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Closer to Manitoba
Aug 05, 2005

Manitoba lost out big time when the federal government decided to divide the three territories into two provinces — Alberta and Saskatchewan.

For years, Premier Rodmond Roblin had been lobbying for Ottawa to incorporate the territories of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Athabaska into Manitoba’s fold. The problem was that neither the people in the territories nor Ottawa wanted anything to do with Manitoba’s proposal. 

Ottawa opposed the inclusion of the territory into Manitoba for political reasons, since Eastern Canada didn’t want a province to rival it in size and resources. Faced with such opposition, the federal government sided with them because Ontario and Quebec had the most voters in Canada. 

The residents of the territory were fighting among themselves for the right to have one, two or even three provinces. The reality was that Alberta wanted nothing to do with Saskatchewan and vice versa. In fact, no one living in the territories could actually agree on the composition of the new province(s) because each emerging city — Regina, Edmonton and Calgary, among others — wanted to lay claim to the new provincial capital(s).

In the end, Ottawa announced the division of the three territories into two provinces with capitals in Regina and Edmonton, pleasing those cities, but not Calgarians.

Getting shafted in the land sweepstakes wasn’t anything new to Manitoba, but what happened in the past may just be on the verge of being rectified. 

In 1870, Manitoba got the short end of the stick when Ottawa gave it only enough land to become referred to as the “Postage Stamp Province,” and when Manitoba laid claim to all the territory in a line running from just west of Thunder Bay to its own eastern border, Ontario roared in disapproval.

For years, the area was disputed by the two provinces. Rat Portage, now Kenora, was at one time filled with police and magistrates from both provinces which claimed jurisdiction in the region. For a time, it was more dangerous being a lawman in Rat Portage than a criminal, and there were plenty of lawbreakers since the community was filled with bootleggers and prostitutes prepared to serve the 2,000 Canadian Pacific Railway workers. To fill the diminishing ranks in the dangerous occupation, persuasion came in the form of free whiskey and special pay.

The conflict escalated to the point that each side arrested each other’s police officers and placed them in their respective jails. There were so many Ontario policemen arrested that they had to be shipped to jail in Winnipeg. In retaliation, the Manitoba jail in Rat Portage was set afire.

Premier John Norquay of Manitoba became enraged when the Manitoba jail in Rat Portage burned to the ground and he personally led a detachment of Manitoba Provincial Police from Winnipeg to arrest the culprits.

The situation reached its high point when both provinces called elections for the same day and campaigned in Rat Portage. Norquay actually ended up with more votes in the community than there were registered voters.

The dispute ended in 1884 when Rat Portage was officially declared part of Ontario by the Privy Council in London, England. Manitoba lost out again.

But now, Kenora Mayor Dave Canfield is talking about separating from Ontario and joining Manitoba. The mayor is feeling ignored by the distant powers-that-be in Toronto. On top of that is the announced closure of forestry industry  Abititi-Consolidated, the community’s largest employer, because of escalating electricity costs brought about by the Ontario government’s apparent bungling of power issues.

Since Winnipeg is significantly closer to Kenora and has more ties, the mayor believes his community will get more attention from the Manitoba government.

He’s right about the closer ties. Kenora’s economy is fuelled in large part by Manitoba tourists, who come to the city and Lake of the Woods as cottagers and visitors.

But, while it was a mistake in 1884 to rule against Manitoba, the mayor is engaged in a little wishful thinking if he thinks Ottawa or Toronto will allow Kenora to secede and join our province. 

It’s just not going to happen. The federal  Liberals need the support of Ontarians to stay in power and they are concentrated in the millions along the shores of Lake Ontario and not along the shores of Lake of the Woods.

What the mayor of Kenora is actually engaged in is a little bit of attention grabbing through the media, just like the tiny community of North West Angle, Minnesota did a few years ago. In that case, the residents gained the attention of major American media outlets by writing then Vice President Al Gore that they wanted to secede from the United States and join Manitoba, because they, like Kenora, felt ignored by powers in a distant capital.

Still, it’s always nice to know that Manitoba is considered a viable option on both sides of the border in the game of political football.