Humble house painter left a wide mark in Canada
William Nassau Kennedy.
William Nassau Kennedy started his career as a house painter, but ended up having a significant impact both on Canada’s militia and Canada’s prairie provinces.
Born in Newcastle, Upper Canada in 1839, Kennedy left school in his pre-teens to work painting houses for a contractor, following his father’s footsteps.
He worked for Peterborough lawyer David William Dumble for two years but returned to interior decorating and house painting. He wasn’t even 20 yet.
When he was 18, he enlisted as a private in the newly-organized 1st Company Peterborough Rifles. When the 1st Company Peterborough Infantry formed five years later, he and his father and brothers signed up. Kennedy attended Toronto Military School and became a commissioned ensign in July 1865.
By 1867, Kennedy was a drill instructor and captain of the newly-formed 57th Peterborough Battalion of Infantry. He gained proficiency in horsemanship and swordsmanship from the Military Riding School in Toronto.
In 1869, a large proportion of the Metis and other settlers in what was Rupert’s Land under the Hudson Bay Company protested inclusion in the new country of Canada. The Red River Settlement, as it was called, in the heart of what would become Manitoba, wanted autonomy or to at least enter Confederation on its own terms. A rebellion broke out and the government needed the military to put it down.
Only one person from Kennedy’s battalion was selected for the expedition – Kennedy. He developed a close relationship with the expedition commander, Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolsely.
Kennedy remained in what became Manitoba. In the fall of 1871, when William O’Donoghue and John O’Neill organized the Fenian raids from the United States (outfitted with hundreds of trained veterans of the recently ended American Civil War), Kennedy organized a volunteer unit, the Winnipeg Rifle Company, to augment the tiny Winnipeg garrison. The combined force fought off the invasion.
A week later, Kennedy helped found the militia unit, the Winnipeg Field Battery; he was made commander within a year. By 1883 Kennedy had helped form the 90th Winnipeg Rifles and was chosen to command it, winding up being lieutenant-colonel.
In Winnipeg he became a leader not just in the military but also in the community. He was a registrar of deeds for Selkirk County and Winnipeg, and city clerk in 1873. The next year he was a member of the Executive Council of the North-West Territories and by 1875 was the second mayor of Winnipeg.
He was a booster of business, especially railways. Socially, he was heavily involved in music and competitive rifle shooting.
Kennedy’s old colleague, now Major General Sir Garnet Wolseley, wanted Canadian boatmen for a British military expedition up the Nile River to the Sudan, to rescue Major General Charles Gordon. While the Brits refused Kennedy’s offer to go as part of the expedition, he was allowed to go as a civilian contractor working as a paymaster.
On his return, he contracted small pox and died.
Kennedy’s work in building a strong militia is credited as one of the key factors in the survival of Canada’s prairie provinces through the turmoil of the rebellions in the 1870s and 80s.
Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula.