British North America Act establishes Canada.

May 12, 1870
Manitoba becomes Canada's fifth province.

July 11, 1888
Thomas Greenway and the Liberals win the provincial election.

March 31, 1890
Manitoba School Act is passed in the Legislature.

June 23, 1896
Laurier wins the federal election

November 16, 1896
Laurier - Greenway Compromise is reached


Priests and politicians: Manitoba schools and the election of 1896 by Paul Crunican.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

The Manitoba School Question: majority rule or minority rights? Edited by Lovell Clark.
Toronto: Copp Clark, 1968.


Map of part of the Province of Manitoba. Protestant and Roman Catholic School Districts c1890


The Manitoba School Questions: 1890 to 1897
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The Manitoba Schools Question: 1890 to 1897

The Manitoba Schools Question punched all the hot buttons of nineteenth century Canadian politics: it was a French-English issue, a Catholic-Protestant controversy, a conflict over the roles of the federal and provincial governments, and a struggle about the proper relationship between church and the state. It brought down a federal government and its shaky and ultimately short-lived resolution was a major defeat for French language and Catholic educational rights outside the province of Québec.

To end the Red River Resistance of 1870, the Canadian government passed the Manitoba Act, which created the western province. The Manitoba Act contained two provisions that repeatedly thrust Manitoba onto the national stage. Section 22 of the Act said that the Manitoba government could not pass educational laws that would “prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to Denominational Schools [schools operated by churches] which any class of persons have by Law or practice in the Province at the Union.” This provision was the result of the work of Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché, who sought to ensure public support for church-run schools in Manitoba. As a result of this provision, Manitoba had in essence two publicly funded school systems: one organized by the Protestant Churches and one organized by the Roman Catholic Church. Because almost all the Protestants in Manitoba in 1870 were English speaking and almost all the Catholics French speaking, the Protestant school system provided education in English and the Catholic system provided education in French.

The second provision, Section 23, gave French and English equal standing in the legislature and the courts, and required that the records of the legislature and all provincial laws be printed in both languages. In 1890, the provincial government of Thomas Greenway created a single public school system and stopped funding both the Protestant and Catholic schools. The language of education in the new public schools was to be English. In large measure the Protestant schools became the new public system, while the Roman Catholic Church continued to operate its own schools but it now had to charge parents school fees. Legislation also replaced the bilingual provisions of the Manitoba Act with a policy of English only in the courts, the legislature and government publications.

These measures were seen as an attack on the rights of both Roman Catholics and French Canadians. Leading members of the Greenway government justified these measures as being required to protect the province from the undue influence of the Roman Catholic Church and to ensure that Manitoba developed as an English province.

With federal government support, the province’s Roman Catholic community launched a court challenge to the school law, claiming that it violated Section 22 of the Manitoba Act. After a lengthy series of court cases, in 1892 the British Privy Council ruled that the Manitoba law was valid. In 1895 however, the Privy Council held that the federal government had the right to restore funding to the denominational schools.

This ruling pushed the then governing federal Conservative Party into a state of crisis. Many of the party’s Ontario members of parliament and their supporters did not want to restore support to Catholic schools in Manitoba. The party’s Québec wing was angered that the federal government had not simply disallowed the Manitoba law when it was first passed in 1890. Liberal Party leader Wilfrid Laurier, careful not to commit himself to a firm policy, claimed it was possible to negotiate a compromise that would satisfy both the Protestants and Catholics in Manitoba. The issue dominated the 1896 federal election in which Laurier and the Liberals defeated a badly divided Conservative Party.

The compromise that Laurier worked out in the following year with Greenway allowed for limited religious education in the public schools and provided for education in languages other than English under certain conditions. Without the restoration of public funding for denominational schools, the Roman Catholic Church found the compromise unsatisfactory and continued to operate denominational schools. The 1897 compromise was not a lasting solution. As immigration from Eastern Europe increased, the school system found itself being called on to provide education in German, Polish and Ukrainian as well in French and English. In 1916, during heightened fear of foreigners inspired by the First World War, the Manitoba government voted to eliminate the right to education in languages other than English that had been the central element in the Laurier-Greenway compromise. (Ref1, Ref2)

Digital Resources on Manitoba History