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J. B. Mitchell – NWMP Corporal, School Architect, Visionary

mitchell_jb5

Reid Dickie

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 Micthell_2corporal 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, fort duff1874. 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.

mitchell carttonHe 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 inSOMERSET SCHOOL 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 006_3design 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, KELVINstately 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 EARL GREY TOWER 1buildings 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 outlivedmitchell quuen 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.

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Manitoba’s Official Mounted Police Museum

Reid Dickie

Every Canadian province has an official Mounted Police Museum. In Manitoba it is located in Shoal Lake. In my video report find out why this is an extremely appropriate town to have the museum.

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Marshall Family Cemetery

Reid Dickie

Halfway up the side of wind-swept Big Muddy Valley in extreme southern Saskatchewan sits the Marshall family cemetery. Forty-one people, all related to James Marshall, are buried there. He was a member of the North West Mounted Police and, later, one of the first large ranchers in the Big Muddy district. The view from the cemetery is marvellous as the valley stretches for miles in both directions. Join me there on video.

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Out There It’s Summertime

Reid Dickie

I’m just back from a eight-day ramble on the prairies, mostly in the Missouri Coteau and Cypress Hills areas of southern Saskatchewan. I visited half a dozen new sites, revisited some familiar ones, shot almost 2 hours of video (expect plenty of reports from afar as a result), met wonderful new people and spent time with some old favourites. My intuition quickened, Spirit whispered through the trees in Pine Cree Park and Old Souls aided and abetted me along the way. My reward for the 2800 kms and ensuing events is serenity, a renewed sense of purpose and a bolstering of my humanity. You get what you intend.

The trip began with a perfect Saturday at the Regina Folk Festival with Linda’s cousin, Mike Panko and his beautiful partner, Brenda. Mike’s an Old Soul and a ton of fun. Here’s Mike and me at the fest.

A day of great music culminated with an energetic set from k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang closing the evening concert which also featured Taj Mahal. k.d. is in fine form these days with a new band, high energy, great new songs from her Sing It Loud CD (buy it if you haven’t already) and a back catalogue that would be the envy of any singer with perfect pitch. The show began with the lead-off track from the CD called I Confess, to my ears a Roy Orbison homage of high order. (That was one of the Tunes of the Tour as was Moonglow because Wendy Thomson performed it beautifully with the moon rising above her on the second floor balcony at The Convent in Val Marie. Both tunes sift through the inattentive spaces in my mind as the miles go by.) k.d. covers two songs on the CD and performed both of them: Heaven “by that great country band, Talking Heads,” as she introduced it, led eerily, perfectly into a new arrangement of Hallelujah; and she swung the Little River Band hit Reminiscing. She sang Miss Chatelaine, Western Skies, ending the show with a rockin’ version of her now-evergreen Constant Craving. To end the encores and evening she sang Neil Young’s Helpless.

After a restful night on Mike’s futon and a long, leisurely breakfast with him and Brenda, I was westbound onto the Missouri Coteau. The Coteau stretches from the northwest in central Saskatchewan south between Moose Jaw and Swift Current into South Dakota. It’s the next step up on the prairies after the Manitoba Escarpment and features lots of hills and gullies, some of Saskatchewan’s best scenery and worst highways, friendly people and endlessly changing vistas that surprise and enchant the curious seeker. It’s one of my favourite places to drive. The highways are lonesome and long, the sky runs ahead of me just as far as it extends behind me and there’s enough room to think, to evolve, to expand my awareness and discover what’s there. I head south from Moose Jaw to Assiniboia then west toward Pine Cree Park, my camping destination for the night.

Located in the foothills to the Cypress Hills between Shaunavon and Eastend, over the years Pine Cree Park has sheltered my little tent more than any other campground on the praires. This is a shot of the South Fork of Swift Current Creek, which runs right through Pine Cree Park; its pleasant burble can be heard from most campsites in the park.

Set in a deep mysterious coulee on a Continental Divide, Pine Cree Park is a truly rustic camping experience. There is no other like it in southern Saskatchewan. Soft-shell camping is encouraged, the park is non-electric, the width of the road and bridges prevents any unit longer than 28 feet from using the park and weight restrictions on the bridges apply. It gets extremely dark. Great for stargazing. Here’s another shot of the little stream through the park.

The little park has custodians this year, something new. Joan Hodgins and her nephew Darcy tend the park and live in two trailers just at the entrance. Both wonderful helpful people. I bought a generous tailgate load of firewood for $5 delivered. Joan offers outdoor programs at the park and both her and the lad demonstrated a great love for and understanding of this sacred place. Joan helped me understand the significance of a gift Spirit gave me just after I arrived in the park. I will have a video report on the gift soon.

The next night I moved from soft shell camping to luxury on the prairie, staying at The Convent Country Inn in Val Marie. A former convent saved from demolition by Robert and Mette Ducan about 15 years ago, this is my favourite bed and breakfast out there.  Other guests included Wendy and Eldon Thomson from Saskatoon who’d also attended the Regina Folk Festival and were out for a drive on the Coteau. Up on the second floor balcony, Wendy serenaded us with her lovely singing and guitar playing until way past dark. The balcony affords a wide view of the Frenchman River valley, Grasslands National Park beyond and the star-filled night sky. The Convent is for sale, a bargain at $525,000. Video coming soon. UPDATE: Watch my video tour. Here is a picture of me in front of The Convent.

Two more shots of The Convent: the first floor breakfast room and the second floor sitting room.

The next day I took the eco-driving tour of Grasslands National Park. There is some development occurring in the park. A small, primitive campground has been set up at the Belza Place which has a vast view of the Frenchman River valley, and closer to the prairie dog Dogtown, another development is being built. Spend a couple of minutes with the prairie dogs in GNP. Here’s a shot of the vista from the Belza campsite.

After a night at the Stage Coach Motel in Willow Bunch, I took a private tour of the Big Muddy Badlands offered through Coronach Tourism. Tillie Duncan, who’d lived in the area her whole life and knew it like the back of her hand, was my guide. She took me through the Sam Kelly Caves where outlaws like Dutch Henry and Butch Cassidy hid the horses and cattle they rustled back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We also visited two sacred sites that were new to me: a ceremonial circle and a turtle effigy, both high atop a butte on the Giles Ranch which is private property and accessible only through guided tours. Though elderly, Tillie was spry and full of vigour, offering countless entertaining anecdotes about the area. She still farms 13 quarters, growing durum and lentils this year! I recommend her highly for the Big Muddy tour. Here’s a shot of me taken near the turtle effigy.

A night in the Country Boy Motel then I re-explored a couple of the accessible sites Tillie had shown me, like the 1902 Big Muddy North West Mounted Police barracks and the family cemetery of an early pioneer, James Marshall, all with magnificent vistas of the huge Big Muddy valley. I revisited Castle Butte and took some great video of the place. Again coming soon to a blog near you. The only rain of my eight-day journey occurred Friday morning when I awoke in Weyburn. By the time I got to Manitoba, the sun was shining again. I was thrilled to discover Hwy #5 through Spruce Woods Park is now open and the park is slowly getting back on its feet. This is my report on the park’s current status.

I arrived home feeling rejuvenated and fully in touch with my humanity. The mighty Avenger and I will travel the prairies for another month. There is always room in the virtual passenger seat for you. Hope you are up to the drive all the way “out there” and back. Come on along.

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