Manitoba (1870)

Map: Canada, 1870

Map: Canada, 1870
© Natural Resources Canada


Territorial Development

At the time of Confederation in 1867, the Hudson's Bay Company was still developing the territories of Western Canada, by virtue of its charter.

To maintain its monopoly over the fur trade, it created policies aimed at limiting the number of white settlers who could settle in the region. However, as of 1812, European immigrants settled in the territory of Manitoba. In fact, the Selkirk concession occupied a small territory, in what is now southern Manitoba and northern North Dakota.

During the next 60 years, the development of that region followed the rhythm of the fur trade. Aboriginal people and Europeans tried to cohabitate peacefully. The Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company in turn established trading posts, and the Métis population, which was growing steadily, became involved in the fur trade.

On what used to be the Selkirk concession developed what became known as the Red River colony. There, a heterogeneous population of Métis, Francophones mainly from Quebec (Lower Canada, then Canada East) and Anglophones mainly from Ontario (Upper Canada and Canada West) settled.

The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 included a section on "Homestead rights or Free grant lands." That section greatly favoured the arrival of new settlers in the region. The act allowed heads of families older than 21 years of age to occupy land, which they had to cultivate and on which they had to build a residence, all within three years of their arrival. After those three years, they became the owners of the land. The act was amended in 1879 thus allowing heads of families over 18 years of age to benefit from these provisions.



The majority of people who immigrated to Manitoba during the 1870 and 1880 decades were from Ontario. The new arrivals obviously devoted themselves to agriculture, but also established businesses. They became politicians, lawyers, notaries public and doctors. These people arrived in Manitoba with, at most, some members of their immediate families.

Between 1871 and 1881, the population of Winnipeg increased from 1,000 to 9,000 inhabitants. In 1891, it had more than 27,000 inhabitants. The 1881 Census of Canada ranked it in 19th place for cities with more than 5,000 inhabitants.

From 1881 to 1891, the population of the Canadian Prairies increased from 118,000 to 251,000 and was located mainly in southern Manitoba. In 1901, the region of Winnipeg had almost 45,000 inhabitants.


Economy and Urban Development

Urban development in Winnipeg was closely linked to the arrival of the railroad. When the Pembina line of the Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company (later the Canadian Northern Railway) was inaugurated in 1878, cities such as Selkirk, Emerson and Winnipeg expanded rapidly. Winnipeg also lobbied to obtain the passageway of the new Canadian Pacific, which created a real boom for its development.

Process and Issues

Before beginning negotiations with the Hudson's Bay Company regarding the transfer of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory, the Canadian government sent surveyors to the Red River valley in order to notify the Métis population of the Government of Canada's intention to buy the lands in the region.

The Métis reacted strongly to the lack of consultation. In October 1869 they chose a leader, Louis Riel, who organized the Comité national des Métis.

William McDougall, the new lieutenant-governor of what would henceforth be known as the Northwest Territories, was sent to announce to the Red River settlers that the Government of Canada had just bought part of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company. Ottawa decided, however, to delay the official possession of the lands and its announcement until the issue of the Métis dissatisfaction was resolved. McDougall, already en route to the Red River colony, was not aware of the decision made by the federal government. In order to go to the Red River, he had to travel through the United States. When he reached the border on October 31, 1869, the Métis were there and refused to let him cross. They wanted to prevent the annexation of the territory by the Government of Canada and thus make their rights known.

On November 3, 1869, Riel and his men took possession of Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg), which was then the property of the Hudson's Bay Company. On December 8, they formed a provisional government, which took care of business in the region and replaced the administration of the Company until an agreement was reached with Ottawa.

The Métis were not against the idea of being part of Canadian Confederation. However, they were very displeased with the fact that Ottawa decided to proceed with the purchase of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory without consulting them. The negotiations regarding the sale of those territories were, above all else, a matter between Canada, Great Britain and the Hudson's Bay Company. Canada wanted to establish its rights over the territory to the west of Ontario in order to counter the expansionist aims of the United States. Great Britain hoped to avoid a possible armed confrontation with the United States, wanted to find a way to manage the gold rush underway in British Columbia and questioned the validity of renewing the Hudson's Bay Company's charter. Great Britain also had to provide for the political organization of the territories. The Hudson's Bay Company, for its part, actively participated in negotiations, since they mainly concerned its territory.

As for the Government of Canada, it was not against the idea of granting the Métis of the Red River valley the power to govern the colony, but it wanted to do so only after assuming possession of the disputed territory.


At the end of 1869, Riel and the Métis drafted a first "List of Rights" which expressed their claims. The text and its subsequent versions did not constitute a declaration of independence: in creating the provisional government, the Métis took an oath before the Queen. These lists were the basis of negotiation between the Métis and the federal government. The lists became more and more refined, and the Métis representatives became more and more demanding. Armed with the fourth version of that list, representatives of the provisional government negotiated the entry of Manitoba into Confederation.

