Manitoba History: A Tale of Two Houses: The Rise and Demise of the Legislative Council of Manitoba, 1871-1876

by David Grebstad
Etobicoke, Ontario

Number 75, Summer 2014

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Given the rancour that has erupted over the past year concerning fiscal improprieties in the Canadian Senate, along with the more recent decision by the Supreme Court to reject a plan to reform the federal upper chamber through a unilateral act of Parliament, it may surprise Manitobans to learn that their familiar unicameral legislature was not always thus. Upon its entry into Confederation, the government of the Province of Manitoba was exercised through a bicameral legislature whose existence was destined to be fraught with challenges. Five years after its inception, the upper chamber voted itself out of existence.

In the face of immense financial difficulties, the unpopular Legislative Council was abolished in 1876 in an expeditious quest for fiscal responsibility. This resonates with modern-day Canadians, amongst whom the question of the utility of bicameral legislatures has been reinvigorated due to the shocking Senate scandal that plagues the federal government. The story of the creation, existence and contentious abolition of the Legislative Council involves much more than simply dollars and cents. It is a story that is, unfortunately, often overlooked although it offers useful insights into the value of a bicameral legislature in the Canadian parliamentary system. This paper will attempt to remedy that.


The institution of the Legislative Council stems from British parliamentary tradition. The British Parliament itself is bicameral and has served as the model of government upon which modern Canadian institutions are founded—each of the settled colonies that comprised British North America in the late 19th century had a bicameral legislature. [1] Given that these provincial legislatures mirrored the British Parliament, it is unsurprising that when the Fathers of Confederation began deliberations on the creation of the Dominion of Canada, the structure of the new Dominion Government would naturally reflect the bicameral nature of the British model. Consequently, in 1864 when the provincial delegates to the Quebec Conference produced their seventy-two resolutions that formed the foundation of a proposed Confederation, they determined that the future Canadian Parliament would be bicameral in nature, and that members of the upper house would be appointed by the sovereign for life. [2] These resolutions were confirmed in the British North America Act which created the Dominion of Canada and established the bicameral nature of the Canadian Parliament with an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate. The Act also stipulated that the Province of Canada would be split to form the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec, the legislature of the former to be unicameral, while the legislature of the latter was to remain bicameral. The legislatures of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, both bicameral, were to remain unchanged. [3] Notwithstanding the unicameral legislature of Ontario, the predilection for bicameral institutions at both the provincial and federal level would play a role in the structure of the Manitoba Legislature.

The Manitoba Act

On 12 May 1870 the Governor General signed An Act to amend and continue the Act 32 and 33 Victoria chapter 3; and to establish and provide for the Government of the Province of Manitoba, more commonly known as the Manitoba Act. Itwas the result of a series of negotiations between Dominion Ministers and delegates from Fort Garry who represented Louis Riel’s Provisional Government of Assiniboia. This singular document ended what had been seven months of strife in Fort Garry, and resulted in the creation of the Province of Manitoba. The delegates from Fort Garry had significant input into the development of the Act, and consequently, it reflected their political aspirations and intent.

The design of the Provincial Legislature, as dictated by the Manitoba Act, included an upper house—the Legislative Council of Manitoba. The inclusion of an upper house was a key part of the document and was not only the result of the established political tradition in Canada but also a reflection of the interests of the inhabitants of the Red River Settlement and a guardian of minority rights in a culturally diverse province.

Meetings of Manitoba’s Legislative Council were held in the provincial courthouse, on the west side of Main Street near its intersection with William Avenue. Built in 1873, the courthouse was used until 1882 when the court moved to a new facility beside the Vaughan Street Gaol. The building was used for a time as a variety theatre. Boot and shoe merchant Thomas Ryan (1849–1937) built the four-storey Ryan Block to the south of it, on the former jailyard, in 1883. The following year, entrepreneur John Clements (1838–1926) demolished the former courthouse and erected the Clements Block on its two-foot-thick foundation. The Block was destroyed by fire in April 1979 and the site is now open space beside the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute of Red River College.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Buildings - Provincial Law Courts 1, No. 4, circa 1881

The delegates who represented the Provisional Government demanded that the government of the new province include an appointed upper chamber, but there is some confusion as to where the impetus for this came from. [4] The delegates—Father Ritchot, Alfred Scott and Judge John Black—had several documents to guide them in their negotiations with the Dominion of Canada and which indicated the political aspirations of the inhabitants of Red River. In early December, 1869, a convention of French and English Delegates met and agreed to a Bill of Rights created by Louis Riel. [5] Later, in February 1870, a “Convention of 40” was held in Fort Garry consisting of forty representatives—twenty English and twenty French—representing the parishes of the Red River Settlement. This convention produced another “List of Rights” which was delivered to Donald A. Smith, a representative of the Dominion Government. [6] This List of Rights stated that “the country shall be governed, as regards its local affairs, as the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec are now governed, by a Legislature elected by the people, and a Ministry responsible to it, under a Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Governor General of Canada.” [7] As Ontario employed a unicameral-style government, and Quebec a bicameral style, this obviously created some confusion as to which style of government the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia wished to pursue. As it turns out, a bicameral legislature was a critical element of the delegates’ conditions.

