The policeman trekked into the Canadian West with the North West Mounted Police on a mission of law and order. The architect designed over forty schools in a prairie boomtown. The visionary helped bring enlightenment to masses of immigrants newly arrived and hungry for a fresh and better life. History would eagerly record the exploits of all these people and history has, except, in this case, all three are the same person.
James Bertram Mitchell was born in Gananoque, Ontario in 1852. He joined the Canadian militia as a bugler at the age of 14, rising to corporal by 1870. Upon promotion, J.B. Mitchell was assigned to guard the Welland Canal at Carlton, Ontario against a Fenian invasion of Canada, an event that never took place. During his time in the militia, he met Colonel George A. French, soon to be the head of the newly minted North West Mounted Police. It was a defining meeting for the young Mitchell.
At age 18, Mitchell returned to civilian life and studied architecture at the Montreal Institute of Art for three years.
No longer able to ignore reports of lawlessness in the west – the Cypress Hills Massacre was the latest example – Prime Minister John A. Macdonald created the North West Mounted Police in 1873.
Macdonald modeled his police force after the Royal Irish Constabulary, a ‘police-styled’ force but with a military bearing. Their first task was to shut down the whisky trade at Fort Whoop-Up. Whisky was causing violence and upheaval in Indian camps and white outposts. It triggered fights among rivals, friends and family. The NWMP were instructed to stop the whisky trade, establish friendly relations with the aboriginals and entrench Canadian law over a 300,000 square-mile territory. This awesome task was assigned to fewer than 300 men, not an army but a constabulary.
Young Mitchell had read newspaper accounts of the difficulties at Red River and the whisky problem in the West so, when the NWMP was announced, he was delighted to discover his friend Col. French had been chosen Commissioner in charge of the force. Stemming from his desire to serve his country and his strong sense of adventure Mitchell enlisted and at age 21 and was assigned NWMP regimental number 50, E division with the rank of Staff Constable.
The NWMP departed Fort Dufferin, now Emerson, MB on July 8, 1874. During his time with the force, Staff Constable Mitchell was present at the signing of treaties with the Cree and the Six Nations led by Chief Crowfoot. His name can be found among the signatures on Treaty 6.
In 1877, J. B. Mitchell’s three-year hitch with the NWMP was over. He had fulfilled his contract with the government and gained firsthand experience of the Canadian West, how enormous and filled with possibility it was. The only thing that matched the hardship of the trek was the exhilaration Mitchell felt from the whole experience. Out there on the vast and subtle plains, he gained a unique perspective that would serve and inform his worldview.
Having passed through Winnipeg during his time with the NWMP, when Mitchell returned to civilian life, he remembered the opportunity he felt existed in this new prairie city. He settled in the Point Douglas area.
He was elected to the Winnipeg School Board in 1888 and in 1892 appointed Architect and Commissioner of School Buildings and Supplies. Along with his contemporary, School Superintendent Daniel McIntyre, J. B. Mitchell designed and created what some saw as North America’s safest and most architecturally eloquent collection of schools. Together the two men oversaw the design and construction of forty-eight Winnipeg schools and numerous additions. During his tenure, Mitchell witnessed the value of school buildings grow from less than $350,000 to nearly $10 million. Odds are, if you went to school in Winnipeg, you sat in a classroom designed by J. B. Mitchell.
It was Winnipeg’s great boom time – 1890 to 1914 – when population growth on the newly opened prairie was exploding. School enrolment jumped from 5,000 to 40,000 requiring thirty-nine new schools to be built over those 24 years.
To accommodate the massive influx the public school system underwent a huge transformation. At the time, Canadians’ pride in the British Empire was at a peak. A great enlightenment, reflected in women’s suffrage and free and universal education, was sweeping through western institutions. Education was viewed as a panacea for ignorance and other societal ills and the buildings in which it occurred had to reflect that optimism and hope.
Known as a stalwart of the Empire with enlightened views about education and the need for healthy learning environments, Mitchell’s design concerns were student safety, spaciousness and eloquence. He created many school designs that embodied all of these optimistic values.
