1896 Religious Freedom and Manitoba Schools Question

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Religion was fundamental to social and political life in colonial Canada, which exhibited a greater degree of religious tolerance than Britain. Under the Quebec Act of 1791, and later reaffirmed in the 1858 Freedom of Worship Act, Catholics had the right to practise their religion and to serve in public office (in England, by contrast, they would not be permitted to vote or to sit in Parliament until 1829). The British North America Act of 1867 confirmed the right of Catholics (French) and Protestants (English) to operate their own schools, a right that shaped post-Confederation debates surrounding education.

Despite its relative tolerance, profound religious divisions existed in Canada, particularly when it came to denominational education. The British North America Act provided no guarantee for the public funding of church-run schools, and when Manitoba abolished its public funding for Catholic schools in 1890, despite having been founded as a bilingual province, its action incited a national controversy. Debates surrounding religious education during this period were infused with references to “minority rights.” As MP and former Nova Scotia premier Sir John Sparrow David Thompson explained to the House of Commons in 1893, “The province of Manitoba commenced existence in 1870, and the first question which arises in connection with the rights of the minority in that province depends for its solution on the condition of education in that province at that time.” Years later, Saskatchewan premier Walter Scott (1905-16) defended separate schools as a “moral obligation to protect minority rights.”

The Manitoba Schools Question, which became the dominant issue in the 1896 federal election, led to the downfall of the ruling Conservative Party and the triumph of the Liberals, led by Wilfrid Laurier. In an 1896 comment to Parliament regarding the schools question, Laurier advocated the path of tolerance: “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 upon the grounds of Roman Catholicism, not upon the grounds of Protestantism, but upon grounds which can appeal to the conscience of all men, irrespective of their particular faith, upon grounds which can be occupied by other men who love justice, freedom and toleration.”

Laurier negotiated a compromise agreement with the Manitoba premier to reinstate limited rights for Catholic education in the province, but the issue was only partially resolved and continued to divide the country for many years. The provinces differed regarding the provision of public funding: Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Newfoundland funded Catholic and Protestant schools, whereas New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and British Columbia did not. In 1905, Laurier failed to secure guarantees for Catholic education in the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and Manitoba abrogated his compromise agreement in 1916. In 1912, the Ontario government issued Regulation 17, which restricted French-language education in public schools to the first two years of primary school (later extended to one hour per day). For its part, Newfoundland permitted the Christian churches to monopolize education, whereas Quebec divided public education between Catholic and Protestant school boards in 1870.


Further Reading

Miller, J.R. “D’Alton McCarthy, Equal Rights, and the Origins of the Manitoba Schools Question.” Canadian Historical Review 54, 4 (1973): 369-392.