Manitoba History: A Premier, a Tin Box, and a Landlady: Ellen Cooke and the Norquay Papers [1]

by Gerald Friesen
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Number 77, Winter 2015

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

In 1985-1986, the late Ellen Gillies Cooke transferred thousands of documents dating from the 1870s and 1880s to the Archives of Manitoba. The gift, which included Manitoba premier John Norquay’s office records and some Norquay family correspondence, filled eight Hollinger (five-inch) archival boxes. Ms. Cooke also donated a good deal of her own research on the Norquays which was packed into another archival box. The donation occupied more than a metre of shelf space and, by any measure, was an extraordinary contribution to Manitoba’s and Canada’s historical record.

The story of Ellen Cooke’s gift presents several mysteries. Two centre on provenance and trust: how did the papers get from the premier’s office to Ms. Cooke? Why do hundreds of letters, seemingly written in an era when the premier’s office did not have typewriters, exist only in typed form? Another derives from matters of archival practice: what else might usefully be said in the archival guides about Ms. Cooke and her gift that would enable researchers to understand the papers themselves? And a fourth centres on Ms. Cooke and the writing of Manitoba history: who was she and how should her contribution be judged? In addressing these questions, this essay offers a survey of the trove, some conclusions about the Norquay papers’ provenance and contents, a question about archival practice and, most of all, a tribute to Ms. Cooke.

A Premier and His Papers

John Norquay (1841-1889) served as Premier of Manitoba from 1878 to 1887.

John Norquay (1841-1889) served as Premier of Manitoba from 1878 to 1887.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Norquay, John #4, N5781.

John Norquay was born in the Red River settlement in 1841 and died in 1889. He was educated in local schools and became in quick succession a teacher, farmer, fur trader, and politician. Elected by acclamation for the riding of High Bluff in 1870, he moved to the constituency of St. Andrews South in 1874 and represented that area in the provincial legislature for the rest of his life. He entered the Manitoba cabinet in 1871, became premier after the election of 1878, and served for nine years in that office. He presided over the expansion of the province from its original “postage stamp” size, participated in the crucial economic decisions of that era including the construction of railways and the draining of central Manitoba lands, and navigated the issues of religion, language and race that bedevilled the community for decades. Forced to resign at the end of 1887, he assumed the leadership of the Opposition until his sudden death, caused by a twisted bowel, eighteen months later. Because he had both Indigenous and Orkney Islands ancestors his career has an interest today that transcends the political and economic themes once dominant in the province’s historiography.

The largest single category of papers in Ms. Cooke’s gift is the premier’s incoming correspondence. [2] These letters, telegrams, bills, and advertisements concerning both official and domestic matters had been managed by a few young secretaries who were slowly learning to handle the province’s growing administrative responsibilities. It seems apparent that, at some point in the decade after the mid- 1870s, an office manager required a junior clerk to fill out and attach a cover page to most incoming letters, including those from earlier years, to ensure that the material would be accessible when required. This cover sheet addressed a few simple questions: who wrote the document, when, and where? To whom was it sent, including name and address? And, in as few words as possible, what was the subject? Filling in the blanks in a clear hand, the clerk sometimes made minor mistakes—misreading a year, or the spelling of a name, or offering much too laconic descriptions of an intriguing, complicated letter—but, simply by adding this cover sheet, he (it was always a “he” in the Norquay era), endowed the document with an importance that it might not otherwise have had. Fortunately for students today, cheery reports from a western police fort or a northern fur trade post as well as business letters from Sir John A. and federal civil servants all survived.

The collection also contains nearly one thousand of Norquay’s own letters, most of them responding directly to incoming correspondence. His replies, probably composed by a senior secretary with input from the premier, are impressive for their clarity and economy of expression. Some exist as letterpress copies, bound in the original letterbook and offering fine examples of the copying technology of the late 19th century. But many, numbering in the hundreds, exist only as typewritten copies. To judge from the paper and the print, these typed letters belong to the mid-20th century and certainly did not originate in the 1880s. Their authenticity must be ascertained by some other means.

Ms. Cooke’s gift included not only Norquay’s official correspondence but many of the letters and bills addressed to the family. Several well-worn chequebooks were also part of the donation, though only the cheque stubs remained, typically inscribed with a note concerning date, recipient, and sum. These materials provide a rough sketch, undoubtedly incomplete, of the consumption patterns, financial circumstances, and social networks of the politician and the household. The transfer also included a diary, a notebook, pamphlets, newspaper extracts, photographs, and the premier’s ivory paper cutter. [3] That the archival materials now associated with Norquay’s name, a total of six to seven thousand documents, are important to students of history can hardly be doubted—if the questions about them can be answered satisfactorily.

