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Manitoba’s first legislative building — Bannatyne’s home on McDermot a little east of Main Street
Aug 28, 2009

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Five years after the disaster, the Quiz newspaper was still perpetuating the myth that former Manitoba Attorney-General Henry Clarke was somehow responsible for the fire that swept through the province’s first legislative building. The publication, which used satire to score political points, warned not to elect the “firebrand” Clarke in St. Charles constituency. But if he was elected, the newspaper said it was advisable for Winnipeggers to double their fire insurance. 

“Remember the Parliament Buildings, and tremble,” the Quiz said on November 23, 1878.

According to the myth mentioned in Quiz, “Clarke must make a smoke wherever he goes,” implying Clarke was careless enough with his pipe smoking to have started  the December 3, 1873, fire in Manitoba’s “Parliament Building,” which was actually the home of local businessman and politician, A.G.B. Bannatyne.

It was an entirely false claim, as Clarke was not in the building when the fire broke out at 9 p.m. — the only people in the building at the time were the caretaker, his wife and their children —  and it was generally felt that the fire had originated in a stove pipe. In fact,  when the fire broke out, Clarke was extremely ill and at home in bed, so he could not have set the fire.

In an interview following the fire, caretaker Crowson told the Manitoban on December 6, 1873, that the attorney-general was the only other person to have a duplicate set of keys to the building. In addition, he said, Clarke was in the habit of working late, which may have  contributed to the creation of the myth. Crowson said he knocked on the attorney-general’s upstairs office door after giving the alarm, but got no reply. 

“No one had been, to my knowledge, in the offices during the evening of the fire,” he added.

While the fire was well underway, ammunition in Clarke’s office was set off, resulting in sharp reports penetrating the bitterly cold night air. Clarke had the cartridges in his office to load a pistol as protection against threatened attacks on his person following the bitter debate over the incorporation of Winnipeg as a city. The Manitoba Free Press claimed the exploding ammunition was “anti-incorporation” cartridges.

Months earlier, Clarke proposed the first amendment to the incorporation bill with the intention of changing the name of the new city from Winnipeg to Assiniboia. Although the motion and other changes failed to gain the necessary support in the legislature, a furor was still created.

“When it became known ... that the incorporation of Winnipeg bill was being cut, slashed and butchered beyond recognition of its promoters ... public indignation knew no bounds. The public, long as they have been accustomed to injustice at the hands of their lawmakers, were astonished at this new piece of legislation,” said a Free Press editorial on March 8, 1873.

The “indignation” of Winnipeggers was so extreme that a group assaulted and attempted to tar and feather Dr. Curtis James Bird, the member from St. Paul and the  speaker of the legislature, who ruled against the incorporation bill because it reduced the province’s ability to collect revenue from licence fees.

On November 3, 1873, a month before the “fire fiend” struck the Manitoba legislative building, the assembly passed the act of incorporation for the new city of Winnipeg. Despite retaining its original form, bitter memories of alleged obstruction of the act by Manitoba legislators, such as Clarke, still permeated the province.

“How greedily the fiery tongues licked up the spot on which stood the Attorney-General when he proposed to ‘clip the wings’ of the incorporation seekers,” reported the Free Press on December 8, 1873. “With what grim pleasure the fiend devoured that portion of the floor once occupied by the gentleman who misrepresented Winnipeg and St. John’s, and who, with might and main, secured unto the fiend the privilege which it now enjoyed.”

In the heavily-charged political atmosphere of the day, it was relatively easy to cast Clarke as the villain and claim he was responsible for starting the fire, despite Crowson saying the fire “certainly originated in the ceiling over the down stairs passage.” 

Yet, Crowson didn’t rule out someone entering the building without his knowledge and starting the fire, which for the conspiracy theorists of the day was enough to brand Clarke as the fire starter.

Without a specifically-built building for the legislature, it was decided to hold sessions and create government offices in the home of Bannatyne, which was described by the Manitoban on January 21, 1871, as “the best and most commodious building for the purpose in Winnipeg, and occupying a central situation as regards the Province generally.”

Bannatyne’s home was located on McDermot Avenue, a little east of Main Street. A plaque unveiled by Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor R.F. McWilliams on October 14, 1950, at 432 Main St. (Banque Canadienne Nationale — National Bank of Canada), bore the inscription: “Nearby in the home of the Hon. A.G.B. Bannatyne the first legislature of Manitoba met on the 15th March, 1871.”

The Manitoban said the rooms the government occupied were “large and comfortable ... Three of the large rooms at the southern end of the house and one of the upstairs rooms, are to be used for Parliamentary purposes. The Government are decidedly the gainers in this matter, while Mr. Bannatyne yields so much of his house-room at considerable personal inconvenience.”

When he allowed the provincial government to use his home, Bannatyne was possibly the most wealthy person in the province. He was highly esteemed by the public and influential politically, as well as noted for his generosity. Along with Andrew McDermot, he donated land to establish the city’s first general hospital.

When he retired in Winnipeg, the former Hudson’s Bay Company official opened a store on Post Office (Lombard) Street. After 15 years of success, Bannatyne sold his retail business, but remained active as a wholesale merchant under the firm name of Bannatyne and Company.

The opening of the legislature on March 15, 1871, amid pomp and circumstance, was called by Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald an “interesting occasion.”

