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Winnipeg’s first council meeting — Mayor Cornish said council was laying foundation for civic government in the west
Dec 18, 2009

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

When the ballots for mayor were tallied on January 5, 1874, lawyer Francis Evans Cornish held a 383-179 margin of victory over W.F. Luxton, the publisher of the Manitoba Free Press. But there were obvious irregularities in the outcome, as 562 votes were cast, but there were only 388 qualified voters.

Cornish’s total included 175 “illegal repeaters,” while Luxton’s tally held just five. Confusion reigned that day due to a quirk in the election law, which allowed one vote for each property owned, so multiple property owners could cast more than one vote. The law stated voters had to be male, 21 years old, British subjects by birth or naturalized citizens, residents in the city for at least three months prior to the election, and own property valued at $100 or more or pay at least $20 in rent (source: city of Winnipeg).

The complete voters’ list for the 1874 election was printed in the Free Press on December 6, 1873. It was compiled by William Nassau Kennedy in his capacity as acting city clerk and registrar for the election.

Despite the irregularities, Cornish was officially declared mayor, “and stated that he would endeavour to be guided by fairness towards all classes of the community,” according to a report in the Manitoban (the newspaper that supported Cornish), “and that at the end of the year it would be his pride to deliver back the seals of office unsullied and pure in every respect.”

After Cornish was given the oath  of office, he addressed the city council, relating the events that led to Winnipeg’s incorporation as a city. The newly-elected mayor claimed a chief role in the incorporation movement during the election campaign as did his opponent. 

The first calls for incorporation as a city were rebuffed by provincial legislators. It must have seemed ridiculous to some that a town of 1,869 people had aspirations to become a city. 

Mass meetings of Winnipeg residents were held and a bill was drawn up for presentation to the legislature, which made revisions to the bill. The amendments, such as reducing tax levels and changing the name of the city to Assiniboine (Selkirk and Fort Garry were also considered), were deeply resented. The name Winnipeg was heavily-favoured by local residents, who resorted to another mass meeting to express their displeasure. 

At the March 1873 meeting, Cornish was among those who severely criticized the provincial government for its amendments and failure to act quickly on passing the incorporation legislation. The outcome of the meeting was a demand for the legislature to pass the act in its original form.

The depth of the resentment was violently expressed when Dr. J.C. Bird, the speaker of the assembly — called  the “most inoffensive citizen” — was attacked and tarred about the head and shoulders after he ruled the incorporation bill out of order. A reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, but it was never claimed.

Under the circumstances, the legislature quickly restored the bill to its original form and passed the Act for the Incorporation of the City of Winnipeg.

Cornish said the council had the task of laying the foundation of municipal institutions which had “great consequences to the great North-West (territory),” according to a January 14, 1874, report of the first council meeting in the Free Press. The mayor even made the lofty claim that the council’s decisions in Winnipeg had consequences for the “great Western world.”

Paraphrasing Cornish, the Free Press reported: “When it was known abroad that Winnipeg had been incorporated, and had its council legislating for its improvement, it would do more for the place than all the acts of legislature that could be manufactured, and the city would increase rapidly in size and importance.”

Cornish exercised the privilege conferred upon him as the chief municipal official and appointed Colin F. Strang as the mayor’s auditor. The council appointed John Balsillie as its auditor. The appointment of the auditors was enacted through By-Law No. 1., which the council passed after three readings. 

Committee appointments included aldermen Capt. Thomas Scott, W.B. Thibaudeau, Archibald Wright and John Byron More to examine the qualifications of various applicants for city positions.

Actually, a number of individuals had already forwarded their names for consideration for administrative positions. Willoughby Clark, A.M. Brown and A.D. Fisher and a Mr. Hoskins asked to be considered as city clerk, while those vying for the position of assessors were J. Crowson and Rudolph Sicotte. T.H. Parr and Robert Bolurne wanted to be the city engineer, Duncan McVicar wrote to council asking to be appointed chamberlain, while R.F. Jackson asked to be considered for chief of police.

