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Plans to celebrate Manitoba’s 150th birthday this year have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Manitobans can still take time to celebrate the province’s rich history and remember the events – including the struggle for self-determination and the fight to protect Indigenous rights – that led Manitoba to join Confederation.
It was 150 years ago this week that the House of Commons debated the Manitoba Act, a statute that brought the first Prairie province into the constitutional fold. On May 12, Manitobans will celebrate the 150th anniversary of that historical achievement — the day the bill received royal assent in 1870.
Manitoba’s entry into Canada was not an easy journey. The events of 1869-70 — known as the Red River Resistance — occurred during a period when Indigenous rights were virtually non-existent and the notion of responsible government was still in its infancy. It was against that backdrop Canada made its first attempt to settle the West in 1869. Following a backroom deal between Ottawa and the British government to purchase what was then Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada planned to take over the territory Dec. 1 of that year.
It was 150 years ago this week that the House of Commons debated the Manitoba Act, a statute that brought the first prairie province into the constitutional fold.
Without consulting those living in the Red River Settlement — most of whom were of Métis ancestry — the government of John A. Macdonald made arrangements to install a lieutenant-governor and a federally-appointed council to govern the area. No provisions were made to protect the land holdings of local inhabitants, nor their linguistic or cultural rights. For the time being, there would be no elected legislative assembly in the new territory. Provincial status would have to wait until a sufficient number of new settlers from the East moved in.
Unwilling to accept those terms, a growing number of Red River settlers – led by Métis leader Louis Riel – took up arms and resisted what they saw as a takeover of their land. After preventing lieutenant-governor designate William McDougall from entering the settlement (and following the establishment of a provisional government), they demanded to negotiate with Canada. Red River residents were not opposed to joining the new Dominion; they simply wanted the same democratic and land rights other Canadians already enjoyed. That was the essence of the resistance.
Following a winter of internal conflict in the settlement (which included the execution of Thomas Scott), three delegates were chosen to travel to Ottawa — at the invitation of the federal government — to negotiate Red River’s entry into Canada.
It was there Red River residents – soon to be Manitobans – secured the democratic, linguistic and land rights they sought, including full provincial status and an elected legislative assembly. Land holdings would be recognized and Métis families would be eligible for 1.4 million acres of land grants. Those and other provisions were contained in the Manitoba Act, a constitutional amendment introduced in the House of Commons May 2, 1870 and debated over a period of 10 days. The act was proclaimed into law on July 15.
The birth of Manitoba was marked by a struggle for democracy and the recognition of Indigenous rights. The rights of Manitoba’s Indigenous people continued to be under attack for many decades after 1870, and still are today. But Manitoba’s entry into Confederation was the beginning of the fight to improve those rights. The efforts and vision of those who fought for them 150 years ago are worth remembering and honouring.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
Updated on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at 8:11 PM CDT: Fixes typos.
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