Reforming the Senate — Manitoba abolished its upper chamber in 1876

by Bruce Cherney

Joseph Lemay rose from his seat in the Manitoba Legislature and to “roars of laughter and cries of order” pronounced that it would be appropriate for the legislature to be adjourned for a month“as a token of sorrow” to mark the passing away of the Legislative Council. He further asked that a resolution be passed compelling every member “to attend the funeral.”

The St. Norbert businessman and MLA was noted by contemporaries as being “full of sarcasm.” When the Legislative Council (also referred to as the Manitoba Senate, Upper Council,  and Upper House) was abolished on February 4, 1876, he couldn’t resist using the occasion to exercise his sharp wit and emphasized that the legislative body, only in existence for six brief years, was a 

political anachronism.

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who recently reintroduced two bills to hold elections for vacant Senate seats and impose term limits on Senators, should be wistfully looking back on the Manitoba experience. Instead, he is fully aware that the Canadian Senate has defied reform despite numerous attempts since its creation in the British North America Act of 1867.

When Manitoba first entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870, Ottawa-appointed Lieutenant-governor Adams Archibald ruled by decree until he could appoint members to the Legislative Council to assist him and hold a province-wide election for the legislature.

At the time of the December 27, 1870, provincial election, the “postage stamp” province — a name that reflected its tiny area in relation to Quebec and Ontario — the electoral districts were divided into 24 seats  based on language: 12 members were to be elected representing predominantly English-speaking districts and another 12 members were to represent French-speaking districts.

When the election was over, Archibald appointed his Legislative Council to reflect the ethnic and 

language divisions of the new province. James McKay, a multilingual Catholic “Scots half-breed trader” was made the first president of the council; Francois X. Dauphinais, a Catholic Métis, former member of the Hudson’s Bay Company-appointed Council of Assiniboia and vice-president of Louis Riel’s Provisional Government; Salomon Hamelin, a Métis who had been opposed to Riel and the so-called Canadian Party that caused Riel so much grief during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70; J.H. O’Donnell, a Catholic representing the Irish element in the province; and Colin Inkster, Francis Olgetree and Donald Gunn, English-speaking Protestants representing the “old settlers” of Red River.

What every appointee had in common was loyalty to the lieutenant-

governor and the candidates that Archibald supported in the first election. 

When the legislature did meet, Archibald essentially acted as an unelected prime minister, steering both houses to enact legislation that he felt was “suited to the circumstances of your own country, and they will remove much of the doubt and uncertainty which, until this hour, have hung over the rights and obligations of this Province.”

Whenever he was unable to control decisions made in the legislature, he evoked his power of reservation. During that first session, four bills were held up by Archibald, none of which later received Royal assent. Archibald, a lawyer by profession, felt his interference was necessary because few of the new Members of the Legislative Assembly, or MLAs (also first called Members of the Provincial Parliament, or MPPs) had legislative experience, while he had good grasp of government procedures having served as the solicitor general and attorney general in the pre-Confederation Nova Scotia Assembly. Only a handful of newly-elected MLAs had some legislative experience and they were originally from Ontario and Quebec.

“If you had seen some of the drafts proposed for my acceptance, you would have felt somewhat as I did when I threw them aside, and undertook, amid the distractions of the Session (a threatened Fenian invasion in 1871 was among the distractions), the labour of drafting them myself,” he wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald.

In all his actions he was supported by Macdonald, who congratulated him on the legislation passed during the first session.

By the time of the next provincial election four years later, grumblings about the Legislative Council were heard throughout Manitoba political circles. In fact, Robert “Hotel Premier” Davis, who was originally from Ontario, and his supporters ran in the December 30, 1874, election campaign under a platform that included the abolition of the Manitoba Senate. Earlier in 1874, Davis had taken over the reins of government from Marc-Amable Girard, the first premier of Manitoba and his coalition which included Joseph Royal, the first speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, and Joseph Dubuc, the  attorney general. Royal, Girard and Dubuc were originally from Quebec.

The Girard-Royal-Dubuc coalition was unable to survive the growing discontent among the English-speaking residents of Manitoba and was forced to resign in favour of Davis and his supporters. By this time, seats in the legislature had been redistributed to be represented by 14 English-speaking members and 10 French-speaking members.

Royal joined the Davis government as the province’s attorney general, while the premier appointed Colin Inkster as the president of the council and minister of agriculture.

The Manitoba Free Press called the inclusion of Inkster from the 

unelected Legislative Council in the Davis government evidence of “Davis-Royal Government ... this novel 

cabinet ... must excite ridicule and disgust throughout the whole civilized world ...”

When the Speech from the Throne was read by Lieutenant-governor Alexander Morris (he took over from Archibald on December 2, 1872, and served until November 7, 1877) in January 1876, abolition of the Legislative Council was prominently mentioned.

