Manitoba: Kwaata-nihtaawakihk—A Hard Birth

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By William Benoit

The year 2020 marks an important year in the history of Canada. One hundred and fifty years have gone by since the 1870 transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada. It is also the year that Manitoba entered Confederation. This was no small feat. There were discussions as to whether the Canadian government would create a province or just keep it as a vast territory.

The Métis would push Canada toward creating the new province.

Painting of a person holding a riding crop above his head, standing on a sleigh being pulled through the snow by a rearing brown horse.

Breaking a Road in Manitoba (e011072986)

Manitoba would be the first addition to the list of four original Canadian provinces: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There was no template to use. Deep, careful and altruistic thinking about the future should have been the order of the day. Instead, for the Métis, what resulted from the experience were feelings of displacement, trauma and resilience. In post-Confederation Manitoba, the position of the Métis deteriorated. New settlers from Ontario were hostile. Métis elders, over generations, described that period as a “Reign of Terror” against the Métis.

Métis Nation Elder Verna DeMontigny recently described the province-building exercise that led to Manitoba as a hard birth, or Kwaata-nihtaawakihk in the Michif language. It was certainly difficult.

The Supreme Court of Canada, in its 2013 decision in Manitoba Metis Federation Inc. v. Canada, provides a detailed narrative of the Métis people, the Red River Settlement, and the conflict that gave rise to the Manitoba Act and Manitoba’s entry into Canada:

The story begins with the Aboriginal peoples who inhabited what is now the province of Manitoba—the Cree and other less populous nations. In the late 17th century, European adventurers and explorers passed through. The lands were claimed nominally by England, which granted the Hudson’s Bay Company […] control over a vast territory called Rupert’s Land, which included modern Manitoba. Aboriginal peoples continued to occupy the territory. In addition to the original First Nations, a new Aboriginal group, the Métis, arose—people descended from early unions between European adventurers and traders, and Aboriginal women. In the early days, the descendants of English-speaking parents were referred to as half-breeds, while those with French roots were called Métis.

On November 19, 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company surrendered Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory under its letters patent to the British Crown. By Order-in-Council dated June 23, 1870, the British government admitted these territories to Canada, under section 146 of the British North America Act, 1867 (now the Constitution Act, 1867), effective July 15, 1870.

It took almost eight months from the Hudson’s Bay Company surrender until the completed land transfer took full effect.

The Canadian government, led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, intended to absorb the territories and open them up to settlement. Before this could happen, Canada would need to deal with the Indigenous peoples who were living in these territories. Under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Canada was duty-bound to treat with the sovereign Indigenous nations to obtain their consent to the Imperial Crown to exercise its sovereignty over them. Written more than a hundred years before, the proclamation’s purpose was to organize and manage the newly expanded British North American territories after the Seven Years’ War. Included in the proclamation were regulations to stabilize relations with Indigenous peoples through the regulation of trade, settlement and land purchases on the frontier.

A drawing of people sitting in a circle around a person standing in the middle who is speaking. There is a building with people sitting and standing on the balcony in the background.

The Manitoba Indian Treaty; a chief lecturing at length at the Stone Fort (the Métis man seated on a chair within the circle may be the translator) (e010967476)

Therefore, for the First Nations, the process would be to enter into treaties, whereby they agreed to settlement of their lands in exchange for reservations of land and other promises. The government policy with respect to the Métis was less clear.

A sepia photograph of a town with buildings on either side of a wide dirt road with wagon tracks.

Main Street, Winnipeg, looking south, 1879; the street’s width was to accommodate the space needed for Red River Carts (e011156541)

Prior to confederation with Canada, white settlers had begun pouring into the Red River, displacing the social and political control of the Métis. This led to resistance and conflict. To settle the conflict and assure annexation of the territory, the Canadian government entered into negotiations with representatives of the Métis-led provisional government. The result was the adoption in 1870 of the Manitoba Act, which made Manitoba a province of Canada.

