Railways and the Manitoba School Question

by James A. Jackson

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-74 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This, hopefully, is a footnote to the inception of one of Manitoba's most controversial contributions to the history of Canada. This was the School Question which was the pre-eminent issue, locally, of the early 1890s and which in 1896 expanded into a full-blown national issue. It was also the third of the series of confrontations with the federal authority which have marked our history and which, happily, have been succeeded by a considerably more tranquil relationship.

It is my intention to show how the School Question, if not a direct outcome of the Railway Disallowance question and the quarrel both with Ottawa and with ourselves over the question of railways and rail rates, was at least accelerated and intensified by the railway issue. The Disallowance question was, of course, the second of our major confrontations with Ottawa.

The first of the confrontations was the creation of the province itself. Manitoba owes its birth to the refusal of its people - Métis, Scotch and English half-breeds, Selkirkers, Orcadians and others - to submit to a Canadian takeover without recognition being accorded their rights to a share in their land and its government. In the fourth and final list of Rights demanded by the Provisional Government of 1869-70 and which formed the basis of the Manitoba Act, the concern of the people of Red River for the preservation of their denominational schools and for the protection of the French language, was made clearly manifest. Article 7 of the list states:

"That the schools be separate, and that public money for schools be distributed among the different religious denominations in proportion of their respective population according to the system of the Province of Quebec." [1]

Article 16 is devoted to the equality of the two languages:

"That both the English and French languages be common in the Legislature, and in the courts; and that all public documents, as well as the Acts of the Legislature, be published in both languages." [2]

Both of these demands were met, it was believed quite adequately, in the subsequent Manitoba Act. In the case of denominational schools special guarantees were written into the relevant section 22. [3] The equal use of French and English for all official purposes was covered in section 23. [4] Thus a denominational school system with Catholic and Protestant sections and with an equal division of school funds was set up in the first session of the first legislature in 1871. [5] French was equally honored with English in the Legislature, in the courts and for all official documents.

This was accomplished without difficulty because, as at 1870-71, there was an almost equal division of the population as between French-speaking, and Catholic and English-speaking and Protestant. This duality did not long continue. Beginning in 1871 a flow of settlers began to come into the new province, chiefly from Ontario. As early as 1874 the new settlers protested the dual school system, especially the equal division of school funds which now favoured the Catholic schools. There were also murmurs against the official use of French. [6] Again, in 1876, the Protestant section of the Board of Education petitioned the provincial government by resolution, asking the setting-up of an entirely non-denominational school system and the use of English-only text books in all schools. [7] Their bias was obvious.

The government of R. A. Davis compromised. In 1877 the School Act was amended to provide for a proportionate division of school funds based on the number of pupils of each faith. Again, in 1879, the Norquay government attempted to end the printing of public documents in French. The bill, number 25 of the session of 1879, was entitled, "An Act Respecting Public Printing," and was introduced ostensibly as an economy measure. It was, however, vigorously opposed by all the French-speaking members who justly feared that its motivation was more anti-French than proeconomy.

Bill 25 was reserved by Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Cauchon - the only Canadian to hold that office - on the grounds that it possibly violated the Manitoba Act. It was passed to the Minister of Justice for disposal. It was disposed of well enough, though not by disallowance - it simply vanished into the limbo of politically embarrassing legislation. Most probably John Norquay agreed to forget about it in return for an addition to the annual subsidy sufficient to cover the costs of printing in French. This would have been a small price to pay in order to be kept from such a politically sensitive decision. There would have been an outcry from Quebec whose votes weighed much more heavily than those of Manitoba.

For almost the whole of the decade following 1879, the related issues of separate schools and the official use of the French language remained quiescent. The French and Catholic element of the population continued steadily to decline proportionately but there were no obvious efforts to disturb the status quo. After all, every province had some form of separate school system. With successive redistributions of seats in the Legislature in favour of the newly-settled and wholly English-speaking districts, French was heard less and less in the councils of the province. These issues lay dormant while a new and more violent storm broke over the burning issue of railways.

Manitoba's first rail connection with the outside world had been achieved in December, 1878 with the completion of the Pembina branch of the Pacific Railway as part of the plan of piecemeal rail construction instituted by the government of Alex. McKenzie. This line connected with J. J. Hill and D. A. Smith's, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba but still bound our connection with the east to the American transportation system. What was wanted was an all-Canadian line such as that plan of Sir John Macdonald's that had gone down in the 'Pacific Scandal.'

