Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


George Brown and the

Separate School Question


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[This text was written by Alexander Mackenzie in 1882. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]




From this time Mr. Brown and the Globe were ranged in opposition to the ministry, which, on Mr. Baldwin's resignation, was led by Mr. Hincks. Mr. Lafontaine retired at the same time. The latter gentle-man was probably the greatest obstacle to progress. Mr. Baldwin was timid ; Mr. Lafontaine was hostile ; and it is not improbable that if the ministry had proceeded with the necessary measures for seculariz­ing the clergy reserves, that he would have seceded.


It is impossible to avoid charging him with something like decep­tion or treachery. He knew the principles avowed at the general election : he knew this carried the country ; he accepted office with the cry for justice ringing in his ears, yet he retained office from April 1848 to October 1851, ostensibly as a liberal minister practically pledged to carry out the electoral programme, though he must have known that the course he pursued was not altogether what would be expected from an honourable high-minded man, and must result in the disruption of the party whose policy and principles he was bound to sustain and promote. That Mr. Lafontaine's friends may have some-thing to say for him is very probable. That many, indeed all, of the people loved Mr. Baldwin for his high personal qualities, is very true ; but nothing can excuse the course pursued by them when they were placed in power for a specific purpose and then failed to attempt the accomplishment of that purpose. Sir Francis Hincks long afterwards wrote concerning Mr. Lafontaine as follows :


“The French Canadians as a party were extremely unwilling to commit themselves on the clergy reserves or rectory questions . . . Mr. Lafontaine himself had a strong conservative bias, and two of his colleagues, Colonel Taché and L. M. Viger, fully shared his sentiments . . . Mr. Lafontaine went cordially with his colleagues for the repeal of the Imperial Act, but there is great reason to doubt whether the Lafontaine-Baldwin ministry could have agreed to a bill for settling the clergy reserve question." Messrs. Lafontaine and Viger voted against the resolution moved by Mr. Price (then a member of the government), which declares “that the appropriation of the revenues derived from the investment of the proceeds of the public lands of Canada, by the Imperial Parliament, will never cease to be a source of discontent to your Majesty's loyal subjects in this province, and that when all the circumstances are taken into consideration, no religious denomination can be held to have such vested interest in the revenue derived from the said clergy reserves, as should prevent further legislation with reference to the disposal of them.” Their votes on this occasion were the more remarkable, as the resolution provided for the payments of the stipends then derived by certain clergymen from said lands.


In 1851 one element of discord was found in the prevailing feeling respecting the endowment of the rectories founded by Sir John Colborne from public lands. The popular opinion was undoubtedly not only hostile to that step, but that the act of establishing the rectories was not legal.


The law officers of the Crown in London gave an opinion in 1837 that the endowments of the 57 rectories were not valid and lawful acts. The same officers reconsidered this decision, having obtained certain other documents, and gave another opinion that they were legal and valid acts. This last opinion, dated January 24th, 1838, contains the following words in addition to the opinion that the act was lawful ; “We are of opinion that the rectors of the parishes so erected and endowed, have the same ecclesiastical authority within their respective limits as is vested in the rector of a parish in England." The difference in the two opinions was altogether based on the interpreta­tion given to the royal instructions, and the terms of the royal com­mission issued to Sir Patrick Maitland in 1825, so that the rectories were established simply by virtue of a royal permission, and not on any legislative authority. The Act of 1851 practically settled the question in favour of the incumbents on the condition that the patents had been validly issued. The English opinion obtained was hostile, but the Court of Chancery decided that they were valid.


The following extracts from Globe editorials of January 15th, 1852, and March 9th, will show the view taken immediately after the general elections :


Had the reformers of Upper Canada been rallied to the polls upon clearly-defined principles and measures—on issues framed to meet the difficulties encountered in the previous parliament ; had the ground of “union" been in full accordance with those principles and not the support of Dr. Rolph and Mr. Hincks, the dissensions and apathy in the ranks would have been removed, and the victory at the polls the most triumphant ever witnessed. .     .