The Manitoba Act is a constitutional document with many treaty-like characteristics. It enshrines the promises and obligations that Canada has to the Métis people. These promises represent the terms under which the Métis agreed to surrender their claims to govern themselves and their territory, and to become part of Canada. These obligations remain in force today.

The Métis Nation is an internationally recognized Indigenous people. In Canada, it is one of three Indigenous groups with constitutionally entrenched Aboriginal and treaty rights, alongside First Nations (“Indians”) and Inuit (“Eskimos”). The Métis Nation Homeland is a vast area of land in west-central North America. The Métis, as the Founders of Manitoba in 1870 and Canada’s negotiating partners in Confederation, continue to play an important role in Canada’s development.

(In Michif: Li Michif Naasyoon nishtowinikaatew oobor lii piyii pi li moond nishtowiinikasowak li moond autochtone. Daan li Canada si te payyek enn band di moond avek lii dray tretii daan li constitution, aloon bor li Promii Naasyoon pi li Ziskimoo. Li Michif Naasyoon Nataal li piyii mitoni kihchi-mishow, li taryaen daan li sawntrel west Nor America. Lii Michif, koum li fondateur di Manitoba daan li 1870 pi Canada’s naasaasyi-iwow di maashkihtonikaywin daan li Confederation, kiiyapit il li enportaan daan li Canada’s oosishchikeywiin.)


William Benoit is the Advisor for Internal Indigenous Engagement in the Office of the Deputy Librarian and Archivist of Canada at Library and Archives Canada.

Manitoba history and the penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry, 1871–1877

By David Horky

The records documenting the Manitoba Penitentiary’s beginnings at the “Stone Fort” (Lower Fort Garry), from 1871 to 1877, are almost as old as the province of Manitoba itself and are a testament to the turbulent origins of the new province. Many of the records from this early period of the penitentiary, such as the Inmate Admittance Books, Warden’s Order Books and Surgeon’s Daily Letters, held at the Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), are also available online at Canadiana Héritage. There are also various other documents pertaining to the Manitoba Penitentiary held by LAC or other sources, many of which are accessible online. Together, these records supply details about the penitentiary and some of the inmates themselves, providing a fascinating perspective on Manitoba’s early history immediately following its creation in 1870.

The Stone Fort

A black-and-white photograph of a white building with a dark roof behind a fence.

Fur store, interior of Lower or Stone Fort, 1858 (e011156706); this building housed the original Manitoba Penitentiary and Asylum from 1871 to 1877

The Manitoba Penitentiary was established at Lower Fort Garry in 1871, shortly after Manitoba entered Confederation as the Dominion of Canada’s fifth province in 1870. The fort was originally built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1830 on the western bank of the Red River, 32 kilometres north of the original Fort Garry (in present-day Winnipeg), and it served as a trading centre and supply depot for the Red River settlement.

The Stone Fort had previously been the headquarters for the British and Canadian troops under the command of Colonel Garnet J. Wolseley. This military force was sent by the Canadian government in 1870 to establish peace and maintain order following the Métis-led Red River Resistance that ushered in the creation of the province of Manitoba. Ironically, the Canadian troops, particularly those from Ontario, were widely accused of conducting a “Reign of Terror” (English only) of violence and intimidation with impunity against the Métis of the Red River settlement.

When Wolseley and the British troops vacated the fort in 1871, the Canadian troops were relocated to Upper Fort Garry and the Fort Osborne barracks. One of their number, Samuel L. Bedson, a quartermaster sergeant in the 2nd (Quebec) Battalion of Rifles, remained behind to serve as the first warden of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry.

Within the fort, the stone warehouse was converted into a prison for criminals and an asylum for people living with mental illness. Bars were added to all windows and dormers, the western doorway was blocked up, the eastern door was adapted for prison security, a signal mast and ball were added, and palisades were erected.

