On May 12, Manitoba will celebrate its 138th birthday, making it the oldest province in Western Canada, as British Columbia became a province one year later and Saskatchewan and Alberta didn’t join the Canadian Confederation until 1905.
At the time Manitoba became part of Canada, there was a feeling of elation, even from the founder of the province, Louis Riel. Riel would be forced into exile when troops from Eastern Canada under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley arrived on August 22, 1870, vowing revenge for the execution of Thomas Scott.
A special session of the Provisional Government greeted Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot as a conquering hero for being instrumental in negotiating the Red River Settlement’s new provincehood (see article page 4). Even the “postage-stamp” size of Manitoba — the cynical would call its tiny dimensions then Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s punishment for nearly ending his political career — didn’t dampen the spirits of the celebrants.
An editorial in the New Nation on May 20, 1870, said despite the “severe trial” of the past winter caused by the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, “it is gratifying to observe here the perfect absence of taunt or recrimination towards each other; and from this kindly feeling amongst our people, in the face of the late temporary breach that occurred between them, we are led to believe that it is healing as quickly as it took place ... All that we ask is to be on a fair footing in the change proposed for this country.”
“We are Canadians — let us be so in the true spirit, and work unitedly to further our country’s interests from sea to sea,” proclaimed an editorial in the same newspaper on August 27, 1870.
Another editorial on July 16, observed, “There is room for all, only let us live in harmony and devote our energies and attention to the great work of developing the natural riches which the Almighty has bestowed upon our country.”
The point of sharing was not fully accepted, as settlers from Ontario eventually usurped the dominant political and business role in the new province. Yet, there was promise in becoming a part of Canada that could not be denied. People born in Red River or long-time settlers showed great patience, knowing that as Canadians they would eventually reap the benefits of membership in the new country they wholeheartedly embraced.
Many Métis were not as fortunate as other original inhabitants, driven in fear to seek refuge in the wild lands to the west, but even they eventually were recognized for the integral role they played in the creation of Canada’s newest province. By perseverance, many Métis were able to rise to positions of leadership in their communities and in Manitoba.
It was the promise of the new province which drove the enthusiasm and resulted in some of the most exuberant claims made in Canadian history. Manitoba was the “Keystone Province,” Brandon was the “Wheat City,” Winnipeg was the “Bull’s Eye of the Dominion” or the “Chicago of the North.”
With the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881, Manitoba and Winnipeg entered a new age of enthusiasm — the era called “one continuous joy-ride.”
The promise of Manitoba led to rampant speculation in property. Imagined “cities” arose on the prairies where only strong-stemmed grasses held sway against the force of the wind. It was all a wild time, and people from far and wide were caught up in the joy-ride, happy to quickly make a fortune. But, they would soon awaken to realize that the so-called reality was nothing more than an Emerald City filled with illusions created by smoke and mirrors.
A lesson was learned and Manitoba settled into a more sedentary pace of economic growth. Although the pace had slowed, the potential for growth still existed.
With this in mind, settlers from the Old World recognized they could make a better future for themselves and their children in the province. It was the hope of a better future which brought the first Mennonites, Icelanders, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Swedes, French, Norwegians and so many others to the New World of Manitoba.
It is difficult to imagine that so many people would abandon family and friends, everything they held dear in their homelands, and make a perilous journey, putting all their faith in the potential of a promise. Yet, they did and they prospered to the benefit of all.
Although the conditions are far from the same today, thousands of people from distant lands still make the same decision, abandoning everything in their homelands for the hope of a better life.
The initial hope of 1870 has been realized in Manitoba, which has a strong economy and the good life thrives for most.
Still, Manitoba is an enigma in Western Canada — the only province to possess “have-not” status. As a “have-not,” Manitoba relies on Ottawa for 30 per cent of its budget in the form of federal transfer payments.
Saskatchewan, which had been the brunt of so many jokes in past years, has risen to the lofty status of being a “have” province. Similar to Alberta, Saskatch-ewan is blessed with oil, though in lesser quantity, but has the added advantage of massive potash deposits as well as uranium.
Manitoba does have mineral deposits, such as copper and nickel, that are eagerly sought by other nations. And, Manitoba does have hydro-electric power coveted by other regions as a renewable source of energy in a world plagued by global warming and climate change.
Typically, with the exception of the boom times in 1881-82 and between 1896-1912, Manitoba has shown steady, albeit unspectacular, growth. But that is perhaps its strength.
Its diversified economy makes Manitoba the most recession-proof province in Canada, protecting it from the vagaries of booms and busts so familiar to oil-rich Alberta and manufacturing-reliant Ontario and Quebec.
The fact that the vast majority of Manitobans can earn a good wage, afford to buy a house and a car, and raise their children in comfort means that the enthusiasm for the new province’s prospects shown in 1870 has now become a reality.