, through a want of unity and dignity in the Government."

The discontented pioneers called the attention of the powers that were, to the anomalous condition of the colony at Portage la Prairie. "Being beyond the fifty miles limit from Fort Garrv and the jurisdiction of the Council of Assiniboia. this settlement, containing a population of nearly five hundred, is totally without law or protection, civil or criminal, and entirely at the mercy of lawless hands of Indians and others." The meeting placed upon record its desire "to lay before the British and the British North American Confederate Governments their regret and despondency as loyal British subjects left to continue in their anomalous condition." To this resolution is appended a publicity advertisement in the framing of which we can see the hand of Mr. Spence. The settlers of Caledonia "inhabit a section of the country which for salubrity of climate, richness of soil and luxuriousness of vegetation, and as an agricultural country, capable of supporting in comparative affluence millions of people, cannot be excelled, if equalled, in any part of the world."

"With a view of reflecting the sentiments of this people to the British Government," it was resolved that "a memorial be addressed to Her Most Gracious Majesty, the Queen, praying for redress and British law and protection being extended to them as loyal British subjects, and that Messrs. Spence, McLean and Garvin Garnoch be a Committee to draft and forward the same to the proper authorities and that a copy of the resolutions be transmitted to the Canadian Government with a request that the same may be laid before the House at the first meeting of the Confederate Parliament of British North West America."

This Committee performed its duties, but the far-away Eastern statesmen failed to respond with a promptitude at all commensurate with the earnestness of the Caledonian settlers.

Consequently, on January 17. 1868. Mr. Spence and his colleagues notified Mr. Angus Morrison. M. P.. in a lengthy letter, that the delay in considering their requests had culminated in the establishment of a provisional government. This letter runs as follows:

Portage la Prairie, via Red River Settlement, January 17, 1868.

"Dear Sir:—The President and Council of Manitoba, Rupert's Land, have the honour to request that you will lay before the Government and Parliament of the Dominion of Canada this communication and information, and to request 011 our behalf from the Government at the earliest convenience after consideration, a reply for the ultimate guidance and consideration of this Government.

"1. For the information of your Government we would in the first place beg to state that the election of the President and Council and organization of this Government only took place in the early part of the present month, and that the election was regularly conducted by the vote of the people. (In the adjoining colony of Assiniboia the election of the Council, the supposed representatives of the people, takes place in London, England.)

"This settlement had hitherto been totally unprovided for with law or protection, either by the Imperial Government or the Hudson's Bay Company, without even a flag of acknowledgement, anomalous to any British settlement in the Empire, all of which has been twice fully laid before Her Majesty's Government by petition of the people, praying for redress and protection, and to be admitted into the Confederation of the Dominion of Canada (or even attached pro tern), of which no further acknowledgement has been received than the mere official replies of receipt, and that the same "had been laid at the foot of the Throne."

"Meantime, in view of the increase of crime, and the overbearing tone of the Indians towards the settlers,—some of them immigrants of recent date from Canada,—plunder and robbery daily going on, self-preservation demanded tbe immediate organization of an independent Government.

"2. The boundaries of the infant Government of Manitoba for jurisdiction are declared to be as follows:

"South, by the boundary line between the United States and British North America. East by the boundary line of the jurisdiction of the Government of Assiniboia; West, by the River Souris, or Mouse River, running to the North and the Little Saskatchewan running to the South into the Assiniboia; and on the north by Lake Manitoba, as far as Manitoba house, which area embraces a large portion of the garden of the Xorth West.

"3. The Council of Manitoba have recently with much satisfaction learned the resolutions regarding this country, and brought clown to the House by the Honourable Mr. MeDougall, on 30th November, last: but. previous to this knowledge, this Council was pledged to the Electors to act resolutely on either of the two following pledges, viz.: 'First; to know from the Goveminent of the Dominion of Canada, in consequence of the 146th section of the "British North America Act of 1867," if that Government would be disposed to at once, under existing urgent circumstances, recognize the existence of this petty Government, or if we can be assured by your government of our admission or attachment to the Dominion within six months. Second; that should the reply of your Government prove unfavourable, as a last and desperate resource to throw ourselves upon the liberality and protection of the United States Government for recognition and ultimate annexation.'

"This step as a last resort and after grave deliberation is to this Council and people an extremely reluctant one; but when all the circumstances of their total neglect and patient endurance of many years' disappointment, and daily perceiving the rapid advancement of their American neighbours are considered, any liberal Government could not but sympathize with a neglected people, compelled to renounce their loyalty under such circumstances. But this Council sincerely hope and pray that the early and favourable reply of your .Government will avert such a humiliation and calamity, through which serious and complicated evils might arise between the several Governments interested. We have etc.,

Council of Manitoba.

