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The Republic of Manitobah

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Very soon after Thomas Spence arrived in the Red River Settlement in 1866, it was realized that he would play a prominent role in political affairs; he was looked upon at once as a politician and it was not surprising for Spence lost no opportunity of presenting himself as such. His political ambitions were high - and he sought to represent his views and plans as the opinions and plans of others who had been in the settlement for many years.

One of the most interesting stories about this man who was determined to lead and to organize concerns what is probably the strangest and wildest political experiment ever made in the Canadian West.

Thomas Spence was very soon in a public office, Although he did not hold this office long or with much success, it can be said that he did become the President of a Republic - at Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. In 1867, Spence moved from the Red River Settlement to Portage la Prairie where he opened a store and became one of the leading spirits of that community. Portage la Prairie, though within the Hudson's Bay territory of Rupert's Land, was then outside the jurisdiction of the government and Council of Assiniboia whose powers extended only fifty miles west of Fort Garry. The community had no courts, no police, no taxation, no government, and no laws except those the people chose to observe. It was an ideal spot for a man of Spence's ambitions to set up a government in the way and for the purposes he wanted.

In June 1867, he gathered about him a group of settlers hoping to set up a government for the community. An address was sent to Queen Victoria asking for recognition, law, and protection. No reply was received. In January 1868, some of the settlers under Spence's direction decided to organize the community as a Republic - first called Caledonia and then the Republic of Manitoba. The boundaries, which extended for hundreds of miles, were very indefinite with the exception of the dividing line between the western limit of the District of Assiniboia and the new Republic. A council was chosen and oaths of allegiance were given to those who would take them. Spence was chosen President of the Republic and Findlay Wray, Secretary.

Reil's Council of 1669-70
Spence, seen at the extreme right in the middle row, satisfied his appetite for political leadership by serving on Riel's council.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

A government, if it is going to do anything, must have money. Revenue for the Republic to build a council house and jail was to be raised by taxing imports. Notices were served on all traders. When the Hudson's Bay Company officer at Portage refused to pay such a tax the council of the Republic decided that they could do nothing at that time but warned that they would make it hot for the Hudson's Bay man when they had built their jail.

Further trouble developed when a shoemaker by the name of McPherson charged that the money obtained by taxation wasn't being used to build the council house and the jail but was being spent on liquor for the members of the government and the council. This charge the Republic could not overlook without some show of authority. This was to be a test to prove whether it could govern and enforce the law. It failed miserably. McPherson was charged with treason to the Republic, a warrant was issued for his arrest and two constables sent out to bring him back to trial. But the two constables who set out in the performance of their duties were quite drunk when they approached McPherson's home. Having been warned by their noise and their singing, McPherson was sitting in his home cleaning his revolver when the two arrived.

In a fight that followed McPherson escaped hoping to reach the boundary of Assiniboia but the constables on horseback soon over-took him. One attempt to rescue him from his captors on the way to trial failed. This trial, which took place in the log home of one of the constables, turned into a humiliating experience - especially for the Republic and its President - for it soon became a brawl. The lights went out, revolvers were fired and the President was forced to take shelter under a table while McPherson was being rescued by his friends.

Built on a shaky foundation the Republic of Manitoba was almost a comical experiment. Government of some sort was necessary for the community. Spence hoped to establish a government with some authority which would deal with Canada and enter into Confederation. He also expected that when this was done his personal interests would not be overlooked by the Canadian Government.

In February 1868, he had written the Colonial Minister in London announcing the formation of his Republic. He had already been told by the Governor of Rupert's Land that his government had no power. When the Colonial Office replied that the Republic had no force in law, that the people had no authority to create or organize a government, the Republic of Manitoba collapsed.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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