Manitoba History: William James Healy: Manitoba Provincial Librarian, 1920-1937

by M. Christopher Kotecki
Archives of Manitoba

Number 84, Summer 2017

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In 1920, William James Healy was appointed the second Provincial Librarian of Manitoba and successor to John Palmerston Robertson, the subject of the previous article in this series. [1] This article will profile Healy’s career as a journalist and historian as well as his contributions to the development of the Provincial Library of Manitoba.

W. J. Healy was born at Belleville, Ontario on 15 April 1867, two years after his family arrived in Canada. [2] The son of an Anglo-Irish family, his father William Healy and family came to Canada from Queenstown in southern Ireland. His father was a civil engineer involved in construction projects such as the aqueduct for the city of Toronto. He also had contracts for the construction of bridges, locks for the canals in Ontario and Quebec, and railways such as sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway between Fort William and Winnipeg. [3]

Healy attended public school in Toronto and later attended St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, graduating with an Honours degree in Classics in 1890. [4] After graduation, he was persuaded to enter a journalistic career by Thomas White. [5] He started at the Toronto Mail and then he worked as a parliamentary correspondent in Ottawa for the Toronto Telegram and later other newspapers. [6] From 1891 to 1895, Healy was secretary of the Ottawa press gallery.

William James Healy (1867–1950), Manitoba's provincial librarian from 1920 to 1937.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune, 14 February 1920, page 6.

While there, he made many friendships among journalists and politicians, including John Willison, editor of the Toronto News, John W. Dafoe, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, R. S. White, editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette, satirist Stephen Leacock, and J. Israel Tarte, who would later become Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier’s Minister of Public Works. Healy became familiar with Prime Ministers John A. MacDonald, Sir Wilfred Laurier, Sir John Thompson, and Edward Blake through his writing about their political careers. [7]

In 1896, he partnered with A. T. Wilgress in purchasing the Brockville Times. Later that year, he married Emily Maude McCullough, the daughter of a Brockville merchant. After a brief time at the Buffalo (New York) Express in 1898, he moved west in 1899 to accept the invitation of the then-editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, A. J. Magurn, whom he had known in the Ottawa press gallery. [8] He arrived in Winnipeg just as the government of Premier Rodmond Roblin was laying out the infrastructure of a growing provincial economy. [9] Healy served as associate editor of the Free Press for nineteen years and was known for his column “Mr. Pepys” as well as the column “Heliograms” during the First World War. [10] He was also the western correspondent for the commercial department of the British Board of Trade and wrote articles for a variety of other publications. [11]

In 1920, Liberal Premier Tobias C. Norris appointed Healy as Manitoba’s second Provincial Librarian and Archivist, [12] succeeding John P. Robertson who had died the year before while on vacation in California. [13] Like Healy, Robertson had preceded his appointment to the position with work as a journalist and editor, and this was perhaps the attribute that resulted in each of them being selected for the job. [14] The first Dominion Archivist in Ottawa had been Douglas Brymner, a well-known Montreal journalist and Robertson’s contemporary. [15] The concept of archives was a fairly new one, the first legislative archives having been established by the State of Alabama in 1901. [16]

A view of the Library in the Legislative Building, no date.
Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Building Collection

Healy began his tenure as Provincial Librarian in the newly opened Legislative Building. The space was more than enough to accommodate materials that had previously been in storage. Besides a Great Library on the second floor at the south side of the building, there were several other reading room spaces as well as a newspaper storage area. [17] The Library staff remained the same as under Robertson. Besides cataloguer William E. Smith, Margaret Clifford was the First Assistant Librarian, Mildred Butler was the Second Assistant Librarian, Russell A. E. Gage was the Clerk, and Kate Omand was the cleaner. The library’s budget was taken up almost entirely by salaries, with only a $9.85 expenditure for Archives and Museum. [18] In his first annual report as Provincial Librarian, it is clear that Healy was conscious of the large shoes he had to fill in his new job:

“It is fitting that this f[i]rst report ... should begin with a tribute to Mr. Robertson’s memory and a statement, however brief and inadequate .... All who have occasion to make extended use of the resources of the Library since it has been established in its present commodious quarters testify to its completeness as library of record and (to mention only the divisions of it which are of most outstanding importance) to the value of its collections of books on legislation and government, of constitutional and historical books, and particularly of books, pamphlets and other material bearing on the history of Western Canada, many of the items in the last mentioned division, which is a noteworthy extensive one, being rare and valuable.” [19]

