Canadian Federalism

Original title:  Begbie Contest Society - 1st 20 years

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Prime Minister LAURIER realized that the major principles of his brand of federalism — namely the respect for provincial autonomy, the country’s two founding cultures, and freedom — would lead to divisions in Canadian society. For example, the question of school rights for the Roman Catholic minority when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905, addressed in his biography, allows us to take stock of the problem: 

“[Laurier initially] wanted to go back to the federal statute of 1875, which granted Catholics the full right to separate schools and the necessary financial assistance. It was not his intention, then, to preserve the status quo created by the 1892 and 1901 ordinances of the territorial government, which had severely limited the possibility for separate schools even to exist. Laurier stubbornly persisted in seeking the whole loaf. This time he would ignore the lofty principle of protecting provincial rights and put the emphasis on article 93 of the British North America Act, which he interpreted as stipulating that separate schools were to be protected if they already existed in a province requesting admission into confederation. This position, as he knew only too well, would ruffle many feathers. The danger of confrontation was real.”

And the shock was brutal:

“On this basis Laurier began negotiations on 5 Jan. 1905, and then manœuvred with Haultain, with Sifton, who was eager to maintain the status quo, and with his caucus, while at the same time scheming with those who shared his views to draft an article (which would become the famous article 16) in line with his intentions. On 21 February he suddenly presented everyone with a fait accompli by tabling his formal decisions in the house. Haultain was disappointed; the Catholic minority and their leaders were overjoyed. Sifton, who believed the west should be Canadianized in the English Canadian way, with nondenominational schools, was so bitter he resigned and helped fan the flames of public protest in English-speaking Canada. The disconcerted Laurier was now forced to work with Sifton in redrafting article 16 to reflect his views. He lost the battle of the education clause. He had miscalculated. With his eyes firmly fixed on retaining power, the prime minister became once more the skilful politician he had been before. From 22 March and for nearly four long months, he retreated to the status quo, proposing only minor amendments which the minority leaders referred to as crumbs. Some were satisfied, but not Henri Bourassa, who finally broke with Laurier and began stirring up Quebec. Bourassa rightly considered that the episode of the western schools was the culmination of a series of ordeals endured by Catholic and French minorities outside Quebec. Even worse, the country had probably lost its last chance of finding the concrete means to become a truly bilingual and bicultural nation.”

In other circumstances, the national harmony Laurier ultimately sought depended on the good relations his central government could maintain with provincial administrations. Here is an excerpt from the biography of Lomer GOUIN, premier of Quebec: 

“For almost two decades, the Canadian provinces had been trying in vain to persuade the federal government to increase its annual grants to them.... But Laurier was not easily persuaded. Once he became premier, Gouin, with the backing of the other provinces, kept up his campaign unflaggingly.... In the end, Laurier called an interprovincial conference in October 1906 at which he acceded to most of the provinces’ demands.”

To learn more about Canadian federalism in Laurier’s time, we invite you to explore the following lists of biographies.