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Senator Plett celebrates the 150th anniversary of Manitoba in the Red Chamber

December 1, 2020 (Ottawa, ON) - The Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, issued the following statement:

Honourable senators, it is a pleasure for me to rise today to call the attention of the Senate to the province of Manitoba’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. Manitoba became Canada’s fifth province and the only province to enter Confederation under Indigenous leadership, 150 years ago. At the time, Manitoba was known as the postage stamp province because it was a small square; 1/18 of its current size. It wasn’t until 1881 that its borders were changed to what they are today. As they say, you should never underestimate small beginnings. Over the next 150 years, Manitobans would prove to be resilient in the face of difficulties, resourceful in overcoming challenges and renowned for its leadership and performance in many areas.

This year we invite all Canadians to not only explore our province’s history, but to also discover our beauty, meet our people and experience our culture. In my view, Manitoba is a tremendous illustration of the diversity and the unity upon which Canada was founded and upon which our future depends.

For a province which was birthed in hardship and persevered to become the beacon it is today, it is somewhat ironic that the celebrations of our one hundred and fiftieth year have been interrupted by the greatest health challenge in the last century, the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to COVID-19, the province announced that all Manitoba 150 events are paused until 2021. But while the events will wait for the pandemic to pass, the pride of Manitobans over all that we have achieved in our province continues uninterrupted.

Honourable senators, it is all too easy to focus on the shortcomings of the past and ignore the many accomplishments that built the society we have today, and the many sacrifices that were made so that all Canadians could have a better life and a brighter future. Manitobans, and indeed all Canadians, have much to celebrate.

Fundamentally, I believe that Manitoba’s history and achievements should be celebrated because of the opportunities that have been created for the people who live there. Those opportunities were not created without a struggle and conflict, because people sometimes had different perspectives on how that should be achieved. But out of these struggles and conflicts, which were often very painful, greater opportunity emerged.

In the very first efforts that were made to establish a province in the Red River Valley, a fundamental goal was to establish a foundation of opportunity for the people who lived there. The movement that Manitoba’s founder Louis Riel led from 1869 to 1870, sought to give the Metis people of Red River, and indeed all the people of Red River, control over their own future. We know that the historic events surrounding Manitoba’s entry into Confederation had many misunderstandings and very painful components. It was not an easy time. However, looking back over the experience of the past 150 years, Manitobans today celebrate Riel’s pivotal place in our history. Today, Louis Riel is recognized as the founder of Manitoba and Louis Riel Day is celebrated as a statutory holiday in my province.

Just as Manitoba’s founding involved conflict and strong differences of opinion, the evolution of Manitoba since that time has also not been free of political struggles and intense debates. The Manitoba Schools Question was one such pivotal event that had a lasting impact. It was provoked when the provincial Liberal government, elected in 1888, abolished the dual education system that had existed since the province’s founding and instead set up a non-denominational school system. Funding for Catholic schools was eliminated and the law mandated that schools had to be conducted in English only. That action — which, by the way, was opposed by the Conservatives — created immense divisions within Manitoba and indeed the entire country.

It was not just the francophone minority that was impacted, but other minorities as well, including my own Mennonite community. Communities that had educational independence up to that point lost those rights. This created immense divisions and the so-called compromise — belatedly negotiated between the provincial Liberal government and the federal Liberal government in Ottawa after 1896 — which did not resolve that matter.

But what is perhaps more important is the resilience that existed, enabling the province to continue forward. The communities negatively and unjustly impacted by the Manitoba Schools Act survived. Ultimately, they would prosper and rebound. Ultimately, those same communities contributed to building opportunity, not only for themselves but for the entire province.

The experience of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 illustrates a similar resilience. That strike too left a bitter legacy, but here as well, the events ultimately served to unite workers and help galvanize the labour movement, not only in Manitoba but throughout Canada. The Winnipeg General Strike was linked to the global events of the time. It is not surprising that many responded to that strike because of fear related to those global events.