Some clarity concerning the interest for a bicameral legislature may be found in a number of developments in Fort Garry. After drawing up the List of Rights, the Convention of 40 then determined what the actual structure of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia would be. The convention produced thirteen articles, none of which called for the establishment of an upper house, but only an elected assembly that consisted of twenty-four members, twelve English and twelve French. [8] Having established, loosely, the structure of the future Provisional Government, the next few weeks were filled with parish elections while the executive, who had been nominated by the Convention of 40, went about the business of governing the settlement. Once elections were over, the new representatives were invited to attend a meeting of the Council of the Provisional Government on 9 March 1870. [9] Upon assembly, the representatives debated the structure of the Provisional Government and by 26 March the Council had accepted a preamble to a constitution that stated that “all legislative authority be vested in a President and Legislative Assembly composed of members elected by the people; and that at any future time another house, called a Senate, shall be established when deemed necessary by the President and the Legislature.” [10] This indicates that while the requirement for an upper house was not specifically indicated in the List of Rights, the founding fathers of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia had at the very least considered the possibility of an upper house.

During 23–24 March 1871 the delegates of the Provisional Government departed for Ottawa, accompanied by Donald A. Smith and Bishop Alexandre Taché. Curiously, however, the delegates were armed with a completely new set of instructions called “Terms and Conditions” that, while not wholly at odds with the “List of Rights”, were nonetheless slightly different. In the “Terms and Conditions” that were issued to the delegates by Thomas Bunn, the Secretary of State for the Provisional Government of Assiniboia, no mention is made of the actual structure of the legislature whatsoever, other than the qualification to vote in elections and that the legislature, and Lieutenant-Governor, should be bilingual. [11] The Terms and Conditions did, however, state that Assiniboia will join Confederation only “as a province, to be styled and known as the Province of Assiniboia, and with all the rights and privileges common to the different Provinces of the Dominion [emphasis added].” [12] One can infer from this instruction that the political leaders in Fort Garry aimed to emulate the political structure of their provincial confreres upon entering Confederation.

Further proof of support for a bicameral legislature emerged once the delegates had departed Fort Garry. In the intervening period between the departure of the delegates and their return with the Manitoba Act, the Provisional Government, known by this time as the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, constituted the de facto government of Red River. Between 26 April and 6 May, the Legislative Assembly reconvened and spent a good amount of time reviewing and enacting laws for the administration of Assiniboia, even debating whether or not a Senate should be established. [13]

The question of an upper house for the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia was taken quite seriously. The Assembly went so far as to suggest that the Senate of Assiniboia should be “composed of ten members, appointed for two years each—that the two bishops and their successors should be members for life, and that in the absence of either bishop he might depute a person to act for him in the Senate.” [14] The Assembly even named possible members for the Senate, including Bishops Taché and Machray, Salomon Hamelin, Roger Goulet, Andrew McDermot, Patrice Breland, John Sutherland, a Mr. McKenzie of Portage la Prairie and either Mr. Truthwaite or Captain Kennedy. [15] The question of the creation of a Senate was mulled over by the Legislative Assembly, and then tabled for discussion in a later session. Before the question could be addressed and finalized, however, the delegates to Canada returned to Fort Garry bringing with them the tidings of the Manitoba Act and thus pre-empted any requirement of the Government of Assiniboia to finalize the structure of the Senate. Nonetheless, these actions clearly indicate that there was support amongst the political leaders of Assiniboia for an appointed upper chamber which would have been known to the delegates sent to Ottawa.

While the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia was mulling over the structure of a Senate in Fort Garry, their delegates to Ottawa were fully engaged in negotiations with the Dominion Government. The Fort Garry delegates found that their federal counterparts—John A. Macdonald and George Etienne Cartier—had significantly different views about the future structure of the Provincial government. [16] Although initially at an impasse, negotiations persisted and both sides offered concessions which eventually resulted in the first draft of the Manitoba Act. The discussion of the structure of the government eventually settled on the issue of its construct. Macdonald and Cartier suggested that the government should be unicameral, composed of elected members, and appointed members. Judge Black recommended that the delegates accept this option; however, Father Ritchot disagreed and demanded a bicameral legislature. Although Ritchot’s diary states that the delegates presented their reasons for refusal, Ritchot does not go into any further detail. The fact that, just prior to this, the discussion centred on whether or not Manitoba would enter as a territory or a province, with the Fort Garry delegates refusing to compromise their demand for provincial status, indicates the insistence on a bicameral house was likely based on a desire to enter Confederation with a political structure akin to the other provinces. After prolonged discussion, a bicameral legislature was finally accepted by Macdonald and Cartier. [17]

The bill for the Manitoba Act was brought before the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, himself on 2 May. [18] When Sir John rose to introduce the bill, he included a very interesting observation while discussing the negotiations concerning the structure of the Provincial Legislature, worthy of inclusion here at length:

With respect to the Legislative body, there was considerable difficulty and long discussion whether it should consist of one chamber or two; whether, if one chamber, it should be composed of the representatives of the people and of persons appointed by the Crown, or Local Government, or whether they should be severed and the two chambers constituted—all these questions were fully discussed. After mature consideration [this comment produced a laugh from a Liberal MP], it was agreed that there should be two chambers. [19]

Sir John’s comments indicate that during the negotiations, some degree of Crown-appointee representation was considered necessary as a check on the power of pure popular democracy. The biggest question seemed to be whether or not that appointed element should exist in single or dual chambers, with the latter being settled upon. The whole structure was oriented to attain a system of checks and balances, ensuring that neither house gained ascendancy. For example, Sir John went on to inform the House that the Manitoba Act allowed for a membership of seven persons in the Legislative Council, but provided for an increase in that number to no more than twelve, after four years. The aim of this constraint was to ensure that the Legislative Council could not grow to such as size that would allow it to create a deadlock between the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. [20]

Officers of the Legislative Council, shown here in a photograph from 1876, included (L-R): Victor Beaupre (Usher of the Black Rod, who summoned council members to the legislative chamber), Colin Inkster (Speaker), and Thomas Spence (Clerk).

