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Banner: First Among EqualsAlexander Mackenzie

Speech before the House of Commons, March 10, 1875


THE NEW BRUNSWICK SCHOOL ACT.

[page] 609

. . .

Hon. Mr. MACKENZIE: resumed the adjourned debate on the proposed motion of Mr. COSTIGAN, for an address to HER MAJESTY, on the subject of the law respecting common schools adopted by the Local Legislature of New Brunswick in 1871, and praying for the passing of an Act making certain amendments to the "British North America Act, 1867." He said the question before the chair is one that has created a great deal of interest not only amongst members of this House, but perhaps in all parts of Canada. It is one which involves, if the motion of the hon. member should be carried, most serious consequences to the future of this country. Now, I, myself, felt the greatest possible inclination from the first part of this controversy to aid the Catholics of New Brunswick so far as was possible for me to do so, as a member of this House, and so far as was consistent with the obligations which I owe to the country as a member of Parliament, and not as a member of the Government. On a former occasion I objected to the legislation of the Province of New Brunswick in so far as it seemed to drive matters to an extreme without waiting for any judicial decision upon the point at issue, and I voted on one occasion in this House to ask the Government to disallow acts of that Legislature which legalized assessments made under an Act which was itself at the time subject to judicial revision. I took occasion at that time to say if the decision of the Supreme Court to which the matter would be referred should be to the effect that the legislation was within the competence of that Legislature, that then I should advocate submission to the law and a resort to that peaceful agitation, which in all free countries produces ultimately, sooner or later, the desired result in the case of all who have particular hardships to be remedied. That decision has been rendered by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Law Officers of the Crown at the time that subject was up for discussion formerly had given it as their opinion that it was competent for the Legislature of New Brunswick to pass that Act; but that was not a judicial decision, and I was not bound and felt no inclination to pay the same deference to the opinion of the Law Officers who are simply legal gentlemen  --  no doubt of high standing, but still not acting under the same auspices as a Judge would be acting on the Bench. I felt all the more inclined to take the course I did because reading the 93rd Section of the Constitutional Act, I believed the Roman Catholics in that Province were entitled not merely to the rights they possessed at the time of the passage of the British North America Act, but that they were entitled also to the privileges that they at that moment enjoyed. It has been interpreted otherwise by the highest authority to which an appeal could be had, and that notwithstanding it is an incontestible fact that the Roman Catholics of New Brunswick did enjoy, up to a comparatively recent period, the right of having separate schools. This was tacitly acknowledged for several years after Confederation took place, which I think no one can deny constituted the existence of a privilege; and I think it would have been wise to have avoided the agitation that has since arisen, by allowing this privilege to continue. It was remarked by the hon. member who introduced this subject to the House  --  and I am bound to say that no one could have done it in more temperate language or a more judicious manner  --  that wherever a people labored under the impression that they had a serious grievance, it should be dealt with whether it might be logically construed into being a grievance or not. Logic, sometimes has very little to do with political action, and we are compelled to acknowledge sometimes a certain principle in one part of the Empire that we cannot logically, for a time, enforce in another. Need I refer, for instance, to the State Church in Ireland. Everybody at last came to acknowledge what had long been asserted by Irishmen. I mean by this term those peculiarly and nationally Irish- that the existence of a State Church resorted to by a small minority, but paid for by the large majority, was an anomaly that ought not to be permitted to exist, and if it was wrong to impose a State Church upon the majority in Ireland, the same reasoning would lead you to say it was clearly wrong to impose a State Church upon the minority in England or Scotland. But

