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Abbott and Thompson Tariff reform Manitoba school question

The strain of a winter campaign proved too great for Sir John Macdonald’s weakened frame. On June 6, 1891, died the statesman who so long had guided the destinies of Canada. All Canada felt the loss. No one else voiced the common judgment with such discrimination and generosity as did the leader of the Opposition. Speaking in parliament a few days later, Mr Laurier declared:

Sir John Macdonald now belongs to the ages, and it can be said with certainty that the career which has just been closed is one of the most remarkable careers of this century.... I think it can be asserted that, for the supreme art of governing men, Sir John Macdonald was gifted as few men in any land or any age were gifted gifted with the highest of all qualities, qualities which would have made him famous wherever exercised, and which would have shone all the more conspicuously the larger the theatre. The fact that he could congregate together elements the most heterogeneous and blend them into one compact party, and to the end of his life keep them steadily under his hand, is perhaps altogether unprecedented. The fact that during all those years he retained unimpaired not only the confidence but the devotion, the ardent devotion and affection of his party, is evidence that besides those higher qualities of statesmanship to which we were daily witnesses, he was also endowed with those inner, subtle, undefinable graces of soul which win and keep the hearts of men.

As to his statesmanship, it is written in the history of Canada.... Although my political views compel me to say that in my judgment his actions were not always the best that could have been taken in the interests of Canada, although my conscience compels me to say that of late he has imputed to his opponents motives which I must say in my heart he has misconceived, yet I am only too glad here to sink these differences, and to remember only the great services he has performed for our country to remember that his actions always displayed great originality of view, unbounded fertility of resource, a high level of intellectual conception, and, above all, a far-reaching vision beyond the event of the day, and still higher, permeating the whole, a broad patriotism a devotion to Canada’s welfare, Canada’s advancement, and Canada’s glory.

Sir John Macdonald had been prime minister of the Dominion for twenty of its twenty-four years. In the next five years the Conservative party had four different leaders and the Dominion four prime ministers. The first was Sir John Abbott, who had lived down the memory of his early views in favour of Annexation and had become ’the confidential family lawyer of his party.’ A little over a year later, ill-health compelled him to resign in favour of Sir John Thompson, an able and honest administrator, who grew in breadth of view with experience and responsibility.

All Abbott’s astuteness and Thompson’s rigid uprightness were soon required to deal with the revelations of rotten politics which presently claimed the country’s attention. It had long been believed that the department of Public Works, under Sir Hector Langevin, was a source of widespread corruption, but it was not until Israel Tarte, a member of the House of Commons and a bleu of the bleus, made charges to that effect during the session of 1891, that the full measure of the evil was understood. In the investigations and trials which followed it was made clear that huge sums had been extracted from contractors in the service of the Government and used in wholesale bribery. These revelations, as a London newspaper remarked, ’made Tammany smell sweet.’

But the public indignation at these proofs of the sinister side of the Government’s long hold on power was weakened by similar charges brought and proved against the Liberal Government of Quebec, under Honore Mercier. The lieutenant-governor summarily dismissed Mercier, the Church set its face sternly against his ministry, which it had erstwhile approved, and the people of the province voted him out of power (1892). The effect on the public mind of this corruption at Ottawa and Quebec was an apathy, a lowered standard of political morality, since it gave point to the common saying that ’one set of politicians is as bad as another,’ by which good men excuse their unpatriotic indifference to public affairs.

The Conservative party, and the whole Dominion, suffered a further loss in 1894, when Sir John Thompson died suddenly at Windsor Castle. Sir Mackenzie Bowell was chosen as his successor.

Meanwhile the fortunes and the spirit of the Liberal party rose steadily. Mr Laurier’s position as leader strengthened as each year gave proof of his steadfast character, his courage, and his political sagacity. He gave his time and energy wholly to the work of the party. During these years he addressed hundreds of meetings in Quebec and Ontario, and made tours to the maritime provinces and through the West to the Pacific.

The convention of Liberals from all ends of the Dominion, which met at Ottawa in 1893, had given fresh vigour to the party. At that convention, as has already been noted, emphasis was placed upon the need of lowering the tariff. It was urged that the tariff should be made to rest as lightly as possible upon the necessaries of life, and that freer trade should be sought with all the world, and particularly with Great Britain and the United States.

It was about this time, too, that D’Alton M’Carthy, who was mellowing in religious matters and growing more radical on other issues, voiced a demand for a reduction of customs burdens and for the adoption of maximum and minimum schedules, the minimum rates to be given Great Britain and British colonies and foreign countries which offered equivalent terms, and the maximum rates to be applied to countries like the United States which maintained prohibitive tariffs against Canadian products. The Patrons of Industry, an organization of farmers which for a few years had much power in Ontario, also demanded tariff reform. Even the Government went a little with public opinion and lopped away a few ‘mouldering branches’ in 1894. Thus the tariff remained an issue during the last five years of the Conservative regime.

