Historiography and the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia

The Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia/ conseil du governement provisoire formed during the Red River Resistance and functioned from 9 March to 24 June 1870. Early historiographical accounts, including the reminiscences of eyewitnesses to the events of 1869–1870, sometimes mention a ‘council’ of the Provisional Government, but do not refer to any legislative function.[1]

[1] On the function of a legislature see “Definition: Legislative Assembly“, “Bills passed by the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia“, and “Laws of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia,” this site.

Note that the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia was not a continuation of, or co-extensive with the The Convention of Forty/ La Grande Convention — though it was formed out of deliberations of that body.

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For instances of elision see:

  • Roderick George MacBeth, The Making of the Canadian West: being the reminiscences of an eye-witness, 2d ed. (Toronto: William Briggs, 1905), 86-87, who completely misses the Legislative Assembly’s existence;
  • Alfred C. Garrioch, First Furrows: A History of the Early Settlement of the Red River Country, Including that of Portage la Prairie (Winnipeg: Stovel Company, 1923), 240, makes a brief and obscure mention;
  • W.L. Morton, ed., Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal: and other papers relative to the Red River Resistance of 1869-1870 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), 2, acknowledges self-government was a test of the civilized nature of Red River Settlement that “in no forced sense” it met, but does not clearly describe the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.

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The existence of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia was acknowledged briefly in 1983, by then Deputy Clerk of the Manitoba Legislature, Gordon Mackintosh.[2] He appears to have relied on general sources for some assertions that belie the Assembly’s composition, sophistication and accomplishments. For example Mackintosh states there were twenty-four members of the legislature, who “passed several laws.” In fact, there were twenty-eight members, who passed an entire law code and four bills — five if the Bill of Rights is counted — and were slated to pass another when ratification of the Manitoba Act intervened.

Bannatyne house

“Residence of Hon. A.G.B. Bannatyne.” Source: Thomas Dowse, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories: The Real New Northwest, revised 10th ed. (St. Paul MN: 1879), 28.

In addition, Mackintosh mistakenly describes the first Legislative Assembly of Manitoba (1871-1874) as convening “in a rented log house.” Actually, that assembly (the second legislature in the North-West) met at the newly built, impressive, large home of Anne ‘Annie’ McDermot and her husband, A.G.B. Bannatyne, formerly an honourable member of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. Mackintosh also states that the members of the Manitoba legislature used “a wooden Mace, made of an oxcart hub and a flag pole” and attended the assembly dressed “in open-necked flannel shirts” — attire that is wholly unlikely (people in early Manitoba had ‘Sunday-best’ clothing, and their leaders were sophisticated folk, not ‘country bumpkins’).

[2] Gordon H.A. Macintosh, “The Parliamentary Tradition in Manitoba,” Canadian Parliamentary Review (summer 1983), 1–11.

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Other histories of the same decade (1980s) did not enquire further. See for example:

  • Raymond Huel, ed., The Collected Writings of Louis Riel/ Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel, vol. 1 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985), 62 n.1, who, after citing “Minutes of the Proceedings of the Legislature of Rupert’s Land, Wed. March 9th, 1870,” offers only that “Despite the title ‘The Legislature of Rupert’s Land,’ this body was the Council of the Provisional Government created on 10 February 1870”;
  • Thomas Flanagan, ed., “Chronology,” Collected Writings of Louis Riel, vol. 5, 78-80, does not clearly identify “The Assembly of the Provisional Government” as a legislative body within the government.

Some histories read as though the Legislative Assembly did not exist.

For instances of denial see:

  • F.A. Milligan, “The Establishment of Manitoba’s First Provincial Government,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, ser. 3 (1948 – 1949 Season), online version, http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/provincialgovernment.shtml, who observes that prior to the creation of Manitoba, “There was, of course, no legislature” [in fact, in addition to the representative (elected) Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, there had also been the unrepresentative (appointed) HBC Governor and Council of Assiniboia, which legislated for the settlement];
  • and Nelson Wiseman, “The Questionable Relevance of the Constitution in Advancing Minority Cultural Rights in Manitoba,” Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de politique 25, no 4 (December 1992): 703 n. 23, who finds it “amusing” that anyone would cite the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, “– a body that never existed.”

More recently, authors have begun to incorporate the legislature into political histories.

  • Emily Katharine Grafton, “The Manitoba Legislative Assembly,” paper, Canadian Study of Parliament Group: Studies of Provincial and Territorial Legislatures (n.d.), 4, online version, http://www.studyparliament.ca/English/index_en.htm, accurately acknowledges the formation of the Assembly of Assiniboia, but does not clearly distinguish it from the first Legislative Assembly of Manitoba.

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Mackintosh is not alone in mistaking details about the Assembly. For example, aside from Norma Hall, Clifford P. Hall, and Erin Verrier, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia/ le Conseil du Gouvernement Provisoire (2010),[3] none of the authors of works touching on the Legislative Assembly of Assinibioa, prior to 2011, seem aware that there were twenty-eight elected representatives — not twenty-four. Yet, Louis Riel, President of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia, noted the number of representatives when speaking before the Assembly on 7 May 1870. He commented, “We are here twenty-eight representatives of the people.”[4] And, Louis Schmidt, formerly an honourable member of the Assembly, reiterated the point in his memoirs (c.1911). He noted, “Cette assemblé, composé de vingt-huit représentants, tant anglais que français.”[5]

[3] Norma Hall, with Clifford P. Hall, and Erin Verrier, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia/ le Conseil du Gouvernement Provisoire (Winnipeg:  Manitoba, Department of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, 2010), 6.

[4] Louis Riel, quoted in transcript of the Debates of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, “Session 2, Day 11: 7 May,” this site.

[5] Louis Schmidt, typescript, “Les Memoirs de Louis Schmidt,” 1911-1912, Archives of Manitoba, MG9 A31, Louis Schmidt Papers. Available online from University of Saskatchewan Libraries Special Collections, Morton Manuscripts Collection, MSS-C550-2-3-20, http://scaa.sk.ca/ourlegacy/permalink/25702, 84,

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It is hard to imagine how generations historians could manage to ‘lose’ a legislature for 140 years. Then there is the question of why they would do so.[6] It is to be hoped that future historiography will correct the oversight, and — perhaps taking a cue from political scientist, Edmund A. Aunger of the University of Alberta[7] — it might be that historians in Canada will engage enough to posit some answers.

[6] My preliminary hypothesis: the ‘forgetting’ in many early histories might be attributed to the fact that Canada, as a country and a nation, was in the process of being constructed geographically and socially as a politically distinct state (rather than an entirely dependent colony). For a good part of Canada’s first century, much of the ‘history’ that was written would today qualify to be classified as ‘heritage’ stories (very much at the myth-history end of the historiographical spectrum): historians, who sought to contribute to nation building, concentrated on developing a ‘grand narrative’ that celebrated Canada as an ‘Anglo Saxon’ (or ‘European’ or ‘white’) accomplishment. The theory was that such a story would inspire everyone who lived in Canada to adopt the precepts of an ‘Anglo Saxon’ ideal — if they could not ‘be’ the ideal they would at least accept it as the model of superior behaviour. Later historians, who relied on early histories (as secondary sources), perhaps assumed that if no mention of a legislative assembly occurred, then it had not existed. See “Sorting History, the Past, and Heritage,” and “Historiography and Red River Settlement,” this site.

[7] Aunger, “Justifying the End of Official Bilingualism,” 451-486.

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Published: 1 December 2012

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