Naming a province — “it is Manitobah . . . enshrines a very romantic legend.”

by Bruce Cherney

No horns blared. No one rushed onto the streets in jubilation. No fireworks lit up the sky. No ceremonies were held at the Manitoba Legislature.

The anniversary of the official creation of the province of Manitoba has come and gone without fanfare. 

Although Manitoba officially came into being on July 15, 1870, the anniversary of the province’s entry into Confederation is celebrated locally as May 12, the day the Canadian Parliament passed the Manitoba Act in 1870. Through proclamation, the provincial government now designates each May 12 as Manitoba Day in recognition of the act’s passage.

While some do argue the validity of recognizing May 12 over July 15, there is yet another oddity that reaches back into the archives of the early history of the province. Today, no one has a quarrel with the name Manitoba, but an 1872 newspaper article uses the name’s origin in native legend to present the case that it shouldn’t be spelled M-a-n-i-t-o-b-a, but M-a-n-i-t-o-b-a-h. 

Actually, the name of the fifth province to enter Confederation has had various spellings. And, all these variations are related to Lake Manitoba, the body of water where the name was first applied.

A 1793 map by famed fur trader and explorer Alexander Mackenzie calls it Lake Manitaubos. An 1796 Arrowsmith map lists it as Manitow Bow Lake. Simon James Dawson, the surveyor who oversaw the construction of the Dawson Route in the late 1860s, linking the Red River Settlement with Eastern Canada, called it Lake Manitouba.

Even Red River settlers could not agree upon the correct spelling. Andrew McDermot, a fur trader and merchant, in a letter dated December 8, 1847, said it was Manithoba (Lake).

Alexander Ross, a prominent local fur trader and historian, wrote in his 1856 book, The Red River Settlement, of Manitobah Lake. This is also the spelling used by geologist and explorer Henry Youle Hind in his1859 Report on Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition.

The first quasi-official use as a place name for a specific landmass was by Thomas Spence, who in 1868 named himself as the president of the Republican Monarchy of Manitobah, which was centred around Portage la Prairie. Originally, Spence had wanted to call his domain the Republican Monarchy of Caledonia, but it appears that local residents frowned upon this name and Manitobah was decided upon as a compromise.

The aboriginal word Manitobah would have been quite familiar to the residents since their community was located mere kilometres from the southern tip of the lake which bore this name.

Spence’s republic was comic-opera and brief. It ended during the trial of the shoemaker McPherson, who was arrested for defying Spence’s authority to levy taxes, in a scuffle and gun fire. Spence, while hiding under a table, was heard to implore, “For God’s sake, men, don’t fire, I have a wife and family.”

Louis Riel, the president of the provisional government at Upper Fort Garry (1869- 70), insisted that when negotiations opened with the Canadian government, the aim should be to have the area granted provincial status.

Riel had his way and a resolution was passed: “That the territories known as Rupert’s Land and the North West shall not enter Confederation except as a province to be styled and known as the Province of Assiniboia ...”

Assiniboia was the name used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to describe the district centred around the Red River Settlement.

“The name of the country is already written in all hearts, that of Red River,” wrote Riel on April 18,1870, to Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot, who along with Judge John Black and Alfred H. Scott, was sent to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of entry into Canada. “Fancy delights in that of ‘Manitoba,’ but the situation seems to demand that of ‘North-West.’ Friends of the old (HBC) government are pleased with that of Assiniboia, but it is not generally liked enough to be kept. Choose of the two names ‘Manitoba’ or of ‘North-West.’”

When making notes on the 26 clauses that would form the Manitoba Act, Father Ritchot wrote: “The name Manitoba would be quite appropriate, and it seems desirable that it should be adopted to designate the first province that is proposed to form in that part of the Territory watered by the Red River and its affluent.”

During the debate on the Manitoba Act in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald said the new province should be called Manitoba. “The name Assiniboia, by which it has hitherto been called, is considered too long, involving confusion, too, between the River Assiniboine and the Province of Assiniboia. I suppose, therefore, there will be no objection to the name that has been fixed upon, which is euphonious enough in itself, and is an old Indian name, meaning The God Who Speaks — The Speaking God.”

While Manitoba was declared for posterity to be the name of the new province, according to the writer of The Weekly Manitoban, and Herald of Ruperts Land and the North-Western Territory article (August 31, 1872), it “jars upon my ears to hear a beautiful name so mispronounced.” 

