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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Sir Oliver Mowat



(1820-1903)

WHAT is the secret of the political success of Oliver Mowat? Long opposed by the fire and skill of W. R. Meredith in Ontario, and by the weight of Sir John A. Macdonald’s great influence from Ottawa, he yet remained Premier of Ontario for twenty-four years, became Minister of Justice, and died as Lieutenant-Governor after a life of unbroken triumphs.

Buttoned up in his dark Prince Albert, masked by heavy spectacles, and handicapped by short-sight and hesitating speech, he was known to relatively few of the millions he governed. He was not a popular orator and he was not a hail-fellow-well-met.

On these grounds he was more of a tradition than a personality. The people knew that in some room in the Parliament Buildings a little, round-faced, earnest man was on the job, that he surrounded himself with able colleagues, that he was courteous to callers, if he did not grant all favors asked, and that somehow he contrived to express their wants for a strong provincial government, and to engender a wholesome sentiment that pleased moral, church-going people.

For fifty years the lives of Oliver Mowat and John A. Macdonald crossed and clashed in the public and private life of Upper Canada. They were boys together in Kingston, they were friends and rivals at the Bar, and Mowat once opposed Macdonald for Parliament. In the session of 1860 Mowat so taunted Macdonald that the latter crossed the floor and threatened to “slap his chops.” As an ally of George Brown, he was usually at war with Macdonald, but in 1864 he went with Brown and McDougall into the coalition Cabinet, and later joined the Quebec Conference to arrange Confederation. Here Macdonald stood for a strong central government, while Mowat upheld the sovereign power of the local governments. This warfare continued years later when Macdonald’s invasions of provincial rights were resisted by Premier Mowat, and the Province’s powers as construed by the “little tyrant of Ontario,” as Macdonald called him, were upheld by the Privy Council in several memorable decisions. These included the insurance case, the liquor license law, the rivers and streams case, and the Manitoba boundary award. Added to this was the covert aid given by Macdonald to his political allies who were fighting Mowat; but all were without avail against the commander of the Ontario citadel.

The fact is that each man was supreme in his own way. Macdonald was what politicians are pleased to call a “mixer,” with arms around the shoulders of even casual friends, with a shout and a sally that attracted every man with red blood in his veins. Mowat, though not without restrained good humor and love of a joke, was never wholly divested of the air of the Bench which he once adorned, and cased in with dignity and aloofness contrasting strangely with his great rival. Macdonald was a master of strategy and a manipulator of men, one whose refusals even were couched in engaging language. Mowat was prolific of ideas, and had unusual natural gifts for public service. While Macdonald made friends by contact with the people, Mowat burned midnight oil and brought forth a full and lucid argument that was seldom broken by the enemy. Macdonald on the hustings stood forth radiant but belligerent, fluent of party doctrine, and carrying the war into the enemy’s camp. Mowat, with thin voice, hesitating delivery, and carefully rehearsed sentences, made less impression on his hearers, but his powerful logical appeal when printed was a convincing document for his party.

[By decisions of the Privy Council in important appeal cases the rights of the Province of Ontario were upheld in disputes with the Dominion and the following points established: Lands of Canada escheated to the Crown for defect of heirs revert to the Province in which they are situated; liquor licenses may be regulated by the Province, as under the Crooks Act; Provincial insurance regulations apply to insurers, whatever the origin of latter; sawlogs and timber may be floated down streams in respect of which the Province has authority to give this power; the boundary of Ontario was extended west to Lake of the Woods and north to Hudson Bay, thus more than doubling the area of the Province; Ontario secured the rights to timber and minerals on land formerly held by Indians and assigned to the Dominion by treaty; the Province has unlimited jurisdiction over penalties and punishments prescribed by itself, and has also the right to appoint Queen’s Counsel.]

Oliver Mowat’s ancestry and early life were typical of his generation in Upper Canada. His father, John Mowat, came from Caithness, on whose storm-beaten coast his forefathers had lived for nearly five hundred years. The elder Mowat, born in 1791, ran away at sixteen and enlisted to fight Napoleon. In 1814 his regiment was sent to Canada to help close the war of 1812. Discharged a little later, he settled near Kingston, and hither came, alone, in 1819, Helen Levack, the sweetheart of his youth. He met her at Montreal, where they were married, and afterwards drove to Kingston along the shores of the St. Lawrence. Five children were born to John and Helen Mowat, Oliver, the eldest, seeing the light at Kingston, then the most important town in Upper Canada, on July 22, 1820. Oliver was carefully educated in private schools, and at sixteen entered the law office of John A. Macdonald, then a youth of twenty-one. Fate was already at work on its tapestry, for in this little office were three men, afterwards Fathers of Confederation, Mowat’s fellow-clerk being Alexander Campbell, later also a Knight and Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

