by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
When Charles Stewart initiated the meeting on March 5, 1885, to discuss and vote on a resolution to take Manitoba out of the Canadian Confederation, he certainly had his supporters, but by choosing the Knights of Labour Hall in Winnipeg as the venue, he had ensured that those opposed to his proposal would be by far in the majority.
In rural Manitoba, the secessionist movement had substantially more adherents than in Winnipeg, since farmers were the most aggrieved party, especially in terms of plummeting wheat prices bringing them to the verge of economic ruin, which they felt was exasperated by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s “National Policy” of high tariffs on manufactured goods, such as agricultural implements, the favouritism conferred on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) by the monopoly clause that prevented the chartering of new railways by the province, as well as the CPR’s high charges for sending wheat to market, among other grievances.
At an April 1884 meeting of the Shoal Lake branch of the Manitoba and North West Farmers’ Union, S.B. Paul alleged that the Eastern Canadian provinces were making a “slaughter market of Manitoba” (Manitoba Free Press, April 14, 1884).
If the farmers’ grievances weren’t addressed by Ottawa by constitutional means, then he favoured either secession from Canada or annexation to the United States.
Thomas Parsons said he endorsed secession, but opposed annexation.
However, most attending the meeting at Oakburn (south of Riding Mountain National Park at the junction of highways 21 and 45) favoured a less radical approach. At the end of the meeting, the Shoal Lake members of the Farmers’ Union only endorsed the so-called “anti-immigration” resolution that had been passed at the provincial convention in Winnipeg.
While the Shoal Lake branch shied away from openly endorsing secession, the High Bluff (just east of Portage la Prairie) branch passed the resolution: “That, the Dominion Government having denied us our just rights and treated the moderate requests of our Legislature with contempt, the interests of Manitoba imperatively demands that we shall no longer remain a party to the Dominion Confederation, and we hereby call upon the Provincial Legislature to claim the right of Manitoba to manage her own affairs, and to become an independent British colony, and to petition the Imperial Government accordingly.”
In opposition to the musings of the province’s rural brethren, Winnipeg’s commercial elite called a “mass meeting” on March 8 to denounce the resolution to defer immigration to Manitoba until the Macdonald government addressed the Farmers’ Union grievances. Although Winnipeg businessmen had initially supported the platform of the Farmers’ Union and many were members of the organization, they strongly objected to the “anti-immigration” resolution.
James Ashdown, a prominent Winnipeg businessman and a delegate to the mass meeting from the Winnipeg Board of Trade, said the resolution was a “mistake.” But he acknowledged that Ottawa had an obligation to address the Farmers’ Union’s grievances, since “the farmer was a necessity to the merchant and the merchant to the farmer; their interests could not be divided” (Free Press, March 10, 1884).
The result of the Winnipeg meeting was to pass a resolution stating that the “anti-immigration” resolution was “false and misleading, and that at the present time no State or Territory in the United States offers such inducements to the bona fide immigrant farmer as the province of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.”
The later portion of the resolution was directed to U.S. government agents, who were gleefully printing pamphlets containing the Farmers’ Union resolution and distributing them abroad, the object being to show how the U.S. encouraged immigration, while Canada was “anti-immigration.” Actually, neither the Canadian nor the provincial government endorsed the Farmers’ Union resolution — aghast at its content would be a good description of their reaction. On the other hand, the U.S. agents seized upon the “mistake” as a gift that unexpectedly fell into their lap and used it to their advantage.
Of course, the passage of the Winnipeg resolution was unanimous, since the commercial elite of the city relied heavily upon immigration to expand the pool of people who bought their goods and services.
The “anti-immigration” resolution prompted Winnipeggers to disassociate themselves from the Farmers’ Union and eventually contributed to the organization’s demise. In the wake of its fading support, the Manitoba and North West Territories Farmers’ Protective Union, initially formed in 1883, took over where the Farmers’ Union left off.
In the meantime, American and overseas newspapers were reporting on the cries of “secession” in Manitoba. Some of the reports were extremely farfetched, if not downright humourous.
The Chicago Tribune even claimed in December 1883 that if Manitoba separated from Canada, the U.S. government would readily accept the province’s admission into the republic.
According to the Chicago newspaper, “If the Dominion (Canadian) Government should try to interfere, it will be only necessary for the United States to act as it did in the case of Texas.”
The U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas and admitted it as the 28th state in 1845.
On March 21, 1884, the Alton Review, based in Sioux County, Iowa, wrote that Manitoba farmers and their threats of secession “have been playing the dickens with the nerves of the dominion government ... Evidently these Manitoba farmers mean to make somebody mad.”
The March 21, 1884, Boston Globe, reported that the farmers were prepared for “open rebellion against oppression” and that arms had been acquired to “defend their rights and be placed on a fair footing with the other provinces of the dominion.”
