Manitoba History: Martin Kavanagh Arrives in Brandon

by Martin Kavanagh, Kevin Kavanagh, and Sean Kavanagh, and introduced by Jim Blanchard

Number 56, October 2007

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Growing up in Brandon I knew of Mr. Kavanagh and being a history buff I had copies of his books. I remember speaking to him once on the telephone, when I called to ask him for help with a paper I was writing. He was courteous and patient with me and did what he could to help me. My older brother had him as Geography teacher at Brandon Collegiate and he remembers a tall, thin, rather austere figure in a schoolmaster’s gown. He never had any trouble with discipline because he commanded respect with his rather aloof and distant manner.

In the first chapter of his unpublished and unedited memoir, Kavanagh describes favorite teachers from his own school years and there is no doubt that he chose to emulate some of these men and their techniques. He was also from another age and another country where relations between teachers and students were less democratic than they were becoming in the 1960s.

The memoir shows Mr. Kavanagh in a warmer light, as he tells his personal stories (referring to himself in third person) with dry humor. He is remembered as a good teacher because he could make subjects interesting. He also had a certain cache for students as the man who not only taught history but had actually found the site of a fur trade post and the wreckage of an old river steamer.

Born in Ireland in 1895, Martin Kavanagh was educated in Wexford, Dublin and London. He was driven to immigrate, like so many at the time, by the terrible unemployment after World War I. He chose to come to Canada in 1923, and taught in rural schools. In 1929 he joined the staff of Brandon Collegiate Institute where he taught Latin and Geography until 1963.

Martin Kavanagh

Martin Kavanagh (1895-1987), Brandon teacher and historian.
Source: Kevin Kavanagh

The Brandon that Martin Kavanagh came to in 1929 was a prosperous market town, enjoying the benefits of the improved wheat crops of the late 1920s. The expanding use of the automobile during the 1920s meant that people from farther and farther away had become customers for the city’s stores and services. Farmers, with money in their pockets for the first time in years, were buying.

Brandon lay in the heart of country settled largely by Protestants from Ontario and in 1929 the population was still quite homogenous. As a Roman Catholic, Kavanagh must have felt as though he had landed in a place more like Ulster than his home in Southern Ireland.

The prosperity of the late 1920s was short lived and soon enough the Stock Market crash, poor crops and low prices, and the terrible drought of the early 1930s left Brandon in a desperate situation. The city, obliged to support large numbers of citizens on relief, was almost bankrupt in the mid 1930s and her affairs were put under the control of an administrator. As the Depression ground on and on, the young teacher must have wondered at times why he had left Ireland. But he and Brandon persevered and eventually enjoyed the prosperity of the post war years.

He left us two books, The Assiniboine Basin: A Study of Discovery, Exploration and Settlement (1946) and La Verendrye - His Life and Times, in 1967. Both books are well researched and carefully written, as one would expect of a man like Martin Kavanagh, and they continue to be useful sources. His point of view was very much that of a man of his generation and he was criticized for, among other things, portraying La Verendrye as a “great man” bringing civilization to the wilderness.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Kavanagh established a scholarship at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, to encourage the study of La Verendrye, and he was given a special Margaret McWilliams Medal by the Manitoba Historical Society for his contribution to the understanding of Western Canadian history and geography. He died in 1987.

Taking Up the Load - Odds and Ends

Excerpted from the unpublished and unedited memoir of Martin Kavanagh

When Kavanagh arrived in Brandon for all practical purposes he knew no one so he parked his car near the City Hall and commenced a search for a hotel. He examined the Prince Edward Hotel, the Brandon Hotel, and the Beaubier Hotel. All had price pretensions so he rejected them in favour of a room at the YMCA. It was clean. It had a bath and a cafeteria and it cost under $2.00 a night. (At the time Kavanagh was dictating these notes a Brandon resident had flown home from a trip to Vancouver. She mentioned that her hotel there charged $92.00 for room and bath, but, because she was one of a number of delegates to a convention, the hotel charge was reduced to $45.00 a night and she considered the charges reasonable even without meals.) [1] Kavanagh considered he was paying ‘plenty’ in 1929, when the desk clerk told him their charges were $1.50 for bed and breakfast. Other meals were to be purchased at the cafeteria.

