David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Early Manitoba Premier Had a Great Story

Brandon Sun, November 4, 2019 – David McConkey

Someday – regardless of political party – wouldn't it be great to have a Manitoba premier of Indigenous heritage? Approaching Manitoba’s 150th anniversary in 2020 brings to mind such questions.

Oh, wait. We already had that premier. Often forgotten, his story should be told more today.

What was his story? John Norquay was born on May 8, 1841 on a farm in St. Andrews parish, which was north of Red River – today’s Winnipeg. Both his parents were of Indigenous and European ancestry. On each side of his family were women who were Indigenous and men who were from the Scottish Orkney Islands or from England who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The fifth of six children, Norquay was only two when his mother died, eight when his father died. Norquay was raised by his paternal grandparents. Norquay was also nurtured by the teachers at two private Anglican schools he attended in Red River, St. John’s parish school and St. John’s Collegiate School. Bishop David Anderson became the boy's mentor. The bishop secured a scholarship for Norquay when he was 13, which enabled him to complete several additional years of education at the collegiate.

Becoming a teacher, Norquay pursued farming and fur trading as well. He married Elizabeth Setter, who was also of Indigenous and European descent. The couple had eight children.

Norquay was only peripherally involved in the rebellion and provisional government led by Louis Riel that preceded the formation of Manitoba in 1870. But in the new province, Norquay’s abilities and personal charisma made him a natural leader. He was an active member and served in executive positions with the Anglican Church. Norquay spoke English, French, Cree and Saulteaux. He became a master orator, famous for his "soft, clear, musical voice."

Norquay was elected by acclamation to the first Manitoba legislative assembly in 1870. A year later he was appointed to the cabinet as Minister of Public Works and Agriculture.

In the early years of the province, there were no political parties. But there was a balancing of linguistic, religious and ethnic affiliations. There were three main groupings; each group had eight representatives in the legislature. 

One group were Manitoba-born, English-speaking Protestants. Norquay was a leader of this group. They were mostly of Indigenous and European ancestry. The European part was chiefly Scottish: descended from Orkney Islanders employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and from Selkirk settlers who had arrived in the early 1800s. (In French, Norquay was often referred to as “Métis Ēcossais,” which translated as “Scottish Métis.”)

Another group were Michif- and French-speaking Roman Catholics. They were mainly Métis.

The third group were recent settlers, mostly English-speaking Protestants from Ontario. This third group – although less than one-fifth of the province’s population in 1870 – would soon overwhelm the other two groups.

From 1878 until 1887, Norquay served as premier of Manitoba. His government oversaw tremendous growth and change in the province. After his administration was defeated, Norquay remained in the legislature as opposition leader. Norquay died suddenly of a twisted bowel on July 5, 1889. He was 48. He is buried in the cemetery at St. John’s Cathedral in Winnipeg.

Norquay left a great legacy. He successfully led Manitoba as it transitioned from the fur trading era to the cusp of the modern age. He skillfully navigated within a changing, multi-racial, multi-cultural society. He steadily progressed from poor orphan to provincial premier.

One of Manitoba’s premiers was of Indigenous heritage. Who knew? Especially during our sesquicentennial, the life of John Norquay is a great story from the past worth telling today.

* * * *
See also: 

New Book on Louis Riel Leaves Much to Ponder

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”

Looking Past the Label of the "Wrong Side of the Tracks"

Can We Say No to More Racism?

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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