Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Century

29 September 2011

Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries
edited by Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh
Published by Canadian Plains Research Center
Review by Keith Foster
$29.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-216-8

When Robert Davis, newly elected member of the Manitoba legislature in 1874, threatened to reveal certain scandalous indiscretions of Attorney General Henry Clarke, Clarke challenged him to a duel. Davis accepted. “Tell me the place and the time and I will be there,” he said.

This incident is one of many related in Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh. A collection of essays, each dealing with a different Premier, it is a political history of a political province as seen through the lives of its Premiers.

The editors are university history professors, as are most of the essayists. In lieu of a bibliography, each chapter has detailed endnotes, supplemented by an index and appendix.

Although this 449-page book is geared more for an academic audience than for the general reader, the reward of some heavy-duty reading is well worth the effort. The political history of Manitoba in the past 140 years is, as the editors state, “anything but bland” and based more on “conflict rather than consensus.”

Among the Premiers covered in the book are a father and son – Rodmond P. Roblin and Duff Roblin – and a future Governor General of Canada, Edward Schreyer.

One of the most fascinating early Premiers was Hugh John Macdonald, the son of Sir John A. Macdonald. Known as a “reluctant politician,” his term in office was by far the shortest, lasting less than eleven months. He had served with the 90th Winnipeg Rifles during the North-West Resistance and saw action at Fish Creek, SK.

This book is the third and last in a series about the Prairie Premiers. It follows Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century, edited by Bradford J. Rennie, and Saskatchewan Premiers of the Twentieth Century, edited by Gordon L. Barnhart, Saskatchewan’s current Lieutenant Governor.

Because Manitoba became a province much earlier than its two western cousins -1870 compared to 1905 for Saskatchewan and Alberta – this book covers a longer time span. Going right up to 2009, the legacy of the recent Premiers may not be clear for some time, but it does make this title a comprehensive one.

One thing is clear, however: all three books complement each other, and Manitoba Premiers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries is a welcome addition to round out the stories of the Premiers of our three prairie provinces.


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