Manitoba owes its name to two controversial characters, Thomas Spence and Louis Riel. If it had not been for them, Manitoba would have been called “Assiniboia” and included in the Northwest Territories.
When the federal government, in 1869, took over the territory that had been governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Louis Riel occupied Fort Garry and established a provisional government. Sir John A. Macdonald sent Donald A. Smith to negotiate with Riel (see my January 19 post) who stipulated that part of the area should be made a province and called Manitoba, not Assiniboia. He got the name Manitoba from Thomas Spence who had created a somewhat comic “Republic of Manitoba” in 1868 (I’ll write more about on May 31).
Delegates from the provincial government were sent to Ottawa, but two of them, Richot and Alfred Scott, were arrested when they arrived. Ottawa was seething over the execution of Thomas Scott. Later, Richot and Scott were released and “received but not recognized” by Prime Minister Macdonald, Joseph Howe, and George Etienne Cartier.
Their discussions led to the Manitoba Act being prepared and passed by Parliament on May 12, 1870. It came into effect on July 15. Manitoba was to be a new province with a legislative council and assembly, a constitution similar to the other provinces, and representation in the federal parliament.
Although Ottawa retained control over “public lands” to be used for railway building and settlement, a land grant of 1,400 million acres was kept in reserve for the children of “half-breed families.” This helped to solve the problem that had started the Riel uprising.
The Manitoba Act also included official use of the French language, and a guarantee of the continuation of educational rights of the various denominations at the time of union. Twenty years later this led to one of the hottest issues in Canadian political history: the Manitoba separate schools question.
When Manitoba became a province, a census was taken which showed its population to be 11,963 of whom 558 were Indians, 5,757 Métis, 4,083 English “half-breeds” and 1,565 whites. Catholics numbered 6,247 and Protestants 5,716.
Manitoba wasn’t nearly as big then as it is now. In relation to surrounding territory, it looked like a postage stamp until 1884 when the boundary was extended north to Hudson Bay.
The Manitoba Act is even more fascinating than what my post explains. So to read more about it, I suggest the Winnipeg Realtors News, a great blog at the Provisional Government of Assiniboia. There’s a timeline of Louis Riel at the Government of Manitoba. Stats Canada has a piece on Census in early Canada. Two more articles worth reading are Solon.org by William F. Maton and the Canadian Encyclopedia.