Manitoba: History and Politics

History and Politics

The history of Manitoba began along Hudson Bay. The search for the elusive Northwest Passage to the Pacific drew such explorers as Henry Hudson, Thomas Button, Pierre Radisson, and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, some of whom returned to England laden with beaver furs. To exploit this fur wealth, Charles II granted (1670) the Hudson's Bay Company propriety over all the lands draining into Hudson Bay. This vast area included the present-day province of Manitoba, then occupied by the Assiniboin, the Ojibwa, and the Cree. The company established a trading post at Port Nelson and soon extended its operations south to the strategic Red River valley. In 1717, Prince of Wales Fort was built at the mouth of the Churchill River (rebuilt in stone 1732–71, it is now in Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site).

Manitoba was explored and posts were established by the French as well as by the British; their rival claims were resolved when England's conquest of Canada in the French and Indian Wars was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Scotsmen took over much of the French fur trade, organized the North West Company, and challenged the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company. A crisis came when the earl of Selkirk established the Red River Settlement at present-day Assiniboine in North West Company territory. The resulting violence deterred colonization until the merger of the two companies in 1821. From then until 1870, when the Hudson's Bay Company sold its vast domain to the newly created confederation of Canada, that company was in sole control, and settlement of the area increased.

Prearrangements for the transfer of the land to the new dominion government led to conflict between government representatives and Métis (people of mixed European–indigenous Canadian ancestry), who had long enjoyed almost total autonomy under the Hudson's Bay Company's rule. Fearing political persecution and the loss of their land, they staged (1869) the Red River Rebellion under the leadership of Louis Riel. The rebellion was nominally successful and the Métis were granted land and cultural rights in the Manitoba Act, but after Manitoba was organized as a province in 1870, most of the Métis were harassed into moving farther west. (In 2013, in a case brought by the Manitoba Métis Federation, Canada's supreme court ruled that federal government had failed to meet its obligations, under the Manitoba Act, to the Métis.)

Agricultural settlement in Manitoba proceeded slowly, but when the railroads came (1870 and 1881), they provided access to grain markets on the Great Lakes, and during the 1880s the population doubled. Manitoba's area was enlarged in 1881, and in 1912 it was given its present extension to Hudson Bay. The depression of 1913 and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 ended this period of prosperity, during which Winnipeg had served as a great transportation center. With the completion of the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill in 1929, however, the province was in a position to use the shorter sea route eastward.

During the last part of the 19th cent. and the first part of the 20th, the Canadian government advertised for immigrants to settle the prairies, and huge numbers of Russians, Poles, Estonians, Scandinavians, Icelanders, and Hungarians responded. The largest single immigrant group was the Ukrainians, who now constitute over 11% of the population and are an important part of Manitoban culture. The province provided a multilingual school system from 1897 to 1916 but abolished it when the number of ethnic groups requesting such facilities grew too large. Further immigration came with World War I when American pacifist sects (e.g., Mennonites and Hutterites), seeking to avoid military service, set up colonies of their own in the province. Manitoba still has problems amalgamating its many ethnic groups, including the Métis, and indigenous groups suffer high unemployment and related ills.

Manitoba has alternated politically between social democrat (New Democratic party) and conservative (Progressive Conservative party) governments since the 1950s. Progressive Conservative Sterling Lyon was elected in 1977 after promising to reduce the provincial debt, but he was defeated in 1981 by New Democrat Howard Pawley. Lyon's was the only one-term government in Manitoba history. Conservatives regained control of the government in 1989 under Gary Filmon, who held office until he was defeated by the New Democrat Gary Doer (in the fourth race between the two leaders) in 1999. Doer and the New Democrats were returned to power in 2003 and 2007, and Greg Selinger led the party to its fourth straight victory in 2011. In 2016, however, Conservatives won in a landslide, and Brian Pallister became premier; they remained in power after elections in 2019.

Manitoba sends 6 senators and 14 representatives to the national parliament.

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