After a few days, paying these ‘exorbitant’ prices, generally accompanied by a YMCA denizen, repeating verbatim the previous Sunday’s sermon, he decided to seek a Boarding House. The Secretary of the School Board, F. A. Wood told him that there was a family at Fifth and Lorne Avenue anxious to ‘board’ a teacher. The new arrival visited the home. Mr. B. occupied a huge house with very large rooms. He informed the visitor that the house was built as a family residence in 1885. In actual fact the house was intended to be a boarding house for early construction workers. As the years passed the owner became somewhat house proud as he became more affluent and the family now wished to forget about the boarding house era. The new boarder became a “P.G.” (Paying Guest). He sojourned there for several months. The mise en scene was not always pleasant. The family had two members in the Mental Hospital and their mother at times became overwrought. Every Sunday Mrs. B. invited a lady—about the P.G.’s age—for dinner. After a while Martin understood that his landlady wished to ensure that the boarder should marry. Not wishing to prolong a tiresome subject the guest asked where someone could get a view of the layout of Brandon. There seemed to be a unanimous opinion that the north hill was the ideal spot. He decided that it must be investigated. On a future occasion he betook himself there.

Brandon YMCA

The Brandon YMCA where Martin Kavanagh, newly arrived in the city, stayed in 1929.
Source: Christies Bookstore, Brandon, Manitoba: The Wheat City, no date.

Brandon City

In 1929 there was no Number 1 Trans-Canada Highway in the Prairie Region. [2] In the Brandon Area it was as yet only a wagon trail used infrequently by local farmers. The North Hill Road (which lay a mile south) was the northern boundary of the city. [3] It too was hardly passable. It was ‘pock-marked’ with sandpits, which encroached on the ‘Road’ as the gravel was gradually excavated for use on the streets or to form basements for buildings.

The new arrival navigated the sandpits till he was approximately half-way between First and Eighteen Streets. From his location he had a panoramic view of ‘the city’. The physical geography was simple. The Assiniboine River meandered from west to east. On the south was a gradually increasing incline of about half a mile and then an undulating plane for seven miles gradually rising to the Blue Hills of Brandon. On the west the plane declined gently from Kemney. On the east the land was almost a flood plane through Carberry and Portage la Prairie to Winnipeg.

The visitor soon realized that the older Anglo-Saxon Pioneers had settled on the hillside south of Rosser Avenue while the New Canadians who came later, settled on ‘the Flats’ north of Rosser.

Kavanagh was intrigued by the manner in which the names of Princess Louise Victoria—elder daughter of Queen Victoria—were romantically entwined with that of her husband McTavish, Marquis of Lorne, to identify the avenues. They were Princess, Lorne, Louise, Victoria, McTavish. The names of the avenues to the north were more democratic: Pacific, Assiniboine, Stickney, and Manitoba. The streets ran north and south. First Street was easily identifiable running down North Hill to First Street Bridge and southward. The streets east of First had names, but west of First, the more prominent streets seemed to be Sixth, Eight, Tenth and Eighteenth.

The busiest centre was the Canadian Pacific Station adjoining the intersection of Tenth Street and Pacific Avenue. There were Street Railways but there was no transportation by buses. [4]

As the new teacher scanned the city from West to East he could see easily identifiable buildings—Brandon College, International Harvester Building, the Arena and Winter Fair Buildings, the Fire Hall, and McKenzie Seeds. Prominent churches were noticeable: St. Mathews (Church of England) Procathedral, St. Hedwig’s Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church on Eleventh Street, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church—the new continuing Presbyterian Church on Twelfth Street had not been built—the First Methodist Church, St. Augustine’s of Canterbury Catholic Church (an outstanding Church for graceful architecture and interior furnishings), St. Mary’s Anglican Church and St. Michael’s Academy at First and Victoria. In the east was Brandon’s first Courthouse and Jail. Martin sought out school buildings. There were two easily identifiable Junior High Schools: Earl Haig at First & Victoria and Earl Oxford at Eighteenth and Victoria. He noted especially Brandon Collegiate Institute between Fifth St. and Sixth St. on Louise Ave. He did not think at the time that it would be his ‘place of work’ for thirty four years. Brandon Normal School was outstanding on Twelfth Street South.

The new teacher learned afterwards that Brandon’s population growth was: 500 (1881), 5,620 (1901), 13,859 (1911), 16,500 (1929), and 1981 (38,000).

Brandon Collegiate

Kavanagh’s first days at Brandon Collegiate were a blur. He remembered visiting the school on the Friday preceding Labour Day, which was invariably the first Monday in September. School opened the next day. The principal showed him the room assigned to him. It was “IE” a Grade X class. It was on the ground floor at the southwest corner of the Collegiate. The smell of oil, varnish and chalk dust permeated the building. Martin noticed there were six rows of single seats with seven desks in each row. There were passages between the rows of seats making it easy to check on any student’s work. He was quite pleased.

