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DESSAULLES, JEAN – Volume VI (1821-1835)

d. 20 June 1835 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Lower Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

DAVIS, ROBERT ATKINSON, schoolteacher, businessman, and politician; b. 9 March 1841 in Dudswell, Lower Canada, son of Thomas Davis and Anna Urania Chaffee; m. first 9 March 1870 Susan Augusta True, and they had a daughter; m. secondly 3 June 1876 Elizabeth McGonagil, and they had a son; d. 7 Jan. 1903 in Phoenix (Ariz.).

Robert Atkinson Davis’s paternal grandfather was a private in the 103rd Foot who immigrated to Lower Canada with his wife. Davis’s father, Thomas, became a pioneer farmer in the Eastern Townships and married an American-born, non-loyalist immigrant. After attending St Francis College in Richmond, Robert and his twin brother, Thomas, became schoolteachers at Dudswell in 1861. Robert studied law at McGill College for a few months, but did not complete his degree. The twins never evinced any desire to maintain the family farm and after the American Civil War they set out for the mining fields of the American Rockies. According to family tradition, they did not stake a claim, but made money through freighting for prospectors, a more secure source of income. Robert had promised to return to Quebec when he had saved $5,000. In 1870, after marrying Susan Augusta True, an American, in Coaticook, Que., he set out with her for the Red River settlement (Man.).

When the couple arrived in Red River on 10 May 1870, Métis leader Louis Riel* was still in charge of Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg). Popular tradition attributes to Davis a meeting with Riel during which the newcomer, French speaking and from Quebec, demonstrated his ability to get along with the Métis. That September Davis and his wife bought a hotel on Main Street from George Emmerling and renamed it Davis House. In the months following the arrival of troops from central Canada under the command of Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley*, many violent incidents occurred between soldiers and Métis, several of them in or near Davis House. According to a contemporary, Alexander Begg*, the hotel none the less “proved to be a Bonanza to its new proprietor . . . being crowded from morning to night with the many strangers visiting the town as well as the volunteers stationed at Fort Garry.” Davis prospered and expanded his holdings, adding a barber-shop, billiard-hall, and store. The hotel contained a saloon, where he was able to meet newcomers, an ideal situation for an aspiring politician. In November 1872 his wife died unexpectedly after giving birth to a daughter. Unable to cope, he sent the infant to Paterson, N.J., to be raised by her mother’s sister. He then leased the hotel and concentrated on his political career.

In the aftermath of the resistance of 1869–70, politics in Manitoba were polarized and politicians were classed as either “rebels” or “loyalists.” The constituency of Winnipeg was composed of large numbers of Ontarians of British extraction, some of whom expressed their loyalty to Canada in anti-Métis activities. These immigrants quickly became influential in the business community and Davis emerged as one of their prominent spokesmen. They resented the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly of transportation, which forced them to pay high freight rates for imported goods. The HBC enjoyed political influence since its commissioner, Donald Alexander Smith*, was also Winnipeg’s representative in the House of Commons and in the Legislative Assembly. In challenging Smith, Winnipeg businessmen vied with the HBC for political control of Red River.

In June 1872 Davis opposed Smith in a bid for the presidency of the Provincial Agricultural Association. Davis lost, but continued his political activities undaunted. In September he was appointed chairman of a committee to investigate election riots. His position as a spokesman for the Ontario element in Red River was assured in February 1873 when he was elected a trustee for the Protestant school board and a member of the newly established Winnipeg Board of Trade.

In 1873 Davis was named to a citizens’ committee charged with drafting a bill for the incorporation of Winnipeg. When the provincial cabinet changed its terms, businessmen blamed the HBC for interfering. They suspected that the company was opposed to the idea of municipal taxation on its extensive landholdings and that it had pressured the attorney general and house leader, Henry Joseph Clarke*, to alter the bill. To offset the influence of the HBC and its commissioner, Winnipeg businessmen formed a society called the Grange in February 1874. Modelled after a farmers’ protest movement in the United States and central Canada, the Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as the Grange, the Manitoba organization was intended to oppose monopolies of all kinds. Davis became known as one of the Manitoba Grange’s chief organizers. When Smith resigned his seat in the assembly, Davis, with support from the Grange, successfully contested the by-election called in April 1874.

Davis’s stated goal was to get rid of the unpopular attorney general. He arranged for the introduction of a motion of no-confidence; it passed on 3 July 1874, and the government resigned. The reconstruction of the cabinet resulted in the introduction of responsible government, since provincial politicians insisted on a voice in the selection of its members. For the first time, a lieutenant governor, Alexander Morris*, deferred to a premier, Marc-Amable Girard*. Girard chose Davis for the position of provincial treasurer. In three months the Grange’s candidate had succeeded in achieving a position of political influence.