One is tempted to take the pages of such a collection at face value, assuming that the bills came from the stores and hotels, the letters and telegrams from the individuals and governments declared by letterheads and addresses. But the Norquay papers contain precious little evidence on how the collection came to be. As was the normal practice in those days, only a brief note by Barry Hyman, the archivist who negotiated the acquisition of the papers, and a press release he drafted at the request of and with careful editing by Ms. Cooke, record their provenance. And even Hyman’s valuable notes do not cover the entire history of the documents after they left the premier’s office. [4] A skeptical reader might wish for some evidence about provenance.

A Tin Box

A trunk of Norquay’s official papers made their way to the provincial archives through the efforts of Ellen Cooke.

A trunk of Norquay’s official papers made their way to the provincial archives through the efforts of Ellen Cooke.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Administration Collection, Set 20 #4, 85-16720.

So let us begin with Ms. Cooke’s gift and at the end rather than the beginning of the story. Ellen Cooke’s donation came in two parts: first, the Norquay material, which arrived at the Archives of Manitoba in a tin box in 1985 and, second, her personal papers, which arrived in instalments during the same period. [5] According to the archival guide, ill health forced Ms. Cooke to give up scholarly work in the 1980s. One infers that she then turned her attention to organizing the Ellen Gillies Cooke Papers. And this gift, which fills another five-inch Hollinger box, contains yet more revelations. The hundreds of pages, assembled by Cooke over the previous forty years, include interviews, research materials gathered from several dozen different sources and, seemingly, several carefully planted revelations that, like clues in a mystery, begin to answer some of the questions arising from the huge donation.

The first document in the first file of the Ellen Gillies Cooke Papers is a bill of lading. Its significance must not be missed. Such business forms, duplicated by means of carbon paper, were typical of the one-page receipts used by small companies in the years around the Second World War. This particular document has a printed title, Biggar Brothers Freight Lines, Winnipeg, and a few handwritten entries establishing the date of the transaction, 6 May 1946, and the place of origin, shipper, and recipient: “Received at Selkirk from Miss Ella Cooke, consigned to Miss Ellen Cooke, 219 Spence St Wpg.” The item to be delivered is described as “1 trunk.” The price for the service: “75 cents.” [6]

An apparently innocuous bill of lading establishes how the Norquay trunk came to be in Ellen Cooke’s possession.

An apparently innocuous bill of lading establishes how the Norquay trunk came to be in Ellen Cooke’s possession.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Ellen Cooke Papers

The third and last item in that first file is a typed document signed at the top, in pen, by Ellen Cooke. It records various matters that she had learned about in an interview with 87-year old Andrew Norquay, one of the premier’s sons, in Vancouver in 1959. There are many nuggets in the several pages of notes, at least twenty small comments that establish details of the premier’s life. Given that this is the most detailed interview of the many she conducted with the premier’s children, such details are extremely valuable. And it is intriguing that, without fanfare, never to be mentioned elsewhere in the collection, a crucial statement by Andrew appears at the bottom of the interview document: “After Premier Norquay’s death the family received from the Government of Manitoba a trunk full of his papers.” [7]

The location of the two documents—the bill of lading and the interview—and the invaluable nugget of information placed as a seeming throwaway note at the end of the file, suggest that Ms. Cooke had a mischievous turn of mind. She was offering clues, obscure though they might seem: the interview with Andrew Norquay places the valuable collection of the premier’s papers in the trunk and places the trunk in the hands of the family. And the bill of lading establishes how the tin box—the trunk—came to be in Ms. Cooke’s possession. The proper conclusion is that the box had been given to the Premier’s family shortly after his death, in 1889 or thereabouts. It rested in the care of the family for nearly sixty years. Ms. Cooke took possession in 1946 and ensured its survival during the next forty years. Here was Miss Cooke’s account, her oblique means of establishing proof of the Norquay papers’ provenance.

Ellen Cooke did not know that later researchers would have access to more and better information that provides a much fuller picture of the papers’ story as well as of her own career. This material lies in a confidential record within the offices of the Archives of Manitoba. Archivists at this institution create and preserve records of their important decisions in a “Purchase and Acquisitions” (P&A) file. Such files are not normally shown to researchers but they are subject to requests lodged under the Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy Act (FIPPA). A 2014 application to see the Cooke file was granted.

One decisive piece of evidence in this Purchase and Acquisitions file is a will prepared by Ms. Cooke in 1958, perhaps at the suggestion of the Norquay family, perhaps simply because she wanted to ensure that the contents of the tin box never went astray: “All papers … in my possession … pertaining to John Norquay shall be given to the Manitoba Legislative Library unless they have already been so presented by me in my lifetime on the publication of my life of Premier Norquay, in accordance with the agreement and understanding I had with his son, the late Dr. H. C. Norquay …” Cooke also declared her custodianship of a padlocked metal box with the name ‘John Norquay’ stencilled on the front. She added that the box was “badly rusted and had holes in it … I had a new, deeper bottom added so that there would be room for all the Norquay papers in my custody. The dimensions of the box are now 16¼” x 24¼” x 21¾” deep.” The will enumerated in careful detail the contents of the box, including the incoming and outgoing letters, the scrapbooks, the letter opener, and so on. [8]

