The Rat Portage War — Ontario and Manitoba clash over town now called Kenora

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

Manitoba Premier John Norquay was roarin’ mad and he wasn’t about to let Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat get away with seizing territory claimed by his province.

Described as “300 pounds of fighting Conservative,” “Big John” never shied away from a fight. And in the summer of 1883, he firmly believed the actions of the Liberal premier from Ontario were sufficient cause for him to engage in a battle to protect Manitoba’s rights.

With 30 policemen added to his entourage, Norquay boarded a Canadian Pacific Railway train headed for Rat Portage (now Kenora) to set things right. Above all, “he promised to protect the interests of Manitoba at all hazards,” according to a report in the July 28, 1883, Winnipeg Daily Sun.

Five days later, the same newspaper reported; “He has planted the standard of this province in the disputed territory, and intents to defend it till the last drop of gore is dotted in the dust of the battlefield.”

The newspaper pointed out that Norquay “will conquer or die,” and then invoked the British 1870s music hall song which gave rise to the term “jingoism,” signifying a willingness to become bellicose in the name of nationalism: “Of course, ‘he don’t want to fight, but by jingo if he does, he’s got the ships, he’s got the men,’ and he’s got (Canadian Prime Minister) Sir John Macdonald at his back.”

Norquay became directly involved in what has become known to history as the “Battle of Rat Portage,” which turned out to be a more comic-opera altercation than actual armed conflict — although for the young province of Manitoba the stakes were extremely high.

In keeping with the concept of a battle, much of the reporting from the period took on the undertones of a clash between nations, despite it being a boundary dispute between neighbouring provinces. The Sun went as far as to refer to  policemen captured in the dispute as “prisoners of war.”

Manitoba had entered the Canadian Confederation on July 15, 1870, with borders encompassing an area of just 33,280 square kilometres, earning it the nickname the “postage stamp province.” While the new province’s southern border was the 49th parallel, the northern boundary reached merely to the southern basins of lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg (near present day Winnipeg Beach). The western boundary of the province was a point just past Portage la Prairie and the east boundary was in the vicinity of Whitemouth. 

Within a short period of time, Manitoba’s political leaders began to press the federal government to expand its borders. In March 1873, the province sent a delegation to Ottawa with a request to increase Manitoba’s area to 768,000 square kilometres, which included potential ports on Lake Superior and Hudson Bay.

Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s election loss in 1874 resulted in the shelving of the Manitoba request. While Macdonald had been relatively sympathetic to Manitoba’s desire for  territorial expansion, the Liberal administration of Prime Minister Sir Alexander Mackenzie was more inclined to side with Ontario. Yet, the volatile political situation of the era ensured neither province could hold the upper hand for long. 

Even eastern newspapers conceded the borders of Manitoba were “ridiculously small” (Toronto Globe, March 1876). “Till Ontario is defined it cannot well be extended eastwardly, but here can be no doubt that the present microscopic aspect of the Prairie Provinces ... will be quickly removed as soon as Mr. Mackenzie ... and ... colleagues can conveniently move in the matter.”

It didn’t help when Ottawa established the District of Keewatin on April 12, 1876, out of a portion of the North-West Territories, which included portions of what would eventually become part of Manitoba, Northwestern Ontario  and Nunavut.

The new act set out that “the Governor of the Province of Manitoba ... shall ex-officio be Lieutenant Governor of the District of Keewatin ... and shall make provision for the administration of justice in the said district, and generally to make, ordain and establish all such laws, institutions and ordinances as he may deem necessary for the peace, order and good government therein.”

At the time, Manitoba politicians expected the District of Keewatin to soon become part of  their province, and used its association with the lieutenant governor of Manitoba to further their own goal of border expansion. When a Council of Keewatin was formed, its members were from Manitoba and the laws established were similar to those in Manitoba.

Although Mackenzie did attempt to “move in the matter,” it was without success. An 1874 Royal Commission report, recommending the border be set through the North-West Angle of Lake of the Woods, was confirmed by a board of arbiters appointed by Mackenzie in 1878, the recommendation was ignored when Macdonald returned to power. The re-elected prime minister said he would not accept the arbiters’ decision, since the board had shown an “utter disregard to the interests of the Dominion as a whole.”

The response from the Ontario government was to pass an act for the “administration of justice in the Northerly and Westerly parts” of the province, which was not recognized by Ottawa.

With Macdonald and the Conservatives back in power, Manitoba’s borders were expanded to five times their original size in 1881 to 189,327 square kilometres. The eastern border was the “western border of Ontario,” which failed to address exactly where Ontario ended and Manitoba began. Ambiguous wording of earlier official documents, including the Quebec Act of 1774, and inadequate mapping had placed Ontario’s western border anywhere between Port Arthur and Rat Portage, according to Macdonald, who favoured the more westerly demarcation. 