Mitchell spoke of his feelings on this subject: “There is nothing too good for the children, and it should be known, appreciated and remembered by every parent in this Dominion that education is more important than good streets, roads or sidewalks, and more public money should be spent to thoroughly equip the children for the battle of life than is now being devoted to that purpose.”
Influenced by British Board Schools, Mitchell created powerful, stately buildings that he felt nurtured the physical and intellectual potential of all children, no matter what their country of origin. British Board Schools were massive red brick buildings, usually three storeys, with similar design and layout. Hundreds of them were built between 1870 and 1900. Their style captured the imagination of the public and became the defining characteristic of enlightened education. J. B. Mitchell used the Board Schools as his basic design, enhancing the already handsome buildings with decorative details from Queen Anne, Gothic, Classical and Georgian Revival architectural styles.
Always eager to learn new techniques and designs, Mitchell traveled across Canada and the United States, touring educational facilities and discussing their design with his peers. He brought home many new ideas for his schools. But always foremost in his mind was that fundamental education would be provided, children would be enlightened and all of Canada would benefit.
Fittingly, Mitchell and McIntyre retired in 1928 after an association of forty years. Both men have schools named after them, honouring their contribution to education and architecture in Manitoba. Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute was opened in 1923, J.B. Mitchell School in 1956.
As a Colonel, J.B. Mitchell saw action at St. Eloi and Vimy with the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers in World War I. Colonel Mitchell outlived all of his old NWMP comrades to become the last surviving member of the original force. When he died on November 15, 1945 at the age of 93, J.B. Mitchell left Winnipeg “not less but greater than he found it.” Mitchell is buried in Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg (Section F, Plot 12, Grave 4).
Thanks in no small part to the visionary ideas of J.B. Mitchell, Winnipeg gained national recognition for the excellence of its school system and the innovative designs of its high quality, well-built schools. The system and its buildings stand as a testament to these creative, positive energies. They are a legacy, not just of bricks and mortar, but of enlightenment and human development that defines our heritage through the minds of past students and creates our future through the minds of today’s students.
31 Winnipeg Schools designed by J. B. Mitchell –
name, year built, years of additions
- Gladstone School #2 – 1899/1902, demolished 1963-64
- Somerset School – 1901 “permanently” closed 1972, demolished 2005
- Alexandra School – 1902/1950-51 demolished 1969
- Carlton School #2, 1903, demolished 1930
- Pinkham School #2 – 1904 burned & renovated 1945
- Strathcona School #1 – 1905/1911 demolished 1963-64
- John M. King School #1 -1906/1918 demolished 1964
- Luxton School – 1908/1915, 1948, 1988
- King Edward School #1 – 1908, demolished 1975
- Lord Selkirk School #1 – 1908/1921, 1965
- Clifton School #1 – 1908, on site of Isaac Brock School, moved to Dominion Street 1913, demolished 1949
- Aberdeen School #2 – 1909/1955, 1961
- Cecil Rhodes School #1 – 1909/1951-52
- Greenway School #1 – 1909/1960
- La Verendrye School – 1909/1964
- Kelvin High School #1-1910/1963, design similar to St. John’s High School, demolished 1966
- Lord Roberts School #1 – 1911
- Lord Selkirk School #2 – 1912
- St. John’s Technical High School #1 – 1912/1960, 1963, 1966 demolished original 1912 sections in 1967, design similar to Kelvin High School
- Principal Sparling School -1912/1986
- Laura Secord School- 1913/renovations 1988-90
- Isaac Brock School – 1914
- King Edward School – 1914, demolished 1976
- Earl Grey School – 1915/1965
- George V School – 1915/1948, 1951
- Julia Clark School – 1918 demolished
- Greenway School #2 – 1919
- Ralph Brown School #2 – 1919/1960 demolished 1989
- Lord Roberts School #2 – 1919/1923
- Robert H. Smith School #1 – 1919/1929 demolished 1992
- David Livingstone School – 1922/1957, 1968
Find more stories about Manitoba schools on my Schools page.