There are several other important documents in the P&A file. One is a note taken by the archivist, Barry Hyman, during his negotiations with Ms. Cooke. Another contains Cooke’s revisions to the draft of an article destined for the Manitoba Archivist about her donation. In the note, Hyman records that Mrs. J. E. McAllister looked after the boxful of papers for many years. (Ellen Norquay McAllister had lived with her husband and her mother, the premier’s widow, in the old Captain Kennedy House on River Road in St. Andrews.) When the McAllisters moved to Winnipeg in the early 1940s, Hyman writes, they turned the papers over to Mrs. McAllister’s brother, Dr. H. C. Norquay, who had retired from service as a physician in the Indian Affairs department and was living in Selkirk, Manitoba. Hyman also records that Ms. Cooke “was given the papers in trust by Dr. H. C. Norquay of Selkirk, one of the premier’s sons.” In sum, the bill of lading that Ms. Cooke had placed so carefully at the top of the first file in her personal papers merely closes the circle. The question of the papers’ provenance is more completely answered by the evidence in Cooke’s 1958 will. [9]

Another mystery in the Norquay papers concerns the typewritten outward-bound letters, all of which, to judge from their content but not their form, appear to have originated in the premier’s office. There were no typewriters in Norquay’s office. That he and his secretaries employed the letterpress system is obvious from the presence in the tin box collection of an original 19th-century letterpress volume containing handwritten copies of other correspondence. [10] Yet many of the typed letters are responses to missives filed in the premier’s incoming correspondence. Where did the typed copies come from?

Again, the P&A file provides the answer. Cooke declared in her 1958 will that she possessed “typewritten copies made by me, but not checked, of 98 items taken from letter book described on cover as ‘No. 2. Hon. John Norquay’s Private letter book beginning April 1883.’ April 18, 1883 to July 21 1885. Roughly 9” x 11”. 297 pages. Completely used.” The will contains similar entries for “typewritten copies” of four other “letterbooks,” each volume carefully described and the total number of items copied—but “not checked”—approaching one thousand. And she added in a note about one of the volumes that “many letters in this book were in Premier Norquay’s writing, and badly faded, probably owing to the fact that he did not use the regular copying ink employed by his secretary.”

Where the five original letterpress volumes have gone we may never know. The 1950 Winnipeg flood may be the answer, in which case the fact that Ms. Cooke had made copies is an extraordinary stroke of luck. [11] In any event, it is reasonable to say that Ms. Cooke had seen the original letterbooks, had typed copies of their contents, had not been able to check them against the originals after she had finished, and donated these copies to the archives as part of the Norquay papers. Once again, the P&A file is invaluable.

The above prompts a postscript: should the Purchase and Acquisitions file which contains such valuable evidence on the provenance of the Norquay papers not be in the public domain? Why is it necessary that the researcher discover on his or her own, or through the intervention of an alert and thoughtful archivist (as was my good fortune), that the file exists and that it may be opened if a civil servant known as an “access and privacy coordinator”—not necessarily an archivist—deems it appropriate? The notes in this file provide new and important evidence concerning the provenance of the tin box as well as of the typed copies of the premier’s outgoing correspondence. Should they be available to researchers as a matter of course? Not only does the P&A file establish the papers’ provenance but it pushes the researcher to know more about the donor and her work. Such an opportunity, which might easily be missed, offers huge dividends. And it places Ellen Cooke in a new light. [12]

Landlady – and Historian

Ms. Cooke’s life is mostly a mystery. According to her obituary, published in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1994, she was born in 1908 in the home of her parents near Garson, Manitoba. She had two brothers, one who predeceased her and another, Lloyd, then living in Winnipeg. The death notice is unusually terse. It declares that she “attended various schools in the province and obtained her Master of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba. The history of her home province long held her interest.” The short statement adds only these details: “Over the years Ellen operated a rooming house, worked in offices, and engaged in public stenography and reporting. Her marriage ended unsuccessfully.” [13]

Ms. Cooke appears so rarely in the historical record that it is difficult to establish the details of her life or, indeed, to know what to report. In 1933 she married Peter Paetkau, a 1925 emigrant from Russia and winner of the University Gold Medal in 1938 (Honours in Psychology) at the University of Manitoba. In that year, when he was a “Psychology assistant at the University of Manitoba,” he changed his name from Peter Paetkau to Peter Hampton and she hers from Ellen Paetkau to Ellen Hampton. He received his MA in 1940 while still teaching as a UM sessional instructor. They divorced in 1943. He then went to Cleveland, Ohio, to study for a PhD at Western Reserve University. Dr. Hampton remained in Ohio as a professor at the University of Akron, remarried and had a family, and was described as a clinical psychologist. [14]