At the apparent urging of Macdonald, Manitoba moved quickly to assert its authority in the disputed region, appointing Rat Portage residents Charles McCabe as coroner and issuer of marriage licences and Patrick O’Keefe and Daniel R. Cameron as Manitoba Provincial Police constables. On September 7, 1881, the county court and electoral district of Varennes of Manitoba was established and a registrar appointed. The Manitoba government then enacted its own legislation to repeal the federal prohibition on liquor at Rat Portage.

Prohibition was enacted by Ottawa at the request of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which wanted a sober workforce. Dominion police were sent to Rat Portage to enforce the prohibition on liquor under the regulations contained in the federal Public Works Act. The act prohibited the sale of liquor near any public work, including the vicinity of the CPR line.

The CPR had good reason to request the prohibition, since Rat Portage on the main line of the railway was emerging as “Sodom-on-the-lake.”

Michael J. Haney, who ran Section Fifteen of CPR construction, said, “there was not an engineer, contractor or traveller who were not hard drinkers.”

Whiskey peddlers avoided police — there were originally four “whiskey” detectives employed by the railway under the Public Works Act — by hiding out on the islands around Rat Portage, moving into the work camps on swift canoes and darting back to their refuges after making their liquor transaction.

“For sometime now the railway works in the vicinity of Rat Portage have been besieged by a lot of scoundrels whose only avocation seems to be gambling and trading in illicit whiskey and the state of degradation was, if anything, intensified by the appearance, in the wake of these blacklegs, of a number of the demi-monde with whom these numerous desperados held high carnival at all hours of the day and night,” reported the Winnipeg Times in the summer of 1880. 

In the wake of the railway, a community of shanties and tents sprang up at Rat Portage which was filled with some of the shadiest characters to inhabit a Canadian community. 

Between April and November 1880, $6,000 in fines was collected for offenses such as larceny, burglary, assault, prostitution, highway robbery and above all selling illicit whiskey.

“Of course, all the liquor selling and drinking in Rat Portage are illegal,” a Sun reporter wrote in a September 21, 1882, article. “There are no licences, but it must not be supposed that any attempt at concealment is made. Not a bit of it. The bars are open, the bartenders sell openly, and the thirsty go up to them and drink openly. Every now and again a fine is imposed and paid, and it almost seems that there is a tacit understanding between the law breakers, law makers and law enforcers that a fine shall be paid every few months as a sort of compromise between law, duty, conscience, licences and the prohibition sentiment.”

Local Member of Parliament Simon J. Dawson — the man who surveyed and had the Dawson Trail from Eastern Canada to Fort Garry built in the 1860s — told the Sun in an article published on December 6, 1882, that the liquor traffic in Rat Portage was the cause of all the community’s woes. He suggested the only recourse was to control the whiskey trade through granting licences “to houses that are properly fitted up and kept by good men.”

He said licences “would have a tendency to suppress the shanties and confine its (liquor) sale to respectable places ... Rat Portage is now too large to be treated as a mere station of a railway.”

An attempt by the federal government in 1882 to have the border question resolved through mediation was refused by Ontario. In the same year, Rat Portage was incorporated as a town under the laws of Manitoba, although Ontario refused to recognize the province’s jurisdiction over the disputed area.

There were strong reasons for both Manitoba and Ontario wanting to control  Northwestern Ontario. The region was filled with trees for timber, gold had been discovered and other metals were waiting to be uncovered by enterprising prospectors. Once harvested, the presence of the CPR made it possible to easily ship to Winnipeg and beyond all the riches of the region.

From its origins as a bawdy frontier town, Rat Portage was slowly evolving into a more substantial community, attracting entrepreneurs from across North America, but primarily Winnipeg. By 1883, its permanent population had swelled to about 900 people with several hundred transients periodically calling Rat Portage home, “which accounts for the fact that nearly half the buildings in it are either hotels or boarding houses,” according to the Sun. It was reported that there were 35 saloons in Rat Portage.

Despite the changes undergone in the community, there remained the thorny issue of who had jurisdiction. The Citizens Protective Association of Rat Portage was reported in the Rat Portage Progress on February 27, 1883, to comprise “a very large number of citizens, whose object was to secure municipal government for the town.”

The newspaper said there were a number of factions in the town; “among them are the Dominion faction, with whom it is a matter of dollars and cents; the Ontario faction, a party whose consciences are supposed to resemble elastic; the lawless faction, whose name sufficiently describes it; and the Manitoba faction, a party who, whatever its failings may be, has the sympathies of the town.”

The protective association called upon Mayor Oliver and his council, elected as town officials under the incorporation law of Manitoba, to resign, presumably to elect officials of their own choosing under their own form of unnamed incorporation.

