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 roots of the Manitoba school crisis

Historians have traditionally taken two views as to the causes of the Manitoba school crisis of 1890. Some have argued that it arose out of local developments, particularly the changing nature of the Manitoba population and the suspicion that Manitoba Protestants held towards the Roman Catholic Church. Other have suggested that it was essentially an Ontario issue that was imported into Manitoba by a few fanatics and used by local politicians to draw attention away from simmering political scandals.

In 1871 the newly formed government of Manitoba appointed a provincial Board of Education to take responsibility for education in Manitoba. The Board itself was composed of separate Protestant and Catholic sections. Each of these sections had responsibility for their respective school systems. This included selecting the books and equipment, determining the sort of religious education that was to be provided, and the examining and licensing of teachers. Since the population of the province was approximately half Catholic and half Protestant in 1871, each section received the same amount of financial support from the provincial government. There were 24 school districts, 12 of which were largely Catholic and 12 largely Protestant. For families living in a district where a school of their faith was not available, parents could send their children to another district. During this era, there was no law requiring children to attend school, and was it common for children to get no more than half a dozen years of education.

As the province’s population mix shifted, the school system slowly began to change. As early as 1873 the Manitoba government stopped supporting each section on a fifty-fifty basis and began to provide support based on the percent of the population that was either Protestant or Catholic. In 1871 there had been 16 Protestant schools with 816 pupils and 17 Roman Catholic schools with 639 pupils. By 1890 there were 629 Protestant schools with 18,850 pupils and 90 Roman Catholic schools with 4,364 pupils.

The French and English communities had two different visions of the role that the school should play in society. To the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Manitoba, separate Catholic schools were essential for both the moral development of young people and the survival of a French Catholic presence in Western Canada. To many leading Protestants, the role of the school system was to create citizens for a new country: the language of that country was to be English and its culture was to be British. In their minds state-sponsored Catholic schools only frustrated that goal. To this was added the argument that in a small province, public support of two different education systems was a waste of money. Those historians who see the conflict as being local in origin, point to these changes and attitudes.

The national pressures were similar, arising from what one historian has described as Protestant fears that the Roman Catholic Church, acting under instructions of its leader the Pope, was a foreign conspiracy that sought to destroy the Protestant religion. These suspicions were confirmed in 1888 when the Québec legislature unanimously passed the Jesuit Estates Act. This bill was intended to compensate the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic religious order, for land in Québec that had been seized following the British Conquest of New France in 1763. The province of Québec had decided that rather than returning the land to the Jesuits, it would provide them and a number of other Catholic and non-Catholic educational organizations with financial compensation. The Act stated that disagreements over the portioning of the money to be given to the Catholic institutions would be resolved by the Pope.

The fact that the Pope, a foreign religious leader, was being given the power to determine how this money was to be divided was seen by some Protestant Ontarians as a threat to the existence of a distinct Canadian nationality. The Toronto Mail led the editorial charge against the Jesuit Estates Act. A Protestant Conservative member of parliament, D’Alton McCarthy, took up the issue and called on the federal government to invalidate the law. McCarthy took the position Canada would never become a nation unless it united around the English language and culture. When his motion was defeated, he formed the Equal Rights Association, and turned his attention to education and language rights in Manitoba and the North West Territories.

Those historians who view the Manitoba Schools Question as the product of outside intervention generally point to McCarthy’s August 1889 speech in Portage la Prairie in which he reminded his audience members that they had “the power to save this country from fratricidal strife, the power to make this a British country in fact as it is in name.” McCarthy was joined that day on the platform by Manitoba Attorney General Joseph Martin, who echoed his sentiments and committed the province to doing away with both French language rights and public support for Catholic education.

As the local and national forces came together in the summer of 1889, the Manitoba Schools controversy became a local issue with national implications.

Digital Resources on Manitoba History