Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba's Historic Role

by W. Friesen

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1962-63 season

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This Society has done much for the study and love of history in Manitoba; it has much more yet to do. It has much more yet to do in the conventional ways of historical societies; to develop archives, publish papers, commemorate the past, instill the love of history in the young, inform the tourist without wearying him, and so on.

Tonight I should like to ask whether this Society, and we as Manitobans, have in fact much more still to do, not in the conventional ways of historical societies, but in our historical role as Manitobans. No self-conscious, no self-respecting community can escape its history. Its facing of its history is the measure of its success or failure, of its growth or decay. What the past has sown, the future reaps.

Now, as we all know, Manitoba has had a peculiar and an exacting history. Manitoba has never been just another province of Canada. It has always been Canada in microcosm, the whole country in one little province. It was through Manitoba that Canada expanded to become a nation from sea to sea; it was in a real sense that only by means of Manitoba was Canada possible. And down the nearly-completed century of our history time after time, in 1890, in 1911, in 1917, in 1935, in 1957, what Manitoba did Canada came to do - simply because Manitoba is the most Canadian of the provinces of Canada.

To be representative, to be the voice and in a measure the conscience, of a country is a heavy destiny indeed for a small province, hard put to it often enough to keep up with its neighbours. But no one escapes history. And tonight I venture to raise the question, is not the present crisis of sentiment, as French and English Canadians approach the centenary of Confederation and question whether it is indeed good, whether it was work well done, is not the present crisis perhaps yet another occasion when Manitoba, because it is what it was, must speak for Canada?

You will perhaps think me presumptuous to raise such a question in such terms. Well you might. But in fact I did not raise it first. Friends of mine did, all former Manitobans, knowing this province and knowing Canada also, first raised the question. They went on to suggest that a clear lead by Manitoba on the matter of biculturalism might give the country what is sadly needed, a sense of confident purpose again, and the assurance that we are living out our history in terms the past germinated and the future can nourish. Can you in Manitoba, they said, not do something clear and definite to assure French Canada of its full and free equality in the partnership of Confederation?

The question is a searching challenge, because how it is answered reveals without possibility of concealment what one thinks of Canada and of its nature as a nation: I must confess that in private I gave no answer, but only raised the host of obvious and inevitable difficulties - the complication of the Schools Question, the problem of the mosaic principle, the political dangers, the matter of the relative numbers of French and English-speaking, the smallness of Manitoba, the urgency of other matters. This evening, however, I would like to attempt a public answer couched in terms of our provincial and national histories, as I understand them.

The beginning of all Canadian history is, of course, that at the planting of European civilization in America this country, every bit of it from the Bay of Fundy to the Saskatchewan valley, was French.

The second thing is that first Nova Scotia - Acadia, we should say - and then Canada were conquered and annexed by the Crown of England. All that was demanded of their people, 'however, was allegiance; French they might remain in speech and Catholic in religion. The Canadians, indeed, were allowed their own civil law.

The third thing is that in the lands that became Canada the French outnumbered the English in all parts of British America until the decade 1841 - 1851. In short, the French have been a minority of the population in Canada only a little over a hundred years.

These are most powerful reasons, then, for the French to claim the right, both historical and constitutional, to remain French in speech and culture. The same reasons entitle them to claim equality with the English; indeed, no one, not even the earliest English immigrants, has so good a claim to "equality" as the French have. If this is so, then, that the French ought of historic and legal right be equal with the English in Canada, why should French Canadians feel that they are not, and why should there in fact be grave limitations on those rights in every province of Canada other than Quebec? Why in particular should there be such limitations in the Province of Manitoba, a province peculiarly of French creation?

An answer is to be found, I think, in two things. The first is that historically the French of Canada have been identified, at the time of Confederation were identified, and still themselves when Quebeckers tend to identify themselves, with the Province of Quebec, the original Canada. Note for example what Hector Louis Langevin, Father of Confederation and with George Etienne Cartier the only French Canadians at the Westminister Conference that made final the terms of Confederation, note what he wrote in the utmost secrecy to his trusted wife Justine - with Mrs. George Brown one of the two women to whom all students of Confederation must be grateful, for their husbands entrusted them with the most important news - note, I say, what Langevin wrote when the details of the Bill that became the B.N.A. Act were settled. (Surely there could be no better evidence of what a French Canadian really thought of Confederation.)