“I decline to do so,” said the mayor, “being elected by a large majority of the electors of the town, and don’t believe in secret societies managing the public business of the town.” 

The Toronto Globe on July 14 wrote that the disputed territory had been ceded to Ontario in 1878, despite Macdonald’s refusal to accept the recommendation of the board of arbitrators. Although Manitoba had incorporated a local government, the newspaper said steps taken by Ontario provided the opportunity to organize “efficient municipal government,” including land titles for squatters and “regular courts of civil and criminal jurisdiction.”

In the summer of 1883, the manipulations among opposing governments and a factious citizenry would finally erupt into the “Battle of Rat Portage.”  Until then, Manitoba’s jurisdiction appeared not to be openly questioned by the Ontario government, although Premier Mowat told the Ontario legislature in Toronto, it was the “duty of this province to assume without delay the full government and ownership of the territory.” 

When Manitoba Provincial Police acted on two murder cases in Rat Portage, the Ontario authorities remained quiet. On June 18, 1882, Ann Bescoby was arrested by MPP and charged with the murder of her husband Ted Bescoby and transported to Winnipeg to stand trial where she was subsequently acquitted. On July 12, 1883, MPP arrested Thomas Drewes for the murder of Patrick Maloney. Drewes was sent to Winnipeg to stand trial and convicted of manslaughter.

Emboldened by the failure of Ontario to challenge the authority of the MPP and Manitoba courts to enforce the law in Rat Portage, the Norquay government decided to take the next step to exert its jurisdiction. On July 7, 1883, it was announced that a representative for the region would be elected during the Manitoba general election called for September 28, 1883.

That was the spark needed for Ontario to react, which announced it would be building a jail and assigning six provincial constables and a magistrate to Rat Portage. The Ontario government then announced W.D. Lyon had been appointed stipendiary magistrate and Captain Burden was appointed chief of police with the authority to hire 20 special constables. Furthermore, the Ontario government began to issue liquor licences in the community, a practice the Manitoba government already followed. To enforce Ontario liquor laws, two licence commissioners and an inspector were appointed. Within days, Ontario licences had been issued to six hotels and taverns, three liquor shops as well as two beer establishments.

The significant Ontario presence in Rat Portage prompted Mayor Oliver to announce that the council was prepared to “cast in their lot with Ontario,” since Manitoba had “acted meanly” by not paying debts incurred by the community. As a result of the territorial dispute, the town council found it impossible to collect taxes to pay contractors for any local improvements.

The town council was particularly put off that a $1,000 debt incurred to fight a smallpox outbreak had not been paid by the Manitoba government, which was waiting for Ottawa to come up with the necessary funds to “spite” Ontario.

The Ontario government had already started to initiate improvements in the town, stating it was the government’s intention to spend from $200,000 to $300,000 for other improvements in the territory.

By July 17, the Sun reported “excitement is running high” after Captain Burden, a justice of the peace appointed by the Ontario government, had sworn in 25 special constables to maintain order in the event trouble broke out over the imposition of timber licences.

It was reported that Burden enlisted men off the street who were “a hard looking lot of citizens.”

“We have our magistrates and officers there,” said Manitoba Attorney General Alexander MacBeth Sutherland, “and we will take all measures necessary to protect our people and their interests. We must protect our courts and our officials in view of the position we have assumed.”

To protect the interests of Winnipeg lumbermen in Rat Portage, the Manitoba government opposed Ontario’s intention of imposing timber licences, which was actually a federal responsibility in the territory. On the other hand, Ontario threatened to jail anyone refusing to pay the timber licence fees.

“The conflict between the governments in the disputed territory has given rise to a state of things in Rat Portage which fortunately is of rare occurrence,” reported the Sun on July 20. “The place has been incorporated under Manitoba, and a mayor and four councillors have been elected, but they are thoroughly impotent ...

“The place has also three distinct police forces, one appointed by the Dominion, one by Ontario, and one by Manitoba.”

The newspaper said the three police forces had thus far “worked harmoniously,” although a Manitoba constable remarked it was within his power to arrest any Ontario counterpart who carried a concealed weapon.

The harmony between the police forces was fleeting. The MPP were soon arresting anyone operating under an Ontario liquor licence, while Ontario constables arrested anyone operating under a Manitoba licence. Anyone arrested by a Manitoba magistrate was ordered to be freed by his Ontario counterpart and vice versa, resulting in one province freeing prisoners from another province’s jails. Essentially, what was emerging was a state of anarchy.

“One day a Manitoba constable would be arrested for drunkenness by an Ontario constable, the next Manitoba would reciprocate by arresting an Ontario official, or this dull routine would be enlivened by an assault on a newspaper correspondent, or the apprehension of one of the magistrates on some trumped-up charge, to be followed by a general swearing out of informations and wholesale arrests all around official circles,” wrote Alexander Begg in his History of the North-West (1894).