The Free Press called the proposed abolition “the most important one in the entire Speech, viewed as a means of cutting down the expenditures ...”

Actually, the Davis government had been engaged in negotiations with Ottawa seeking “better terms” for Manitoba in Confederation — more money for the province was the gist of the negotiations.

The Manitoba government had been running on a scant budget of approximately $90,000 with Ottawa providing $67,000 by way of a grant. On the other hand, the Manitoba government had few sources of revenue to call upon and annual deficits were continually recorded, such as one of $26,000 in 1875. 

According to Section 25 of the Manitoba Act, the sum of $30,000 was to be paid annually by Canada to the province, “for the support of its Government and Legislature, and an annual grant, in aid of the said Province ...” The annual grant was equal to 80 cents per head of the population, which was then estimated to be 17,000 people. The grant was to be augmented “in proportion to the increase of population.” according to the Census to be taken in 1881, “and by each subsequent decennial census, until its population amounts to four hundred thousand souls, at which amount such grant shall remain thereafter, and such sum shall be in full settlement of all future demands on Canada, and shall be paid half-yearly, in advance, to the said Province.”

Customs duties were also ceded to the Canadian government in the act.

As reported in the Daily Nor’Wester on August 17, 1874, the common complaint was that Ottawa received over $400,000 in tax and customs revenues from Manitoba and in turn received “a ridiculously small subsidy.”

The newspaper said the province’s population was rapidly expanding and “revenue ought to increase in proportion as the cost of governing and providing for the wants of the people is increased.”

One major problem was that under the terms of the Manitoba Act, Crown lands and natural resources within Manitoba’s borders were controlled by the federal government. It wasn’t until 1930 and the onset of the Great Depression that the province gained control of Crown lands and natural resources which could then be used as a revenue source.

The Toronto Globe, a Liberal-party organ (the Liberals under Alexander Mackenzie took over power in Ottawa after the resignation of the Macdonald government in the wake of the Pacific Scandal), wrote on January 10, 1876, the fiscal deficit in Manitoba could partially be attributed to government waste, but the “system of Government given Manitoba, in the first instance, was cumbersome and expensive, and the revenue so limited, that, our contemporary admits, it is no matter of surprise that the Province’s financial 

position is what it is to-day.”

The common accusation was that the Davis government wasted money on excessive indemnities and salaries for cabinet ministers and clerks. 

The Free Press reported on July 25, 1874, that the total revenue for the province was $77,000 and over $40,000 of that amount was “required to pay the expenses of legislation, including printing, civil government and care of government house.

Davis did reduce the number of cabinet positions from five to two as a cost-saving measure, but at the same time increased their cabinet salaries. Davis and Royal received a $1,000 raise to $2,000, while Inkster received a $200 raise over the normal council salary of $300 for each of the seven members to $500. The Free Press said that Inkster served as Speaker of the Council without an increase because it was an unelected position. 

Meanwhile, the Daily Nor’Wester argued that Davis and Royal deserved the salary increase because they doubled their cabinet responsibilities — Davis was premier and attorney general, while Royal was provincial secretary and minister of public works — and saved taxpayers hundreds of dollars by eliminating three cabinet positions.

Under the article Manitoba Affairs, the Globe wrote that the session in the Manitoba Legislature “will mark an era in our history, by reason of the alteration of the constitution (Manitoba Act) by the abolition of the Legislative Council.” 

The abolition of Manitoba’s Legislative Council was a condition of receiving better terms from the Mackenzie government.

“Upper Houses were in the first place established not for the protection of the people but for the protection of the Crown and in old times might have rendered certain services, but that day is past,” the July 25, 1874, Free Press paraphrased Girard, who introduced a bill to improve government spending practices that included abolishing the council. “In Ontario they got along well with one chamber, and this Province is in a position to do good work with only one House.”

Royal said it was thought the establishment of an Legislative Council would secure protection against hasty legislation — similar to Prime Minister Macdonald’s comment that the Canadian Senate was the “chamber of sober second thought.”

He argued for passage of the bill because the council had not fulfilled earlier expectations and it was in the best interest of the province to abolish the chamber.

The movement was underway, but it would take another two years for a bill abolishing the Legislative Council to finally be passed in the legislature.

Although it would prove easier than expected, some in Manitoba and Ottawa argued abolishing the council would open a constitutional debate (the most common argument used today against Canadian Senate reform).

MLA John Sutherland was criticized by the Free Press (January 22, 1876) for once being an “uncompromising advocate” for the abolition of the council, but later changing his mind by saying the “movement would be a mutilation of the Constitution.”

