Arts & Life
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His actions? Often questionable, occasionally criminal. His personality? Brash, confrontational, opportunistic, and generally disagreeable. His ideology and views? Extreme and prejudiced. His life? Utterly colourful and lived in the spotlight.
He’s Francis Evans Cornish, Winnipeg’s first mayor — a wild man whose brawling ways and brazenness captured the hardy, fighting Prairie spirit of the time.
There’s some evidence in Winnipeg of Cornish’s time here. A library, as well as an avenue that connects Maryland and Sherbrook streets and also empties out of the Gates area onto Sherbrook Street, bear his name. A cemetery monument, which was toppled in 2017, also commemorates him. But overall, his name has been forgotten as the years have passed.
Nonetheless, the intelligent, insolent lawyer — never one to back away from a battle, righteous or otherwise — made an impression on our city in its nascent days, for better and for worse.
By the time Cornish rolled into Winnipeg in 1872 — in the wake of the Red River Rebellion and the sequence of events that saw Louis Riel establish a provisional government and Manitoba join Confederation — he was neither squeaky clean nor a political neophyte.
"He was a bigot, he was a bully, he was an ardent anglophone, he was a racist… how many more words do you want?" chuckled Gordon Goldsborough, the president and lead researcher of the Manitoba Historical Society, when asked to describe Cornish in his own words.
"He was certainly flamboyant and by some accounts he was articulate and forceful," but he was also egotistical and self-centred, Goldsborough says.
Born in London, Ont., in 1831, Cornish was called to the bar of Upper Canada in 1855 and became a Queen’s Counsel, a lawyer appointed by letters patent to be "Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law." He was also a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant-only fraternal organization with ties to Ulster loyalism.
In London, he served as an alderman from 1858 to 1861. He was elected mayor in 1861 amid allegations of ballot-box stuffing.
Cornish was a skilled orator and adept public speaker who kept people at rapt attention "when many another man would have perhaps been talking to empty benches," his obituary in the Manitoba Free Press notes. In his tenure as London’s mayor, his tireless nature served him well as he resolved a hospital scandal and oversaw efforts to reduce fire hazards.
However, he was neither a buttoned-up bureaucrat or the paragon of pure living: he liked to whoop it up and raise some hell.
An exuberant populist, he "gained a reputation as the ‘rowdy’ mayor, being charged by opponents with bigamy, assault, drunkenness, and boisterous public disputes," Hartwell Bosfield wrote for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. In 1863, he was arrested and fined $8 after attacking a British commander who bragged of having an affair with Cornish’s wife.
Cornish was defeated by David Glass in 1864 after city council called out the militia to ensure the election was honest, Bosfield noted.
In 1871, after an unsuccessful run for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Cornish left his wife and travelled west to Winnipeg.
Wherever he was, Cornish craved the attention of the public, and was good at capturing it.
He quickly made his presence known in his new locale, setting up a law practice and inciting and engaging in a variety of "anti-French, anti-Catholic and anti-establishment shenanigans" and roguery.
Cornish began riling up fellow recent Ontario ex-pats who were angry they weren’t allowed to vote for members of Parliament in the 1872 federal election — Manitoba’s first election as a province — because they had not lived in the Red River Settlement long enough to fulfil the residency requirements.
On election day, a mob of drunken Orangemen "ransacked the St. Boniface polling station and burned the poll book" and "fought a group of unarmed Métis with wooden wheel spokes," a Manitoba Historical Society piece on Cornish explains.
When the mob returned to Winnipeg, Cornish, standing atop a wagon on Main Street, railed against various officials. This included police Chief Louis Frasse de Plainval, who he called a "toad-licking communist."
John Christian Schultz, a member of the House of Commons of Canada at the time and later the fifth lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, described in a letter that the Cornish-led Orangemen laid a beatdown on the police.
"In the twinkling of an eye, the carbines were wrested from the police and they were rapped over the head with them. The police were then reinforced and proceeded to attack the crowd, but they were at once disarmed of their batons and they themselves thrust in the police station downstairs and locked up. In this scrimmage, Plainval got badly beaten about the head and ran like a lamplighter. Word was sent then to the governor and... he ordered the troops down to quell the mob and preserve the peace (until) the result of the poll was declared."
The group later ransacked three local newspaper offices, but left the one that shared Cornish’s views unscathed, Goldsborough explains.
That whole scene vexed Sir John A. MacDonald — whose Conservative party retained power — so much that MacDonald asked the lieutenant-governor to indict Cornish. Cornish and a friend responded by attempting to burn an effigy of the prime minister in the street.
"His friend stood on an empty whiskey barrel to make a speech and spectators noted that there was more whiskey above the barrel than there ever was inside it," John Christian Schultz quipped in an 1873 letter.
For those who shared Cornish’s views, he was a powerful ally. Of his beliefs that French and Métis people were below him, Goldsborough says: "I don’t think he saw a role for the Indigenous residents of Manitoba, people who had been born here. I don’t think he considered them to be as legitimate."
Cornish thought that "he was a Canadian, he came from Eastern Canada and was civilized and educated compared to the uncouth and uneducated people here in Manitoba," Goldsborough says. "I think he thought he came from a civilized part of Canada, that he was a trained lawyer and therefore, almost by default, was a member of the elite and should lead — that it was his God-given right to lead."
