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Reform and Empire: The Case of Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1870s–1910s

  • Kurt Korneski

Corps de l’article

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a host of journalists, ministers, medical doctors, businessmen, lawyers, labour leaders, politicians, and others called for an assault on poverty, slums, disreputable boarding houses, alcoholism, prostitution, sweatshop conditions, inadequate educational facilities, and other “social evils.” Although they represented an array of political positions and advocated a range of strategies to deal with what they deemed problems, historians have come to term this impulse “urban reform” or the “urban reform movement.” Over the past several decades there have developed two main approaches to the study of this flurry of activity in Canada. Some historians, mostly writing before the mid-1980s, argued that it was an effort to reconstitute “the nation” that arose in response to the anonymity and social conflict and ills apparent in modern, urban-industrial society.[1] More recently scholars have emphasized that in Canada reform often preceded urban-industrial development, and that the purpose of institutions that reformers supported, like later state agencies, was moral regulation and in particular fostering and sustaining a liberal order premised on patriarchal concepts of gender and related notions of race.[2]

My intention is not to diminish earlier studies. Instead, it is to demonstrate that understanding reform in Canada requires the addition of another layer of complexity to already existing analyses. In particular, it is to show that we must conceive of Canadian reformers and their institutions as rooted in and shaped by a broader and longer history of European, and particularly British, imperialism, and to do so by considering reform in Winnipeg from the 1870s up through the first decade of the twentieth century. The focus is on Winnipeg because the timing and conditions surrounding the city’s growth make it suggestive of broader trends in the Canadian national project. “Winnipeg” did not exist much before 1860, and it was not incorporated as a city until 1874. The development of this particular community represented an important shift in the region. The city began its life as a “scattered settlement of individual free traders, their stores and houses, outside of the confines of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s [HBC] Fort Garry.”[3] It was a reflection of the growing authority of proponents of the liberalization of trade and social relations more generally, which was so central to the post-1850 free-trade (or at least freer trade) empire. Over the next several decades, as settlers realized the envisioned future by occupying lands that only a few years earlier had been home to Metis and Aboriginal peoples, the trade between east and west (and between the west and the wider world) increased, and Winnipeg grew into the bustling industrial and commercial metropolis of the interior of the continent. The city, then, was quite literally the child of “the nation,”[4] as the Fathers of Confederation envisaged it, and, more than many of the earlier industrial centres in Ontario or further east, its health and development capture central tensions at the very heart of national project.

Winnipeg’s earliest reformers were among the first of many migrants from Europe and eastern Canada. The reform institutions these men and women developed were clearly intended to create “good citizens.” They were also, however, badges of civility for men and women who existed in a setting that, to many, appeared as a remote corner of the empire in which European predominance was not assured. Of course, one of the central qualities of Winnipeg’s history (as with the history of “the nation” more generally) is the rapidity with which it developed. The defeat of large-scale Metis and Aboriginal rebellions and the influx of settlers ensured that by the mid-1880s a liberal order oriented toward Britain and Canada would reign supreme. Yet Euro-Canadians’ firmer grip on the region did not mean that after this time colonialism ceased to be significant. Even though the institutions lost some of their symbolic value, like settler nationalists elsewhere, those engaged in them had to continue to deal with the fact that their nation was predicated on dispossession and occupation long after this process was complete. After the mid-1880s the elite nationalists at the centre of reform in the city increasingly dealt with these qualities of their national past by embracing a discourse of settler nationalism that presented the interior of the continent as devoid of humanity, history, and tradition. These ways of speaking about the territory over which settlers held dominion allowed for considerable optimism. The presumed absence of history and tradition in the region provided reformers with an opportunity to develop the “good society” unencumbered by the corrupting influences that produced misery in long-established centres in Europe and elsewhere. Ideals of “emptiness” and the presumption that liberal-capitalism itself was without problems, however, had important ramifications for how reformers explained and responded to social ills. According to these men and women, class and class division were the results of corrupting inheritances and were not inherent in the prevailing political economy itself. If the west was devoid of inheritances, then, when migrants to the region found themselves impoverished or living with other social ills born of exploitation, reformers concluded that an outside influence explained their predicament. Usually they attributed the problems that migrants experienced in their newly adopted home to problematic racial qualities they procured in the environments from which they hailed, and the remedy for post-arrival problems was assimilation rather than social and economic restructuring.


Though historians have tended to portray them as distinct, the histories of Winnipeg, Fort Garry, Red River, and of Hudson’s Bay Company rule over the North American interior were fundamentally linked. The term Winnipeg derived from the Cree word for the lake that lay about forty miles north of Upper Fort Garry. When locals began to use the term to refer to area near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in southern Manitoba, it did not represent the development of a distinct entity. Indeed, the ambiguity of that to which the term actually referred reportedly confused more than one contemporary visitor. As journalist George Elliot noted, “The names Fort Garry and Winnipeg being both used leads to some confusion amongst our eastern friends, some having been led to believe that they are two distinct places.” In reality, he furthered, this was not the case. Instead, Fort Garry was the “old name of the place” and Winnipeg was what, after the Sayer trial,[5] free traders eventually came to call their collection of stores, residences, and warehouses to distinguish themselves collectively from the old order.[6]