"You can easily believe how proud I am of the result. I am convinced that our position as people speaking the French language is assured as much as human things can be assured ...

"As for separate or dissident schools, the right and privileges of minorities, those of schools existing now or may be acquired hereafter, are guaranteed, as a right of appeal lies to the central power. In other words, we grant to the Protestants of Lower Canada the protection they ought to have and in consideration of that we extend our protection to 700,000 to 800,000 Catholics of Upper Canada and the Maritime Provinces."

Note also that to Langevin Confederation was a "treaty", as Macdonald had described it in the Canadian Parliament, and as Carnarvon, the Colonial Secretary who introduced the B.N.A. Bill, described it in the House of Lords a few days after Langevin's letter. Note also that it was a treaty designed to preserve the culture and nationality of the French. The B.N.A. Act, we must remember, was a summing up of British American history, and in that summing up were the historic rights of the French to grow as a distinct nationality within the new political order of Confederation. But those rights were confined to the Province of Quebec and the federal parliament and courts; they were not made Canada wide.

The second matter which suggests why limitations exist on French Canadian rights is not an easy matter to state briefly. But in substance it amounts to no more than this that Confederation, except in New Brunswick, was carried by the British American legislatures and the British Parliament alone, without any reference to the colonial electorates in general election, constitutional convention, or plebiscite. Confederation rested on the exercise of parliamentary sovereignty alone. One might almost say that there was a definite refusal to consider the alternative sovereignty of the people. The demands of the Rouge leader, A. A. Dorion, and of Joseph Howe, the great opponent of Confederation in Nova Scotia, were ignored in a way that would be wholly impossible in our days, but that was quite possible then.

The result was that the treaty rights of the French rested on parliamentary sovereignty and not on declared popular approval. Within a generation, however, the doctrine of popular sovereignty, the belief of a minority in 1867, had become a generally accepted doctrine a generation later, particularly in Ontario, and in the Province of Manitoba and the Territories it was populating to the westward: this was most significant, for if political power was to rest on numbers, power would reside with the majority. And that, in every province but Quebec, and in Canada as a whole, was English and Protestant.

The rights of French Canada, then, to be a distinct nationality within Confederation rested on history and the constitution. But those rights were limited by the constitution, as well as established. They were not regarded by English Canadians as an historic right embodied in a treaty, and capable of growth with the growth of French numbers. They were thought of as a political concession written into an Act of Parliament and limited to the Province of Quebec and the federal parliament and courts.

Out of this difference of view, a difference between French and English Canadians overcome at Confederation only by a few leading statesmen, and out of the misunderstanding that resulted sprang the Province of Manitoba. This province came into being only because of the differing views of English and French with respect to Confederation. This is why its role is so strongly historic; this is why Manitoba cannot escape history.

You will recall that the lands now Manitoba were discovered and first exploited by both English and French. The English were first on Hudson Bay, the French first on Red River. The first Europeans in this province owed allegiance either to the Stuarts of England or the Bourbons of France. And French and English remained together in the exploitations of the fur trade of the Northwest even after the cession of Canada. (If nearly all the bourgeois were Scots, that after all is something normal for the English proper, and they don't like it any more than the French!)

In consequence of the common exploitation of the Northwest, the population that grew up in Red River and elsewhere in the Northwest after connection with Canada practically ended in 1821, was and remained about half-and-half French and English. It is true, of course, that there was a strong and increasing diffusion of Indian blood, except among the Selkirk settlers and a few Canadian families at St. Boniface. This was particularly true among the French. But the common enterprise of the fur trade and the work of the missionaries produced a society that, while it had two distinct halves, was none the less a true community, a working duality. It was especially so after the assertion in the Sayer outbreak of 1849 of the French right to full participation in the commerce and government of the colony. The result was a working partnership that quite reconciled the French to the prevailing order by 1857.

In that year, however, came the great inquiry into the conduct of the Hudson's Bay Company prior to a renewal or discontinuance of its licence to trade. A party of old Hudson's Bay Company servants and a group of Toronto businessmen combined to demand the annexation of the Northwest to Canada. They revived the old French claim to the Northwest the North West Company had used against the Hudson's Bay Company and Selkirk's colony in 1815 and 1816. So successful were they that the acquisition became an object of Canadian policy, and so remained until it was accomplished in 1870.