The February 23, 1884, New York Times hinted at a Fenian infiltration of “the secessionist movement in Manitoba.” Since the Fenians made a comic-opera failed attempt to invade Manitoba in 1871, their possible return would be decidedly unwelcome news in the province. The New York newspaper claimed “secret organizations in the States, from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, with which many prominent Irish-Americans are connected” were heading for Winnipeg to attend the March 5 Farmers’ Union convention. It further alleged that many leaders in the unnamed “secret organizations” were already in Winnipeg “from the Eastern States ... and making their headquarters” in the city.
With such adverse publicity sweeping North American (as well as England), it is little wonder that Winnipeggers came out en masse to disrupt Stewart’s meeting.
In his 1921 book, Reminiscences of a Raconteur, George Henry Ham, a journalist and former member of city council, related that the secessionist meeting in the “big building opposite the city hall,” was “one of the most exciting of the episodes in which I figured ...”
On March 6, 1885, the Free Press published the article, A Fizzle: The Secessionist Meeting Last Night Completely Squashed — Mr. Stewart Sat Upon. Although the author of the article is not mentioned, it was Ham, who played a role in the eventual outcome of the meeting at the Knights of Labour Hall.
With the fall of the Farmers’ Union, Stewart had shifted his allegiance to the Protective Union. Similar to when he was with the Farmers’ Union, Stewart’s secessionist musings became a thorn in the side of the Protective Union. His ill-advised meeting soon after the March 4 Protective Union convention in Winnipeg distracted from the organization’s less-dramatic efforts to address its members’ grievances.
Furthermore, a rebellion was brewing in the Northwest Territories, which was loosely connected to the Protective Union due to its constitution allowing the inclusion of the Prince Albert Settlers’ Union. The group of Canadian farmers acted in concert with the Métis farmers and buffalo hunters from the Saskatchewan River region and called for Louis Riel to lead the movement protesting Ottawa’s handling of land grievances.
The Northwest Territories farmers didn’t join the Protective Union, but the damage was done. Conservatives attacked the Manitoba-based Protective Union “as a front for secessionist Liberal politicians, who desired nothing less than the break-up of Confederation ...,” wrote Brian R. McCutcheon in his article, The Birth of Agrarianism in the Prairie West, Prairie Forum, November 1976.
Since Stewart was a Liberal among the Protective Union’s membership, the claim had some credibility. But few Liberals were real secessionists. Instead, Liberals had opportunistically joined the Farmers’ Union and the Protective Union in order to use the organizations to launch attacks against Manitoba Premier John Norquay’s Conservative government and Prime Minister Macdonald’s Conservative government.
Under the leadership of Thomas Greenway, a rural-based “Provincial Rights Party,” was formed after Macdonald disallowed a provincial railway charter in 1882. Shortly afterward, Greenway consolidated MLAs opposed to the Norquay government under the banner of the Liberal Party of Manitoba, although an initial split in the party between rural and urban interests existed that wasn’t resolved until Norquay became the undisputed leader of the party apparatus.
Ham’s short Free Press article and his longer recollection in his 1921 book provide a somewhat amusing interpretation of the events that transpired during the meeting.
According to Ham, Stewart was the only person present who offered any comments favourable to secession. He read the same secessionist resolution that he had proposed at the March 1884 Farmers’ Union convention which had failed to obtain a seconder.
The problems encountered by Stewart at the Winnipeg mass meeting were compounded by the pre-emptive actions of T.J. Lynskey, the Winnipeg-based CPR superintendent. Before the meeting began, Lynskey gained word of it, and was “resolved to head off the disloyal gathering,” wrote Ham in his book. “Obtaining a card of admission, a few hundred imitation ones were printed, and distributed where they would do the most good. When the meeting opened with Mr. Stewart in the chair, the hall was packed — but not with faces familiar to many of the organization.”
In his newspaper article, Ham wrote that Stewart made a few remarks and asked Mack Howse, a supposed ally in the secessionist movement, to speak. Howse undoubtedly looked about, saw a decidedly hostile audience and was cowered into submission, which helps to explain what happened next.
“Mr. Howse, in a few words, repudiated all connection with the secessionist movement and especially with the calling of the meeting. He denounced the promoter in unmeasured terms, and expressed his loyalty to Confederation.”
John W.H. Wilson, the father of lawyers Charles and Herb Wilson, as well as a “barrister of high standing” and a “staunch” Liberal and “loyal” Canadian, gave a “merciless tongue-lashing” to the “seceders in a twenty minute speech” that “would have done credit to Sir Richard Cartwright himself.” Cartwright was an Ontario MP, who served as the finance minister in the Prime Minister Sir Alexander Mackenzie Liberal government and advocated freer trade with the U.S.
Wilson turned to the chairman and shouted at him:
“‘And now, sir, if it were not for your gray hairs and advanced age I would ...’
“And he glanced significantly at the open window near him.”
Ham was called upon by the blusterous throng to speak, but he declined, although the journalist did move that Stewart be made a “committee of one, to secede.”
Johnny Gurn, who ran a restaurant not “altogether on temperance principles,” rose and shouted out, “‘I seconds the motion.’