For the decade or so after 1850, the bulk of the free traders in the region were, as they had been throughout the early nineteenth century, men like Andrew McDermot, Andrew Bannatyne, and James Sinclair who were either Metis or Britons (mostly retired HBC officers) with Metis families. By the later 1850s, however, a growing number of American and Canadian traders—men like E. L. Barber, Alexander Begg, William Buckingham, William Coldwell, H. S. Donaldson, George Emmerling, W. G. Fonseca, Francois Gingras, W. H. Lyon, Henry McKenney, R. Patterson, and John Christian Schultz—filtered into the settlement. These men were united in their commitment to free trade. They were not at all united in their political loyalties. Some, such as Gingras, Lyon, and Donaldson, were Americans who represented American firms. They had strong ties to the south and advocated the annexation of the territory by the United States. Others, such as Bannatyne and McDermot, were more closely linked with the local Red River community. They, along with a host of other, similarly situated men and women, hoped that “a Crown colony could be created as the Select Committee of 1857 recommended for Vancouver Isle, and as had been done for that colony in 1858.”[7] Men like Buckingham, Coldwell, McKenney, and Schultz arrived from the eastern British North American colonies. They had close connections with proponents of Canadian annexation of the region. In fact, before travelling to the prairies, both Buckingham and Coldwell worked for George Brown who, through his newspaper (the Globe) launched a persistent campaign to encourage colonial and British officials to create a transcontinental Canadian nation.[8] It is little wonder that when they began the first newspaper in Red River, the Nor’Wester, they preached a similar line.[9]

Were we to make a judgment based on popular sentiment within Winnipeg and Red River in the late 1850s and 1860s, Canadian annexation would likely have appeared the least likely of the three possible ways forward. One of the key goals of the free traders that “Winnipeg” came to represent had been to promote economic opportunities, and particularly to provide the Red River Metis with a means of social mobility.[10] A desire for self-determination among residents of Red River, as well as the fact that influential men like McDermot supported the scheme, meant that there was widespread support for the development of a Crown colony in the region. There was also a significant pull from the south as well. From the beginning of “illicit” trading up through to the 1870s, the majority of free trading in the colony was with American centres, and as early as the 1840s residents of the colony had formally requested that the United States government make them American citizens.[11] Moreover, in subsequent years the vast majority of the colony’s trade and its communication with the outside world was with and through U.S. centres. By contrast, the eastern British North American colonies were far removed, and even into the 1870s there were only three arduous ways to reach the settlement. Settlers could reach it overland via the Lake of the Woods, through the Hudson Bay route through Lake Winnipeg, or travel through the United States as far as St. Paul and then take an oxcart or flatboat to Winnipeg.[12] Moreover, the “Canadian party,” led by Schultz, not only heaped criticism on the HBC, but also hurled racist and other disparaging remarks at the colony’s Metis (and particularly its Roman Catholic francophone Metis) population.[13] The Canadians’ adherence to such ideas no doubt made this option less appealing than it might otherwise have been.

Developments outside of, and not directly related to, the locality itself ultimately determined what was “reasonable.” The outbreak of the American Civil War meant that, at least for the moment, American concern with the Northwest waned. Developments in Britain and the empire were equally important. Since the mid-nineteenth century social turmoil in Europe and the threat of upheaval in Britain itself made reducing the costs of empire to men and women “at home” more urgent than they had been in earlier times. Developments within the British Empire were, however, equally important. While concerns about the expense of administering the empire had been present for many decades prior to the mid-nineteenth century, at mid-century the threat of social upheaval in Britain made reducing direct and indirect taxes incurred to sustain the empire urgent.[14] Official hesitancy to add to the costs of administering empire meant that there was little support for the establishment of a Crown colony, because officials in London did not want to have to help shoulder the cost of governing such an entity. Moreover, social unrest in Jamaica, India, and New Zealand at or around the middle of the nineteenth century produced a crisis in imperial administration.[15] At the same time an increase in the number and extent of industrial centres in the world and the opening of agricultural hinterlands flooded world markets with both agricultural and industrial products, thereby producing a global depression in profits, which contemporaries referred to simply as the “Great Depression” or “great climacteric.”[16] In this context, “the settlement of British peoples in colonial spaces emerged as an expedient way of securing Britain’s interests abroad and of relieving pressures at home.”[17] In North America specifically, building a nation above the forty-ninth parallel was a way of meeting the challenge of American expansionism.[18] The hope was that Canada would assume the burden of government between Lake Superior and the Rockies. Homesteaders would bring the land under cultivation and, after the railway joined them to the East, would exchange agricultural commodities for industrial manufactures produced in the East, thereby providing for the economic viability of the nation. The nation, in turn, would be a trading partner for Britain, and a “frontier of investment” for its financiers.[19] Thus, the colonial secretary “contented himself with acting as mediator between the Company and the ambitious colony.”[20]

British backing for Canadian annexation meant that Winnipeg—which initially reflected the growing strength of free traders in Red River settlement and to some degree symbolized a Metis victory over the racist and exclusionary policies of the Hudson’s Bay Company—was now destined to become a Canadian city. The triumph of the Canadians in the region was important for a variety of reasons. For the Metis, for example, it meant that—while they may have staved off marginalization within an imperial regime based on private trading companies—they now faced a similar fate in an imperial regime centred on colonial nation building. It also had important ramifications for the orientation and development of the city. That is, as the site through which the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)—the main transportation artery to and from the West—travelled, Winnipeg became the gateway to the interior, and virtually everything and everyone going to and from the region passing through the city. Winnipeg firms supplied settlers with the products and equipment they needed for farming and processed settlers’ grain and livestock. The city also functioned as a clearing house for labour needed in work and construction camps further west and in the regions north of the city. This strategic location produced phenomenal urban, industrial, and commercial growth, and by the last decade of the nineteenth century the city was unquestionably the regional metropolis within a project of British settler colonialism.[21]


