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The Wood Lake School, 1896

The Manitoba Schools Question was a political crisis in Manitoba that occurred late in the 19th century involving publicly funded separate schools for French and English and the deeper question of whether French would survive as a language or a culture in Western Canada.

The end result of the question was that by the end of the 19th century, French was no longer supported as an official language in most western Canadian provinces which in turn led to a strengthening of French Canadian nationalism in Quebec.



Manitoba became the first province to join Confederation in 1870, after negotiations between Canada and the provisional Red River government of Louis Riel. The act of parliament which created the province, the Manitoba Act, created a system of denominational schools similar to the one used in the province of Quebec.

Soon before the Manitoba Act was passed to create the province, settlers from English Canada, mainly Ontario, began to arrive in greater numbers than they had come prior to the Red River Rebellion (which was, in part, a reaction against them

The Manitoba Act had given equal rights to English language, Protestant schools, and French language, Roman Catholic schools, but by the 1880s this no longer reflected the linguistic makeup of the province. Many Métis had left, and settlers from Quebec were not as numerous as those from Ontario. As the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in the 1870s and 1880s, many more English speaking settlers had begun to arrive.

One of the most vocal opponents of separate French and English schools was D'Alton McCarthy, who formed the Equal Rights Association in 1889. By "equal rights", McCarthy meant fairer representation in the province, instead of privileges for the diminishing French population . McCarthy was supported by Joseph Martin, attorney general of Manitoba.

In 1890, Manitoba passed the Manitoba Schools Act, abolishing French as an official language of the province, and removing funding for Catholic schools. This was a contradiction of the Manitoba Act of 1870. Catholics in Manitoba, encouraged by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, appealed to the province's Supreme Court, but the Schools Act was upheld. They then brought the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which decided in favour of the original Manitoba Act. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain overruled them, favouring the Schools Act. Meanwhile, in 1892, the Northwest Territories also abolished French as an official language.

Under the Constitution of Canada, the federal government could still intervene despite the decision of the Privy Council (see Disallowance and reservation). The "Schools Question", as it was known, had divided the Conservative government since 1890, and especially after Macdonald's death in 1891 when no strong leader replaced him. In 1896, the government created a new school board for the Catholics; this was very unpopular with Protestant Tory Members of Parliament, and Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell was forced to resign in April of that year.

The election of 1896 was centred on the Schools Question. It especially divided Conservatives in Quebec and Ontario; French catholic Quebecers were offended that French was being eliminated in Manitoba as an official language, just as the French-speaking Métis population had been forced off their lands, while Ontario saw opposition to Catholic support by the strong Orange Order. The Liberals, under Wilfrid Laurier (a French Catholic), took advantage of the division in the Conservative party, and Laurier became Prime Minister in 1896.

Laurier developed a compromise with Thomas Greenway, Premier of Manitoba. They agreed that Catholic education would be permitted in public schools, and French would be used in teaching, but only on a school-by-school basis requiring there to be a minimum of 10 French speaking pupils. They also re-established a Catholic school board, but without government funding. Many Catholics were still opposed to this compromise, and even appealed to Pope Leo XIII. The Pope sent an observer, who concluded, like Laurier, that the compromise was the fairest one possible with so few Catholics left in the province.

As French was no longer an official language, its use declined greatly. By 1916, the guarantee of French instruction was removed from the compromise, leaving English as the only official language in use in the province.

The Schools Question, along with the execution of Louis Riel in 1885, was one of the incidents that led to strengthening of French Canadian nationalism in Quebec in the late 19th century.

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