Cooke stayed in Winnipeg. The house she and Peter formerly occupied in inner-city Winnipeg had been listed in Peter Hampton’s name in the Henderson’s Directory of 1943. A year later, after a Winnipeg court granted a decree absolute, the two-storey Spence Street house was listed in the name of Ellen Cooke. In 1945 the directory described her as a stenographer in the office of manufacturer sales agent Stanley Brock. In the 1950s a voters list recorded that she was still living in the house on Spence, along with six other women, a seamstress, a hairdresser, a clerk, a hospital aide, a steno, and a retiree. [15] Clearly, she was a landlady. Her economic strategy enabled her to make ends meet and to employ her energies in ways that she found rewarding. It may have been unusual but, as a single woman with scholarly interests, she had found a path to independence.

Such a bare outline does not establish Ms. Cooke’s place in the writing of Manitoba history. Indeed, it does her an injustice. If she was a landlady and stenographer, she was also a scholar and benefactor. She dedicated many hours of research—days, months, and years—to the Norquay story. She prepared copies of the Norquay correspondence that probably would have disappeared without such intervention. She once claimed to have seen every document in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives that might have contained references to the forebears of John Norquay. Certainly, she sorted many of the complicated tangles related to John Norquay’s early years and the history of his family. Her contributions to the history of province and country have become evident only with the donation to the provincial archives of her research notes. And the full story of her career will probably never be known.

The few scraps of information on her career as historian suggest she was a single-minded and interesting person. Her MA thesis, completed in 1943 when she was in her mid-thirties, studies the seven Manitoba ridings in the federal election of 1896. The Manitoba result was notorious because Manitobans, having voted resoundingly in support of a Liberal provincial government that abolished public funding for denominational (read: Roman Catholic) schools, turned around and, in four of the federal constituencies, elected Conservatives despite that party’s support for remedial federal legislation that would have re-instituted the “dual” (Roman Catholic and Protestant) system. [16]

The thesis was supervised by the distinguished United College historian, A. R. M. Lower, whom Cooke thanked for his “most valuable guidance and criticism.” She also thanked J. L. Johnston and his colleagues of the Provincial Library for “their many useful suggestions,” and “my friends Misses Loa and Elfie Eyrikson, who translated part of two Icelandic newspapers for me.” Fully two hundred pages in length, the thesis was based on extensive primary research as well as secondary literature.

Cooke could write lively prose, whatever one thinks (seventy years and many historiographical twists later) of her choice of subject. Thus, on the opening page, she suggests that “Manitoba in 1896 was a newer Ontario, with a little Quebec stretching out to the south and east of St. Boniface. It was as though a mischievous god, amused and disgusted at the racial intolerance along the St. Lawrence, had been unable to resist the temptation of planting a Protestant Ontario majority and a Catholic Quebec minority on the other side of the Canadian Shield so that he could see what effect prairie winds would have on the old antagonism between the two groups.” [17]

Cooke concluded that the school question did not become a “burning issue” in Manitoba’s federal ridings in 1896 apart from the keen interest expressed by Frenchspeaking and Roman Catholic Manitobans. Rather, the Conservatives won a majority of Manitoba seats because of “party loyalty” and Tory promises of more public works. Her discussion of historical interpretation dealt with Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” and its applicability in Canada, a debate that historians, including Lower, had waged during the previous twenty years. Cooke firmly rejected the American historian’s sweeping claims for the freedom and innovation of the frontier, at least in the case of this one province: “Manitoba, in fact, was another Ontario, with a particular Conservatism of its own. This Conservatism came to the surface in the election of 1896, aided by the promise of the Hudson Bay Railway, and it prevented either the Liberals or the more radical Patrons of Industry from receiving the support which they might have expected if Manitoba had been an undisciplined frontier settlement of aggressive individuals rather than a well-established and law-abiding farm area.” [18] The echoes of this viewpoint in the classic history of Manitoba by W. L. Morton, published a decade later, suggest that Cooke had struck an authentic note and that she had anticipated, or perhaps influenced, the later work.

Cooke did not shrink from making her own grand claims. She mused about whether, in the 1870s and early 1880s, some migrants from eastern Canada found the route across the Great Lakes and along the Dawson Trail more unpleasant than others. Those who were not committed to the British connection stopped along the way in American territory while those who persevered and settled in the province were more likely to be committed to the Crown and to be Conservative in politics: “There seems to be a basic Conservatism in Manitoba which may be submerged occasionally, but comes up again almost of itself …” [19] Cooke was a woman of substance whose judgements about the Manitoba past challenged and provoked and entertained.

