The anniversary of the incorporation of Winnipeg city recently passed on November 8, which is a day that happens to coincide with the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. The events may be totally unrelated and separated by 143 years, but what both campaigns have in common are hysterical tirades against opponents and the polical establishment within the auspices of self-serving populist movements.
In the case of Winnipeg’s incorporation in 1873, a “dastardly outrage,” as it was called at the time, was committed in the early morning hours of March 7, 1873. Dr. Curtis James Bird, the victim, explained in the Manitoba Legislature that he wished to inform the House “of a certain instance that occurred ... I was called out of my bed about one o’clock, and told that I was wanted immediately to visit a patient who was represented to be dying. I said I was unable to go as I felt very unwell, so I gave them a note and sent them to Dr. Codd.
“About two (o’clock) they returned and said Dr. Codd was out. I then arose and got into a cutter that was waiting at the door, and was driven in the direction of Kildonan.”
“Shortly after crossing the bridge at Brown’s (Creek, where Main and Bannatyne now meet),” Dr. Bird, the
recently-elected speaker of the legislature, continued: “I heard a call and several men ran out of a certain building, dragged me from the cutter and treated me to warm tar and otherwise bruised me. I lay for a little time unconscious and then managed to walk home. I think it proper to make this explanation, as the indignity was offered to myself, but in consequence of the action which this house had taken on the Bill for the Incorporation of Winnipeg.”
Dr. Bird remembered hot tar poured on his face and hands and when arriving at home saw that he was covered all over with the tar.
Dr. Bird was correct in saying that the assault resulted from the failure of the legislature to pass the act of incorporation, but it was his actions which directly contributed to the wrath of his attackers. The doctor ruled that an amended bill incorporating the city of Winnipeg was out of order as it reduced provincial revenue collected on licence fees to only 10 per cent. At the time, the province was facing a fiscal crisis and was seeking “better terms” from Ottawa to increase the federal government’s financial contribution to Manitoba. Any decrease in revenue was recognized by Dr. Bird as compromising the province’s financial health.
But even prior to Dr. Bird’s ruling, there were other problems with the bill that enraged Winnipeggers. Members of the Legislative Assembly introduced a number of amendments that essentially altered the bill beyond the original intent of Winnipeg residents. After the changes made in committee were introduced in the legislature other amendments were proposed. House leader and attorney-general (sometimes called Manitoba’s first premier), Henry James Clarke, proposed the first amendment that changed the name of the new community from Winnipeg to the “City of Assiniboia.” His motion wasn’t passed. Not to be outdone, John Sutherland introduced an amendment to call the new city “Garry,” but this motion also failed. What did pass was the amendment by John McTavish to change the act to the Incorporation of the “City of Selkirk.”
The proceedings in the legislature
created a furor in Winnipeg. In his book, History of Winnipeg, Manitoba historian, George Bryce (1844-1931), said: “Everything in early Winnipeg was introduced with a rush and with a struggle. There was no time for deliberation. There was no past to be followed. The wants of the people in the growing burgh were imperative, and there was temper to wait for their being supplied.”
“When it became known, on Wednesday afternoon, that the incorporation of Winnipeg Bill was being cut, slashed and butchered beyond recognition of its promoters, by the assembled wisdom in the House of Assembly,” a Manitoba Free Press editorial said on March 8, 1873, “public indignation knew no bounds. The people, long as they have been
accustomed to injustice at the hands of their lawmakers, were astonished at this new piece of legislation.”
The first “indignation meeting” to protest the changes was arranged at the Winnipeg School House, the city’s first public school, in Point Douglas. The evening meeting occurred after the massive changes were made to the bill in the legislature and prior to Dr. Bird’s ruling on March 6.
Newspapers reported the school house was crowded on March 2 with what seemed to be every male in Winnipeg. At the time, the population of Winnipeg was estimated at 1,500 people. For the city’s first municipal election in December 1873, it was estimated that there were 308 eligible male voters.
John Villiers reminded those gathered about how long it had taken to shape the bill presented to the attorney-general. He said, “the whole thing had been
villainously dealt with.”
The events of March 1873 originated in the aspirations expressed months earlier in a new publication, the Trade Review, edited by Alexander Begg. He wrote that the conflicting interests in the area “induced irritability and impatience that became a Winnipeg characteristic ... a rapidity of
decision and action which afflict newcomers with the idea that all is done too hastily and possibly unwisely.”
The Free Press called Robert Cunningham, the editor of the Manitoban, “unscrupulous,” a “servile tool” of Attorney-General Clarke’s provincial government “rarely without peer” and “an
obstructionist in the community.”
Since Cunningham was known to support the Métis and had received help from Riel, the Free Press accused him of condoning treason and murder.
For his part, Cunningham replied that he did not oppose incorporation.
“In the matter of incorporating,”
according to a Manitoban editorial, “people seem to be getting almost crazy. They seem to imagine that it only requires incorporation to make the hamlet of Winnipeg jump into a great, flourishing, magnificent, commercial city. For our part we cannot see it.”
In preparation for the fall sitting of the legislature, another incorporation meeting chaired by Ashdown with Luxton acting as secretary was held at the school house. At the meeting, a motion was passed for the original incorporation bill to be presented at the coming session of the legislature.
On November 4, 1873, the bill was presented in the legislature, it was quietly passed and came into effect four days later when given Royal assent.
“Oh! brave legislators!” wrote Bryce. “Thus on November 8, 1873, Winnipeg became a city!”
On the evening of November 8, Winnipeg’s skyline was lit up by fireworks in celebration of the small town becoming a city after a relatively brief but controversial struggle typified by the attack on Dr. Bird.