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90-year-old edifice to the future
May 14, 2010

Manitoba Day has passed, but another important anniversary is quickly approaching.  Ninety years ago, on July 15, 1920, the grand opening of Manitoba’s new legislative building was held. The scandal-plagued building took seven years to complete, but it emerged as a visual reminder of the province’s progress.

“It is fitting that the fiftieth birthday of the province should be symbolized by the dedication of this ... splendid edifice,” said Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Sir James Aitkin, who officially opened the building.

“This splendid edifice is one of the most marked milestones in the history of the province ...,” said Manitoba Liberal Premier Tobias Norris. “It is for the people of Manitoba to make this noble structure a temple dedicated to the welding together of all Manitobans into unity of citizens of Manitoba and Canada, irrespective of classes or occupation in the spirit of sincere co-operation for the common good in the advancement of the welfare of all.”

Since the date was such a milestone, the Free Press ran a special supplement on July 15, 1920, “commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Manitoba’s establishment as a province.”

The supplement contained 21 “signed” articles with illustrations by B.T. Batsford for those who didn’t know “the romantic origin of the province.” The articles were written by such notable Manitoba journalists as J.W. Dafoe and E. Cora Hind. 

“Today, we extend to Manitoba our heartfelt felicitations upon the Province’s attainment of its fiftieth Birthday — its Golden Jubilee,” began the article called Perseverance and Evolution. “Throughout fifty years, a comparative short period, Perseverance and Evolution have accomplished wonderful things ... Events have led up in rapid succession from the thrilling times of the Red River Settlement (the days of the strong-fisted, of the pony express, the flint-lock, and the ox-cart) to the monumental year, 1920 ...

“The prosperity now enjoyed is but an earnst of the remarkable inheritance which is Manitoba’s birthright and toward which she is pressing with a zeal that is the admiration of the Empire of which she forms an important part.”

In order not to confuse readers, it should be noted that July 15 was then regarded as the day to celebrate the founding of Manitoba, rather than today’s May 12. For the record, The Manitoba Act became official on July 15, 1870, creating the fifth province in the Canadian Confederation. On the other hand, the Manitoba Act was given Royal assent on May 12, 1870, when it was signed by Canadian Governor General Sir John Young on behalf of Queen Victoria. The Premier Edward Schreyer NDP government adopted May 12 as Manitoba’s birthday, according to a May 11, 1976 report in the Free Press, “because it enables children, while still in school, to be involved in the celebration.”

Since July 15 is still the official day of Manitoba’s anniversary, the provincial government must each year issue a proclamation declaring May 12 as Manitoba Day.

In 1920, Professor Arthur A. Stoughton, head of the department of architecture at the University of Manitoba, wrote a special feature for the Free Press detailing the architectural features of the new legislative building: “Without discussing in this place the wisdom of carrying out such a large scheme, the fact remains that we have a beautiful, well designed, properly embellished, artistic to a degree (building) as the jewel of the city and province. In this we should take unbounded satisfaction and pride. It is an object in the city to which all eyes turn as the most striking landmark. It is a place to which we shall take all strangers. It is an impression of our city which all visitors will retain when they leave.”

Throughout the day, architect Frank Worthington Simon, who was commissioned to design the structure, proudly conducted tours of the new legislature for  architects from across North America. Norris called the new edifice “an enduring monument to Mr. Simon’s architectural genius.”

“Admiring groups of visitors (viewed) “from every point the architectural beauty of the main entrance and the dome, while hundreds passed from room to room admiring the richness of the  furnishings and the tasteful decorative work,” reported the Free Press.

While Manitobans were justifiably proud of the new legislature, its construction still left bitter feelings due to corruption on a grand scale. By  1917, Thomas Kelly, the builder awarded the initial contract, was found by the Manitoba Board of Appeal to owe the province $1.2 million for “extras” padded into its construction. An earlier inquiry found $800,000 in “extras.” In the end, the province recouped a mere $30,000, mostly from the confiscation of Thomas Kelly & Sons property in the city. 

Kelly was sent to Stony Mountain jail to serve a 2 1/2 year sentence, but  served only nine months, while living in the comfort of the warden’s house. On Saturday nights, his friends would arrive to play poker with the so-called convict. He was released because of a “severe nervous breakdown,” after which he left for the United States.

Kelly’s “extras” were alleged to have found their way into Conservative Party coffers.  Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin and two cabinet colleagues were charged and placed on trial for corruption, but they were released when the charges were dismissed.

The highly-partisan nature of political parties made the era ripe for corruption. As a result of the scandal, Manitoba politics flt the ripples for decades. Although the Liberals replaced the Conservatives, their reign was short-lived and the non-partisan “pay-as-you-go” politics founded by Premier John Bracken dominated Manitoba until 1958 when Roblin’s grandson, Duff Roblin, became premier.

Despite the scandal, the legislative building remains a visible reminder of the pride Manitobans can feel in all that they have accomplished through the years, while continuing to look ahead to a bolder future, making this anniversary a significant event to commemorate.