Officers of the Legislative Council, shown here in a photograph from 1876, included (L-R): Victor Beaupre (Usher of the Black Rod, who summoned council members to the legislative chamber), Colin Inkster (Speaker), and Thomas Spence (Clerk).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Council 1870, No. 1, N16739.

The bill did not pass through the House of Commons with ease, however. The opposition, led by Alexander Mackenzie, took issue with a number of facets of the Act, including the bicameral nature of the future Provincial Government. Foreshadowing the fiscally constrained tone he would take in relations between Manitoba and Ottawa upon his premiership, Mackenzie argued “if they were to carry on Government economically, it must be in the shape rather of one large Municipal Council, than a Provincial Government.” Later he added that in his view there was no need to have two houses for a province with such a small population. [21]

Mackenzie was supported in his wish to economize by a number of other Members of Parliament. No less a personage than William McDougall, who was originally designated the Governor of Rupert’s Land but was barred from entry by the Métis, vehemently disagreed with the proposed structure of government. Speaking, he claimed, as one with intimate knowledge of the region, he observed that the “people were not prepared for, and did not want so cumbrous and intricate a system of Government, and it was absurd to impose it upon them.” He claimed to be shocked at the inclusion of a second house given the expense of the one in Quebec and the efficiency of the unicameral legislature in Ontario, and he hoped the Government would change that aspect of the bill. [22]

The Manitoba Act was resubmitted on 4 May. In its second incarnation the Act reflected a number of changes suggested by the opposition, namely an expansion of the provincial boundary to include Portage La Prairie, and the allocation of more land to the Métis than was originally intended. It is curious that, despite the objections to the structure of the Provincial Government that were raised by the opposition, the Government refused any more amendments and the plan to proceed with a bicameral provincial legislature remained enshrined in the Bill. The Manitoba Act passed the two houses and was signed into law by the Governor General on 12 May.

Why were the clauses pertaining to the upper chamber kept in the Manitoba Act? Clearly the government was willing to countenance some adjustment to its scheme, as evidenced by its willingness to adjust the boundaries of the province. It is true enough that the Fort Garry delegates demanded an upper chamber—likely based on their fervent desire to ensure Red River entered Confederation as a province rather than a territory, and thus requiring a structure similar to that of the other provinces. Although Macdonald and Cartier initially rejected a bicameral government, even the original federal proposition called for appointed members, albeit in a unicameral government. Presumably, as Ottawa’s goal was to create a territory rather than a province, they would have preferred a government that did not resemble its eastern counterparts. Nonetheless, their eventual acceptance of the bicameral structure and their subsequent refusal to amend the bicameral clause in the face of opposition from Mackenzie et al. illustrate the importance the government ascribed to some degree of appointed membership. But, why was this important? The answer lies in the experience of one of the key negotiators of the Manitoba Act, George Etienne Cartier.

Cartier was an influential member of the Dominion Government from its outset. Although supportive of the Lower Canada rebellion of 1837, afterward he became one of the most outspoken supporters of Confederation. As the Minister of Militia and one of the key ministers of Macdonald’s cabinet, he also played an immense role in the negotiations that produced the Manitoba Act. His belief in the protection of minorities imprinted itself on the structure of the new Province’s legislature.

The influence that Cartier brought to bear during the negotiations and subsequent debates on the Manitoba Act was very much shaped by his own experiences. In fact, shortly after Macdonald introduced the bill to parliament he fell ill, and it was left to Cartier to pilot the legislation through the House. Father Ritchot’s notes reveal that numerous times during the Manitoba Act negotiations, Sir John was indisposed and Cartier was left to negotiate on Canada’s behalf, alone. [23] Cartier was the champion of the French minority in Canada, and was wary of the ability of a popular chamber to crush the minority culture. He would have been intimately familiar with the contentious recommendation of Lord Durham after the rebellions of 1837 to merge Upper and Lower Canada. Durham recommended a popular government for the unified province because it was “only by a popular government, in which an English majority shall permanently predominate, that Lower Canada, if a remedy for its disorders be not too long delayed, can be tranquilly ruled.” [24] Durham intended to extinguish the French culture through the use of an overwhelming English majority.

The threat of assimilation reinforced in Cartier the need for an upper chamber to balance the power of the popular chamber. For example, during Confederation debates concerning the requirement for an upper house in the new Legislature of Quebec, Cartier said “In Lower Canada... we are Conservative Monarchists, and we desire to take means to prevent the popular chamber from ever over-turning the state.” [25] Later, during debate on the Manitoba Act, Cartier responded to the opposition’s proposed amendment that would reduce the voting eligibility from a one-year habitation in Manitoba to one month by calling the suggestion one that was “calculated to drown out the half-breeds.” [26] Cartier had the prescience to foresee the imminent arrival of settlers whose voice would drown out the local minorities even before the first legislature had sat.

