Manitoba School Question — controversy threatened to tear nation apart

by Bruce Cherney

It was the final triumph in the battle to convert Manitoba into a  smaller version of Ontario. 

For 26 years since Manitoba’s entry into Confederation and the arrival of an armed militia to take vengence upon Louis Riel for the execution of fellow Protestant Thomas Scott, Ontarians had been applying their business acumen and political skills to convert their new homeland into their perceived vision of the Ontario model. 

Renowned Manitoba historian W.L. Morton called it “the triumph of 

Ontario democracy.” 

To attain their objective, the Ontarians had to usurp the privileges and powers of others — the commercial empire of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the old elite and the language and religious rights obtained by Riel in 1870 for the original Metis inhabitants of the land — and rewrite history. 

The defeat of the Metis at Batouche to end the North West Rebellion and the resulting hanging of Riel as a traitor at Regina on November 16, 1885, further emboldened the Ontarians, who now felt they had carte blanche to proceed with their agenda.

In 1896, the Laurier-Greenway Compromise had finally decided the bitterly decisive Manitoba School Question, which had transcended the province’s borders to become a 

national and international issue. 

“By 1871, Ontario had evolved a comprehensive system of graded public schools in which decisions concerning the study, school texts, school 

regulations, and the training and qualifications of teachers were made and enforced by a centralized administration ...,” wrote Tom Mitchell in his article, In the Image of Ontario: Public Schools in Brandon 1881-1890 (Manitoba History, Autumn 1986).

Yet, Ontario still possessed separate schools where needed to serve its French-speaking Roman Catholic population, a  portion of the model that Manitoba wanted to abandon.

The Manitoba School Question was sprung upon the province by outsider D’Alton McCarthy, an MP from Eastern Canada. On August 5, 1889, in Portage la Prairie, the firebrand lawyer from Barrie, Ontario, preached against his twin evils — the official use of the French language and state-supported separate schools. For McCarthy, the twin evils were barriers against the 

establishment of a homogeneous Canadian nation.

McCarthy was a founder of the Equal Rights Association, established in Toronto in June 1889 as a vehicle to end French-speaking Catholic separate schools in Ontario. McCarthyalsot set his sights toward a remaking of the whole of Canada in a bitter reaction to the Jesuit’s Estate Act. The act passed by the Quebec assembly assigned a financial settlement of $300,000 to the Catholic Church based on the value of land granted to Jesuits under the French regime prior to the 1760 conquest.

While the land settlement was passed and paid for by the Quebec government, Ottawa became involved when it asked the Pope to arbitrate the settlement. The involvement of the Pope in Canadian affairs enraged Protestants. 

“This is a British country, and the sooner we take in hand our French Canadian fellow subjects and make them British in sentiment, and teach them the English language, the less trouble we shall have to prevent,” McCarthy told his constituents on July 12, 1889, when informing them that he planned to bring a bill forward in the House of Commons that would have French abolished as an official language in the North-West Territories. 

At Portage la Prairie, Joseph Martin, Manitoba’s attorney general, confirmed to McCarthy that the provincial government was contemplating this step and added that the province was also in the process of creating a single school system which would not be 

divided along religions lines.

Martin said French may be a beautiful language, but it was still a foreign language and Manitobans should speak the language of the country which to him was only English.

Both McCarthy and Martin were heartily cheered in Portage, but the announcement by Martin caught Liberal Premier Thomas Greenway off guard. The government had not taken an official position on religious schools then dominating education in Manitoba. 

Despite his reaction, Greenway should have not have been overly surprised, since James A. Smart, the Manitoba minister of public works, had 

earlier announced the province’s intention to revamp the school system, though no mention was made of abolishing separate schools. Instead, Smart advocated one school system, one superintendent, one board and one set of qualifications for teachers — a so-called “national” system. 

Smart also said, “the Catholics, therefore, get one-fifth of the (provincial) grant (for education) and have one-ninth of the schools.”

The Winnipeg Sun of August 1, 1889, interpreted Smart’s announcements as meaning “that the government planned to abolish the official use of the French language and wipe out the separate school system.”

It was actually the Brandon Sun that had first called for the abolition of separate schools, though the musings on its pages had gained only limited attention.