The reformers have been greatly injured as a party by these proceedings ; they have no acknowledged leaders, no avowed policy, no great defined aims as a party. The premier of our government was returned by a Tory constituency, which, if true to his party, he must stand ready to disfranchise ; and in his own county, one of the most decidedly reform constituencies in Upper Canada, he owed his election to men who but a day before were denouncing him, and only gave him their votes under the pressure of circumstances which they deplored. But if the injury to the reform party has been great, how much more serious has been the evil of breaking down those constitutional bulwarks which our system of government requires, and permitting the public men of our country to shirk the avowal of their opinions and policy, and to obtain the reins of government, not by virtue of their principles, but by the cleverness of their finesse! There is nothing more vital to the safe working of British constitutional government than the open declaration by each political party, previous to a general election, of the measures and principles it will carry out if successful at the polls. It makes the people the final arbiter in all political strife ; and the knowledge that these pledges must be carried out under the penalty of losing office makes politicians guarded in the avowal of their views. Public men think seriously ere committing themselves to new principles, but once committed, their political success is linked with the fate of those principles, and a protection is established at once against mere electioneering professions and infidelity to the public cause. Break down the barrier ; let men go into power uncommitted to any special course, and once seated they will care not for the success of their principles, but cut and carve their measures to suit the humour of the day and the retention of office. All men are honest men when they are well watched, and human nature in all ages and climes has needed watching. The tendency of office is to corrupt the incumbent. We do not believe there was ever a more upright body of men combined in an administration than the late government ; but they were found wanting under every constitutional check. And were the present men so politically irreproachable that the bonds could be safely relaxed towards them which were found too weak for their predecessors ? With all the experience we had obtained, the fences should have been built higher and stronger than ever ; but they were not, and we have four years' further experience before us.


He recollects that when the want of principle manifested in the combinations, and its injurious tendency on the anti-state church cause, was insisted on, the answer was : “What else can be done ? we will go divided to the polls ; ministerial reformers will be opposed by anti-ministerial reformers, and the Tories will gain power.”  We think that at this point Mr. Brown stated something like this : “Well, let them ; better that they should prevail than that we should sacrifice our principles by helping an alliance founded on deceit and formed between men utterly opposed on principle. If we are out of power four years our principles will gather strength, and we will return with unity of aim and increased force.” But that he ever expressed an unqualified wish for the success of the Tories is not only without foundation, but so palpably absurd as to require no con­tradiction.


The alienation of the Roman Catholic vote in Haldimand was the immediate result of a sharp controversy in the Globe on the subject of separate schools and the legislation creating ecclesiastical corporations. The feeling was doubtless much intensified by the introduction of many matters which form a standing subject of controversy between the Roman Catholic and reformed churches. The memoir in the Globe gives the following account of the origin of the articles in the newspaper :

“In 1850 the Pope had put forth a bull, creating, or professing to create, a papal hierarchy in Great Britain, and had sent over a cardinal to England with the title of Archbishop of Westminster. The English protestants resented the Pope's action, and the sentiment was re-echoed with increased fervour in Canada. Mr. Brown for some time gave no special prominence to the subject in the Globe, although he entertained strong feelings about it. Cardinal Wiseman had put forth a pronunciamento, in which the argument on the Roman Catholic side of the question was presented with much clearness and force. A copy of this document was handed to Mr. Brown by the Hon. Sir E. P. Taché, who half jocularly challenged him to publish it in the Globe. Mr. Brown expressed his willingness to publish the pronunciamento, but not unreasonably stipulated that, in case of his doing so, he should publish a reply, to be written by himself. To this Sir E. P. Taché assented, and accordingly both the pronunciamento and the reply appeared at full length in the Globe. In replying to the Cardinal's arguments, the writer was compelled to present the matter from the protestant point of view, and in a light which was far from being acceptable to Roman Catholics. The question was taken up by the entire press of the country, and was argued with great bitterness on both sides. Mr. Brown thus came to be regarded as the Canadian champion of  protestantism. This circumstance, it will readily be understood, answered admirably for an election cry, and was made the most of by his opponents in Haldimand."