Healy could report that, in the nine months since his appointment, he had been able to acquire a large number of books, along with reports and bulletins from governmental bodies across Canada and elsewhere. The new material had been arranged conveniently for handy reference and a special catalogue had been prepared. He gave details on the move of the Library holdings from the 1884 Legislative Building to its replacement, carried out successfully and on schedule, despite Robertson’s death, under the supervision of cataloguer William E. Smith. [20] Healy reported on the status of the Archives, noting that few additions have been made in the preceding twelve months but that existing holdings had been arranged and catalogued:

“A large mass of valuable material in the Archives division of the Library; but to make this division what it should be, a great deal of work remains to be done, and it should be done without delay. A number of valuable manuscripts and printed records and other documents which might rightly be added to this division of the Library is rapidly lessened. Such things are being secured by private collectors, or by representatives of public institutions elsewhere in Canada or in the United States.” [21]

Healy reported on the status of the Museum division of the Library, noting that the museum collection still did not have permanent quarters, nor did it receive adequate financial support. He hinted that the provincial museum could lose important items to well-funded American competitors, scientists, and private collectors, as well as the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was purportedly amassing material for a Western Canadian Museum. [22] Among the highlights of the museum were minerals collected and labeled by Northern Affairs Commissioner Robert Wallace and moved into the Legislature Building. Foreshadowing events that would occur over a half-century in the future, Healy reported that Professor Chester B. Martin (from the University of Manitoba and a member of the Board overseeing library operations) had had, while in London, England, discussions with the Board of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the possibility of acquiring records and documents of historical interest from the Company. This followed up on an approach made the previous May to Sir Robert Kindersley, the Governor of the Company, during his Winnipeg visit. [23] (The collection would come to Winnipeg, as the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, in 1974.)

The stack room of the Legislative Library, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Legislative Building Collection

In his report for 1921, Healy clarified the priority for the Provincial Library that its primary focus was to be for the use of the members of the Legislature and the Government. However, it operated on the guiding principle that the Library should be available to the public as a resource for material on government, legislation, and history as well as material on social, economic, and industrial issues. Use of the Library’s holdings was being made by the Department of Education, Extension Department of the Department of Agriculture, Joint Council of Industry, Board of Health, University of Manitoba, Manitoba Agricultural College, and other educational institutions. Use by the general public had also increased. The production of a catalogue was proceeding and good progress was being made now that the Library has adequate space. He made reference to the crowded conditions of the old building where much of the Library holdings had to be boxed up in storage and unavailable for easy access. [24] The library staff had made progress in reducing an accumulation of unbound material, particularly newspapers, over the previous year. He discontinued the annual purchase of law books, as this duplicated what was being done at the Law Library in the Court House.

Through the 1920s, progress was made in the Archives division of the Library, an important consideration because the amount of available material from Manitoba’s early years was decreasing rapidly. [25] A complete set of bound Dominion Orders-in-Council and other documents in regard to Dominion Lands had been presented to the Library by Edwin F. Stephenson, formerly superintendent of Crown Timber Agencies, on his retirement in 1923. [26] Winnipeg surgeon Henry H. Chown donated a copy of surveyor Simon J. Dawson’s 1859 opus Report of the Exploration of the Country between Lake Superior and the Red River Settlement and between the Later Place and the Assiniboine and the Saskatchewan. [27] Use of the library facility was growing, by members of the Legislative Assembly and government, as well as faculty members and students from the University of Manitoba and its affiliated colleges, and universities of several nearby states and provinces. [28]

Manitoba’s first oral history project. Healy’s most significant writing was his Women of Red River, published in 1923. The
book was a history of early Manitoba based, to a large extent, on interviews with women surviving from the province’s early
settlement period.