Winnipeg’s reformers were a diverse lot. The earliest reformers had been in the West well before there was anything resembling a city in it. Some of these people were among the Red River free traders who challenged company rule in the 1840s and who remained important members of the Winnipeg business community after Canadian annexation. Andrew McDermot, for example, travelled to the region in 1812 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, though later became wealthy by operating his own independent stores.[22] A. G. B. Bannatyne arrived from the Orkney Islands in the mid-1840s also to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. When his contract expired in 1851, he married McDermot’s daughter, Annie, and after a brief period of partnership with his father-in-law, started his own private dry goods business, and later adapted to the changing business environment by becoming a grain trader and flour miller. Others, like James H. Ashdown, George Bryce, W. N. Kennedy, Stewart Mulvey, John Christian Schultz, and George Young, were early arrivals from the East who either went west hoping to become wealthy if the region were annexed by Canada, or had come to the region to put down the Metis rebellion of 1869–70 and stayed to take advantage of the opportunities arising from annexation.[23] Over the course of the nineteenth century, newly arrived businessmen and their wives and a growing number of socially concerned bourgeois professionals joined, and ultimately superseded, the earlier reformers in an expanding number of agencies and initiatives. Among the newly arrived businessmen were people like lawyer and eventually attorney general Colin H. Campbell and his wife Minnie J. B. Campbell, Hugh and Agnes Macdonald (son of Sir John A. Macdonald), and J. Stewart Tupper (eldest son of Sir Charles Tupper). The professionals included authors and suffragists like Lillian and Francis Beynon, E. Cora Hind, Nellie McClung, and A. V. Thomas, and medical doctors like Amelia and Lillian Yeomans, editors like George Chipman, ministers like Charles Gordon and J. S. Woodsworth, and politicians like Fred Dixon, among others.

These men and women were not a uniform group. For instance, men like Bannatyne and McDermot in the earlier group had stronger connections to Red River, were sympathetic to the Metis, and had been somewhat ambivalent about Canadian annexation (in fact, Bannatyne even served in Riel’s provisional government).[24] By contrast, Mulvey and Schultz exemplified the anti-Catholicism and racism characteristic of the “Canadian party” more generally. With the later arrivals, long-time supporters of the Conservative party like Minnie and Colin Campbell, Macdonald, and Tupper differed from suffragists like the Beynons, Hind, and McClung, and from progressive thinkers like Dixon and Woodsworth. Historians have often dealt with this diversity of opinions and aims by categorizing particular individuals and groups as radical, conservative, progressive, moderate, and so on.[25] To some degree this is a useful exercise, for there were important distinctions between particular individuals and organizations. Yet it is important not to allow a particular typology imposed heuristically to allow for a nuanced understanding of the past to obscure the common bonds that allow us to legitimately call this diversity of perspectives, aims, and ideas by one name.

Reform was ultimately the institutional expression of a broad ideological transformation necessitated by two main unintended and largely unanticipated developments within capitalist societies in the nineteenth century. On the one hand, men and women in industrial societies, and particularly in the most developed ones, could not help but become aware of the fact that over the course of the nineteenth century the socio-economic system involved “an uneven, but steady and cumulatively vast expansion of the activities and responsibilities of both the state and local authorities. More and more aspects of economic and social life came under legal regulation and restriction.” The increasing regulation provided a reality that did not correspond to such central classical liberal beliefs as that of the necessity of a minimalist state, or the notion that freedom “consisted essentially in the absence of all but a minimum of law, regulation, and compulsion.”[26] On the other hand, the more complex, more concentrated economic system that gave rise to the need for regulation and coordination also led to the amassing of men and women near the facilities that employed an expanding portion of the population. The concentration of working-class men and women into centres where they lived out and talked about their similar existence provided fertile ground from which class consciousness and programs for social change, some of which entailed the restructuring of the social order itself, could and did develop. These two connected developments constituted the problem with which a generation of thinkers in a host of localities—for example, Britons like T. H. Green, L. T. Hobshouse, J. M. Keynes, and Arnold Toynbee, Germans like Karl Knies, Wilhelm Roscher, and Gustav von Schmoller, Americans like Henry Carter Adams, J. R. Commons, and Richard Ely, and Canadians like Adam Shortt and Oscar Skelton—wrestled. More specifically, these individuals took it as their task to provide a theoretical basis for, and to think through the implications of, a move away from conceiving of society as a collection of discrete individuals whose central concern was with the defence of the “freedom of the individual,” and toward a more organic conception of human relatedness and a greater emphasis on the “condition of the people.”[27] Doing so was necessary to provide some parallel between theory and actually existing liberalism. It was also a precondition for developing a state whose legitimacy stemmed from a polity comprising increasingly the “rabble” who liberals traditionally excluded.[28]

The position that arose from these conditions was what has been termed the “new” liberalism or, perhaps more accurately, “developmental liberal democracy.”[29] That is, liberals began to voice theories, to direct government money, and to build government agencies that reflected the belief that the state’s legitimacy lay in the fact that it ostensibly increased the “amount of personal self-development of all members of the society” by nurturing men and women so as to provide conditions and instill individuals with characteristics needed for success.[30] While it was not of necessity an urban phenomenon, the cities that grew up, or increased in size, as industry became more and more centralized had a special resonance, for, as Paul Rutherford has pointed out, “in the city all the ills of modern society were concentrated and highly visible.”[31]

