The front page of the May 4, 1896, edition of the Globe brought exciting news for Liberals as the federal-election campaign shifted into high gear: if Wilfrid Laurier led the party to victory on June 23, Oliver Mowat — who’d served as premier of Ontario for the previous 24 years — would enter federal politics. It was a move designed to build Liberal support among an electorate tired of the strife created by the largest political issue of the day: the Manitoba Schools Question, which split Canadians along ethnic and religious lines and threatened to tear the country apart.
The situation was worsened by the turmoil consuming the federal Conservatives. Despite declining health, John A. Macdonald had led the Tories to victory in 1891, turning Laurier’s support for free trade with the United States into a battle over maintaining Canada’s British connections and identity. Weeks after his win, Macdonald died. The next five years turned into a game of musical prime ministers, starting with John Abbott, a senator who didn’t want the job but held it for a year. Next came John Thompson, who overcame accusations that he was a “pervert” because he had converted from methodism to Roman Catholicism.
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Thompson, however, died suddenly in December 1894 while visiting Windsor Castle. And choosing a successor proved problematic. Father of Confederation Charles Tupper, a leading candidate, had irritated Thompson and was disliked by Governor General Lord Aberdeen. Lady Aberdeen despised the “Ram of Cumberland” for his conservative views and philandering reputation. When an anti-Tupper movement within the party failed to produce a suitable alternative, Aberdeen called on veteran senator Mackenzie Bowell.
Over the course of 1895, the slow and cautious Bowell failed to find a satisfying solution for the Manitoba Schools Question, which had begun five years earlier after the Manitoba government abolished the province’s publicly funded Roman Catholic school system. Laurier, sensing that voters wanted to resolve the school crisis as painlessly as possible, prepared for the next election by giving campaign-style speeches during a tour of Ontario that fall.
The most important speech of his tour, delivered to 4,000 people in Morrisburg on October 8, 1895, involved a fable: The wind bet the sun that he could make a traveller remove his coat. The more the wind blew, however, the more tightly the traveller clutched it. The sun then shone gently, making everything bloom and slowly raising the temperature — and the traveller shed his coat. Laurier then said the wind was like the Conservatives, whose rage and threats had failed to move Manitoba premier Thomas Greenway on educational funding.
“If it were in my power, and if I had the responsibility,” Laurier declared, “I would try the sunny way. I would approach this man Greenway with the sunny ways of patriotism, asking him to be generous to the minority, in order that we may have peace amongst all the creeds and races which it has pleased God to bring upon this corner of our common country. Do you not believe there is more to be gained by appealing to the heart and soul of men rather than by trying to compel them to do a thing?” Laurier repeated the phrase “sunny ways” in speeches over the next year, turning it into a catchphrase condemning divisiveness and fearmongering.
Meanwhile, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a British body that served as the highest court in Canada, ruled that Manitoba had acted within its rights but that the federal government also had the right to issue its own replacement legislation.
Many ultra-Protestant Tories, however, had been happy to see the separate-school system vanish, and when a remedial bill intended to reinstate it was introduced in January 1896, seven cabinet ministers resigned.
Bowell repeatedly tried to resign as prime minister; Aberdeen refused to accept his resignation, because he wanted to block Tupper, who had recently returned from England and gained leadership support within the party.
Tupper returned to Parliament via a byelection on February 4 and became leader in all but name, leaving Bowell to grumble about the “nest of traitors” within the party.
When debate over the second reading of the remedial bill began on March 3, Laurier delivered another career-boosting speech. “So long as I have a seat in this House,” Laurier said, “so long as I occupy the position I do now, whenever it shall become my duty to take a stand upon any question whatever, that stand I will take will not be upon grounds of Roman Catholicism, not upon grounds of Protestantism, but upon grounds which can appeal to the conscience of all men, irrespective of their particular faith — upon grounds which can be occupied by all men who love justice, freedom, and toleration.”
The House of Commons descended into filibusters; as MPs were forced to sleep there, the place reeked of body odour and whiskey. Lord Aberdeen finally accepted Bowell’s resignation and asked Tupper to form a government. The Conservatives withdrew the remedial bill on April 16 and, with the natural life of Parliament exhausted, called an election the following week.
The Liberals were busy trying to convince premiers to switch to federal politics. They succeeded in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but Mowat was the big catch. Ontario’s longest-serving premier had built a reputation as a fierce defender of provincial rights and successfully navigated his own separate-school crisis during the 1880s by maintaining their existence while reducing church control. Having him in the federal fold would signal to Roman Catholics in central Canada that the Liberals would work toward a fair solution in Manitoba.
On May 2, Mowat sent Laurier a letter, which was published in the Globe two days later. He began by stating the reasons he shouldn’t move into federal politics: his age, his unfamiliarity with federal processes, the longer work days, the risk of losing ties with his long-time riding in Oxford County, the uprooting of his family from Toronto, and the fear that whatever unfolded might destroy his reputation.