Begg, who then resided in Winnipeg and witnessed the events in Rat Portage, said gamblers and whiskey peddlers operated with immunity during this period as every constable in the community was preoccupied with avoiding arrest.

“Dominion Commissioner McCabe with two policemen, Ontario Magistrate with twenty-five policemen, and Stipendiary Magistrate (Captain J.W.) Brereton with fifteen policemen acting on behalf of Manitoba have been arresting each other all day; and the people have been siding, some with one party and some with another, to the imminent danger of the peace and of loss of life,” wrote a correspondent.

On July 28, the Sun reported the doors of the Manitoba jail had been battered down and two prisoners named Keyes and Montgomery locked up for selling liquor without a Manitoba licence had been freed.

MPP local chief of police McMurphy and constables Martin and Rideout were arrested, but their cases were dismissed by Ontario magistrate W.D. Lyon.

That day MPP Chief of Police Charles Constantine arrived in Rat Portage with more constables as a mob threatened to again storm the Manitoba jail.

It was at this stage that Norquay, Judge James Andrew Miller and police magistrate Colonel Adam Peebles as well as 30 additional policemen arrived in Rat Portage to enforce Manitoba laws and keep the provincial jail from being burned down by the mob.

Edward M. Rideout, a Rat Portage resident who had been sworn in as a special constable in Winnipeg, told a Sun reporter that his brother Harding — the former owner of Rideout House (a Rat Portage hotel) — had been fired upon by an unknown assassin because of his support for Manitoba. Rideout claimed the shooter, who missed his brother, was undoubtedly a member of the Ontario faction.

In an attempt to create a diversion, the stables at Rideout House were torched, but the fire quickly doused. “The Ontario party had but one object, and that was to draw the crowd to a certain point while they raided the Manitoba jail and rescued the prisoners,” said Rideout.

After charging several people involved in the stable fire for disorderly conduct, Manitoba constables Dugald McMurphy and Harding Rideout were stopped en route to the Manitoba jail with their prisoners and themselves detained by Ontario constables for making unlawful arrests. 

In the later trial in Winnipeg of Ontario policemen Boston O’Brien and Archibald McDonald, Harding testified that he was struck from behind by O’Brien (his other nickname was “the slugger”). 

“When arrested by McDonald I resisted him and Grady as well,” said Rideout in court, as reported in the Manitoba Free Press on August 9, 1883. “(I) did not know that either one was an Ontario police officer. Even had I known it I should not have gone with them, as I did not believe they had any right to interfere with my duties.”

Rideout tried to pull out his revolver during the scuffle, but his arms were held back and he was hustled off to the Ontario jail where he was disarmed and imprisoned.

McMurphy and Rideout were later released after paying a $50 fine.

Edward Rideout told the reporter, the cause of all the problems was Ontario Police Chief Burden who gave his men orders to arrest any Manitoba policeman or magistrate.

The Rat Portage Progress reported on July 28 that the threat of breaking into the Manitoba jail had created a “circus” atmosphere.

“The Ontario authorities had sworn-in several special police during the week, and trouble was anxiously looked for, and on Thursday it came. The war-cry was sounded, the black flag unfurled, and the dogs of war let loose.

“While chief constable McMurphy, of the Manitoba force, was conducting a prisoner to jail, he got into an altercation with constable McKay, of the Ontario force, and while disputing they were both arrested and conducted to the new Ontario ‘double-breasted mansion on the hill,’ while wildest excitement prevailed on the streets.”

The newspaper said wild rumours were circulating to the effect that the mayor and council and all “Manitoba sympathizers” would be arrested.

It’s ironic that Mayor Oliver and the councillors feared for their lives, since Norquay personally believed their sympathies for Ontario had led to the conflict.

“The Progress man was shivering in his boots, thinking whether he had said anything against Ontario, but coming to the conclusion that he had not, managed to get home to bed safely.”

The Rat Portage newspaper said the Manitoba jail was assailed by a mob of 300 people “filled-up to over-flowing with rot-gut whiskey.” 

The mob used a “huge telegraph pole” as a battering ram, and when the oak door fell “rushed pell-mell into the building and demanded the keys. The constables in charge refused to give them up, consequently the cell doors were broken open and the prisoners released, amidst the wildest confusion and hooting. A second raid was made a short time afterwards and the interior of the structure pretty well demolished.”

The Sun said of the four prisoners freed from the Manitoba jail, one was Louis Jerdee, a scoundrel arrested on “grave charges of robbery,” who had not been recaptured to the detriment of public safety.


(Next week: part 2)