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Last revised:
19 February 2001

Les Québécois, le clergé catholique et l'affaire des écoles du Manitoba / Quebecers, the Catholic Clergy and the Manitoba School Question, 1890-1916

The Story of the Manitoba School Question

T. C. Down

[Note from the editor: written in a style difficult to follow, the document by Down remains of interest to the reader. It demonstrates clearly that there were supporters of the cause of the minority abroad, even in a predominantly protestant country.]

The history of the past six years of Protestant domination in Manitoba affords such a display of tyranny and oppression as would seem at the present time to be incredible. The treatment of the Roman Catholics, by which they are wholly deprived of the enjoyment of the rights in the education of their children secured to them by the constitution, comes as near to persecution as can well be conceived in these clays of boasted toleration and enlightenment. It is a singular fact that intolerance in matters of religion should be exhibited and carried into practical effect by Protestants in a British colony, while acts of persecution commonly supposed to be peculiar to Roman Catholics are now never heard of. The phenomenon is one well worthy of the consideration of ultra-Protestants in this country.

The controversy arising out of this matter has been fiercely raging throughout the Dominion of Canada during this whole period of six years. No topic has ever secured a wider amount of attention, whether from the public, the press, or in political and religious circles ; all available machinery of the courts has been set in motion for the decision of questions of constitutional law, and on two separate occasions the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has pronounced elaborate judgments on appeal, the only effect of which has been to thrust the matter back once more into the arena of politics; the actual position being that the Roman Catholic minority in Manitoba are fighting for their rights, which the Protestant majority as represented by the Liberal Government of the Province refuse to yield to them, with the result that they have been compelled to look to the Conservative Government of the Dominion for the redress of their grievances. To this end, the Minister of Justice, on the 11th of February last, introduced a "Remedial Bill" into the Canadian House of Commons, which, however, it was found impossible to pass, on account of the obstruction developed by the opponents of the measure in the short space of time remaining before the end of the term of the recent Parliament, which expired in the latter part of April just past.

Whether to students or to statesmen, the history of this period of incessant strife will be found to involve matters of considerable interest, as, for instance, the modes of life in an isolated colony of pioneers of different races and religions, and their means of education; the erection of the settlements into a province, and its reception into a federation of older colonies, with proper safeguards for the rights of the pioneers; the early provisions for education by law, and their subsequent overthrow ; the racial and religious antipathies in consequence evoked throughout the federation, and the amenities displayed by the Protestant majority in the distant province; the conflict between the federal and provincial authorities, and the dependence, for the correct interpretation of the law under which the colonists live, upon the great Imperial Court of the Privy Council.

In the old days of the Red River Settlement in Rupert’s land there was no law touching the subject of schools or of education. There were, however, a number of denominational schools established and controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Presbyterian Church respectively. The Archbishop of Rupert’s land states that in 1869 he had sixteen schools organized in the different parishes. This settlement is now included in the province of Manitoba, which was received into the Union or Dominion of Canada from the 15th of July 1870 under the provisions of the Manitoba Act of that year (33 Vict., c. 3, Dominion Statutes), afterwards confirmed by Imperial statute. There were then 12,000 Christians in the province, 6,000 of them Roman Catholics, 5,000 of the English Church, and the remainder chiefly Presbyterians.

The Manitoba Act established a legislature for the province, and section 22 of that Act provided that the legislature might exclusively make laws in relation to education, subject to restrictions which will be presently specified, saving certain rights, and reserving power to the Dominion Parliament to legislate in the matter in certain events.

Accordingly, in 1871, the legislature passed a law which established a dual system of denominational schools. A board of education was formed, divided into two sections, Protestant and Roman Catholic, with a superintendent of schools under each section, and the grant for education was divided equally between the two sections. There were twelve districts under each section, according as they comprised mainly a population of the one faith or the other, and the male inhabitants in each district might decide how school funds other than the public grant should be raised. In the course of time the board was enlarged to twelve Protestant and nine Roman Catholic members, and the public grant was rearranged on the basis of the school population. Provision was also made that school districts of the different faiths might overlap each other. Each section had control over the management and discipline of its schools, and prescribed the books to be used therein. In the Roman Catholic section the choice of books referring to religion and morals was subject to the approval of the religious authority. From 1877 to 1890 no ratepayer of one faith was obliged to pay towards a school of the other.

For nineteen years, therefore (1871-1890), a denominational system of education was maintained in full force, being the first system established by law in Manitoba. This, it is to be noted, is the foundation of the whole present difficulty.

Suddenly the whole policy was reversed, the old system swept away, and what is called a non-sectarian system set up in its place. On the 31st of March 1890 two acts were passed by the provincial legislature, which came into operation on the 1st of May. By the 53 Vict., c. 37, a Department of Education and an ` Advisory Board' of seven members were established : four of these members to be appointed by the Department, one by the University Council, and two to be elected by the public and high school teachers, and this board had the power to prescribe the forms of religious exercises. By the Public Schools Act, 53 Viet., c. 38, all Protestant and Roman Catholic school districts came under the Act, and the public schools were to be free. Provisions were made for religious exercises conducted according to the regulations of the board, just before closing time in the afternoon, and for the withdrawal of pupils beforehand if required. They were to be held at the option of the school trustees for the district, who might require the teachers to hold the same, and no others were to be allowed.

Then follow provisions for school districts, the election of school trustees, and the levying of a rate on the taxable property in each district for school purposes. A legislative grant was allotted to public schools, in which no school could participate which did not comply with the Act and the regulations of the department and the advisory board, and no text books were to be used unless authorized by the board.

It must be stated that, owing to the influx of settlers from the eastern provinces and the United Kingdom, the nature of the population had entirely changed in the course of twenty years, so that in 1889 the Protestant school population was nearly 19,000, while the Roman Catholic was less than 4,500. [Note from the editor: These numbers are incorrect. See the Chronology for more accurate numbers.]

We will now look at the reasons given for the revolution in the law, and for this purpose it will be satisfactory, so as to avoid the risk of understatement, to take the reasons set out in a paper published under the auspices of the provincial government, which are roughly as follows: The Roman Catholic schools were almost completely under the control of the Church, the teachers being to a great extent priests and sisters, whose qualifications were unknown outside, while the inspectorate consisted of priests alone. The inefficiency of the system is shown by giving instances of the absurdity of papers set in examinations for teachers' certificates, and by the illiteracy of the French Half-breeds. (1) The whole of the school lessons (except those of arithmetic and geography) were made the means of imparting religious instruction, and the pupils were completely immersed 'in Roman Catholic ideas and influences.' Instances are given of peculiarly Romanist questions in teachers' examinations, and then the writer says:

I pass over the following:

" What are angels ?"

" What are the occupations of the angels ? "

" What do you mean by devils ? "

'Any one who could answer the second question at any rate would deserve to be senior wrangler and double first in any hall of learning.' (sic)

The serious charge is made that French ideas and aspirations were fostered to the almost entire exclusion of those that are British. The study of English was rare in the French schools; British Canadian history was not taught till the child reached the sixth division, and English history only in the seventh or last division. Quotations from the text-books and specimens of the teachers' examination papers in this subject are given to substantiate this charge.

This, of course, is all very sad, but there are other ways of improving the growth of a young tree than that of pulling it up by the roots.

Further it is charged that the Roman Catholic Church practically had the disposal of the public grant to its section, and the control of municipal taxation for school purposes in its districts.

In 1889, the last year of the dual system, the number of the Roman Catholic school population was less than a quarter of that of the Protestant, but there were seven times as many Protestant school districts and teachers as there were on the Roman Catholic side. The average public grant per district was : Protestant, 178 dollars ; Roman Catholic, 304 dollars. The Protestants taxed themselves on the average per district 538 dollars, the Roman Catholics 242 dollars, which is said to mean that the Roman Catholics avoided taxation and lived on the grant as much as possible.