A month later we find President Spence serving the Imperial Government with a similar notice, through the Secretary of State for the Colonics, and indicating to the home authorities the active measures already inaugurated by his Government for the welfare of Manitoba. This letter will also bear quoting.

"La Prairie, Manitoba, via Red River Settlement, 19 February, 186S.

"My Lord:—As President elect by the people of the newly organized Government and council of Manitoba in British Territory. I have the dutiful honour of laying before jour Lordship, for the consideration of Her Most Gracious Majesty, our beloved Queen, the circumstances attending the creation of the self-supporting petty Government in this isolated portion of Her Majesty's Dominions; and as loyal British subjects we humbly and sincerely trust Her Most Gracious Majesty and Her advisors will be pleased forthwith to give this government favourable recognition, it being simply our aim to develop our resources, improve the condition of the people, and generally advance and preserve British interests in the rising far-West.

"An humble address from the people of this settlement to Her Majesty the Queen was forwarded through the Governor-General of Canada in June, last, briefly setting forth the superior attractions of this portion of the British Dominions, the growing population, and the gradual influx of immigrants, humbly praying for recognition, law and protection, to which no reply or acknowledgement has yet reached this people.

"Early in January, last, at a public meeting of settlers who numbered over four hundred, it was unanimously declared to at once proceed to the election and construction of a government, which has accordingly been duly carried out, a revenue imposed, public buildings commenced to carry out the laws, provisions made for Indian treaties, construction of roads and other public works tending to promote the interests and welfare of the people.

"I have the honor to remain, my Lord,

"Your Lordship's obedient servant-, "T. Spence, "Pres. of Council.

"To the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, London, England."

The regime of the Council of Manitoba was unfortunately of brief duration. The new government fell a victim to the disrespect of its own subjects and to the legal difficulties of its situation as these were set forth by Her Majesty's Secretary of State.

A contumacious shoe-maker in Caledonia, Macpherson by name, circulated the rumour that the new riders of the colony were using, for the purchase of liquor for their private consumption, moneys collected as public taxes. This accusation involved a manifest case of lese majesty. The offending shoe-maker was consequently haled into the back shop to be examined by the President in Council. The friends of the accused thereupon riotously effected his release, and the first provisional government passed out amid laughter and profanity.

In acknowledgement of Mr. Spence's letter, the British Colonial Secretary on May 30, 1808, wrote as follows:

"In these communications you explain the measures that have been taken for creating a self-supporting government in Manitoba within the territory of the Hudson's Bay Company.

"The people of Manitoba are probably not aware that the creation of a separate government in the manner set forth in these papers has no force in law, and that they have no authority to create or organize government, or even to set up municipal institutions (properly so-called), for themselves, without reference to the Hudson's Bay Company or the Crown.

"Her Majesty's Government are advised that there is no objection to the people of Manitoba voluntarily submitting themselves to rules and regulations which they may agree to observe for the greater protection and improvement of the territory in which they live, but which will have no force as regards others than those who may have so submitted themselves..

"As it is inferred that the intention is to exercise jurisdiction over offenders in criminal cases, to levy taxes compulsorilv, and to attempt to put in force other powers, which can only he exercised by a properly constituted government, I am desired to warn you that you and your coadjutors are acting illegally in this matter, and that, by the course you arc adopting, yon are incurring grave responsibilities."

One cannot help smiling at the simplicity, directness and self-confidence of those responsible for the establishment of the provisional government in the "Colony of Manitoba," but the thoughtful reader, conversant with the conditions of the times, must likewise feel some genuine admiration for these sturdy politicians. In a community containing any number of such men as Thomas Spence. David Cusitar, Malcolm Cumming, Frederick A. Bird, William Carnoch, Thomas Anderson, John McLean and the like, it was manifestly preposterous that self-governing institutions should be longer delayed. As a matter of fact, in accordance with their request, their grievances were laid before the Dominion Parliament at its first session and their petitions, backed up by their practical activities, played a part in hastening the annexation of the West to the new Dominion. Moreover, it is interesting to remember that when a real provincial government was established, the new province was not named after Assiniboia, the ancient centre of the Red River Settlement. It perpetuates the name adopted by the settlers of Portage la Prairie, and their Provisional Council.

Other provisional governments were those of John Bruce at Fort Garry, 1869; Louis Riel at Fort Garry, 1870; Gabriel Dumont at Batoche, in 1875; and Louis Riel at Batoche in 1885. Each of these will be in due course treated of in later chapters.


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