Cartier was not alone in his desire to safeguard the minorities and the cultural composition of the new Province of Manitoba. In fact, the protection of the rights of the French Roman Catholic population in Manitoba was a key element in the policy of the Macdonald government. [27] To protect the Catholic population, an Education Clause was added to the Manitoba Act guaranteeing religious education to the settlers in Manitoba. [28] During debate on the Manitoba Act, the opposition tabled an amendment that would remove the Education Clause, to which the member for Quebec County, the Hon. Mr. Chauveau responded that it was:

... desirable to protect the minority in Manitoba from the great evil of religious dissensions on education... It was impossible to say who would form a majority there, Protestants or Catholic. If the population were to come from over the seas, then the Protestants would be in a majority. If, as had been asserted, Manitoba was to be a French preserve, then the Catholics would be a majority. [29]

The upper house was seen as a tool that would both prevent the infringement of minority rights and ensure that the essential composition of the state would remain relatively unchanged. This was, of course, essential for a new province on the fringes of the Dominion soon to be inundated with settlers from Eastern Canada and beyond. As Mr. Chauveau observed, while it may have been the intent to maintain Manitoba as a French-Canadian bastion, the future was not clear on the subject, and some degree of minority protection was required for whomever might be the minority in the future. With this in mind, the bicameral nature of the Manitoba Legislature remained unchanged throughout the House of Commons debate on the Manitoba Act.

On 24 June, Father Ritchot arrived back in Fort Garry and addressed a special sitting of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, Judge Black and Alfred H. Scott having not yet returned. He presented the Assembly with the Manitoba Act and delivered an address to the assembly in which he observed that the Manitoba Act differed to some degree from the Lists of Rights that were presented to Ottawa, but felt that he had to “thank the Canadian Ministry—particularly Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George Cartier—for the liberal Bill framed by them, with the assistance of the delegation.” [30] After he spoke, and the Assembly reviewed the bill, the Honourable Louis Schmidt moved “that the Legislative Assembly of this country do now, in the name of the people, accept the Manitoba Act, and decide on entering the Dominion of Canada on the terms proposed by the Confederation Act.” [31] The motion passed, and the Assembly adjourned. On 24 August, the vanguard of the Wolseley Expedition, a military force dispatched to occupy the settlement, arrived causing Riel and several other members of the Assembly to flee. Shortly thereafter, on 2 September, the new Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, Adams G. Archibald, arrived and set about establishing the government of the new province.

The Manitoba Upper House

Archibald’s task was no easy one; for the first seven months of his tenure in Fort Garry he was the de facto government of the new province in a community riven by acrimony and mistrust. Manitoba had just emerged from what was essentially a civil war, and the hatreds of the old regimes died hard. Historian Gerald Friesen described the atmosphere of disparate interests as a political culture that was “constructed on conflicts between the Métis and British-Ontarian newcomers, between French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants, and between a ‘West’ possessing newfound economic interests and an ‘East’ determined to shape the growing national economy as it saw fit.” [32] Amid such divergent interests, any success in the first provincial government would need to be based on balance and inclusiveness.

To achieve this balance, Archibald received only minimal guidance from the Federal Government. In early August the Secretary of State for the Provinces sent Archibald a letter containing eighteen instructions for the administration of governance in Manitoba. The closest the Secretary of State came to providing any firm guidance on the composition of the Legislature can be found in instruction number one, which states that “in the Government of Manitoba you will be guided by the Constitutional principles and precedents which obtain in the older Provinces, and with which it is assumed you are sufficiently familiar.” [33] Thus Archibald was to use his own political experience to determine the shape and structure of the first Manitoba government.

Archibald’s first task was to appoint an Executive Council, a cabinet, to assist him in getting the machinery of government up and running. He turned his attention to this almost immediately and on 17 September he appointed Alfred Boyd, an English merchant and representative of the English population, as the Provincial Secretary and Marc-Amable Girard, a French-Canadian notary and former Mayor of Varennes, Quebec, as the Provincial Treasurer. [34] His selection of these gentlemen is indicative of his deft handling of the fractious elements in Fort Garry and his attempt to chart a navigable course amongst the political sensitivities of the settlement. On 17 September he wrote to the Secretary of State for the Provinces that “it was now time to organize a Government... I have chosen a man representing each section of the population here, and appointed them Members of my Executive Council.” [35] His desire to ensure all factions were represented in the government would continue when it came to selecting the Legislative Council.

The Secretary of State had instructed Archibald that “when [the] Executive Council is complete and the Heads of Departments have been selected, you will appoint the Members of the Legislative Council as provided by the 10th section of the [Manitoba] Act.” [36] The creation of the upper house was a task that demanded substantial political caution given the disparate nature of the new province. Consequently, the composition of the Legislative Council was interesting and eclectic.

Archibald’s selection of the Legislative Councillors attempted to give representation to all the major cultural elements in Manitoba. He selected members who would provide a representation of the major cultural groups in the province—French and English; Roman Catholic and Protestant; Métis and descendants of the Selkirk Settlers. The first Councillors were James McKay, a Scottish Métis of Catholic descent; François Dauphinais, a French Catholic Métis who had been a member of the Council of Assiniboia and later the Vice-President of the Provisional Government; Salomon Hamelin, another Métis and Hudson’s Bay man who had maintained some degree of neutrality during the troubles; three English Protestants and descendants of the “old settlers” of Lord Selkirk—Colin Inkster, Francis Ogletree and Donald Gunn. Finally, the seventh councillor, Dr. John H. O’Donnell, was a recently arrived Irish Catholic Anglophone from Montreal. [37] By composing the Legislative Council thusly, Archibald conformed to the spirit of the Manitoba Act’s tenth clause which established the Legislative Council as a check on hasty legislation and a protector of minority rights. His selections as Legislative Councillors resulted in a balance of representation between the predominant cultural groupings of the province.

