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The First Republic


In 1868 the illegal Republic of Manitoba was born – probably the strangest and wildest political experiment ever made in the Canadian west.

The republic was set up by Thomas Spence, newly arrived from the settlement of Fort Garry, where he had been involved in several unsuccessful political endeavors.

Setting himself up as a leader and having a certain knowledge of law, he set out to gain authority over all southern Manitoba land except territory within a 50 mile radius of Fort Garry which was governed by the Council of Assiniboia. He declared this the Republic of Manitoba with himself as president and the Capital at Portage la Prairie.

He called a meeting of settlers, a Council was chosen and oaths of allegiance were given to those who would take them. He sent off a letter to Lord Buckingham, the British Secretary of State, informing him of the united action of the settlers in the election of a government for the purpose of promoting the interests and welfare of the people.

The new republic met its first rebuff when the Hudson’s Bay Company officer at Portage refused to pay the import tax imposed to acquire revenue to build a council house and goal. He would pay no duty on goods imported for trade at his post, unless so ordered by the government of Ruperts Land.

The Council also encountered considerable difficulty when they proceeded to indict a shoemaker by the name of McPherson who lived in High Bluff, on a charge of treason. This man asserted that moneys collected by taxation, instead of being used for the goal, was in fact, purchasing beer and whiskey for the use of council members.

The two constables who set out to arrest McPherson were quite drunk when they approached his home. He resisted arrest and escaped on foot hoping to reach the boundary of Assiniboia, but the constables, on horseback, soon overtook him. Subsequently he was rescued from his captors by two neighbors who, after inquiring into the matter, advised him to go with the constables and be tried.

That same evening the neighbors set out for Portage la Prairie to attend the trial and, upon finding out that Mr. Spence was to be both accuser and judge of their friend McPherson, they proceeded to turn the trial into a wild fiasco. Shots were fired, lamps and table were overturned, chairs thrown through windows to provide escape openings for a double quick exit. The house was soon emptied except for Spence who was later found under the table whining for mercy.

This event broke the back of the republic completely. In the course of three months the council and Mr. Spence received a severe reprimand from Her Majesty’s State Secretary, stating that there could be no self-supporting government in Manitoba within the territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company; nor could there be any revenue collected, nor Indian treaties signed. In short, that Mr. Spence and his co-agitators were acting quite illegally.

The strong tone of the communication was sufficient to persuade the president of the Republic to lay aside, for all time, any further attempts of building a republic at Portage la Prairie. Accordingly Mr. Spence left the region, to appear later as a member of Louis Riel’s provisional government and the Republic of Manitoba collapsed.


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