The University of Manitoba

"The Republic of Colleges"

by George Siamandas

On Feb 28 1877, the University of Manitoba was established as a degree granting body for the three colleges serving Manitoba at the time and remains western Canada's oldest university.

The University of Manitoba was the first university. But actually St Boniface College was the first college and was founded in 1854, St Johns College was established in 1869 and Manitoba College in 1871. For the first many years all it did was grant degrees, it did not offer instruction. It was not allowed to.

Alexander Morris who became Lieut Gov 1872-1877 was a man with a vision and a sense of future of the university without religious affiliation. There was a concern to avoid the problems of religious control resulting denominational rivalry that had plagued the colleges in Ontario. In Manitoba they created one non denominational body that was initially only a degree conferring body. Their model was the University of London founded in 1836, itself modeled after Napoleon's University of France. That it offered no instruction and permitted full autonomy of the three founding colleges was well received by people like Bishop Tache who ran St Boniface College.

The first graduate was in 1880 and it was William Reginald Gunn who graduated with a bachelor of arts. The first woman was Jessie Livingston Holmes who graduated in 1889 in arts. Male graduates have always outnumbered females, excepting 1945, when women graduates outnumbered men.

In 1890 it rented its first quarters at the McIntyre Block which was just north of the TD bank at Portage and Main. Its first area of instruction was science. In 1898 after a big fire at the McIntyre Block, the University moved to a new site on Broadway opposite the Leg where Memorial park stands today.

But there were always incentives to move the University. The agricultural college set up in Tuxedo starting in 1903. And by 1910 it looked like the university would move to the Tuxedo site as well. But since there was need for even a larger site they secured land in ST Vital. By 1929 the Fort Garry campus had become the main campus with the Agricultural college finally merging.

WL Morton writes that the university was created 5 years after the last Indian dog feast was held in Winnipeg and while the Red River cart brigades still creaked along the Portage Trail.

And the generous provincial government of the day granted $250 annually for it to do its work. And curiously all marriage certificate fees for the province for the first five years went to fund the University. It remained for private benefactors to provide some real money.

It was Alexander Kennedy Isbister who initiated the spirit of generosity on which many public institutions have depended for their growth. Isbister left $83,000 which was the largest gift the university would receive in the next 75 years. It went to scholarships "without distinction of race creed or sex."

Isbister also left his four thousand volume library which became the nucleus of the University library. Isbister, who had been born at Cumberland House in 1822, had proven to be a brilliant student at St. Johns and later at Edinburgh and London. He became a lawyer and wrote 21 books in the field of education. While he never returned to Red River, his contributions made a lasting impression on the University of Manitoba.

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