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Manitoba History No. 89

No. 89

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Memorable Manitobans: John Norquay (1841-1889)

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John Norquay
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MLA (1871-1874), MLA (1875-1878), MLA (1878-1879), MLA (1879-1883), MLA (1883-1886), MLA (1886-1888), MLA (1888-1892), Premier of Manitoba (1878-1887).

Born at St. Andrews on 8 May 1841, the second son of John Norquay and Isabella Spence, his parents died when he was very young and he was adopted by his grandfather, James Spence. He was a veritable giant of a man, over six feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds. He spoke a number of languages, including English, French, Cree, and Saulteaux. Norquay was known as one of the province’s finest speakers, possessed of a “soft, clear, musical voice, notably resonant.”

The first Premier born in the province, he received his primary education at St. John’s Parochial School, and later transferred to St. John’s Academy, where he studied under Bishop Anderson and won a scholarship in 1854. After graduation he taught at Parkdale. In search of a better salary he quit teaching and entered the fur trade in the service of a Mr. House at White Horse Plains. Although not actively involved in the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870, at one point he served as a messenger from the Anglophone mixed-bloods to Louis Riel. He farmed at High Bluff and was acclaimed for High Bluff in the first provincial election held in December 1870.

In the legislature he assumed the leadership of a major bloc of Anglophone mixed-bloods. With the resignation of Alfred Boyd he was appointed a member of the Executive Council and to ministerial portfolios of Public Works and Agriculture on 14 December 1871. He held these positions until 8 July 1874, when the ministry resigned. Re-elected at the December 1874 general election, he joined the cabinet of R. A. Davis as Provincial Secretary in March 1875, by which time he was acknowledged as leader of one of the Anglophone factions in the province -- the mixed-bloods -- which had an equal number of legislative seats (eight) to the Francophones and also to the new settlers from Ontario. He resigned his position in May 1876 to become Minister of Public Works.

When Premier Davis resigned in October 1878, he formed the new government in conjunction with Joseph Royal and held the offices of Premier, President of the Executive Council and Provincial Treasurer. He presided over a province that was growing rapidly and shifting demographically towards Anglophone Protestants. Politics centred around railroads, with all Manitobans seeking a share of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s hoped-for competitors. Ottawa disallowed Manitoba railroad charter legislation in 1882. The railroad controversy eventually brought Norquay down in 1887, when he was unable to find financing for the Red River Valley Railway, which was intended to link Winnipeg with the United States, and (with the assistance of Prime Minister Macdonald) ended up with a shortfall in the province’s books.

He was an unsuccessful candidate for Marquette in the federal election of 1872. He sat for High Bluff in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, 1870-1874. In the general election of 1874 he was returned for St. Andrew’s, and was re-elected or acclaimed in the elections of 1878, 1879, 1883 and 1886. Norquay resigned the Treasury portfolio on 27 August 1886, and was appointed Railway Commissioner on 10 September 1886. Norquay resigned his remaining portfolios on 14 December 1887, and was succeeded by Dr. D. H. Harrison. On the defeat of the Harrison Government and the accession of Thomas Greenway as Premier following the 1888 general election, he became leader of the Opposition.

In June 1862, he married Elizabeth Setter (1842-1933), daughter of George Setter and Isabella Kennedy, niece of William Kennedy. They had eight children: Thomas Norquay (1863-?), Isabella Jessie Anna Norquay, John George Norquay (1865-?), Alexander Norquay (1867-?), Horatio Clarence Norquay, Caroline Ellen Norquay (1871-1960, wife of John Edgar McAllister), Andrew James Norquay, and Aida Theodora Norquay (1881-1883). He was a founding member of the Manitoba Historical Society, in 1879, and a member of the Manitoba Club and Anglican Synod and Executive Committee of Rupert’s Land.

Norquay died unexpectedly on 5 July 1889 and was buried in the St. John's Cathedral Cemetery. At the time of his death he was the only MLA who had continuously held a seat in the Legislative Assembly since its inception. He is commemorated by Norquay Street, Norquay School, and Norquay Park in Winnipeg, and a commemorative plaque on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature. His papers are at the Archives of Manitoba.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Norquay School (Lusted Avenue, Winnipeg)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Norquay School No. 262 (RM of Lorne)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Norquay Cemetery and Townsite (RM of Lorne)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: John Norquay (1841-1889) Plaque (Assiniboine Avenue, Winnipeg)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Norquay Park / Michaelle Jean Park / Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg Monument (Beaconsfield Street, Winnipeg)

John Norquay, Dictionary of Canadian Biography XI, 643-47.

“John Norquay, 1878-1887 ” by Gerald A. Friesen in Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh, Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2010.


A Political Manual of the Province of Manitoba and the North-West Territories by J. P. Robertson, Winnipeg: Call Printing Company, 1887.

Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by J. M. Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

Burial transcriptions, Manitoba Genealogical Society.

We thank Nathan Kramer for providing additional information used here.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 2 July 2019

Memorable Manitobans

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