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

Manitoba Day Musings

Brandon Sun, May 11, 2020 – David McConkey

Tomorrow is Manitoba Day. Our province was founded on this day 150 years ago. Even though sesquicentennial celebrations have been postponed because of the pandemic, we can pause to mark the occasion.

In recalling the origin and beginning days of the province, I have been thinking about two of the first leaders of Manitoba. One is rebellion leader and provincial founder, Louis “David” Riel. The other is early provincial premier, John Norquay. Two questions have grown in my mind. The first question is about the nature of the “great men” of history. The second question is a bit bigger and is about the nature of reality.

Let's start with these two great men of early Manitoba. Riel and Norquay were both born in the early 1840s in the vicinity of Red River, which is today’s Winnipeg. Riel and Norquay – like more than 80% of the first citizens of Manitoba – were of mixed racial descent. In the population's background were women who were Indigenous and men who were European and worked in the fur trade with the Hudson's Bay Company or the North West Company.

People of mixed ancestry back then were described in French as “Métis” and in English as “half-breed.” Today, “half-breed” is regarded as derogatory; “Métis” is preferred. But at that time, “half-breed” was a neutral description. The Manitoba Act, which established the province within Canada as well as Métis property rights, used the term “half-breed.”

Language and religion were how people chiefly identified themselves. Riel was in the Michif- and French-speaking, Roman Catholic part of the population. Norquay was an Anglican and belonged to the English-speaking, Protestant group.

As young teenagers, both Riel and Norquay had a life-changing experience. They were spotted as potential leaders by a bishop in their respective churches. When Riel was 14, Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché enabled Riel to go to Montreal to study for the priesthood. When Norquay was 13, Bishop David Anderson secured a scholarship that provided for Norquay to attend St. John’s Collegiate, a private Anglican school in Red River.

Religion was important for both Norquay and Riel. During his life, Norquay was an active member and leader in his church. Riel never did become a priest, but religion became entangled with his problems with mental illness. Riel reported hearing a message from God anointing him as prophet of the New World. His anointed name was “David.”

Now, let's turn to my two questions. The first is about the great men: are they born or are they made? The answer is usually some combination. Even as children, Riel and Norquay stood out as capable and charismatic. At the same time, they would not have become as accomplished if it were not for mentors and institutions that nurtured their potential. And, it goes without saying that when a society is anticipating only “great men,” then the prospects for females are greatly diminished.

And my second question: what is reality? I ask this from my reading of historian Yuval Harari’s panoramic book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari asserts that much of our thinking is in “fictions.” We frame our thinking less by what actually exists in the world and more by what exists in our imaginations. To a large extent, the fictions we create in our mind become our reality.

Harari says, for example, that one of our greatest fictions is money. With no actual value, money is useful because we all agree it has value. This fiction allows billions of people all over the globe to exchange goods and services. (Sapiens is a wonderful book and it is at the Brandon Public Library.)

Our fictions become the ideas, identities and institutions that help us group ourselves, co-operate with one another and share understandings about the world. But some fictions can become outdated, can constrain us and can divide us more than unite us.

The notion of “fictions” adds a larger perspective to the historical reality sketched out earlier. Consider organizations like the Hudson's Bay Company, North West Company, Anglican Church and Roman Catholic Church. Political entities like Canada and Manitoba. Ways to describe people like Indigenous, European, half-breed and Métis. Concepts like property rights and citizenship.

In the end, we are all just human beings who want to make our way in the world. Fictions are a big part of the reality in which we make our way.

The “Province of Manitoba” is a fiction, created by people from their imaginations a century and a half ago. A sesquicentennial is an opportunity to reflect on our past, to look at our present, and to imagine a future that nourishes our best selves.

Happy Manitoba Day, everyone!

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See also: 

Early Manitoba Premier Had a Great Story

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

New Book on Louis Riel Leaves Much to Ponder

How Do You Be a Good Person?

You are Both Right – and Both Wrong



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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