Pioneer Politicking

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, April 1959, Volume 4, Number 3

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Back in 1866 when Thomas Spence arrived in the Red River Settlement, people said he would play an important part in the affairs of the community. And there was little doubt about Spence's organizing ability after his first appearance on the stage of local politics. Everyone in those days was talking about Confederation, and public meetings were much more exciting events than nowadays. People in the provinces of eastern Canada were all discussing the idea of joining together to form one country and even out in the west in the Hudson's Bay Company's territory, some men thought that the prairies ought to become part of this new country.

Thomas Spence was one of these men. He knew what he wanted and he was to prove he knew how to get it. In December, 1866, he advertised a public meeting to be held in the Court House at Fort Garry. The purpose of the meeting was to pass a resolution asking the British Government to join the Red River Settlement with the other provinces in a Confederation. In the settlement there was an opposition group which wanted the settlement to be joined to the United States. This group was led by George Emmerling, an American, who was called "Dutch George." "Dutch George" had come to Red River as a peddler with a barrel of whiskey and two barrels of apples. Well the apple business must have been pretty good in those days because not long after "Dutch George" owned the best hotel and bar in the village of Winnipeg. With his group he planned to attend the public meeting and oppose Thomas Spence's resolution. But Spence knew how to deal with such opposition. His meeting had been called for 10.30 in the morning. Some time before that, he and four of his friends gathered at the Court House and passed their resolution without any difficulty. When they had finished they decided to go to "Dutch George's" bar to celebrate their victory with a little refreshment. Half-way there they were met by the opposition group and other citizens who were just then on their way to the meeting called for 10:30. Many of these had already been celebrating at the bar and were bringing refreshments to the Court House for the meeting. They claimed that they had a right to present their views and "Dutch George" who was not going to be outsmarted by any trick, persuaded Spence and his friends to return to the Court House. A second meeting was agreed upon but this meeting was not as successful as the first because it had not been planned as carefully. No one was prepared as Spence had been with a written resolution. No one knew where to start or what to discuss. There was no agreement on what the public wanted and no one was able to make himself heard to present his views. At one point during these noisy proceedings "Dutch George" was in an argument trying to collect a bill from one of his bar customers.

No doubt Spence sat back quietly, very satisfied with the way things were developing. Tempers became hot, fists began to fly and the meeting soon turned into a brawl which would have destroyed the court room. Perhaps to save the furniture from being wrecked the crowd decided to continue outside. But the December air was too cold for political discussion and they moved on to "Dutch George's" bar. Here the talking and the fighting continued until midnight and broke up only after the bar and its contents had been completely destroyed. Spence was satisfied with the result. His resolution had been passed and would be presented to the Government as the wishes of the settlement. It was a neatly arranged scheme intended to prevent other opinion being known.

The settlement's newspaper, the Nor'Wester, in its account of the public meeting, published Spence's resolution without mentioning the small number of people who had attended his meeting. The second meeting was described as a disorderly group discussing matters which had no bearing on the subject for which the meeting had been called. When the newspaper account of Spence's meeting reached eastern Canada people there said this was proof that the people of the Red River Settlement wanted to join with the other provinces in Confederation. Thomas Spence proved to be a successful politician in his first public appearance.

Page revised: 30 June 2009