It is now necessary to examine the powers given to the provincial legislature in the matter of education, and to trace the course of the proceedings taken to obtain decisions on points in dispute in the courts of law. These powers are contained in section 22 of the Manitoba Act above mentioned, and are as follows:

XXII. In and for the province the said legislature may exclusively make laws, in relation to education, subject and according to the following provisions:

(1) Nothing in any such law shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to denominational schools, which any class of persons have by law or practice in the province at the Union.

(2) An appeal shall lie to the Governor-0enerat in Council from any Act or decision of the legislature of the province, or of any provincial authority, affecting any right or privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic minority of the Queen's subjects in relation to education.

(3) In case any such provincial law as from time to time seems to the Governor-General in Council requisite for the due execution of the provisions of this section is not made, or in case any decision of the Governor-general in Council on any appeal under this section is not duly executed by the proper provincial authority in that behalf, then and in every such case, and as far only as the circumstances of each case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial laws for the due execution of the provisions of this section, and of any decision of the Governor-General in Council under this section.

Upon the passing of the Manitoba Schools Acts of 1890, the Roman Catholic minority protested that they were unconstitutional, and appealed to the federal power for relief.

On the 25th of April 1890 the Hon. E. Blake, leader of the Liberal party in the Dominion House, moved that it was expedient to provide for the reference of questions of law or fact upon educational legislation to a high judicial tribunal. The late Sir John Macdonald agreed for the Government, and the resolution was passed unanimously. In the following session the late Sir John Thompson accordingly brought in a bill to amend the act as to the Supreme and Exchequer Courts of Canada, and the Act c. 135 R. S. C. § 37 was amended, the 30th of September 1891, to provide the means for such reference.

On the 7th of October 1890, one Barrett, a Roman Catholic ratepayer of Winnipeg, obtained a summons for an order to quash certain by-laws of the city, made to authorise an assessment for city and school purposes for the current year, on the ground that the amounts to be levied for Protestant and Roman Catholic schools were united, and one rate levied upon Protestants and Roman Catholics alike for the whole sum. On the 24th of November Mr. Justice Killam dismissed the summons. On appeal the full Court of Queen's Bench for Manitoba dismissed the appeal, Mr. Justice Dubuc dissenting.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, the 28th of October 1891, the appeal was allowed, the Schools Act declared ultra vires of the provincial legislature, and the by-laws in question quashed. The Court held that the words 'or practice' in the first sub-section of section 22, quoted above, saved to the Roman Catholics the privilege of denominational schools, and that they could not be taxed for Protestant schools.

Next, on the 5th of December 1891, one Logan, a member of the Church of England in Winnipeg, obtained a summons calling upon the city to show cause why a by-law levying the school rate for the current year should not be quashed, on the grounds that the rate was levied upon all denominations alike, and that members of the Church of England could not be assessed for the support of schools not under its control. Following the Supreme Court the full Court of Queen's Bench granted the application and quashed the by-law.

Both cases were then taken by the city of Winnipeg to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and on the 30th of July 1892 judgment was delivered by Lord Macnaghten allowing the appeals, and reversing the judgments appealed from. Their lordships held that it was intended (sub-section 1, above) to preserve every right or privilege with respect to denominational schools which any class of persons enjoyed at the time of the union; but added that it would be going much too far to hold that the establishment of a national system of education upon an unsectarian basis was so inconsistent with the right to set up and maintain denominational schools that the two things could not exist together, or that the existence of the one implied immunity from taxation for the purpose of the other, and further said that it could hardly be contended that, in order to give substantial effect to a saving clause expressed in general terms, it was incumbent upon the Court to discover privileges which were not apparent of themselves. They held that, notwithstanding the Public Schools Act, 1890, members of every religious body in Manitoba were free to establish schools throughout the province, to maintain them voluntarily, and to conduct them according to their own religious tenets without interference. They could not assent to the view that the new public schools are in reality Protestant schools, for 'the legislature has declared in so many words that the public schools shall be entirely unsectarian.'

I confess, with fear and trembling, that this last conclusion is to me astonishing; but I shall have to refer to the point again, for the dominant party has made the most of it.

By this judgment the rights under sub-section 1 are made clear, and the Church of England now disappears from the fight.

