This Week in History


The Accidental Prime Minister: Sir Mackenzie Bowell

For the week of Monday January 3, 2011

On January 4, 1896, seven ministers of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell’s cabinet resigned in opposition to his leadership. Although he was known as a talented administrator, the 72-year-old nicknamed “Grandpa Bowell” had proven unable to lead the already fractured Conservative Party or reunite a divided country. Originally a prominent newspaper editor from Belleville, Ontario, Bowell had been a Member of Parliament and a Cabinet Minister under John A. Macdonald. When Prime Minister Sir John Thompson died suddenly in December 1894, Bowell had been chosen to replace him.

The Honourable Mackenzie Bowell as Minister of Customs, 1891
© William James Topley / Topley Studio Fonds / Library and Archives Canada / PA-027222
Bowell’s short-lived administration was forced to address the Manitoba Schools Crisis. In 1890, the Manitoba Schools Act was passed, abolishing French as an official language in the province, and removing funding for Catholic schools. After a long legal battle, the Privy Council decided in 1895 to uphold the province’s legislation, but left the federal government with the option to cancel it. Bowell, an outspoken member of the Protestant Orange Order who depended on Protestant votes, was faced with a serious dilemma. Should he support the Manitoba government and lose French-Canadian votes, or force Manitoba to reinstate a separate Catholic school board and alienate his Orange supporters? Bowell chose to uphold the terms under which Manitoba had entered Confederation in 1870. He issued an Order-in-Council in support of the Catholics, which the Manitoba Government rejected. Bowell then promised to call a federal election that would allow Canadian voters to decide the issue. But he stalled on carrying out this action. Infuriated, three French-speaking cabinet ministers resigned in July.

Bowell the Senator vs. Bowell the Partisan
© Library and Archives Canada / John Wilson Bengough collection / 3963823

On January 2, 1896, Bowell tried to abolish the Schools Act. Seven of his cabinet ministers, upset with his inability to resolve the schools issue or effectively lead the party, resigned two days later and demanded his resignation as well. After an unsuccessful attempt to find new ministers, Bowell tried to resign, famously calling his cabinet a “nest of traitors.” However, amidst rumours that the Governor General was considering calling on Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier to form a government to replace the Conservatives, Bowell was convinced to stay in office for the rest of the session. He officially resigned on April 27, 1896, becoming the only Prime Minister in Canadian history forced to do so by his own cabinet. 

Although bitter over his defeat, Bowell stayed in politics as a Senator for another twenty years. He died on December 17, 1917 at the age of 93. Sir Mackenzie Bowell was designated a national historic person in 1945 for his service as a Senator, journalist, and Prime Minister.

For more information on the Conservative Prime Ministers of the 1890s, see The Politician Who Hated Politics and A Reluctant First Among Equals. For more information about the Orange Order, see A Collision of Orange and Green.

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