Robert Atkinson Davis

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We have now reached our fourth premier of Manitoba, and the province is only four years old. That is a lot of premiers in a very short amount of time.

This premier would be the first to serve more than two years, and the first to go through an election since Alfred Boyd, the first premier.

His name is Robert Atkinson Davis.

Davis was born on March 9, 1841 in Dudswell, Lower Canada. His paternal grandfather had been a soldier who immigrated to Lower Canada with his wife. His father, Thomas, was a pioneer farmer and married a woman who had immigrated from the United States.

He also attended McGill University and St. Francis College and he began to work as a school teacher. While he did attend McGill, he never finished.

As a young man, he spent time in the United States working for mining companies in the Rockies, promising to return back to Canada when he had saved $5,000.

Eventually, he made his way up to the Red River area, arriving on May 10, 1870.

According to legend, he met Louis Riel shortly before the end of the Red River Resistance. He came upon the Red River to a place where Riel was located. He swam across and called out to the guards in French. Riel came out and met with Davis, with the two speaking French as Davis was fluent.

A few months later in September, Davis bought a hotel and soon began opening more stores in Winnipeg. His hotel and saloon was the social centre for the Anglophones of the area, as well as the troops sent to the area in response to the Red River Resistance. Alexander Begg wrote,

“The hotel none the less proved to be a bonanza to its new proprietor, being crowded from morning to night with the many strangers visiting the town as well as the volunteers stationed at Fort Garry.”

That same year, he married Susan True and the couple had a daughter. She sadly died only two years later. Davis was distraught over the loss of his wife and he sent his new daughter to Paterson, New Jersey to be raised by his sister-in law.

He began to fill his time with politics. He had emerged as a spokesperson for the new Ontario immigrants who opposed the monopoly the Hudson’s Bay Company had in the area, as well as the prominence of the Metis in Manitoba politics.

He then challenged Hudson Bay Company Commissioner Donald Alexander Smith for the presidency of the influential Provincial Agricultural Association. While he lost the race, it ignited a desire to get further into politics for him.

He was elected to the Protestant School Board, and then the Winnipeg Board of Trade. He also founded The Grange, a fraternal society in the city. He also became the leader of the Patrons of Husbandry, who would use their influence to help him take the next step.

In 1873, he was named to a citizens’ committee to draft the bill to incorporate Winnipeg. When the terms of incorporation were changed, he blamed the Hudson’s Bay Company for interfering.

In April 1874, Davis entered provincial politics when he won in a by-election and he quickly emerged as a key figure in the opposition in the Legislature. He was the one to introduce the no-confidence vote to bring down the government.

When the government fell, Davis became the provincial treasurer under the Marc-Amable Girard government. It was his goal to eliminate the debt of the province, and achieve better terms with the federal government.

Unfortunately, the Girard government didn’t last long due to tensions and it soon fell. Davis was the only minister not to resign in the ensuing crisis and he was called on to form government.

At the time, he was only 33 years old.

In order to achieve a democratic balance, he appointed Joseph Royal, a French-Canadian, as his provincial secretary. The two men then became the representatives for Anglophones and Francophones in the government and province.

Some of the Anglophones were not happy about the influence of Royal in the government, but Davis alleviated this when he appointed John Norquay to be a cabinet minister, despite serving as Leader of the Opposition. This compromise helped satisfy everyone.

Three weeks later, in the Dec. 30, 1874 election, the second in the history of Manitoba, Davis was re-elected, winning by 15 votes in his riding. His party was also re-elected, and for the next four years, Davis served as the premier of Manitoba.

As premier, he had to maintain a balance between the English and French sides of his party. He also had to ensure Metis representation and he appointed Charles Nolin, which caused a backlash among anti-French supporters. Nolin eventually resigned, and James McKay was appointed.

Due to his willingness to compromise, the Winnipeg Daily Free Press called him disloyal to Canada. As a result, Davis offered William Fisher Luxton, the editor of the newspaper, a cabinet position in the government.

His fluency in French allowed him to work with the Francophones in the government, and his government did uphold the dual education system and limited land speculation on Metis lands. He would also introduce a bill to create municipal governments in the province.

In 1876, he married Elizabeth McGonagil. They had met six months earlier on a train, and despite her husband being premier of Manitoba, she never moved to Manitoba.

In his time as premier, Davis tried to reduce the debt through an increased federal subsidy. He took a trip to Ottawa to speak with Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, only to be frustrated in his efforts to gain more money from the federal government. He told friends that if things did not improve, he would possibly look to the United States.

Through his negotiations, he was able to gain the image of a capable manager of the finances of the province, and he eventually achieved that increased subsidy and was able to eliminate the provincial debt.

He also had the Legislative Council abolished as it was made up of unelected individuals.

On Feb. 6, 1877, a mass meeting was held in Winnipeg and Davis stated he would support a motion to build a railway bridge in Winnipeg and a line from the city to the western limits of the province.

He then put forward a proposal that the planned transcontinental railway be built through Winnipeg rather than Selkirk, which would be the case and would help Winnipeg become one of the major cities on the Canadian prairies.

In 1878, Davis resigned as premier and moved to the United States where he became a successful businessman in Chicago. He spent much of his later years travelling on the profits from his business.

A private man, he was not known to donate money but the editor of a Chicago newspaper did say that at one point, he gave $6,000 to pay the mortgage for a local church.

It was not without problems though. In 1890, Mrs. Matilda Bruns of Moorhead, Minnesota charged him with breach of promise, seduction and libel. He denied the charges but an inquiry was held where 20 to 30 witnesses were called up to state that they knew a liaison had taken place between the two, possibly while Davis was premier.

Six years later, Davis and his wife separated.

He then bought a house in Chicago and continued to travel.

He died of Bright’s Disease in Phoenix on Jan. 7, 1903. By this point, he was mostly forgotten in Manitoba, and not a single news story announced his death.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Memorable Manitobans, Wikipedia,

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