[page] 610

the grievance was manifestly greater in Ireland simply because the great majority of the Irish people were Catholics, while in England and Scotland the great majority, although dissenting from the Established Church, were practically of the same religion. Thus they were all Protestants although diverging on certain points of doctrine. In this particular instance I may say I believe in the secular system  --  I believe in free schools in the non-denominational system, and if I could persuade my fellow-countrymen in Ontario or Quebec or any other Province to adopt that principle, it is the one I would give preference to above all others, but I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that in all the Provinces there is a very considerable number of people  --  in the Province of Quebec indeed a large majority  --  who believe that the dogmas of religion should be taught in the public schools  --  that it has an intimate relationship with the morality of the people  --  that it is essential to their welfare as a people, that the doctrines of their church should be taught and religious principles, according to their theory of religious principles, be instilled into the minds of their children at school. For many years after I held a seat in the Parliament of Canada I waged war against the principle of separate schools. I hoped to be able  --  young and inexperienced in politics as I then was  --  to establish a system to which all would ultimately yield their assent. Sir, it was found to be impracticable in operation and impossible in political contingencies; and consequently when the Confederation Act was passed in 1867, or rather when the Quebec resolutions were adopted in 1864-'65, which embodied the principle should be the law of the land, the Confederation took place under the compact then entered upon. I heartly [sic] assented to that proposition, and supported it by speech and vote in the Confederation debate. And, Sir, the same ground which led me on that occason to give loyal assistance to the Confederation project, embracing as it did a scheme of having separate schools for Catholics in Ontario, and Protestants in Quebec, caused me to feel bound to extend at all events my sympathy, if I could not give my active assistance to those in other Provinces who believed they were laboring under the same disbility [sic]and suffering from the same grievance that the Catholics of Ontario complained of for many years. Under, these circumstances, Sir, I have taken the action that I have taken prior to this date. But Sir, there is a higher principle still which we have to adhere to, and that is to preserve in their integrity the principles of the constitution under which we live. If any personal act of mine, if anything I could do, would assist to relieve those who believe they are living under a grievance in the Province of New Brunswick, that act would be gladly undertaken and zealously performed; but I have no right  --  this House has no right  --  to interfere with the legislation of a Province when that legislation is secured by an Imperial compact to which all the parties submitted in the Act of Confederation. So soon as the majority of the people of New Brunswick, so soon as the Legislature of New Brunswick shall see fit to make such arrangements as will remove the cause of discontent, I am quite satisfied that [sic] Province will find it to its advantage to do so. It is unfortunate that in any Province of the Confederated Dominion there should be any cause for complaint when precisely the same privileges are enjoyed in the large and most prosperous Provinces. And, while I feel bound, Sir, to move an amendment to the hon. gentleman's motion, which will place on record my views of the federal compact and the obligations that rest upon us in connection with it, I shall, at the same time, gladly accord any support to any course which in the opinion of Parliament  --  if it corresponds with my own opinion  --  will tend in any way to further the object that the minority in New Brunswick have in view, that is to obtain the same privileges and rights they enjoyed at the time of entering the Union, and which they supposed they were entitled to under the compact. Sir, I have no intention to discuss this matter further, because I conceive that it is quite sufficient to make the remarks I have offered, to indicate my own personal feelings, and to indicate the course that I propose to take. I have merely to say this, whatever may be our religious proclivities or feelings, whatever may be the feelings that actuate us in relation to local grievances, it is not well that we should endanger the safety of anyone of the Provinces in relation to matters provided for in the British North

[page] 611

America Act, which is our written constitution. Sir, it must be apparent to every one that if we were to attempt violently to lay lands upon that compact for the purpose or aiding a minority in New Brunswick who have a grievance, no matter, however, just that grievance may be  --  and from my point of view of think [sic] it is one they have a right to complain of  --  however, much we might entertain that feeling we have no right to do anything that will violate our obligation to defend the constitution under which we live. I may point this out to hon. gentlemen in this House and to the country that; if it were competent for this House directly or indirectly to set aside the constitution as regards one of the smaller Provinces, it would be equally competent for this House to set aside as regards the privileges which the Catholics enjoy at this moment in Ontario. It is not desirable that we should make the way open for such purpose, and it is not desirable that anything should be done which would excite religious discussions and promote religious animosities.

Hon. Mr. CAUCHON: Irreligious animosities!