The following is the article in its entirety which explains the origin of the word being from a native legend — something no one disputes. Although the name of the author is not identified, it is possible the piece was written by either William Coldwell or Robert Cunningham, the owners of the Weekly Manitoban, who both had a background in journalism from Eastern Canada. Coldwell was also the co-founder with William Buckingham of the Red River Settlement’s first newspaper, The Nor-Wester, in 1859.

It is more likely that Coldwell was the author, since he had been an area resident well before the article appeared. He also had first-hand contact with local aboriginals. For example, on October 14, 1863, Coldwell published in the Nor’Wester an Important Statement of Pegowis (Peguis), The Indian Chief. The statement by the elderly Ojibway Chief Peguis was to resolve some of the “misrepresentations” circulating on the treaty he and four other chiefs signed with Lord Selkirk in 1817, ceding land along the Red River for settlement.

Actually, knowledge of the legend would have been common within the new province since a majority of its inhabitants were Metis — mixed European and aboriginal parentage. And, their Ojibway, Assiniboine and Cree relatives all considered The Narrows of Lake Manitoba to be a sacred place.

Whomever was the author, this telling of the legend in such detail is among the first, if not the first, in print within the two-year-old province. There are later variations on the theme, though only slight, and most concern names and spellings — how native words were spelled often depended on the way they were heard by non-natives. 

Legend of Manitobah:  Why We Call It Manitobah

“‘Please don’t call it Manitoba; it jars upon my ears to hear a beautiful name so mispronounced.’

“‘But it is not that the right name? Everyone calls it Manitoba down in Canada, and I thought it was the correct thing.’

“‘By no means; it is Manitobah — a beautiful compound Indian word. ‘Manitou’ means God or Spirit; ‘bah’ is an abbreviated word, signifying a crossing, passage, narrow way, etc. Manitobah means ‘The Spirit’s passing place,’ and enshrines a very romantic legend. Manitoba means nothing, and is a barbarous onslaught on romance and rhythm, and kills all the poetry in a word.’

“‘Well, I am obliged to you for telling me this. I should be much more so if you would tell the legend you mentioned.’

“‘I wish I could; but it is so long since I was told it by an old hunter who was living on the shores of the lake which gives its name to the Province, that I fear I have but a very imperfect recollection of it, and should make a miserable failure were I to attempt to repeat it.’

“‘Oh, do try; even the outline will be ‘interesting.’

“‘Well, I will do my best, and call the Indian maiden who is the heroine, ‘Wah-ta-yap’ (a Manitoba Historic Resources Branch brochure, published in 1982, gives her name as Wahsiap), or ‘Bright Eyes;’ for her eyes were beaming stars, into whose depths Makoose (brochure: Makoos — the Bear) had looked, and looking had learned to love. Wah-ta-yap fully returned his love, and had promised to be his wife as soon as he returned from the hunt, which was to furnish them with the means of making a feast to their friends, as is usual when a marriage takes place. Makoose had been gone nearly a month, and he had promised before starting (out) to return when the moon was at its fullest.

“To-night he will return, and

Wah-ta-yap you must meet him, and be the first to bid him welcome and hear all he has done and seen since he left her. No hand but hers must help him to unload the canoe in which he must cross the lake; none but her must help to carry its cargo.

“The day is fast waning and the brilliant moon is just risen over the broad expanse, when Wah-ta-yap glides silently from the tent and enters the forest she must traverse till she comes to the place where the shores of the lake contract (The Narrows of Lake Manitoba), where she well knows Makoose will come to land.

“She had nearly reached her destination and was just emerging from the bushes when she heard a soft voice, almost like a sigh, pronounce her name. She stopped and listened, again was her name uttered, and feeling sure it was Makoose who called, she cried ‘I am here, I am coming,’ and with a glad bound she sprung forward on to a little promontory which jutted far out into the lake. She expected to see the canoe close to shore, and Makoose hasting to meet her, but, no canoe, no Makoose are there. In their stead, she sees the hated, loathed form of Mutche-Manitoo (brochure: Mutchi-Manitou).

“‘Ha, ha,’ laughed the fiend, ‘You thought it was Makoose, did you? He is not here now, my pretty Wah-ta-yap. nor will he be here for hours to come; but come with me, maiden, and live in the hut of Manitoo (Great Spirit, now more commonly spelled Manitou). I will give you more wampum than you could desire; you shall have every dainty (your) heart can wish; all in earth, air and water shall obey you; and I will love you, ah, far better than Makoose.’

“‘I will not,’ said Wah-ta-yap. ‘I hate and detest you.’

“‘Indeed,’ said the demon. ‘We shall see. What is to prevent my carrying you off at once? You must, you shall be mine.’