Ultimately, of course, these transformations led to the development of state systems and state ideals that sustained a liberal social order supposedly serving the needs of the masses to whom it was responsible. As other scholars have suggested, the practices and ideals that later became enshrined in state agencies began their life in privately financed, voluntary organizations.[32] It is this assortment of institutions that emerged organically from class conflict in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that we now lump together as “reform.” Recognizing that reform was a part of this broader process of adjusting to and dealing with bureaucratization of everyday life and the social upheaval and misery that accompanied capitalist concentration is important for studying reform for two main reasons. First, this common project of developing institutions and encouraging social practices and agencies conducive to the advent of such a liberal order linked various reformers.[33] In Winnipeg, Conservatives like Colin and Minnie Campbell and Rodmund Roblin could reject the idea that women ought to be part of the formal political process and thereby find themselves opposing women like the Beynon sisters, E. Cora Hind, Nellie McClung, and men like C. W. Gordon and J. S. Woodsworth. Nevertheless, whatever they thought about suffrage, all these men and women could agree that an expanded social role for women was necessary in a context wherein there was an increasing consensus that nurturing and care giving, heretofore relegated to the “private realm,” was necessary in the “public world.” While these men and women could and did disagree vehemently over particular issues, it is important not allow our own interest in these differences of strategy to overshadow the essential similarities of the ends toward which all of these men and women worked. Indeed, to do so obscures even while it illuminates, for reformers like McClung and the Beynons could disagree with Minnie Campbell and other more conservative thinkers. In spite of their differences, however, they could and did also belong to the same organizations (organizations that were often financed partly by men like Campbell and Roblin) and collaborate regularly.[34]

Understanding that reform was an expression of these broader material and ideological transformations within capitalist society generally is also significant for the way we examine the history of these efforts in particular locales. Canadian historians have often emphasized the American influences in Canadian reform efforts.[35] Winnipeg reformers were aware of and in contact with their American counterparts. J. S. Woodsworth, for example, quoted at length American labour economist John R. Commons. Similarly, Jane Addams’s settlement house work in Chicago was no doubt partly the inspiration for Woodsworth’s All People’s Mission.[36] Due to the fact that Canadian schools did not accept women, Lillian and Amelia Yeomans, some of Winnipeg’s earlier medical doctors and staunch proponents of “social medicine,” went to medical school at the University of Michigan.[37] Yet there is nothing distinctly American about the institutions and ideals these men and women promoted. Addams fashioned her own institution after earlier settlement houses British reformers developed in the slums of London.[38] John R. Commons trained under Richard T. Ely. While Ely was an American economist, he studied under and drew heavily on the works of Karl Knies, one of the leading lights in the German historical school of economics, a creation of the “organic tradition of German liberalism,” which took on an increasingly critical tone as it became clear that classical liberal economics could not “deal with the massive poverty of the laboring class.”[39] Similarly, even though both Yeomans were trained in the United States, Amelia’s efforts in Winnipeg grew out of the basic conviction, shared with virtually every other reformer in Europe and North America, that it was necessary to address social ills in order to deal with physical ills.[40]

The point here is not to trace out the lineage of every reformer in Winnipeg. It is, rather, to indicate that Winnipegers, like Americans and reformers more generally speaking, were part of a transnational dialogue, and what was important in determining the emergence and meaning of reform were the specific conditions in and history of the locale. As we have already seen, British support for colonial nation-building projects meant that by 1870 Winnipeg was destined to become a Canadian city. This turn of events meant that up through to the first decade of the twentieth century its population was heavily British or of British descent and that the ways they thought about themselves, the wider world, and the relationships between the former and the latter was coloured to a great extent by an imperial orientation. That Winnipeg reformers were enmeshed in, and came to a consciousness of themselves through and in light of, such a transnational web of social relations was important for the reform in the early years of the city’s history in at least two central ways. British political and economic support for mass settlement and colonial nation building created a distinction between colonies of settlement and the dependent empire. The difference between the two was theoretically straightforward. The dependent empire consisted primarily of indigenous people that the British administered directly or dominated through a system of collaboration.[41] By contrast, the empire of settlement consisted of predominantly European-descended populations who embraced social, political, cultural, and economic systems that resembled those in the in the countries from which they hailed. The distinction, however, was more than an innocuous label designed to differentiate two kinds of imperial relationship. The dependent empire consisted of the “lesser races” who were not fit for self-government and other “British institutions” and “traditions.” By contrast, those in settler societies were not only fully human beings equal to Britons, but were a kind of extension of Britain itself. They were among the Britons of what colonial nationalists called a “Greater Britain”—a transnational community of men and women whose members ostensibly shared a common set of values and institutions.[42] Of course, the terms British institutions, British traditions, and true Britisher conveyed no precise meaning. Depending on how people defined them, these very contestable terms could serve to bolster a wide variety of social orders. When elite Winnipegers spoke of Britishness, they, like their counterparts in other colonies of settlement, articulated what was essentially an idealized version of English bourgeois life.[43] In terms of politics and economics, they envisaged a liberal-capitalist society.[44] In the context of the nineteenth century, this meant not only private property, the production and exchange of commodities, and constitutional government, but also a host of mutually determining ideas about race and gender.[45] According to most nineteenth-century liberals, the “individuals”—i.e. fully functioning human beings—in this society would be sober, white, English-speaking patriarchs who would be assisted by saintly, cultured, nurturing women.[46]