The next time he visited his ‘room’ the seats had been ‘doubled-up’ leaving a passage between every double row of seats, and accommodation was made for fifty-nine students. He learned too that sixteen of these students were ‘repeaters’ i.e. students repeating the year because of failure in examinations. The students (in IE) were all boys and most teachers know that in an otherwise mixed school discipline could be difficult as segregated teenage boys are inclined to think that they are being deprived of ‘something’.

While Martin had been engaged as a Latin Teacher in Grade X, XI and XII and felt very happy about the arrangement because he planned to concentrate on Grade X Latin as a basis for his major subject in the senior grades. The principal assigned a lady teacher—his personal protégé—to teach Grade X Latin and Martin was, much to his disgust, assigned to teach Grade X Science in all rooms. The student body was over four hundred and from the commencement the new teacher felt he would have a difficult year.

Brandon Collegiate

A view of Brandon Collegiate, date unknown, where Martin Kavanagh taught generations of Brandonites starting in 1929.
Source: Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum, 86-113-4.

Nineteen-twenty-nine was the beginning of the Great Depression. Jobs were not available to teenagers, who wished to leave school hence their parents obliged their boys to attend school as an alternative to ‘frequenting pool halls’.

The new teacher was well aware of disciplinary problems, which could arise, when students are more or less compelled to attend school. When he attended St. Mary’s Teacher Training College, Brook Green Hammersmith, London in 1922, the London County Council introduced Continuation Schools for students aged 15 to 16. Disciplinary problems were feared and anticipated. Only the best experienced disciplinarians on the staffs were considered for the new schools, even so chaos ensued and the newly engaged teachers were soon pleading to be released from their contracts. The situation in Brandon was not dissimilar.

When the Brandon teenagers attended Brandon Collegiate for the first time, academic subjects were only being taught. Technical Schools, Practical Arts Schools and Community Colleges were a thing of the future. Martin had practical experience of the unsuitable academic course. Mrs. Kavanagh employed a recent grade XI graduate. She knew ‘The Myths of Greece and Rome’ and some Latin and French but, she was completely ignorant of how to make ‘a button hole’ or the simplest dish and to crown all she mixed white and coloured garments in the washing machine so that the garments emerged like Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours.

Martin was assigned to take charge of Physical Training and to ‘run’ the Debating Society and Social Activities like Proms (Dances). He felt his plate was full. He braced himself to the task and soon began to think of other things.

Brandon Collegiate

Brandon Collegiate teaching staff, 1935, from The New Era yearbook. Martin Kavanagh is in the back row, at right.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University, Watson Collection, 36-1997.

Teachers’ Pensions

When Kavanagh came to Manitoba in 1923 there were no teachers’ pensions. In 1924 the Progressive Government—a Farmers’ Party—decided to initiate a pension scheme. The penurious attitude of prairie school trustees towards teachers was enshrined in the Act for the first pensions. [5] The average teacher’s salary was $1000 annually. The new scheme set the teachers’ contribution at 50¢ on the $100 dollar—the government to pay a like amount. The average teacher’s contribution was $6.00 annually. The first teachers pension was in one case at least $3.50 per month. In 1930 the contribution was 2% per annum on the salary. Needless to say Insurance Agents dogged the footsteps of individual teachers seeking to insure them for large amounts. A feature—and at that a not nice feature—was that some agents sought membership on the School Boards in order to bring pressure on their employees to buy a policy.


One of the extra-curricular activities that was assigned to the new teacher was debating which as things developed he organized as an inter-class contest in the form of a league. In the outcome it created wholesome interest.

A debate is a discussion on an agreed topic in which the affirmative speakers try to prove the truth of a statement, while the falsity of the proposition is supported by speakers for the negative. A debate is a battle in which words are the swords. Their arrangement is based on logic. The original debates in North America were discussions by two speakers—but they gradually increased to two speakers on either side. Debates are systematically arranged arguments. The affirmative side seeks to prove its point of view, while their opponents seek to disprove the topic. Every form of argument is permissible but while there may be appeals to emotion, prejudice, and sentiment the discussion is based on logic with minor points being allotted for manner of presentation of the subject: deportment, enunciation, clarity, research, etc.

