Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Manitoba became a Canadian province in 1870. Its origins were intimately connected to the fate of First Peoples. Aboriginal title to the lands now constituting much of Manitoba were extinguished by treaties in the 1870s. First Peoples, primarily Crees and Ojibwas, were removed to distant reserves, where they continued to be ruled in colonial fashion by Indian agents until well into the twentieth century. The Red River Métis, people of mixed Aboriginal and European heritage who had founded a distinctive culture at the forks of the Red and Assisiboine Rivers, were similarly dispossessed. The Métis had fought in the Red River Resistance of 1869–70 to protect their rights to the land from a threatened Canadian takeover. Under the leadership of Louis Riel they formed a provisional government whose agents entered into negotiations with Canada, which led to the establishment of the province of Manitoba through the Manitoba Act of July 15, 1870. But the rights that the largely Frenchspeaking Métis believed they had secured in the Manitoba Act were extinguished throughout the 1870s and 1880s, leading to their dispossession and dispersal.

In their wake, settlers of British origin, many migrating westward from Ontario, arrived in the 1870s and 1880s to occupy the rich agricultural land of southern Manitoba. Mennonites and Icelanders also settled in Manitoba in the 1870s, but essentially Manitoba became culturally and economically an extension of English-speaking Ontario.

In 1896 the great wheat and railway boom took off, creating the economic foundations of twentieth-century Manitoba. The boom was fueled by the massive inflow of eastern European immigrants, who farmed the lessfertile and more northerly lands not occupied by immigrants of British descent, and who formed the core of the labor force that turned Winnipeg into a major manufacturing and distribution center with a hinterland that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. For a short but dramatic period, Winnipeg became the "Chicago of the North."

By 1914 the boom was over. The best prairie land was occupied, most of the railways were built, and the insatiable demand for new supplies and infrastructure was largely filled. The dynamic for growth was exhausted. The shape of Manitoba's economy–a wheat and railway center with significant manufacturing, wholesaling, and financial strength at the hub of an east–west economy–was largely determined for the next fifty years.

A seminal event in shaping Manitoba's politics soon followed in the form of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Winnipeg was a city divided: an aggressive and successful business class of British origins lived in the comfortable south end of the city, and a working class disproportionately comprised of eastern European immigrants was jammed into the teeming, poverty-stricken, multilingual North End. The result was the dramatic, six-week-long General Strike in 1919. Winnipeg's powerful business class responded with a nonpartisan coalition-building strategy intended to ameliorate the class conflict that, as the General Strike made clear, was at the heart of Manitoba's politics. The resulting rurally based coalition governments were successful in governing post–General Strike Manitoba from 1922 to 1958.

In 1958 a Conservative government was elected that finally broke with the fiscally conservative pattern of the previous forty years. Premier Duff Roblin adopted a strategy of public spending to modernize what had become an economically stagnant province. The moderately social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), elected in 1969, continued Roblin's "Keynesian welfare state" strategy and, with the exception of a hiatus from 1977 to 1981, stayed in office from 1969 to 1988.

The Conservatives under Gary Filmon were reelected in 1988 and served until 1999. Breaking with the economic pattern of the preceding thirty years, they have adopted an economic strategy substantially different from their ndp and Conservative predecessors. one consistent with the neoliberal temper of the times. Their strategy is based on reductions in taxes and public spending to improve the business climate and to attract capital from outside the province, and on increased exports to the United States consistent with the Canada-U.S. and the North American Free Trade Agreements.

As a consequence, Manitoba's economy has been rotated on its axis from an east–west to a north–south orientation. The province's historic role as the hub of a pan-Canadian, east–west economy–the "gateway to the west"–has disappeared, replaced by the attempt to create a new role as an export platform at the north end of a midcontinental trade corridor. Manitoba now seeks to become the "gateway to the south."

See also INDUSTRY: NAFTA / NATIVE AMERICANS: Métis / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Winnipeg General Strike / WAR: Red River Resistance.

Jim Silver University of Winnipeg

Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Morton, William Lewis. Manitoba: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Silver, Jim, and Jeremy Hull, eds. The Political Economy of Manitoba. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1990.

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