A more burning question, however, was the revival of the old contest over provincial rights and denominational privileges. This was the offspring of the Equal Rights agitation, which had spread to Manitoba. In August 1889 Joseph Martin, a member of the Manitoba Cabinet, following D’Alton M’Carthy at a public meeting, announced that his government would establish a non-sectarian system of education. A few months later this was done.

When Manitoba entered Confederation, in 1870, there had been no state-supported system of education. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians maintained denominational schools, supported by fees and church grants. The settlers were about equally divided between Catholics and Protestants. The Manitoba Act, Manitoba’s constitutional charter, gave the new province in most respects the same powers as the older provinces. The province was given control of education, subject, first, to the provision that no law should be passed prejudicially affecting any right or privilege, with respect to denominational schools, which any class of persons had by law or practice at the union, and subject, secondly, to an appeal to the federal authorities from any provincial act or decision affecting the rights of any minority, Protestant or Catholic. In 1871 a school system much like that of Quebec was set up. Protestant schools and Catholic schools were established, and each was granted half the provincial appropriation. Later, as the Protestant population grew relatively larger, the amount was divided in proportions corresponding to the number of pupils in each class of schools. Now, in 1890, this system was completely swept away and replaced by a single system of state-supported schools. At first it had been the intention to make them entirely secular, but in the end provision was made for some non-denominational religious teaching. Any Catholic who did not wish to send his children to such a school would be compelled to pay for the support of a school of his own, besides paying taxes for the general school system.

The Catholics, first under Archbishop Tache’s firm but moderate guidance, and later under Archbishop Langevin’s crusading leadership, demanded redress. The provincial authorities would not change their policy. It was thought that the constitution provided ample protection for a religious minority deprived of its rights. The provision was three-fold. First, the Dominion Government might disallow the offending act. But the Dominion Government saw fit not to exercise this right, preferring to leave the matter to the courts, if possible. Secondly, there was the provision of the Manitoba Act forbidding the province to take away any rights as to denominational schools possessed by any class of persons at the union. Test cases were brought and elaborately argued in the courts. The Supreme Court held that the privilege of paying only for one’s own denominational schools existed at the union, and had been infringed. The Privy Council reversed this judgment, holding that Catholics were still free to support schools of their own, and that this was the only privilege which they had before possessed.

There was still a third string to the bow the appeal to the governor-general in council, the Dominion Government, to pass remedial legislation. Here again the Supreme Court and the Privy Council differed. The Supreme Court held, but not unanimously, that no right of federal intervention existed; but the Privy Council maintained, as the last word in the case, that the Dominion had power to intervene.

This decision put the question squarely before the Bowell Government. It was a difficult situation. An administration drawing its chief strength from Ontario, and headed by a prominent Orangeman, was called upon by the Catholic authorities to use its powers to compel a determined province to change its policy or, in default, to pass a federal law restoring the minority’s privileges. But Bowell and his colleagues soon made their decision. Early in 1895 the province was ordered in uncompromising terms to restore to the minority its former rights and privileges. The legislature declined, on the ground that the old system was inefficient and disruptive, and urged the federal authorities to investigate school conditions in Manitoba, past and present, before taking the fatal step of coercion. But, after a commission had failed to induce the province to yield, the Bowell Government announced that at the next parliamentary session (1896) a Remedial Bill would be introduced and passed.

On the eve of the meeting of parliament for this last historic session came the startling news that seven of the members of Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s Cabinet, chief among them being Mr Foster and Sir Hibbert Tupper, had revolted against their leader. The revolters urged the supreme need of forming the strongest possible administration in the crisis, and to that end demanded the resignation of the prime minister. Bowell bitterly denounced the ‘nest of traitors,’ and sought to form a Cabinet without their aid, but the strikers picketed every possible candidate. Finally a compromise was reached by which the bolters were to return under Bowell’s leadership for the session and Sir Charles Tupper was to take command at its close.

Meanwhile Mr Laurier had been obliged to face the same difficult issue. He was a sincere Catholic. He sympathized with the desire of his fellow-religionists for schools in which their faith would be cherished, and believed that at the creation of the province all parties had understood that such schools were assured. He knew, too, the power of the Church in Quebec, and the fierceness of the storm that would beat upon him if he opposed its will. Yet he kept a close grip on fact. He saw clearly that any attempt by the Dominion to set up a separate school system, which would have to be operated by a sullen and hostile province, was doomed to failure. He condemned the Government’s bludgeoning policy and urged investigation and conciliation by minor amendments. Further than this, in the earlier stages of the agitation, he would not go. In spite of entreaties and threats and taunts from the opposite camps, he remained, like Wellington, ‘within the lines of Torres Vedras.’