But that wasn’t the sum total of his analysis. “Our national origin is not the same, our religious creeds are different, but we are both of Canadian birth, we both love Canada and the Empire, and we both rejoice in our British connection, we both desire the prosperity of Canada and the well-being of all classes, conditions, and creeds in its population,” he wrote. “And I believe that we agree as to the best means of securing these objects.” Mowat was, in fact, ready to join cabinet and assist Laurier.
In a separate letter to Edward Blake (Mowat’s predecessor as premier and Laurier’s as federal Liberal leader), Mowat said that his sense of duty to the party had won him over. “They no doubt exaggerated greatly the advantage the Liberal Party would derive from my services in Dominion affairs; but the strong opinion entertained and expressed that the advantage was such that success or failure depended on me made me in the end feel that I had no alternative.” He had also been encouraged by the Aberdeens. In her diary, Lady Aberdeen wrote that “what the country needs just now is to get the men of really high standing to the front and to raise the whole tone of the Dominion Parliament. And Sir Oliver would essentially do that.”
There were conditions. Owing to his age and stamina, Mowat would not be running as an MP; instead, he would receive a Senate seat and his choice of cabinet position. Laurier promised to make him chair of a commission to solve the Manitoba Schools Question. While Mowat did little personal campaigning, his name and reputation were extremely helpful. Election materials, including newspaper illustrations, depicted Mowat and Laurier side by side. Mowat’s record of supporting moderate protectionist tariffs to avoid harming manufacturers was used to appeal to the business community.
The Liberal press was ecstatic. The Globe felt that the news would “arouse the Liberals throughout Canada to the utmost pitch of enthusiasm.” Kingston’s Daily British Whig believed that Mowat stood for conciliation and “justice to all classes and conditions of people.” On the Conservative side, the London Free Press criticized Mowat for hanging on to his premiership in case the Liberals lost, comparing him unfavourably to Quebec premier Louis-Olivier Taillon, who was preparing to resign to serve as Tupper’s postmaster-general.
The Conservatives devised two ways to attack Laurier. In English Canada, they portrayed him as a dangerous French Catholic who would alienate the English Protestant majority; in Quebec, with the support of local clergy, he was portrayed as a bad Catholic who’d sold out fellow members of the faith in Manitoba by opposing the remedial bill. Everywhere, he was presented as a man who would destroy protectionist tariffs and sell us to the Americans.
In Ontario, both parties had to contend with the prospect of vote-splitting. The Conservatives faced breakaway followers of ultra-Protestant former Tory D’Alton McCarthy, while the Liberals contended with members of the anti-Catholic group Patrons of Industry. Mowat worried the latter would siphon off the Liberals’ rural Ontario base.
There were also concerns, especially on the Liberal side, regarding election fraud. Some of the enumerators appointed by the ruling Conservatives ignored voters in unfavourable areas and kept the dead on the voter rolls. A story published by several Liberal-leaning papers urged scrutineers to watch out for deputy returning officers trying to replace legitimate votes with ballots pre-marked for the Tories.
During the last two weeks of the campaign, while Laurier concentrated on Quebec, Tupper made 31 speeches across Ontario. His last major campaign appearance, at Toronto’s Massey Hall on June 19, was a fiasco. At the beginning of the evening, John Beverley Robinson, a loyal Tory whose resumé included stints as mayor of Toronto and lieutenant-governor of Ontario, suffered a fatal stroke after having ridden with Tupper to the venue. Tupper attempted to deliver a speech, but he was drowned out by hecklers who, depending on whom you believe, were either rabble-rousing Liberals or unhappy Conservatives. Tupper tried to strike back, calling them “the most block-headed set of cowards I have ever looked upon.” (Somebody in the audience then replied, to cheers, “Rub it in, old man.”)
In the end, a strong showing in Quebec — combined with voter fatigue over 18 years of Conservative government — produced a Liberal majority. The results in Ontario were closer than expected: the Conservatives and Liberals each won 43 seats, and the remaining six went to a variety of candidates. Laurier began a 15-year run as prime minister; Tupper’s 69-day stint remains the shortest in Canadian history.
Mowat’s federal career was short. After resigning as premier, he became government leader in the Senate and was appointed minister of justice. The Manitoba Schools Question commission was not called, as Laurier struck a deal with Greenway: the elimination of separate schools would be upheld as long as time was provided at the end of the class day for religious instruction. Mowat was exhausted by his new schedule; the federal cabinet, he felt, was less unified than the provincial one he had led for decades. In November 1897, he was appointed the lieutenant-governor of Ontario — a post he held until his death in 1903. Mowat left Ottawa on good terms with Laurier and kept a note he’d received from the prime minister upon returning to Toronto “in memory of my Dominion chief and of the friendship with which he has honoured me.”
Sources: Fights of Our Lives by John Duffy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002); Sir Oliver Mowat by A. Margaret Evans (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992); Dynasties and Interludes by Lawrence Leduc, Jon H. Pammett, Judith I. McKenzie, and Andre Turcotte (Toronto: Dundurn, 2010); Canada Always: The Defining Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Arthur Milnes, editor (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2016); Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2009); Canada 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny by Peter B. Waite (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971); the May 4, 1896, edition of the Daily British Whig; the May 4, 1896, and June 20, 1896, editions of the Globe; and the May 5, 1896, edition of the London Free Press.