by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Charles Stewart found himself to be the object of unwanted attention during a March 5, 1885, meeting at the Knights of Labour Hall.
He wanted Manitoba to secede from Canada.
He was bodily thrown into a snowbank outside the hall by “loyal Canadians.”
Two years earlier on October 19, 1883, Stewart, the Cambridge University-educated and none-too-successful Rounthwaite, Manitoba, farmer (he was foreclosed upon in 1885) embarked upon his secessionist cause by writing to the Brandon Sun. In his letter, Stewart called for a protest meeting “to obtain for ourselves (Manitoba and North West Territories farmers) that independence which is the birthright of every British subject.”
The outcome of the transplanted Englishman’s letter was the establishment, not of a secessionist movement in the province, but a group dedicated to protesting Ottawa’s treatment of Western Canadian farmers and business interests.
“Several prominent Brandon businessmen, many of whom had suffered losses following the collapse of the Manitoba (Land) Boom (of 1881-82), and a number of the leading farmers of western Manitoba took up Stewart’s suggestion,” wrote Brian R. McCutcheon, a history professor at the University of Victoria, in his article, The Birth of Agrarianism in the Prairie West (Prairie Forum, November 1976). “On November 26, a convention met in the Council Chamber of Brandon City Hall to found the Manitoba and North West Farmers’ Union. From the outset this new organization, dominated by merchants and professional men, sought to end Manitoba’s difficulties through an extra-parliamentary political movement.”
The union held a convention in Winnipeg on December 19 and 20, adopting a platform that included sending three delegates to Ottawa, demanding the right for the Manitoba government to charter railways (then disallowed by the agreement between the Prime
Minister Sir John A. Macdonald federal government and the Canadian Pacific Railway), provincial control of Crown lands, removal of the tariff on agricultural implements and manufactured goods, and the appointment of a Westerner as a cabinet minister to look after the region’s interests. Those gathered at the convention also asked the provincial government to amend the Municipal Act to empower local governments to “build or assist in the building (of) elevators, grain warehouses and mills,” appoint grain inspectors, and endorse the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway.
The meeting resulted in the passage of a “Declaration of Rights,” which embodied the demands brought forward at the convention. The Declaration of Rights was subsequently presented to Macdonald in Ottawa, who promptly completely ignored it.
The Farmers’ Union arose in the wake of decreased wheat prices brought on by greater international competition from the United States, South America and Australia. Although international forces were at play and more of a factor in the wheat market, farmers blamed the federal government for their economic plight, citing its railway, land, fiscal and tariff policies. Its fiscal and tariff policy was embodied in the “National Policy,” which saw heavy tariffs levied on manufactured goods, especially on farm machinery.
The CPR was blamed for imposing high transportation costs on goods shipped to western merchants and on the grain that farmers shipped to eastern markets. The monopoly clause, which prevented any tracks by other railway companies being laid between the CPR line and the U.S.-Canada border, was particularly irksome to farmers, who hoped that branch lines would be established to connect their communities to the outside world.
Farmers’ hatred of speculators escalated after the land boom of 1881-82 went bust, throwing the province into an economic depression. Speculators then began purchasing Crown lands from the federal government for as little as $1 an acre and then were holding onto their acreage without making improvements. In effect, a “landlock” was created that benefitted no one other than the speculators who hoped to realize a greater price in the future.
The “landlock” was a long-standing complaint, dating from Manitoba’s entry into Confederation in 1870.
“The unwisdom upon the part of any government locking up tracts of the most fertile and attractive lands in the world is painfully apparent in Manitoba which may be said to be painfully reserved to death by Acts of Parliament ...,” editorialized the Free Press on June 13, 1876. “It is really painful and exasperating to see the newly-arrived immigrant, with a large family and liberally supplied with all the necessary implements of agriculture, in his struggle to obtain an eligible location by purchase, or otherwise ... Despairing of obtaining a homestead within a reasonable walk from the City, he takes a team and drives over miles of vacant land until he is surely out of the region of reservations ... Having located his family and already commenced agricultural operations he takes the first opportunity of visiting the land office in Winnipeg where he is bluntly told that he is on 1,400,000 acres of land reserved for half breeds (under the Manitoba Act).
“He makes another move ...”
But the allotment to children of Métis parents was not the only land “reserved” for other considerations. The federal government set aside an Icelandic Reserve centred around Gimli, Mennonites were promised land in southern Manitoba, and the CPR was given 25-million acres of land in Western Canada. In addition, there was the land reserved for the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout the West.
With so much land reserved for others, Manitoba farmers wanted all Crown lands made available for crop production; that is, their own use.
“The event that turned discontent into protest was the sharp frost on the night of September 7, 1883,” wrote McCutcheon. “A large part of the wheat crop was frozen; much of what was saved was so badly damaged that it brought in as little as 15 cents a bushel on the open market, if it could be sold at all.”
Once Macdonald rejected the demands made by the delegates, a number of indignation meetings were held across the province, which resulted in the decision to hold another convention in Winnipeg in March 1884.
A February 14, 1884, Manitoba Free Press editorial, denounced the powers-that-be in Ottawa — who the newspaper accused of not having been within 1,000 miles of the territory, and as such not adequately informed to pass judgment on local concerns — for claiming the farmers’ grievances were imaginary.
The two-day convention revealed the rift in views of the Farmers’ Union membership. Perhaps most telling was that it was an organization split along agricultural and business interests, although George F. Carruthers and other members of the Winnipeg Board of Trade (now chamber of commerce) said they supported the union and believed they shared common grievances.
Carruthers said the interests of farmers were “indissolubly bound up with every branch of trade and commerce in the Province, and therefore anything bearing adversely on the interests of the farming community, affected the whole Province” (Free Press, March 7, 1884).
