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POZER, GEORGE – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 16 June 1848 at Quebec


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Jesuits’ Estates Act

At the end of the 18th century, the British confiscated land in Lower Canada belonging to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). When the society was reconstituted in 1842, it demanded restitution for its seized property. Quebec premier Honoré MERCIER, after negotiations with Pope Leo XIII, put forward the Jesuits’ Estates Act in 1888, which allocated funds to the Jesuits, the Université Laval, the prefecture apostolic of the Gulf of St Lawrence, Roman Catholic dioceses, and Protestant schools.

Again, some Protestants in Ontario were angry and pressured Sir John A. MACDONALD’s government to disallow Mercier’s provincial legislation, a right guaranteed to the federal government under section 90 of the British North America Act. But Macdonald would not bend:

“… Toronto’s Protestant papers took fire after Mercier’s Jesuits’ Estates Act was given royal assent in July 1888 [see Christopher William Bunting]. Protestant Ontario demanded disallowance, claiming papal intrusion into a settlement between the Jesuits and the province of Quebec (the estates’ owner since confederation), but Macdonald and the minister of justice, Sir John Thompson, thought the act should stand. The Protestant ‘equal rights’ uproar followed in March 1889 [see Daniel James Macdonnell]. William Edward O’Brien*, mp for Muskoka, told Macdonald that he would move in the commons that the Jesuits’ Estates Act be disallowed. Macdonald said he regretted such a motion but, he added in a typical gesture, he would be sorry if any Conservative should feel bound to separate from the party merely because he had voted for O’Brien’s motion. He told William Bain Scarth*, his right-hand man in Manitoba and mp for Winnipeg, to leave ‘equal rights’ severely alone. Many Conservatives might take it up but Macdonald felt they ‘will be all right at election time. There is no use of reminding them of their mistake. It might, such is the perversity of human nature, have the effect of making them stick to their cry.’ Macdonald had little stomach for recriminations.”

In Ontario newspapers, the cause was led by Protestant agitators such as Edward FARRER:

“The [Mail’s] greatest notoriety came in the Jesuit estates controversy in 1889, when it helped to start the ‘equal rights’ movement, which worked to abrogate constitutional protections for French Canadians and Roman Catholics [see D’Alton McCarthy*]. Along with Goldwin Smith*, who wrote some of the more extreme Mail editorials, Farrer argued that a fundamental conflict was looming between the doctrine of the Catholic Church and a New World belief in religious equality, liberty of opinion, and secular control of courts and legislatures. As a result, the two writers were accused of aggravating ‘race and creed’ tensions in Canada with the aim of breaking up confederation and encouraging annexation.”

Macdonald feared the consequences of such views, as he wrote to a colleague in 1890:

“‘The demon of religious animosity which I had hoped had been buried in the grave of George Brown has been revived…. McCarthy has sown the Dragons teeth. I fear they may grow up to be armed men.’”

Macdonald joined the Liberal opposition leader, Wilfrid LAURIER, in voting down McCarthy’s motion to disallow the act. Laurier’s biographer sums up the national situation:

“Canada in 1888–90 was a cauldron about to boil over. The problem was basically one of national identity. Some saw the nation as closely linked to the British empire, while others saw it as attached to the North American continent. But there was more to the conflict. A number of Protestant anglophones favoured an exclusively English-speaking and Protestant Canada. Fearing the strength and ambition of the Catholic French Canadians, which Mercier expressed so vigorously, they set out on a crusade against Canadian dualism. On the other hand, French Canadians, with the support of some anglophones, dreamed mainly of a bilingual and bicultural Canada. They too set out on a passionate crusade.”

For more information on the Jesuits’ Estates Act and the challenge of national unity faced by Macdonald, please consult these biographies.

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