Martin had seen and heard debates in Maynooth but the Debating Society was in the hands of a clique and few students took part. He remembered clearly that he had never seen a member of the staff present at the discussions. He personally had never taken part in a debate because he was too shy and the clique did not encourage new speakers. This was a pity. George Bernard Shaw attributed his success as a speaker to his participation in open air debates with a mob audience. He learned to think ‘on his feet’.

In a proposed debate the procedure is as follows: First a topic is chosen. Next ground rules as to procedure are laid down. This includes the time allowed for each speaker. The debaters then choose sides ... who will speak for the affirmative (positive) side? Who will speak for the negative?

The debate is opened by the first speaker for the affirmative side. He outlines the topic, the procedure and generally refers to the name of his supporter and the names of the opponents supporting the negative side. The second speaker speaks next. He is followed by the supporter of the positive side. Next comes the supporter of the negative.

The leader for the affirmative side sums up for his side and closes the formal part of the debate. The judges then withdraw to decide which side was victorious. They also decided which of their members will hand down the Criticism and the Judgement. In the interval a musical item may be presented. This is followed by the Critique and announcement of the winning side.

While presiding at Collegiate debates Martin, who was very interested in public speaking made it a point to call attention to the finer points of public speaking as taught in S.P.C. and in Maynooth by McHardy-Flint, Professor of Elocution. [6] Martin stressed diction, choice of words, cogency of arguments, enunciation, declamation and modulation of the voice. In particular he referred to Shakespeare’s advice to actors: “Speak the speech as I tell it to you, Trippingly on the tongue ...”


During the academic year September 1929 to June 1930 the new Brandon teacher was quite busy getting to know his surroundings, his more or less new ‘teaching load’ and ‘his own affairs’. After he left Mr. & Mrs. “B’s” at the corner of Fifth and Lorne Avenue he moved to Waldron’s a family living close-by on Fifth Street. After he “settled in” he felt distinctly uneasy because the landlord spent all his time in bed. It soon turned out that he had tuberculosis and while all health regulations were carried out with great care, the ‘guest’ felt that it would be best if he sought a residence elsewhere because he could possibly transfer the germs to his pupils. These were the days when T.B. was looked upon as incurable and the only palliatives were rest, fresh air, a collapsed lung and good food. The sulfa drugs did not come on the market for twenty years. When the opportunity offered Martin rented an apartment at 27 Alexander Block belonging to Hughes Company on Tenth Street Brandon. He prepared his own breakfast and evening meal. He found a Boarding House run by a Miss Scott in the Three Hundred Block on Sixth Street. She provided a good mid-day meal. Miss Scott’s sister was married to the Reverend Patterson, a former Continuing Presbyterian Moderator and then after his conversion a pastor of the Four Square gospel. Mr. Patterson occupied a suite in Miss Scott’s house. As the Reverend was an educated man of some ability the conversations at dinner were interesting and stimulating.

The furnishing of the newly acquired suite (flat) in the Alexander Block was a step on the road to freedom from landowners. He learned that in choosing a residence one should locate near one’s place of work, stores convenient for shopping and a church close at hand. Choosing furniture had to be kept to a minimum because he hoped to set up a permanent abode in the new year and leave the purchase of furniture to his new bride.

No sooner had Kavanagh “settled in” than he met Stuart Robertson, a former Treherne resident, who had secured a job as a shoe salesman at Creelman’s—a store— located at the south-east corner of the intersection of Eight Street and Rosser Avenue where today the headquarters of the Royal Bank grace Rosser Avenue. Stuart was seeking employment. As he was a pleasant person Martin offered him a temporary home till he got established. The understanding was that Stuart was to cook breakfast and the evening meal and pay $30.00 a month room and board. This worked quite well till the “Market” on New York Stock Exchange collapsed and people were so frightened of a further “crash” that they did not make purchases at the stores. Stuart told his landlord that ‘Creelman’s Shoe Store’ with its four employees never sold a single pair of shoes for several weeks. Mr. Creelman “ducked out” when it came to ‘pay time’ for the employees on Saturday nights. Stuart was lucky because his family on the farm near Treherne, was able to come to his assistance. [7]

A feature of a man taking up residence in a bachelor apartment was that unattached males found out about it and were inclined to come to roost in the suite at inopportune times. Martin had to take the phone off the hook.

At this time the beginning of January 1930 Martin used to read about the hard times being encountered by unemployed workers across Canada and the USA. The situation became increasingly dangerous because most people—especially people just coming on the labour market— spent their meagre weekly pay-cheque and had nothing ‘to take up the slack’ if they were put on half-time or became unemployed. The situation became increasingly dangerous in big cities with large groups of unemployed workers.