The men and women at the core of Winnipeg’s reform movement were adamant that they were among the finest examples of the “British race,” and yet they were woefully aware that life in the territory they inhabited differed markedly from the one implied in prevailing standards of Britishness. Indeed, at its incorporation in 1874 and for several years thereafter, for instance, Winnipeg was a small, isolated collection of wooden and brick or brick-veneered buildings connected by what many observers referred to as a “river” of thick greasy mud bordered by partially submerged plank sidewalks.[47] Before the transcontinental railway reached it, it could take even those living in Ontario a week or more of travel by train, boat, and horse or ox and wagon to reach Winnipeg. Up through much of the 1870s there is evidence that Aboriginal people were not only present, but also that resisted settler encroachment.[48] Moreover, official statistics indicate gender parity in the city at an early date. Yet the seasonality of the rhythm of work on the prairies and a succession of waves of migration meant that homosocial relations (as opposed to nuclear families), and a fair amount of drinking, fighting, gambling, and prostitution were typical throughout the late nineteenth century.[49]

The earliest organizations in the city, then, were a hospital (1872), a YMCA (1879), and an organization called the Christian Women’s Union (1881). In part these institutions provided necessary housing in a setting where accommodation was scarce, and, in the case of the hospital, also provided care for injured workers from nearby camps and for the sick poor in Winnipeg itself.[50] Yet the YMCA, the CMU, and the hospital all were organized and operated by men and women who saw the causes of illness and disease as linked with moral failings and what they deemed deviant behaviour. Thus, while they treated injured and sick men and women in the hospital, they also saw counselling as central to long-term recovery and well-being, and so, just as others would later work through schools and educational organizations, early Winnipeg elites used the hospital as a means of providing moral instruction. While Winnipeg’s elite saw conformity to particular, mutually determining concepts of race and gender as indicative of appropriate and healthy living, Winnipegers’ imperial orientation meant that they framed their institutions in terms of “civility,” as that concept came to be defined in and through imperial relations.[51] For elites in the city, reform was a way of imposing standards of Britishness that became important as British policy changed in the mid-nineteenth century.

Moreover, the meaning that reform institutions took on for reformers themselves reflected the centrality of the empire to reformers’ experience. The elites at the core of Winnipeg’s reform movement sometimes proclaimed that a bright future awaited their city and country. This confidence, however, masked a considerable degree of uncertainty, and this underlying recognition of the precariousness of the imperial endeavour produced distinctive social dynamics in Winnipeg just as it had in Red River at an earlier time.[52] George Elliot hinted at this dynamic when he noted that “the streets at all hours of the day present a curious mixture of civilization and savagery, and in addition to the various costumes of the natives . . . there is now here the young lady as well as the young gent of fashion, looking as neat in some instances and as gaudy in others, as they are to be found in Gotham or Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal.” Several years later Emma Louisa Averill, a recent arrival from Liverpool, England, alluded to it more directly in noting that locals were “amusingly showy” in their striving to be “in accordance with English taste.”[53] What these observers pointed to was a more general tendency among Winnipeg’s elite to engage in a kind of performance aimed at demonstrating their civility, a performance of which fashion was only one aspect. That is, in addition to keeping abreast of, and adorning themselves in, the latest English fashion, they also paused each day for afternoon tea, reportedly spoke in contrived English accents, held balls in which they sought to replicate the costumes and practices of the metropole, and spent lavishly to join their like-minded counterparts throughout the empire in celebrating the Queen’s birthday.[54]

Perhaps more germane to reform is that they also built “British institutions.” Before it had a railway connection, Winnipeg had foreign missionary societies, shooting clubs, colleges, a university, a theatre company, numerous churches, a private men’s social club, fraternal societies, and sporting organizations, all of which were touted as evidence of the “civilized” nature of the locality.[55] Similarly, when local elites like Ashdown, Bannatyne, and Bryce constructed reform institutions, they and many of their counterparts celebrated and publicized them as evidence that Winnipeg was home to the modern, progressively minded men and women who developed them. Thus, the arrival of Lillian Yeomans in 1882 did not simply mean that there was one more health professional to attend to the needs of the populace. Rather, as one Manitoba Free Press reporter proclaimed, this event demonstrated the progressivism of the “Chicago of the North.” “Winnipeg,” the reporter explained, “does not propose to be behind any other place in any respect, and now it has a lady doctor, and one, we believe worthy of the place.”[56] Likewise, several years earlier when Ashdown, McMicken, Schultz, and others organized the earliest reform agencies, they did so in part to demonstrate that Winnipegers had “not failed to attend to the moral and intellectual wants within . . . [their city’s] limits” in a manner similar to their British brothers and sisters at “home” and throughout the empire.[57]