In the ensuing weeks, the aldermen voted on the applications for city positions, which increased in number as each day passed. During subsequent council meetings, A.M. Brown was elected the city clerk, Lyster Hayward became chamberlain (he resigned shortly after, complaining about the meagre salary and James S. Ramsay was appointed in his place), Thomas H. Parr was elected the city engineer, Willoughby Clark and Alexander Brown were elected the assessors, while John S. Ingram became the city’s first chief of police. 

At another meeting, it was decided that the city clerk receive the highest salary of $800 a year, followed by the chief of police at $750, the chamberlain was to receive $400 a year, assessors were to receive $200 each, the tax collectors $250 each, and two police constables were each to receive an annual salary of $550.

At 7 p.m. during the first meeting, the committee on standing committees reported its recommendations, which were adopted and named to the various committees:

• Finance — Scott, Andrew Strang, Wright and William Gomez Fonseca.

• Printing — Thibaudeau, John McLenaghen, James H. Ashdown and Alexander Logan.

• Board of works — Scott, Robert Mulvey, Higgins and More.

• Market — Strang, Herbert Swinford, Logan and McLenaghen.

• Fire and water — Scott, Mulvey, Wright and More.

Assessment — Ashdown, Thibaudeau, Swinford and Fonseca.

The mayor was made a member of each standing committee.

Strang, Wright, Fonseca and Scott were appointed to a committee to draft rules of order for the council.

With the completion of the appointment of the standing committees, the first city council meeting in Winnipeg ended.

Bentley owned his building and the McKenney store for only a few years. A February 12, 1875, Free Press article mentions that Henry McKenney intended “to erect in the spring a large brick block covering the property occupied by the City Hall (Bentley Building) and McKenney’s store.” He didn’t follow through with the new building, but it is apparent by McKenney’s announcement that he had returned from the United States after a few years’ absence with the intention of overseeing his Winnipeg investments. In subsequent newspaper advertisements, Bentley was partnered with George McKenney, Henry’s son. 

According to another announcement in the Free Press a couple of months later, “The late business of Mr. L.R. Bentley is now being improved under the regime of Mr. George McKenney.” An ad in the same edition of the newspaper specifically mentions George as “successor to L.R. Bentley, McKenney’s Block, Winnipeg.” Apparently, Bentley went into bankruptcy sometime in 1875 and the business was taken over by George McKenney, who in August was joined in partnership by his brother John under the company name McKenney Bros. Their father, Henry McKenney, acted as “manager, attorney and agent” for the two sons.

The first floor of the Bentley Building north of McKenney’s store was then occupied by (James) Lyster’s clothing store. An 1879 advertisement gives the Lyster store address as 273 Main St.  

Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey in their 1879 book, Ten Years in Winnipeg, mention that at least one meeting of city council had been held in the (N.J.) Snyder & (C.D.) Anderson Block, 168 and 170 Main St. According to an ad from the era, the store was “two doors south of the Grace Church” built in 1871 at the corner of Main Street and Water Avenue (now Sir William Stephenson Way). The lot numbers of the grocery store on Main Street (since then other  numbers have been assigned to Main Street lots) are found in a Snyder & Anderson advertisement in the Begg and Nursey book. 

According to the authors, the floor of the Red River Hall had earlier given way under the weight of an audience, and “we now find the same thing occurring at Snyder & Anderson’s in ’75, when the floor nearly gave way at a meeting of Council. The want of a City Hall was much felt at that time, and the City Council was hurrying on the erection of one as fast as possible.”

The same book is more specific about the change of venue: “The city hall and office were removed in June ’75, from the building occupied by Lyster’s clothing store, to the upper flat of Snyder & Anderson’s building.”

This is the only mention (I have) found of a council meeting being held in the Snyder & Anderson Block, although it does make some sense in the wake of the uncertainty created by the continual change in proprietorship of the Bentley Building. Other newspaper accounts mention Oddfellows’ meetings in the hall of the Snyder & Anderson Block. One ad says the upper-floor hall was open for concerts, parties and lectures. It is hard to doubt the two authors as they were noted Winnipeg journalists and would have possessed first-hand knowledge of the change in venue.