No ordinary prisoners: Indigenous inmates and Manitoba’s history, 1871–1877

A two-page ledger with handwritten entries.

Inmate Admittance Book, 1871–1885 (T-11089, Image 810; R942-29-1-E, RG73-C-7)

The number of inmates listed on the admittance register for the first couple of years of the Manitoba Penitentiary’s operations was quite small, only seven. In 1871 and 1872, the crimes listed involved horse theft, petty larceny, theft, and breaking and entering. Even at this early date, the inmates had surprisingly diverse origins: a Swede, a few Americans, an Englishman, some Canadians from Ontario, and a few from the Red River settlement itself. Included in this early listing is a person identified in 1874 as a “lunatic”—a harsh term then used to describe someone living with a mental illness. The penitentiary, both here and at its later location at Stony Mountain, served as an asylum for these people until the opening of the provincial asylum in 1886 in Selkirk, Manitoba, which was the first of its kind in Western Canada.

The admittance register recorded the names, convictions and sentences of this initially small number of inmates. However, other sources provide information about the circumstances leading to their imprisonment. In the case of Indigenous prisoners from First Nations and Métis communities incarcerated at the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry, the context of contemporaneous events within the Red River settlement, and more broadly the Northwest Territories, is especially important.

In fact, the very first inmate listed on the admittance register in May 1871 was John Longbones from the Dakota First Nation, sentenced to two years for “assault with intention to maim.” A few years later in 1873, two other men from his community, Pee-ma-ta-kow and Mc-ha-ha, would be sentenced to prison at Lower Fort Garry for larceny and breaking-and-entering respectively.

The small number of First Nations inmates at Lower Fort Garry at this time reflected the fact that they were being punished for breaking the law—and being caught—within an established settler community. Indeed, at the time, the broader applicability of the law of the Dominion of Canada to the outlying regions of the northwest was not recognized by First Nations peoples, nor was there then a means to enforce it.

On the question of extending the laws of the Dominion of Canada to First Nations communities, the Manitoba Penitentiary was to play a significant, if largely symbolic, role. The Canadian government sought to prepare the way for the orderly settlement of the new province of Manitoba and the recently acquired Northwest Territories. With an increasing number of newcomers arriving from Eastern Canada (particularly Ontario) and abroad, the Canadian government attached great importance to negotiating treaties with First Nations as a key element in establishing “peace, order and good government” in the Canadian West.

A typed page from a government report.

Adams G. Archibald, July 29, 1871, Report of the Indian Branch of the Department of the Secretary of State for the Provinces, 1871 (e18710014)

As fate would have it, the first of these treaties took place under the shadow of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry on July 25, 1871, as the topics of law and punishment became central issues in the negotiations. In a report by the Indian Branch dated July 29, 1871, Adams George Archibald, the first Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, describes his meeting with the Chiefs of the Chippewa and Swampy Cree to negotiate the signing of Treaty No. 1. To his astonishment, the Chiefs were unwilling to proceed until first a “cloud was dispersed.” Archibald learned that the Chiefs were troubled by the imprisonment of a number of their brethren at the Manitoba Penitentiary for breach of contract and desertion of service with the Hudson’s Bay Company. In reply to the Chiefs’ demands for their freedom, Archibald insisted, “every offender against the law must be punished.” Nonetheless, given the importance of the treaty to the Canadian government, he assented to their release, not as a matter of law but as a “favour” extended on behalf of the Crown. Negotiations then resumed, and Treaty No. 1 was signed a few days later on August 3, 1871.

At the same time that the Canadian government was initiating treaties with First Nations, there was also growing concern with continued Métis unrest in the Red River settlement. Angered and frustrated with the Reign of Terror perpetrated by the Canadian militia and with the broken promises over the protection of their rights and land, a small number of Métis allied themselves with a group of Fenians operating across the American border at Pembina (in present-day North Dakota). The Fenians were Irish nationalists living in the United States who sought to capture Canadian territory to exchange for Irish independence from British rule.