“The chairman (Stewart) accepted the distinguished honor and George (Ham) told him he could go.”
Stewart Mulvey, a Winnipeg alderman (councillor), John W.H. Wilson and Amos Rowe, the publisher of the Winnipeg Times, congratulated those present for having nipped the secessionist movement in the bud.
It was Mulvey, seconded by Rowe, who proposed: “Resolved, that while this meeting pledges itself to advocate every reform needed in the interests of this country, that Manitoba and the Northwest is truly loyal to Confederation and the benefits arising therefrom, and they hope the day is far distant when any public body will pass a resolution asking to sever our connection with Confederation and the British constitution in which it is founded.”
With the passage of the resolution, those gathered broke into the national anthem, which at the time was God Save the Queen (Queen Victoria).
Ham claimed that pandemonium broke out as those in the hall began to disperse. “In descending the long flights of stairs some attempts were made by too enthusiastic individuals to interfere with the malcontents but there were enough of us to safeguard them.”
Less fortunate was Stewart, who, according to the newspaper article, “was pelted with eggs, thrown down on the sidewalk and disgracefully treated. Such conduct is anything but creditable to those who had just been applauding sentiments of freedom and British fair play.
Adding a touch of sarcasm, Ham wrote, “Mr. Stewart’s mental condition should secure him against personal violence.”
Stewart was “disgracefully treated” by being flung head-long into a snowbank.
At four o’clock the next morning, Stewart appeared at Ham’s door offering to explain the purpose of the meeting.
“What I wanted to know was who were the real instigators of the ‘affair,’” wrote Ham in his book, “but say what I would, he would not betray his friends. All I got out of him as he left the house at daybreak was:
“‘But I’ll tell you one thing, Mr. Ham, there’ll be no more meetings for me on a third storey. Ground floors for me every time after this.’”
Stewart, the failed secessionist, acknowledged that discretion was often the better part of valour, and when a quick escape was required, it was much easier to vacate a building from the bottom floor than from an upper level, especially when a hostile mob was intent upon malice.
It wasn’t until late March that the Protective Union membership finally disassociated themselves from Stewart. At the second convention of the Protective Union, the delegates also decided to disassociate themselves from further political action until the North West Rebellion of 1885 was suppressed.
In conflict with their avowed disassociation with the rebels, the union published a May 25, 1885, appeal to Queen Victoria. The 100-page document outlined the grievances of Manitoba in a moderate manner, but it also defended the Métis in the Northwest Territories, claiming that Ottawa had forced the rebels to take up arms. True or not, the statements were ill-advised at a time when Canadian troops, including battalions from Manitoba, were intent upon suppressing the rebellion.
The authors, which included Protective Union provincial secretary George Purvis, a Brandon-area farmer, and Henry J. Clarke, a former Manitoba attorney-general, warned if Manitoba and the North West “are doomed much longer to their present anomalous position — a colony in name only, the colony of a colony, denied all rights that belong to the other colonies in the Confederation, under the ‘British North America Act’ — then indeed, it will only be a question of time as to when the people will become tired of their equivocal position and slip the yoke of servitude.”
Apparently, secessionist sentiment would again rear its ugly head if the right conditions arose. In fact, another secessionist movement arose during the Great Depression in 1931, when farmers from across the Prairies threatened to take Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta out of Confederation. Most considered the threat more of a publicity stunt to draw attention to the plight of farmers, whose livelihood collapsed when world grain markets crashed.
The February 23, 1923, Free Press ran an editorial challenging dispatches from Edmonton written by an unnamed journalist for the New York Sun that the Alberta Legislature was preparing to pass a resolution calling for the secession of the Western provinces from Canada. The same journalist claimed that secession was on the agenda at the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ convention, but this was disputed by the Free Press, which indicated the resolution was from a local chapter and not discussed at the provincial convention.
“”It is absolutely untrue that Winnipeg has viewed the ‘secessionst movement’ one way or other,” according to the Free Press editorial, “because there is no such ‘movement.’ There may be a few freaks and extremists in Western Canada who favor secession but their number and influence is quite insignificant ...
“Although this dispatch is in a class by itself as a wilful mass of falsehood sent for the consumption of far-off readers, it is real and emphatic confirmation of the recent warning of the Free Press of wrong impressions that would be given in other countries by those few misguided individuals who talk irresponsibly about the secession of the Western provinces.”
More serious were the farmers’ threats made in the 1880s, when many — though far from all involved in the two union movements — believed the only course available to address Manitoba’s and the North West’s grievances was to secede from Canada.
After the appeal to Queen Victoria, the Protective Union had become so discredited that it received little newspaper coverage and its public support had completely evaporated. Even the Liberals, showing political expediency, deserted the Protective Union as a result of the 100-page appeal’s support for Riel and the rebellion.
The only item that still survived was its co-operative grain marketing scheme, but this plan also fell by the wayside due to subsequent legal action. The Protective Union disappeared by the end of 1886. Within a short period of time, Stewart and the two farmers’ movements became mere footnotes in Manitoba’s history.