On May 16, 1889, the Sun said that “... if the education policy of this country is confined to limits regulated by sectarian narrowness and petty jealousies we cannot hope for the best results.” Maintaining separate schools “was a great injustice and a great wrong.”

Greenway sent a telegram to Martin asking the attorney general to explain himself. When Martin replied, he pointed out to the premier that the measures he proposed were a sure-fire vote-getter. 

Martin and Stewart combined to convince Greenway that an English-only province and a school system devoid of religion was the means to retaining political power in Manitoba.

When the Manitoba Act was passed in 1870, French and English were acknowledged as the official languages of the province in the legislature, government documents and the courts, Section 22 of the act guaranteed denominational schools. The Manitoba Public School Act of 1871 confirmed the rights guaranteed in 1870 and made it official that there was to be dual Protestant and Catholic school systems in the province.

In 1870, French-speaking Roman Catholics and English-speaking Protestants were roughly equal in numbers which necessitated two official languages and two distinct school systems. By 1890, there had been a significant change in the composition of the province with French-speakers, who were mostly Catholic, only making up 13 per cent of the population. English-speaking Protestants, who were primarily from Ontario, made up the vast majority of the roughly 150,000 people then residing in Manitoba.

Rev. George Bryce reflected the Protestant sentiment of the province during an August 12, 1889, sermon at Knox Presbyterian Church. The Manitoba Free Press reported that Rev. Bryce told the congregation: “When men deliberately state as they have done that they aim at building a French Canadian nationality, what is that but a blow to our hopes as one Canadian people? Language and separate schools are being used to build up what is really destructive to our hopes as a people, and we should be unworthy of our name if we permitted such aggression.”

In reaction to what was unfolding, the Manitoba Gazette, a formerly bilingual newspaper, began to publish only in English.

Old language and religious animosities that had been lying dormant for years were being rekindled.

The foment intensified when the provincial government in 1890 abolished French as an official language. On March 31 of the same year, assent was given to An Act Respecting the Department of Education and An Act Respecting Public Schools which combined to end separate schools and boards and established a non-sectarian public school system.

St. Boniface Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache said he felt betrayed by Greenway whom he claimed had promised him that his government would retain the existing education system and maintain language rights. The promise was made in exchange for public support by Tache for Liberal candidates in the 1888 election. 

Tache’s response was that the only commitment he could make was that he “would not do nothing against his administration.”

Without a commitment for open support, Greenway felt he could 

proceed unhindered with the new 

legislation. He also felt emboldened 

by obtaining a 35-5 victory in the 


When the legislation was passed, Education Minister J.E.P. Pendergast, a Roman Catholic, resigned from the Greenway government.

On April 7, 1890, the archbishop, in his capacity as president of the Catholic section of the Board of Education, asked the federal government to use it power to disallow the two Manitoba bills, setting up the Manitoba School Question as an issue that would rock the nation. 

The Sir John A. Macdonald Conservative government in Ottawa recognized the political implications of the issue, and delayed any comment outside the courts until after the 1891 federal election. Even when safely returned to power, Macdonald was loath to become heavily involved. 

Before the election, Edward Blake, the former leader of the Liberal Party in Ottawa — Sir Wilfrid Laurier was the new leader of the party — introduced a motion to have all disputes on education sent to the courts for a decision, which was welcomed by the Macdonald government as a way to get out of a thorny situation.

If the Canadian government had exercised it privilege of disallowing Manitoba’s legislation, it would have gained the animosity of Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat and awaken the monster called  “provincial rights.”

The Manitoba School Question was to make its way to the Privy Council in London, England, which was then the final legal authority for Canada.

Dr. J.K. Barrett, a Roman Catholic, refused to pay his school tax bill to the city of Winnipeg, claiming that the exclusion of denominational education funding contradicted his rights found in the Manitoba Act. The case, known as Barrett v. City of Winnipeg, was  dismissed by Justice Albert Killam of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, who said the new laws were constitutional. The Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, Appeal Side, next heard the case and upheld Justice Killam’s ruling by a 2-1 vote. The only dissenting vote was Justice Joseph Dubuc, a French-speaker. 

When the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada, Barrett received a favourable ruling that was immediately appealed to the Privy Council by the Manitoba government. 