Hon. Mr. MACKENZIE: The hon. gentleman says "irreligious animosities!" I will say animosities about religious subjects. I, therefore, propose to move in amendment:  --  That all the words after "that" in the original resolution be omitted and the following substituted:  --  "In the opinion of this House, legislation by the Parliament of United Kingdom, encroaching on any powers reserved to any one of the Provinces by the British North America Act, would be an infraction of the Provincial, and that it would be inexpedient and fraught with danger to the antonomy of each of the Provinces for this House to invite such legislation." On referring to the 93rd section of the British North America Act, it will be seen that the second sub-section states that "all the powers, privileges and duties at the Union by law conferred and imposed in Upper Canada on the Separate Schools and School Trustees of the Queen�s Roman Catholic subjects shall be, and the same are hereby extended to the dissentient schools of the Queen�s Protestant and Roman Catholic subjects in Quebec." The section further says:  --  "Wherein any Province a system of separate or dissentient schools exists by Law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the Province, an appeal shall lie to the GOVERNOR GENERAL in Council requisite from any act or decision. of any Provincial authority affecting any right or privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic minority of the Queen's in relation to education. In case any such Provincial law as from time to time seems to the GOVERNOR GENERAL in Council requisite for the due execution of the provisions of this section is not made, or in case any decision of the GOVERNOR GENERAL in Council or any appeal under this section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial authority in that behalf, then and in every case, and as far only as the circumstances of each case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial laws for the due execution of the provisions of this section and of any decision by the GOVERNOR GENERAL in Council under this section." If we were to proceed under that section we would proceed to enact a school law for New Brunswick here, but the very fact that the hon. member for Victoria moved an address to the Imperial Parliament inviting this legislation, shows that he admits we have no power under the Constitution to proceed with this matter. I have no desire to protract the discussion because I believe I have said in very few words all that is absolutely necessary under the circumstances.

Hon. Mr. CAUCHON: said he had listened with very great attention to the hon. Premier, and not only with attention, but with pleasure. The liberality of the principles which he had expressed was such as would be satisfactory to the people of the whole country. The hon. Premier had his own opinions upon the question of separate schools, but as a true statesman he respected the opinions and the principles of others, and that was the only way Government could be carried on in a country like ours, composed of different and sometimes conflicting elements. He (Mr. CAUCHON) agreed with the Premier that it was exceedingly dangerous to violate the compact entered into by the several Provinces by the Act of Confederation. He was not one of the framers of our Constitution, but it would be admitted he had done his utmost by pen and speech

[page] 612

to carry it out faithfully and successfully. He believed that there had been great want of foresight in the framing of that Constitution, because, while it secured separate schools to the minority in Ontario and Quebec, it placed the Catholics of New Brunswick upon a different footing. That was a great misfortune. If the Catholics of New Brunswick had believed they would not be placed under the same footing as the minority in Upper and Lower Canada by the Act of Confederation they would not have ageed to Confederation, nor would the Catholics of Lower Canada, and therefore this question would have had to be settled then while the Constitution was being framed. But at the invitation of leading men in Quebec, Confederation was accepted and now we should not violate the Constitution we had accepted even to redress a wrong which should have been foreseen and guarded against by the framers of the Constitution. Unfortunately since then legislation had been enacted in New Brunswick which had aroused such a feeling as, if not allayed, might be dangerous to the Confederation. He took the ground that we should stand by the Constitution, but at the same time that it was the duty of every lover of this country to so work the Constitution that no class of the people would be oppressed under it. If we wished to keep the Confederation together and promote harmony in all its parts we must yield one to the other. He did not ask any one to sacrifice important principles, but we shall all respect the principles of each other and do nothing that would be regarded as an act of oppression to any portion of the people. It was only by such means that we could have harmony within the Confederation. For these reasons though he approved of the motion of the Premier as far as it went, he thought it was not complete.


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Source: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada. 1875 Session. Ottawa: C.W. Mitchell, 1875. Pages 598-634.


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