McCutcheon wrote that the convention disclosed the weaknesses in the Farmers’ Union; that is, “the organization sheltered disparate and ultimately incompatible interest groups.”
Steward used the convention to once again advocate the secession of Manitoba from Canada, saying it was evident that “our liberties as British subjects is in danger.”
He urged the impeachment of the Canadian government “at the bar of the Imperial Parliament (in London, England) as guilty of disloyalty to the Canadian Confederation ...”
Stewart claimed the government in Ottawa was making “serfs” of the people of Western Canada. And if the only way to change the federal government’s policy was through secession, “then in God’s name let us secede, and the sooner the better.”
But Stewart’s extreme view was not accepted by the majority of those attending the convention, who favoured negotiating a new deal with Ottawa. His proposed secession resolution was so rejected by the conventioneers that it didn’t even receive a seconder.
The most contentious resolution dealt with by the convention involved immigration. The “anti-immigration” resolution authorized the Farmers’ Union to advertise in Eastern Canadian and foreign newspapers advising potential immigrants not to come to Manitoba until “grievances be redressed” by Ottawa.
The business community, which relied upon continued immigration and promoted it ceaselessly, was shocked by the resolution. “Within days the business community, which had so actively supported the Union, vociferously condemned it,” wrote McCutcheon. “To the delight of Manitoba Conservatives, much of the provincial press followed suit.”
The Conservative government of Premier John Norquay was under pressure from the Farmers’ Union to officially adopt their grievances and take their case to Ottawa. Since Norquay was already in negotiations with Macdonald for a new subsidy to the province, he was adverse to taking up the Farmers’ Union list of grievances.
For good reason, Norquay also saw the Farmers’ Union as an organization dominated by Liberal Party stalwarts, who were intent upon using it to further their own political agenda. In fact, Joseph Martin, the Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Portage la Prairie and E.A. Bailey, the editor of the Liberal-friendly Nelsonville Mountaineer, dominated the first convention in Winnipeg and continued to hold sway over the Farmers’ Union until its abrupt demise following the second Winnipeg convention.
Norquay stole the thunder from the Farmer’s Union when he had the legislature adopt a “Bill of Rights,” quite similar to the union’s “Declaration of Right,” to be presented to Ottawa. Norquay did reach an agreement with the federal government for an increased provincial subsidy, and, in return, Manitoba gave up its claims to Crown lands, its demand for an end to disallowance of provincially chartered railways and the repeal of the CPR monopoly clause.
Into the breach established by the demise of the Farmers’ Union, following the debacle at the March 1884 convention, stepped the Manitoba and North West Farmers’ Co-operative and Protective Union, which had been formed on December 5, 1883, in Manitou.
“At a meeting held on June 5, 1884, the Protective Union re-organized itself ... The basic unit of the Union was the local association or Branch Union,” wrote McCutcheon. “Branch Unions were grouped together into eight Division Unions, each of which reported to the Central Union, the movement’s governing body ...
“Under the restrictive provisions of the constitution, the Protective Union could not raise sufficient working capital for its ambitious co-operative program.”
The co-operative programs centred around grain marketing. In December 1883, the Protective Union had begun buying wheat from its members and shipping it to Ontario. Although the number of farmers involved wasn’t large, the program was deemed a success due to the grain producers receiving from 10-cents to 15-cents more per bushel for their wheat than the price offered by local private grain dealers.
The other scheme was to co-operatively purchase binder twine. The tender for the contract was won by an eastern manufacturer to the chagrin of Winnipeg merchants.
A convention was held on March 4, 1885, in the wake of the Norquay agreement with Ottawa. It soon became clear that there was a mixed bag of delegates attending: Liberals, former Farmers’ Union members and many non-farmers. This mish-mash of delegates with conflicting interests distracted from the convention's intended goal of addressing farmers’ concerns.
Another distraction was the meeting called by Stewart to discuss secession. In his 1921 book, Reminiscences of a Raconteur, George Henry Ham, a journalist and former member of city council, related that the secessionist meeting in the “big building opposite the city hall,” was “one of the most exciting of the episodes in which I figured ...”
On March 6, 1885, the Free Press published the article, A Fizzle: The Secessionist Meeting Last Night Completely Squashed — Mr. Stewart Sat Upon. Although the author of the story is not mentioned, it was Ham, who contributed first-hand to the eventual outcome of the meeting in the Knights of Labour Hall.
With the fall of the Farmers’ Union, Stewart had shifted his allegiance to the Protective Union. Similar to when he was with the Farmers’ Union, Stewart’s secessionist musings became a thorn in the side of the Protective Union. His ill-advised meeting soon after the March 4 convention became a great distraction from how the grievances held by members of the organization could be less-dramatically addressed.
Furthermore, a rebellion was brewing in the North West Territories, which was loosely connected to the Protective Union due to its constitution allowing the inclusion of the Prince Albert’s Settler’s Union. The group of Canadian farmers acted in concert with the Métis farmers and buffalo hunters from the Saskatchewan River region and called for Louis Riel to lead the movement protesting Ottawa’s handling of land grievances.
The Saskatchewan farmers didn’t join the Protective Union, but the damage was done. Conservatives attacked the Manitoba-based Protective Union “as a front for secessionist Liberal politicians, who desired nothing less than the break-up of Confederation ...” according to McCutcheon.
With Stewart, a Liberal, among the Protective Union’s membership, the claim had some credibility.
Ham’s short Free Press article and his longer recollection in his 1921 book provide a humourous interpretation of the events that transpired during the meeting.
(Next week: part 2)