In his new role, which he assumed on 8 July, Davis had two aims: to eliminate the provincial debt and to obtain “better terms” for Manitoba within confederation. In order to control expenditures he established a board of audit and instituted an examination of those provincial government services used by the city of Winnipeg. In November 1874 Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie* notified the provincial government that Ottawa would renegotiate the provincial subsidy to relieve Manitoba’s debt if significant reductions in expenditures were made through the introduction of measures of restraint and the abolition of the Legislative Council. Unfortunately, by late fall the political situation had become increasingly unstable because of ethnic tensions, and the financial reforms were therefore delayed.

On 1 Dec. 1874 all but one member of the cabinet tendered their resignations when two English-speaking ministers refused to fight the next election led by Girard and the French-speaking attorney general, Joseph Dubuc*. Morris called on Davis, the remaining minister, to head a new government. In the coalition which emerged two days later, Davis was the spokesman of the English element, Joseph Royal represented the French Canadians, and Colin Inkster acted for the original Red River settlers. The ministry went to the polls at the end of December and won enough seats to form a minority government.

Davis’s cabinet had gained the full support of the French party but the English group questioned his loyalty to itself. In order to win some backing from this group Davis offered a cabinet seat to John Norquay*, leader of the opposition. Norquay dropped his demand for the abolition of French language and educational rights in return for the promise of a bill which would give the growing English community more seats in the assembly. This compromise satisfied moderate English-speaking members; they were now a majority in the cabinet and, after redistribution, would be so in the assembly as well. Increasing immigration from Ontario made it difficult for the French group to maintain the strong position it had occupied in previous years. When Norquay entered the cabinet in March 1875 he lost the support of the Canadian party [see Sir John Christian Schultz*]. In addition, a rump group led by Orangeman Francis Evans Cornish* maintained a concerted opposition to the Davis-Royal ministry for the remainder of its tenure.

At the reconstruction of the ministry in March, Royal had insisted that a Métis representative be appointed to replace James McKay*, who had resigned with the Girard administration. Davis therefore added Charles Nolin, only to create a backlash from the anti-French forces. In December Nolin resigned, accusing the government of favouring French Canadians over Métis in patronage appointments. As a result, Davis reappointed McKay as the Métis spokesman and as minister of agriculture.

Although the reason why Davis won the support of the Ontario-British businessmen may be obvious, it is less easy to understand how he managed to obtain the support of the French party. The fact that he came from Quebec was apparently a significant factor. He could speak French and was able to convince Royal and Dubuc that he supported French rights as established in Manitoba. The French Canadian leaders needed an English-speaking counterpart who could compromise on those issues that were of greatest importance to them and Davis was the most sympathetic. Because of his willingness to form a coalition with the French party, the Daily Free Press of Winnipeg denounced him as disloyal to Canada. To offset this hostility Davis developed a program designed to get the province out of debt and promote economic development. This strategy and his demand for “better terms” appealed to the old settlers and the moderate Ontario element and served to deflect ethnic tensions. It won enough support from the English element to give him a working majority in the assembly.

Lacking a strong following of his own, Davis consolidated his position as premier by the judicious use of patronage, aimed both at winning support for important elements of his program and at neutralizing the opposition. He succeeded in persuading the Legislative Council to vote itself out of existence in January 1876 by promising other appointments to councillors. Similarly, he won the support of the Daily Free Press by offering its editor, William Fisher Luxton, the government printing contract. Patronage extended to St Boniface as well. Despite his position as cabinet minister, Royal continued to manage and write for Le Métis. His paper received the contracts for government printing in French and, as a result, published laudatory editorials about the government. Criticism of sensitive issues was usually directed at Ottawa.

Soon after it assumed office, the Davis-Royal administration had to face the charge of unethical behaviour. The election of 1874 had resulted in a tie in Kildonan, and John Sutherland, the incumbent, accused the government of attempted bribery. At a public inquiry into the matter, Davis argued that he had not bribed one of the candidates to withdraw but had only offered to reimburse his election expenses if he decided to do so. The assembly agreed to hold a new election and Sutherland won.

Because Davis succeeded in establishing political stability, he was able to pursue his goal of obtaining “better terms.” Unlike other provinces, Manitoba did not have control over its public lands and, hence, over an important source of revenue. Consequently, the provincial cabinet was obliged to seek an increase in federal subsidies. When Davis went to Ottawa in 1875 to discuss the problem with Prime Minister Mackenzie he learned that the province did not have a strong position from which to negotiate. According to Mackenzie, Davis told friends in Toronto that “unless something effective were done, they [Manitobans] would have to look to the States.” Although Davis took no action along these lines, his frustration in dealing with Ottawa was evident. He did manage, however, to establish his credibility as a capable manager of the province’s finances (he had continued to serve as provincial treasurer after he became premier) and he obtained an increased subsidy as well as the elimination of the provincial debt.

During Davis’s administration the Ontario element agitated continually for the freeing up of Métis lands and the removal of legislation restricting speculation in Métis scrip. The Davis-Royal ministry was able to resist such pressure, but after its resignation, legislation passed under Premier Norquay would facilitate the speculation. The Ontario element also continued to press for the repeal of French rights, including the abolition of the dual public school system and the removal of French as an official language. As well, they demanded Ontario models of government: a municipal act which would undermine the traditional parish system in Red River and a further redistribution to give the growing numbers of immigrants from Ontario more seats. Davis agreed to another redistribution in 1877 and introduced a bill to create municipal governments, but he resisted demands to abolish French and the existing school system.