Winnipeg did not remain an isolated frontier outpost for long. Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the city’s history, like the nation of which it was a part, is the rapidity with which it developed. It grew from a small, muddy outpost in 1874 to a city (Canada’s third largest) of over 100,000 in just over three decades. During this time it also developed sizeable commercial and industrial sectors, and even though some of the settler capitalists who established firms in the city benefited from protective tariffs, the success of commercial and industrial concerns in the city depended on the ability of their owners to compete with increasingly large concerns abroad.[58] Social and residential structures in the city reflected the increasing disparity of wealth associated with the advent of a monopoly capitalist order in Canada. Natural barriers and limited transportation meant that early in its history the city was relatively socially diverse and centralized. With the bridging of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, and the advent of streetcars, bicycles, and, later, automobiles, the city’s more affluent residents began to migrate out of the increasingly overcrowded original centre around the intersection of Main Street, Portage Avenue, and Notre Dame Avenue to build stately homes on or near the banks of the Assiniboine. As Don Nerbas has pointed out, the timing of the decision to move to more exclusive neighbourhoods seems to have reflected the differing origins of the Winnipeg bourgeoisie. Those who came from comparably modest backgrounds (what Nerbas terms “Tradesmen turned manufacturers”) like J. H. Ashdown seem to have remained in older parts of the city longer, while those from old money—transplanted Central Canadian and British bourgeois men and women—were more anxious to distance themselves from those lower down the class ladder.[59]

In any event, by the turn of the century even these holdouts migrated to newer, southern parts of the city, and there was an increasingly sharp divide between the park-like setting of primarily Anglo-Canadian bourgeois enclaves near Rosyln Road, Wellington Crescent, and in Armstrong’s Point, and the sometimes unimaginably poor, increasingly culturally diverse working-class North End.[60] Far from constituted orderly and prosperous men, women, and children organized into family units, the older and northern sections of the city, which were home to a disproportionately large number of Winnipeg’s residents, became a collection of ghettos. In this part of the city immigrants often were of central and eastern European origin, frequently lived in unsanitary overcrowded shacks, and generally men, women, and children alike worked long hours to scrape together a meagre living.[61] It was, as one novelist who grew up in this part of the city recalled, “a howling chaos,” an “endless grey expanse of moldering ruin; a heap of seething unwashed children, sick men in grey underwear, vast sweaty women in vaster petticoats.”[62]

That Winnipeg’s businessmen emerged in relation to a world order in which ownership was consolidated in fewer and fewer hands was significant for reform. Indeed, a large number of Winnipeg’s reform institutions emerged in response to the poverty and misery associated with monopoly capitalism in Canada. In later years the same people who had organized the hospital, the YMCA, and the CWU continued to lead in the city’s reform movement. Especially after 1890 they were joined by a growing number of socially concerned professionals like the Beynons, Chipman, McClung, Woodsworth, and others. Together these men and women developed literally dozens more institutions. Generally, newly developed organizations reflected the increasing size of the city’s population. Thus, long-established institutions like the General Hospital soon rationalized the collection of supplies and resources needed to sustain an expanding facility by developing the Winnipeg Hospital Aid Society in the early 1890s. They also reflected important demographic shifts as well, and soon the city was home to, among other organizations, assimilation societies, day-care centres, a children’s home, free kindergartens, a seniors’ home, and numerous organizations aimed at single, female wage earners[63] who became more numerous as the growth of mass production and distribution was accompanied by an increase in and feminization of tertiary and retail work.[64] Moreover, as the city continued to grow, reformers expanded and moved toward a greater degree of centralization and systematization of their efforts. In 1894, the women who helped to establish this array of organizations, for example, coordinated their work through the Local Council of Winnipeg Women.[65] The city’s prominent men also came together to expand and regularize the work of longstanding voluntary and privately funded institutions like the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission.

After the turn of the century, the city government became increasingly involved with caring for Winnipeg’s ill, indigent, and “endangered” residents by regulating and coordinating “relief work” in ways that replicated and built upon longstanding practices. In 1908 they established the Council of Associated Charities and hired a “professional” social worker. The social worker’s job was to coordinate the charities in the city and to ensure that aid to the ill and indigent was administered “scientifically.”[66] About six years later a more rigidly structured Social Welfare Association superseded the council. The elite voluntary societies were operated and governed by the association. Reform organizations in the city were represented in the association according to the size of their membership. It held monthly meetings, and association officers’ decisions were binding on affiliated societies. The establishment of the Social Welfare Commission of the City of Winnipeg in 1917 signalled a reversion to a government-centred system. The major difference between the commission and the Social Welfare Association was that employees of the city, rather than a board elected exclusively by participants in reform organizations, administered the organization.[67] The move from private to public was a matter of changing the procedure for choosing leaders and of formalizing what had been up to 1917 a regular, if slightly varied, expenditure by City Council.[68]

Important as industrialization, urbanization, and immigration were for the expansion and changing nature of reform in Winnipeg, colonialism and the imperial past remained significant to reformers and their ideology, even if they thought about themselves and their institutions in different ways as conditions in the locale and in the broader empire with which it was connected shifted. There were two major differences between the realities that Winnipegers faced in 1874, and those that they faced after 1890. First, the influx of settlers meant that concerns about “Indian wars” and rebellions posing a serious threat to the liberal order in western Canada were greatly diminished by the latter date. Second, by the 1890s the geopolitical scene had changed considerably. Historians like E. J. Hobsbawm have termed the period from 1870 to 1915 the “age of empire” for good reason. For several decades after that time a handful of industrial centres in Europe and North America carved up and dominated the non-industrial world.[69]

