Manitoba History: Manitoba Expands Northward: A Special Edition of Manitoba History

by Jim Mochoruk
Department of History, University of North Dakota

Number 68, Spring 2012

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The fifteenth of May 2012 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Manitoba’s dramatic expansion northwards to the shores of Hudson Bay and the 60th parallel. Understandably, this expansion was cause for much congratulation and excitement in the Manitoba of 1912 as it represented the culmination of a battle waged by local political leaders for many years and opened up whole new vistas for provincial economic development. “New Manitoba,” as it was then called, was to be the province’s new frontier, the place where the old prairie province would break the shackles of wheat monoculture and enter the brave new world of 20th-century natural resource development. Of course, as matters turned out, the addition of all this new territory was not entirely without a downside—either for the people of “southern” Manitoba or for the people who already lived in the north. However, in 1912 there were few people who harboured any serious reservations about provincial expansion or the incredible benefits this territory would bring to the people of the province. Perhaps even more to the point is this: the addition of New Manitoba changed the face and the future of Manitoba irrevocably. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that Manitoba History should issue a special “northern edition” to commemorate this centennial.

The readers of this special edition will be treated to what I think is a particularly interesting assortment of contributions related to the history of the provincial north. In the Gazette section, we have three pieces. The first is Rosemary Malaher’s contribution on the diaries of an obscure, but intriguing, trapper who lived and worked out of his base at “Mile 445” of the Hudson Bay Railway from the 1920s through the 1940s. Next there is a fascinating analysis by Jim Burns and Gordon Goldsborough of the 1912 plan for the model northern town, Roblin City—the town that never got built. Finally, from Scott Stephen we have a look at the eighteenth-century construction works of James Isham at Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River and York Factory at the mouth of the Hayes River. In regards to full-length articles Will Steinburg provides a compelling examination of an important, but vastly understudied mining community in northern Manitoba—Herb Lake—between 1914 and 1950; an examination which poses and answers important questions about the nature of northern development and the human impact of changing modes of economic production. Sarah Ramsden’s contribution takes us into the 1970s with its theoretically sophisticated analysis of the attempts of the provincial government to integrate aboriginals into the workforce and community of the newly created mining town of Leaf Rapids. Finally, Jennifer Marchant and Tom Mitchell provide the readers of Manitoba History with a detailed analysis of the successful struggle to establish, retain, and improve post-secondary educational opportunities for northerners through Inter-Universities North throughout the 1970s.

Before turning to these pieces, however, it is useful to consider exactly how Manitoba came into possession of its new hinterland. It is worthy of note that if Louis Riel had had his druthers in 1869–1870, Manitoba—or rather the super province of Assiniboia he was then proposing—would have come into Confederation consisting of all the land of “Rupert’s Land and the North-West,” roughly the region stretching from Lake Superior to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. [1] Moreover, Riel and his principal advisors wanted control over this vast region’s public lands and natural resources to be vested in the provincial government, as was the case in all other Canadian provinces. [2] This, however, was not to be. The Dominion government, led by Sir John A. Macdonald, admitted Manitoba to Confederation as the rather minuscule “Postage Stamp Province”—barely 100 miles square, [3] and, adding insult to injury, did not allow even this tiny jurisdiction to control its public lands, reserving them instead “for the purposes of the Dominion.” [4] As the Prime Minister explained it to the House, he thought it “injudicious to have a large province which would have control over its lands, and might interfere with the general policy of the government.” [5]

Over the next 41 years both the size of Manitoba and its lack of control over public lands and natural resources would become the source of regular complaint for a series of provincial administrations. Moreover, these matters were usually tied together, for not having public lands to sell or other natural resources to “rent” or lease left Manitoba in a precarious financial situation. For example, in 1873 the provincial legislature petitioned Ottawa for territorial expansion, believing that more territory and the increased population within it would lead to an increase in the federal subsidy for Manitoba. [6] Unfortunately for Manitoba, the Macdonald administration, which had seemed favourable to the proposal, fell as a result of the Pacific Railway scandal before action could be taken. The new Mackenzie government gave its tentative approval to boundary extension but refused to even consider an increase in subsidy to defray the increased costs of administration. As a result, Manitoba’s Legislative Council was forced to decline any territorial addition. [7]