Macdonald, returned to office at the end of 1878, wasted little time in reviving the plan of an all-Canadian route. By statute, early in 1881, a new Canadian Pacific Railway Company was chartered to build a steel spine to connect the far-flung Canadian provinces and territories. Since the line north of Lake Superior-essential to an all-Canadian route-could not be expected to produce any revenue from local traffic, freight rates must be high enough to cover its expenses. High rates on the C.P.R. could attract American competition in the west where American lines such as the Northern Pacific ran close to the Canadian boundary and enjoyed local revenues over its length, which could permit lower rates than the C.P.R.

Thus by clause 15 of the C.P.R. Charter, that railway was given a monopoly of all rail construction in the west, south of their main line, for a period of twenty years. This, the C.P.R. hoped, would relieve them of the danger of losing essential traffic to the Americans by effectively preventing them from building feeder lines into the Canadian West. Clause 15 also restricted the building of increasingly-needed branch lines in the south and west of the newly enlarged province. The C.P.R. was not unnaturally reluctant to be deterred from the massive task of its main line construction. Lack of rail facilities greatly impeded the movement of grain to market and produced an immediate and clamorous demand for branch lines.

By 1883 the monopoly clause was being blamed for the joint ills of high freight rates and the lack of branch lines. In spite of the monopoly clause the Manitoba Legislature began to charter lines of railway, the manifest intention of which was to connect with the American rail system. The hope was for more rail facilities and lower rates. These Manitoba charters were uniformly disallowed by Ottawa on the grounds that they were in violation of the charter of the C.P.R. and thus contrary to the settled policy of the government of Canada. In addition, the lines proposed by Manitoba clearly infringed on the exclusive power of the Government of Canada to regulate international means of communication under Section 92, subsection 10(c) of the B.N.A. Act. The Norquay government, under increasing pressure from its constituents, persisted in its efforts to obtain rail rate competition.

Even the excitement of the North West Rebellion and the completion of the main line of the C.P.R. did not divert Manitoba's attention from the growing need for branch lines and relief from the burden of C.P.R. rates. Norquay was forced to prorogue the Legislature in 1885 to avoid a possibly embarrassing vote of non-confidence on railway matters which had been proposed by Thomas Greenway of Crystal City. Greenway was emerging as leader of a Liberal opposition embracing the traditional Liberal cry of "provincial rights."

In 1886, after two more railway charters had been vetoed, Norquay was only able to keep the House in line by a motion demanding an end to disallowance as soon as the line north of Superior was in full operation. In the meantime, he suggested, railways could be built under existing legislation. The Session of 1886 was followed by an election which gave Norquay twenty-one of the thirty-five seats. The result in no way reflects an opinion on the disallowance question. All candidates, of whatever political hue, were pledged to the immediate construction of railways wherever necessary and in defiance of the federal veto. On this proposition Norquay led all the rest. He had broken completely with the federal leadership and would suffer for it.

As soon as the new Legislature met in 1887 it passed a bill entitled, "An Act Respecting the Construction of the Red River Valley Railway." It received Royal Assent from Lieutenant-Governor J. C. Aikins on June 1st and was disallowed - as expected - on July 4th. The R.R.V. was to build south along the west bank of the Red to West Lynne whence a connection would be made with the Northern Pacific at Pembina. Undeterred by the federal veto Norquay proceeded with construction under the provisions of the Public Works Act, 1885, which, since it had been in force for more than a year, could not now be disallowed.

The R.R.V. became the symbol of a united Manitoba's determination to be rid of disallowance and the C.P.R. monopoly. Even as august a body as the Winnipeg Board of Trade went on record as favouring secession from Confederation if the disallowance policy did not cease forthwith. There is the distinct impression that Manitobans, many of them former Ontarians, were now identified with the West of 1869-70 and would not be coerced by the exploiting power at Ottawa. There were practical difficulties, however, which Manitoba soon found as obstacles in the path of R.R.V. construction. There was little local capital available and provincial credit was low in New York and London, becoming lower on the reports to those centers of the Canadian Government and the C.P.R.

The anti-disallowance agitation was finally having an effect on Canada and the C.P.R. President George Stephen threatened in May, 1887, to remove the railway's maintenance and repair shops from Winnipeg. The threat left Winnipeg unmoved. The C.P.R. obtained injunctions forbidding the R.R.V. to cross its Gretna Branch and the Minister of Justice, John Thompson, obtained an order from the Court of Queen's Bench forbidding construction on the grounds the R.R.V. was being built on Canadian government lands. Norquay persisted. He would not halt construction, "unless prevented from so doing by legal or military means."

Norquay was finally brought down by political hatchet work on the part of Macdonald. The provincial government had charter rights to the land grants earned from Ottawa on the basis of miles of track laid by the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway. These grants amounted to 256,000 acres and when turned over to the province could be used as collateral for a bond issue to complete the R.R.V. Provincial Treasurer, A. A. C. Lariviere went to the capital and was personally assured by Macdonald that the transfer of lands would be made. Lariviere so wired Norquay and the bonds were issued. The land transfer was not made and Norquay and Lariviere found themselves in the unenviable position of having issued bonds without collateral. They had no choice but to resign, which they did on December 22, 1887. Macdonald had paid Norquay for his rejection of federal policy.

Norquay was succeeded by Dr. D. H. Harrison of Minnedosa who appointed Joseph Burke as his Provincial Secretary. Burke sought election in St. Francis Xavier and was defeated by the Liberal, F. H. Francis. In this by-election the question of separate schools was raised incidentally. Burke accused the Liberals of having designs against the existing system and the leading Liberals, Thomas Greenway and R. P. Roblin (then a Liberal), swore they had no such intentions. What was sworn is obscure since, later, during the heat of the School Question, each side had very selective memories.

The St. Francis by-election determined Harrison's course. He met the Legislature early in January 1888 and resigned on the 19th, being succeeded by Thomas Greenway, who formed the province's first Liberal administration. The end of disallowance and the building of the R.R.V. were still the order of the day. There was no let-up in public and press agitation against the "tyranny" of Ottawa. Macdonald was beginning to have second thoughts, as was the C.P.R. Obviously disallowance as a means of serving federal policy had a capacity to provoke provincial unrest and even the C.P.R. could not afford to continually appear the ogre. Greenway and his Attorney-General, Joseph Martin, were invited to Ottawa by Macdonald and were speeded on their way with numerous resolutions of local Conservative bodies warning Macdonald of vast desertions from the Conservative party if his railway policy were not immediately altered.

After some fencing, Greenway achieved the withdrawal of the monopoly clause. It cost the Canadian government the guarantee of $15,000,000 in C.P.R. bonds for rolling stock and branch line construction. The Legislature was reconvened, passed an amended Red River Valley Railway Act empowering the line to build not only to the border, but also to Portage la Prairie, indeed wherever it might have to build to provide competition for the C.P.R. The C.P.R. applied pressure, threatening to cut back on branch line construction if the R.R.V. proceeded. Greenway replied by dissolving the House and winning thirty-three of the thirty-eight seats as the breaker of monopoly and the destroyer of disallowance. In the campaign he promised not only more branch lines, but also lower freight rates.

Immediately following the election Greenway and Martin, in spite of further attempts at interference by the C.P.R., made a deal with the Northern Pacific Railway, whereby the R.R.V. would be leased to a new venture, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway, which would not only complete the border line but which would also build from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie and from Morris to Brandon. Rates were to be fixed advantageously for the farmers of Manitoba. In the end the savings to the farmers were negligible but the grief to the government was great.

The Free Press, hitherto a strong supporter of Greenway, turned on him violently, accusing him and Martin of a corrupt bargain with the Northern Pacific and pointing out that Martin had become a director of the N.P. & M. The whole mess involved the expectations of other lines including those in which W. F. Luxton, Free Press editor, had an interest. A Royal Commission absolved Greenway and Martin of any corrupt action. The fact remained, however, that by early 1889 the Greenway Government, which had started with such great promise, was in serious trouble. Its railway policy had produced miniscule results and it badly needed an issue to divert popular attention from its failings. This was provided by the popular reaction to the Jesuit Estates Case.

It is unnecessary to pursue the background of the Jesuit Estates business. Sufficient to say that the proposal of Premier Honore Mercier of Quebec in 1888 to indemnify the Company of Jesus for lands lost at the Conquest and to leave the distribution of the sum of $400,000 to the arbitration of the Pope, was sufficient to rouse the Orange furies still restless from the Riel affair of three years before. D'Alton McCarthy, Conservative Member of Parliament, leader of the Equal Rights Association and a dedicated Orangeman, came west to speak his piece. He believed that Canada could never become a homogeneous nation so long as the French language had equal status with English and so long as the Catholic Church wielded influence at Ottawa, as he saw it, in non-ecclesiastical fields far above its numerical presence. His quarrel was not with the faith or its tenets, only with its undue influence in the councils of the nation.'

McCarthy spoke only twice in the west in the summer of 1889, at Calgary and then at Portage la Prairie on August 5. He recited the already familiar charges against the iniquitous Jesuit Estates Act, the official use of the French language, the political evil that the Catholic Church represented, and the greater evil of state-supported Catholic Schools. [9] The Portage audience reacted with great enthusiasm. Martin moved a vote of thanks in which, perhaps carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, he announced that the Government would, at the next session of the Legislature, abolish the official use of French and would seek the establishment of a single school system without a religious division. Martin was cheered as heartily as McCarthy had been and the Manitoba School Question was born.

