We have come to the last of our first five premiers of Manitoba. After this, we look at the first five premiers of Newfoundland.
So, for number five, we have the man who led the province for nine years, through four elections, and remains the eighth longest serving premier in Manitoba’s history, John Norquay.
Unlike the previous premiers we covered, John Norquay was born in the area that is now Manitoba, at St. Andrews in the Red River Colony, on May 8, 1841. His ancestors were workers with the Hudson’s Bay Company, who settled along the shores of Hudson Bay in the 18th century.
His maternal grandmother was Elizabeth Vincent, who was the daughter of a country marriage between an HBC officer and a Metis woman.
Norquay’s father, John, worked at Norway House and was known for his reliability and ability to take on any task.
Soon after John was born, his mother died in 1843, followed by his father when he was eight. At this point, he was raised by his grandmother and by teachers at the local school in the Red River area.
He quickly emerged as a gifted student and became the protégé of David Anderson, who was the bishop for Rupert’s Land at the time. He studied Greek and Latin in school and became fluent in French.
Upon his graduation in 1857, Norquay remained in the Red River area and began to teach. By the age of 17, he was the master of St. James’ Church School.
In 1861, he married Elizabeth Settler, a Metis woman, whom he had met two years previous when he moved to Parkdale.
For a time, Norquay was a farmer but he did not have much success with that, nor with being a fur trader along Lake Manitoba. During this time, the couple lived in a log house with a mud fireplace and chimney. Their clothes were handmade, and their flour came from the wheat that they grew on the land. It was a time of leanness but the couple were happy together.
“We worked hard, we did not have much but our needs were simple. I had never believed we could live on fish, as we had to do when the grasshoppers came and ate everything green.”
Together, the couple had eight children, born between 1863 and 1881.
When the Red River Resistance began in 1869, Norquay played a small role but it inspired him to get involved in public life. He had attended several meetings put on by the provisional government, and his cousin was elected to that government.
In the first election in Manitoba’s history on Dec. 27, 1870, he was acclaimed in his riding of High Bluff.
In 1871, Alfred Boyd resigned as Provincial Secretary and he suggested that someone of Metis background be put into cabinet in his place. As a result, Norquay was appointed as the Minister of Public Works and the Minister of Agriculture.
At this point, his finances began to improve and the couple were able to live in a nice neighbourhood and their children attended the best schools.
Due to his size, over six-foot-tall, and his weight, over 300 pounds, political cartoonists of the time poked fun at him, drawing him smashing chairs with his weight, or making rude comments about his Metis heritage.
At the same time in 1872, Norquay ran for Parliament, which was allowed at the time, but he lost and never again tried to run for federal office.
As the Minister of Public Works, he was responsible for ensuring roads were built and maintained, bridges were constructed and public buildings were erected. In this capacity, he was good at his job and was well respected within the government. At the same time, the population of Manitoba was exploding, rising from 12,000 in 1870 to 30,000 in 1877. It continued to double every four years.
In 1874, Norquay put forward an electoral redistribution bill that was met with opposition from both French and English MLAs. The government soon fell and Norquay was not placed in the cabinet of either Marc Girard or Robert Davis.
By this point, Norquay was gaining prominence in the Metis and French communities, and when Davis needed support from the French residents, he asked Norquay to join his cabinet in March 1875. Norquay accepted and brought with him enough support to keep the government aloft for the next three years.
In November 1878, after Davis resigned, Norquay was asked to replace him as premier.
Soon after, he went through the Dec. 18, 1878 election and was re-elected with 17 MLAs out of 24, although he only won his own riding by eight votes.
The Ottawa Daily Citizen wrote,
“The provincial elections were held today. All the members of the government have been elected. What constituencies that have been heard from give the government about two-thirds of the members of the house.”
After the election, Joseph Royal, the leader of the Francophone parliamentary bloc at this point, stopped supporting Norquay in his government, choosing instead to support Thomas Scott, the Opposition leader and an Orangeman. It was the hope of the two men that they could bring in party politics, while Norquay wanted to keep non-partisan parties. A reason that Norquay supported non-partisan politics was he felt it strengthened him when he was negotiating with Ottawa.
In response to this, Norquay forged an alliance with all the British MLAs except Scott, expelled the French Canadians from his cabinet, gave anti-French speeches and then passed a series of bills that were detrimental to the Francophones of the province. One such bill reduced the number of ridings for Francophones from nine to six. He also abolished the printing of some official documents in French.
He wrote to Sir John A. Macdonald in June 1879, stating,
“I regret very much that I had to adopt such extreme measures with Royal but his treachery left me no alternative.”
Also hoping to keep some support from the French community, he asked former premier Marc Girard to rejoin his cabinet.
On Dec. 16, 1879, with the support of Girard, Norquay won another election and a new mandate.
The Brantford newspaper wrote,
“The recent elections for the local Legislature in Manitoba have resulted strongly in favor of the Norquay government. A strong attempt was made to introduce Dominion politics into the contest, but it was evidently unsuccessful, the people not appearing to have a very favorable opinion of the manner.”
Of course, other newspapers like the Kingston Daily News, reported that it was an overwhelming loss for Norquay’s government. It stated,
“It is confidently believed that Mr. Norquay will be unable to reconstruct the government and that a Conservative Administration must succeed.”