In October 1871, a few Métis participated in the Fenian-led raid (English only) on a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Emerson, near the American border. Intended as a prelude to a potentially wider incursion on the entire Red River settlement, the raid was foiled by the intervention of the American cavalry from Pembina. Some captured Métis participants were later taken by Canadian officials to Winnipeg for trial for “feloniously and unlawfully levying war against Her Majesty.”

Only one of these Métis, Oiseau Letendre, is among the small number of inmates recorded on the Manitoba Penitentiary admittance register for 1871. Listed as being from Red River, Letendre actually resided across the American border at Pembina. No reason is given for his incarceration, although it clearly shows that he was given a hefty 20-year sentence. A small note subsequently added indicates that he was later released in 1873 by order of the Governor General.

A lined page with handwritten entries. The words “capital case” and the number 1673 are written at the top.

Oiseau Letendre was tried before Mr. Justice Johnson in a capital case at Fort Garry, Manitoba, for levying war on Her Majesty; the sentence was commuted to [imprisonment] for 20 years, 1871–1872 (e002230571)

Records from his capital case file indicate that Letendre was a buffalo hunter and cart driver on the trails that transported goods between Fort Garry and St. Paul. Letendre had numerous family ties to the Red River settlement and the community of Batoche along the South Saskatchewan River. Consequently, Dominion officials were fearful that Letendre’s opposition to the Manitoba government was not an isolated case, so he was made an example and sentenced to hang. In an act of clemency, Letendre’s sentence was commuted to 20 years by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. However, as Letendre claimed American citizenship, substantial diplomatic pressure was exerted by the United States government for his release. Consequently, Letendre was granted a pardon by the Governor General in January 1873 on the condition of his exile from Canada until the expiry of the 20-year sentence.

Shortly after Letendre’s release, there was another and even more high-profile case involving the arrest and trial of a prominent Métis individual who was also incarcerated at the Stone Fort, though briefly. Ambroise Lépine, Louis Riel’s adjutant in the provisional government, was arrested in September 1873 and tried for his involvement in the execution of Thomas Scott during the Red River Resistance in 1870. Ironically, both he and Riel opposed Métis involvement in Fenian plans to invade the Red River settlement. In fact, while both were still fugitives, they returned surreptitiously in October 1871 to lead volunteer troops from St. Boniface to defend the settlement against the Fenian threat.

After his capture, Lépine was initially conveyed to the Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry for “safe keeping.” It is not clear how long he was incarcerated there, as his imprisonment was not recorded on the inmate admittance register. At some point toward the end of 1873 or the beginning of 1874, Lépine was transferred to the new provincial prison that was being built next to the courthouse in Winnipeg. This is where Lépine’s subsequent trial took place and where he later served his sentence.

Lépine’s trial was followed with intense interest not only in Manitoba, but also throughout the country. As would be the case a dozen years later with Riel’s trial in Regina, Lépine’s trial in Winnipeg also polarized the nation, provoking his condemnation in Ontario while evoking sympathy for his cause in Quebec. And like Letendre, Lépine was initially sentenced to hang. However, the Governor General eventually commuted his sentence to two years but nonetheless revoked his civic rights indefinitely. Later, Lépine was even offered a full amnesty subject to exile for five years, but he refused and served his full sentence, finally obtaining his release in October 1876.

Hand-drawn portraits of four men on a page.

Frontispiece to the book Preliminary Investigation and Trial of Ambroise D. Lépine for the Murder of Thomas Scott, 1874 (a digitized version is available at Internet Archive); Lépine is at the bottom, Riel at the top, and Lépine’s lawyers J.A. Chapleau and Joseph Royal are to the left and right respectively

End of an era

Many of the issues encountered during the early history of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry, reflecting the turbulent origins of the province and its uneasy relations with First Nations and Métis communities, would have wider repercussions as the Canadian government promoted settlement further westward.

