While camping on the Manitoba plains in 1895, Alonzo Fowler Kempton, a salesman for a stock insurance company, and Charles Kerr, a Souris accountant, discussed forming a new mutual insurance company designed specifically with western farmers in mind. Kempton soon convinced twenty Wawanesa farmers to invest twenty dollars each and on 25 September 1896, the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company was born. Glenboro, their first choice for head office, had turned them down because they were not abstainers. However, Wawanesa agreed, provided the two went to Winnipeg to take the “Keeley cure” for those who indulged a little too freely in alcohol.
They began operations in a modest room above a pharmacy with Kerr and Kempton as the sole staff. The first policy was issued on 9 October 1896, insuring a thresher for $600 at a premium of $24 for three years. Special arrangements to accommodate the farmers were made, including timing of payments for after the harvest, which contributed to the success of the new enterprise. By 1900, Wawanesa insured properties valued at more than a million dollars and they had expanded the damage covered as well as the region serviced. They had the foresight to expand into the North West Territories, soon to become Saskatchewan and Alberta. In 1901 they moved to a new building on 4th Street with a view of the beautiful Souris Valley, and by 1902 employed five people, including an itinerant salesman. In 1903 they purchased the first typewriter in the region. By 1910 they proudly claimed to be the most important mutual fire insurance company in Canada.
Alonzo Fowler Kempton had led the company since its beginning, but in 1922 he offered his resignation, not for the first time, and it was accepted. Dr. Charles Morley Vanstone replaced him. The first years of his term were marked by financial difficulties, but once the economy began to pick up in 1925 the period to 1971 was one of expansion and prosperity. Coverage soon expanded to private property in towns and cities and then to automobiles, and in 1930 the granting of a Canadian charter allowed accelerated expansion across the nation. When they were granted permission to sell life insurance, the executive offices moved to Winnipeg, though the head office remained in Wawanesa village. In the spring of 1961 the Wawanesa Mutual Life Insurance Company sold its first policy.
Automobile insurance became publicly insured in Manitoba and British Columbia, as it had been for twenty years in Saskatchewan, after the election of NDP governments in 1969 and 1974. This was a heavy blow to Wawanesa business, but they turned it into an opportunity by looking south of the border and expanding into California, the first in Canada to do so. In 1993 the Wawanesa Mutual Life Insurance Company was converted into a wholly owned stock subsidiary of the older, general insurance company. When it turned 100 in 1996 it employed 1,300 and was Canada’s largest mutual insurance company.
An MHS Centennial Business Award was presented to Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company by Kenneth A. Zealand in 2000.
Historic Sites of Manitoba: Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Building / Sipiweske Museum (Wawanesa, Municipality of Oakland-Wawanesa)
Historic Sites of Manitoba: Wawanesa Insurance Building (107 Fourth Street, Wawanesa, Municipality of Oakland-Wawanesa)
Memorable Manitobans: Alonzo Fowler Kempton (1863-1939)
This page is based on the company publication Our Mutual Journey: A Century to Celebrate, a copy of which is held at the Manitoba Legislative Library.
Page revised: 14 June 2020