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Bank robbers, labour leaders and political prisoners: 140 years of history at Stony Mountain Institution

Bank robbers, labour leaders and political prisoners: 140 years of history at Stony Mountain Institution
From CBC - August 13, 2017

Aug. 15, 1877 was a Wednesday but people in Stony Mountain were dressed in their Sunday best, clustered together waiting for very honoured guests to arrive to celebrate the official opening of Manitoba's first federal penitentiary.

Stony Mountain Institution, at the time called the Manitoba Penitentiary, was a sight to behold on top of the "mountain" on the prairie landscape 20 kilometres north of Winnipeg, with only a dusty road leading to its looming main building.

In the 140 years since that grand celebration, the walls and grounds have seen some of Canada's most well-known and feared criminals but also some that history has determinedwere political prisoners.The structure has been added to, parts have burned down and others have just changed with the times, but Stony still holds its in place in history as Canada's oldest running penitentiary.

Fiddle, oxen and a step forward for Manitoba

After months of planning, a local newspaper boastedthat the opening ceremonywould include very special guests: His Excellency the Right Honourable Sir Frederick Temple,Governor General of Canada and his wife, Harriet Georgina.

Temple'svisit to Manitoba, which had been a province for less than a decade, had to be marked with fanfare. Temple and his wife were met at a nearby farm and they took a Red River ox cart, drawn by 40 oxen, to another area to hear speeches before actually making their way to the penitentiary.

The procession was led by a local violinist who played Irish Washerwoman and La Marseillaise, according to The Story of Stony Mountain and District, by Edward R.R. Mills.

Temple's wife, a countess, dumped a wheelbarrow of gravel on the road which was set to connect Stony Mountain to Winnipeg, although it would take 78 years to complete. Following the formal proceeding people celebrated with sports and a quarter-mile oxen race.

"A modern penitentiary was often seen as a sign of settlement and 'progress,'of kind of being there and arriving. Like a university or a new hospital, the penitentiary would signal to the rest of Canada and the world that Manitoba and Winnipeg were modern in the sense that a late-19th century person would understand modern," said Cameron Willis, archives and research officer at Canada's Penitentiary Museum.

It was not a big day for the inmates, most of whomhad actually been moved into the new structure a few months before, dealing with the cold building in January.

Before Stony Mountain, inmates had been kept in less than ideal situations, as was the case in most of the countryconfederation took place only 10 years prior.

Trade wars and escapes: Life before the penitentiary

In the early 1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company granted Lord Selkirk an area known as the Red River Settlement. It was supposed to be up to the Company to establish and enforce laws but they were more concerned with business.

At the time, trouble usually came out ofconfrontations between the Company warring with rival traders, the North West Company. On June 18, 1816, the bitter feud led to the Battle of Seven Oaks, where 21 people were killed.

In 1821, the two trade companies came together and by 1835 a council was held at Upper Fort Garry, a trading post at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. That's when the province got its first sheriff and avolunteer police force, made up of 60 officers and privates.

That meant the province needed somewhere to put prisoners.

A location was set up in Winnipegat what's now the corner of Main Street and Broadway which served as both a courthouse and a jail.

A year later, its first case came before a jury:A man named Louis St. Denis was tried and convicted of theft, according to Stony: A History of Manitoba Penitentiary by William Edwards. He was sentenced to be publicly flogged that same day. But somethingwent wrong as the crowd gathered to watch. The crowd ended up getting angry with the flogger, chasing him from the area. Afterward, floggings were not quite so public.

People came out to watch again when a Saulteaux man named Capinesseweet was hung after being charged with murder in 1845it was the first hanging in Rupert's Land history. It was later argued that the employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, at the time still responsible for the administration of justice, did not have jurisdiction to pass the sentence. In Four Recorders of Rupert's Land it's suggested "it may well be that the first execution in Red River was a wanton miscarriage of justice."

But most of the people at the Upper Fort Garry jail were serving time for things like horse or cattle theft, robbery and assault. It was also used as a drunk tank.

The jail had a bad reputation for securitythere are many instances of people escaping, including Griffiths Corbett, an Anglican clergyman who was charged after getting a girl pregnant and was broken free by his congregation, and John Christian Schultz, a political opponent of Louis Riel and later member of the House of Commons, senator and the fifth Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba.

