Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Zepherin Laporte: The “Forrest Gump” of Red River

by Tom LaPorte
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 76, Fall 2014

The Laporte family has a long and storied history in Canada, starting with Louis Laporte (1667–1717). In 1742, Louis’ son Pierre was contracted to transport furs for LaVérendrye in what later became western Canada. In 1880, a branch of the family moved to St. Norbert, Manitoba. But a distant cousin, Zepherin Laporte, had preceded them in 1874, eventually setting himself up as an hotelier in the new city of Winnipeg.

In 1994, the acclaimed Hollywood movie Forrest Gump featured a title character who was an unwitting bystander at historic moments. As the sleepy fur-trade post of Upper Fort Garry morphed into Winnipeg, particularly during the tumultuous period from 1870 to 1885, many whose names are all but lost to history lived amongst now-legendary people like Riel and Dumont. Zepherin Laporte was one such character.

Laporte’s former Commercial Hotel, once the Winnipeg post office, as it appeared shortly before demolition in 1909.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Streets - Lombard 2

As the evening darkened on a hot day in July 1885, a crowd gathered on Main Street in Winnipeg, near its historic junction with Portage Avenue. The occasion was a public celebration. The rebel Louis Riel had been caught and was standing trial in Regina. General Middleton’s troops were passing through Winnipeg on their way back to eastern Canada and the entire downtown area was decorated gaily with illuminations, garlands, spruce boughs, banners, and flags. A torch-lit parade of representatives from the City Police, Fire Brigade, St. George’s Society, Bicycle Club, and Snow Shoe Club was joined along its route by illuminated wagons and carriages carrying Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governor and Premier, Acting Mayor, General Middleton and his staff, military band, and several detachments of troops. [1] But some Winnipeggers were not celebrating that night. They supported Riel and defended what his rebellion had stood for. One of them was Zepherin Laporte.

Laporte was an hotelier, the son of an Ottawa hotelier, who had purchased the Commercial Hotel from its owner, Louis Payment, in 1879. [2] The Commercial was a former Winnipeg post office, a clapboard-sided log building erected behind a general store belonging to early pioneer A. G. B. Bannatyne. In October 1870, the community’s post office had moved from its original location in the home of William Ross into a 12- by 14-foot room in Bannatyne’s store. This soon proved insufficient to handle the increasing volume of mail arriving at Winnipeg. So, in October 1871, the post office moved into the nearby log building after it was vacated by the print shop for The Manitobannewspaper. [3] The nearby lane became known as Post Office Street, but was renamed Lombard Avenue sometime in the early 1880s. With mail volume continuing to increase, a new post office was constructed on Main Street in 1876. The next year, Bannatyne connected the former post office to an adjacent log building and converted them into a hotel with bar and restaurant, and sold it to Louis Payment. [4] In 1881, city health inspector George Kerr toured the local hotels to award a gold medal to the one with the “cleanest yard.” [5] Laporte’s Commercial took the prize, being described as “a model of cleanliness and is well worthy of emulation by more pretentious hotels.” [6] By 1884 Laporte bragged that his facility was the “best house in all Winnipeg,” offering accommodations for $1 per day.

Laporte owned horses in addition to his hotel. In July 1883, he offered a $300-prize to anyone who could beat his “London Boy” in a 10-mile trotting race. A contest with Dan Mill’s “Minneapolis” was duly scheduled but, for reasons unknown, Laporte backed out. He forfeited his $100 deposit and “was expelled from the Turf Club for conduct considered to be unsportsmanlike and of a nature to debase the turf in the eyes of the public.” In 1884, “London Boy” redeemed himself by winning a race against George Kerr’s “Inspector.” The race had taken place on Portage Avenue and the owners were promptly brought before the court on charges of “immoderate driving within the city limits.” They were each fined $10 plus costs but Laporte could easily afford to pay it, having won $300 from the health inspector and another $200 from private side bets.


Source: Archives of Manitoba, Events #145, N9582

In 1885, Zepherin Laporte became an active witness to history when he opposed an angry mob intent on venting their fury at Louis Riel by burning him in effigy on the streets of Winnipeg. After being taken into custody following the failed rebellion in the North West Territories, Riel was taken to Regina and charged with high treason. His trial was set to begin on Monday, 20 July 1885. Many Winnipeggers expected swift justice and a guilty verdict. The daily newspapers duly reported what happened on Main Street during the evening of Friday the 17th. The Manitoba Free Press noted gleefully that:

“A small scaffold had been constructed, on which was erected a gallows. Riel was represented in a kneeling position, with a rope around his neck, and his hands crossed on his breast in attitude of supplication. He was surrounded with a battery of Roman candles, and his interior economy was fitted up with a bomb, containing about half a pound of powder. The whole was suspended from a line stretched across the street from the Brunswick Hotel to the building opposite.”