Another of Davis’s interests was railway development. Before entering provincial politics he had led a lobby of businessmen determined to change the proposed route of the transcontinental railway so that it would pass through Winnipeg rather than Selkirk. Although the railway preferred Selkirk because it was on high ground safe from flooding, Winnipeg had an advantage as the centre of trade. At a mass meeting held in Winnipeg on 6 Feb. 1877 Davis supported a motion to organize a company that would build a railway bridge at Winnipeg and a line from the city to the western limits of the province. Davis was a member of the standing committee formed to lobby for the bridge and a grant of land for the railway extension. The return of the federal Conservatives under Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* and the persistent efforts of the Winnipeg lobby eventually resulted in a change of route, through the city [see Alexander Logan*].

After he retired from politics in 1878 and moved to Illinois, Davis continued to express interest in Canadian railway development. In 1881 he sent telegrams to Macdonald, bidding on the contract for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway on behalf of an American syndicate with headquarters in New York. There is no evidence that Macdonald seriously considered this proposal; he did not even acknowledge the telegrams. The identities of the Americans involved are not known, but Davis hinted that they were among the “leading railway men” of Chicago and New York. Two years later he advocated free trade with the United States and predicted that the CPR’s monopoly would retard the economic development of Manitoba.

Davis had many ties to the United States, through both family and business contacts. In 1875, en route to Ottawa by way of Illinois, he met Elizabeth McGonagil; they were married six months later. Despite the fact that her husband was premier, she never moved to Manitoba, staying instead with her family in Colona, Ill. In 1878 Davis decided not to seek re-election and joined his wife and their son in Colona. After the death of the boy in 1880, they moved to south Chicago, where Davis became a prosperous real-estate developer. He was able to spend much of the 1890s travelling on the profits of his investments.

Davis’s later years were marked by scandal and tragedy. In 1890 he was charged with breach of promise, seduction, and libel by Mrs Matilda Bruns of Moorhead, Minn. Although he denied the charges, he was required to attend an inquiry in Winnipeg. There is no record whether the case went to trial, but the fact that 20 to 30 witnesses were called in Winnipeg suggests that the alleged liaison took place there, possibly while Davis was premier. Local newspapers viewed the suit as an attempt to blackmail the now wealthy Davis.

In 1896 Davis separated from his wife, claiming that “she entered into a conspiracy with one Fred Lane with whom she appears to be completely infatuated.” He bought her a home in a fashionable part of Chicago, while he lived in one of his boarding-houses in south Chicago. He continued to travel, but developed Bright’s disease and died at Grant’s Ranch, in Phoenix. He was buried in Oak Woods cemetery, Chicago.

Davis was an intensely private individual and was not known as a philanthropist. The editor of a south Chicago newspaper noted, however, that he had secretly paid the $6,000 mortgage on a local church. In Manitoba, he is a forgotten political figure, for no town or street has been named after him. Yet, although he lived in the province for only eight years, he achieved political prominence. He helped dissipate ethnic tensions and violence by organizing a coalition of moderate politicians who provided the province with a stable government. Through his partnership with Royal, he helped to prolong the strong influence of Quebec politicians in Manitoba government and together they resisted the more overt attacks on minority rights.

Ruth Swan

NA, MG 26, A: 53048–49. PAM, MG 12, B1, nos.957–58, 1825, 1827, 1829; B2, nos. 137–38, 182; P2116. Manitoba Free Press, 30 Nov. 1872; 4 Jan., 8 Feb., 8 March 1873; 15, 21 July, 26 Nov., 2, 7, 9–10, 23 Dec. 1874; 2 April, 12 May 1875; 26 Jan. 1876; 9 April 1878. Manitoba Gazette (Winnipeg), 30 Nov. 1878. Le Métis (Saint-Boniface, Man.), 11 avril 1874; 6 mars, 3 avril 1875. Winnipeg Daily Sun, 2 June 1883. Winnipeg Tribune, 11 Sept. 1891. Alexander Begg, Alexander Begg’s Red River journal and other papers relative to the Red River resistance of 1869–1870, ed. W. L. Morton (Toronto, 1956); History of the northwest (3v., Toronto, 1894–95). Alexander Begg and W. R. Nursey, Ten years in Winnipeg: a narration of the principal events in the history of the city of Winnipeg from the year A.D. 1870 to the year A.D. 1879, inclusive (Winnipeg, 1879). CPG, 1875–78. Gerhard Ens, “Métis lands in Manitoba,” Manitoba Hist. (Winnipeg), no.5 (spring 1983): 2–11. Man., Legislative Assembly, Journals, “app.,” 1875, app.H.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ruth Swan, “DAVIS, ROBERT ATKINSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_robert_atkinson_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_robert_atkinson_13E.html
Author of Article:   Ruth Swan
Title of Article:   DAVIS, ROBERT ATKINSON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   June 20, 2024