Laurier's Stand During the Elections of 1896
[Note from the editor: Two major speeches were made by Laurier on the subject of the Manitoba school question in the course of the elections of 1896. The first was made at St. Roch, in Quebec City, in front of Laurier's own electors on May 7, 1896. The second was made at a large rally in Toronto, at Massey Hall, on June 13, 1896. There has been much discussion as to whether or not Laurier said the same thing on the two occasions, merely emphasising different aspects of the same policy, or rather different things to different audiences, so as to appeal to all.
The St. Roch speech merits further discussion as it influenced greatly the situation in Quebec. According to Lionel Groulx, whose analysis of the Manitoba school question is reproduced in its entirety in French in the same collection of documents at the site, Laurier never made the promise contained in the second paragraph of the first document reproduced below; it would have been added by a friend. However, he does not quote any specific source to affirm this point, relying instead on "tradition". With historian Paul Crunican, I think this information rather improbable and, in any case, useless. There is no doubt that even if Laurier never uttered the promise to use coercion, if conciliation failed, it was attributed to him immediately by the liberal paper L'Électeur. Thus, it was not a source hostile to Laurier, one that would have wanted to damage his cause, that reported this information. Further, there were thousands of spectators present at the St. Roch speech to hear Laurier specifically on the important point of the Manitoba schools. Surely, if Laurier had not made the promise of coercion if conciliation failed, this information would have filtered into private papers for us to find today, or, immediately, into the Conservative Party newspapers; after all, Laurier's opponents would have been eager to point out this discrepancy. Furthermore, Laurier never denied uttering the promise, neither during the elections of 1896, nor afterward. The promise was trumpeted by many of Laurier's candidates, and the Laurier press, without ever being denied by him. Even if he had not made the promise, having been added by a well meaning liberal friend, as Groulx charges, Laurier and his party were bound by it from the moment they used it to their advantage and did not deny it.
The suggestion of a commission of investigation also merits further explanation. According to Laurier, the principal aim of this commission was to prepare and inform protestant opinion to consider two charges frequently made by the leaders of the catholic minority of Manitoba, particularly by Mgr. Taché. First, according to the prelate, the "public" schools of Manitoba, as created by the acts of 1890 were, in fact, protestant schools in disguise. To support his view, Taché submitted disturbing evidence. To Laurier, it would have been unacceptable that Catholics be forced to go to protestant schools. Lastly, Taché claimed that solemn promises, and firm guarantees, were made to him, and to the French-Catholic minority, at the time of the Red-River rebellion, in 1869-70, and that these promises were violated by the laws of 1890. What were these promises? Could this knowledge establish a valid claim for the catholic minority? What is clear is that, by setting aside his commission of investigation when the elections were over, Laurier did not help the catholic cause.]
If the people of Canada elect me, as I am certain they will, I will resolve this issue to the satisfaction of all the interested parties. I will take into my government Sir Oliver Mowat who has always been in Ontario the champion of Catholic and separate schools, putting his own popularity at risk. I will put him at the head of a commission of Inquiry, where all the interested parties shall be represented, and I declare that I will succeed in satisfying those that suffer at the present time. Isn't the sole venerated name of Mr. Mowat a guarantee of success for this endeavour?
And in the end, if conciliation should fail, I will exercise the constitutional recourse furnished by the law, and I will use it completely and entirely (Applause).
Source: translated from the newspaper L'Électeur, May 8, 1896.
The principle of Provincial rights is the basis of Confederation (cheers). But, strange to say, an old idea, not in accordance with that principle, lingers in the Constitution; and since it is there, it should be met in a statesmanlike manner. The Government have adopted a doubled-faced policy, having a face for each Province; a good, pious Roman Catholic face for the Province of Quebec, and a stern Protestant face for the Province of Ontario (cheers and laughter). Day after day he was proclaimed as a traitor to his race and religion because he had refused to vote for the remedial bill (cheers). He had only this answer to make: that he was true to Canada, because being true to Canada he was at the same time true to his race. In Ontario the Conservatives say that if Laurier comes into power he will bring in a still more drastic measure of coercion [ ] He was here to say not that he would give either a small or large amount of relief to the minority, but that, assisted by his friend, Sir Oliver Mowat, he would settle the question, not by appeal to any class, but by appeal to the sense of justice which was implanted in everyone by the Creator. He was a Roman Catholic and a French-Canadian, and therefore might have strong sympathy for the minority. But as he himself would not be coerced by anybody, so he would not consent to force coercion upon anybody (Prolonged cheering).
Source: The Toronto Globe, June 13, 1896 as quoted in Lovell Clark, The Manitoba School Question: Majority Rule or Minority Rights?, Toronto, Copp Clark, 1968, 230p., p. 206.
© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College