The Winnipeg-based Standard on October 16,1875, reported that Davis and Royal while in Ottawa negotiating “better terms” were silent on the issue of abolishing the council for fear that the Mackenzie government would object to tampering with the Manitoba Act.

The Standard also proposed abolition of the Legislative Council put to the people for a vote. (Similarly, NDP Leader Jack Layton wants a referendum held to abolish the existing Canadian Senate.)

The first vote to abolish the Manitoba Senate was rejected 4-3 by the Executive Council.

“To their credit,” wrote the Free Press on November 6, 1875, “that when the question of the abolition of the Manitoba ‘House of Lords’ came up as government issue, the vote stood, in the Assembly, seventeen to five, thus demonstrating in the most emphatic manner that the people of Manitoba, as well as the Dominion Government, regard an Upper House for this Province entirely unnecessary.”

On the other hand, the vote in the Legislative Council was a tie until Dr. John H. O’Donnell, the president of the council, broke the deadlock by voting against abolition.

The newspaper said O’Donnell’s previous declaration for the government to exercise economy proved “hollow” when he voted to keep the council.

For his part, O’Donnell wrote to the Free Press defending his position and refuted claims that he was a “hypocrite.”

It seems that O’Donnell’s primary political motivation for opposing the bill was his bitter hatred of the Davis government — he used terms such as “traitor” and “conspirators” to describe the government. By blocking passage of the bill abolishing the council, it can be argued that O’Donnell was merely putting into action his dissatisfaction with Davis and government supporters.

O’Donnell said he became hostile “to the present government ... when I discovered it was their fixed policy to abolish the Upper House,” despite the absence of evidence that its demise was the will of the people.

O’Donnell, a former MLA for Rockwood, said the Legislative Council had to be retained as a check on reckless spending by the Davis government.

“When the people of the Province demand the abolition of the Upper House, no one will vote in support of their wishes than I; but I will not do at the dicta of any Davis or any Government,” O’Donnell wrote in a 

November 6, 1875, letter. O’Donnell said he would not “become the

instrument of such political conspirators and traitors as the men who now presume to dictate instead of obey.”

It was also argued in the French-speaking districts of the province that the Legislative Council was 

essential as to check the growing 

English-speaking and Protestant 

influence in the legislature.

On January 25, 1876, Girard 

introduced the bill to abolish the “Legislative Council” for second and third reading.

When Girard introduced the bill, he said the legislation had been debated so extensively over the past couple of years that it was unnecessary for him to make lengthy remarks. He did mention that he did not like being pressured by the Canadian government to abolish the council — some thought it was a form of blackmail — although it was time for change.

He also pointed out that a close study of the Manitoba Act showed the legislature had the power to abolish the council.

Girard felt it was against the best interests of the Manitoba people to refuse to abolish the Legislative Council and did not feel the body in any way protected minority rights in the province. If it could be proved that the council protected minority rights, he would oppose its abolition, he added.

Royal said the existing government machinery was too cumbersome and it was time to eliminate the council.

Lemay, who would sarcastically ask for a funeral to be held for the Legislative Council, voted the first time around to keep it, but later changed his mind. When voting for its abolition, he said the council had become a public nuisance.

The vote in the legislature ended up 20-1 (two members were absent and a seat was vacant in the 24-member legislature) to abolish the Legislative Council.

When the bill went to the council, its passage was still not assured. In fact, the deciding vote had to be cast by McKay, the speaker in the council. It was alleged that Lieutenant-governor Morris  had to offer some of the council members positions elsewhere in government to gain support for the bill.

In applauding the council’s abolition, a Free Press editorial on February 12, 1876, said the English-speaking people of Manitoba had long held the view that the Upper Council “was an unnecessary appendage to our legislative machinery. Indeed, the majority went even further ... not only was it unnecessary, but positively injurious, and very expensive, as well.”

The newspaper said the change in attitude among French-speaking Manitobans arose due to the expediency of gaining a greater federal grant and the fact the council had failed to met their expectations.

The Free Press said the sole vote in the legislature against the abolition was merely the result of Sutherland basing his opposition “upon an expediency plea, and ventured not a sentence in favour of the continuance of the Legislative Council, beyond a period that should witness the redemption of certain Federal pledges made the people of this country, at the time of the transfer (of the vast lands held by Hudson’s Bay Company to the Canadian government, including Red River, for £300,000 in 1870). 

“Suffice it to say, that the pure and disinterested patriotism of the minority, combined with their confidence in the sense of justice of the majority, has reduced our legislative machinery to a basis, far more in harmony with our circumstances and necessities, and the genius of the age in which we live than that which our Province came into existence.”

By abolishing the Manitoba Senate, the province secured “better terms” from Ottawa, including a loan and an additional annual grant of $26,000 to raise the federal contribution to $90,000.