CUNNINGHAM, ROBERT, journalist and politician; b. 12 May 1836 at Stewarton, near Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of John Cunningham and Barbara Newlands; d. 4 July 1874 at St Paul, Minnesota.
Robert Cunningham grew up in Scotland and was educated there. He took a degree in arts at Glasgow College, and then proceeded to the University of London from which he graduated in science. In 1862 he married Annie Brown of Aberdeen, Scotland, and they were to have three daughters and one son. Six years after his marriage Cunningham decided to emigrate to Canada; he settled first in Toronto where he found employment as a journalist. In the winter of 1869 he was sent west as a special correspondent for the Toronto Globe, and subsequently the Toronto Telegraph, to cover the disturbances at Red River.
The new province of Manitoba seemed to offer ample opportunity to Cunningham, and he quickly determined to locate there permanently. With William Coldwell, he became, and remained until his death, joint editor and proprietor of the independent Liberal Manitoban in Winnipeg; in 1870 he and his partner received the appointment of queen’s printer, which may have helped their financial situation. In 1871 Cunningham was named a justice of the peace; he took an active and leading part in the Fenian excitement [see O’Donoghue], summarily ordering the arrest of two suspects without any real evidence.
Cunningham’s newspaper supported the Liberals politically, and he formed a close association with Joseph Dubuc*, member of the Legislative Assembly for Baie de Saint-Paul, and other leaders of the French-speaking community; in this community he saw a reliable political base. At their urging, Cunningham stood for election, successfully, in the federal constituency of Marquette in 1872. One of his agents was Louis Riel*, who served as a returning officer in a poll that went solidly for Cunningham.
As a member of parliament, Cunningham assumed the obligation of representing the interests of the Manitoba Métis community. He assured Riel he would support a general amnesty for all those involved in the Red River disturbance of 1869–70. He was also instrumental in the settling of the Métis land claims; the old settlers were assured of 160 acres plus their rights to the hay privilege on the outer two miles of the river belts, under the terms of the Dominion Lands Act of 1874. That same year he was involved in the scheme to have Riel, elected for the constituency of Provencher, take his seat in the House of Commons despite the charges against him arising from the Red River disturbances.
Devoted as he was to the interests of his constituents, Cunningham was much less attached to the Liberal party. His tendency toward political independence was so obvious that Sir John A. Macdonald* invited him to the Conservative caucus in the autumn of 1873. Cunningham had no intention of being trapped in the aftermath of the Canadian Pacific Railway scandal, and ignored Macdonald’s offer. He ran again as a Liberal in 1874, and was returned handily. With his party in power, Cunningham found it a distinct advantage to vote regularly with the Liberals. On 7 May 1874, Antoine-Aimé Dorion* announced Cunningham’s appointment to the Council of the North-West Territories, but he did not take up his new appointment. He died in July of that year in St Paul, Minnesota, while returning to the west.
Cunningham’s career reflected the instability of a new province. His tendency toward independent action, and his concern for the Métis community for which he spoke, made him a somewhat difficult colleague in his political party. His sudden death deprived Manitoba of an effective representative and journalist.
PAM, Adams George Archibald, 1870–74; Alexander Morris, Ketcheson collection, correspondence, 1872–74; Louis Riel papers, correspondence and papers, 1870–74; Settlement and pioneers, Robert Cunningham, 1872–74. Begg and Nursey, Ten years in Winnipeg, 4, 6, 51–52, 56, 59, 68, 71, 96, 99. Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg), 1872–74. Manitoban (Winnipeg), 1870–74. Can. parl. comp., 1874, 159–60.