By 1870, the Red River Settlement had grown to almost 2,000 people, and it needed better law enforcement.So, a mounted police force was formed. They patrolled the area until the creation of the North West Mounted Police and Winnipeg's police force in 1874.

A new administrative headquarters was set up for the provincial police force in the Post Office building, on the west side of Main Street between William and Bannatyne Avenues.Alog house out back was converted into a prison.

It was not an improvement on the old Upper Fort Garry makeshift prison, and after the escape of a prisoner, the jail was moved again in 1871, this time to the Stone Fort, the third oldest building at Lower Fort Garry, a trading fort on the western bank of the Red River.

It quickly became clear that building would not do either and when the federal government took over responsibility of the penitentiary it started looking for a new location.

Planning a penitentiary

While the prison was still at Lower Fort Garry, Samuel Bedson was tapped to be the warden. The British-born military man had made a name for himself when he travelled west with the Wolseley Expedition in response to the Red River Resistance.

Bedson actually came across Gabriel Dumont's pool table after the Battle of Batoche.

He took the solid mahogany table back to Manitoba and it eventually ended up at the Manitoba Penitentiary, where it stayed in the warden's house until 1976. It was then kept at the Rockwood Farm Institution, beside the penitentiary, until it was returned to the Batoche Museum in 2007.

The land for the new federal penitentiary was picked out in 1872, but the move into the new building would not start for five yearsfollowing more escapes and two inmate deaths related to their health behind bars.

While the contract to build the penitentiary was given to a company from Ontario for $116,000, later bumped up to $125,000, the work and supplies were truly Manitoban.

The stone was quarried at Lower Fort Garry. The lime and clay were local, the sand was from Stony Mountain itself and the stone was from digging out what would become the basement of the penitentiary.

However, most of the lumber was from Ontario. The prison design was also imported, from England, and it was not suited to the province's winter weatherleaving inmates and staff complaining of cold until a steam boiler was installed a few years later.

Inmates started moving in, before the penitentiary was complete, in January 1877. The journey from Upper Fort Garry took about four hours.

The staff at the time included Warden Bedson, a storekeeper, eight turnkeys (which wewould now call guards), a carpenter, some chaplains and a surgeon. The warden made about $1,400 a year and the guards took home $480.

In a letter from Warden Bedson to the Inspector of Penitentiaries the month after moving into the new Manitoba Penitentiary, it's clear that cold was a problem.

"Finding the stove piping and heat appliances most defective, and many other defects requiring immediate attention," Bedson wrote.

In his annual report for 1877, Bedson also voiced his concerns about what would happen if there was a fire in the building and the need for a prison wall, which would not be completed for 38 years.

"The penitentiary stands upon a small plateau of rising ground, elevated above the general prairie level some fifty feet, entirely unprotected by enclosure of any kind," he wrote.

Silence and hard labour

Life inside the prison was fairly strict. Inmates were notallowed to talk to each other or the guards and they were given a stick to indicate if they needed anything. The four-foot stick was painted white with one end coloured red and the other blackred meant the need was urgent. Inmates would point an end of the stick outside their cell door to get attention from the guard.

They also worked hard labour, 10 hours a day with a break for lunch. Not only was it considered a method ofrehabilitation, the penitentiary was also expected to be self-sufficient and provide its own food.

A bellin the tower of the original administration building rangthroughout the day to let inmates know it was mealtimeor the workday was over, but it was also heard throughout the community. When there bell echoed continuously everyone knew there'd been an escape.

Most guards did not have much for an education but they did not have it easy inside either. If they made a mistake, were late to a shift or did not follow orders satisfactorily, they were financially penalized. They also suffered from the chilly building even Warden Bedson was sick in bed for three months in 1879 because of typhoid fever, later linked to the defective drainage in the institution.

As the province grew, sodid the prison population. It had been celebrated as a large building when it opened, but just six years later the warden reported that it could not easily hold its 100-plus inmates.

And the problem was about to become even larger.

North-West Rebellion and political prisoners

Contractors, labour leaders and bank robbers

Life beyond bars: Living in a penitentiary community

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