The Winnipeg Times added that “… below the effigy was a black coffin … on either side were stirring mottos demanding Riel’s execution.” The celebration started with a torchlight procession to the effigy. The roman candles were lit, the effigy caught fire, the gunpowder exploded, “and the leader of the rebellion was blown sky high. In the course of time he descended in fragments amid the yells of the excited crowd.”

But the crowd was not unanimously in favour of “executing” Riel. Around 10:00 PM, as the procession neared the site,

“a buggy stopped directly underneath [the effigy] and a man suddenly rose from his seat and clutched the coffin which he detached from its supports and let fall to the ground. So sudden and unexpected was the affair that the crowd hardly realized the nature of the incident and the party in the buggy drove off before the object of the occupant was thoroughly understood. Once known, however, the utmost excitement arose, and vengeance was freely uttered against the despoiler. … The latter drove down Main Street.”

The buggy driver was none other than Zepherin Laporte, whose views were clearly not shared by other business-owners in the area. The group who installed the effigy included such Main Street mainstays as the McLaren Brothers — proprietors of the Brunswick Hotel who later established the McLaren Hotel that still carries their name today — and saddle-maker Elisha F. Hutchings who, by 1910, numbered among Winnipeg’s 19 millionaires. In a trial lasting less than two weeks, Riel was found guilty and, on 16 November 1885, he was hanged. In a last, symbolic gesture of support, Zepherin Laporte walked alongside Riel’s coffin in a procession to the cemetery of the St. Boniface Cathedral.

In the spring of 1885, Laporte closed the Commercial Hotel and the building sat vacant for a time. The building passed through several owners, including a harness maker and grocer, until 1909 when it was demolished by the Great West Life Assurance Company to make way for their new corporate headquarters. That building still stands today, dwarfed by the Richardson Building across the street. Meanwhile, Laporte had moved across the street to become proprietor of the Hotel du Canada. Not only was it a larger facility than the Commercial but it was widely known as the Winnipeg refuge and bastion of French-Canadian voyageurs and Métis bison hunters. The Hotel du Canada had its origins in the early 1860s as a one-room saloon run by pioneering businessman Onesime Monchamp who:

... came here a poor man and commenced by keeping bar for a Mr. Holmes who had a brewery at St Boniface. Monchamp, however, soon opened in a quiet way on his own account. A small room on Post Office Street, with a bench and rough deal counter, a barrell of beer, and one or two black bottles and a few glasses, constituted his first outfit. Monchamp, however, took good care of the dollars and cents, and ere long he began to improve his place, and when the troops arrived in Winnipeg [in 1870] he could boast of a small hostelrie and bar on the spot where the Hotel du Canada stands to-day. [7]

The “small hostelrie” became a two-storey structure with Monchamp’s saloon on the main floor and a barbershop above it. The saloon became the place where thirsty Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs went to celebrate after delivering their loads to company warehouses at Upper Fort Garry and where the French-Canadian and Métis population of Winnipeg could feel welcome in a community that was becoming increasingly “English” with the arrival of settlers from Ontario. By 1897, when the building was getting a new roof, a reporter at the Manitoba Free Pressreminisced that “it was in this building that the half-breeds used to congregate prior to the first rebellion (1869) and several times Riel harangued his compatriots there and excited them until they began the Indian war dance.” [8]

One of Riel’s men remembered these meetings differently and much less colourfully. Jean Baptiste Ladéroute wrote in his memoirs that after work one day in late April 1869, he “went to Monchamp’s saloon for a drink and met Narcisse Marion, Dr. Walter Bown and Charles Mair. Joseph Genthon and Riel arrived shortly after, and upon being introduced to each other, the men sat down for a friendly chat. ... The conversation quickly turned to the impending transfer of sovereignty of the Red River Settlement to Canada. Riel declared that the political change was not going to happen as had been foreseen. Dr. Brown and Mair asked, “Who is going to stop it?” Riel answered, “It is I who is going to stop it.”

In 1873, Monchamp added a billiard room with six Brunswick tables to the rear of his saloon. Upstairs were several rooms “for gentlemen to relax in.” [9] By 1874, when Winnipeg was formally incorporated as a city, Monchamp’s saloon had an estimated value of $7,000 and was occupied by seven people, including Monchamp and his wife. Later that year, Monchamp replaced his original saloon and advertised it in local newspapers for the first time using the name “Hotel du Canada” [10] or sometimes the “Grand Canada Hotel.” In 1877, he hosted the founding meeting of the Winnipeg Lacrosse Club for which he was Vice-President. [11]

In 1878, Monchamp leased his hotel to Laporte’s brother-in-law Casimir Prud’homme but continued to live in one of its rooms. Prud’homme had arrived in Winnipeg around the same time as Laporte and opened a dry goods store on Main Street in partnership with A. H. Bertrand. [12] Two years later, Monchamp sold out to J. A. Richard and the Prud’hommes moved to Emerson to operate a hotel there. In January 1885, Laporte took over the Hotel du Canada from Richard. By July, a local paper reported that the facility “has been renovated and is now one of the most fashionable in Winnipeg.” [13]

