Current Problems

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

Manitoba founded by Métis but oppressive history soon made Indigenous premiership impossible

September 30, 2023

Last time Manitoba had an Indigenous premier was 136 years ago 

Black and white photo of the head and shoulders of a man with short wavy hair and a moustache. He is looking off to the right of the frame.
John Norquay was elected to the first Manitoba provincial assembly in 1870. He held several cabinet portfolios from 1871 until 1878, when he became premier, serving in that role until 1887. (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)

Manitoba has existed as a province for 153 years and, in that time, has had 19 premiers lead it through rewarding and turbulent times, marking milestones and influencing history.

Despite its lengthy resumé, the province comes up short in two significant measures. It has never elected a premier who is female or First Nations.

Depending how Manitobans cast their ballots on Oct. 3, new ground could be broken.

Heather Stefanson is the province’s first female premier, a position she has held since November 2021. But she didn’t lead the Progressive Conservatives to victory in an election. She won a leadership vote after Brian Pallister resigned.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who lived on the Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario, has the edge on Stefanson heading into the election, according to recent poll results.

But he insists he’s not out to make history for his ethnicity.

“I’m going to turn to great role models, leaders past that we’ve had, to try and be the best leader that I can be. But my goal is not to be the First Nations premier of Manitoba. My goal is to be the best premier of Manitoba,” Kinew told CBC News.

Three politicians, all in suits, speak at public events.
The leaders of Manitoba’s three main political parties, from left to right: Heather Stefanson (Progressive Conservatives), Wab Kinew (NDP) and Dougald Lamont (Liberals). (Darryl Dyck, John Woods, David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

Réal Carrière, an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s political studies department, said that’s probably the best approach for Kinew. Should Kinew win, it doesn’t mean Indigenous people will suddenly have more influence or a stronger voice. Representing all Manitobans is exactly what he will be required to do, Carrière said.

“It’s a very hard job to be Indigenous and be a political representative because you do have to balance the role. It’s very restrictive,” Carrière said.

In her time as premier, it’s not like Stefanson has advanced an agenda around women’s concerns, he said. “One thing it does signal is … an alternative voice with the potential to understand those issues and that’s an important thing for democracy,” Carrière said. “Western democracy has been dominated by white men and their voices, their perspectives.”

A victory by Kinew wouldn’t even necessarily be celebrated by all Indigenous people.

A head-and-shoulders image of a man in a red shirt, standing outside in the sun, a street in the background.
University of Manitoba professor Réal Carrière says a victory by Wab Kinew wouldn’t necessarily be celebrated by all Indigenous people. (Submitted by Réal Carrière)

There are Indigenous people who support different political parties and others who believe running for public office undermines Indigenous sovereignty, said Carrière, who has both First Nations and Métis ancestry.

“There’s still kind of a conception … that there’s a monolithic Indigenous peoples and that we all want the same thing. We don’t,” he said. “There’s a perspective that running for office, even voting, is a sign that you’re accepting colonialism, you’re accepting the oppression of Indigenous political orders.”

Whether it is supported or not, a Kinew victory would show Indigenous people the possibilities that exist “and that’s very aspirational,” Carrière said.

Manitoba’s 1st Indigenous premier

Since its founding, Manitoba has had one Indigenous premier, despite leading all provinces in terms of the proportion of its population who identify as Indigenous, according to Statistics Canada.

John Norquay, who was Métis, served as premier from 1878 to 1887.

Black and white photo of a man sitting in a chair, his head slightly tilted and resting on his right hand. He's got a black suit jacket and vest, with a watch chain seen looped from the vest.
Norquay was a big man who spoke in a soft, smooth way, says author Gerald Friesen. (Library and Archives Canada)

He oversaw the establishment of many of Manitoba’s foundational systems, said Gerald Friesen, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Manitoba from 1970 to 2011 and author of several books. “He was really supervising a cabinet and a government that put new Manitoba, the Manitoba we know, on the map,” Friesen said.

“The courts and the school districts and the university and the municipal governments and the highways and the branch railways, all of that stuff, even the route of the CPR, he had a hand in.”