During the Mackenzie Rebellion troubles of this time young Mowat became a member of the First Battalion of Frontenac Militia. In November, 1840, he came to Toronto to complete his law education, and entered the office of Strachan & Burns, the senior partner being a son of Bishop Strachan, and one of his fellow-students being John Beverley Robinson, afterwards Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. From now on, for several years, he applied himself tenaciously to the study of law, so closely that Campbell, with whom he corresponded, reproached him for neglecting his health and recreation, a neglect which seemed to result in brooding and a fear that he “would never be anybody.” He was called to the Bar in 1841, and formed a partnership with Burns, his late principal. For a few months he lived in Kingston, during the location there of the Court of Chancery. He worked early and late at his office and in 1844 declared his ignorance of politics, and therefore his intention not to vote. About this time he became intimate with the family of John Ewart, builder and contractor, who erected the old Parliament Buildings in Front Street, and the Queen Street Lunatic Asylum, and in 1846 he was married to the youngest daughter, “the beautiful Miss Ewart,” as she was called, whose happy wedded life lasted until she passed away in 1893.

Young Mowrat’s prosperity kept pace with his industry, his partners changed from time to time, and in 1853 he sent his brother John a substantial gift, saying, “A good Providence has smiled on me: health, a good wife, five children, agreeable friends, a profession which I like, have been some of the blessings of my lot.” He was enriching his mind from a store of general literature, and from companionship with the city’s best, whom he entertained freely in his large house on the west side of Jarvis Street, north of Carlton.

By the end of 1856 Oliver Mowat’s natural gifts for public life could no longer be repressed and he was elected an alderman for St. Lawrence Ward. It seems a humble beginning, but even there he became the father of the city’s park system. His greatest plunge came in the general elections of 1857, when he entered the lists for the Assembly in South Ontario. His opponent was Joseph Curran Morrison, and the fight was a memorable one. Mowat stood for representation by population and non-sectarian schools, and closed his election address with these words: “If elected my desire is to perform my duty in Parliament in the spirit and with the views which become a Christian politician.” This lofty ideal became historic, and though Mowat was frequently taunted for it in after years, his record and his relation to the Presbyterian Church gave it a meaning which few attempted to destroy. The campaign closed with a majority of 778 for Mowat, who at once went into opposition to the Macdonald-Cartier Government of the day, saying in a letter to Alexander Campbell: “It did seem to me that opposition to such a government .had become the duty of everyone.” “I think,” he added, “we should struggle to purify public sentiment and political sentiment. I have taken great pains to be right in my start upon political life. I hope I have not made a mistake. I dare say I shall find I have lost Macdonald’s friendship, and perhaps for awhile somewhat clouded Van Koughnet’sf also. I shall be very sorry for this; but one must not shape one’s political course by friendship.

The Canadian Assembly had already entered upon its most stormy period when Oliver Mowat took his seat on February 25, 1858. The session was long and boisterous, and the new member at once took his place with Brown as a strong Opposition figure. His speeches, while not oratorical, commanded attention for argument, and for his courtesy to opponents. In August the “Double Shuffle” took place, and Mowat was a member of the Brown-Dorion Cabinet during its two days’ existence. He introduced a measure of law reform at the next session, the first of several constructive measures during his early life in Parliament.

Upper Canada’s exasperation over the working out of the Act of Union found expression at the great Reform convention in Toronto in November, 1859. Over five hundred delegates assembled in the old St. Lawrence Hall, which still stands, and opinion was divided over a demand for dissolution of the union or a federation of the two Provinces. A resolution was passed favoring federation, with two or more local governments to deal with local matters, and “some joint authority” to deal with matters common to both sections. This resolution, which was strongly supported by Oliver Mowat, is generally regarded as pointing the way to the larger union of a later day.

Oliver Mowat’s speech was a careful balancing of the arguments on both sides, with unqualified condemnation of existing conditions. “The feeling in favor of representation according to population has for some time been general,” he said, “and there has been an impression as strong as any that ever was formed that if the union is to continue in its present form, that is the only principle that can be regarded as just or equal. . . . It is certain that there is the most resolute determination on the part of Lower Canada to resist this demand, and if we ask for dissolution pure and simple it will take a long time to remove the obstacles thus presented. . . .

