Read CHAPTER IX - NEW MEN AT THE HELM of The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier A Chronicle of Our Own Time , free online book, by Oscar D. Skelton, on

The school settlement The new tariff

The long night of opposition was over. The critics were to be given the opportunity to do constructive work. Under the leader who had served so fitting an apprenticeship they were to guide the political destinies of Canada for over fifteen years. These were to be years of change and progress, years which would bridge the gulf between the stagnant colony of yesterday and the progressive nation of to-day.

Mr Laurier gathered round him the ablest group of administrators ever united in a single Canadian Ministry. To augment his already powerful parliamentary following he called from the provincial administrations four of the strongest men and took them into his Cabinet. The prime minister himself, warned by the experiences of Mackenzie and Macdonald, did not burden himself with a department, but wisely decided to save his strength and time for the general oversight and guidance of the Government.

The first task of the new Ministry was to seek a peaceful settlement of the Manitoba school question. A compromise was doubtless facilitated by the fact that the same party now ruled both in Ottawa and in Winnipeg. The province would not restore the system of state-aided separate schools, but amendments to the provincial law were effected which removed the more serious grievances of the minority. Provision was made for religious teaching in the last half-hour of the school day, when authorized by the trustees or requested by the parents of a specified minimum of pupils. Any religious denomination might provide such teaching, upon days to be arranged. Where the attendance of Roman Catholic children reached twenty-five in rural and forty in urban schools, a Catholic teacher should be engaged upon petition, and equally a non-Catholic teacher should be engaged for a Protestant minority similarly situated. Where ten pupils spoke French or any other language than English as their native tongue, bi-lingual teaching should be provided. In the ordinary work of the school the children were not to be divided on denominational lines, and the schools were to remain public schools in every sense.

The settlement was accepted generally in the country as a reasonable ending of the strife as the best that could be done in the circumstances. Edward Blake, counsel for the Catholic minority, declared it more advantageous than any legislation which could have been secured by coercion. Speaking in the House of Commons (March 1897) in defence of the settlement, Mr Laurier again declared his doctrine, ’that the smallest measure of conciliation was far preferable to any measure of coercion.’ The settlement, he continued, was not as advantageous to the minority as he would have desired; ’still, after six long years of agitation, when the passions of men had been roused to the highest pitch, it was not possible to obtain more, nor for the Government of Manitoba to concede more, under present circumstances.’

By the Catholic authorities, however, the compromise was not accepted. They denounced it as sanctioning a system of mixed and neutral schools which the Church had condemned, and as sacrificing to fanaticism the sacred rights of the minority. Archbishop Langevin vigorously attacked the settlement and all the parties to it, and some of his brother ecclesiastics in Quebec agreed with him. Voters in by-elections were told that they had to choose between Christ and Satan, between bishop and erring politician. The leading Liberal newspaper of Quebec City, L’Electeur, was formally interdicted every son of the Church was forbidden to subscribe to it, sell it, or read it, ’under penalty of grievous sin and denial of the sacraments.’ So the war went on, until finally a number of Catholic Liberals, in their private capacity, appealed to Rome, and a papal envoy, Mgr Merry del Val, came to Canada to look into the matter. This step brought to an end a campaign as dangerous to the permanent welfare of the Church itself as it was to political freedom and to national unity.

The other issue which had figured in the general elections was the tariff. At the approach of power the fiscal policy of the Liberals had moderated, and it was to moderate still further under the mellowing and conservative influences of power itself. The Liberal platform of 1893 had declared war to the knife upon protection. In 1896, however, it was made plain that changes would not be effected hastily or without regard to established interests. In correspondence with Mr G. H. Bertram of Toronto, published before the election, Mr Laurier stated that absolute free trade was out of the question, and that the policy of his party was a revenue tariff, which would bring stability and permanence, and would be more satisfactory in the end to all manufacturers except monopolists. He added prophetically that ’the advent of the Liberals to power would place political parties in Canada in the same position as political parties in England, who have no tariff issue distracting the country every general election.’

The new Government lost no time in grappling with the problem. A tariff commission was appointed which sat at different centres and heard the views of representative citizens. Then in April 1897 Mr Fielding brought down the new tariff. It was at once recognized as a well-considered measure, an honest and a long first step in redeeming platform promises. In the revision of the old tariff beneficent changes were effected, such as abolition of the duties on binder twine, barbed wire, and Indian corn, substantial reductions on flour and sugar, the substitution of ad valorem for specific duties, and a provision for reducing the duty on goods controlled by trusts or combines. The duties on iron and steel were reduced, but increased bounties were given on their production in Canada. More important, however, than such specific changes was the adoption of the principle of a minimum and maximum tariff. A flat reduction of twelve and a half per cent, to be increased later to twenty-five per cent, on all goods except wines and liquors, was granted to countries which on the whole admitted Canadian products on terms as favourable as Canada offered. This, although not so nominated in the bond, amounted in intention to the British preference which the Liberal party had urged as early as 1892, for, except New South Wales and possibly one or two low-tariff states like Holland, Great Britain was believed to be the only country entitled to the minimum rate. But the Belgian and German treaties, already mentioned, by which Great Britain had bound her colonies, stood in the way. While those treaties remained in force, so the law-officers of the Crown advised, Germany and Belgium would be entitled to the lower rates, and automatically France, Spain, and other favoured nations. It Canada was to be free to carry out her policy of tariff reform and imperial consolidation, it became essential to end the treaties in question. Sir Charles Tupper, now leading the Opposition, declared that this could not be done.