Reverend Frederic B. Du Val: Winnipeg's Fearless Foe of Social Vices

Article excerpt

From a small number of wooden stores and residences in 1870, Winnipeg became the home to nearly eight thousand persons by 1881. Five years later, the census counted 20,238 Winnipeggers. For each five-year period between 1886 and 1916, population growth was never less than 23 percent, and reached 113 per cent in 1906. What historian Alan Artibise labels the "commercial class"--merchants and businessmen, real estate agents and financiers, contractors and manufacturers--monopolized municipal politics. They held most elected municipal offices and they used their influence to protect and further their own interests. They played a prominent role in the city's rapid industrialisation and the swift expansion of commerce, thrusting forward a promotional campaign which included the distribution of pamphlets praising their city's potential. (1) From lifts form of publication, one naturally expects overly flattering descriptions. In a 1886 paean of praise edited by W.T. Thompson and E.E. Boyer, readers were introduced to the nearly flawless city:

   The history of Winnipeg, with its wonderful growth and marvellous
   progress, reads like a chapter from some work of romance. It
   seems almost miraculous that in a short space of fifteen years
   there has arisen here the city of today. Fifteen years ago no
   city, no railroad, no street, no church, no school-house, no
   home--nothing but a small post of the Hudson's Bay Co., where
   the native Indians gathered to dispose of their furs- To-day, the
   thirty thousand people, the twenty-five millions of business,
   massive mercantile blocks, railways connecting with the Atlantic
   and the Pacific and stretching to the great cities of the United
   States, church edifices of magnificent structures and proportions,
   elegant school-houses, miles of street railway, the mansion and
   residence, the electric light, the comforts and refinements of
   the highest type of civilized life. It is indeed one of the marvels
   of the age--a growth unprecedented, a progress unsurpassed in
   the history of the world. (2)

Throughout the hundred fifty pages or so, factual material on Winnipeg's businesses and businessmen set an optimistic mood. Describing the 1882 boom, the authors stressed that "public and private works of great magnitude also changed the appearance, the comfort, and the healthfulness of the city infinitely for the better." (3) It seemed that nothing could jeopardize the great destiny of the Chicago of the North. There was, of course, no mention of infant mortality or of contagious diseases, nor did the few words devoted to housing depict the living conditions of all. These factors were, however, all barometers of a city's health.

But the Western promoters' conception of a perfect society was limited to reaching as quickly as possible the status of a big city. Success, in their minds, could only be measured by the size of the city, the number of industries, and the value of the output. Douglas Francis points out: "Few boosters thought in terms of selling the cultural qualities of their towns and cities. Such `extravagancies' were by-products of wealth that reflected a city's prosperity rather than led to its enrichment." (4) The only mission of civic boosters was rapid growth. They refused to open their eyes to see that urban social and moral conditions were often less than satisfactory.

The Winnipeg press, for the most part, adopted the boosters' attitude. From 1885 to around 1904, municipal administrations enjoyed the general support of the city's newspapers. Several contributors had voiced some concerns regarding the fitness of previous administrations. (5) but from 1904 on the criticisms mounted and became more visceral, direct and acerbic. For instance, D.J. Kenway wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press: "Is it not high time that public opinion was thoroughly aroused regarding the hopless [sic] incompetence of our present civic authorities in every department of civic administration? …