“In the meantime what are we not enduring? If we were only well governed by Lower Canada; if she gave us good laws such as we desired, we might bear with the power she has of preventing us from making such laws for ourselves—we might afford to wait. But she does not do so. The Lower Canadians impose upon us laws which we do not want. The legislation of the last two years has been legislation directed against Upper Canada and in favor of Lower Canada.”

During the next five years there was constant turmoil in the politics of Canada, and Oliver Mowat was in the thick of it. He was re-elected in 1861 in South Ontario, but a contest with John A. Macdonald in Kingston at the same election brought defeat. When the Cartier-Macdonald Government fell in 1862, after Cartier’s usual answer to criticism, “Call in de members,” had lost its magic, Mowat was offered a seat in the Sandfield Macdonald-Sicotte Cabinet, but declined because the Ministry would not treat representation by population as a close question. When Sicotte was replaced by A. A. Dorion in May, 1863, Mowat accepted an invitation to become Postmaster-General and held this office until the Government resigned in the following March, resuming the post in June in the new coalition Government. This was the culmination of the years of bitterness and deadlock, and Mowat entered uponrthe duties that followed with the same ready efficiency that he applied to all his tasks.

Oliver Mowat was not at the Charlottetown Conference, but he took a prominent part in the deliberations at Quebec. He drafted several of the resolutions which were finally adopted, principally those defining the respective powers of the general and local parliaments. In this connection the Canadian Fathers had before them the object lesson of the American Union, just then torn almost to distraction by a war involving states rights. John A. Macdonald was for a strong central power, while Oliver Mowat favored the doctrine of local sovereignty.

“The question of states rights,” says the historian of the conferences, “which led to the frightful war in the United States, was forcibly enlarged upon, and an earnest desire expressed that in the framing of the new constitution difficulties which might lead to such results might be avoided.”

Mowat’s proposed clause defining the powers of the local parliaments to deal with education, agriculture, and so forth, was adopted with minor changes, and became the basis of section 92 of the British North America Act. One change of some consequence was made on motion of D’Arcy McGee, in giving the provinces the right to legislate on education, by adding the words “Saving the rights and privileges which the Protestant or Catholic minority in both Canadas may possess as to their denominational schools at the time when the constitutional act comes into operation.” Mowat joined William McDougall in pressing for an elective Senate, but the view of Brown and Macdonald for a nominated Upper House prevailed, their contention being that two popular chambers were “incompatible.” Mowat, also, according to his biographer, urged that the provincial parliaments be made co-ordinate with and not subordinate to the federal parliament, and that the veto power over them be vested in the Imperial authorities, and not in Ottawa. Thus throughout the conference the aim of Mowat was to secure strong local parliaments. If he in a measure failed there, he was destined to move to a sphere where he could more completely implement his will.

Meantime Oliver Mowat’s political services came to an abrupt end for the time. During the sittings at Quebec Vice-Chancellor Esten of Upper Canada died, and John A. Macdonald offered the post to Mowat. He consulted his friends on both sides, received varying answers, and in November mounted the Bench, which he adorned by his judicial temperament and terse and lucid judgments until 1872.

It is not a relevant part of this series to describe at length the services of Oliver Mowat as Premier of Ontario. His work is a part of the history of the Province for twenty-four years while foundations, sane and progressive, were laid for its future greatness. Its legislation under the federation had to be developed “broad based upon the people’s will,” and Oliver Mowat, with his rich experience in law, in Parliament, and on the Bench, coupled with his instinct for leadership and his enlightened conservatism, became the inevitable choice. At this time the masterful Sir John A. Macdonald was seeking wider outlets for his power by infringing on provincial jurisdiction. In 1872, when dual representation was abolished, Edward Blake,

[Edward Blake, (1833-1912), was one of the greatest intellectual figures in the history of Canadian public life. He entered the House of Commons and the Ontario Legislature in 1867, retiring from the latter in 1872, after one year as Premier. He was a member of the Mackenzie Cabinet from 1873 to 1878, and thereafter until 1887 leader of the federal Liberal party. From 1892 to 1907 he was member for South Longford in the British House of Commons.]

who had succeeded John Sandfield Macdonald as Premier of Ontario, and Alexander Mackenzie* chose to remain in the federal field, and forsook the Legislature. Blake and George Brown, one October morning, invaded the secluded home of Judge Mowat in Simcoe Street, and urged that considerations of political and public welfare demanded his resignation from the serenity and security of the Bench to become Premier of Ontario. Two days of consideration led Judge Mowat to become Premier Mowat, and the long years of struggle and repeated triumphs began. His political opponents bewailed the degradation which the Bench had suffered by Mowat’s desertion of it for the “unclean” realm of politics.