The cornerstone of the first city hall constructed by the city was laid in August 1875. The building was officially opened on March 14, 1876. 

In terms of confusion over the site of the first meeting of city council, even the city’s website has mixed up  two locations. According to the Pathways site, which provides a brief outline of Winnipeg’s history, the site of the first council meeting: “Located at the corner of Portage Road (not yet an avenue) and Main Street, the Bentley Building was owned by L.R. Bentley. It was built in 1862 by Henry McKenney and was one of the first buildings in Winnipeg.” 

But the building mentioned in the website is the McKenney store built in 1862, not the Bentley Building, which is known by a January 24, 1874, Free Press report as a “‘new’ building (erected circa 1870) on Main Street ... and commonly known as the ‘Flat boat store.’” The first city hall was actually 125 feet north of the McKenney store, between the store and the popular Davis Hotel.

An 1869 map of Winnipeg in the Begg and Nursey book shows the McKenney & Larsen storehouse between the McKenney store and the Davis Hotel. The storehouse was taken over by McIver & McIntyre and converted into the White Saloon in 1871, wrote Begg and Nursey. In October 1874, the McIver & McIntyre partnership dissolved, and subsequent ads state McIntyre’s White Saloon was on Main Street, “next door south of Davis Hotel.” According to the map, the storehouse in question was in the rear portion of a lot off Main Street.

Two 1876 Free Press articles mention the “McKenney warehouse at the foot of Notre Dame Street” being moved by J.W. McLane to “near where the Assiniboine joins the Red River.” The building became part of a four-storey mill. “The old McKenney warehouse at first was intended for the mill proper, and moved to the locality for that purpose, (but) will be used for storing grain, and facilities for storage and handling 35,000 bushels are thus afforded,” according to the October 7, 1876, Free Press. 

At the time, Notre Dame Avenue ran to the rear of the McKenney property in a direct line to Portage Avenue and then across Main Street to the foot of the Red River, which is no longer the case.

In 1876, McKenney was ridding himself of all his Winnipeg assets in the vicinity of the famous corner he created. By the summer of 1877, he again left Winnipeg and is reputed to have died somewhere in Washington Territory about the year 1886 (Manitoba Historical Society).

The Bentley Building no longer exists. It was likely the victim of an 1882 fire which claimed several unnamed wooden structures in the vicinity. The destruction of Alexander McIntyre’s liquor store was mentioned as a result of his decision to erect a new block on the burned-out site that became known as the McIntyre Block (the four-storey block burned down in 1898 and was rebuilt). The McIntyre Block was for decades one of Winnipeg’s more famous downtown sights, but it no longer exists.

More confusion is created by a Thornton & Sutherland newspaper advertisement mentioning their store as being between Bentley’s and the Davis Hotel. But the most likely explanation is that the Bentley’s referred to is the L.R. Bentley Hardware Store in the McKenney store at the corner of Portage and Main. As related by historians of the era, the Thornton & Sutherland store was in the Bentley Building north of the hardware store.

The McKenney store, after being sold to Jane Linklater on August 31, 1876, stood at the northwest corner of Portage and Main until it was demolished in 1887. The Canadian National Railway in 1887 built an office building where the store had stood. In 1942, the railway replaced this building with an arte moderne building which remained until the Toronto-Dominion Bank took over ownership of “McKenney’s corner” and erected the Toronto-Dominion Centre office tower. The tower was purchased in 2004 by the Asper family and renamed CanWest Global Place. 

Today, a parking lot to the immediate north of CanWest Global Place covers the area where Bentley’s Building once stood. Despite its historical importance, there is no nearby plaque to remind Winnipeggers of the site where the city’s first council met nor is there a plaque identifying McKenney’s store which established the corner of Portage and Main.