The Short Life of the Legislative Council

The Council was not very well received by the population of Manitoba. Like the official opposition, many Manitobans thought their province too small to warrant an upper chamber, especially in light of the successful use of a unicameral legislature in the much larger Province of Ontario. The population’s objections echoed those of Alexander Mackenzie and centred on the fiscal imprudence of having a bicameral legislature. On 22 March 1873, the Manitoba Free Press ran an editorial calling for the abolition of the upper house saying “no one can shut his eyes to the fact that far too much of our money is spent in legislating. The machinery is entire too cumbersome for the work done. We have power within ourselves of amending this. Let us commence by topping off a branch of the Legislature—the Legislative Council.” [38] The Free Press’ call did not go unheeded.

Members of Manitoba first—and only—Legislative Council were illustrated decades later in a collage assembled by Winnipeg photographers Harry H. and Margaret J. Bryant.

Members of Manitoba first—and only—Legislative Council were illustrated decades later in a collage assembled by Winnipeg photographers Harry H. and Margaret J. Bryant.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Council 1870, No. 1, N16738

A flurry of political upheavals in Manitoba followed. In January 1874 the administration of Premier Henry Joseph Hynes Clarke collapsed, and Marc-Amable Girard was called upon to form a new government. [39] The focus of Girard’s government was on the reduction of expenses, and to this end he issued a number of “pledges” that his government would follow. In these pledges, he stated that “believing that the system of Government now established, is more expensive than it ought to be, considering the circumstances of the Province, the Ministry will promote the passage of an Act to abolish the Legislative Council.” [40] Despite the Girard Government’s commitment, the Bill to abolish the Legislative Council passed the Legislative Assembly but was overturned in the Upper House. The editors at the Manitoba Free Press were apoplectic. “As it was not unnatural to expect,” they fumed, “our ‘House of Lords’ are making a determined strike against their abolition.” [41] Further, they quoted an unnamed Member of Parliament who observed that “of all the absurdities of the Manitoba Act, the creation of the little Upper House, to ape the British House of Lords, was the greatest.” [42]

The Free Press’colleagues at TheNor’Wester at least attempted to make a logical argument for the removal of the upper chamber. On 17 August 1874, the editors of TheNor’Wester wrote:

... the machinery of our Local Legislature is altogether too cumbersome for the size of the Province, and the expense of carrying it on deprives the country of many benefits. We find on looking over the estimates that $3700 is put down against Legislative Council expenses. Now, if we aren’t very much mistaken, that sum does not cover all the expenses incurred on behalf of that body, for during the last year, we think it amounted to between $7,000 and $8,000. This is a large sum for so little good gained. [43]

Unfortunately, any pretense to dispassionate debate ended there, and TheNor’Wester editorial team finished their argument on a sour note saying “we believe [the Legislative Council] was introduced at first only as a means of refuge for pets to be shovelled into office.” [44]

Despite Girard’s best efforts, the Legislative Council refused to vote itself out of existence. The Girard government fell in December 1874 and Robert A. Davis was asked to form a government, which he did. Davis then promptly went to the polls to attain a mandate from the population, and in March 1875 Robert Davis became the elected Premier of Manitoba. He soon pulled John Norquay off the opposition benches to become the provincial secretary. [45] In April 1875, John Norquay introduced yet another bill to abolish the Legislative Council. The bill passed the Assembly unanimously, but was once again defeated in the Council by the vote of the Speaker Dr. John H. O’Donnell. [46]

While it is easy to attribute this result to simple self-preservation, Dr. O’Donnell’s defence of his vote against abolition, if it is taken at face value, indicates there was more at stake than political perks. Fearing the overwhelming popular power of the French population in Manitoba, and the coalition into which certain English representatives had entered with French members of the Assembly, O’Donnell warned that the coalition “will prove most disastrous to [Manitoba] if the council is not kept intact to guard the legislation for the next Parliament... by this recent change the Government are put entirely in the hands of the French.” [47]

This truly was the crux of the matter, although time would eventually demonstrate that it was the French population of the Province that would require protection. The argument ostensibly centred on the protection of minorities and a sober second thought against the will of the majority, which as this paper has demonstrated, was a key point of the establishment of the upper chamber. In covering the debates of the Legislative Assembly, the Manitoba Free Press carried the following observations by MLA John Sutherland who rose in the Legislature on 13 May 1875 to say:

... the gentlemen of the Upper House [have] in several instances made amendments to important bills that they had no right to make. The [Legislative Assembly] represented the people of the Province and when they passed a bill almost unanimously it was out of place for the Upper House to interfere in the way and manner they had done on several occasions. [48]

Although the debate that was forming in the arena of public opinion was, in the main, an ideological one, the culminating point in the demise of the Legislative Council came from the Province’s ledger. With insufficient income and a frugal Alexander Mackenzie in power in Ottawa, the death knell of the Legislative Council was sounded.