Laporte must have realized, when he tried to pull down the Riel effigy then drove away with a crowd in hot pursuit (see the sidebar), that his actions could affect his future as the proprietor of the “only First Class French Canadian Hotel in Winnipeg.” So he suddenly stopped his buggy, wheeled about, and rode back to face his pursuers. They surrounded him and threatened bodily injury but Laporte managed to make his way through them amidst hoots and yells, and was able to return to his hotel. By the next morning, when questioned by a reporter from the Winnipeg Times, he had his cover story ready. He explained that he had thought the display was a plan by the local Grits (that is, the Liberal party) to embarrass the government and so he tried to pull it down to “baulk the designs of the Grit manipulator” as he was a “John A. man.” [14] His claim must have been accepted at face value. Laporte continued to operate his hotel in peace until his death in 1891.

Métis leader Gabriel Dumont, shown here (centre) circa 1890 with Napoleon Nault and ? Gladu, was a prominent guest at Laporte’s Hotel du Canada.

Métis leader Gabriel Dumont, shown here (centre) circa 1890 with Napoleon Nault and ? Gladu, was a prominent guest at Laporte’s Hotel du Canada.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Dumont G #4

Laporte’s true feelings were revealed at Riel’s funeral. After the hanging at Regina on 16 November, Riel’s body was returned to his family at St. Vital. Archbishop Taché did not want to hold a public funeral, feeling that it might lead to trouble, but the family ignored him and organized a very public procession. On 12 December, Riel’s casket was carried on foot by his pallbearers all the way from St. Vital to the St. Boniface Cathedral, a distance of some six miles. Riel’s brothers Joseph and Alexandre walked at the head of the procession. Several prominent members of the Francophone community walked along both sides of the casket. A newspaper account listed them: “The Hon. M. LaRiviere, MLA; Judge (Louis Arthur) Prud’homme; Mr. [Senator] Trudel; the Hon. Joseph Royale, M.P.; A. H. Bertrand; Z. Laporte, O. Monchamp and others.” They were in turn flanked by an armed Métis guard, following by over 300 people.

Meanwhile, Riel’s military commander, Gabriel Dumont, retreated to Montana where he tried to reunite the Métis forces and rescue Riel. When Canada declared a general amnesty for participants in the rebellion, Dumont returned to Canada where he continued to campaign for Métis rights and improvement in Métis living conditions. In 1889, he toured western Canada, arriving at Winnipeg on 24 April where he stayed, of course, at the Hotel du Canada. That evening he gave interviews to the press with Laporte acting as his interpreter. [15]

Laporte operated the Hotel du Canada until his death at the age of 44 on 20 February 1891. [16] The hotel passed into the hands of businessman Hermisdas Benard and began a slow decline. In 1903, concerned about a growing gambling problem in the city, the police raided the Hotel du Canada. Forty people were arrested while over 100 others escaped. The city council decided to make an example of Benard and withdrew his hotel licence. Benard sold the building to D. Bell who re-opened as a temperance hotel, The Emporium. In 1905, The Emporium was badly damaged by fire and was sold for demolition in 1906. [17] A newspaper headline lamenting the “passing of another of the landmarks of the Winnipeg of the earlier days”, described the Hotel du Canada as “the oldest hotel in the city, and the centre for years of the French-Canadian life of the country. In the romantic days of the seventies its old walls rang often with the hearty cheers and the gay songs of the trapper from the north and the voyageur.” [18] Yet it somehow escaped demolition and struggled on as the Lombard Hotel until being finally torn down around 1917. The Richardson Building stands on the site today.

Notes

1. The Manitoban, 17 July 1885; The Manitoban, 18 July 1885.

2. Henderson’s Guide to the City of Winnipeg, January 1880.

3. Manitoba Free Press, 18 December 1886.

4. Manitoba Free Press, 22 December 1877.

5. Winnipeg Daily Times, 15 June 1881.

6. Winnipeg Daily Times, 27 June 1881.

7. Ten Years in Winnipeg by Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey, p. 12.

8. Manitoba Free Press, 9 October 1897.

9. The Manitoban, 13 December 1873.

10. The Manitoban, 16 May 1874; The Manitoban, 29 August 1874.

11. Manitoba Free Press, 28 April 1877.

12. Le Métis, 31 January 1878.

13. Le Métis, 30 July 1885.

14. Winnipeg Daily Times, 18 July 1885.

15. Manitoba Free Press, 25 April 1889.

16. The Manitoban, 26 February 1891.

17. Manitoba Free Press, 17 April 1905.

18. Winnipeg Telegram, 30 June 1906.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 2 April 2020

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