Manitoba Day on May 12

Manitoba Day, the commemoration of the province’s entry into the Canadian Confederation, wasn’t always on May 12.

When the Royal Family visited Manitoba to commemorate the province’s official 100th birthday, Manitoba’s centennial was recognized in 1970 as officially being on July 15. It was the Prime Edward Schreyer government which began the trend of celebrating Manitoba Day on May 12, which was the day the Manitoba Act was passed by the Canadian Parliament and given Royal assent.

According to a May 11, 1976, report in the Free Press: “The date has been chosen because it enables children, while still in school, to be involved in the celebration.”

As July 15 is the official date of Manitoba’s anniversary, each year the provincial government must issue a proclamation declaring  May 12 as Manitoba Day.

On July 15, 1970, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, rode a carriage from the CNR station down Broadway. Seated in a following carriage were Princess Anne and Prince Charles. Their destination was the Manitoba Legislature, where the Queen was scheduled to make a speech to commemorate the date on which Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation.

Along the route some 100,000 people had gathered to cheer the Royal family, who received a 21-gun salute when they arrived at the legislative grounds where the Queen and her family were greeted by another 15,000 people.

After her speech was completed, the Royal Family made their way by motorcade to Main Street, where they alit from their cars and walked a block along the street on their way to the Manitoba Museum, where the Queen was scheduled to preside at its official opening.

The Royal Family walked down the east side of Main Street, frequently stopping to talk to “people who were lined up behind rope fences,” according to a Free Press report.

“Children pushed, or were pushed, to the front of the crowd and many slipped under the rope to sit on the curb and wave their Canadian flags as the Royal Family passed ...

“Two young boys, Frank Doherty and Ronald Pouschyk, said that Prince Philip asked them their names, where they went to school and what they did during the holidays.”

For the thousands lining the street, it was a memorial day to mark Manitoba’s 100th anniversary.

On May 12, Manitoba will celebrate its 145th birthday as the oldest province in Western Canada, as British Columbia became a province in 1871 and Saskatchewan and Alberta didn’t join the Canadian Confederation until 1905. 

At the time that Manitoba was slated to became part of Canada, there was a feeling of elation in the Red River Settlement. On June 24, 1870, the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, led by President Louis Riel, began its final debate on the Manitoba Act. The special session of the assembly — which was also its last — greeted Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot on his return from Ottawa as a conquering hero for negotiating the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Canada with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and Quebec MP Sir George-Etienne Cartier. 

Even the “postage-stamp” size of Manitoba — the cynical would call its tiny dimensions Macdonald’s punishment for nearly ending his political career due to the troubles caused him by the events of 1869-70 in the settlement — didn’t dampen the spirits of the celebrants.

“We have seen the Manitoba Act — have heard the report of our delegation — now we have to proceed to something else. Is it the intention of the House to pronounce on the Manitoba Act?” asked Riel, as reported in the sessional journal of the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.

“Hon. Mr. (Louis) Schmidt, seconded by Hon. Mr. (Pierre) Poitras, moved that the Legislative Assembly of this country, do now, in the name of the people (of the Red River Settlement), adopt the Manitoba Act, and decide on entering the Dominion of Canada, on terms proposed in the Confederation Act — Carried amid loud cheers.”

Then Father Richot addressed the assembly: “... now that our work, and that of the Canadian Parliament, has been ratified by this House, my desire is, first, to thank the people of this country for the noble stand they have taken on this question. I have to thank the Canadian Ministry — particularly Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George Cartier — for the liberal bill framed by them with the assistance of the delegation (besides Richot, it was made up of John Black and Alfred Scott). I have to thank the Dominion House of Commons and Parliament generally: for while 120 voted with us, only 11 were found against us (cheers) ... We have succeeded — but we have seen how difficult the task was. Why? Because we were divided. But now we are united, we will be a strong people, and our little Province will be the Model Province of Confederation (cheers).”

Riel said: “For the present let me say only one thing — I congratulate the people of the North-West on the happy issue of their undertakings (cheers). I congratulate them on their moderation and firmness of purpose; and I congratulate them on having trust enough in the Crown of England to believe that ultimately they would obtain their rights (cheers) ... Many people are yet anxious and doubtful. Let us still pursue the work in which we have lately engaged — the cultivation of peace and friendship, and doing what can be done to convince these people that we never designed to wrong them (cheers), but that what has been done was as much in their interest as our own (hear).”

An editorial in the New Nation on May 20, 1870, said despite the “severe trial” of the past winter caused by the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, “it is gratifying to observe here the perfect absence of taunt or recrimination towards each other; and from this kindly feeling amongst our people, in the face of the late temporary breach that occurred between them, we are led to believe that it is healing as quickly as it took place ... All that we ask is to be on a fair footing in the change proposed for this country.”

“We are Canadians — let us be so in the true spirit, and work unitedly to further our country’s interests from sea to sea,” proclaimed an editorial in the same newspaper on August 27, 1870. Another editorial on July 16, observed, “There is room for all, only let us live in harmony and devote our energies and attention to the great work of developing the natural riches which the Almighty has bestowed upon our country.”

Riel had every reason to be “anxious” as he would be forced into exile when troops from Eastern Canada under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley arrived on August 23, 1870, vowing revenge for the execution of Thomas Scott. 

July 15 is the date when Manitoba officially became a province, according to the terms of the Manitoba Act, but May 12 is when the act was given Royal assent. On that day, it was signed by Canadian Governor General Sir John Young, Lord Lisgar, on behalf of Queen Victoria.