The question of appeal to the Governor-General in Council prescribed by subsection 2 (above) was the next matter to be disposed of, and in November 1892 a committee of the Canadian Privy Council fixed a date in the following January for hearing the arguments on petitions from the Roman Catholic minority in Manitoba for remedial school legislation. On the 22nd of February 1893 an order in Council was made under which a case was prepared for the Supreme Court, in which certain important questions of law were referred to them for consideration. On the 20th of February 1894 the Court decided by a majority of three to two that the Roman Catholic minority had no right of appeal to the Governor-General in Council.

Thereupon the case (Brophy and others v. the Attorney-General of Manitoba) was taken to the Judicial Committee, and on the 29th of January 1895 Lord Herschell gave judgment allowing the appeal from the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. Their lordships held that the questions submitted chiefly depended on the construction of the second and third sub-sections of section 22 (above quoted), and that the second sub-section extends to the rights and privileges of the Roman Catholic minority acquired by legislation in the province after the union. The question was, whether any such right or privilege had been affected by the legislation of 1890. Their lordships were unable to see how this question could receive any but an affirmative answer. They contrasted the position of the Roman Catholics prior and subsequent to the Acts from which they appealed. Prior to 1890 they managed their own schools, selected the books, and determined the character of the religious teaching. They shared the public grant, and the money raised by the local assessment of Roman Catholics was applied only to their own schools. Under the Act of 1890 their own schools will receive no State aid, while they themselves are taxed for the public grant, and assessed for the support of schools which they do not regard as suitable for the education of their children. Their lordships held that the appeal to the GovernorGeneral in Council was admissible, and further that Ire has the power to make the declarations or remedial orders asked for. It was not essential that the statutes repealed by the Act of 1890 should be reenacted, or their precise provisions again made law; but all ground for complaint would be removed if the present system were supplemented by provisions removing the grievance on which the appeal is founded, and modified to give effect to those provisions.

The points of law being settled, the Privy Council of Canada met on the 26th of February 1895 to hear the appeal of the Roman Catholics against the school law, with the result that on the 21st of March an order in Council was made in which his Excellency in Council decided that the Manitoba School Acts of 1890 had deprived the minority of the following rights

' (a) The right to build, maintain, equip, manage, conduct, and support Roman Catholic schools in the manner provided for by the (said) statutes which were repealed by the two Acts of 1890 aforesaid.

' (b) The right to share proportionately in any grant made out of the public funds for the purposes of education.

' (c) The right of exemption of such Roman Catholics as contribute to Roman Catholic schools from all payment or contribution to the support of any other schools.'

And further that ' it seems requisite that the system of education embodied in the two Acts of 1890 aforesaid shall be supplemented by a provincial Act or Acts which will restore to the Roman Catholic minority the said rights and privileges of which such minority has been so deprived as aforesaid, and which will modify the said Acts of 1890 so far, and so far only, as may be necessary to give effect to the provisions restoring the rights and privileges in paragraphs a, b, and c, hereinbefore mentioned.'

This 'Remedial Order' was sent to the Government of Manitoba, and they were requested to take action thereupon. To this the Provincial legislature, on the 19th of June, made answer alleging the inefficiency of the old Roman Catholic schools, the inadvisability of expending public money on them, the difficulties of maintaining an efficient system of education, which would be aggravated by the establishment of separate schools, and asking for, an investigation into the working of the former system.

In July 1895 the Dominion Government asked the Provincial Government whether they would settle the question satisfactorily to the minority, without making it necessary to call in the powers of the Dominion Parliament. To this the Manitoba Government replied on the 20th of December last, stating that action in the schools question was a matter of public policy, flatly refusing to establish separate schools, and again asking for an inquiry.

Here then we have the spectacle of a 'Liberal' Government, supported by a strong Protestant community, refusing the enjoyment of their rights to a Roman Catholic minority, although these rights are specially reserved to them in the constitution of the province, and distinctly defined by the highest court of the Empire. Moreover since the Acts of 1890 that Government has been twice returned to power by the province with a majority of 3 to 1, the second time being as late as the 7th of January 1896, so that their position is impregnable, and they can afford to defy the federal Power. They give us at once an example of Protestant liberality and a practical lesson in 'Home Rule.'

