Looking to the politiciansFew federal politicians wanted to touch the Manitoba Schools Question. In the 1890s approximately 40 per cent of the population of Canada was Roman Catholic. Taking a strong position either for or against the Manitoba government’s education law ran the risk of angering a large portion of the Canadian electorate. The federal Conservative Party had held office continuously since 1878 in large measure because it had maintained a base of support in both Protestant Ontario and Roman Catholic Québec.
When the Manitoba Schools Question first surfaced in 1889, leading members of both the Conservative and Liberal parties sought to avoid taking firm positions on the issue. Rather than disallow the law, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was prepared to quietly pay to have a Roman Catholic federal civil servant take the case to court. Former Liberal party leader Edward Blake helped Macdonald by putting forward a motion that the legality of provincial education laws ought to be determined by the courts.
When the British courts ruled against the Roman Catholic position in Manitoba, federal politicians found themselves forced to take sides. This is because the Manitoba Act allowed for a Protestant or Catholic minority to make an appeal to the federal cabinet should a provincial law negatively affect their educational rights or privileges. Furthermore the British North America Act, which had established Canada in 1867, allowed for appeals to cabinet if provincial laws interfered with existing separate school system rights. If the federal government concluded that minority rights had been affected, it had the authority to pass remedial legislation —this was legislation that would undo what the province had done. These provisions were meant for cases where the changes to provincial language laws were constitutional but gave rise to a legitimate grievance: in other words, they were well suited to the Manitoba situation.
Rather than hear the appeal from the Manitoba Roman Catholics, the federal cabinet asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether the community had a right of appeal to cabinet in this case. The Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that there was no right of appeal, but in 1895 the Judicial Council of the Privy Council took the opposite position. Not only did it conclude that there was a right of appeal, it stated that in this case the grievance was well founded and the federal government had the authority to issue a remedial order.
As result the federal cabinet heard the appeal from Manitoba in the spring of 1895. All of this happened at a time when the federal Conservative Party was falling apart. Macdonald had died in 1891, and his successor, J.J.C. Abbott retired the following year. His successor, John Thompson died in 1894, which left the new leader, Mackenzie Bowell, to struggle to maintain party unity. His Québec members wanted him to bring in remedial legislation that would force Manitoba to provide public funding to denominational schools, while his Ontario supporters were opposed to such a move. As the government searched for a position several important cabinet ministers resigned in protest.
The Bowell government attempted to negotiate a settlement with the Greenway government, but, having won two provincial elections on the issue by then, Greenway was not prepared to restore funding to separate schools. The province’s stated position at the time was that education was a provincial matter in which the federal government had no business interfering. When the federal government ordered Manitoba to restore the denominational school system, the province refused to comply.
The Conservatives struggled to find a coherent position on the Manitoba Schools Question, while federal Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier refused to be pinned down. He thought that what had happened in Manitoba was unjust, but he did not support remedial legislation. Laurier compared himself to the Sun in the Aesop fable of the bet between North Wind and the Sun as to which could get a man to take his coat off. The more the wind blew, the more tightly the man clung to his coat, but all the sun had to do was shine and the man took off his coat. Laurier said that his sunny ways approach would lead to compromise with Manitoba.
In 1896, just months before a federal election was to be held, yet another new Conservatives leader, Charles Tupper, introduced remedial legislation to the House of Commons. It was opposed by the Liberals, who debated the bill for so long that the Conservatives were obliged to call a federal election without having passed the bill. The Manitoba Schools Question dominated the election, with many Conservatives speaking out against their party position. A number of leading figures in the Roman Catholic Church tried to encourage Québec voters to support the Conservatives. In the end the Liberals won, based largely on a swing from the Conservatives to the Liberals in Québec, where it appeared that by their delays and internal divisions the Conservatives had lost their credibility on the Manitoba Schools Question. It was now up to Laurier to demonstrate that his sunny ways could produce meaningful results.