But the lesson that was ultimately learned was about how to balance and protect workers’ rights within a free economy. How that happened and the nature of the balance that was struck shaped my province and its character. These major events, along with smaller everyday struggles and debates, built a political culture that has enabled Manitobans of all groups, all ethnicities and of all political perspectives to learn to work together in the great task of building their province and their country. Perhaps that is why Manitobans have never shirked from rendering service to their country.

The scope of the sacrifice that Manitobans made for their country is illustrated by the fact that more than 4,200 of Manitoba’s lakes are now named after the province’s fallen: individuals who fell during the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, and most recently, Afghanistan. That tradition of naming Manitoba’s lakes after its many fallen began in July 1947, when 25 lakes in the northwest of the province were named for 26 soldiers and airmen who were decorated and died serving their country. The scope of that sacrifice is evident in individual stories. One of the lakes, Two Tod Lake, also known as Tod Lake, is named for twin brothers who died during the Second World War.

There are other reminders of the sacrifices Manitobans have made. In Winnipeg, there is now Valour Road, so named because three recipients of the Victoria Cross lived on that street prior to the First World War. Extraordinarily, Robert Shankland, Leo Clarke and Frederick Hall were all awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. They all lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, the street then renamed Valour Road.

Just 99 Canadians have won the Victoria Cross since it was instituted in the mid-19th century. Of those 99 holders of the Victoria Cross seventeen, nearly one in five, have come from Manitoba. These are stories of the sacrifice that Manitobans have made for their country.

Another story of sacrifice is the story of Thomas George Prince, an Ojibwe from Manitoba, who volunteered to serve his country during the Second World War. He earned the Military Medal in Italy and the American Silver Star. He was decorated by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. I thought that he would have been a great person to be recognized on Canada’s five-dollar bill, and many of us started a campaign to that effect. Unfortunately, he did not make the short list, but his valiant sacrifice will never be forgotten by Manitobans.

Manitobans have always persevered in the face of both manmade and natural challenges. The year I was born, Manitoba experienced the great flood of 1950. The flood reached its highest level in Winnipeg on May 14 — the day that I was born. One hundred thousand Winnipeg residents had to be evacuated from their homes; the largest mass evacuation in Canadian history. Even the hospital my mother and I were in was threatened, forcing us to be evacuated to another hospital. According to some accounts, my mother and I were sent down the river by boat to the other hospital, which resulted in some discussion about whether I should be named Don or Moses.

Approximately 10,500 homes were destroyed in Winnipeg alone, and 5,000 buildings were damaged. But through it all, Manitobans pulled together, both to fight the flood and then to rebuild, and finally to prevent future damage possibly reoccurring on that scale.

It was Premier Duff Roblin who spearheaded the development of the Red River Floodway. The excavation of the floodway channel became known as Duff’s Ditch, and it was the second largest earth-moving project in the world, second only to the Panama Canal and larger than the Suez Canal excavation. Since its opening in 1968, it has prevented similar flood damage in Winnipeg from ever reoccurring. After the 1997 Manitoba flood, the floodway was expanded even further, with its capacity now able to accommodate nearly 4,000 cubic metres of water per second.

Manitobans have proven themselves to be tough and resilient people. We have had to be in order to make a life in what is certainly a beautiful land, but one which can also be harsh and unforgiving.

Of course, Indigenous people have known that for the thousands of years they have lived in this region. The presence of Indigenous peoples in Canada can be traced back to approximately 10,000 years ago, shortly after the last ice glaciers retreated. Over time, there were settlements of Ojibwe, Cree, Dene, Sioux, Mandan and Assiniboine. These First Peoples were resilient and resourceful, surviving bitter winters and trading amongst themselves to create a better life for their communities. It is thought that the Whiteshell Provincial Park region in Manitoba may have been a trading centre where Indigenous peoples from the four corners of Turtle Mountain would come to trade, learn and share knowledge.

When the Europeans began to arrive in the 1600s and the fur trade began to expand further west in the 1700s, Lake Winnipeg became a major junction for the trade routes. Indigenous peoples were a key part of this trade, which brought both economic opportunity and violent confrontations.