Let us see how far the Roman Catholics are ready to meet the Government, and how much liberty of action it is that they actually require. This was publicly announced by Mr. Ewart, Q.C., of counsel for the minority in all the higher Courts, as long ago as the 29th of April last year, in Winnipeg, subsequently to the issue of the 'Remedial Order.' He says:

We are willing to work up to the secular standard prescribed by the State; to employ State-certificated teachers; to use State-selected books (if not antagonistic to the Catholic religion); to be subjected to State inspection, and to be free from Church control. That, I think, is all that the State can require of us, and ought to be a sufficient answer to suggestions of inefficiency and illiteracy; and in return we ask that in schools in which there are none but Roman Catholics the religious 'sentiments and sanctions' to be taught shall be such as we choose, and not those selected by others, however free from theological prejudice.

We will now glance at the attitude of the other denominations. The schools do not come up to the requirements of the Church of England, as could be shown by an affidavit of the Archbishop of Rupert’s land in Logan v. Winnipeg.

On the 20th of March 1895 the following resolution of the Methodist Ministerial Association of Winnipeg was sent to the Dominion Premier at Ottawa:

‘Fearing lest silence be construed as indifference, we respectfully but firmly protest against interference with the school system of Manitoba as established by law: First, because by this law no injustice is done to any individual ; secondly, because such interference would infringe upon provincial rights, &c.,' and Methodist ministers were requested to preach upon it. This pronouncement is a curiosity in its way.

The following utterances lay stress upon religious requirements, and show how far certain of the Protestant authorities are from desiring religion to he divorced from the school teaching.

On the 21st of November 1895 the Rev. Principal King, in moving resolutions on the schools question before the Presbyterian synod of Manitoba, said that he could not protest too strongly against the view that there should be no connection between religion and the action of the State, including its action in the matter of education – ‘a view which, if it obtained, would deprive society as an organisation of all religious sanctions and found it on a purely secular basis.'

On the 18th of April 1895 the pastor of the Central Congregational Church in Winnipeg, during a lecture on the schools question, argued thus : ‘It is the business of the State to provide moral training. But moral training will be ineffective unless supported by the sentiments and sanctions of religion. Therefore what ? It is the business of the State to provide religious teaching.' And recapitulating, ‘What then is the duty of the State ? First, to teach religion in so far as it can do that without violating the fundamental principles of religion; and, second, to extend all hospitality and encouragement consistent with justice to the agencies whose business it is to teach religion.'

To come now to the actual facts as to religious teaching and exercises in these 'non-sectarian' schools. The regulations say: ‘To establish the habit of right doing, instruction in moral principles must be accompanied by training in moral practice. The teacher's influence and example, current incidents, stories, memory gems, sentiments in the school-lesson, examination of motives that prompt to action, didactic talks, teaching the Ten Commandments, &c., are means to be employed.'

(Query, according to what faith ?)

As to religious exercises, they provide a number of selections from the Bible (either version), which may be read without comment ; a prayer such as would be used by Trinitarian Protestants ; the Lord's Prayer, and the ‘ Benediction.'

Thus it will be seen that certain ‘Protestants' are allowed to introduce the quantum of religion that will satisfy their consciences while the Roman Catholics are denied the same liberty: such a modicum of religion is to them utterly inadequate for the education of their children ; and they are not allowed a voice in the matter even in the districts where their children form the main school population. And yet it is solemnly affirmed that the schools are not Protestant! The religious observance prescribed by the advisory board can certainly not be styled Jewish, nor Unitarian, and emphatically not Romanist. What then is the name of it? Is there any other name for it than ‘Protestant’ ? and are not the schools non-sectarian Protestant schools ?

What a farce is the whole proceeding ! Public schools are set up and labelled (sic) ‘non-sectarian' in the Act creating them. Then the Protestants are openly permitted to get their foot in as far as suits them, while the Roman Catholics are refused even an inch of standing ground.

