Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2007

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Manitoba Act



Claude Bélanger,

Department of History,

Marianopolis College

Following the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870, the Parliament of Canada enacted the Manitoba Act (33 Victoria, c. 3 – assented to on May 12, 1870). The Act embodied many of the demands that had been made by Louis Riel and the Métis at the time of the rebellion.  These demands had been written in a succession of Petition of Rights drafted by the Métis and their Provisional Government at the time of the rebellion.

Essentially, the Manitoba Act created a Métis province. This had been forced on the Government of Canada by the position of strength of the Métis and by support in Quebec for such a move. According to John A. Macdonald, the creation of a province, out of a part of the North-West Territory, was premature. The territory was not sufficiently populated, it could not hope to be able to support itself financially, and the “true character” of the West had not yet been established according to the old leader. Macdonald probably had in mind a territory populated by white immigrant farmers from Ontario and the British Isles. The idea of entrusting the government of a province to Natives was evidently foreign to XIXth century concepts of “proper government”. Thus, provincial status was the first, and the main, concession made to the Métis. The province was given the name of Manitoba at the request of the Métis. Thus far, the government of Canada had given the name of Assiniboia to that piece of territory.

Given the concession of provincial status to the Métis, the federal government insisted on two points that were incorporated into the Manitoba Act: 1) (s. 1 of the Act) The new province was limited to a very small size, to an area immediately south of Lake Winnipeg and extending to the American border – hence the term of “postage stamp province” used to describe the size of Manitoba as created in 1870. It appears that by keeping the province small, the federal government was limiting the “potential damage” in having the Métis put in charge of a province. 2) (s. 31 of the Act) All the “ungranted or waste lands in the Province” – essentially the Crown Lands, the natural resources and the revenue to be derived thereof – were vested in the government of Canada, rather than with the provincial government as was done elsewhere in Canada. Such lands were to be used “for the purposes of the Dominion”. Local control over land was removed from Manitoba as it was expected that the (Métis) government of Manitoba might interfere with the process of land distribution and settlement of white farmers in the province. This lack of control over its lands is what partly explains that the Métis lost control over their province by 1873-1875 as the small Métis population was rapidly submerged by the influx into the province of new settlers, primarily from Ontario. This model of withdrawing control of Crown Lands was later followed when Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905. It created an anomalous situation by which an entire region (the Prairies) was treated differently than the other provinces. This lasted until 1930.

Otherwise, the government of Canada was not ungenerous towards the Métis province. For its small population, generous subsidies were to be paid by the federal government for the support of the provincial government (s. 25) and various expenditures, normally assumed by provincial governments, were defrayed by the federal authorities (s. 26); as well, interest on a substantial debt service charge was to be paid to the province (s. 24), even if the province did not have a debt. Manitoba was also awarded four members of Parliament for a population that probably did not exceed 15,000 people. Article 31 stipulated that 1,400,000 acres were set aside for the families of the Métis (called “half-breeds” in the document). This land was earmarked “towards the extinguishment of the Indian Title to the lands in the Province”.

In the House of Commons, much debate took place on the model that should be followed in creating the political and social institutions of Manitoba. Many promoted the Ontario model that consisted of a simple form of government – akin to a municipal government –, a single public school system, open to all, and not organized around religious denominations, as well as a single language – English – in the courts and the legislature of the province. This model, popular in English-speaking Canada, fostered unity. Others, mostly from Quebec, promoted the Quebec model. This model fostered diversity. It provided for a dual denominational school system – one that recognized both Catholic and protestant schools – as well as two languages in the courts and the legislature of the province: French and English. In this latter model, the parliamentary institutions were elaborate and followed, as in the case of Quebec, the model of the British Parliament with an upper and a lower house. It is clear that the institutions of Manitoba were shaped in the Quebec model. Thus, guarantees were extended to the French and the English languages (s. 23) and protection was given to the Protestant and the Roman Catholics in relation to education (s. 22). As well, elaborate political institutions were extended to Manitoba. Thus, at the outset of Confederation, Canada chose the model of diversity, mostly because it matched the situation of the Métis who were French and English, Catholics and Protestants, but also because it was heavily favoured in Quebec. Consequently, in the early days of Confederation, a bilingual and bicultural country was emerging, especially if one keeps in mind that the Manitoba institutions were extended by federal legislation to the rest of the North-West in 1875. However, between 1890 and 1905, virtually all the bilingual and bicultural elements created in the West between 1870 and 1877, were abolished by a new generation that did not accept the principles that a generous generation had applied in the immediate period following Confereration.


On the issue of bilingualism, biculturalism and the Confederation period, the following studies should be consulted: Donald G. CREIGHTON, "The Myth of Biculturalism", in Saturday Night, Vol. 81, No 9, September 1966, pp. 38; Ramsay COOK, Provincial Autonomy, Minority Rights, and the Compact Theory, 1867-1921, Ottawa, 1969; Ralph HEINTZMAN, "The Spirit of Confederation: Professor Creighton, Biculturalism, and the Use of History", in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 52, No 3 (September 1971): 245-275.

© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College