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Memorable Manitobans: John Kelly Barrett (1850-1938)

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John Kelly Barrett
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Educator, civil servant, editor.

Born at Hamilton, Ontario on 6 June 1850, eldest son of Charles and Bridget Barrett, he took training as a treacher, taught school for a short time, then entered the Holy Cross Jesuit College at Worcester, Massachusetts. On leaving the college, he became Principal of St. Mary’s Model School at Hamilton. In 1873, he accepted a position with the Inland Revenue Department, being promoted to the position of Inspector by 1885. In 1890, he became Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the Northwest Review. In 1875, he married Sarah Maria O’Brien (1858-1929) of Hamilton, Ontario with whom he had nine children: Leona Barrett (1879-?), Annie Barrett (1880-?), Percy Barrett (1882-?), Mary Irene Barrett (1884-?, wife of Charles William Stuart), Gertie Barrett (1888-?), Joseph Robert Augustine Barrett (1891-?), Mary Teresa Barrett (1894-?), Mary Antoinette Barrett (1896-?), and Mary Catherine Adele Barrett (1898-?).

A Catholic, he was the Winnipeg taxpayer who refused to pay his school taxes because the Manitoba School Act of 1890 denied his constitutional rights. This suit, Barrett v. the City of Winnipeg, brought with federal government support, touched off the legal aspects of the Manitoba School Question. After losing in a Manitoba court, he won in the Supreme Court of Canada, which declared that the Manitoba act plainly set up a denominational system. Along with another similar case, the suit was appealed in 1892 to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which overturned the Supreme Court decision.

Barrett received honorary degrees from the University of Ottawa and Holy Cross Jesuit College. He was a member of the council of the University of Manitoba.

He retired to San Diego, California and died there in October 1938. He was buried at Kenora, Ontario.

See also:

Priests and Politicians: Manitoba Schools and the Election of 1896 by Paul Crunican (1974).


The Canadian Album: Men of Canada or Success by Example, Vol. III, Bradley, Garretson & Company, Brantford, Ontario, 1894.

Birth registrations, Manitoba Vital Statistics.

1901 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.

“Stuart - Barrett,” Winnipeg Tribune, 29 June 1909, page 5.

“Mrs. J. K. Barrett will be buried at Kenora,” Winnipeg Tribune, 6 May 1929, page 3.

“Picked up in passing,” Lethbridge Herald, 18 October 1938, page 4.

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

We thank Gail Demko for providing additional information used here.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 17 March 2020

Memorable Manitobans

Memorable Manitobans

This is a collection of noteworthy Manitobans from the past, compiled by the Manitoba Historical Society.

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