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
Page 3 of 6

The 1890 legislation

The Liberal Party, led by Thomas Greenway, won a landslide victory in the 1888 Manitoba election. During the election the Liberals had committed themselves to ending the Canadian Pacific Railway’s monopoly and cutting government spending. Greenway enjoyed almost immediate success on the first point, as Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald agreed to buy out the CPR monopoly. Greenway proceeded to cut government spending by dismissing a large number of civil servants, who he believed to be Conservative Party supporters. While the railway issue had been successfully resolved, allegations began to surface that Greenway and his Attorney General, Joseph Martin, had taken personal bribes from local railway companies. Some historians have suggested that it was to divert attention away from these allegations that the government decided to repeal existing Catholic and French-language education rights.

During the 1888 election the Liberals had voiced no opposition to either French language rights or public support for denominational schools. Indeed, in recruiting J. E. Prendergast, a member of the local Francophone community, to sit in his cabinet, Greenway had committed himself to respecting existing French and Roman Catholic rights.

But as the debate over the Jesuit Estates Act caught fire in Ontario, the Manitoba government began to reconsider its position on education. In May of 1889 the Brandon Sun ran an editorial describing the separate school system as “a great injustice and a great wrong.” It concluded by saying that “The Catholics now enjoy a preference to which they have no right, hence we desire the abolition of separate schools.”

In July 1889, Greenway, Martin and a third Liberal member of the legislature, James A. Smart, decided to take just such a measure. Greenway and company knew that there was little political risk in attacking French rights: by 1889 less than 10 per cent of the Manitoba population spoke French, down from 50 per cent in 1870. Smart announced the decision in a speech on August 1, 1889, justifying it in economic terms. Claiming that there were relatively few Roman Catholics and their numbers were not keeping pace with growth in the rest of the province, Smart suggested that the Catholic system was getting more support than it deserved and was providing a poor quality of education.

Days after Smart announced the government’s school policy, Martin told a Portage La Prairie audience that the government was not only going to do away with denominational schools, it was going to end the use of French in the legislature and the courts. Although Premier Greenway had not actually agreed to this measure, he felt trapped by Martin, and agreed to go ahead with the move. J.E. Prendergast immediately resigned from the cabinet, claiming that Greenway and Martin had betrayed him. In defending the existing system against those who claimed it was not in keeping with British traditions, Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché pointed out that the British education system did provide support for denominational schools.

These arguments fell on deaf ears. In 1890, the Manitoba government passed legislation creating a series of non-denominational schools to be run by local school boards. The schools were not affiliated with any specific religious denomination and religious exercises were permitted, although in practice these were generally Protestant in nature. No provincial government support would be given to private religious schools. In the same session the government did away with the use of French in the legislature, the courts, the civil service and government publications. This decision was not effectively challenged in the courts until the 1980s, when, just like the school acts had in the 1890s, it became a national issue. Remove preceding sentence. The laws, not surprisingly, discouraged many residents of Quebec who might have been thinking of moving to Manitoba.

Upon passage of the bill all the Protestant schools chose to join the provincial system, transforming themselves into secular public schools. The Roman Catholic schools faced a more difficult choice: church leaders placed a strong emphasis on the importance that religion played in education. Many schools chose to continue as private schools, charging their students fees and raising funds from the community. In other cases, the Catholic community did not have the resources to continue to operate a school without provincial government funding, and as a result these schools joined the provincial system.

Opponents of the bill had hoped that the federal government would overrule the Manitoba government and disallow the school and language laws. This was not uncommon during this period; for example, in 1890 the federal government disallowed two other laws passed by the Manitoba government. The government of John A Macdonald did not wish to further provoke Protestant voters, still smarting over the Jesuit Estates Act, and therefore refused to disallow the Manitoba legislation. To regain their rights Manitoba Roman Catholics turned to the courts.

Digital Resources on Manitoba History