A few years after Orangeman Thomas Scott was executed by Riel on March 4, 1870, Cornish collaborated with attorney general Henry Joseph Hynes Clark — who he’d had several legal battles with — to arrange for the arrest of Métis military leader Ambroise-Dydime Lépine, who had overseen Scott’s "trial."
Scott had no defence counsel and wasn’t present for much of the proceedings. Even if he’d have been there, he wouldn’t have understood them as they were conducted in French with Riel translating, the Free Press’ Tom Brodbeck wrote earlier this year.
It undoubtedly angered Cornish that Scott — an Irish-born Protestant — was executed for what weren’t even capital crimes, and was convicted by a French Catholic, no less. Lépine was arrested, jailed, and "nearly lynched by a violent mob," and Cornish collected part of the reward offered by the Ontario government for Lépine’s arrest.
Cornish later assisted prosecutor Stuart Macdonald in the trial against Lépine, the result of which was a death sentence (the sentence was later commuted to five years of exile.)
In 1873, Cornish began pushing for the incorporation of the City of Winnipeg, and was successful in doing so. But once again, his motives weren’t entirely pure.
"(His motivation) would be to cement the political hierarchy that he hoped to be a member of, I suppose," Goldsborough says. "I think he was all about power and solidifying power for the English-speaking people of the settlement. So by incorporating as a formal municipal government, he felt that this would give the people who were members of that government more power to enact whatever policies they wanted.
"The fact he became the city’s first mayor speaks quite a lot to that."
That first mayoral election took place on Jan. 5, 1874, but wasn’t completely above board or well-monitored.
Cornish defeated William F. Luxton 383 votes to 179, despite there only being 382 actual eligible voters in the city. Cornish exploited a loophole in the election law that allowed a property owner to vote once per property owned.
"It will be seen by this that there were a large number of repeating votes cast," Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey wrote in the 1879 book entitled 10 Years in Winnipeg, which the authors described as "not… a literary effort, but as a rough unvarnished statement of historical events."
"Luxton contended that Cornish’s actual majority was 34."
"These two gentlemen abused each other to their hearts’ content" during the race for the mayoralty, Begg and Nursey wrote.
During the campaign, Cornish got out the repeated vote partly by offering an incentive to those with the clout to influence the male property owners: their wives, of course.
"He offered the local women a goose if they could talk their husbands into voting for him," Goldsborough says.
Cornish’s biggest impact on Winnipeg, other than seeing it established as a bona fide city, was the enactment of a bylaw that allowed for the beginning of municipal services.
His tenure as mayor didn’t last long, though: he became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba in December of the same year, representing Poplar Point. He paid little attention to his civic re-election campaign and lost to William Kennedy, first commander of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, 218 to 164.
However, that wasn’t before throwing a grand dinner for aldermen and city officials at the Grand Central Hotel. "Cornish knew how to do things handsomely," Begg and Nursey wrote.
Cornish returned to Winnipeg politics as an alderman in 1878, and was planning to run for re-election in Poplar Point, but died in the evening of Nov. 28, 1878, of stomach cancer at the age of 47.
"The announcement of his death was almost daily expected for some time past," his obituary notes. "Mr. Cornish gathered around him a large circle of friends who will regret to hear of his being cut off in the prime of his life."
"Winnipeg, in his demise, lost one of her ablest lawyers and politicians," Begg and Nursey wrote.
A plaque that accompanies his Brookside cemetery monument reads: "The man known as ‘King’ not only practice coercion and corruption but he did it with great humility. Cornish was an eccentric man whose antics often overshadowed his intelligence and brilliance… his death was mourned by friend and foe."
Goldsborough doesn’t completely agree with that assessment.
"I don’t think I would agree with ‘great humility.’ I don’t think humbleness was part of his nature. In fact, just the opposite. I would say ‘extreme flamboyance…’ I certainly wouldn’t describe him as a humble man."
One question arises in light of Cornish’s bigoted views and unscrupulous nature: how do we as a society recognize impactful figures such as he without glorifying them?
"That’s the same sort of difficulty we have with many historical figures: they’re conflicted personalities, they have both laudatory aspects of their personality and they’ve got really horrible aspects and things they’ve done," Goldsborough says.
"I really hate the word ‘celebrate,’" Goldsborough continues. "That implies that you laud someone, that you think they’re good. I prefer the word ‘commemorate,’ because it simply means ‘to keep in memory’ and to weigh the good with the bad, to recognize that some of these people did good things, they did bad things and that’s no different than any of us, I suppose. Most people alive today aren’t wholly good or wholly bad."
Cornish’s involvement in incorporating Winnipeg was a good thing in the greater picture — and although it may be simply a case of the public interest coincidentally aligning with Cornish’s own— and for that, he’s memorable.
"People can be memorable for a lot of reasons. They can be memorable because they’ve done wonderful things in their lives and they’re really a truly good person, but they can also be memorable because they were just horrible and they’ve done awful things," Goldsborough says. "Frank Cornish: was he good? Was he bad? I’d say, well, probably in the overall spectrum, more bad than good, but there were aspects of him that were good too."
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