The Aboriginal population’s declining resistance to European occupation of their lands and the broader geopolitical changes allowed for a drastically different settler discourse. After 1890, those who did consider Aboriginal peoples explicitly discussed their history and mused about what the bones and other artifacts they retrieved from burial sites revealed about the characteristics of their societies. The tendency, however, was for local elites to ignore Aboriginal peoples altogether. That is, they developed nationalist perspectives in which they cast the interior of North America as an “empty space.” Indeed, according to these men and women, the west was a “blank slate.” It was a wilderness region in which “tradition” and “custom” were absent.[70] These ways of speaking about the world did not reflect the fact that the interior actually was devoid of people, or that the settler elites who established Winnipeg’s reform institutions were unaware of the fact of the Aboriginal past. Indeed, as we have seen, many of Winnipeg’s early residents (who were also often reformers) witnessed and sometimes participated in putting down the Riel rebellions and had been the ones to deal with lower-level Aboriginal resistance on a more quotidian basis as well.[71] The “deafening silences” apparent in nationalist discourses during the last years of the nineteenth and first years of the twentieth century were a way of dealing with tensions that did and do confront settlers in a range of locales.[72] In particular, it reflected, as Anthony Moran has noted, the fact that settlers in Canada, like their counterparts elsewhere, had to “engage with histories of indigenous dispossession in order to explain the nature and quality of their national existence.”[73] The erasing of Aboriginality from the prairies was not evidence of ignorance of their presence historically and otherwise. Instead, it was a way of dehumanizing Aboriginal men and women by treating them “as part of the natural landscape.” In this way of speaking, Aboriginal men and women were not truly human subjects with their own history and tradition, but, as Franz Fanon once noted of a different context, part of the “natural background to the human presence” of the colonizers.[74]

At the same time, earlier tendencies in settlers’ thinking remained constant. That is, in the emergent “age of empire” reformers continued to understand the world as comprising more and less advanced races, and the “advanced” peoples continued to be of European origin. Yet they also articulated a more complex narrative in which Canada had a vital role. In their view, human history was teleological. The movement was away from “savagery,” “incivility,” and/or “backwardness,” and toward a fully human or “civilized” and “modern” society. Societies that contained within them the values, practices, and systems of governance most closely aligned with what was “natural” to human beings found success.[75] That is, they were more affluent and powerful than other societies. It is not surprising that many settlers viewed the British or Anglo-Saxon race as the premier example of humanity. In these years Britain was the world’s wealthiest nation and its foremost imperial power. According to the logic of the already mentioned view, then, the vastness of the empire stood as evidence that the “British race” and its moral and spiritual qualities, traits, and propensities, and the political, economic, and cultural orders that embodied them were most suited to presumed social laws.[76]

The enduring desire to be, and to be considered, a “British people” led elites in Winnipeg to support the empire in word and also to spend a great deal of time, energy, and money expressing their devotion to the Crown. They built and named schools after important imperial figures, greeted visiting royals with lavish celebrations, raised monuments to commemorate important figures and events, undertook and wrote and read about pilgrimages to the “heart of the empire” (London), and held Empire Balls and Pageants. They also distributed Union Jacks to settlers, undertook speaking tours on Empire Day, and played “British sports.”[77] For the most part, reformers in Winnipeg did not wish to reproduce the realities of life on the British Isles. Indeed, many intensely disliked British peoples because they had been corrupted and threatened to contaminate the Canadian environment with ideals and ideologies—notions of exclusivity and entitlement on the one hand, and socialism and anarchism on the other—born of their unnatural existence in the rigidly divided class societies from which they hailed.[78] The promise of Canada lay with its presumed “emptiness.” This vacuousness provided a setting in which abundant resources and a bracing climate that would “breed and maintain the most virile community of Anglo-Saxons in the world.”[79] Individual property holders, pursuing their respective self-interests on the level playing field of the Canadian prairies, would provide the foundations for a society that functioned according to what was “natural” to the human condition. According to nationalists, the region into which they expanded lacked “tradition” and would transform the men and women who travelled to it by freeing them from “the restraints of custom and surrounding,” allowing them to “shed all that was superficial in their make-ups.”[80] Canada provided a setting not for a “little Britain,” but for a “better Britain.”[81] It would be a society in which the bourgeois qualities, traits, and/or politico-ethical principles that ostensibly explained the vastness of the empire in the first place could find their fullest expression. They could create not only a powerful nation, but a nation that included only what was “best in civilization.”[82]

Taken together, these ways of coming to terms with Aboriginal dispossession and the broader, international shifts in the “age of empire” had important consequences for how reformers’ understanding of their role, and their perceptions and responses to social ills in their midst. With their own understanding of their organizations, for example, Winnipeg reformers framed their reform efforts so as to make them consistent with their nationalism. That is, rather than presenting themselves as dealing with a problematic pre-existing population, they spoke as if they guarded against the advent of a corrupt society in the supposedly empty space into which they expanded. Their goal was to put in place a “solid foundation” for the society that would develop, for if they failed to do so, as Presbyterian minister Charles Gordon explained to his congregation, “the failure is not for our generation alone, but for many generations to follow.”[83]

In terms of the cause of social ills in the city, even though elites in the city may have viewed the West as a “blank slate,” the success of commercial and industrial concerns in the city depended on the ability of their owners to compete with increasingly large concerns abroad. Longstanding developments elsewhere could and did circumscribe the possibilities they could realize. Of particular significance was the fact that for many decades, and sometimes even centuries, the process of capitalist accumulation and concomitant changes in methods of producing and in the social relations related to them had been underway in Europe, eastern Canada, and in the United States. When Winnipegers set out to develop a capitalist society in the prairies, then, to survive in such an environment, they had to use methods of production that allowed them to produce commodities at a cost comparable to those elsewhere in the capitalist world.[84]