There were to be, however, certain checks to the carrying out of the Canadian policy. One was the legal difficulties caused by the Hudson's Bay Company's charter and its actual possession. A second was that the Canadian government was by no means ready to assume the government of the Northwest. Still a third, the most intangible, but the most significant historically, was that the Canada of 1857 was a union of two sections, Lower Canada (correctly Canada East) and Upper Canada (Canada West). Each section had an equal number of representatives in the Canadian Parliament. But, since the publications of the first Canadian Census in 1851. it had been revealed that Upper Canada had a greater population than that of Lower Canada. George Brown of The Globe, the spokesman of the same interests who were to demand the annexation of the Northwest, began to agitate for representation by population in the sections of Canada. This threatened to reduce Lower Canada to a minority in Parliament. If the Northwest were simply to be annexed to Upper Canada and then populated with representation, Lower Canada would become a minority indeed.

It is my belief, therefore, that Cartier, when he went to London in 1858 with a Canadian delegation to urge the Confederation of British North America, made it clear to the British government that Lower Canada could never agree that Upper Canada should itself gain the Northwest. If the Northwest were annexed to Canada, it must be as a province or territory of all Canada. While I have failed to find any explicit statement of Cartier, or of the colonial office, or of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, Colonial Secretary, that this was so, I know Lytton, Cartier and A. K. Isbister discussed this matter of Confederation together. I am therefore prepared to accept Isbister's statement of Cartier's views published in The Nor'Wester on January 14, 1860, as being an authentic summary of his thought.

Such a view in fact became incorporated into the inter-locking set of changes, each necessary to all the others, the federation of all British America, the building of the Intercolonial Railway, the separation of Lower and Upper Canada, the annexation of the Northwest, the set of changes on which the coalition of 1864 was founded, and which became the basis of the Quebec Resolutions of that year. The Northwest must be brought into a federal union as a distinct area.

There remained, in the hustle and the tremendous effort involved in defeating the Fenian attacks and bringing New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into the Union, the matter of what kind of area the Northwest was to be and how it was to be governed. It was still unsettled when in 1869 the terms of the transfer from the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada were agreed upon. The Canadian government had been much too busy to decide how it would handle the delicate issue of bringing new territories into union. It therefore decided to take its time, give the Northwest a temporary government and have it make inquiries as to how the Northwest was to be governed. It was quite a sensible decision, but it overlooked the people of the Northwest and particularly a very difficult young man, a Westerner born who had not been too successful a student in Montreal, the second Louis Riel.

The Red River Resistance had many causes, but the root one was the same as that of the rising of 1849, to force recognition of the rights of the half-breed to participation in the trade and government of Red River. Because of the relatively backward conditions of the metis, or French half-breeds, and because of the background of their leaders, the two Riel's, it became a struggle to obtain recognition of the rights of the French to equality in the government of Red River and the Northwest.

Thus the issue raised by the entrance of the Northwest in Confederation was, on what terms should it enter, and what particular terms should the French have. Out of this issue came the Province of Manitoba with both French and English as official languages and with a dual and confessional school system. The same rights were entrusted to the Territories in 1875.

Thus the Northwest entered Confederation on the basis of duality and equality. That duality and equality rested on the realities of population. Had that equality of numbers been continued, how different Canada would be today. But few French came to Manitoba and the Northwest; many English Canadians, many British, some Europeans did. The balance of numbers tilted against the French.

Then came the Saskatchewan Rebellion and the return of Riel. The Rebellion was crushed and Riel was hanged. The results were grave. Already in Quebec the Red River troubles had provoked an ultramontane, nationalist reaction that had defeated Cartier in Montreal East in 1872. Now the hanging of Riel precipitated the first great nationalist explosion in Quebec, that which brought Honor& Mercier to office in 1888. He pursued a defiant, nationalist course. Ontario in reaction struck out at French nationalist pretensions, as many of its people thought them. The attack found a favourable hearing in Manitoba, where an overwhelmingly English and Protestant population were weary of the dual and confessional system of 1870. Both the use of French and the dual school system were abolished in 1890. In the Territories the abolition of French and a modification of the dual school system followed. The constitutions of Manitoba and the Northwest had by 1901 changed from what the federal Parliament had made them, and changed at the instance of popular majorities acting under the provincial and territorial constitutions. The Laurier-Greenway Compromise of 1897 only modified this basic change by restoring bilingual teaching and a mode of religious instruction in the schools.