The social legislation introduced in Great Britain and Ireland in 1905 anticipated at least in part the unemployment situation of the “Thirties”. The Employer, the Employee and the Government contributed each week towards an “Unemployment Fund,” a Medicare fund and an Old Age Pension Plan. There was no such legislation in Canada or USA. The situation became chronic.

Martin’s first direct contact with the seriousness of the situation came to his attention in January 1930. As he left the Collegiate after 4 P.M. he walked north on Sixth St. and westward on Princess Avenue to where Brandon’s first City Hall was then located. He noticed a group of men entering a bakery on the north side of the avenue opposite the City Hall. They emerged rather shamefacedly with unwrapped loaves which they put under their jackets. That was the first time that relief had been doled out. The men were not “bums” but decent unemployed day labourers (hired men). He saw no unemployed females. Martin had read about the situation in the newspapers, but the scene, which he viewed, shocked him.

In his room at the Collegiate he had an experience which showed how tight the economic situation was. The School Board would not buy footballs for the gym classes, so Martin asked his classroom to collect a nickel (5¢) from each of the fifty nine boys. The class president told him privately that at least half of the class could not contribute so the matter was dropped.

About this time 1930 there was a federal election. [8] The candidates were R. B. Bennett Conservative leader and McKenzie King Liberal Prime Minister. Both appeared at the Arena at Tenth Street and Victoria Avenue. Bennett, a corporation lawyer of fine presence told the audience how he was going to raise the tariff walls by 50% to keep out foreign imports and then lower the new tariffs by 20% to attract buyers from Great Britain. The audience listened in openmouthed astonishment, but economically speaking things were so bad that it would clutch at any straw and listen to any spell binder who would promise work and food even for ‘labour camps’ with a pittance for pocket money.

McKenzie King appeared in the same arena on a different date. The audience was not large and King sat in the top back seat, where the audience usually sat at hockey games. He appeared to the teacher to be a fussy middle-aged bachelor with no audience appeal whatsoever. Bennett too was a bachelor but he at least had a presence. He was naive as a politician—all sound and fury. King was a political manipulator—just a shade to the right of centre. He seemed to be riding for a fall. He fell. He was the type that “sat out” a storm.

Bennett, who became Conservative leader in 1927 was all blandness and suavity to the eyes and ears of his audience but suddenly he required a paper from his secretary. The latter, who had probably heard his master’s claptrap a few dozen times, was having forty winks. Richard Bedford Bennett turned from his audience to get the information. He found the secretary awaking from his slumbers. The future prime minister of Canada turned on him and in a quiet voice, laced with venom, he said: “What do you think I am paying your salary for?” Then once more he turned, oh so suavely, to his larger audience. Martin, sitting close by, mused: “Well I never!”

Assiniboine Basin

The Assiniboine Basin, published by Martin Kavanagh in 1946, is available on the MHS web site:


1. Martin Kavanagh died in 1987. Here he is referring to hotel rates in the early 1980s.

2. The construction of the Trans-Canada highway began in 1950. The highway was declared open in 1962. See Trans-Canada Highway,

3. The North Hill Road referred to here is currently named Braecrest Drive.

4. The Brandon Street Railway was inaugurated in 1913 and discontinued in 1932.

5. For an account of the struggle of Brandon teachers to gain reasonable salaries in the years immediately prior to the arrival of Martin Kavanagh in Brandon see Tom Mitchell, “‘We Must Stand Fast for the Sake of Our Profession’: Teachers, Collective Bargaining, and the Brandon Schools Controversy of 1922,” Journal of Canadian Studies 26(1), Spring 1991.

6. “S.P.C.” refers to St. Peter’s College, Summerhill, Wexford, Ireland. Martin Kavanagh took his secondary schooling at St. Peter’s. On St. Peter’s College see

7. Stocks sold on the New York Stock Exchange began a precipitous decline in September 1929 just as Martin Kavanagh began his service at Brandon Collegiate Institute. “Black Thursday” took place on 24 October 1929.

8. The federal election of 1930 was held on 28 July 1930. In Brandon, T. A. Crerar was elected in a by-election in Brandon on 5 February 1930 following the appointment to the Senate of erstwhile progressive leader Robert Forke, only to be defeated by Conservative David Beaubier in the 28 July 1930 general election.

Page revised: 28 March 2020