Goldwin Smith, who witnessed the ceremony, wrote in his Reminiscences: “The approach of the Lieutenant-Governor was announced by a series of explosions intended to represent the firing of a cannon but made, I understand, by letting off gunpowder with a hot poker. 

When reporting on the opening, the Manitoban said it was “an event which the early settlers here can hardly realise, and which they will not fully realise for some time to come.”

The lieutenant-governor drove by horse-drawn carriage from Government House at Silver Heights, a log cottage owned by the Rowands family, and was received at 3 p.m. by a guard of honour composed of 100 men from the Ontario Rifles. As the lieutenant-governor approached Bannatyne’s home, the military band played God Save the Queen. The riflemen presented arms just prior to Archibald entering  the Legislative Council Chamber (the meeting place of the Manitoba Senate chamber, or Upper House). 

“Entering the Legislative Council Chamber, His Excellency took his seat upon the Throne, and directed the Usher of the Black Rod, Capt. (Frank) Villiers (who was the quartermaster of the Colonel Garnet Wolseley-led Red River Expedition in August 1870), to summon the members of the Legislative assembly.”

The elected assembly, or Lower House, was composed of 24 members, with 12 from English-language designated parishes and 12 from French-language parishes. The members were elected in the province’s first general election held on December 27, 1870.

Archibald then requested the members of the assembly to choose a speaker, “in order that he might communicate with them.”

The members unanimously elected Joseph Royal from the riding of St. François-Xavier West as the speaker. Other members of the cabinet appointed by Archibald on January 10, 1871, as his ministerial advisors were Henry Joseph Clarke, attorney-general; and Thomas Howard (elected in St. Peters), minister of public works. James McKay was appointed as executive councillor without portfolio, becoming the president of the unelected Executive Council. Four days later, Howard and Alfred Boyd (St. Andrews North) exchanged offices, the former becoming the provincial secretary.

“My object,” Archibald wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, “has been to pick out the best four men I could find in the (elected) Assembly, and add one (McKay) who will be in the Legislative Council when formed.

After first appointing McKay to head the Legislative Council, on March 10 he enlisted as other councillors, François X. Dauphinais, a Catholic Métis; Salomon Hamelin, another Métis; J.H. O’Donnell, an Irish Catholic; and Colin Inkster, Francis Ogleterre and Donald Gunn, as representatives of the Protestant and English-speaking for the “old settlers.” All his appointments were from the ranks of loyal supporters, as were the vast majority of those elected to the assembly. Those elected to the assembly in support of Archibald proudly accepted the label given to them as “administrative candidates.” 

The Manitoban, which supported Archibald, said “an Administrative candidate may be looked upon as a man who is prepared to stand by an administration, which has been formed amid circumstances altogether abnormal and peculiar, and which has not only been formed, but formed with a success (the great number elected) which could (have) scarcely been looked for.”

Opponents of the lieutenant-governor and rabble-rousers, such as John Christian Schultz, failed to be elected to the assembly, an outcome which delighted Archibald. 

Clarke, although some have acknowledged him as the first premier, had little to do when it came to establishing the legislative agenda. In fact, Archibald was the de facto premier, as it was he who told the cabinet about the policy he intended to pursue “and handed them a memo of the work that was to be done before calling the assembly together.” He gave the members a “memo of 32 Bills which would be absolutely necessary to form the sketch of a Provincial constitution, and have set them to work to get their hands in.” 

Archibald, who had accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the workings of governments as a past legislator in Nova Scotia and Ottawa — most of the newly-elected Manitoba members lacked such experience — actually drafted all the “necessary” legislation passed by the assembly.

Furthermore, Macdonald acknowledged Archibald as his “proconsul” in Fort Garry, recognizing he held the ultimate authority in the province. The existence of a premier can safely be attributed to Marc Amable Girard, the member from St. Boniface East, following the advent of responsible government in Manitoba in 1874, when the lieutenant-governor became answerable to the premier and his cabinet, which dictated the political direction of the province.

During the first session of the Manitoba Legislature, 43 bills were passed to establish the administrative and judicial machinery of the province.

When he prorogued the first session, Archibald pronounced: “The Laws you have passed may not be framed on the model of those of older Countries, but they are all events suited to the circumstances of your own Country, and they will remove much of the doubt and uncertainty which, until this hour, have hung over the rights and obligations of this Province.”

Macdonald was pleased with the work Archibald accomplished in Manitoba and congratulated him on the legislation passed.

By the time of the fire at the Bannatyne home, the political framework of the province had been virtually completed, although it wasn’t until 1876 that the Legislative Council ended under the premiership of Robert “Hotel” Davis.

When the fire broke out at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, December 3, within “a few minutes there were several hundred people surrounding the building,” according to the Manitoban.

Still, the people willing to fight the fire were hampered by the absence of water which the newspaper claimed would have saved the house.

“The windows were broken open on the second story (sic), and then commenced a scene that almost baffles description. Chairs, tables, desks, books and papers were hurled out indiscriminately, and amidst the confusion it is feared many valuable documents have been lost or destroyed.”

The newspaper reported the papers tossed out the windows were blown about by a gale-force wind “never again to be heard of.”

As it turned out, the fire consumed valuable documents which could have been later used to shed additional light on the early history of the province.

(Next week: part 2)