Greenway was somewhat taken aback by Martin's statement but was quickly reassured that this was the issue that would give them the solid support of most Manitobans and that their railway ills would fade into insignificance in the brilliant light of the language and schools issue. The cabinet went along-with the exception of its one Canadian, the Provincial Secretary, J. E. P. Prendergast, who resigned at the end of August. The Manitoba Gazette ceased publication in French in September and in the legislative session of February and March 1890 the official use of French and the entire old school system were swept away.

It is apparent, however, that there had long been dissatisfaction with the old system-some of these complaints I mentioned at the outset. There is also other evidence of moves against the existing situation, such as the Brandon Sun editorials of May 16th and 30th, 1889 denouncing separate schools. These editorials produced little sympathetic public response. [10] Again, on August 1st, 1889 at Souris and at Clearwater on August 2nd, the Minister of Public Works, J. A. Smart, spoke on the subject of the necessity of government economy. (From this point I am much indebted to the work of Mr. Joseph Hilz, who has written a doctoral dissertation on the administration of Thomas Greenway. Mr. Hilz has graciously made his research available to me and is in no way responsible for my interpretation of that research). In his remarks, though Smart disavowed any intention to abolish separate schools, he did advocate one school system with one superintendent, one board and one set of inspectors. The schools should be made "national" in respect to the qualifications of teachers. Smart also made the point that: "The Catholics, therefore, get one fifth of the grant and have one ninth of the schools." [11] Simultaneously the Winnipeg Sun of August 1st, 1889 had announced, "... that the government planned to abolish official use of the French language and wipe out the separate school system." [12]

Further evidence is also introduced by Mr. Hilz in the form of a letter from Lieutenant-Governor John Christian Schultz to Sir John Macdonald of August 3rd, 1889:

"A few days ago he [Martin] informed the 'Sun' of his proposed abolition of the Dual Language, and the Separate School system, ... yesterday at a Picnic the Minister of Public Works announced the same thing so it may be taken for granted that they will introduce such legislation ..." [13]

Earlier in his work, Mr. Hilz introduces substantive evidence that indicated that Greenway had tried through personal contact to make an arrangement with Archbishop Tache for his open support of Liberal candidates in the election of 1888 in return for Greenway's leaving the language and school issues alone. Tache confined himself to saying he, "... would do nothing against his administration." [14] When open support was not forthcoming Greenway felt no compunction about proceeding as he did, especially since the redistribution of seats contemplated, could but further weaken French and Catholic electoral strength. [15]

Thus it would appear that the language and school changes had been seriously considered for some time before McCarthy's dramatic speech and possibly before any heat from the Jesuit Estates agitation spilled over from Ontario. The McCarthy appearance though was decisive. As P. B. Waite put it:

"The Manitoba school question thus had local origins; but the elements that made it explosive were put together by McCarthy." [16]

Whatever the whole truth may be, it is a fact that the School Question was a huge success from the Liberal point of view. Until the armistice of the Laurier-Greenway Compromise of 1896, the Liberal party held a monolithic control of the government of Manitoba. The farmers had to wait for branch lines until the economy revived after 1896 and for rail rate relief to the 1897 Crows Nest Pass Agreement, which rates are still sacrosanct - though again under heavy attack.


1. Morton, W. L., Birth of a Province, Manitoba Record Society Vol. I, Altona, D. W. Friesen, 1965, p. 249.

2. Ibid., p. 250.

3. Statutes of Canada, 33 Vic. c. 3, article 22.

4. Ibid., article 23.

5. Fletcher, Robert, The Language Problem in Manitoba Schools, Papers read before the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Series III, Number 6, Winnipeg, Advocate Printers, 1951, p. 52.

6. Morton, W. L., Manitoba, A History, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1957, p. 149.

7. Schofield, F. H., The Story of Manitoba, Vol. 1, Winnipeg, S. J. Clarke, 1913, p. 365.

8. Waite, P. B., Canada 1874-1896; Arduous Destiny, The Canadian Centennial Series, McCelland and Stewart, Toronto, pp. 246-7.

9. Manitoba Free Press, August 7, 1889.

10. Morton, Manitoba, pp. 242-43.

11. Hilz, Joseph, The Administration of Thomas Greenway, unpublish Phd. dissertation, University of Manitoba, pp. 52-53.

12. Ibid., p. 53.

13. Schultz to Macdonald 3 August, 1889, P.A.C. Macdonald Papers, Vol. 264, 120182-120184, quoted in Hilz, op. cit. pp. 53-54.

14. Archbishop Taché quoted by Hilz, op. cit. p. 48.

15. Hilz, op. cit. pp. 46-49.

16. P. B. Waite, op. cit. p. 215.

Page revised: 22 May 2010