The 1946 Portage Women's Jail Riot

Unhappy to Have a Woman Warden

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas


On April 15, 1946 a riot broke out at the Portage La Prairie Jail for Women. Newspapers reported a combination of bad food, overcrowding, and poor medical care as the cause of the riot. It was a Monday and 15 women refused to go to work. Tear gas was used to bring the women under control but they began to throw furniture around and barricaded themselves. The women demanded to see the Attorney General J.O. McLenaghen while singing "don't fence me in."

Attorney General J.O. McLenaghen met with them and heard complaints against female Warden MC Mountain. One inmate said of trying to communicate grievances to Miss Mountain, "you might as well be talking to a little dog." McLenaghen promised to look into their complaints, ordered they be taken off their bread and water rations and left to a chorus of "he's a jolly good fellow."


Head of jails in Manitoba Royal Burritt conducted an investigation into the state of jails in Manitoba and found the womens' complaints had merit. The management consisting of Ed Calder and Maud Mountain was judged as incompetent. Staff was only at half the level required. Maud Mountain was a lousy administrator and showed no initiative. Ed Calder the past warden at the jail had been accused of hitting numerous women with his clenched fist. He ran the place like an autocrat. Burritt suggested that Calder be fired. Yet at the top of the womens' demands was their wish to see the return of their male warden Sheriff Ed Calder.

Set up in 1931 and made women's only in 1935, the facility was badly in need of repairs. The colours were depressing, and described by Burritt a "bilious blue" and "dirty yellow." The windows had been painted over a "hideous green" preventing light from coming into the cells. The food consisted of cold meats and potatoes. The fridge barely worked and the range needed replacement. It would have failed any restaurant health codes in effect at the time. The women were not given toothbrushes even though the cost was only 10 cents. There were no written rules of behaviour. Calder made the rules up as he went. Complainant Edna Burch said Calder beat her for a small infraction of the rules and put her on bread and water for 5 days.

There was no vocational training available, nor any recreational facilities. The library contained nothing up to date. It had a few rotting foul smelling old books. Burritt concluded that there was nothing wrong with the food. "Nothing could start trouble sooner than to provide poor food and we know that well enough" said Burritt. Two years later Burritt seemed to have forgotten the importance of a decent meal.


In 1948 unrest broke out at Headingley Jail. Men complained of not enough variety in meals. Not enough sugar available. No bedtime snacks. An investigation proved the men's concerns. Meals consisted of a lot of beef stew and steamed or mashed potatoes. On alternate days sliced balogna. Sugar rations were tripled. It was deemed too impractical however to give prisoners bedtime snacks in their cells.


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