On July 23, 1892, Manitoba received its desired victory from the Privy Council  in London, England.

The decision by Lord Macnaughton said that the Manitoba Act did not limit the legal right of the province to change itd education system. The Privy Council also said there had been denominational schools  supported by their own funding systems prior to 1870 and this could continue to be the case.

The ruling gave the province the right to set up a “national” (public) school system, and the denominations could retain their own schools but not at taxpayers’ expense.

A group of Manitoba Catholic parents called upon new Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Thompson (Macdonald had died in 1891) to take up their cause. Reluctant to undertake political action, he sought a court ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada (Brophy ... and appellants v. the Attorney General of Manitoba), which ruled against the government having the right to 

appeal the Manitoba victory.

The Canadian government then approached the Privy Council to determine if it could appeal the process under provisions within the Manitoba Act of 1870 and the British North America Act of 1867.

The Greenway government effectively used Ottawa’s planned appeal to gain a victory in the 1892 election. An election campaign pamphlet asked: “Are the men who are present opposition candidates likely to resist the encroachments of the Dominion Government? The present local government can, of course, be relied upon to do so, and this is one of the reasons why they should be sent back to office with an overwhelming majority.”

In his book, Clifford Sifton in Relation to His Times, former Free Press editor John Wesley Dafoe, said that the Manitoba government ran up the flag “No Surrender” and refused to become involved in the federal government’s appeal.

“The (Manitoba) government would stand by its principles of the school act as long as it existed as a government,” Dafoe wrote. “The government would recognize no distinction of race or creed, and grant no special privileges to any class.”

He further commented that the  government refused to admit that it had mistreated Roman Catholics with its 1890 school legislation.

Following the 1892 provincial election, Clifford Sifton, the MLA from Brandon, became the new attorney general and became directly involved in the Manitoba School Question. 

In February 1894, the Privy Council ruled that it could hear an appeal of its earlier decision and could rule on the federal government’s power to provide  redress to a minority within Manitoba. The Privy Council then ruled that the federal government could issue remedial orders and legislation to redress grievances. 

A remedial order was issued by the Conservative government in Ottawa which called upon the Manitoba government to restore support to religious schools removed by the 1890 legislation. 

Sifton ignored the order. He argued that accepting the terms of the remedial order to re-establish Roman Catholic schools would be followed by a set of Anglican schools and possibly by Mennonite, Icelandic and other 

ethnic schools.

The Manitoba government proposed “a full and deliberate investigation of the whole subject” to avoid implementing the remedial order.

“After nearly four years of putting off the evil day of making up its mind, the Conservative government in January 1895 found it necessary to decide whether it would leave Manitoba alone or go ahead and interfere,” wrote Dafoe. “Political necessity gave it in fact no choice. Refusal to interfere meant immediate ruin ... it knew that its one chance was to get the thing done and over with before the appeal to the people (for another mandate to govern).”

The Thompson government started the process of drafting and introducing into the House of Commons legislation that would force Manitoba’s hand. The 112-clause Remedial Bill set out a formula for funding separate schools and the composition of school boards which was to be directed under federal authority through the office of the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba.

“Power is hereby reserved to the parliament of Canada to make such further and other remedial laws ...,” according to the last provision of the bill.

“No one who knows anything about the subject will dispute the assertion that the Catholics have a grievance,” said a February 13, 1896, editorial in the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor’Wester, which supported the Remedial Bill. “They had rights before 1890 which the school act of that year took from them ... It does not require the wisdom of Solomon or the legal acumen of a jurist to see it, but if there is any difficulty in reaching this understanding by a layman, the decision of the Imperial Privy Council ... should be sufficient.”

The newspaper called upon the Greenway government to obey the “law of the land.”

Other Canadian newspapers took the view that the bill would intervene in the rights of provinces, a position also supported by the Ontario government led by Mowat, who has been called “the father of the provincial-rights movement.”

Sifton said that the Remedial Bill was a “blunder” and “would have a very strong effect in arousing sentiment in Ontario ...”

The Conservatives were divided over the bill. Seven of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell’s cabinet ministers, all Protestants, resigned because the bill  would “coerce” Manitoba into re-instating funding for separate schools. Bowell had succeeded Thompson as prime minister, who had died during an 1894 luncheon hosted by Queen Victoria in London.

