The Premier who banned French in Manitoba

by George Siamandas


On January 13, 1888, Thomas Greenway became premier of Manitoba. Greenway, who was Manitoba's first Liberal premier came to be known as the premier who abolished French in Manitoba. Greenway was born in England in 1838, and was 6 when his parents came to Ontario. In Ontario, Greenway became a prosperous merchant who loved politics and ran on behalf of the conservatives. He found his political connections very helpful in business. Greenway had two marriages which resulted in 14 children.

Manitoba appealed to a lot of people in Ontario as a land of new opportunity.

Greenway came to Manitoba in 1878 and bought an 800 acre farm. But he had great dreams. He bought extra land and set up a townsite that would become the future Crystal City. In the following year, he convinced several of his friends and neighbours that had lived near him in Huron County Ontario to move to the new west.

This businessman-farmer became involved in politics right away sitting as an independent as early as 1879. Greenway provided strong opposition to John Norquay challenging his leadership and asking him to put Manitoba ahead of politics. In 1887 Greenway became leader of the Liberal party which was then still in opposition. Greenway was interested in railway development expecting it would make his Crystal City holdings even more valuable. He argued for railway connections and competitive freight rates.


Greenway took over after the three week premier. Minnedosa businessman David Howard Harrison who was asked to form a government after Norquay was forced to resign. Greenway was sworn in as the first Liberal premier along with a cabinet of five ministers on January 19, 1888. Almost immediately the CPR monopoly was dissolved, causing Greenway's popularity to soar. He called an election that summer sweeping 33 of 38 seats in 1888. He was firmly in charge. He felt his efforts ended the CPR's monopoly. He tried to establish the Northern Pacific which connected south to the US, but they did not help in creating the branch lines he had hoped for.


Greenway was a new arrival from Ontario who wanted to create Manitoba in the shape of Ontario. English speaking and modern. No longer a fur trading area populated by Metis and the HBC. They removed all the old references pulling down Fort Garry to straighten out Main St. In 1886 Manitoba had 110,000 people, and Winnipeg alone had 20,000. Winnipeg was truly becoming a "modern city" with gas lights, electric trolleys and some newly paved streets. By 1888 the French character of Manitoba was rapidly eroding. By the time Greenway took over Manitoba was only 13% French speaking as compared to half French 15 years earlier.


Greenway introduced legislation that eliminated the use of French in Manitoba in 1890. He also banned French in the legislature, the civil service and the courts. It became a national issue which required 6 years to be only slightly resolved by the Laurier Greenway compromise. His language policy seemed to be popular. He was re-elected in 1892 and 1896, and served as premier for thirteen years during 1888-1900. There were revisions to the language act as it affected education and some freedoms were restored.

Greenway lost to Hugh John Macdonald in 1899. He had been undone by railways the very issue that had propelled him into office 13 years earlier. And by a poor election strategy. In 1904 he was elected an MP for Lisgar. He refused a knighthood and a Senate seat but accepted an appointment to the Board of Railway Commissioner in 1908. He died of a heart attack in Ottawa on the day he arrived to take up his new job on October 30, 1908.


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