This was a bitter lesson for Manitoba’s political leaders, and it was one that would be repeated all too often. Time after time, they would turn to Ottawa—seeking more provincial territory, more funding (typically expressed as “Better Terms”) or control over the public domain, and in some cases all three at the same time. The responses they received varied from administration to administration, but they were never quite enough to satisfy the desires of Manitoba’s political leadership. For example, it is clear that both Prime Ministers Macdonald and Mackenzie were quite willing to consider an extension of Manitoba into the so-called “disputed territory” between Manitoba and Ontario in the 1870s and 1880s. [8] Indeed, Prime Minister Mackenzie confided to Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris late in 1874 that he hoped the dispute would soon be settled by arbitration and that “Wherever the Ontario border may be fixed to the west the boundary of Manitoba should also reach, while an extension West and North would also seem desirable.” [9] So, there was no question that he was willing to expand Manitoba; he was simply not inclined to pair such an expansion with more money for administrative purposes. As events would demonstrate, Macdonald was even more willing to expand Manitoba’s boundaries, but in his case it was clear that Manitoba was simply a useful cat’s-paw in his dispute with Ontario’s Liberal administration. Indeed, immediately upon returning to office in 1878, Prime Minister Macdonald vetoed the award of the Board of Arbitration which had just set the Ontario border at the Lake of the Woods (which was highly satisfactory to Ontario premier Sir Oliver Mowat) and eventually attempted to settle the matter by introducing the Manitoba Boundary Extension Act of 1881. [10] Manitoba was now to be extended all the way to Thunder Bay! In explaining the reasoning behind this remarkable piece of legislation, Macdonald was brutally frank: “we cannot afford to give it [the disputed territory] to Ontario… because the lands would belong to Ontario. Keeping it as a portion of Manitoba, the lands belong to the Dominion.” [11]

Unfortunately for Manitoba, after three years of rather pathetic attempts to assert provincial jurisdiction in hotspots like Rat Portage, control over the disputed territory was passed to Ontario by a ruling of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the province lost any claim to the lands of what would henceforth be known as northwestern Ontario. As Manitoba’s most distinguished historian, W. L. Morton, observed of this verdict: “The decision was no doubt good law and it ended an intolerable uncertainty. It did, however, fly in the face of both history and geography and deprived Manitoba of an area which by historical and physical ties had always been part of the Red River basin.” [12]

Still, the western and northern extensions of the 1881 Boundary Extension Act—west to the present-day border with Saskatchewan and north to 52° 50’—did remain in place and, by expanding the provincial landmass by a factor of ten, this Act gave Manitoba at least part of the territory it had desired (it was not as far north or west as Norquay wanted—a point made in subsequent extension requests). For the next two decades, although the question of boundary extension did arise in Manitoba on several different occasions, it was usually overshadowed by fights with Ottawa over matters such as the provincial right to charter southward-running railways, increases in provincial subsidies (usually based upon a claim for federal payments “in lieu of lands” withheld from the province) and, in the 1890s, the Manitoba Schools Question. [13] Even more to the point, although there was considerable economic activity beginning to stir along the northern edge of Manitoba—commercial fishing, lumbering, prospecting, mining, increased trapping, and even some first steps towards the construction of a railway to Hudson Bay (as an outlet for western Canadian grain)—until 1905 demands for northward expansion were really secondary to Manitoba’s desire for further westward expansion into the rich, arable lands of the districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. [14]

Nowhere would this become more evident than in the efforts of the Rodmond P. Roblin administration. Roblin and his leading cabinet ministers—Robert Rogers and Colin Campbell—were well aware that Manitoba was running out of internal frontiers to develop. The railway of Mackenzie and Mann, which had now become the Canadian Northern Railway, and which owed much of its success to provincial government support—first from the Greenway / Sifton administration and then even more dramatically from Premier Roblin’s government—was now opening up territories north and west of Manitoba’s 1881 boundaries. The western districts of the province, Manitoba’s last substantial farming frontier, were now essentially filled and the lumber and fishing frontiers seemed to be pushing steadily northwards—in several cases beyond 52° 50’. Thus, Roblin came to the conclusion that it was time to resurrect many of Premier Norquay’s demands of the 1880s—for federal construction of a Hudson Bay Railway (HBR), for boundary extensions both west and northwards, for “Better [financial] Terms,” and for either control over public lands and natural resources or more federal payments “in lieu of lands.”