In January 1870, the federal government sent two mediators to meet with the Métis and the provisional government: Reverend J. B. Thibault and Colonel Charles de Salaberry. Their role was to explain the wishes of the federal government to the Métis in the Red River colony, but they did not succeed in accomplishing their mission. The provisional government did not agree to receive delegates who did not have the mandate to negotiate on behalf of the federal government. Instead, Thibault and Salaberry were "politely imprisoned" in the palace of the Bishop of St. Boniface. When Prime Minister Macdonald learned that the mediators' mission was a failure, he convinced the Hudson's Bay Company to send its own emissaries in order to resolve the deadlock. Macdonald, discouraged by the turn of events and having postponed the official possession of the new territory, thus forced the Company to act in order to bring peace back to the Red River colony. Donald A. Smith was the representative chosen by the Hudson's Bay Company to meet with Riel and try to remove him from power. Although Smith failed in his mission, he did succeed in making the Métis council elect delegates who would go to Ottawa to apprise the federal government of their positions and their claims. The Métis then drafted a second "List of Rights" which they took with them to Ottawa.

While the negotiations for the entry of Manitoba into Canadian confederation were in full swing, the execution of Thomas Scott marked the end of Riel's prestige. He had to seek exile in the United States. That event also marked the sending of mainly British soldiers to the territory. For some time, Prime Minister Macdonald had been planning to send armed reinforcements to restore order. Preferring to wait and see if a peaceful settlement could be reached, he postponed the date for sending the troops. The execution of Thomas Scott, however, which triggered a strong reaction from the Orangemen in Ontario, forced the prime minister to take action.

At the end of March 1870, the Métis delegates left for Ottawa armed with a third "List of Rights". They added the following demands to this list: that Manitoba be admitted into Confederation as a province and not as a territory, that the lieutenant-governor inevitably be bilingual and that indemnity be granted to all those who participated in the establishment of the provisional government.

A fourth "List of Rights" was drafted, probably at the request of Bishop Taché. This time, the establishment of denominational schools and the granting of a political organization similar to that of Quebec -- the establishment of an Upper House and a Legislative Assembly -- were now part of the demands. The fourth "List of Rights" was taken to Ottawa by Judge John Black, Reverend N.-J. Ritchot, and Alfred H. Scott. Upon their arrival in Ottawa, the three were arrested due to an accusation by Hugh Scott, brother of Thomas Scott. Ritchot and Alfred H. Scott were "imprisoned" in the episcopal palace of the Bishop of Ottawa and released on April 23, 1870, after a short trial where the Government of Canada ensured their defence.

The meeting between Macdonald, Cartier and the three "Manitoban" representatives was carried out under specific conditions. Black, Ritchot and Alfred H. Scott appointed themselves to be the representatives of the provisional government established by Riel in Upper Fort Garry. Prime Minister Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant refused to meet with the representatives of a provisional government that, according to them, was illegal. The two groups finally reached a compromise: Black, Ritchot and Alfred H. Scott agreed to be considered as the representatives of the Northwest population. As for Ritchot, he insisted that a letter emphasizing the meeting between the Canadian representatives and the "Manitoban" representatives be delivered to them, as citizens. The two parties were satisfied and negotiations began on April 25, 1870, and lasted until May 2.

Most of the Métis' demands were met. Manitoba would henceforth have responsible government, provincial status, bilingual institutions, denominational schools and a property rights guarantee for Aboriginal lands.

An agreement was reached, and Manitoba became the fifth Canadian province. On May 12, 1870, the Manitoba Act received Royal Assent and was enacted on July 15, 1870.

At that time, Manitoba was a tiny province with a surface area of a little more than 160 square km. While the Métis obtained most of their demands, Prime Minister Macdonald succeeded in ensuring that the Canadian Parliament retained control over western Canada, thus, the Crown lands remained the property of the government. In buying Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company, the Canadian Parliament created the North-Western Territories, an immense area over which it retained control of Crown lands and natural resources once again.


  • Bercuson, David ; Palmer, Howard. -- Settling the Canadian West. -- Toronto : Grolier, 1984. -- 95 p.
  • Bowers, Vivien ; Garrod, Stan. -- L'ouest et son histoire. -- Montréal : Trécarré, 1988. -- 432 p.
  • Friesen, Gerald. -- The Canadian Prairies : a history. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1984. -- 524 p.
  • Manitoba : the birth of a province. -- Edited by W. L. Morton. -- [Winnipeg] : Manitoba Record Society, 1984. -- 265 p.
  • Morton, W. L. -- The critical years : The union of British North America. 1857-1873. -- Don Mills : Oxford University Press, 1999. -- 322 p.
  • Voisey, Paul. -- "The urbanization of the Canadian prairies, 1871-1916". -- Histoire Sociale - Social History. -- Vol. VIII, no. 15 (Mai-May 1975). -- P. 75-101
Date modified: