The Convention of Forty/ La Grande Convention


The Convention of Forty arose out of earlier political gatherings in Red River Settlement. From the autumn of 1869 to January 1870, numerous meetings had taken place during which settlers debated how best to ensure that their rights and land holdings would be respected with the anticipated transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. On the eighteenth and nineteenth of January, at a public meeting held outdoors at Upper Fort Garry, a commissioner from Canada, Donald A. Smith, communicated his understanding of Canada’s intention with respect to the Red River Settlement and to settlers and their existing privileges and rights. At the end of the meeting Louis Riel proposed a motion, seconded by A.G.B. Bannatyne, “that 20 representatives shall be elected by the English population of Red River to meet 20 other representatives of the French population” to decide how to proceed in light of Smith’s assurances.[1] The motion carried. Representatives were elected in the parishes of the settlement to convene in the grande salle at Upper Fort Garry on 25 January. The debates of the Convention of Forty/La Grande Convention extended through to 10 February.[2]

Approach to Transcribing the Debates of the Convention:

The debates took place prior to the institution of The Debates (a.k.a. Hansard) in Manitoba. I have therefore reconstituted them from two sources. The first source is a collection of papers preserved in the Archives of Manitoba among the Red River Rebellion Records.[3] The collection, penned by Thomas Bunn, the elected representative of the parish of St. Clement’s from November 1869, includes the minutes of the convention from 26 January to 9 February 1870. The second source, covering the final day of the convention, is the New Nation newspaper, which published non-verbatim accounts of legislative proceedings recorded by William Coldwell, reporter for the paper and secretary of the proceedings. Neither source contains a complete record of the convention, nor should the texts be taken as absolutely accurate representations of what was said. Newspaper men such as Coldwell were practiced at reporting the substance of speeches and though their accounts might contain a great deal of verbatim material, much might also have been condensed or, in some instances, ignored. Both Bunn and Coldwell recorded what they personally considered to be most interesting or important. It is reasonable to assume that, at best, as little as one third of the actual words spoken may have been preserved.[4]

Although the existence of a French-language record is probable, to date I have found none. Bunn, who is classed among the English-speaking settlers of Red River, also spoke and wrote French. His minutes of the debates were written in English, however, as was Coldwell’s account. It is not clear whether Coldwell spoke French. The New Nation cautioned that:

In giving to our readers a report of the doings of the Convention, we have endeavoured to present them in a full and complete a form as possible. Much of the debate, however, required translation, either into English or French, and thus lost force and point. President Riel’s argument we especially point out as losing, by translation, both vigor and completeness.[5]

It is possible that there were remarks, jokes, or even extended discussions out of which a French-language reporter might have made more. The same observation might apply to remarks made in Aboriginal languages.

Of the two documentary sources, Coldwell’s reports are the more comprehensive. For the purpose of this transcription, Bunn’s minutes were used primarily to confirm the order of proceedings and to correct typographical errors attributable to the printing process. (Type was set backwards, letter by letter, punctuation mark and space, in small blocks at a time. The blocks were then assembled in a galley. Occasionally, despite proof reading, punctuation might be odd, a line of text might be missed, or a paragraph misplaced).

The process of reconstituting the debates out of two document sources, one printed and one handwritten, necessarily meant making editorial decisions to ensure internal cohesion, establish some consistency, and enhance readability. The end product cannot be considered a literal transcript of either source, though editing was minimal. The most obvious change is in the formatting. Conventions that are standard in early (and similarly reconstituted) sessional journals of Manitoba and Canada were followed. Thus, uniform headings were applied and the names of speakers who had the floor were set in bold type. For the most part, idiosyncratic spelling (including variations of surname spellings), punctuation, and capitalization have been preserved (absent accents, for example, are in keeping with the sources – thus Taché appears as Tache). Nevertheless, there are instances where editorial intrusions were made. These were limited to correcting what appear to be unintentional spelling errors; inserting a comma or a full stop at the end of a line or paragraph; and writing out in full abbreviations that occurred only occasionally – such as ampersands, numerical values, given names, or titles. Where an omission is obvious, missing words have been inserted in square brackets. Where words are illegible, possibilities have likewise been suggested in square brackets.  Overall, my goal was to preserve the integrity of the sources and leave the original authors’ choice of wording alone – whether their communication was clear or obscure. Footnotes indicate the location of the originals on which the transcription is based to aid in referencing a primary document if absolute accuracy is required.

Debate Transcripts:

[1] “Convention at Fort Garry, English and French Delegates in Council. Mr. Smith’s Commission, Bill of Rights,” New Nation (28 January 1870), 2. See also Alexander Begg, The Creation of Manitoba; Or, a History of the Red River Troubles (Toronto: A.H. Hovey, 1871), 238.

[2] See Norma Hall, with Clifford P. Hall, and Erin Verrier, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia/le Consiel du Government Provisiore (Winnipeg: Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Government of Manitoba, 2010).

[3] Hudson’s Bay Company Archives [HBCA], E.9/1, Red River Rebellion Records, 5–22.

[4] P.B. Waite, “Introduction,” House of Commons Debates [1870] vol. 3 (Ottawa : Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1979),  vii.

[5] Editorial note, New Nation (25 February 1870), 2.


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