The End of the Upper Chamber

In January 1876 the Premier advised the Legislative Assembly that the amount spent on the machinery of government in 1875 was approximately $86,000 which considerably exceeded the Province’s revenue, which was a mere $7,000. [49] In order to make ends meet, the Province had to petition Ottawa for assistance in early 1876. The Province argued that they received almost no internal revenue, the only source of funds being from the sale of marriage licences, law fees and liquor licences. The latter had decreased drastically due to the enactment of stringent liquor laws, and with the incorporation of the City of Winnipeg, the transfer of the responsibility for the sale of liquor licences in the city proper to the municipal government. Exacerbating the challenge of diminishing revenues, the cost of administering the Province had skyrocketed as the population exploded from 12,000 to 36,000 souls between 1870 and 1875. [50] All of this was used to justify an increase in subsidization from the Federal Government.

In discussions with the Federal Government, R. A. Davis provided an estimate of expenditures, which involved $50,000–$60,000 on the machinery of government while only $40,000–$50,000 was proposed to be expended in the services of Justice, Education, Agriculture, Public Works and Charity. [51] In response to this, the Minister of Justice Edward Blake, as chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Privy Council investigating the subsidy request, remarked “it appears to the Sub-Committee that the expenses of carrying on the machinery of Government as proposed... are disproportionately large... the present form of Government should be simplified and cheapened by the abolition of the second Chamber.” [52] Blake’s recommendation became the sine qua non of the Federal subsidy to the Province of Manitoba. [53] Consequently, Davis determined to introduce yet another Bill to abolish the Legislative Council.

The next session of parliament opened on Tuesday, 18 January 1876. In his speech from the throne, the Lieutenant-Governor, Alexander Morris, indicated the government’s intent thus:

With a view to harmonize in some measure the expenditures with the revenues, and in pursuance of an understanding to that effect come to with the Privy Council in connection with the negociations [sic] already referred to for an increase of the annual grant from the Dominion, a measure will be submitted to you intended to secure the transaction of the public business by means of a single chamber only, and you will be asked to consider the proposed measure with all due gravity in light of the information that will be laid before you, and bearing in view the actual necessities of the Province. [54]

Premier R. A. Davis submitted A Bill to Diminish the Expenses of the Legislature of Manitoba to the Legislative Assembly on the same day. Despite the financially oriented title of the bill, its simple goal was the reduction of the expenses of the legislature through the elimination of the Legislative Council. Once again, the Bill passed the Assembly unanimously.

The bill arrived at the Legislative Council on Thursday, 27 January where it received first and second readings and then was put to debate for its third reading on Tuesday, 1 February 1876. On this date, Dr. John O’Donnell rose to protest the bill stating, “Mr. Speaker—I object to the motion being put to the House. The Legislative Council can have no right to diminish their power, for that is co-eval with their conventional existence and therefore clearly beyond the scope of implied commission.” [55] His argument suggests that he did not believe that the Legislative Council had the authority to abolish itself, as it flew in the face of the reason it existed in the first place. Moreover, in his memoirs, Manitoba as I saw it, O’Donnell stated that minority rights were his true concern. He wrote that he “opposed the abolition of the Legislative Council... I am of the opinion that it was a mistake at the time, when so many conflicting interests had yet to be adjusted. The French half-breeds are the ones that have suffered most severely.” [56]

Dr. O’Donnell was in the minority, however. The votes were taken and the motion passed, but it is important to note how each of the councillors voted. Of the four supporters of the bill, one was a Métis of Scottish Catholic descent—James McKay, and three were English “old settlers”—Colin Inkster, Francis Ogletree and Donald Gunn. Of those opposing the bill, two were of French descent—François Dauphinais and Salomon Hamelin, along with the recently arrived Irish Catholic anglophone, John O’Donnell. The fault line between the supporters and opponents is starkly illustrative of the changing nature of Manitoba; in favour of turning the machinery of government over to the popular chamber were, in the main, the Anglo-Saxon Protestants, whilst opposed were, predominantly, the French and Roman Catholics.[57] Moreover, ideology was only one of the motivators behind those councillors’ support of the bill. Perhaps even more enticing were the promises of prominent political positions offered by the Premier. Certainly it is telling that the four councillors who supported the bill went on to political sinecures whilst the three opponents experienced no such windfall. It is ironic, or perhaps hypocritical, that the demise of a chamber referred to as a place to “shovel pets” was brought about only by the judicious application of patronage appointments. [58]

The die had been cast. On 4 February the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council were prorogued, the latter never to reconvene. Before the Councillors moved off to their new jobs, the Lieutenant-Governor offered a word of encouragement to those concerned about the protection of minority rights in the province:

I sympathize with those of both Houses, who assented, as I am aware, to the change with reluctance and hesitation, regarding as they did the Upper Chamber as a check and protection, but yet did so, in the belief that the necessities of the Province required the step to be taken. I trust, however, that the members of the Legislative Assembly, deeply impressed with the importance of their duties, enhanced as these are by the withdrawal of the Upper Chamber, will act with the utmost deliberation and care, so that the results of this experiment, may prove, that all classes and sections of our people may count, as it has been in the past, on being dealt with, with generosity and British justice, as regards all matters that may in the future, be submitted to the consideration of the Legislature. [59]

Speaker’s Chair. In 1962, Mary Inkster was photographed with the chair used in the Legislative Council chambers by her grandfather Colin Inkster (1843–1934).

Speaker’s Chair. In 1962, Mary Inkster was photographed with the chair used in the Legislative Council chambers by her grandfather Colin Inkster (1843–1934).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Council 1870, No. 2

What If?

If the Legislative Council was created to protect minority rights in Manitoba and ensure that the constitutional construct of the new province remained consistent, perhaps the form and function of the early Manitoba legislature contributed to the redundancy perceived in Legislative Council. Like Adams Archibald’s selection of Legislative Councillors, the original structure of the Legislative Assembly was designed to provide cultural, rather than popular, representation to the new province. Initially Manitoba’s electoral divisions corresponded very closely to the old parish boundaries and therefore provided equal representation between French and English districts. [60] This began to change in 1874 with the redistribution of electoral boundaries which caused the French and English parishes to each give up two seats to new, predominantly anglophone settlements. [61] Cultural groups tended to settle together; so a compromise was arrived at shortly thereafter, in the form of electoral boundary redistribution. In this case, electoral boundaries were recreated that allowed for the three main demographic groups—French, old settlers and new settlers—to have eight seats each in the legislature. [62] Disparity in the actual popular representation of those demographic groups was accepted in order to give an equal voice to the disparate cultural cohorts. The cultural safeguards this structure provided were not to last, and rumblings amongst the ascendant anglophone population for representative government began early.

The emergence of popular representation in Manitoba can be traced to the seemingly unavoidable growth of the number of eastern immigrants in the province. According to the 1871 census of Manitoba, the new province’s population consisted of 11,963 people, defined in the census as 558 Indians, 5,757 Métis, 4,083 English Half-Breeds, and 1,565 “whites.” The population was divided between 6,247 Catholics and 5,716 Protestants. [63] The census numbers demonstrate that, in 1871, the settlement was a cultural mosaic with a wide variety of inhabitants whose interests and aspirations for the settlement were as diverse as their heritage. Also important to note, presuming that at least some of the “whites” were French, that the predominant culture in Manitoba was French and Roman Catholic. Most importantly, at the start of the 1870s, almost 90% of the population was Métis. [64] That was not to remain the case for long.

The conclusion of the Red River Rebellion opened the North-West to an influx of settlers. Immigration to Manitoba in 1875 numbered 11,970. [65] Despite a small setback in the years immediately after 1875, the number of Ontario and British settlers arriving in Manitoba grew steadily: 11,500 in 1879; 18,000 in 1880; and 28,600 in 1881. Conversely, between 1874 and 1887, only 2,000 French-Canadians immigrated to Manitoba. [66] The influx of settlers from Ontario and the British Isles, bringing with them a different political and cultural outlook, subsequently resulted in the Métis’ cultural estrangement from their new neighbours. As a result, a large number of Métis emigrated northwest and settled in the Saskatchewan valley. [67] By the end of the 1870s, the dominant cultural group within Manitoba had changed from French Roman Catholic, to English and Protestant; and from Métis to British Ontarian. [68]

Despite the compromises of the mid-1870s that saw electoral boundaries redistributed while maintaining equal cultural representation, the cry for representation by population could not be ignored forever. Eventually under Marc-Amable Girard, the final electoral redistribution occurred which “signaled the French Catholic community’s acceptance of representation by population and the end of ethno-religious dualism grounded in the old parish system.” [69] The emergence of representation by population, coupled with the newly established anglophone Protestant majority, produced concomitant political changes and tensions within the new demographic order. In particular, the original religious schooling system ended and the use of French as an official language was curtailed—both clauses that were enshrined in the Manitoba Act. It is important to note that both issues came to pass under the existence of a single, popular chamber; and both resulted in a political structure that diverged substantially from that which was prescribed in the Manitoba Act. It is impossible to know if the Legislative Councillors of Manitoba would have blocked these policies, but it is certainly possible that the unelected members of the upper chamber, not beholden to popular whim, may have refused to assent to these particular acts. Consequently, history could have evolved in a decidedly different manner.


Regardless of the potential benefits of keeping the Legislative Council, it was doomed to live a short and turbulent life. This truncated lifespan, however, does not equate to a lack of drama or historical interest—quite the opposite. The machinations that resulted in Manitoba’s establishing a bicameral legislature and the protracted struggle between the Legislative Assembly and the Council over the latter’s existence is interesting, and enlightening of the political zeitgeist in both Manitoba and Canada in the late 19th century. In the end, there was more to the Legislative Council than just a place to “shovel pets”. It emerged from an earnest desire amongst the inhabitants of Red River to join Confederation as a province, with all the inherent rights and on par with the already established provinces of the Dominion. It represented a tool to protect minority rights and give equal voice to the diverse cultural factions in the young province. Finally, it was abolished to placate bearish provincial and federal political leaders, but only after the demographic landscape of Manitoba had drastically changed. Certainly, its short existence represents a little known, yet interesting and unique part of the history of Manitoba.


1. Nova Scotia had an upper house, styled the Nova Scotia Council, from 1751 to 1838 when it became the Legislative Council of Nova Scotia. Likewise, the upper chamber of the New Brunswick government was the Legislative Council of New Brunswick that existed from 1751 to 1891. Ontario and Quebec, at the time united as the Province of Canada, also had a bicameral legislature.

2. Report of Resolutions adopted at a Conference of Delegates from the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and the Colonies of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, held at the City of Quebec, October 10, 1864, as the Basis of a proposed Confederation of those Provinces,, accessed 20 December 2013.

3. United Kingdom. Parliament. House of Commons. An Act for the Union of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the Government thereof, and for purposes connected therewith (1867), s. 69-88.

