Battle of Rat Portage — special constables carried “heavy bludgeons of green wood”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

The morning after the attack on the Manitoba jailhouse, Ontario constables Boston O’Brien, Albert Mulligan and J. McKay were arrested by the MPP for participating in the jail-break and quietly transported out of town to Winnipeg.

Following his return to Winnipeg, Manitoba Provincial Police Chief Charles Constantine reported the men were arrested on July 30 at four o’clock in the morning as they slept.

“We got Boston O’Brien in bed at his hotel,” he told the Sun, “and we found the others in bed at their respective homes.”

Constantine said the police had a special train ready to spirit the men out of Rat Portage, and “had little trouble getting them to the train.”

The same morning the Manitoba jail was repaired and special policemen guarded it carrying “heavy bludgeons of green wood.”

But a day after the jail-break, calm was restored and Premier John Norquay and others from his Manitoba entourage were observed leisurely sailing on Lake of the Woods.

In his subsequent report to the Manitoba Legislature, Norquay claimed Ontario was unnecessarily interfering, since there had been “no protest or question of Manitoba’s authority to the establishment of the courts, and the administration of civil and criminal justice.”

Norquay said the Ontario constables had played a role in the jail-break which was illegal and unacceptable.

“The Manitoba government will hold the Ontario government responsible for any future disturbances which may occur at Rat Portage in consequence of the undue interference of Ontario officials,” added the Manitoba premier.

The next stage in the “Battle of Rat Portage” came when the Mowat government incorporated the community under the laws of Ontario, and then announced an Ontario provincial election to fall on the same date as the Manitoba provincial election.

The situation in Rat Portage simmered as the dual September 28 provincial elections neared. To ensure the events that had interrupted the peace at the end of July weren’t repeated, the Manitoba government sent 60 troops from the Winnipeg Field Battery to Rat Portage. 

Despite Norquay’s intention to keep the peace, this action merely enraged Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat. “Acts such as these would, as between independent states, have been a declaration of war,” fumed the Ontario premier.

There were no incidents of violence on September 28 and J.A. Miller was elected to serve in the Manitoba Legislature and R.A. Lyon in the Ontario Legislature, adding to the number of dual officials already plaguing the town.

A day after the election, Mowat, who was successfully re-elected as Ontario premier, claimed all acts of Manitoba officials were illegal in the disputed region, “and they are subject to actions for damages by every person with whom or whose property in the assumed administration of civil justice they interfere. Every man whom they (Manitobans) arrest on civil process is arrested wrongfully; every man they imprison on civil process is imprisoned wrongfully.”

The “Rat Portage troubles” referred to in newspapers had temporarily been suspended following the dual elections, but further conflict was just a matter of other incidents providing a spark to reignite the boundary dispute.

The Rat Portage Argus reported in November 1883 that the people of the community were enraged when the “notorious” Constable O’Keefe arrested James Gore, the “well-known proprietor of the Queen’s Hotel, and handcuffed him and imprisoned him in one of the dirty and filthy little cells in the Manitoba dungeon.”

A mob appeared before the jail demanding the release of Gore. The Manitoba magistrate appeared on the scene and, recognizing the anger of the crowd in front of the jail, pronounced bail for Gore, which “ a large number of leading citizens” promptly provided.

At the subsequent trial of Gore, his assault on O’Keefe was deemed “very trivial” by the Manitoba magistrate, and he was given a $5 fine plus court costs.

The declaration by Mowat that 

Ontario would punish “wrongful” civil cases was ignored by Manitoba authorities. On November 23, 1883, Malcolm McQuarrie was apparently in the process of being arrested by the Manitoba police for selling liquor without a licence when a half dozen Ontario constables burst in through a rear entrance, according to a report by MPP Chief Constantine.

Constantine denied the Ontario 

police's interpretation of events, claiming he and a friend had entered 

McQuarrie’s establishment only to buy 


The police chief said the premises had been under surveillance by the Ontario constables through a “little loop-hole in the partition between the two apartments,” and thinking he was about to arrest McQuarrie “hastened into the shop to prevent such action on my part.”

Actually, McQuarrie had received a summons to appear before a Manitoba magistrate for selling liquor without a 

licence that day, which prompted the Ontario police to provide protection to the shopkeeper.

Manitoba Attorney General Miller came to Rat Portage to demand the release of four MPPs seized by the 20 Ontario special constables for allegedly assaulting McQuarrie in the process of handing out the summons. All the men were released on bail except James A. Creighton, a former Winnipeg policeman who had resigned in July to take up the Manitoba chief of police posting in Rat Portage.