By 1877, the Canadian government had negotiated most of the numbered treaties 1 through 7 with First Nations, covering vast portions of the Northwest Territories in present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. This paved the way for the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the advancement of colonial settlement across the Prairies. Conversely, as settlement progressed, the situation of many First Nations became more desperate as their traditional means of securing food supplies were increasingly compromised or—in the case of the bison hunt—had suffered irreversible collapse.

The Métis communities of the Red River settlement were also reeling under the pressure of more settlers pouring into Manitoba from Eastern Canada and abroad. Despite the assurances made in the Manitoba Act, the Métis had suffered from the Reign of Terror conducted by the Canadian Militia and from land swindles perpetrated in the law courts. Consequently, thousands of Red River Métis left Manitoba in the 1870s in a westward diaspora, either joining pre-existing or establishing new Métis communities in present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Perhaps in anticipation of encountering increased trouble in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories from the desperate and dispossessed, the Canadian government took steps to extend the long arm of Canadian law in the northwest. Territorial courts were established for prosecution, and the North West Mounted Police was created for enforcement. Moreover, preparations were being made as early as 1872 to replace the Stone Fort at Lower Fort Garry with a new and larger federal penitentiary to serve as the site of punishment for the entire region.

Thus, the era of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry ended with the completion of the new Manitoba Penitentiary at Stony Mountain in 1878. By this time, Manitoba was also entering a new era in the nation’s history, assuming its role as the “keystone province,” the administrative and logistical centre for all of Western Canada.

The Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada also has many of the records of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Stony Mountain (or Stony Mountain Penitentiary, as it was later called), available online at Canadiana Héritage, but they are deserving of many more, equally fascinating, stories.


David Horky is a senior archivist in the Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada.

July 15, 1870: Manitoba joins Confederation

Before becoming a province, Manitoba was the stage for many events and pivotal moments in Canada’s history. Pending the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada, the federal government sent survey crews led by Lieutenant Governor William McDougall to map the Red River area in 1869. The Métis became concerned about the redistribution of land to future settlers and the effect this would have on their own lands.

The Métis group’s leader, Louis Riel, declared that the survey was a menace and established a “National Committee” of which he became secretary and John Bruce president. On October 25, 1869, Louis Riel was ordered to appear in front of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia to explain himself. Riel indicated that the “National Committee” would prevent the entry of McDougall or any governors into Red River unless the union with Canada was based on negotiations with the local population.

In November, Riel proposed a first provisional government to replace the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia as part of the negotiations for the transfer of Rupert’s Land.

Drawing of a panoramic view of Fort Garry, 1868.

Fort Garry, Red River Settlement, 1868, the administrative centre for the provisional government. (c105625)

In January 1870, 20 English and 20 French representatives of the Red River Settlement met to debate a List of Rights and endorse Riel’s second provisional government. The fourth version of the List of Rights became the basis of the Manitoba Act.

Members of the Métis Nation Provisional Government , 1870.

Councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation, 1870. (http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.redirect?app=fonandcol&id=3194516&lang=enge011156794)

The secretary of the Provisional Government, Louis Schmidt, moved to accept the Manitoba Act, and enter the Dominion of Canada, on the terms proposed in the Confederation Act. The motion was passed.

In his closing statements, Louis Riel underlined the significance of the vote:

I congratulate the people of the North-West on the happy issue of their undertakings (cheers). I congratulate them on their moderation and firmness of purpose; and I congratulate them on having trust enough in the Crown of England to believe that ultimately they would obtain their rights (cheers). I must, too, congratulate the country on passing from under this Provisional rule to one of a more permanent and satisfactory character.1

The Manitoba Act went into effect on July 15, 1870.

1 http://www.gov.mb.ca/chc/archives/leg_assembly/pdf/leg_assembly_transcript.pdf

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