As quickly became evident, although he and his government consistently requested a northern extension to Hudson Bay and the 60th parallel, Roblin’s eyes were fixed most firmly on expansion westwards into the rapidly filling agricultural territories of the Assiniboia and Saskatchewan Districts of the NWT. He even went to the NWT to debate Territorial Premier Haultain regarding the matter of Assiniboia joining Manitoba in 1902—a debate that he lost badly. [15] Undeterred, between 1901 and 1905 he and his government submitted a series of Resolutions to the federal government, calling for western and northern extensions of Manitoba. [16] However, in 1905 all hopes of westward expansion were dashed by Prime Minister Laurier’s introduction of the North-West Autonomy Bills. However, this was only part of the bad news for Roblin and Manitoba: Laurier rather coolly explained that although the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were to extend north to the 60th parallel, no such extension could be made for Manitoba prior to consultations with every other interested party. Indeed, the prime minister observed that Quebec, Ontario and even newly created Saskatchewan might all have equal claims to an extension to the shores of Hudson Bay. [17]

Manitoba’s political leaders were stunned by this particular turn of events. In many regards, the writing had been on the wall for some time concerning the creation of one or more new provinces in the west, but that any province other than Manitoba would be allowed to expand due north into the old territory of Keewatin—which had been administered out of Winnipeg by the Lieutenant-Governors of Manitoba since the 1870s—was just too bitter a pill to swallow. Not surprisingly, a nasty and convoluted battle between Roblin’s (Conservative) provincial administration and Laurier’s (Liberal) federal administration was now fully joined. As Roblin put it to an appreciative audience in southwestern Manitoba: “Manitoba has been shorn of territory which belonged to her, crippled for all time, treated as an outcast, cribbed, cabined and confined, left to remain a very small postage stamp on the very large envelope of the Dominion.” [18] Up with this he would not put!

The complex political manoeuvrings and machinations that went on for the next seven years were amazing to behold—and they threw light into several dark corners of Canadian political life. To begin with, the lingering and always dark shadow of the Manitoba Schools Question was cast across the issue of boundary extension, for Quebec and the Catholic Church were quite concerned about the future of French and Catholic education in the north. By the same token, Ontario’s self-interest in gaining control over every possible/viable deepwater port on Hudson Bay, as well as its interest in gaining access to even more natural resources than it already controlled came to the fore. Meanwhile, Manitoba’s deep-seated envy of the old provinces of Confederation and of British Columbia—that “spoilt child of Confederation”—was now joined by its resentment at the much better terms (financial and physical) which its two newest prairie siblings enjoyed. And even the Maritime provinces would eventually join their voices and grievances concerning their place in Confederation to the debate over the extension of Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario northward in 1912. But what was perhaps most notable about all of these debates and arguments was the sheer amount of posturing that went on between Manitoba and Ottawa—posturing that was designed not to settle the boundary matter, but to secure partisan political advantage in the exciting political contests of 1908 and 1911. [19]

During that three-year period Manitoba’s desire to expand northwards was actually conceded to on several different occasions by the Laurier administration, which was now apparently willing to ignore the interests of Saskatchewan, Quebec and, to a certain extent, Ontario, in the area north of Manitoba. The issues that still divided the two sides were not so much territorial—although the exact northeastern boundary remained up in the air until 1909—as they were financial and perhaps, constitutional. Premier Roblin and his negotiators now argued that, in addition to the boundary extension, Manitoba should receive either the exact same financial terms and subsidies as Saskatchewan and Alberta or be given beneficial control over public lands, as was the case in Ontario and the other old provinces. [20]

Prime Minister Laurier was so disheartened by this new bargaining strategy that he stayed away from the bargaining table for two years. By 1911 though, with his government in trouble over a whole variety of issues, he needed to shore up political support wherever he could, so he once again reopened negotiations with Manitoba. There was no substantive movement on Roblin’s part, but when this latest conference broke up, the Prime Minister made one final effort to settle the matter. In what was far and away the most generous federal offer to date—embodied in a federal Order-in-Council—Laurier offered Manitoba extension to its current boundaries (originally offered in 1908 and agreed to by both sides by 1909), plus an additional $200,000 per year “in lieu of lands” for the new territories that would be added. [21] This came very close to granting Manitoba full fiscal parity with Saskatchewan and Alberta, and if one considered Manitoba’s existing subsidies in lieu of lands for the southern part of the province plus some other special arrangements it had with the federal government concerning swamp lands, the offer may actually have been better than what Saskatchewan and Alberta were getting. However, with the Laurier administration on the political ropes, Premier Roblin had no intention of taking any deal that was not specifically what he had requested. Thus the offer was rejected—and no new offer would be made prior to the federal election of 1911—the election that drove Laurier from office and brought the very friendly Borden administration to power.