A man with white hair and glasses is seen from the head and shoulders. He smiles at the camera and wears a white collared shirt.
Gerald Friesen has extensively studied John Norquay and has an upcoming book, set for release in April, The Honourable John Norquay: Indigenous Premier, Canadian Statesman. (Submitted by Gerald Friesen)

Norquay appealed to people because he related to them. He spoke a number of languages, including English, French, Cree and Saulteaux.  He also commanded attention because he was a big man — over six feet and weighing more than 300 pounds. Yet he carried a gentle touch.

“He spoke brilliantly and everybody commented on how eloquent he was and how he spoke with a soft, smooth way about him that they just found very attractive,” said Friesen, whose upcoming book is titled The Honourable John Norquay: Indigenous Premier, Canadian Statesman.

Honorary 1st premier: Louis Riel

In late 2019, Kinew introduced The Louis Riel Act to bestow Riel with the honorary title of “First Premier of Manitoba.” It was given Royal Assent and enacted in late 2021.

Riel’s provisional government negotiated the terms that led to the province entering Confederation. He never served as a Manitoba MLA but was elected three times as an MP. However, he refused to take his seat as he feared for his life and lived in exile.

Black and white photo of a group of 15 men from the 1870s. Most are standing, surrounding one man seated in the centre.
Louis Riel sits in the middle of the councillors of his provisional government in June 1870. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

One of the side effects of Confederation for Manitoba is that it began the suppression of Indigenous people.

Col. Garnet J. Wolseley led an expeditionary force from Ottawa to Winnipeg to oversee the transition of power from Riel to Canada, but also to confront Riel and the Métis for the Red River Resistance and execution of Ontarian Thomas Scott.

Riel and others from his government fled before the force arrived. But Métis who remained were tyrannized by the troops. Eventually, many moved west into Saskatchewan and Alberta, while others hid their ethnicity.

Even Norquay, in spite of his popularity, faced challenges. He was elected by acclamation in 1870, representing High Bluff. But by the second election in 1874, High Bluff had become home to many Ontarians, and Norquay moved to the Métis stronghold of St. Andrews for the support he needed.

“Norquay had a substantial following at St. Andrews but for the rest of the province, it had become very quickly European-Canadian,” Friesen said.

Black and white bird's eye view map of Winnipeg in 1880. It shows a bend in the river, steamboats and a handful of roads
A bird’s-eye-view map of Winnipeg in 1880, during John Norquay’s time in office as Manitoba premier.(Library and Archives Canada)

Norquay became premier in 1878 but won his seat by just eight votes. He managed to stay in office until a financial scandal in 1887. “If you look at the very first elections, at that point in the 1870s, a lot of people were Indigenous and a lot of people were Métis in Manitoba. But if you look at the trends, you start to see less … after 1885,” Carrière said.

Part of that was due to Métis leaving the province, while others buried their mixed blood ethnicity, unwilling to identify as Métis. “There was definitely a real negative time for Indigenous people. You kind of had to go underground,” Carrière said.

As for First Nations people, they were confined to reserves by the federal government, prohibited from participating in the Canadian electoral process unless they surrendered their Indian status and band membership.

It wasn’t until 1960 that Parliament granted First Nations the right to vote and run for office.

Like Norquay, whose term spanned a transition in societal views, Kinew is emerging at another crossroads, Friesen said.

“Canada has undergone a very significant change in the last decade and we are much more conscious of Indigenous people. We are much more aware that their civilizations are just as exciting and just as rich as any European one and that the 100 years when they were downgraded was a mistake and a tragic failure on the part of the rest of us,” he said.

“There is still racism in the province, of course, and Wab faces that, but he also has vast support among many, many whites in this province.”

The magnitude of the situation isn’t lost on Kinew, whose late father was a residential school survivor and was not allowed to vote as a young man. “And I have a shot at potentially leading the province,” Kinew said in an interview with The Canadian Press last month.

Click on the following link to view the “Premiers of Manitoba”


Darren Bernhardt, Reporter

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.