At the end of the Second World War, she talked of beginning a doctoral program in history. It seems likely that she contacted Dr. Norquay in Selkirk, explained her position to him, and thereby gained possession of the tin box and perhaps other materials in the hands of Mrs. McAllister. And she began typing the thousand incoming letters in the Norquay letterbooks. [20]

There is no evidence in Ms. Cooke’s papers that she ever entered a PhD programme. She did decide to write a biography and soldiered on with the very limited resources she could muster while serving as a “public stenographer” and running the boarding-house. When Norquay was declared a figure of national historic importance, Cooke was invited to write an article to accompany the unveiling of a plaque outside the legislative chamber. Her graceful tribute emphasized his strengths and judged his political career wisely: “ability, his eloquence, and his capacity for the finest kind of good fellowship carried him up rapidly …” As a Conservative, she observed, Norquay “was hampered by the practical impossibility of achieving harmony between the needs of the West and John A. Macdonald’s plans for Canada and the Conservative Party.” Concerning the fall of his government on corruption charges in 1887, she wrote: “When the music was to be faced, Norquay was on hand to face it, surrounded by gaps where some of his friends had been.” [21]

A commemorative plaque for John Norquay on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature replaced one originally unveiled inside the building, in 1947.

A commemorative plaque for John Norquay on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature replaced one originally unveiled inside the building, in 1947.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough

The plaque itself, written by another local historian, showed its author’s determination to confront sensitive race questions in mid-20th-century Canada. It read: “Honourable John Norquay Premier of Manitoba 1878–87 / Of Scottish and Indian blood / He symbolizes the contribution of the Métis to civilization / Born at Red River Colony 8th May, 1841 / Died in Winnipeg, 5th July, 1889 / Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada”. The wording, with its clear declaration of Norquay’s “Indian blood” and “Métis” status, ignited a storm in the Norquay family, of which echoes could still be heard twenty and thirty years later. [22]

But the conflict did not seem to have touched Ellen Cooke. She undertook a series of interviews with Norquay descendants in the late 1940s, building relationships that continued for many years. Whenever new details emerged she documented them carefully in her notes. Thus, her files contain a long letter from, and the striking 1959 interview with, the premier’s son Andrew Norquay. They include interviews with another son Dr. Horace Norquay, with the premier’s daughter Ellen McAllister, with the premier’s nephew Jacob Truthwaite Norquay, and notes on numerous visits with other descendants, including Mary Savage, Elizabeth Aylen and members of the Stewart and Good families.

Just as striking as these meticulous records were her notes on research trips. Aside from the visits to Vancouver in 1959 and 1979, she studied Norquay’s connection to a coal mine during a trip to Medicine Hat in 1965, Ontario Archives collections and Norquay family records (including a family Bible) in Toronto in 1974, and the missionary papers of several Anglican missionary groups in London in 1975. That summer she also visited the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Orkney island farm whence the original Norquay emigrant departed for North America in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1791. [23] And at some point she utilized her knowledge of French by working through the relevant papers of the Grey Nuns, a collection then housed in Saint-Boniface but later moved to Montreal. [24]

Cooke published relatively little despite her extensive research. She wrote three nicely phrased biographical notes, none of them over 500 words. She wrote a brief essay to resolve the widespread confusion about the three members of the Norquay family, two of them named John, who played a part in the politics of Red River in 1869–1870. [25] And she printed a fifty-page typescript entitled Fur Trade Profiles: Five Ancestors of Premier John Norquay. Three editions appeared in 1978–1979, each of one hundred copies, each differing slightly from its predecessor, and each available for purchase from “Miss Ellen Cooke, 31 – 50 Carlton St., Winnipeg” for “$3.95 by cheque or money order (but not by cash) …” [26]

In this important publication, Ms. Cooke addressed the issues that lay behind the mid-20th-century conflicts over the Norquay family genealogy and established answers that will have to suffice, probably forever. But she did not address the twenty years between 1870 and 1889 when her subject was the dominant political figure in Manitoba, though she held the crucial historical resources for the history of this era in the thousands of pages contained in the tin box. She told Barry Hyman that, aside from her interviews and research notes, she would not give to the archives her own work on Norquay. What might this work have been? In the absence of any other information in the archival collections, one has to doubt that an explanation will ever be forthcoming. And there the story of Ms. Cooke’s research comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. [27]


As a result of the Norquay family’s care of the documents for two generations, and Ms. Ellen Cooke’s for a third, the written record of Manitoba’s Norquay years, as expressed in nearly five thousand items of incoming correspondence, is now in public hands. Ms. Cooke also typed a thousand items of the premier’s outgoing correspondence and thereby ensured they would not be lost. The bills, photographs, and other documents, too, are important records of another age. To these original materials Ms. Cooke added interviews and other notes that she accumulated during forty years of research on the Norquay family and the Norquay era in Manitoba. The donation is priceless. It makes possible the telling of the story of a premier.