“I feel,” Mowat replied, with spirit, “that I am as much discharging my duty now and acting upon as high moral principles as if I were still an occupant of the Bench.”

Thereafter the years were filled with constructive public service, a record of which would fill a volume. A large part of the Sandfield Macdonald surplus was distributed to the municipalities for public works, for which act the Government was charged with extravagance. Law reform was advanced step by step, the statutes were consolidated, voting by ballot was introduced, roads built, immigration and education encouraged, new parliament buildings erected, and a host of measures passed which led the way for other provinces, and are now the very fibre of our commonwealth.

[Alexander Mackenzie, (1822-92), began life as a stonemason, and was Premier of Canada from 1873 to 1878. He was a member of the provincial Parliament from 1861 to 1867, and in 1864 was one of a small group of Liberals who opposed for a time George Brown’s entrance into the coalition government which brought about Confederation. From 1867 until his death Mr. Mackenzie was a member of the House of Commons, where his debating ability and his strict integrity won the respect of every one.]

In his relation to Confederation Oliver Mowat stands as the faithful champion of provincial rights. His Premiership was marked for over a decade by recurring strife with Sir John A. Macdonald. We have seen how the two men lined up on different sides at the Quebec Conference. After Confederation Macdonald sought repeatedly to encroach on provincial powers. In eight celebrated cases he was resisted by Mowat, and in the appeals to the Privy Council the Province won. These decisions constitute a charter of liberty for the provinces, and while the federal Government retains the veto and the residuum of power, the provincial status has been clarified and defined for all time.

While these conflicts resulted in a public service, they also rendered a political service to the leader who so aggressively championed the rights of his Province, for Macdonald’s actions drove Conservatives to support Mowat in the Provincial contest.

“Sir Oliver Mowat’s success in the courts of Canada, and particularly before the Privy Council,’’ wrote Sir George W. Ross, for many years one of his colleagues, “raised him greatly in the estimation of the whole people of Ontario. Were it not for these conflicts with the Dominion Government I doubt if Sir Oliver would have survived the general election of 1883.”

Faced by the vigilant Meredith and menaced by the jealous federal Conservative organization, Mowat went his way. His courtesy to opponents, and his complete mastery of all subjects undertaken, coupled with a discernible degree of craft, swept difficulties from his path, and his leadership was ungrudgingly admitted and never questioned. He escaped the quicksands of creed disputes over the French schools, and drew the fangs of the Patrons of Industry when the embattled farmers joined the pilgrims of unrest in the early ’nineties and almost won a balance of power in the Legislature. “Facts for Irish Electors” were shown to be far from the truth they were represented, the repeated cry, “Mowat Must Go,” spent its force against the rocks of public confidence, and the little “Christian Statesman” went his way securely if not always serenely.

In the middle ’nineties the federal Conservative party broke down following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald, who had truly prophesied, “After me, the deluge.” In 1896 the election of Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals was almost a certainty. Mowat once more responded to the call from another sphere, and linking his name in the campaign slogan, “Laurier, Mowat and Victory,” marched into the enemy’s fortress, which had so long repelled siege. He was appointed to the Senate, and served as Minister of Justice for a year, when, his duty well done in the world of politics, he retired to the comparative calm of the Lieutenant-Governorship of Ontario. Here he could look on with sympathetic eye while others carried forward the tasks he so long essayed. He was now 77 years of age, and his health gradually failed. He died in office on April 19, 1903.

A few months earlier, in the sunset of his life, Oliver Mowat was asked if any one thing more than another had given him satisfaction as he looked over life’s experiences.

“It is a satisfaction to me,” he replied, slowly, “now that I am an old man, two years past the four score limit, to think that throughout my life I have tried to do my duty.”

Sir Oliver Mowat’s place among Canadian nation builders is already fairly defined. His public service of almost fifty years covered the period when constructive work was of the highest value. A later age might call for a more radical temperament, for he was essentially conservative. In his day he brought to his duties moral and mental qualities that were as necessary as they were exceptional. His unblemished character was an asset to his party and a guarantee for his country. He combined in rare degree the knowledge of the lawyer and the sagacity of the statesman, and was, as Sir Wilfrid Laurier said in announcing his death to Parliament, “the most correct interpreter of our con stitution that Canada has yet produced.”


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