As premier, he had to contend with the rising population and that resulted in the spending of the government rising from $90,000 when he took office to $700,000 by the mid-1880s.
With a new mandate, Norquay began to push for railway development in the province. There were also accusations that he prevented local rail lines from being built because he was being paid by the CPR and John A. Macdonald to support the CPR’s monopoly. There was some truth to this. In 1883, Macdonald prevented 10,000 protest leaflets from being distributed in the province by the Orange order, which could have shifted support for the government.
Soon, the railroad boom collapsed in 1882 in Winnipeg, and many felt it was the freight rates of the CPR that caused this. At the heart of this was the two decade monopoly that the CPR was given.
By this point, while Torquay told the public he was non-partisan, his government was forming along Conservative lines.
When the Jan. 23, 1883 election occurred, the Conservative candidates under him won 19 of 30 seats, while the Liberals won only 11.
Around this time, the Sons of Temperance approached Norquay on the matter of temperance text books in public schools and by all accounts, he did what he could to make it happen.
Sir John A. Macdonald often supported Norquay, even though he didn’t really like him, because he needed the support of the province in building the railroad. He took the side of Norquay when a boundary dispute began with Ontario, and most importantly, he visited Manitoba to help boost the Conservatives support in the 1886 election. It is generally accepted that without Macdonald coming to the province, Norquay would have lost.
In 1886, the Hudson Bay Railway project was moving forward but once again, due to his need for the support of Sir John A. Macdonald, Norquay effectively killed the deal. He said,
“There was the question of traffic and there were other outlets which were requiring more immediate attention to the people of the northwest than the road to which was referred.”
Soon enough though, he would start to change his view.
That partnership between the two came to an end in 1887 when Norquay’s government reversed its policy against local railways, and promoted the Red River Valley Railway. This came about because Norquay had taken a trip through the province, and saw how branch railways could help the province and its industries with a new land boom. His government paid $256,000 compensation to the CPR, but Sir John A. Macdonald disallowed the land transfer.
Macdonald and the CPR were not happy, and it would have a detrimental impact on Norquay’s career.
Throughout 1887, he attempted to drum up support for a Red River Valley Railway. He travelled to Chicago, New York, Toronto and Montreal to find funds but each time he arrived in a city, agents of Macdonald had already been there and ruined any chance for funding for Norquay. It was said at one point, Norquay had broken down crying in New York.
In September 1887, accusations came forward that the provincial government was using the trust funds of Metis children as general revenue. Norquay was called to resign, and without the support of the CPR or Macdonald, he had no friends on his side as his own cabinet ministers abandoned him.
It was said that Norquay was the most popular man in the province in the summer of 1887, and was a failure by the end of the year.
The Toronto World wrote on Dec. 16,
“It is stated that notwithstanding his size and weight, Jon Norquay is the best dancer in Manitoba but the taxpayers up there complain that they have to pay the piper.”
Norquay resigned as premier on Dec. 23, 1887.
After he resigned, he continued to profess his innocence of any wrongdoing but he was no longer trusted by those around him. Macdonald also refused to give him a public service job, and Norquay took a job as a law clerk to make money. He continued to serve in the Legislature but made little money at it.
In the subsequent provincial election on July 11, 1888, Norquay was barely re-elected in his riding by only three votes. He was appointed as the leader of the opposition, but had no real power.
By the early part of 1889, he was selling insurance to supplement his income.
In early July, he was suddenly struck with pains in his abdomen, he was unable to sleep and his condition continued to get worse.
He died on July 5, 1889.
His death came as a shock to many. The Manitoba Weekly Free Press wrote,
“A sudden shock was given to many citizens Friday night by the announcement that John Norquay was dead. Very few had heard that he was ill, for his sickness was of very short duration and severe.”
A post mortem stated that there was a pouch in one part of his small intestine which was filled with undigested oranges. This gave rise to a twist in the bowels which produced an obstruction that apparently killed him.
Upon his death, Norquay was memorialized by those who had previously vilified him in 1887. Residents of Manitoba contributed a dollar each to erect a monument in his honour. Sir John A. Macdonald wrote a letter of condolence to Norquay’s widow. He said publicly,
“I always like Norquay personally, and regret much his untimely death.”
He would lay in state in the Legislative building. In attendance at his funeral was the chief justice of Manitoba, several members of Parliament, Premier Greenway and several members of the Legislature.
In later years, Norquay’s time as premier would be remembered as a time when Manitoba was developing itself. Under his guidance, the province saw its population increase tenfold, and government services expanded at the same time.
The Manitoba Free Press said,
“Though he did not reach an advanced age, he was a witness of progress more remarkable than it has been the lot of any other Canadian premier to see, and he took a very prominent part in making the history of his native province.”
Norquay Street, Norquay School and Norquay Park in Winnipeg are named for him.
In 1904, Mount Norquay in Banff National Park was named for him. Norquay had tried to summit the mountain in 1887 or 1888, but due to his poor health, he was unable to reach the top.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Memorable Manitobans, Wikipedia, Metis Museum, Winnipeg Free Press, Toronto World,