Manitoba History: Greening the Treeless Plain

by Gordon Goldsborough
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 53, October 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Start with grasslands extending to the horizon in all directions. Add buildings here and there. Replace hoofworn trails with paved streets. Watch spindly sticks placed along the streets grow into massive, magnificent trees. This was the recipe for converting a vast prairie around Upper Fort Garry into the lush urban forest of modern-day Winnipeg. [1] The change did not occur accidentally or quickly, but as the result of a concerted campaign by the civic and provincial governments.

Arbor Day was initiated in Nebraska by newspaperman J. Sterling Morton who, like his peers, missed the abundant trees of his eastern home. [2] Trees also helped stabilize soils prone to wind erosion, and they provided needed fuel and shade. A day dedicated to tree planting was proclaimed by the state governor, and the first event was observed on 10 April 1874. Other states followed suit and, by the 1880s, it had become a national tradition. Seeing the benefits, many other countries, including Canada, adopted it too.

Manitobans looked enviously at tree planting efforts in neighboring Minnesota as early as 1876 [3] but it was not until 1884 that the provincial legislature gave the Lieutenant-Governor the power to “appoint as a public holiday, to be observed throughout the province, a day to be known as Arbor Day, for the planting of forest and other trees.” [4] At the first Arbor Day, in 1885, results were mixed; “a large number of trees were planted” in Brandon [5] but, in Portage la Prairie, “notwithstanding the efforts to make the day successful, very few trees were planted; quite a number of sportsmen availed themselves to try a day’s shooting before the close of the season.” [6] A more vigorous effort was made in 1886. Experts gave lectures on the species of trees that would survive in Manitoba’s climate, and parents were urged to involve their children. The Manitoba Free Press editorialized:

When next Arbor day comes round see to it that every one has a stock of young trees ready to plant; get your children interested in it; offer a small prize to the boy or girl who has most trees living when another Arbor day comes around, and see how they will enjoy watching the growth of their work. [7]

Nurseries around Winnipeg offered trees for sale to willing arborists, and they promised to deliver them to any part of the city. Lieutenant-Governor J. C. Aikins gamely tried to set a good example. Accompanied by his wife and daughters, and members of the provincial government, he supervised the planting of trees around the legislative building grounds. Each of them planted one tree then they moved on to Government House, where more trees were planted. At Manitoba College, an institution for higher education run by the Presbyterians, “a considerable amount of spirit” was shown in planting trees. However, the general public preferred to relax rather than toil at tree planting. According to the Free Press:

Arbor Day has come and gone. It was not observed throughout the city as strictly as it might have been. The stores and other places of business were closed but that fact did not lead to the conclusion that the great army of clerks were planting trees. They regarded it as a holiday, and accordingly sallied forth to enjoy themselves. The only observance of the day in the business portion of the city was noticed about the city hall where a gang of men, not aldermen, busied themselves planting trees about the building … The day was not observed by the schools, except that the pupils were given a holiday. Very few trees were planted by private parties, as the majority of people considered the day out of season. [8]

Manitoba College staff and students plant trees on Arbor Day, 10 May 1887. Visible among them, at the right side, are the Reverends George Bryce (wearing a top hat and carrying a young child) and Thomas Hart (to Bryce’s right), both of whom taught at the college. Three months before, Bryce had relinquished the presidency of the Manitoba Historical Society to Hart, who would serve until 1888.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough

Arbor Day 1887 was proclaimed as a public holiday for 10 May. Rural members of the legislature left Winnipeg to spend the day with their constituents. The courts were closed, and CPR shopmen were given the day off. But most businesses remained open because the city council made no effort to close them. The students of Manitoba College did not get the day off either, as they were in the middle of examinations. Nevertheless, a few of them gathered on the steps of the college building, along with some of their professors and neighborhood children, to have their photograph taken before planting trees around the campus. Despite these and other showings of civic pride at city schools, the next day’s newspaper was critical of the results as a whole:

While the main object of the day was not lost sight of, yet the tree-planting was done in a very desultory manner and it can hardly be said that, so far as Winnipeg is concerned, the benefits of the day’s work will be very appreciable. This may have, and no doubt was, principally due to the lack of a proper system of organization, and it is to be hoped that on future occasions some method will be followed. Had a proper system of organization for the purpose of planting trees been in force, that business would not have interfered at all with the enjoyment of the holiday as it would have occupied but a short time, and citizens would then have been free to indulge in the various amusements provided. [9]

The Manitoba Sun added grumpily that “if Arbor Day is to be a success, the city council must furnish the trees and plant them along the principal streets, taking care of them after they are planted.” [10] General public apathy towards Arbor Day seems to have continued in subsequent years. Even Manitoba College had, by 1891, reverted to disinterest. It was reported that “Arbor day was pretty generally ignored around the college.” [11]

It was the early twentieth century, after efforts by Winnipeg’s government, when appreciable numbers of trees began to thrive along city streets. According to David Domke, the present Winnipeg forester, there are no data on how many of the trees planted during Arbor Days of the 1880s have survived. Most extant boulevard trees—the majority being American Elm with fewer Manitoba Maple and Green Ash—were planted in the 1920s. Arbor Days are now held in collaboration with Winnipeg schools. The civic government donates a tree and helps the children plant it while the school organizes poetry and essay writing contests on the importance of trees.


1. Trees only grow in abundance around bodies of water so most of the area where Winnipeg now stands was prairie.

2. For a history of Arbor Day in the USA, see

3. Newspaper articles such as “The Planting on the Prairies,” Manitoba Free Press (MFP) 14 March 1876, p. 3 and “Encouragement of Tree Planting” MFP 28 April 1877, p. 2 urged Manitobans to follow Minnesota’s lead, where over 1,500,000 trees were planted in 1876.

4. MFP, 6 June 1884, p. 2.

5. Brandon Weekly Sun, 30 April 1885, p. 4.

6. MFP, 2 May 1885, p. 1.

7. MFP, 30 March 1886, p. 3.

8. MFP, 13 May 1886, p. 4.

9. MFP, 11 May 1887, p. 4.

10. Manitoba Sun, 11 May 1887, p. 4.

11. MFP, 9 May 1891, p. 5.

Page revised: 26 June 2012