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Henry Joseph Clarke has the distinction of succeeding Marc-Amable Girard and premier of Manitoba, and also being succeeded by him as well.

Today, we look at the third premier of Manitoba, the man with the giant beard, Henry Joseph Clarke.

Born in Ireland on July 7, 1833, Clarke moved to Canada when he was only three. His father was employed in the customs department in Montreal, and later served as a councilor and alderman.

As a young man, he attended Montreal Academy and St. Mary’s College. He had fluency in both English and French, which would aid him throughout his life.

After school, he began to practice law in Montreal in 1855, but the call of the Gold Rush was too strong and he moved to California in 1858 to take advantage of the rush happening there. While there, he worked as a journalist for the Alta Californian.

Around this time he married a widow with two sons.

He didn’t have much success there so he left to go to El Salvador in the early-1860s, looking for a bit of adventure. There, he learned to speak Spanish.

After that period of time abroad, he came back to Montreal and started working as a criminal lawyer.

He took his first foray into politics when he ran for the Province of Canada’s Legislature in 1863 as a Liberal-Conservative, but he lost.

During the Fenian Raids of 1866, he was a captain in the Prince of Wales Regiment and one year later he was made a QC in the regiment.

A close friend of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, he wrote a biography about him in 1867 that sold quite well.

In 1870, on the advice of his friend George-Etienne Cartier, he moved out to the new province of Manitoba to help build the new provincial government. He arrived in the new province on Sept. 2, 1870, shortly after the end of the Red River Resistance.

On Dec. 27, 1870, in the first election in Manitoba’s history, he was elected by acclamation and appointed on Jan. 3, 1871 as the first attorney general of the province.

As the new attorney general, he quickly became known for his skill in debating

In the role of attorney general, it fell to him to establish the legal system of Manitoba.

Unfortunately, he did not get along with Lt. Governor Adams George Archibald, the most powerful man in the province. Archibald considered Clarke to be too ambitious and a man of ill temper. The two men often had policy disagreement, especially when it came to establishing a Supreme Court for the province.

Archibald wrote to Cartier, stating,

“He seeks to constitute himself the Bar of Manitoba, and to shut the door to every person else he did not think fit to admit.”

Clarke wanted three justices to serve on the court, while Archibald only wanted one judge. Clarke refused to compromise, and the issue grew to be quite large eventually leading to Sir John A. Macdonald to get involved and establish a court with a single justice.

In 1871, Clarke tried to put through a bill in the Legislature that would restrict the number of out-of-province lawyers in the province to just ten, with the Attorney General having final authority over who could, and could not, practice. This was opposed by Archibald and the federal government, who overruled him.

Archibald had written to Macdonald stating,

“Bad as he is where he is, he would be greatly worse on the Bench. Whoever else you think of, don’t think of him.”

When Alexander Morris took over as Lt. Governor, he wrote,

“With all his faults, he is the best man I have and has a strange streak of good chivalrous loyalty running through his strange composition. In other words, he is an Irishman.”

Of course, within two weeks he was telling Macdonald that Clarke was unprincipled.

Around this time, Clarke left his wife Ann for a married woman, Maria Sinclair, whom he would later marry. This cost him a great deal of support with both Catholic and Protestant voters.

The Montreal Gazette wrote of Clarke at this point,

“Mr. Henry J. Clarke is not a Protestant pervert, having been born and bred in the Catholic faith.”

Throughout his time in the Legislature, Clarke was a spokesman for the Metis people of Manitoba, but only those who opposed Louis Riel’s leadership. As a result of this, he was opposed by the English residents who called themselves ultra-loyalist, while also being opposed by the supporters of Riel.

Le Metis stated that he was unfair and discriminated against the Metis.

When three Metis were arrested on charges of treason for allowing Fenians to raid the province in 1871, Clarke led the prosecution, resulting in one conviction.

In 1872, Clarke ran against Louis Riel in the federal election but neither won as they stood aside so George-Etienne Cartier could run in the election instead.

Macdonald said to Clarke at this juncture,

“You are very wise and patriotic. You are too young and active a politician to be laid on the shelf as a judge just now.”

Beginning on March 14, 1872 and lasting until July 8, 1874, he technically served as premier but again wasn’t called premier. While some don’t consider him a premier, I have decided to and that is why he has this episode about himself.

Overall, despite not always getting along with the Lt. Governors of the province, he was respected. The Ottawa Daily Citizen wrote of him in 1872,

“We have received a copy of the report on the Honourable Henry Clarke of Manitoba, as the representative of that province at the recent Immigration Conference. It seems to be a well prepared and ably written document. We shall refer to it at great length in a day or two.”

After attending that Conference in Ottawa, he wrote another report that called for better terms for Manitoba. He wanted an increase in the federal subsidy, financial assistance to build public buildings, a police force, enlarged provincial boundaries and the continuation of four per cent customs tariffs in Manitoba past July 1, 1874. Despite the report, all that was really agreed upon was providing an extra $25,000 to the province for its needs.

In 1873, Clarke defended an English trader and conman named Lord Gordon Gordon, who claimed to be a Scottish lord and made a fortune off investment fraud. When the true identity of Gordon was revealed, it caused a great deal of embarrassment for Clarke in the province.

One year later, when John Norquay’s bill for electoral redistribution failed, Clarke resigned as Attorney General and went to California. While visiting Minnesota, a group of investors who had been defrauded by Gordon attacked Clarke, seriously injuring him.

Clarke returned to Winnipeg in 1877 and was unsuccessful in running for the Legislature in 1878 and 1879. By this point, he campaigned against bilingualism in the province and funding for Catholic schools.

After those losses, he practiced law in Winnipeg and served as a criminal lawyer once again.

After the North West Resistance in 1885, he defended 25 followers of Louis Riel in court.

On Sept. 13, 1889 while traveling on a train near Medicine Hat, Clarke died at the age of 56. He had been going to British Columbia due to health problems. It was stated that he burst a blood vessel and died within four minutes on the train.

The Montreal Star wrote of him,

“Mr. Clarke was a man of limited education, but he had travelled a great deal and was the possessor of an extraordinary disposition and his peculiar freaks caused him to lost cast with his friend.”

Clarke Street in Winnipeg is named for him.

Information from Biographi, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Manitoba Historical Society, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Daily Citizen, Montreal Star,

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