Ms. Cooke attached several conditions to the transfer of the records. As recorded by Barry Hyman they included: “that the Papers would not be made available for research use until they were catalogued; and that the Provincial Archives would prepare a press release announcing the presentation … When the tin box is at the Provincial Archives we will replace the documents in the box and have the box and contents photographed. We will forward these to the Free Press …” [28] The tin box at the end of a rainbow or under a bed is one of those mythical stories that historians and archivists tell when they are in their cups but, in this case, it actually existed. And it really did contain, if not a pot of gold, some valuable treasures.

Aside from Hyman’s article in the archivists’ journal, little or nothing has been heard of the documents since. The Free Press did publish a story on the donation. [29] The cataloguing of the papers took twenty years. Academic scholarship moved on, stranding the political history of Manitoba in a backwater as new students asked new questions of new sources. And the story of Ellen Cooke has been hidden in a confidential file. Her importance as historical researcher and patron should be acknowledged. She was an unusual woman who made contributions to the history of the province at a time when independent women scholars were rare. Her career path was unconventional, a fact that probably worked against the appropriate recognition being bestowed on her. Shirlee Anne Smith, Keeper of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Ellen Cooke’s time, provided an appropriate conclusion: “As I remember she arrived quietly, worked diligently, asked few, if any questions, and left quietly.” [30]

If you can add further information on the life of Ellen Cooke and/or the story of the Norquay papers, please contact me, the editors of Manitoba History (, or the Archives of Manitoba.


1. I would like to thank colleagues who read an early draft of this paper and offered very helpful suggestions, including Shirlee Anne Smith, Nancy Stunden, Barry Hyman, Joan Sinclair, Bob Coutts, Gordon Goldsborough, and Jean Friesen.

2. The incoming and outward bound letters as well as the other items in the collection (enumerated below) are now housed in the Archives of Manitoba as part of the Premier’s Papers, GR553. The tin box was transferred to The Manitoba Museum where it is housed in the Ethnology collection under Norquay’s name as item H4-2-52. I would like to thank Katherine Pettipas, former Curator of Ethnology at the Museum, for this information.

3. Ellen Cooke: “Suggested alterations to draft by Mr. Barry Hyman entitled ‘Norquay Papers to Province’ dated 3 January 1986” in “Purchase and Acquisitions file: Ellen Cooke,” Archives of Manitoba.

4. Barry Hyman adds that Ms. Cooke “virtually dictated what the note would say.” Hyman to Friesen, emails 8 January 2015.

5. Archives of Manitoba: Ellen Gillies Cooke Papers – 15 files, P1023.

6. “Biggar Brothers Freight Lines, Winnipeg: bill of lading dated 6 May 1946” in file #1 “Andrew Norquay file 1872-1961” Ellen Gillies Cooke Papers, P1023, Archives of Manitoba. Did the company clerk in the town of Selkirk, a few miles north of Winnipeg, simply mistake the client’s name?

7. “Premier John Norquay: Record of information given to Miss Ellen Cooke by Mr. Andrew Norquay in Vancouver on August 4, 1959” This typescript is signed by Ellen Cooke. It is part of the “Andrew Norquay file 1872-1961” in the Ellen Gillies Cooke Papers, P1023, Archives of Manitoba.

8. The document begins: “This is the last will and testament of me, Ellen Gillies Cooke, of the city of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Public Stenographer.” There is no date but a handwritten note on one of the five copies in this file is dated 22 November 1958. Roy and Gerald Stubbs, barristers, are listed as executors. This is one of five copies of a document in “Purchase and Acquisitions file: Ellen Cooke” Archives of Manitoba. I am grateful to Paula Warsaba of the Archives of Manitoba who encouraged me to apply for permission to see the P&A file on Ellen Cooke’s donation. The Legislative Library served as the provincial archive until today’s separate institution was created in the 1970s.

9. Barry Hyman, “Statement given by Miss E. Cooke to Barry Hyman over the telephone on 17 April 1986”; also Barry Hyman, ‘Norquay Papers to Province’ draft article ca. February 1986 for Manitoba Archivists’ Newsletter. The article was published in February 1986; also Ellen Cooke, “Suggested alterations to draft by Mr. Barry Hyman entitled ‘Norquay Papers to Province’ dated 3 January 1986”: all three items are in “Purchase and Acquisitions file: Ellen Cooke,” Archives of Manitoba. The researchers’ guide in the Archives of Manitoba also states: “Photographs have been transferred to the Still Images Program. One tape recording of an interview by Jane Pritchard with Mrs. J. E. McAllister, Norquay’s daughter; and an interview by Cooke with Mrs. Alfred (Mary Norquay) Savage and Jacob Truthwaite Norquay has been transferred to the Moving Images and Sound Program.”

10. Barbara Rhodes and William Wells Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art & History of Mechanical Copying 1780-1938 (New Castle, Delaware and Northampton, Massachusetts: Oak Knoll Press and Heraldry Bindery, 1999); I would like to thank Ala Rekrut for this reference.

