Sir Mackenzie Bowell (1823-1917), fifth prime minister of Canada (1894-1896). He held office for 16 months, before a revolt within his Cabinet forced him to resign. With considerable force of character but no special capacity in administration, he was unable either to command the respect of his colleagues or to avoid committing his government to a politically dangerous question of public funding for religious schools in Manitoba. For most of his time in office, Bowell was minister of customs, and as such he put into operation the protective tariff, or tax on imports, to aid Canadian manufactures. The tariff was the substance of the celebrated National Policy of former prime minister Sir John Alexander Macdonald (1867-1873; 1878-1891). The main work of Bowell's 40 years in politics was as an organizer of the Conservative Party in the province of Ontario.
Bowell was born in 1823, in Rickinghall, England, the son of a carpenter. The family emigrated to the province of Upper Canada, later Ontario, in 1833 and settled in the town of Belleville. There Bowell was apprenticed to the printer of the local newspaper. He remained in the town, becoming the newspaper's editor and eventually its owner. Bowell joined the Orange Association of British North America, a Protestant organization that had originated in Ireland. At that time the order was becoming the main popular instrument of the Conservative Party. Bowell rose to be grand master of the order and consequently wielded considerable political influence. He also joined the local militia, served with it against Fenian raids, attacks by Irish nationalists against the British colonies, and continued with the organization as a lieutenant colonel until 1874.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
In 1867, Bowell was elected to the first Canadian House of Commons from North Hastings county, Ontario. He retained that seat in the following six elections. Because Belleville was a growing manufacturing center, Bowell was an advocate of a tariff to protect Canadian manufactures from cheaper imported goods. In the election of 1878 the Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald campaigned on the tariff issue and swept the Liberal government out of office. Two-thirds of Ontario's seats went to Conservatives, and Macdonald's Cabinet included a “respectable but humdrum contingent” of Ontario ministers. Among them was Bowell. As minister of customs he had to put into operation the National Policy, with its protective tariff. His handling of routine administration gave satisfaction, and he proved a loyal and useful subordinate to Macdonald. Bowell was the most durable of the ministers appointed in 1878, retaining the same post continuously for more than 13 years. During the 1880s he became the party's senior spokesman from Ontario.
Macdonald died in 1891. Under the new prime minister, Sir John Abbott, Bowell continued as minister of customs until January 25, 1892, when he relinquished his post and became minister of militia and defense. When Sir John Thompson became prime minister and party leader in 1892, Bowell took over the new department of trade and commerce. That year he was appointed to the Senate.
|B||Minister of Trade|
Bowell had a brief but honorable record as minister of trade and commerce. Long an advocate of the protective tariff, he saw it mainly as a political instrument. His objection to trade agreements with the United States was that they amounted to treason. When asked about free trade negotiations in 1889, he had replied, “Why should we go on our knees to the Yankees?” Yet at the same time he realized that the McKinley tariff of 1890, which raised duties on imports into the United States, was less damaging to Canadian interests than his colleagues thought, and he warned Thompson's Cabinet that farmers in Ontario as well as in the west wanted lower tariffs. When Thompson began to lower the tariff, Bowell did not object. In 1893 he went to Australia on a trade mission. Bowell was responsible for sending to Australia the first salaried trade commissioner from Canada. The Intercolonial Trade Conference of 1894 in Ottawa was the central event of Thompson's ministry. Bowell did most of the work of preparing it, and he stated the Canadian position clearly: Colonial preference for British goods implied British preference for colonial goods. It also implied that Britain should not continue treaties with other nations if these treaties stood in the way of preferential treatment for colonial goods.
|IV||PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA|
When Thompson died suddenly in December 1894, Bowell was, in terms of service, the oldest man in Parliament. This seniority entitled Bowell to the first refusal of the position of prime minister, but he did not refuse. The governor-general, Lord Aberdeen, tried unsuccessfully to get Bowell to consult his colleagues before being formally summoned to take office. Bowell became prime minister, and most of the other ministers agreed to serve under him, as Sir Charles Tupper, another potential candidate for the post of prime minister, had accumulated too many enemies to be called back from his post as Canadian high commissioner in London. No one else was preeminent enough to brush aside the stubbornness with which Bowell clung to his seniority.
Seniority was not enough to lead the Cabinet. The routine work of administration itself collapsed as Cabinet dissension grew. Treasury minutes were lost and burned; the auditor general and the deputy minister of finance were allowed to indulge in a trivial feud. Before long no one had any confidence in Bowell. Even the governor-general, who was constitutionally obliged to reserve his confidence for the prime minister, was in fact in closer touch with both the minister of justice and the leader of the Opposition.
|A||Manitoba Schools Question|
Government paralysis was bad enough, but Bowell also mismanaged the one dangerous political question before his administration. In 1890 the provincial government of Manitoba had abolished its system of separate Roman Catholic schools. The courts had upheld this decision but had also ruled that the federal Parliament could override it. Roman Catholics in Quebec demanded that Parliament do so, but Ontario Protestants were against it. On March 19, 1895, an order to reestablish separate schools was issued and ignored by the Manitoba government. A leading Orangeman, N.C. Wallace, left the federal government, and at a meeting of the Ontario Orange Lodge he denounced Bowell, the former grand master.
The ministers in Bowell's Cabinet had agreed to dissolve Parliament at once and to campaign as the genuine, if reluctant, champions of the constitutional rights of Manitoba's Roman Catholic minority. Instead, Bowell called another session of Parliament, and when it met, he did not introduce a bill to solve the problem. Bowell's action completed the ruin of the Conservative Party in Quebec, where the delay in legislation to overturn the court ruling was taken as evidence of bad faith. It also gave the Liberals time to devise a compromise, so that they could offer relief to Manitoba Roman Catholics without attacking the Manitoba government. As Bowell wavered, his Cabinet ministers resigned in relays, first from Ontario, then from Quebec, then again from Ontario. At length a group of Conservatives asked Sir Charles Tupper to return from London to end Bowell's leadership. A Cabinet revolt followed. Bowell very reluctantly resigned, and the governor-general asked Tupper to form a government.
Bowell's political career was not quite over. He remained Conservative leader in the Senate until 1906. He did not forgive his rebellious colleagues, even when some of them joined him in the Senate. In 1905 he reasserted in a speech that they had been “a nest of traitors.” Even his retirement in 1906 struck a bitter note. The Conservative senators elected one senator to succeed Bowell, but not before another senator had been led by Bowell to expect the position.