With an election looming and its support diminishing, the Bowell government found it difficult to proceed with the bill. Sir Charles Tupper, a 

Father of Confederation and a Tory stalwart, was called from his post as the High Commissioner in London to lead the Conservatives in the impending election. But, even his political prowess was not enough to revive the party’s fortunes.

“The federal Conservatives, who had long since run out of ideas, ideals, policies, principles, and leaders, could not cope with the situation,” wrote historian Ed Whitcomb in A Short History of Manitoba. “They dithered, disintegrated, exhausted their five-year mandate, and were forced to call an election they could not win.”

Laurier promised during the election campaign that he would seek a compromise on the Manitoba School Question instead of using the clout of legislation. He also promised Quebec voters that the Catholic school system in Manitoba would be protected under the proposed compromise. 

“If the People of Canada, carry me to power ... I will settle this question o the satisfaction of all the parties interested ... I assure you that I will succeed in satisfying those who suffer at present,” Laurier told the voters of St. Roche in Quebec City.

With these assurances, the Laurier Liberals were swept into power, taking 117 seats in the House of Commons to the Conservatives’ 89 seats.

The Remedial Bill was no longer a factor and negotiations got underway with Manitoba to reach Laurier’s promised compromise.

It was Sifton’s fate to become a member of the Laurier government in 1896, but only after helping to negotiate the compromise. With his job done, Sifton won a byelection in Brandon and became the Minister of the Interior and one of the government’s most powerful cabinet ministers. 

Meanwhile Israel Tarte, a Quebec MP and minister of Public Works in the new government, while visiting Winnipeg wrote Prime Minister Laurier  that Archbishop Louis-Philippe-Adelard Langevin, who had succeeded Archbishop Tache in 1895, was standing firm on the right to organize separate Catholic school districts.

“In other words, he demands the re-establishment of separate schools which, as you know, is out of the question. The priests who surround him are fanatical and full of prejudice,” Tarte added.

It was an argument that probably could have also been used to describe the other side of the question.

The compromise finally agreed upon and passed by the legislature in 1897 allowed for a half-hour of religious instruction during the last part of the school day by any Christian clergyman “whose charge includes any portion of the school district.” But taxes would only pay for the non-denominational public school system.

The agreement specified that “no separation of children by religious denominations shall take place during secular school work.”

To preserve a measure of French instruction, the compromise said: “When ten of the pupils in any school speak French or any language other than English as their native language, the teaching of such pupils shall be conducted in French, or such other language, and English upon a bilingual system.”

This provision would cause the provincial government grief when immigration boomed in Manitoba. Fifteen years later there were 43 German-English and 65 Ukrainian-English or Polish-English schools in Manitoba. 

While the provision was apparently meant for French instruction only, The Free Press rightly pointed out that it would have been wise “...if the drafters if the legislation had had the courage to say what they meant.”

While the compromise received widespread support among the Protestant community across Canada, Roman Catholics felt it was a betrayal of earlier promises made to them.

“Laurier has made a disgraceful capitulation to Manitoba bigots,” said La Minerve of Montreal under a headline which also said “Greenway Triumphs.”

“The arrangement takes no cognizance of the privileges which the Manitoba Act endeavoured to secure to the minority ...,” wrote the Montreal Gazette.

St. Boniface Archbishop Langevin said it was “... too bad a French Canadian (Laurier) and a Catholic” sold “us into the hands of our enemies.” He characterized the compromise as “a farce.”

Whitcomb said  one of Canadian history’s great paradoxes was that French-Canadian and Catholic Laurier “gave in to Protestant Manitoba, as the base of his support was Catholic Quebec.”

The Daily Nor’Wester — no friend of Greenway — said on November 23, 1896, that the premier “has evidently gained in popularity in the Province of Manitoba, by his up-to-date opposition to separate schools.” 

Still, the newspaper conceded little ground, writing that Greenway did not care “a rap whether the Catholics have separate schools or not,” and only reached the compromise to gain the goodwill of the majority of Manitoba voters and maintain his stranglehold on political power in the province.

But the tide had turned and it was inevitable that the strength of Protestant numbers would dictate the political agenda of Manitoba to assure that Ontario democracy would triumph.