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Sir Mackenzie Bowell by Barry K. Wilson

Reviewed by Susan Taylor Meehan

Sir Mackenzie Bowell, A Canadian Prime Minister Forgotten by History is a welcome addition to the canon of Canadian history. It provides a revolutionary new take on Mackenzie Bowell, Canada’s fifth prime minister.

Conventional wisdom has it that Bowell was weak, ineffective and even bigoted, but this impression is grounded in the chaos following the death of Macdonald, and the overheated polemics surrounding free trade and the highly charged issue of minority rights. Thoroughly and meticulously researched, Wilson’s book paints a very different picture of a man of principle, respected by his peers in government and business, the press and his constituents, who regularly returned him to office.

According to Wilson’s account, Bowell was a strong presence in the government before becoming prime minister in 1894. For years, he had been a confidante of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. He held various cabinet posts, always fully in control of his portfolios, and, as a former journalist and newspaper owner, he maintained excellent relations with the press. He had a reputation for honesty, incorruptibility, plain-speaking and a strong work ethic. And he stuck to his guns, particularly on the issue of minority rights, despite pressure from his church, the Orange Lodge, of which he was a Grand Master, the popular press and most of the Conservative Party.

The intense polarization between Catholic and Protestant, English and French, which influenced every aspect of Canadian politics in the 19th Century, played a key role in Bowell’s downfall. When the Manitoba government passed legislation ending funding to French Catholic schools in 1890, controversy erupted across the country. That contravened a key provision of the Manitoba Act of 1870, which brought Manitoba into Confederation. As such, Bowell, who personally opposed government support for separate schools, maintained that funding should be restored. Yet, despite ongoing negotiations, an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and the best efforts of Macdonald, Abbott, Thompson and Bowell, the dispute raged on.

By 1896, spurred on by the lack of resolution of the Manitoba schools issue, dissatisfaction with Bowell’s leadership and a host of accumulated grievances, cabinet and caucus rebelled. A series of resignations, speeches in the House and Senate, and meetings with a meddling Governor-General followed. In effect, they staged a coup that saw Bowell agree to remain Prime Minister until the end of the parliamentary session, at which point Charles Tupper would take over the leadership of the Conservative party. Bowell lived up to this agreement, despite the massive betrayal of his colleagues. However, he did not participate in the following election, which ended in defeat for the weak and played-out Conservatives. As a Senator, he remained in government until his death in 1917.

Sir Mackenzie Bowell, A Canadian Prime Minister Forgotten by History offers a penetrating and insightful look into late 1800s Canada. The author’s frequent use of contemporary sources—newspaper articles, correspondence, diaries and memoirs—gives us a glimpse into the manners, attitudes and preoccupations of the day and highlights the larger-than-life personalities who shaped Canada well into the 20th Century. This is a book that belongs on the bookshelves of all Canadian history lovers, as well as those who are curious about the turbulent period between two giants of Canadian history, Macdonald and Laurier.

Sir Mackenzie Bowell, A Canadian Prime Minister Forgotten by History is published by Loose Canon Press.

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