John Norquay

John Norquay

Manitoba’s Only Metis Premier

by George Siamandas

Norquay had been born in a log house at the St Andrew’s settlement in 1841. As a boy he hunted buffalo with his family. After he became orphaned he became the protege of Bishop David Anderson and studied classical languages at St. John’s College. He was fluent in English, French, Cree and Saulteax.

He was descended from a long line of Hudson Bay Co employees and was from the original group of Selkirk settlers. He had many talents having already worked as a teacher, farmer, trapper. merchant, and fur trader. Norquay was the first Metis to be elected premier. Big John as he was called was a giant of a man estimated at about 300 pounds, and all muscle.

He was elected by acclamation at age 29 as the representative of High Bluff to Manitoba ‘s first legislature in 1870. The following year he became a cabinet minister.
He never lost an election but once won by only one vote. He often told the story of how an escaped bull had treed a Liberal voter on his way to the polls. Norquay became premier in 1878 after R A Davis’ retirement. His political career spanned the period of time in which Manitoba went from a fur trading area of 17,000 to an agricultural area of 120,000. He was so eloquent he could command the attention of even his opponents. He was a skilled orator who called for understanding between the Catholics and the Protestants.

Norquay gave stability during a time of great change. His portfolio saw him building Manitoba’s first roads, bridges and public buildings. While he started as a representative of the English mixed bloods, his moderate stance saw him receiving wider support. Unfortunately he had already made an enemy of Schultz.

His years in government between 1870 and 1887 saw major development of the province and a demand for more schools, public works, land drainage and for better and cheaper transportation services. Govt spending went from $90,000 in 1876 to $700,000 in 1886. His cabinets were competent and he obtained favourable treatment from Ottawa.

He lost all his money in a coal company that went bankrupt while he was premier. In his last years in government Norquay became embroiled in a railway scandal that would not go away. And he was being continually screwed by John A Macdonald.

In 1887 Norquay’s Conservative government was defeated by Thomas Greenway but Norquay continued as leader till his death. Norquay died at the young age of 48 of peritonitis. July 8, 1889 marked the funeral of John Norquay Manitoba’s only Metis premier.

When Norquay died he was credited with having been the only MLA to have been continuously an MLA since Manitoba became a province. He was the last political link between the old Red River Society and the new emerging Manitoba. He was also credited with having made party politics acceptable in Manitoba.

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