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MACDONALD, JOHN SANDFIELD – Volume X (1871-1880)

b. 12 Dec. 1812 at St Raphael West, Glengarry County, U.C.

Confederation

Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier

Sports

The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Manitoba School Question
 

The origins of the Manitoba school question, one of several issues with serious implications for national unity in the 1880s and 1890s, are explained in the biography of Manitoba premier Thomas GREENWAY:

“When Manitoba had entered confederation in 1870, education was provided in schools operated by the Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches. The School Act of 1871 confirmed this intimate relationship of religion and education by creating a dual public system in which Catholic and Protestant denominational rights in education, as protected, it was thought, by section 22 of the Manitoba Act of 1870, were continued and funded by the province. This dual public system was abolished 20 years later and replaced by a system of ‘national’ schools. The Manitoba school question, as it became known, would touch fundamental issues in the life of the province and the nation.

“Its origin lies in the demographic changes which had taken place in the province. In 1870 the population of Manitoba was over 11,000. With the exception of the Indians, it was divided almost evenly into French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants, the latter being nearly all Anglicans and Presbyterians. By 1891 there had been an enormous change. The 20,571 Catholics, French- and English-speaking, constituted only about 13 per cent of the population. The overwhelming Protestant majority included 38,988 Presbyterians, 30,852 Anglicans, and 28,431 Methodists; among the last group was Greenway. This rapid transformation resulted in what historian William Lewis Morton* describes as ‘the triumph of Ontario democracy.’

“The institutions of Manitoba were remade in the image of Ontario.... The official use of the French language became the target of attacks in the same decade despite its protection by section 23 of the Manitoba Act. Ontario immigrants also brought with them a very different concept of the role of the school. Their outlook was pragmatically secular and the public school was to be the homogenizing agent of society. In their vision, Manitoba and the prairie west were to be British and Protestant.

“As this new majority began to associate Catholic schools with French schools – an understandable if not completely accurate conclusion given the significant number of English-speaking Catholics – the inflammatory issues of ‘race’ and religion were added to the problem of chronic underfunding of schools in the new (and English) areas of the province.”


The flashpoints of religion and language rights were ignited by the passage of two bills in March 1890: one eliminated the Board of Education, replacing it with a ministerial department, and the other established a publicly funded, non-denominational school system in Manitoba. Sir John A. MACDONALD tried to sidestep the ensuing crisis by leaving the problem to the courts:

“[He] agreed in 1890 with both Thompson and Edward Blake – the decision about the constitutionality of Manitoba’s abolition of public funding for Catholic schools was best left to the courts, not to the House of Commons. He who had been so free with disallowing provincial legislation to protect the CPR from Manitoba [see John Norquay*] or with Ontario over the Rivers and Streams Act [see John Godfrey Spragge], now capitulated to basic good sense. If Manitoba’s school legislation was ultra vires, the courts would so declare it. If it were intra vires, what was the point of disallowance?”


The matter festered for years after his death in 1891. Wilfrid LAURIER, who would become prime minister in 1896, adopted a similar tactic to eschew principle while assuring his party’s political survival through tactical manoeuvring [see The Election Campaign of 1896 and the Manitoba School Crisis].

For more information on Macdonald and the Manitoba school question, we invite you to consult the following biographies.

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