Constantine served a writ upon Ontario Stipendiary Magistrate Lyon and jailer McKay for the release of Creighton, but they refused to comply until they consulted the Ontario government. In the event they decided to comply, the MMP chief left $50 at the jail to pay for the expense of transporting Constantine to Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, the Manitoba government decided to use Creighton’s case to resolve the boundary dispute. According to the Sun, “the case would, if not settled here, be taken to the Supreme Court at Ottawa; and if no satisfactory conclusion be arrived at there, be carried to the Privy Council in England. It is the intention to take Creighton along, and leave no stone unturned to arrive at a settlement of the (boundary) question.”

Creighton was released after both governments decided to resolve the issue of jurisdiction by taking the boundary dispute to the Privy Council in England, which at the time was the final judicial authority for Canada.

In the interim, both Ontario and Manitoba agreed to each appoint a commissioner of police for the territory and as many constables as they required. The two town councils were suspended and one five-member municipal board elected. Manitoba’s new commissioner of police was J.W. Brereton, while Creighton, D. Sutherland and J.R. Foster became his constables.

Both Ontario and Manitoba agreed to suspend any suits, imprisonments and actions resulting from past alleged assaults until a decision was reached by the Privy Council. A clause of the agreement also required each province to honour the licences “for taverns, shops or public billiard tables” earlier issued by Ontario and Manitoba — the issuance of licences had been the primary cause of the “Battle of Rat Portage.” Once a provincial licence expired, the authority to issues licences resided with the two commissioners. The fees collected from licences were placed in a bank until the boundary dispute was resolved by the Privy Council.

In effect, the two provincial commissioners, who also acted as magistrates,  wielded extraordinary powers under the terms of the agreement.

The Privy Council in London began to hear arguments from the Canadian, Manitoba and Ontario governments on July 15, 1884. Ontario was represented by a powerful group of attorneys, including Premier Mowat — also the province’s attorney general — while Manitoba sent a small delegation under the leadership of Attorney General Miller.

“Ontario wins” was the proclamation of the Globe on July 24. “The once disputed territory is ours ... It is a splendid victory.”

Although never truly a bloody conflict between belligerents, the martial language expressed during the “Battle of Rat Portage” continued after the Privy Council supported the 1878 decision by the board of arbitration to award the region to Ontario.

“Against open enemies and secret traitors, Ontario has fought her long and gallant fight, and she has conquered against the enemies of her household,” continued the Globe, “against those who in their blind unalignity (sic) even up to the last moment chuckled and crowed ... the remains of whose reputation is shattered by this crushing verdict, this unanswerable exposure of the baselessness of the pretenses upon which he had founded his six years of rancorous hostility to Ontario.”

A Sun editorial on July 24 welcomed the award to Ontario, saying, if Manitoba had won, the province would have been saddled with a large territory, “costing an enormous sum for local administration, without yielding a dollar in the form of local revenue ... Manitoba has now spent $20,000 ($10,000 in Rat Portage resisting Ontario and another $10,000 to present Manitoba’s case in London) in this extraordinary attempt to add to her own misfortunes.”

The Free Press presented a similar argument, implying Manitoba had been tricked by the Canadian government into taking the case to the Privy Council at great expense without any prospect of monetary return. The newspaper argued Ottawa held all mineral, timber and Crown (public) land rights in Manitoba (not changed until the 1930s), which would have also applied to any new territory administrated by the province. The Free Press claimed that Manitoba could have avoided a lot of expenses and misery if the federal government had just abided by the original 1878 arbitration ruling.

The position of the Manitoba government after the Privy Council award was that acquiring the territory was not desirous without also acquiring mineral, timber and public land rights.

Ontario Premier Mowat, the champion of provincial rights at the expense of federal power, blamed Canadian Prime Minister Macdonald for using Manitoba as a surrogate when opposing his province. Always a Liberal partisan, Mowat boasted in the Ontario Legislature that he had achieved a great victory at the expense of the Conservative Macdonald. 

Subsequent commentators have said the border dispute boiled down to who had the most money. In an October 12, 1963, Free Press article, provincial archivist Hart Bowsfield said, “Manitoba lost the fight because its treasury couldn’t compete with Ontario’s.”

While this is partially true, it is more likely the Privy Council in London listened to a reasonable argument when arriving at its conclusion. Citing past official documents, the Privy Council decided Ontario was right when it said the border was in a “northerly” direction along the Mississippi from its source — that is, a point running from the North-West Angle was the border between the two provinces.  On the other hand, the Canadian government failed to impress the Privy Council when it argued the border should be “due north” from the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, which would have placed the boundary between Manitoba and Ontario some 80 kilometres west of Port Arthur.

Following the Privy Council ruling, Manitoba abandoned Rat Portage to Ontario, but a displeased Macdonald held off introducing legislation settling the border issue until 1889, when the territory officially became part of