At the session of 1896 the Government introduced its Remedial Bill, providing for the organization and maintenance of distinctly separate schools in Manitoba. The Catholic authorities accepted the bill as in full compliance with their demands, and bent all their energies to secure its adoption. A mandement was issued by all the bishops urging electors to support only candidates who would pledge themselves to restore separate schools. And in January Mr Laurier received a letter written by Father Lacombe in the name of the bishops and published in the newspapers throughout Canada. This letter besought the Liberal leader to support the bill, and warned him that ’if, which may God not grant, you do not believe it to be your duty to accede to our just demands, and if the government which is anxious to give us the promised law is beaten and overthrown while persisting in its policy to the end, I inform you with regret that the episcopacy, like one man, united to the clergy, will rise to support those who may have fallen to defend us.’

Mr Laurier met the challenge squarely. In one of his strongest speeches he reviewed the whole tangled issue. He admitted the legal power of Canada to pass and enforce the bill, but denied that the judgment of the Privy Council made such action automatically necessary. It was still the Government’s duty to investigate and seek a compromise, not to force through a bill framed in darkness and obstinacy. The minority itself would be more effectually and more permanently benefited by amendments made voluntarily by the province as the result of reasonable compromise. Then he turned to the threats of ecclesiastical hostility:

Not many weeks ago I was told from high quarters in the Church to which I belong, that unless I supported the School Bill which was then being prepared by the government, and which we have now before us, I would incur the hostility of a great and powerful body. Sir, this is too grave a phase of this question for me to pass it by in silence. I have only this to say, that even though I have threats held over me, coming, as I am told, from high dignitaries in the Church to which I belong, no word of bitterness shall ever pass my lips as against that Church. I respect it and I love it. Sir, I am not of that school which has been long dominant in France and other countries of Continental Europe, which refuses ecclesiastics the privilege of having a voice in public affairs. No, I am a Liberal of the English school, which has all along claimed that it is the privilege of all subjects, whether high or low, whether rich or poor, whether ecclesiastic or layman, to participate in the administration of public affairs, to discuss, to influence, to persuade, to convince, but which has always denied, even to the highest, the right to dictate even to the lowest. I am here representing not Roman Catholics alone but Protestants as well, and I must give an account of my stewardship to all classes. Here am I, a Roman Catholic of French extraction, entrusted with the confidence of the men who sit around me, with great and important duties under our constitutional system of government. Am I to be told I, occupying such a position that I am to be dictated to as to the course I am to take in this House by reasons that can appeal to the consciences of my fellow-Catholic members, but which do not appeal as well to the consciences of my Protestant colleagues? No! So long as I have a seat in this House, so long as I occupy the position I do now, whenever it shall become my duty to take a stand upon any question whatever, that stand I will take, not from the point of view of Roman Catholicism, not from the point of view of Protestantism, but from a point of view which can appeal to the consciences of all men, irrespective of their particular faith, upon grounds which can be occupied by all men who love justice, freedom, and toleration.

Mr Laurier concluded by moving, not an equivocal amendment, as had been expected by the Government, but the six months’ hoist, or straight negative. A few Catholic Liberals supported the Government, but the party as a whole, aided by a strong band of erstwhile ministerialists, obstructed the measure so vigorously that the Government was compelled to abandon it, in view of the hastening end of the legal term of parliament. Sir Charles Tupper dissolved parliament, reorganized his Cabinet, and carried the question to the country.

A strenuous campaign followed. Mr Laurier took, in Ontario and Quebec alike, the firm, moderate position he had taken in the House of Commons. The issue, in his view, was not whether the constitutional rights of the Catholics of Manitoba had been violated; for he believed that they had been. The issue was, Could these rights be restored by coercion? The Conservatives and the Church said Yes. True to his political faith, Mr Laurier said No. Up and down the province of Quebec he was denounced by the ultramontane leaders. Here was sheer, stark Liberalism of the brand the Church had condemned. Bishop Lafleche declared that no Catholic could without sin vote for the chief of a party who had formulated publicly such an error, and Archbishop Langevin called upon every true son of the Church to stand by those who stood by it. In Ontario and the other English-speaking provinces, on the contrary, the welkin rang with denunciations of hierarchical presumption. Sir Charles Tupper fought with the wonderful vigour and fearlessness that had always marked him, but fought in vain. His forces, disorganized by internal strife, weakened by long years of office, weighted down by an impossible policy, were no match for the Liberals, strong in their leader and in a cause which stirred the enthusiasm of a united party. The election resulted in a decisive victory for the Liberals. Strange to say, Manitoba went with the Conservatives and Ontario gave the Liberals only forty-four out of ninety-two seats, though seven fell to independents opposed to the Remedial Bill, while Quebec gave forty-eight seats out of its sixty-five to the party which its spiritual leaders had denounced.