Englishmen, I suppose, will scarcely credit the fact that there is no practical difficulty in the way of giving separate schools to the Roman Catholics. The Manitoba Government say that they can scarcely maintain one school in sparsely-settled districts. Quite so then in such cases it would be clearly impossible and absurd to set up another for two or three Roman Catholic children. The law does not demand impossibilities, and pioneers who go out to reclaim the wilderness do not expect all the advantages of civilisation. In Winnipeg, Brandon, the Portage, and perhaps some other towns, there would probably be enough Roman Catholic children to fill separate schools without trouble. As to the bulk of the Roman Catholic population, they are massed together in their own districts. Their chief settlement is at St. Boniface, a French-Canadian town on the banks of the Red River, opposite to Winnipeg, where is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop. The old Roman Catholic half-breed people are settled in their own parishes on the banks of the Red River, the Assiniboine, and some smaller rivers. Their lands were of the drape of a long piece of tape stretched out. Each strip was a few chains in width, abutting on the river, and going back two miles into the prairie, with two miles further for ‘hay-privilege,' known in both common and legal parlance as the ‘inner' and ‘outer' two miles; while the houses were in a string along the river-banks, for the sake of mutual protection and society for the inmates. Could anything be simpler than such a situation ?

To understand the rancour that has been aroused in this dispute by the stirring up of religious animosities by the Orange Lodges and certain Protestant speakers throughout the Dominion, Englishmen would have to go back to the state of feeling aroused by the Tractarian movement in this country, or the Romanist aggression in the days of Earl Russell. And the irony of the situation lies in the fact that the provision in the Act under which the Roman Catholics are claiming relief was really introduced for the benefit of a future Protestant minority, the population having increased in the opposite way to what was at the time expected by many would be the case.

What then is the meaning of the conduct of the Liberal Government of Manitoba? We can only judge from what appears on the surface, and this subject alone would suffice for a separate article. They have continuously interposed delays and hindrances and opposition to any settlement of the difficulty on the plain lines of justice to the minority, but they have committed the fatal blunder of making too many excuses for their conduct. In their answer to the ‘Remedial Order' they alleged the difficulties of maintaining an efficient system of education even under present circumstances, and that the establishment of separate schools for the Roman Catholics would greatly impair that system, while the possible prospect of further separate schools for the Church of England, for the Mennonites, and for the Icelanders would be simply appalling. The position is entirely imaginary, for there is no saving of such rights, except to ‘the Protestant or Roman Catholic minority of the Queen's subjects.' It must always be borne in mind that the provincial Government is of one political type, while the federal Government is of the opposite.

Even after the introduction of their own 'Remedial Bill' in February last, the Dominion authorities did not neglect to give the Provincial Government an opportunity of themselves dealing with this matter. After the Bill had been read a second time, they so far endeavoured to meet the wishes of the provincial authorities as to send Sir Donald Smith and two of the Ministers as Special Commissioners to Winnipeg, to see if a satisfactory compromise could not be arrived at, but even these negotiations failed to bring about a settlement. The Government went on with their measure, but were met in Committee by the grossest obstruction, one member reading chapters of the Bible with dissertations thereon, and another spending an hour in giving selections from the Bab Ballads with appropriate comments. The committee sat continuously during the whole of Easter week, but the Opposition persistently ‘played to the gallery,' knowing that the whole question would have to be threshed out again at the polls, and thus, as I have said, rendered it impossible to pass the measure in the short time remaining before the dissolution of Parliament.

Such are the main points in the history of the Manitoba schools difficulty, in grappling with which the Dominion Government are to be congratulated on having steadfastly followed the straight line of duty justice to the minority under the Constitution.


1. For the programme of studies in the schools, and specimens of examination, papers, reference is made further to the 'Memoir' prepared by the Roman Catholic section of the board for the Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886. This memoir would probably therefore be accessible in this country.

Source: T. C. Down, « The story of the Manitoba schools question », in The Nineteenth Century, July 1896, pp. 117-127.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College