11. The McAllisters lived in Fort Garry when the 1950 flood occurred and Ms. Cooke noted that, as a consequence, all their furniture was ruined; interviews in file 4, “Mrs. J. E. McAllister,” Cooke Papers, Archives of Manitoba.

12. There will be occasions when information such as financial arrangements may entail a commitment to privacy, of course, but presumably such confidential documents can be separated from the details related to the provenance and circumstances of a gift.

13. Photocopy of obituary in Winnipeg Free Press 1994, in “Purchase and Acquisitions file: Ellen Cooke,” Archives of Manitoba. In his notes, Hyman records that she died on 4 November 1994.

14. “Final Decrees” in Winnipeg Tribune 28 August 1943, p.4; obituary for Peter Hampton in Winnipeg Free Press 25 October 1980. He was one of three winners of an Isbister Scholarship in 1937; Winnipeg Tribune 20 May 1937, p. 2, and 17 May 1938, p. 1. He was said to have been interested in Mennonite history in later life and to have contributed to the Mennonite Mirror of Winnipeg in the 1970s. Lewis Stubbs and Gordon Goldsborough kindly pursued this search and Gordon tracked down these references, for which I am very grateful.

15. The Henderson’s Directory information is available at Several different boarders are listed at this address in other years; the information on the residents of the Spence Street boardinghouse in 1957 was obtained through Canada, Voters Lists, 1935-1980 [on-line database]. Provo, UT: Operations, Inc. 2012. Original data: Voters Lists, Federal Elections, 1935-1980. R1003-6-3-E (RG113-B). Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa. I would like to thank Gordon Goldsborough for these references.

16. D’Alton McCarthy was elected as a “McCarthyite” in Brandon as well as in an Ontario seat; Hugh John Macdonald was elected as a “Liberal Conservative.” The former cannot be called a Conservative in 1896 but the latter can. McCarthy chose to sit for the Ontario riding, resigned the Manitoba seat, and Clifford Sifton won the ensuing by-election.

17. Ellen Gillies Cooke, “The Federal Election of 1896 in Manitoba” (MA thesis, University of Manitoba, April 1943), p. 3.

18. Cooke, “The Federal Election of 1896 in Manitoba”, p. 214.

19. Cooke, “The Federal Election of 1896 in Manitoba”, pp. 207-209.

20. The guide to the Ellen Cooke Papers, written by Barry Hyman, declares: “…She originally intended to use the papers for a PhD thesis, but later decided to write a biography of Norquay…” The same phrase appears in her Fur Trade Profiles: Five Ancestors of Premier John Norquay.

21. Ellen Cooke, “John Norquay” in “Programme…Unveiling of Memorial Tablet in honour of Honourable John Norquay Premier of Manitoba 1878-1887” (Winnipeg: Manitoba Historical Society, 28 October 1947) in File #9, Ellen Cooke Papers, Archives of Manitoba.

22. From the text of the plaque written by Father Antoine D’Éschambault, member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and erected by the Board in a ceremony convened by the Manitoba Historical Society in the Manitoba Legislature; Ellen Cooke Papers: File #7: “JN Biographical”; the first years of the contretemps are documented in the Norquay Papers, MG 13 C4 “Norquay, John file #1); I first encountered the controversy during a lunch with one of the family in the early 1980s. This plaque was removed in 1961 (though a less authoritative source says 1972), rewritten in the 1970s when the racial references were dropped, refabricated in 1978, and installed south of the Legislative Building next the statue of Louis Riel in 2002. The new plaque reads: “JOHN NORQUAY / 1841-1889 / Born at St. Andrew’s in the Red River settlement, Norquay was elected to the first provincial assembly in 1870. He held several cabinet portfolios from 1871 to 1878 when he became Premier. His government, based on communal representation and joint participation of the French and English, achieved the extension of the Manitoba boundary and better fiscal terms from Ottawa, and undertook to build railways in defiance of the Canadian Pacific charter and federal disallowance. Norquay resigned the premiership in 1887, continuing to sit as a private member until his death in Winnipeg.”

23. Notes of the interviews are filed in Ms. Cooke’s papers in the Archives of Manitoba. To take just two examples, she noted conversations with Mrs. Mary Norquay Savage in 1965, 1973, 1975, 1977 and 1980, and trips and chats with Jacob Truthwaite Norquay in 1965 (on five occasions), 1966, 1967 and 1969. She also recorded with care a number of the sources of documentary materials. Thus, she wrote that she held “copies of original documents (typed by Ellen Cooke) in home of Mrs. Bea Montgomery, daughter of JN’s son, Dr. H. C. Norquay” in Ellen Cooke Papers: File #7: “John Norquay Biographical.” Records of her British trip include notes in the Cooke Papers but also several letters of introduction. In the British archives, she presented letters in which Manitoba’s archivist, John Bovey, attested that Ms. Cooke “has been known to me for more than seven years as a careful, trustworthy researcher in the manuscript holdings of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.” John Bovey, Provincial Archivist, to Director of British Museum, 10 June 1975 in Archives of Manitoba, P&A File “Ellen Cooke.” The file contains a similar introduction to the National Library of Scotland. On the Hudson’s Bay Company materials, see the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives Department file entitled “Norquay correspondence” HBC Archives RG 20/4/186. In Fur Trade Profiles: Five Ancestors of Premier John Norquay, Ms. Cooke thanks several residents of the Orkney Islands who assisted her when she visited there.

