Some of Canada's provinces were acquired by adoption. On others the status was conferred after a rigorously supervised apprenticeship. Manitoba was simply conjured into being.
From its creation the province of Manitoba has regularly been at the centre of many of the key debates in Canadian history. When Louis Riel, at the head of a small Métis army, took over Upper Fort Garry in 1869, he led a movement that championed the political rights of Westerners, the land claims of people of Aboriginal ancestry, the linguistic rights of Francophones, and the educational rights of Roman Catholics. The provisional government led by Riel succeeded in resisting Ottawa’s attempt to turn Red River into a simple colony of the federal government, but many of these issues remained unresolved. Indeed, in one form or another, these remain as some of the hardy perennials of Canadian history.
The settling of the Prairies in the following years is part of one of the great stories of pioneering and immigration, as people from all parts of Europe came to a make a new life for themselves in the Canadian west. The age of settlement has also left us with a mixed legacy: the meaning of the treaties signed with First Nations remains ambiguous, while an agricultural economy based largely on a single crop has left the rural economy vulnerable to natural and economic disaster. A national economic strategy that required westerners to buy manufactured goods in a protected national market and sell their products in a free international market introduced a distrust of Eastern Canada: one hundred years later the politics of freight rates remained a hot topic on the Prairies.
Manitoba found itself at the centre of a national controversy in the 1890s when the provincial government stopped providing financial support to Roman Catholic schools and stripped French of its provincial official language status. In large measure, these changes were consequences of the way that immigration had remade Manitoba society: a province whose residents were once largely of Aboriginal ancestry and divided evenly between English and French speakers, was now dominated by English-speaking Protestants. To many of the newcomers, the new laws were little more than democracy in action, as the majority shaped the province in its own image. To the people of Quebec and Roman Catholics across the country it was a betrayal of a compromise that lay at the basis of the Canadian confederation and an indication that Francophones had no home outside Québec. Temporarily ended in 1897, the Manitoba Schools Question and the issues associated with it has proven to be a very open-ended question, bedeviling politicians in the 1960s and 1970s, and nearly bringing down a government in the 1980s.
As Manitoba industrialized and slowly urbanized in the early twentieth century, the problems associated with urban life gave rise to an active social reform movement. Based in organizations such as the Protestant churches, the labour movement and the rural women’s institutes this at times disparate movement sought to purify society through campaigns to ban the bar, give women the vote, make factories safer, make education compulsory, bring a supply of clean water to Winnipeg, and reform politics. The strength of this movement can be seen in the fact that it was in Manitoba that the suffrage movement won its first major victory when women were granted the vote in 1916. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw Manitobans respond enthusiastically to the call to enlist and contribute to the fund that was used to support soldiers’ families. The war created a stronger sense of Canadian identity, but it also highlighted a narrow-minded and controlling side of the now dominant reform movement in Manitoba and Canada. The province’s twenty year experiment in multilingual education was abandoned; immigrants from Eastern European countries were subject to internment without trial, and radical political parties were outlawed. Manitobans, along with other western Canadians not only enlisted in disproportionately large numbers, they voted in overwhelmingly large numbers for the Union Government and its plan to introduce conscription in 1917. This wartime unity did not last. Less than a year after the end of the war, Winnipeg workers and employers were locked in a bitter struggle. Over 30,000 workers walked off the job for six weeks in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Part of a larger national wave of post-war labour unrest, the Winnipeg strike was sparked when local employers refused to negotiate with the building and metal trade unions. All but one of the city’s unions decided to go on strike, not for immediate benefits for their own members, but in sympathy with the building and metal trades workers. The strike did not end until the leaders had been arrested and the police and military used to break up a protest demonstration. Along with regional dissatisfaction, ethnic and religious tensions, class conflict had become another piece of unfinished business, a legacy of the province’s tumultuous first fifty years of history.