Letter of Laurier to a Quebec Bishop to Defend the Laurier-Greenway Agreement [November 30, 1896]
[Note from the editor: This document presents one of the strongest defence of the Laurier-Greenway compromise that has been made. Essentially, the case favourable to the compromise rested on the arguments presented here and on the view, often repeated, that though imperfect, this would be the first step toward a fuller and better settlement which would be reached in time. Thus, it was argued, it should be accepted as a partial, but satisfactory, settlement.
In this letter, Laurier was at his best. Many of the points he made raised serious considerations. However, it is but one version of a complex reality and his views can be attacked from a variety of perspectives. After all, one would hardly expect Laurier to have been objective and fair in analysing the situation, especially as it pertains to other possibilities of resolving the matter. The argument of respect of provincial autonomy was a serious one for Laurier and it was one that would find positive response in Quebec. But, it was also a very convenient one that several other federal politicians used in the debate over the minority rights of the Manitoba catholics.
The source of this document, O. D. Skelton, did not give the name of the bishop to whom it was addressed. Given that the author wrote that the bishop held "moderate views" on the subject, it is probable that it was written to Mgr. Émard of Valleyfield or, perhaps, to Mgr Fabre of Montreal. However, Fabre was on his death-bed at the time.]
[. . .] Your Grace may perhaps tell me that these concessions do not go far enough. Was it possible to secure more? That is the first point to determine.
In the first place, I must meet the objection so often urged, that it is not a question of knowing whether it was possible to secure more: "the constitution as interpreted by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared that the Catholics had the right to the complete re-establishment of separate schools." I submit that on this point there is complete misunderstanding, and I believe this will be easy to demonstrate .
[. . .] The text of the judgment authorises merely an amendment to the existing law, and not the abrogation of that law. It is clear that separate schools could not have been reestablished without as a preliminary repealing the Act of 1890, of which the express purpose was to put an end to the system of denominational schools. The text of the judgment states explicitly that in order to remedy the grievance of which Catholics complained it was not essential to give them back all the rights which had been taken away from them, but simply to add to the existing law provisions sufficient to protect the conscience of Catholics.
[ ] But that is not all. Even supposing that the judgment of the Privy Council had declared that Catholics were entitled to the restoration of separate schools, was it possible to attain this result by a federal law? Three things are indispensable in what is understood by separate schools: 1° exemption from public school taxes; 2° a distinct school organization; 3° a proportionate share in the appropriations voted by the legislature for education. These three conditions were found in the remedial order, but as your Grace knows, they were not found in the bill. The bill did not ensure a cent from the public grants for education. What was the reason for this retreat? Why after having declared in 1895 that separate were, like public schools, entitled to a grant from the provincial treasury, did the same government leave the separate schools which it pretended to re-establish without this grant? The reason given by Mr. Dickey, the Minister of Justice, was that there were very serious doubts as to the power of the federal parliament to appropriate the moneys of a provincial legislature. In other words, the Bowell government did not recognize this power as existing in the federal government.
Even assuming that the government had this nominal power, I submit to your Grace that in the state of opinion, in face of the steadily growing feeling in favour of provincial autonomy, there is not now and there never will be any government strong enough to induce parliament to lay violent hands on the treasury of a province.[ . .]
[ ] Now, to pretend to re-establish separate schools without a public grant, would be simply a fraud.
This being the situation, I submit to your Grace that the concessions offered by the government of Manitoba will be infinitely more effective than the so-called remedial bill could ever have been, if it had become law.
As amended, the Manitoba law will give, not separate schools in name - for that matter they were called public schools before 1890 - but an equivalent which I believe acceptable. It will give us Catholic schools, taught by Catholic teachers, in all the districts where the number of Catholic pupils is forty in the city and twenty-five in the country, and these schools will be aided by the government like all other public schools. Further, the law as amended will provide Catholic teaching for Catholic pupils in schools where the teachers are not Catholics, at certain fixed hours.
So much for the amendments to the law. The questions of control and administration remain. I have undertaken to deal with them also, and have secured from the Manitoba government an undertaking to grant Catholics fair representation in the educational staff, the inspectors and the examining boards. With this representation, if good understanding and harmony are re-established, as I hope, and if the agreement which has been effected is carried out in the loyal and broad spirit which has been promised, the Catholics can easily reach a good understanding with the majority as to the qualification of teachers and the school curriculum.
I am ready to admit that the concessions made by the government of Manitoba do not include all that the Catholics looked for, but to seek to re-establish separate schools by federal intervention and to carry things through by main force, is a task which six years of agitation, of struggle, of bitterness, seem to me to have rendered impossible. Without dwelling on this point, I ask your Grace to consider the situation of the country, taking into account its races, its creeds, the inevitable passions, and the nobler sentiments which make provincial autonomy the foundation of our political system, and I believe that your Grace will come to the same conclusion as myself.
Religious teaching should be re-established in the schools. On this point, there is no doubt. I do not believe that it can be re-established by a federal law, and I am sure that it can be by mutual concessions, to which the provincial legislature will give its sanction.
Even admitting that it might be possible to obtain from the existing parliament, or from another to be elected by the people, a law completely restoring separate schools, which would be better, such a law administered by a hostile government, or a law less perfect, but passed by the provincial legislature itself, and administered by a government which, from being hostile, had become friendly?
The proverb, dictated by popular common sense, that the worst agreement is better than the best law-suit, may be applied with as much force to political as to private affairs. It seems to me on every ground that in this case more than ever conciliation will be more effective than compulsion.
I have presented to you briefly, Monseigneur, the considerations which, as it seems to me, determine this burning question.
My colleague, M. Tarte, with the same end in view has at my request visited his Grace of St. Boniface. His mission has not been successful .
[. . .] I do not ask your Grace to express satisfaction with the proposed arrangement. I simply ask you to consider whether it will not be better to give the arrangement a loyal trial.
I could not ask his Grace of St. Boniface to renounce the rights which he believes are guaranted by the constitution, but there is ground for hoping that a trial of the new regime of conciliation will give him the most complete satisfaction, reserving the right to renew the struggle, to break the truce, if these hopes prove baseless.
I ask your Grace to consider that in our system of government there are two principles perpetually in antagonism - the principle of centralization and the principle of provincial autonomy. Do you not think, as I do, that the safety of Confederation, the interests particularly of the province of Quebec, lie in the firm maintenance of provincial autonomy? Not that federal intervention should never be exercised, but only as a last resort, when every other means has been exhausted, and when all hope of conciliation and of understanding with the provincial authorities has been found vain [. . . .]
Accept, Monseigneur, etc.
Source : Oscar Douglas Skelton, Life and Letters of Wilfrid Laurier. Vol. 2, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1921, 576p., pp. 21-24.
© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College