Of course, methods of production are themselves not limited to the confines of factory walls. Rather, they have significance for the whole system of living that prevails among a population engaged in production. For instance, as is well known, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a global depression in profits encouraged some business owners to increase the concentration of ownership, and to reduce the wage bill either by simply paying workers less, or by increasing the productivity of labour through “rationalization.”[85] The language of economics can seem rather detached and “scientific.” It is important to remember, however, that the shifts and changes in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Western capitalism had important implications for the quality of—and the general ways in which large numbers of ordinary men and women lived—their lives. Lowered wages or greater unemployment or underemployment caused by “rationalization,” for example, meant that large numbers of people lived with less material comfort and more uncertainty. As is implied above, the grinding poverty found in Winnipeg’s North End was in part the social result of Winnipeg’s businessmen adopting methods of production abroad. It also could mean that large numbers of people could not live according to the bourgeois norms that reformers advocated. While there is no Winnipeg study comparable to, say, Bettina Bradbury’s study of working-class families in Montreal, it is apparent that young women frequently did not remain in the “private sphere.”[86] Rather, they often worked for one of the city’s confectionaries or department stores.[87] Moreover, even those who did not work for wages adopted other survival strategies that greatly unsettled bourgeois reformers. For instance, many women in the North End took in large numbers of single, male boarders to earn money. In part elite reservations may have had to do with the fact that overcrowding and the fact that it did nothing to dissipate the frequent outbreak of disease in the city.[88] They also found these arrangements disturbing because they believed that the close quarters and lack of privacy led to licentiousness and ultimately to the undermining of the bourgeois norms at the centre of reformers’ understanding of “civilized life.”[89]

Of course, historians of labour and the working class have long argued that class was important to the city, and even the most cursory examination of the city’s urban landscape indicates that class was vital to the history of Winnipeg. What is striking, however, is that reformers almost never spoke of class in discussions of their city and the social problems within it. The marginality of class as a concept is at least partly linked to the already mentioned ways that the elites who constituted the core of Winnipeg’s reform movement came to terms with the violence and dispossession at the core of their national project. That is, they did not view class division as a logical outgrowth of reproducing methods of production that prevailed elsewhere. Instead, they believed that there was nothing inherently inequitable about a liberal capitalist society, and they often linked social ills to the fact that the men and women who increasingly came to live in the west were of “races” that had been forged in corrupted social environments, or in regions that were further down the social evolutionary scale (i.e., they were from illiberal societies that contained rigid class structures). As George F. Chipman, editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide, explained, the reason for misery and social problems among eastern Europeans in the city was that they were “the unfortunate product of a civilisation that is 1000 years behind.” Their debased condition led them to accept low wages and poor living conditions.[90] Reformers experienced the structured socio-economic presence of class, and their world more generally speaking, in ways that were fundamentally linked with the “ways of seeing” and feeling produced by a broader and longer history of colonialism with which they were connected.[91]

Considering the diagnosis, it is not surprising that for the city’s reformers the central task became that of addressing the “race” problem rather than the “class” problem. That is, rather than reflecting on issues of political economy, reformers aimed to “refine” immigrants into a desirable populace. In essence, this meant setting out with the assumption that all immigrants could conform to the ideals that were central to reformers’ ideas about civilized life, reformers aimed to help these men and women and their children by instilling in them the habits and practices of what they thought were more advanced races. They were adamant, for example, that immigrants speak the English language, for, as Congregationalist minister J. B. Silcox explained, in this language was “imbedded the ethical and political principles that have made and will keep our nation great.” It “is a significant fact,” he continued, “that our language and literature are girdling the globe.”[92] Moreover, in a large number of their organizations (ranging from free kindergartens to assimilation societies), reformers taught immigrant women and girls to sew, they showed them how to keep a tidy home in true “British-Canadian fashion,” and they provided them with instruction on how to be good mothers. Predictably, immigrant boys learned to become industrial workers, and men to become sober, gallant, protectors of those dependent upon them.[93]


In many ways this interpretation of the aims, ideology, and efforts of reformers in Winnipeg confirms other scholars’ findings. As those scholars have suggested, reformers assumed that the nuclear family, dependent on a male breadwinner for sustenance, was the normal and desirable arrangement. They also worked from the presumption that households headed by a strong, principled, sober patriarch who was assisted by a saintly cultured female helpmate were characteristic of the so-called civilized life of the British or Anglo-Saxon race. Yet there was something more at work as well. While they struggled to impose these social mores, reformers were elites who helped to establish and continued to live in a settler society. Their ideology and the shape of the institutions they developed reflected that fact, even if they did so in ways that reflected the dynamism of the relationships between periphery and metropole.

Considering the history of reform in Winnipeg may not challenge conventional wisdom about the origins of the institutions and the ideology that underlay them, generally speaking. It does suggest, however, that we cannot presume that the patterns of social development in those centres apply to settler societies like Canada. Like other such societies, Canada was a project that received the backing of men of wealth and therefore became reasonable because, they hoped, it would ensure economic vitality for Britain and the new Canadian nation through reproducing and extending a liberal-capitalist politico-economic system among a newly settled population in the periphery.[94] That the country developed as part of a more general “empire of capital” means that the history of its cities and the social movements and subjectivities that developed within them must also be explicitly analyzed as enmeshed within and shaped by a web of social relations that enveloped the globe itself.

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