“So saying, he advanced to seize her arm, but quick as thought the frightened girl sprung over a little stream, on to a mound raised there by some beaver. 

“‘Not yet,’ cried Wah-ta-yap in a tone of triumphant derision, ‘not yet, and never will be. No power nor persuasion will ever make me your bride. I will rather die with Makoose than live with you.’

“Poor little Wah-ta-yap had a brave true heart, and thought she was safe on the water girdled mound, for the Mutche-Manitoo may not cross running water, as she well knew; but she soon became aware of her error, for with a cruel mocking laugh, he knelt down, and blew on the water, which ran between him and the beaver mound. In an instant Wah-ta-yap saw her danger; the water was fast drying up under the scorching breath of the fiend, and in another moment she would be in his grasp.

“In her great need she called on her Totem — the beaver — to help her, and just as the Mutche-Manitoo rose up to leap on the mound on which she stood, the beaver raised a second mound further from the shore, on which she sprung with a cry of thankfulness and joy.

“But, alas! her deliverance was but temporary. Again were the intervening waters dried up, and a third mound was rising when a canoe appeared; and instantly Wah-ta-yap knew that Makoose was just approaching and would aid her in the unequal struggle.

“‘Quick! quick! good beaver, work fast. One  mound more and Makoose will be here before Mutche-Manitoo can dry up the water. Quick! quick! dear beaver, the water is nearly gone, and Makoose is not here yet;’ and poor Wah-ta-yap wrung her hands in agony, for no earthly power could save her if once in the grasp of Mutche-Manitoo; but the water was deep, and tho’ the beaver worked fast, the demon blew harder and harder, and in her extremity, the maiden suddenly remembered that there was one the Mutche-Manitoo could not prevail against and whom she must obey. Clasping her hands, she exclaimed, ‘Oh! Keeche-Manitoo (brochure: Gitchi-Manitou), do thou help me!’ Scarcely were the words uttered, ere the Great Spirit came and by a word raised a chain of mounds which touched the opposite shore. ‘Saved! saved!’ cried Wah-ta-yap, as she sprung from mound to mound. Suddenly she turned to look for Makoose. She was safe and where was he?

“As soon as he drew near land, he saw and understood all, and with swift strong strokes of the paddles, he brought his canoe close to the mound on which Wah-ta-yap was standing, but in her terror she sprung on the next mound, and in an instant Mutche-Manitoo was in the canoe, and had wrested a paddle from the hand of Makoose, before the latter had time to think or resist. Baffled by the timing of the Great Spirit, he next sought revenge, and raising the paddle, he struck a  heavy blow on the head of the unfortunate Makoose, who fell bleeding and lifeless into the lake. An hour later, the good Beaver had borne the body of the brave youth to the shore and gently laid him down among the tall rushes. Wah-ta-yap had turned to look for Makoose just at the moment when Mutche-Manitoo had struck the deadly blow, and saw her lover Makoose fall into the lake. With a wild shriek of horror and agony, she would have sprung into the water after him, but Keeche-Manitoo, ere thought could be made action, passed over and restrained her, and bidding Mutche-Manitoo return to his home in the Dismal Swamp, led her weeping to the mainland and to the spot where the beaver had borne Makoose, and there she weeps for her lost lover, and always when the south wind blows and the moon is full you may hear from among the rushes the sad wailing cry, ‘Lost Makoose! Lost Makoose!’ and that is why the Indians never land nor camp there, and that narrow part of the lake is where the Beaver raised the mound, and where the Great Spirit deigned to pass over and lead poor Wah-ta-yap.”

Aboriginals living near The Narrows of Lake Manitoba (Manitouwapaw — Spirit Straits — in Cree; Manitowaban — Spirit of the Narrow Waters in Ojibwa: Manitoba Archives) used this legend to explain the eerie sound made by the wind and waves in that section of the lake.

During his expedition, Hind experienced the eerie sounds produced by the waves striking the limestone cliff. One night, he awoke thinking he had heard the sound of chimes or a distant church bell, which were later replaced by a low wailing sound.

The waves were “quite sufficient to strike awe into the minds of the ... Indians.” The phenomenon obviously also struck “awe” in Hind.

J.B. Tyrell of the Canadian Geographical Survey, reported in 1890-91 that water beating against the resonant limestone cliff and striking the pebbles of the shore created the sound that aboriginals believed to be the voice or drumbeat of Manitou, and a light wind could produce the tinkling sound of bells and the mournful wail of Wah-ta-yap.

A plaque commemorating the naming of Manitoba is now found on the east side of The Narrows of Lake Manitoba.