Much even of that modification was to go in 1916, when as a result of the extension of bilingual teaching to languages other than French and German, and of a renewed nationalist agitation in Quebec, the government abolished bilingual instruction and instituted compulsory school attendance. The English Canadians view, sanctioned by what was done in 1867, and holding that French Canadians had a right to the use of their language and to confessional schools only in Quebec, and in the federal parliament and legislature, had prevailed in Manitoba.

You will see why I speak of Manitoba's historic role, and remark that Manitoba cannot escape its history. You will see why some eyes turn to us to see how the province of decision reacts to the most outspoken French nationalist movement yet to occur. You can see why I wonder what we might do, and you have an audience's right to ask what my wonderings have yielded.

First let me say that I have no doubt that English Canada ought to do something. Puzzling as the temper of French Canada is, outrageous as some of their acts have been, I think any one who values what Canada must feel is obliged to do something, not in surrender to French demands, but as fellow countrymen sympathetic with another's distress. There can be no doubt the present character of Confederation, and in particular the centralizing tendencies of national policy since the great depression, are harmful to the being of the French as a distinct nationality and that those tendencies will if unrestricted gravely injure it. There is no doubt also that, whatever the law and the constitution, a French Canadian has great difficulty in being as free in mind and opportunity in Canada as an English Canadian.

They want, therefore, the great body of French Canadians which is moderate and loyal, want a less strongly centralized constitution in certain respects, and a Canadian society in which a French Canadian can live as much in his own way as an English Canadian in his, and enjoy just as many opportunities for work and advancement. These are not unreasonable matters for discussion and for common action when agreement is raised. I, therefore, think that English Canadians, and those of Manitoba in particular, should be ready to do something about the constitution and about the conditions and relations of the two cultures of Canada. (I might add that historically and constitutionally there are only two national cultures in Canada; all others have no constitutional status whatever).

In this matter of biculturalism I think the Province of Manitoba and its people might well give some calculated leads.

One must obviously be in the field of the constitution. Here the ground is somewhat encumbered by the pledge of Mr. Pearson's government to appoint a royal commission on biculturalism and by Mr. Diefenbaker's proposal to submit the grievances of French Canada to a Dominion-provincial conference. Each has some merit, but I think both proposals are inadequate to the needs of the occasion. They are inadequate because they take no explicit account of the historic French right to be accorded equality within Confederation.

I therefore suggest a new departure. I suggest the appointment of a convention of an equal and limited number of French delegates drawn from all parts of the country, and a corresponding number of English. These should be appointed by the federal government from among nominations by the provincial governments. This dual and equal convention of the two language groups should meet at regular intervals until it can recommend what Confederation ought to be, and how it ought to be altered. Voting would be by individuals within each group and agreement would be by a majority in each of the two groups. These recommendations would be submitted to the federal government for submission to a Dominion-provincial conference. Such a procedure would recognize the formal equality of the two groups, and be in accord, when it came to action, with our traditional constitutional procedure. I think the Province of Manitoba might well take a lead with some such proposal.

The second would be to undertake, by private actions, to investigate to what an extent and by what means the old duality and equality of French and English as languages and cultures could be restored in Manitoba. This province would be a good place in which to study sympathetically and effectively, how difficult it is to have two cultures exist side by side on terms of equality. It would be an excellent place in which to examine how talk of equality of English and French, something that makes sense historically and practically in central Canada, strikes a Canadian in Manitoba whose origin is neither English nor French.

I would exclude from these discussions the question of schools, as this is a question not peculiar to French-English relations.

There are, I think, two pairs of private bodies that might explore these delicate and important questions. One pair is the University of Manitoba and St. Boniface College. The other is this Society and the Historical Society of St. Boniface. I hope something may be done in the University. Here I would suggest for discussion among you all and perhaps discussion in the Council of the Society, that this Society approach the Historical Society of St. Boniface with a view to appoint a joint society of the greatest possible weight to investigate and report upon the possibilities of restoring in Manitoba the duality and equality of French and English from which our Province sprang. I think our history demands we attempt this. I think it ought to give the will to attempt to understand how Canadian history has been made in Manitoba. And perhaps the results would be historic also.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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