24. Cooke seems to have read four journals (two written by Sr. Curran, two by Sr. L’Esperance for the years from 1844-1868) and the Chroniques from 1844 to 1870, plus 1872, 1880, 1881, 1890, 1893 in Cahiers 2-4. Also copies of “letters received,” Cahiers 1-6, 1844-1871; in Ellen Cooke Papers “File #15: Archives of the Grey Nuns, St. Boniface.”

25. Ellen Cooke, “Norquays in the Red River Disturbances”, Manitoba Pageant, vol. XX1, no. 2 (Winter 1976), pp. 6-7.

26. The three editions were 42, 44, and 50 pages, respectively, and were printed in December 1978, March 1979, and December 1979. They are available in File #9 of the Ellen Cooke Papers, Archives of Manitoba. The researchers’ guide in the Archives of Manitoba states that “Miss Cooke has retained all her research notes and manuscript material.”

27. I would like to thank archivist Joan Sinclair who undertook to discover the chronology of the papers after the donation. She writes: “the Norquay Premier’s office files (accession GR 553) were donated to the Archives of Manitoba in 1985 by Ellen Cooke as illustrated in her 1958 will. The records were processed by an archivist between 2002 and 2004, as well as treated by conservation where necessary. The records were microfilmed between 2006 and 2008. We believe that the records may have been available to researchers prior to this processing work in the 2000s but that they weren’t available while processing work was going on. It seems that the typed list of records that is in the accession binder GR553 was created during this time and is the only list of records that we have; so it doesn’t seem that an earlier one was made. Thus if any researcher used these records prior to the 2000s, they wouldn’t have had any list of records to work with. As we discussed, the published items E through L under the miscellaneous section of the will were to be given to the Legislative Library and item D was culled and destroyed as per the notes in our accession folder…” Joan Sinclair to Friesen, email 28 November 2014. I would also like to thank Lee Gibson, who organized the papers, and Paula Warsaba, who supervised the process, for talking to me about this work.

The following are the items D through L mentioned by Ms. Sinclair and listed in Cooke’s 1958 will:

“D. Black note book, 4 x 7, captioned “Speeches of Hon. John Norquay & others” – 7 newspaper extracts pasted in. [This was destroyed, lamentably. GF]
E. Select Committee Report on 1869-1870 (Ottawa 1874) [items E to L to Legislative Library. GF]
F. Pamphlet on John A. Macdonald’s 40th anniversary in public life ‘demonstration’ (1885)
G. Pamphlet of Memoranda of provl treasurer, MB, 1884
H. Pamphlet of Budget Speech of provl treasurer, MB, 1884
I. Pamphlet on “The Session” (1888) 23 pages
J. Newspaper extract: “Reminiscences of Norquay” 8 July 1889
K. St. John’s College Magazine (October 1889)
L. Newspaper extract “The Lone Land: Historic Names and Places of the North West” Norquay’s ivory paper cutter, given to me by Dr. Norquay as a gift”

28. A third condition imposed by Cooke, as Hyman recorded it in a letter to her, was that “no material listed in your last will and testament would be loaned or otherwise removed from the Manitoba Archives Building unless their preservation was threatened;” Barry Hyman to Ellen Cooke (50 Carlton St., Ste. 31) 11 December 1985; in an explanatory memorandum Hyman wrote: “…the collection is not made available to researchers until Provincial Archives has full control of it (she fears items may disappear)… She will not be interviewed—fears the stress. She wants no public recognition but would want to see a press release before it goes to the Free Press.” Barry Hyman, “Memorandum to Peter Bower, Provincial Archivist”, 9 December 1985, both documents in “Purchase & Acquisitions file, Ellen Cooke”, Archives of Manitoba.

29. Val Werier, “Metis premier who left his mark on Manitoba”, ca. February 1986 in Winnipeg Free Press; a note was published in Winnipeg Real Estate News in the same period. Copies of both are in the P&A file, undated.

30. Shirlee Anne Smith, email to G. Friesen, 12 March 2013. I also interviewed Elizabeth Blight, archivist in the Archives of Manitoba during the years that Ms. Cooke was engaged in research. And I thank Scott Goodine, Chris Kotecki, Rudy Martinez, Julianna Trivers, Mandy Malazdrewich, and Anna Shumilak, present-day staff at the Archives of Manitoba, for their help with the Norquay papers.

Page revised: 30 April 2019