Barrett, John Kelly, educator, civil servant, and editor; b. 6 June 1850 in Hamilton, Upper Canada, son of Charles Barrett and Bridget Kelly; m. there Sarah Maria O’Brien (d. 1929) 17 May 1875, and they had at least eight children; d. 1 Oct. 1938 in San Diego, Calif.
Raised in a conservative Irish Catholic family in Hamilton, John Kelly Barrett completed his primary education in a local public school, where he received a first-class certificate. He taught briefly before attending Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. Shortly after graduation in 1872 he was appointed principal of St Mary’s Model School in his hometown.
The next year Barrett was hired as an exciseman for the federal government’s Department of Inland Revenue in Hamilton, initiating a long career in the civil service. He was transferred to Belleville in September 1876, where he worked as an accountant. Two years later he was promoted to the position of deputy collector in St Catharines, where he also served as local superintendent and inspector of public schools. In 1885 he moved with his family to Winnipeg, where he had been made inspector, and assumed responsibility for an area that extended from Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont., to British Columbia. The family spent their summers at Rat Portage (Kenora, Ont.).
A devout Catholic, Barrett settled and became active in St Mary’s, the parish for English-speaking Catholics, most of whom were of Irish origin and Ontario-born. He was a member of the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association, the Roman Catholic section of the Board of Education of Manitoba, and the Knights of Columbus. He represented the Collège de Saint-Boniface on the council of the University of Manitoba, and his daughters received a Catholic education at St Mary’s Academy.
Barrett worked closely with the francophone archbishop of St Boniface, Alexandre-Antonin Taché*, who in 1890 recruited him to replace Nicholas Du Bois Dominic Beck* as the editor and managing director of the weekly English-language Catholic newspaper the Northwest Review (Winnipeg). About two years later he was succeeded as editor by Lewis Henry Drummond*, but would remain managing director until 1894 and contribute articles thereafter. His early career benefited from the growing influence of Irish Catholic settlers from Ontario in the press and in politics. It was unusual for a civil servant to occupy such a position. Barrett’s “militant journalism,” as it would be described in his obituary in the Northwest Review, caused some controversy among readers. The criticism led him to bemoan, in an 1893 letter to Taché, the fact that his nature was not “more patient and diplomatic.” Although recognized as a good manager, he often believed that obstacles in his career were caused by anti-Catholic prejudice and dislike of him personally.
In 1890 the Liberal government of Thomas Greenway* in Manitoba had dissolved the dual Roman Catholic and Protestant school system in favour of one new public-school organization, and French was abolished as one of the province’s official languages. These decisions were greatly influenced by the demographic shift that had taken place in the province: at its creation in 1870, there had been a relatively equal balance between Protestants and Catholics as well as English speakers and French speakers. But by 1891 a significant number of anglophone Protestant settlers, mostly from Ontario, had arrived, and that year’s census showed that Catholics represented only 13 per cent of the population and French Canadians merely 7 per cent. Barrett and many of his fellow parishioners at St Mary’s had also come from Ontario, but they were more influenced by their experience as Irish Catholics in a province where ill feeling towards them frequently ran high. They formed a small group within a religious minority in Manitoba, where Catholicism and a French background were often considered synonymous.
Petitions and letters from bishops and lay Catholics brought no redress of the laws regarding schools or the use of the French language. Most of the province’s francophone Catholic population was concentrated along the Red River, where they were predominant in the local school districts. The majority of French-language schools opted to integrate into the new non-denominational public system (rather than become private); these institutions continued to be run by francophones and offered some religious instruction after regular hours. The province’s anglophone Catholics, however, were spread out in areas where Protestants formed the majority, and St Mary’s Academy, which catered to Winnipeg’s English-speaking Catholics, had become a private school. This situation led Barrett to challenge the school law in the test case Barrett v. the City of Winnipeg, with the latter represented in part by Manitoba’s attorney general Joseph Martin*. Barrett claimed that the new provincial law, on which the Winnipeg by-laws dealing with school taxes were based, violated his right to denominational schools as guaranteed in the Manitoba Act, section 22, subsection 1. This law required him to pay for both public and private schools in order to provide his children with the education that, as a devout Catholic, he considered suitable for them. Archbishop Taché’s affidavit in the case insisted that it was important for religious teaching to permeate all other subjects.
Barrett’s case was first struck down in 1890 by judge Albert Clements Killam* and again early the next year by the Manitoba Court of Appeal, with only Joseph Dubuc* dissenting. In both instances judges declared that Barrett’s religious rights had not been violated since public-school attendance was not mandatory and he remained free to financially support private denominational schools and send his children to such institutions. The Supreme Court of Canada heard his appeal on 27 and 29 May.
The case attracted national attention, and there was public pressure on the federal government to intervene. The Conservative administration of Sir John A. Macdonald* promised to pay Barrett’s legal costs, preferring a court decision to the prospect of disallowing the law, which would have had political consequences. On 28 Oct. 1891 the Supreme Court under chief justice Sir William Johnston Ritchie* unanimously found that the law violated Barrett’s rights under the Manitoba Act. The case was then brought before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in England. The attorney general of Manitoba, Clifford Sifton*, organized Anglicans to challenge the legislation (Logan v. the City of Winnipeg) [see Robert Machray*] in an effort to undermine the Barrett case, and the two were heard conjointly before the JCPC. On 30 July 1892 the committee sided with the province, contending that religious rights and privileges would be prejudicially affected only if children were forced to attend public school.
