Cher Monsieur ou Madame,
School, language, religion, and culture are often linked in society. In 1867, things like language and culture were seen as local matters. This is why section 93 of the BNA Act recognized school as a provincial responsibility, and recognized the rights of French Catholics and English Protestants to keep separate schools.1 This acceptance was challenged in the 1890s in what was called The Manitoba Schools Question.
Section 93 of the BNA Act has some very convoluted language. Essentially means that the minority rights to French Catholic schools in Ontario and English Protestant schools in Quebec were protected from interference by the provincial government and the religious and linguistic majority. It also guaranteed that new provinces entering Confederation who had separate school divisions could keep them. If these protections were breached, the federal government was empowered to cancel the legislation containing that breach.2
These provisions were particularly important to the founders of Manitoba in 1870. The wording of s. 93 was closely paralleled in the the Manitoba Act.3 Manitoba had been founded in a response to Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion, the culmination of tensions between French Catholic Métis and English speaking Protestant settlers. At the time, the population was roughly equally French and English speaking.4
Over time, these demographics shifted. By 1890, English Protestants from Ontario had flooded into Manitoba, creating a large majority that resented paying for two school systems.5 Premier Thomas Greenway was one of those immigrants from Ontario. Greenway’s government introduced the Public Schools Act6, which replaced the two school systems with one non-denominational system, in direct contravention of both the BNA Act and the Manitoba Act. In addition to cutting off funding and support for French Catholic schools, Greenway removed bilingual provisions of the Manitoba Act, making English the only official language of the courts and government.7
This resulted in two important trials that went to the United Kingdom’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), at time Canada’s highest court. The first was Winnipeg v. Barrett8 where the JCPC held that the new laws did not violate s. 93. The crux of the position was that s. 93 specified that separate schools had to exist in legislation or practice prior to the establishment of the province. Because the separate systems were established at the creation of Manitoba in 1870, they could be removed. This decision was reversed in 1895 in Brophy v Manitoba9, which authorized the federal government to intervene and reestablish minority rights.10
Instead of reestablishing the pre-1890 status quo, newly elected Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier met with Greenway in 1896 to negotiate a compromise. They retained the single school system, but schools with more than forty Catholic children were supposed to hire Catholic teachers. If there was sufficient demand, religious instruction could be added to the school schedule, and French could be used in the classroom.11
This weakening of the protections offered by s. 93 was a major loss for French Catholic language and cultural rights. The Manitoba Schools Question was one of the first major fights post-Confederation between English and French. It would set the tone for relations going forward and other incidents we will continue to explore this week.
Vos serviteurs humble et obéissant,
1Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, s 93, reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No 5.
3Manitoba Act, 1870, RSC 1985, App II, No 8.
4Claude Belanger, “Quebecers, the Roman Catholic Church and the Manitoba School Question: A Chronology” (online: http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/chronos/manitoba.pdf).
5WEST/DUNN, “Manitoba Schools Act 1980” , A Country By Consent (online: http://www.canadahistoryproject.ca/1890/).
6RSM 1891, c 127.
7Joanna Dawson, “Controversy and Compromise over the Manitoba Schools Question”, Canada’s History (online: http://www.canadashistory.ca/Magazine/Online-Extension/Articles/Controversy-and-Compromise-over-the-Manitoba-Schoo).
8 AC 445, CR  AC 193.
9 AC 202, CR  AC 56.
10Supra, note 4.
11Supra, note 5.