Like all religious or semi-religious controversies, this one developed hard words and harder feelings, which eventuated in some injury to the political party led by Mr. Brown. Apart altogether from the special controversy on the subject of what was called the papal aggression in England, there was much agitation in Canada West over the demands for separate schools for Roman Catholics. It was generally felt that if one church obtained special rights it would be difficult to refuse them to any church. The fact that the non-catholic churches were generally agreed on the subject of a secular system of education was not much dwelt upon ; though it might be used to show that the Roman Catholic element was not precisely on the same footing. Mr. Brown undoubtedly had the whole reform party, with few exceptions, sustaining him in resisting the disruption of our school system, and the multiplication of corporations managed by ecclesiastics, and holding real estate for other than the purposes of the society. It must not be supposed that all Roman Catholics were entirely agreed on the attitude of the clergy in relation to these subjects ; on the contrary, many of them adhered to the views of the liberal party, and supported the reform candidates as before. The fact that many Roman Catholic countries held similar views was, of course, not without its weight in determining their course of action. On the other hand, it is not to be denied that deep offence was taken at many articles in the Globe and other papers by a large majority of the Roman Catholics, who did not come into personal contact with Mr. Brown personally, and appreciate his kindly and honest nature. Looking back, it is impossible to deny that many harsh words were written which had better not have been written ; but no one article ever appeared which bore the character of intolerance. No warmer advocate of equal rights ever lived than Mr. Brown proved himself to be,' and, right or wrong, he believed he was writing in defence of religious equality during the period which that controversy covered. Unscrupulous politicians, of little or no standing as public men, for years filled their scrap-books with garbled extracts, torn from their context, and used them as elec­tioneering weapons, mixing with these extracts much offensive matter which had never appeared in the Globe. When all other means failed in combating Mr. Brown and his friends in political contests, these forged passages were made to do duty, until the public were disgusted with the forgeries, as well as the resuscitation of statements and arguments which had no relation to new questions and a new state of political life. The bulk of the anti-Catholic element, and particularly the Orange society, was always violently opposed to Mr. Brown, though a very small section of the Orange party were politically agreed with him, and at some elections gave effective support. The mass of the Roman Catholics, on the other hand, had supported the liberals, and joined heartily in the long struggle for religious equality and parliamentary government.


There was therefore no reason why Mr. Brown should hate Roman Catholics, as he was represented to have done by parties who were interested in making such misrepresentations. Many of Mr. Brown's most devoted friends, in and out of parliament, were staunch Roman Catholics. During Mr. Brown's first parliamentary session the Rev. Mr. Gavazzi, a Roman Catholic priest who had refused to acknowledge the papal supremacy, made his appearance in Canada. Early in June he attempted to lecture in Chalmers' Free Church, Quebec. The church was assailed by a mob, the doors and windows were smashed in, and a portion of the rioters rushed in and attacked the lecturer in the pulpit. He succeeded, after a brief struggle, in effecting his escape uninjured. The mob then marched direct to the parliament buildings, apparently determined to reach Mr. Brown, even if they should attack the House for that purpose. He did not respond to their calls to come out, and they were finally persuaded by some of the members to disperse. This demonstration of the catholic element against Mr. Brown was doubtless the outcome of the somewhat bitter controversy which had prevailed for some time respecting separate schools and religious corporations, in which discussion Mr. Brown had taken a very prominent part. He was designated by his opponents as the leader or head of a protestant political party, though in fact he had never advocated or favoured the formation of a political party based on religious distinctions. Indeed, it would have been entirely foreign to his conceptions of the constitution of political parties. His advocacy was incessant for a complete separation of church and state, so as to remove discussions on religious subjects from the domain of politics, and when this separation was completed in Canada these polemical discussions also ceased in political circles. As the editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper, it was manifestly impossible to wholly avoid sub­jects of discussion which involved the consideration of the church polity of several denominations in respect to matters affecting the general public. When Mr. Brown formed his cabinet in 1858 it was upon an agreement that the separate school question should be dealt with after a full inquiry should be made into the school systems in other countries, catholic and protestant ; and there is no reason to doubt that, had his ministry been permitted to go on, means would have been found to harmonize the various views held by himself and his political associates. The Amended Separate School Act of 1863, and the immediately succeeding arrangement effected in the Confederation Act, removed this question from the field of controversy, but even before then nearly all irritation had ceased in Ontario, though it still con­tinued in other provinces, where Mr. Brown had never pretended to possess any special influence, and where the separate school question was raised long after it was set at rest in old Canada.


Apart altogether from the questions at issue between Roman Catholics and protestants, Mr. Brown rendered great service to the country by his advocacy of a non-denominational system of educa­tion. There were not wanting signs of an attempt being made by some other churchmen to introduce the sectarian element in the man­agement of our schools ; and an open effort was made to ruin Toronto University by the appropriation of its revenues to sustain sectarian colleges.

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Source: Alexander MACKENZIE, "George Brown and the Separate School Question", in The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 30-35.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College