William Alloway created The Winnipeg Foundation to give back to the community that helped him succeed
Bill Alloway, banker and philanthropist, was convinced that the city he helped create was as much responsible for his success, as he for its. So, near the end of a long and very productive life, he decided to give his gratitude concrete form. The result was The Winnipeg Foundation.
William Forbes Alloway was born in Ireland in 1852. His family emigrated to Canada in 1855, settling first in Hamilton and later moving to Montréal.
At that time, the prairies, then known as Rupertsland, was still owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). With the fur trade in terminal decline, the HBC had decided that the cost of administering this vast territory would be better born by the taxpayers of the new dominion of Canada, rather than its own shareholders. So, without consulting anyone at the Red River settlement, the HBC agreed to sell the entire prairies to the Canadian government.
This transfer was supposed to occur on Dec. 1, 1869. However, in an effort to make sure their concerns were heard, a group of Red River Métis under Louis Riel occupied the HBC’s administrative centre at Fort Garry in November. This proved unacceptable to the new Dominion government, which sent the Wolseley Expedition to arrest Riel and reassert Canadian sovereignty. Both Bill Alloway and his brother Charlie enlisted.
It was an adventure right out of Every Boy’s Magazine and although the force entered Fort Garry unopposed – Riel having left – the experience convinced young Bill that he could do anything to which he put his mind. He spent the next 60 years proving it.
At the tender age of 19, he began his career in Winnipeg, then population 200, as a policeman, but soon concluded that the commercial life would provide a surer path to success. He tried his hand at retail and veterinary surgery before entering the transportation business with local trader James McKay.
The money was good but, in 1870s Winnipeg, as elsewhere in the British Empire, real advancement required being a property owner. So, it was his acceptance of a piece of land west of the present Maryland Avenue as payment for a debt that finally allowed him to stand for election to city council. He had entered Winnipeg’s elite.
Exactly how Bill Alloway decided to become a banker isn’t clear, though it’s not unreasonable to assume that his new wife Elizabeth played an important role in the decision. Banking had significantly increased her father’s already substantial fortune, and she undoubtedly saw no reason why that business couldn’t do the same for them. Whatever the reason, in 1878, Western Canada’s first private bank, Alloway and Champion, opened on the east side of Main Street near what was once the Bank of Montréal’s Winnipeg headquarters, and is now home to the Manitoba Métis Federation.
The endeavour was an immediate success and by 1912, when the bank was incorporated, it had an authorized capital stock of $3 million and a reserve of $125,000. Alloway and Champion Limited had become the largest private bank in Canada, and William Forbes Alloway, a millionaire.
It was incumbent on leading citizens of the era to be active in charitable work. It could be said that this was particularly true in Winnipeg, where so many of the newly-wealthy could still remember the leanness of their early years.
During deliberations about how best to distribute charitable funds, the Alloways came upon a new idea. It was called a community trust, the first of which had been established in Cleveland in 1914. Bill and Elizabeth were so impressed that they decided to seed what they named The Winnipeg Foundation with an initial gift of $100,000.
In 1921, this was an enormous gift. But, it was only the beginning. When the couple died, The Winnipeg Foundation received their entire estates – a total of almost $2.2 million.
William Forbes Alloway was a lucky man. Not many have the opportunity to be present at the birth of a new city and even fewer, the occasion to play a leading role in its building. Right time, right place? Of course. But in Bill Alloway, fate also delivered the right person.