Despite the impact of the stock market crash of 1929 on reducing the number of newspapers and periodicals to which the Library could subscribe, it was still able to acquire copies of the newspapers published throughout the province and have them bound into large, hardcover volumes. [29] The Library provided a list of the newspapers in its holdings to the Union List of Newspapers in the United States and Canada being prepared under the auspices of the Bibliographical Society of America. Among them was an almost complete run of The Nor’Wester, the first newspaper printed west of Ontario starting on 28 December 1859, and a complete run of The New Nation, an important chronicle of events during Louis Riel’s Provisional Government between 7 January and 3 September 1870.

Through the 1930s, the library received numerous donations, including several valuable books from MLA (and Winnipeg General Strike protagonist) Bill Ivens. Members of the Canadian Historical Society, through its journal The Canadian Historical Review, “has initiated a movement for securing the better preservation in each of the Provinces of documents and other material of archival value, likely to be of future historical importance. In this respect, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and British Columbia have led the way among the Provinces thus far.” Healy worked with Arthur R. M. Lower of Wesley College to prepare a report from Manitoba in this respect. [30] Research was also undertaken for the Western Section of the soon-to-be published History of Canadian-American Relations by the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. The work involved Winnipeg historian Margaret McWilliams and John P. Pritchett of the University of North Dakota. [31] A major acquisition was made in 1937 when the Library received the extensive library of the late John S. Ewart, consisting of over five thousand items, including “material of special value on the subjects of history, international affairs, and works made use of by the late Mr. Ewart when taking a leading part in the movement for the recognition of Canada’s status as a nation. It will be known as the John S. Ewart Memorial Library and will be maintained as a unit, and ultimately specially designated in the main room of the Library.” [32] Throughout this period, Healy made little mention in his annual reports of the museum collection, which apparently remained boxed and in storage. Only the mineral collection was put out for display in the Members Reading Room of the Legislative Building.

Healy’s former residence at 346 Niagara Street in Winnipeg.
Source: Chris Kotecki

In addition to his library duties, Healy wrote prolifically, often on subjects relating to Manitoba’s history. In 1925, he was asked to write an introduction for the book Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba. [33] In the course of 75 pages, Healy covered a broad coverage of major events of the past. For the province’s sixtieth anniversary in 1927, he contributed to a slim, ten-page pamphlet a surprisingly comprehensive overview of Manitoba’s past starting with Thomas Button’s arrival on the Hudson’s Bay. [34] His most significant historical contribution, however, was his 1923 book Women of Red River. He had been approached by the Women’s Canadian Club in Winnipeg about writing a history of early Winnipeg, [35] but the project eventually expanded into a book about the entire province. [36] The book used, to a large extent, a series of verbal interviews with surviving women from the early settlement period of Manitoba, making it essentially the province’s first oral history project. The book was an attractive production with a wood block print on its frontispiece by local artist Walter J. Phillips with pen and ink sketches by Charles F. Comfort sprinkled liberally throughout the text. [37] Healy demonstrated his grasp of early Manitoba history using the storyteller’s skill of a good historian and a good journalist. His interviews with the few remaining women from this almost vanished time provided interesting and useful insights. The book was well received by the public and several reprints have been subsequently made, including a reprinting for Canada’s centenary in 1967. [38]

Among the items in the W. J. Healy Fonds at the Archives of Manitoba is correspondence, in French, between local journalist
Alfred V. Thomas and Mrs. Healy, May 1934. Healy himself corresponded with researchers using the library, including
noted school principal William J. Sisler who wrote a book on immigration and land settlement in Manitoba using the resources
of the Legislative Library.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, W. J. Healy Fonds, MG14 C66 File Correspondence 1934-1935

Given his interest in provincial history, it was inevitable that Healy would be an active member of the Manitoba Historical Society, and served for a period on its executive. In 1930, he gave a presentation to the Society entitled “Side Lights on Governors and Governments of Manitoba” as part of a series commemorating the province’s sixtieth anniversary. His “address was accompanied by lantern slides and some rare pictures and documents were thrown on the screen.” A reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press would note that “Mr. Healy made the atmosphere breathe the spirit of days gone by.” [39]

Healy retired in 1937, at the age of seventy, after serving the people of Manitoba as Provincial Librarian for seventeen years. He and his wife retired to San Francisco, California to be near their only child, a daughter. [40] Healy continued to write periodic editorials for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Tribune but his last years were laboured with illness. On 24 August 1950, he died from the effects of prostate cancer. The following year, his wife donated his papers to the Archives of Manitoba where they remain a valuable record of his service. [41] Healy was able not only to maintain J. P. Robertson’s legacy, he contributed substantially to the library’s growing national and international recognition as a fine institution.


A version of this paper was presented at the 45th Annual Northern Great Plains History Conference at Grand Forks, North Dakota in October 2010.

1. “J. P. Robertson: Manitoba’s First Librarian-Curator-Archivist” by M. C. Kotecki, Manitoba History, Number 79, Fall 2015, pp. 28–32.

2. “Prairie Historian, William Healy Dies,” Winnipeg Tribune 24 August 1950.

3. “Colorful Career: W. J. Healy Honour Guest at Banquet Thursday Night,” Winnipeg Free Press 25 June 1937.

4. “He was an honor graduate of St. Michael’s College, Toronto in classics. His wide knowledge of Greek and Latin authors was the foundation of a thorough knowledge of the English classics, which was evidenced in his journalistic writings. On his graduation, he was persuaded to go into newspaper work by Thomas White, later Sir Thomas White.” “Colorful Career: W. J. Healy Honour Guest at Banquet Thursday Night,” Winnipeg Free Press 25 June 1937.

5. Sir William Thomas White (1866–1955) was a reporter at the Toronto Evening Telegram in the 1890s before embarking on a political career, in 1911, as Minister of Finance in the government of Robert Borden.

6. “Ex-Free Press Associate Editor, Author Dies, 83,” Winnipeg Free Press 24 August 1950.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. The Rodmond Roblin administration was a development-oriented conservative one. It served from 1896 until being toppled by the Legislative Building Scandal in 1916 and succeeded in the next election by the Liberal government of Tobias Norris.

10. Archives of Manitoba (hereafter, AM), William James Healy Fonds, MG14 C61, Private Records. Mrs. Healy donated material to the Archives from her husband’s journalistic career and some correspondence, which includes a newspaper scrapbook of each column throughout the war.

11. “Colorful Career: W. J. Healy Honour Guest at Banquet Thursday Night,” Winnipeg Free Press 25 June 1937. He continued to write editorials for the Winnipeg Free Press as well as the Winnipeg Tribune.

12. The position of Provincial Librarian gave Healy the equivalent rank of a Deputy Minister of a department; in this case, the department of the Library under the Statute of Manitoba, 1919, Chapter 51, section 6.

13. Legislative Library of Manitoba (hereafter, LLM), newspaper clipping file, “Librarian Will Take Long Trip,” The Board will consist of “Premier T. C. Norris, Hon. J. W. Armstrong, Hon. J. B. Baird and three private citizens, the provincial library will assume much more importance than in the past.”

14. Manitoba Tribune, 26 June 1911, “In 1867 he matriculated in law at Osgoode Hall, Toronto, but after being a student for three years he abandoned law, and took up journalism.”

15. Ian E. Wilson, “A Noble Dream”: The Origins of the Public Archives of Canada, in Canadian Archival Studies and the Rediscovery of Provenance, p. 64.

16. Richard C. Bernier, Archival Theory and Practice in the United States: A Historical Analysis. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983.

17. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1936, p. 3. Healy comments on the problems of the poor layout of the Library space and the strain put on his staff to provide service to the members of the House, Departments and the Public. Planning for the Library in the new building had been left until the last moment.

18. LLM, Manitoba Public Accounts, 1920-1921, p. 37 Executive Council, Library and Museum; the budget for the Library was almost completely salaries: Librarian, W. J. Healy, $2700; Cataloguer, W. E. Smith, $1425; First Assistant, Mrs. M. Clifford, $963; Second Assistant, Miss M. Butler, $963; Clerk, R. E. A. Gage, $975; Cleaner, Mrs. Kate Omand, $620.

19. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1920, Queen’s Printer, Winnipeg, p. 1.

20. Ibid., “During the past year all the books and everything else belonging to the Library, including the books, manuscripts and other material in the Archives division of the Library and the collections belonging to the Museum, have been moved to the new Legislative Building. The Library is now in place, and the undertaking of making a catalogue, which was begun at the earliest possible moment, and is being carried on with all possible expedition, is now well advanced.”

21. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian, 1920, p. 2.

22. Ibid., “representatives of several museums in the United States, which have ample financial resources for acquiring of the most valuable archaeological and other material for scientific or artistic importance or interest for museum purposes, which their representatives can search out. In addition, there are dealers in such material and the private curio hunters and scientific collectors. The money value of good museum pieces has advanced greatly, and such things are becoming scarce. I may add that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s management is having material collected for a Western Canadian Museum.”

23. Ibid.

24. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1921, p. 1. “The Making of the catalogue (which could not be done in the old Legislative building where the Library was in such inadequate quarters that thousands of books were stored in boxes in the basement, and piled in heaps, in different storerooms, and could not be begun in this building until the confusion had been brought into order) has been an undertaking of considerable magnitude; “

25. Ibid., “The number of available manuscript and printed records and other documents and material of interest and value which might rightly be added to this division of the Library is rapidly being lessened; such things are being secured by private collectors, or by representatives of public institutions elsewhere in Canada, or the United States.”

26. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1923, p. 2.

27. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1927, p. 1.

28. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1930, p. 1.

29. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1931.

30. Ibid., p. 2, “Professor A.R.M. Lower of Wesley College, who for several years was a member of the Archives and Public Records staff at Ottawa and is especially qualified for the work.”

31. Ibid., p. 2, Mrs. R. F. McWilliams was the wife of the then-Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, a writer and journalist in her own right, and a member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.

32. LLM, Annual Report of the Provincial Librarian 1937, p. 1.

33. W. J. Healy, Introduction in Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Canadian Publicity Company, 1925.

34. “Manitoba,” King’s Printer, Philip Purcell, August 1927. Healy uses the following titles for his coverage of Manitoba History; The Search for “The Western Sea”, The Hudson’s Bay Company Charter, The First White Woman in the West, The Coming of the Selkirk Settlers, The Buffalo Hunting Expeditions, ‘The Great Lone Land” of 1870, The Rise and Progress of Manitoba, Making Connections with the Outside World, “The Keystone of the Mighty Arch”, The Strategic Situation of Winnipeg, The other Cities and Towns of Manitoba, Vast, Varied and Valuable Natural Resources, The Hudson Bay Outlet, Development has Only Begun, Progress in the Mineralized Areas, Great Annual Creation of Wealth by Agriculture and Manitoba’s Future in Canada’s Progress.

35. AM, Women’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg Fonds, Private Records, P4811-P4819, P6776–P6780. The administrative history for the fonds states that “The Women’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg (WCCW) was formed in 1907, by women attending the lecture given by Rudyard Kipling for the (then) men’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg. Its mandate is to promote Canadian identity and national unity. It encourages interest among women in history and resources of Canada, develops knowledgeable women, fosters patriotism, and the study of contemporary issues. The WCCW organizes monthly luncheons featuring guest speakers from across the country. Other projects included publishing W. J. Healy’s book, Women of Red River (1923) and its 1967 edition, establishing a library now housed at the University of Manitoba, publishing historical and out-of-print works, donating to heritage preservation, war relief, memorials, and oral histories of settlers.”

36. William James Healy, Women of Red River, Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era. “When the publication of this book was undertaken, it was intended that the period of time included should extend to about the year 1880. To the surprise and delight of all engaged in the work, there was found to be available a wealth of material concerning an earlier, more picturesque and altogether unique time. Consequently, it was thought desirable to set the year of incorporation of the City of Winnipeg-1873-as the end of the period to be covered in these recollections even though this involved the abandonment of much that was of great interest.” Preface no page number.

37. The Women’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg fonds has included the blue print proofs of the sketches produced by Charles F. Comfort for the book, in a donation to their material in the Archives.

38. Ibid.

39. AM, Manitoba Historical & Scientific Society of Manitoba, Side Lights on Governors and Governments of Manitoba. MG 10 F 2 Box 1 file 3; Membership Lists.

40. AM, Women’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg fonds, Private Records,P4811-P4819, P6776–P6780.

41. AM, William James Healy fonds, MG14 C61, Private Records. The fonds consists of correspondence, 1894, 192050; clippings, articles and reviews, 18861949; scrap books, 18901939; and “Heliograms”, 191518.

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: 26 November 2019