In early 1893 Manitoba’s Catholic minority launched another court challenge, known as Brophy and others v. Attorney-General of Manitoba [see Sifton]. The JCPC heard the case in early 1895 and affirmed that it was up to the federal government to overturn the law abolishing the denominational school system if it wished to do so. The Manitoba school question, as it had come to be known, was the major issue in the June 1896 federal election. Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier* successfully presented himself as a defender of both provincial and minority rights, which helped him win a majority government. In the following months the prime minister and the newly re-elected Manitoba premier reached what would be known as the Laurier–Greenway compromise. The agreement allowed for 30 minutes of religious education at the end of the school day and permitted the hiring of a Catholic teacher in urban schools with more than 40 Catholic students and in rural schools with at least 25. In areas where 10 or more students used a mother tongue other than English, they could be taught in “French or [an]other such language and English according to the bi-lingual system.”
As a young man Barrett had been linked to the Conservative Party, but he later became a strong supporter of Laurier and the Liberals. In 1903 Laurier rewarded him with an appointment to the inspectorship of malt houses and breweries for the dominion. Rumours in 1912 that he would be named deputy minister of inland revenue by Conservative prime minister Robert Laird Borden proved to be unfounded.
By 1910 most English-speaking Catholics were willing to accept the public-school system if it could be put on the same footing as those in the recently created provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, though the archbishop of St Boniface, Adélard Langevin*, who was a staunch supporter of Catholic education, opposed this position.
Barrett and Langevin had been at loggerheads over multiple issues. Langevin accused Barrett of openly criticizing his ecclesiastical superiors, refusing to contribute to the new St Mary’s Academy and insulting the school committee in church. In 1907 Barrett joined several other parishioners of St Mary’s in asking Langevin for an anglophone priest at the church and a new English-speaking parish in Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge district. He also hoped for an anglophone bishop. His quarrel with Langevin became more and more personal, with the bishop casting aspersions on his family life and Barrett publicizing his negative views of the bishop. After Langevin died in 1915, the Vatican divided the archdiocese of St Boniface, creating the archdiocese of Winnipeg on the west bank of the Red River, and Barrett was among the dignitaries who welcomed its first archbishop, Alfred Arthur Sinnott*, to the city. In 1916 the provincial Liberal government led by Tobias Crawford Norris repealed the provision allowing for bilingual education in Manitoba’s public schools.
Together with many other English-speaking Catholics of Winnipeg, Barrett wanted a predominantly English Catholic college connected to the University of Manitoba campus. They considered the education given at the Collège de Saint-Boniface, which was threatening to withdraw from the university, inadequate for their children. In 1911 Barrett, frustrated by inaction on the question, had resigned as a representative of the college on the university council. An English institution, St Paul’s College, would open in 1926 and become affiliated with the university five years later.
Barrett retired from the civil service in 1917, under pressure, he wrote in a letter to Laurier, from the “Nationalist clique” in Ottawa. In 1892 Barrett’s well-publicized activities in defence of the right to Catholic education had won him honorary llds from the College of Ottawa and his alma mater, Holy Cross College. He was awarded the Vatican honour of knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great in 1920, and later that year he moved to California, where in the early 20th century his wife and their children had spent winters for health reasons. He died in San Diego in 1938.
Centre du Patrimoine (Winnipeg), 0075 (Corporation archiépiscopale catholique romaine de Saint-Boniface), Corr. J. K. Barrett with Alexandre Taché and Adélard Langevin. LAC, R5240-0-1; R10383-0-6; R10811-0-X; R11336-0-7; R14424-0-3. Manitoba Free Press, 21 Oct. 1891, 22 Dec. 1902, 15 Dec. 1910, 13 April 1911, 25 Dec. 1916, 19 March 1920. Northwest Rev. (Winnipeg), 6 July 1912, 18 Dec. 1920, 20 Oct. 1938. Winnipeg Telegram, 29 June 1912. Gordon Bale, “Law, politics and the Manitoba school question: Supreme Court and Privy Council,” Canadian Bar Rev. (Ottawa), 63 (1985): 461–518. Claude Bélanger, “Quebecers, the Roman Catholic Church and the Manitoba school question: a chronology”: faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/chronos/manitoba.pdf (consulted 23 Jan. 2019). Can., Dept. of the Secretary of State, Documents in reference to the abolition of separate schools in the province of Manitoba (Ottawa, 1891); House of Commons, Sessional papers (civil service list, 1873–1917). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). The Manitoba school question: majority rule or minority rights?, ed. L. [C.] Clark (Toronto, ). H. B. Neatby, “The Manitoba school question,” in his Laurier and a Liberal Quebec: a study in political management, ed. R. T. Clippingdale (Toronto, 1973), 52–81. Nelson Wiseman, “The questionable relevance of the constitution in advancing minority cultural rights in Manitoba,” Canadian Journal of Political Science (Ottawa), 25 (1992): 697–721.
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Cite This Article
Martha McCarthy, “BARRETT, JOHN KELLY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barrett_john_kelly_16E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Martha McCarthy|
|Title of Article:||BARRETT, JOHN KELLY|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2022|
|Year of revision:||2022|
|Access Date:||March 28, 2023|