Within months of this election the Manitoba Boundary Extension Act of 1912 (as well as similar acts for the extension of Ontario and Quebec) was drafted and passed—on the exact terms Premier Roblin had demanded, that is to say, exact parity with Saskatchewan and Alberta. [22] There was a tortuous accounting procedure that had to be applied to the new deal—swamp lands had to be returned, already alienated drained lands had to be accounted for etc., etc.—but at the end of the day Manitoba had won its northern extension, increases in its subsidies in lieu of lands and its debt allowance which amounted to $500,000 per year, a lump-sum payment of $201,723 to construct public buildings in the north and, in a very pleasant surprise, a $1,382,800 payment as “arrears” on land subsidies, back-dated to the negotiations of 1908. Even better, not only had Manitoba won its battle for the north—and better terms—but its new territory, “New Manitoba”, already had the much ballyhooed Hudson Bay Railway ready to move beyond The Pas and out across the north to the Bay. Surely that road would open up more than just a new route for grain shipments. Prospectors, lumbermen, railwaymen and so many more were already flocking to the north and it was confidently believed that they would make this territory into the new frontier of an already booming provincial economy. Manitobans clearly had much to celebrate on 15 May 1912.

Of course, there was still much to be done—and there would be more battles to be fought in the future concerning northern development, the HBR, and the thorny issue of beneficial control over natural resources, but W. L. Morton was right when he noted that in 1912, “the ‘Cinderella of Confederation’ became for the time being the favourite child.” [23]


1. See, “The Third ‘List of Rights,’” Appendix I in W. L. Morton, (ed.) Manitoba: The Birth of a Province. Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1965, p 245.

2. Ibid. For a more detailed analysis of Riel’s goals in this regard see Jim Mochoruk, “Manitoba and the (Long and Winding) Road to the NRTA.” Review of Constitutional Studies/Revue d’etudes constitutionnelles, Vol. 12, #2, 2007, p. 259.

3. According to Lt. Gov. Archibald’s calculations the new province was precisely 116.3 miles by 103.5 miles. See Library and Archives Canada (LAC) RG 15, Vol. 228, #800, “Confidential, Archibald to the Secretary of State for the Provinces, Fort Garry, 20 December 1870,” p. 8.

4. Canada, Statutes, 33 Vic, Cap. 3, Sec. 30 [The Manitoba Act].

5. Canada, House of Commons Debates, 1870, Vol. 1, pp. 1317–1318.

6. “Provincial Parliament,” Manitoba Free Press, 15 November 1873.

7. See Jim Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage: Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development, 1870–1930, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2004, p. 25.

8. This was the region between Lake Superior and the original eastern boundary of Manitoba. Ontario’s governments claimed that all the territory from its then current western boundary on Lake Superior to the Northwest Angle of the Lake of the Woods should be granted to Ontario. Prime Minister Macdonald disagreed quite vehemently, wanting the lion’s share of this territory to either remain as part of the NWT or be passed to Manitoba. Prime Minister Mackenzie was less vexed by the issue and wanted it settled by arbitration.

9. Archives of Manitoba (AM), Morris Papers, “Alexander Mackenzie to Morris, 11 December 1874.”

10. Canada, Statutes, 44 Vic., Cap. 14, “An Act to Provide for the Extension of the Boundaries of Manitoba”

11. Canada, House of Commons Debates, Vol. II, 1880–1881, pp. 1451–56.

12. W. L. Morton. Manitoba: A History (2nd ed.). (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), p. 219.

13. For a discussion of this period and its major political issues see, Jim Mochoruk, “Thomas Greenway, 1888–1900” in Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh (eds.) Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center Press, 2010, pp. 80–102.

14. For an account of these economic developments see Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage, Chapters Three and Five.

15. Macleod Gazette, 16 May 1902.

16. See for example, Manitoba, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba (JLAM), 1901 “Resolutions,”; Ibid., 1902 “Resolutions”, Ibid., 1904–1905 “Resolutions”; and Ibid., 1908, Appendix, “Memorial: To the Honourable Senate (or House of Commons) of Canada,” pp. 36–37.

17. Laurier’s comments are reprinted in Manitoba, JLAM, Appendix, “Memorial: To the Honourable Senate (or House of Commons) of Canada,” p. 37.

18. Cited in the Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs, (1905) p. 363. (The speech was given in Baldur, Manitoba on 4 April 1905.)

19. For a detailed discussion of the convoluted manoeuvrings of 1905–1912 see Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage, pp. 127–142.

20. Manitoba Sessional Papers, 1910, No. 5, “Report of Messrs. Rogers and Campbell. 14 April 1909,” pp. 209–210.

21. Canada Sessional Papers, Vol. 46, No. 24 “PC 573: Certified Copy of a Report. 17 March 1911,” pp. 4–5.

22. Canada, Statutes, 2 George V, Cap. 32 “Manitoba Boundaries Extension Act, 1912.

23. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History, p. 324.

Page revised: 2 January 2017