When the province was formed in 1870, its name was drawn from its Indigenous heritage. The word “Manitoba” is believed to have come from several Indigenous languages, including the Cree word manitou-wapow, the Ojibwe word manidoobaa or the Assiniboine word minnetoba.

For a land that can be harsh, Manitoba has attracted one of the most diverse populations that exist anywhere in the world. The 2006 Canadian Census found that more than 200 ethnic groups now make up Manitoba’s diverse population. Manitobans celebrate that diversity every year through festivals like Folklorama and through many individual celebrations put on in individual communities. The diversity is a testimony to the opportunity that so many have seen and continue to see in my province. It’s a testimony both to the strength of Manitoba and to the strength of Canada.

I also believe that the energy that this diversity has generated helps to explain the multifaceted talent that Manitoba has generated over the decades. Neil Young, Burton Cummings and the Guess Who, Randy Bachman and Tom Cochrane. These are just a few of so many great artists who have come out of and contributed to Manitoba’s vibrant cultural scene.

Manitoba has built world-renowned cultural institutions. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is known the world over, while the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has become a model for regional theatres throughout Canada and the United States.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery has the world’s largest collection of contemporary Inuit art, while Winnipeg’s French theatre — and I’m going to mess this up — Théâtre Cercle Molière — am I close, Senator Gagné? Close. Thank you! It is Canada’s oldest continuously operating French theatre.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the world’s first museum dedicated to human rights and the first new national museum ever to be located outside of the National Capital Region.

Manitobans have also excelled in athletics. The world knows speed skaters Susan Auch, Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen. Curling’s Jennifer Jones won the gold medal for Canada in 2014 and is acclaimed in her sport. She made 15 appearances at the national Scotties Tournament of Hearts, winning and representing Canada at the World Championships six times.

Jeff Stoughton is a three-time Canadian curling champion and a two-time world champion.

I do not believe that anyone can go to a Winnipeg Jets game and not be swept away by the enthusiasm and love that the Manitobans have for their team.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have made the most Grey Cup appearances — more than Saskatchewan — having played for the coveted trophy 25 times and winning 11 of those.

So many individual Manitobans have also made major contributions to the world. Baldur Stefansson — known as the “father of canola” — is said to have changed the face of the prairies.

Arthur DeFehr, the founder of Palliser Furniture, made a company founded on Christian ethics and one of Canada’s largest furniture manufacturers.

Monty Hall, from the North End of Winnipeg, who everyone in North America came to know as the host of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Sir William Stephenson ran the spy war against Nazi Germany during World War II and became the inspiration for James Bond.

Our own Murray Sinclair from Selkirk, Manitoba, has been an inspiration to his people, to Manitobans and to Canadians.

There are literally too many to mention. The contributions that Manitobans have made have enabled their province, their country and the world to become a better place.

Manitobans have always been a people to look forward rather than backward. Right now, Manitobans, like the rest of Canada and the rest of the world, are facing a new challenge as the result of a global pandemic that is testing our collective capacity to cope and persevere. But like the Spanish flu of a century ago, this new challenge too will be beaten. Manitoba’s communities, like communities all across Canada, work together to move forward as they always have. This is, after all, the essence of Canada.

The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated 25 years ago:

Canada is a test case for a grand notion — the notion that dissimilar peoples can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences. The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony.

That is, indeed, the story of Canada and the story of my province, Manitoba.

When my own people, the Mennonites, came to Manitoba in the 1870s, they left everything behind, clinging to that hope. Mennonites who came to Manitoba in a later migration during the 1920s had seen family members murdered before their very eyes and had seen everything taken away from them — their land and all their possessions. But in Canada and in Manitoba, they found freedom and they found peace. They also found opportunity and prosperity. That is why they came, and that is why they have stayed. Canada and Manitoba remain attractive to the world because they still carry that same hope for the peoples of the world.

Today, colleagues, I invite you to join me in celebrating Manitoba’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. It is an opportunity to remember what has been accomplished and to work hard for an even better future in the next 150 years. Thank you.


Senator Plett's speech can also be found on the Senate Website. 

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