The Honourable John Norquay

Indigenous Premier, Canadian Statesman


The life and times of the Premier from Red River

John Norquay, orphan and prodigy, was a leader among the Scots Cree peoples of western Canada. Born in the Red River Settlement, he farmed, hunted, traded, and taught school before becoming a legislator, cabinet minister, and, from 1878 to 1887, premier of Manitoba.

Once described as Louis Riel’s alter ego, he skirmished with prime minister John A. Macdonald, clashed with railway baron George Stephen, and endured racist taunts while championing the interests of the Prairie West in battles with investment bankers, Ottawa politicians, and the CPR. His contributions to the development of Canada’s federal system and his dealings with issues of race and racism deserve attention today.

Recounted here by Canadian historian Gerald Friesen, Norquay’s life story ignites contemporary conversations around the nature of empire and Canada’s own imperial past. Drawing extensively on recently opened letters and financial papers that offer new insights into his business, family, and political life, Friesen reveals Norquay to be a thoughtful statesman and generous patriarch. This masterful biography of the Premier from Red River sheds welcome light on a neglected historical figure and a tumultuous time for Canada and Manitoba.


The Honourable John Norquay is a magisterial biography that brings Norquay out of the historical shadows to a prominent place among the major figures of nineteenth century Canada. One of the most important historical studies of this decade, Norquay is a model of how superb historical scholarship can make us better understand both past and present.”

John English, University of Waterloo

“This is a beautifully written, extremely accessible, but obviously meticulous scholarly tome. Friesen wrangles a wide variety of facts into a compelling narrative.”

Chris Andersen, Dean of the Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

"The Honourable John Norquay is a magnificent book. Friesen meticulously documents Norquay's many accomplishments, larger-than-life character, and charisma. He paints a picture of a negotiator and orator who ably uses humour and personal stories to win support, especially in the midst of the racism he faced."

Gary Doer, Premier of Manitoba, 1999–2009

"The Honourable John Norquay benefits from its author’s comprehensive research, deep knowledge of Manitoba’s history and straightforward prose, and from his clear and justified respect for a premier who governed during a period of rapid expansion and deep divisions. Gerald Friesen has given us an admirable biography of an admirable statesman who contributed much to his province and to Canada."

John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail

"Most readers of this meticulously researched biography will find the words on the Norquay memorial at Winnipeg's St. John's Cathedral moving and close to the truth: 'By his sudden death his native land lost an eloquent speaker, an honest statesman and a true friend.'"

Faith Johnston, Winnipeg Free Press

About the Author

Gerald Friesen taught Canadian history at the University of Manitoba from 1970–2011. He has written several books, including The Canadian Prairies: A History and Citizens and Nation, and is co-author of Immigrants in Prairie Cities. Former president of the Canadian Historical Association, he was an advisor on CBC-Radio Canada’s television series Canada: A People’s History. He lives in Winnipeg.

Table of Contents


Ch 1: “A Merry Prankish Youngster,” 1841–58

Ch 2: Red River Family, 1859–70

Ch 3: “The Transfer Made Us Wise,” the 1870s

Ch 4: Public Life: An Introduction, 1871–74

Ch 5: Senior Minister, 1875–78

Ch 6: Premier, 1879

Ch 7: Boom Times and Crash, 1880–January 1883

Ch 8: “Chief,” 1883–February 1885

Ch 9: “An Unfortunate Family Difference,” 1885

Ch 10: Vindication, 1886

Ch 11: Defiance, 1887

Ch 12: Downfall, November–December 1887

Ch 13: Dénouement, 1888–89





A Note on Sources