4. Rev. N. J. Ritchot, “The Journal Of Rev. N.-J. Ritchot March 24 to May 28, 1870” in Manitoba, The Birth of a Province, W. L. Morton (ed.), Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1965, p. 138.

5. Alexander Begg, The Creation of Manitoba: Or, A History of the Red River Troubles, Toronto: A. H. Hovey, 1871, p. 110.

6. Ibid., p. 256.

7. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1870, No. 12, “List of Rights”, p. 11.

8. Begg, Creation of Manitoba..., p. 270.

9. Ibid., p. 312.

10. Ibid., p. 331.

11. “Terms and Conditions” in Correspondence Relative to The Recent Disturbances in the Red River Settlement, London: William Clowes & Sons, 1870, p. 130.

12. Ibid.

13. Norma Hall, Clifford P. Hall and Erin Verrier, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia/le Conseil du Gouvernment Provisoirelocated at, accessed 20 December 2013.

14. Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, Sessional Papers, 1871, p. 46.

15. Ibid., p. 45-46.

16. Ritchot, “Journal...”, pp. 131-160.

17. Ibid., p. 139.

18. Frank Schofield, The Story of Manitoba, 1913. Reprint, Miami: HardPress Publishing, 2013, p.285.

19. Canada, Parliamentary Debates, 1870, Vol. 1, p. 1291.

20. Ibid., p. 1291.

21. Ibid., pp. 1298-1299.

22. Ibid., pp. 1301-1302.

23. Ritchot, “Journal...”, pp. 131-160.

24. United Kingdom, Report on the Affairs of British North America from the Earl of Durham, Her Majesty’s High Commissioner, 1838, p. 98.

25. George E. Cartier quoted by John Boyd, Sir George Etienne Cartier, bart.; his life and times. A political history of Canada from 1814 until 1873, in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Sir George Etienne Cartier’s birth, Toronto: Macmillan and Co, 1914, pp. 266-267.

26. Canada, Parliamentary Debates, 1870, Vol. 1, p. 1540.

27. Boyd, Sir George Etienne Cartier..., pp. 302-303.

28. Ibid., pp. 302.

29. Canada, Parliamentary Debates, 1870, Vol. 1, pp. 1546-1547.

30. Begg, Creation of Manitoba..., p. 379.

31. Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, Sessional Papers, 1871, p. 51.

32. Gerald Friesen, “The Manitoba Political Tradition” in Manitoba Politics and Government, Issues, Institutions, Traditions, P. Thomas and B. Curtis (eds.),Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010, p. 38.

33. Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, Sessional Papers, 1871, p. 3.

34. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1871, No. 20, p. 16.

35. Ibid., p. 16.

36. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1871, No. 20, pp. 2-3.

37. F. A. Milligan, “The Establishment of Manitoba’s First Provincial Government”, Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 3, 1948-49,, accessed 22 December 2013.

38. Editorial, Manitoba Free Press, 22 March 1873.

39. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba..., 327.

40. Manitoba Free Press, 11 July 1874.

41. Editorial, Manitoba Free Press, 18 July 1874.

42. Ibid.

43. Editorial, The Nor’Wester, 17August 1874.

44. Ibid.

45. Schofield, The Story of Manitoba..., 328.

46. Ibid., p. 328. Ditto.

47. Manitoba Free Press, 19September 1874.

48. John Sutherland, “Legislative Assembly,” Manitoba Free Press, 22May1875.

49. “Legislative Assembly,” Manitoba Free Press, 29 January 1876.

50. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1876, No. 36, p. 2.

51. Ibid., pp. 2-3.

52. Ibid.

53. “Legislative Assembly,” Manitoba Free Press, 29 January 1876.

54. Manitoba. Journals of the Legislative Council of the Province of Manitoba. Winnipeg: Alexander Begg, 1877, p. 7.

55. Ibid., p. 26.

56. Dr. John O’Donnell, Manitoba: As I Saw It. 1869 to Date, Winnipeg: Clark Bros. & Co., 1909, pp. 55-56.

57. Manitoba. Journals of the Legislative Council..., 26.

58. Murray S. Donnelly, “Manitoba’s Legislative Council” in Manitoba Pageant, (Vol 4, No. 3, April 1959),, accessed 21 January 2014, and M. S. Donnelly, “The Story of the Manitoba Legislature” in MHS Transactions (Series 3, No. 12, 1955-56), accessed 21 January 2014.

59. Manitoba. Journals of the Legislative Council..., p. 39.

60. Ibid., p. 140.

61. Gerald Friesen, “Homeland to Hinterland: Political Transition in Manitoba, 1870 to 1979”, in Historical Papers, vol 14, no. 1, 1979, pp. 33-47.

62. Ibid., p. 36.

63. Canada, Sessional Papers, 1871, No. 20, p. 91.

64. Gerhard Ens, “Homeland to Hinterland: The Dispersal of the Red River Metis after 1870”, in Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century,” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, p. 139.

65. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957, p. 176.

66. Ibid., p. 177.

67. Ens, “Homeland to Hinterland...”, pp. 139-174.

68. Although Canada became a nation in 1867, most Canadians, particularly those of British descent, considered themselves “British.”

69. David Burley, “The Emergence of the Premiership, 1870-1874”, in Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2010, p. 22.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Legislative Council of Manitoba (1871-1876)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Winnipeg Court House (494 Main Street, Winnipeg)

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: 23 April 2022