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An exhibit at the Manitoba Museum sparks thought about the impact and legacy becoming part of Canada had on Manitoba
Birthdays and anniversaries are times for celebration and reflection. 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act. The Act brought about the union of four British colonies and laid the blueprint for today’s Canada. Celebrations occurred across the country. Protests also occurred as Indigenous Peoples claimed celebrations glossed over the historic abuses against them and ignored the longer history stretching back for millennia. Some events focused on both the accomplishments and the darker chapters of the past 150 years.
Legacies of Confederation, a temporary exhibit at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which ran from February 9, 2017 to January 7, 2018, looked at the impact of Confederation on the province of Manitoba. The exhibit is over, but its contents connect well to other parts of the Museum’s permanent exhibition.
After the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, Canadian attention turned west. At the time of Confederation, what is now Manitoba was part of Rupert’s Land, a large tract of land to which a 1670 British royal charter had given the Hudson Bay Company exclusive right to trade and colonize. In 1869, Great Britain convinced the Hudson Bay Company to sell Rupert’s Land to Canada. Abruptly, without local consultation, what is now Manitoba became part of Canada.
Canada sent surveyors to the Red River Settlement to measure land for distribution to new settlers and to identify a railway route to span the continent. A large percentage of the Red River Settlement population were Métis people of mixed First Nations and European ancestry. Concerned about their rights, they formed a Provisional Government under the leadership of Louis Riel to negotiate the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Canada. They seized Upper Fort Garry and composed a List of Rights to secure language rights, land rights and religious freedom. The following quotes from February 1870 are displayed in the exhibit and illustrate the discord and distrust present at the time.
It is in the disposition of Canada to cheat. ∼Louis Riel
These impulsive half-breeds . . . must be kept down by a strong hand, until they are swamped by an influx of settlers. ∼John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister
On May 12, 1870 Canada accepted most of the rights and Manitoba entered Confederation.
The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish militia in the United States that believed they could force the British to grant independence to Ireland by capturing British colonies. Raids into Canada between 1866 and 1870 led to the formation of a Canadian militia. After Manitoba joined Confederation, the Canadian militia was sent to enforce Canadian rule at Red River. The militia had not been part of the agreement made between the provisional government and Canada. Fearing he would be lynched, Louis Riel, who is now known as the “father of Manitoba”, became a fugitive.
Manitoba got off to a rocky start. The borders of the “postage stamp province” were a square about 1/18 of Manitoba’s current size. The politicians who drew the boundaries had no regard for traditional land occupancy. Alarmed by the prospect of an influx of settlers, First Nations leaders insisted on initiating Treaty discussions. Treaty No. 1 was completed in 1871. By 1876 five main treaties covering present-day Manitoba had been negotiated.
The treaties were controversial from the start. The negotiation process was filled with misunderstanding. Many oral promises did not make it into writing and were not honoured by Canada. Oral discussions used different wording than what made it into the written document. Promises were not kept. In 1875, verbal promises were written into an Outside Promises Document which became part of Treaty 1.
The central government in Ottawa encouraged a homesteading boom and large tracts of land were converted to commercial agriculture. The first wave of newcomers were mostly Ontarians, who thought the land was empty and theirs for the taking. They were followed by migrants from all over Canada, the United States and Europe coming to the new province to seek land, work and religious freedom. In 1871, Manitoba had 25,288 residents. By 1901, there were over 255,000. My great-grandparents were among the European immigrants of the 1890s.
I was surprised to see a roll of barbed wire among the displays looking at how settlement changed the land. Barbed wire, patented in 1874, transformed the landscape of Manitoba by restricting movement of wildlife and livestock. Its use further divided and controlled private land.
These words on one of the final displays help sum up the exhibit.
Today, Manitoba benefits from being part of a modern nation. At the time of Confederation, however, Canada was a remote colonial power, acting with little consideration for Métis and First Nations residents’ rights.
Canada at 150 is still struggling with discrimination. Manitobans are trying to find a way to reset relationships.
Manitoba continues to be a home for newcomers.
The Manitoba Museum showcases the natural and human history of Manitoba across its varied landscapes. I thought the Legacies of Confederation exhibit provided a good introduction and context to the Museum. However, the information on the Red River Rebellion and Manitoba’s entry into Confederation is extremely high-level. I am not sure one can begin to understand the legacies of Confederation without learning more about the details and complexities of the stories.
The treaties remain controversial to this day and have left a legacy of unresolved issues due to different understandings by Indigenous and Euro-Canadian participants. The Supreme Court of Canada handed down a judgement in 1996, stating it is necessary to interpret the treaties “in the sense that they would naturally have been understood by the Indians at the time of signing.”
Many events in Winnipeg begin with an announcement like this:
We would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Treaty 1 territory and that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
The treaties are still in effect today. We are all treaty people. It is these treaties that allow Manitobans to purchase and sell property. Many of the complex issues facing First Nations communities today arise from previous social injustices. Recognizing treaty rights is considered a first step forward in collaboration and reconciliation. But it is just a first step. Many Indigenous leaders state it is important the acknowledgment be accompanied with concrete action.
More information about treaty rights and the history of Manitoba can be found in other galleries of the Manitoba Museum. The St. Boniface Museum tells detailed stories about the Red River rebellion and the life of Louis Riel. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. It contains the stories of Canadian human rights struggles as wall as stories of human rights abuses and victories from around the world.
As early as the 1870s and as late as 1966, many First Nations, Métis and Inuit children in Canada were forced into residential schools, often against parental wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their culture. Physical and sexual abuse occurred in many schools. In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to learn and document what happened as a step toward reconciliation and healing. In June 2015, the Commission concluded the residential school system was a form of cultural genocide and delivered 94 calls to action to redress the legacy.
Birthdays and anniversaries are times for celebration and times for reflection. Learning more about the history can lead to better understanding of the present. From that knowledge and understanding, a vision for the future can be shaped.
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