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History Post-confederation (1867-)

A Very Canadian Coup

The Rise and Demise of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell, 1894–1896

by (author) Ted Glenn

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2022
Post-Confederation (1867-), Political, Presidents & Heads of State
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A fresh take on the Manitoba schools question and the Conservative Coup that toppled Canada’s fifth prime minister.
When Mackenzie Bowell became Canada’s fifth prime minister in December 1894, everyone — including Bowell — expected the job would involve nothing more than keeping the wheels on the Conservative wagon until a spring election.
Plans for a quiet caretakership were dashed in January 1895 when the courts ruled that the Manitoba government had violated Roman Catholics’ constitutional rights by abolishing the provincial separate school system. Catholics in Quebec demanded that Bowell force Manitoba to restore the schools, while Ontario Protestants warned him to keep his hands off.
Backed into a corner, Bowell tried three times to negotiate a compromise with the Manitoba government over the course of 1895, but to no avail. By January 1896, seven of Bowell’s cabinet ministers had had enough. Convinced that Bowell had tarnished the Conservative brand, the caballers forced the prime minister to resign and make way for a new leader, who they believed could revive party fortunes in time for the coming election—the old Warhorse of Cumberland, Sir Charles Tupper.
Ultimately, the coup didn’t matter. Tupper and his conspirators pleaded their case in Parliament and on the hustings, but nothing could stand in the way of Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberals’ historic rise to power in the June 1896 election.
A Very Canadian Coup brings fresh sources and new perspectives to bear on the life and times of Canada’s fifth prime minister and his Sixth Ministry.

About the author

Ted Glenn is Professor and Program Coordinator of Public Administration at Humber College. An advisor to various Canadian governments for over 20 years, Dr. Glenn specializes in public sector training and governance.

Ted Glenn's profile page

Excerpt: A Very Canadian Coup: The Rise and Demise of Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell, 1894–1896 (by (author) Ted Glenn)

1 - Sans Souci
William Sanford loved to entertain. Each summer, the senator and his wife, Harriet, welcomed scores of family and friends to their cottage on Sans Souci Island in the eastern end of Lake Rosseau. They spent the days touring the Muskokas on Sanford’s ninety-eight-foot steam yacht, the Naiad, and the evenings gathered ’round roaring campfires telling tales and singing.
“Mack, did you know Edward Blake?” Sanford asked fellow senator Mackenzie Bowell, a guest at Sans Souci in August 1894. Sanford had heard the story before. In fact, most lounging in the Naiad’s plush cabin after lunch had. But no one tired of hearing it.
“I rather did,” Bowell said. The seventy-one-year-old leaned back and settled in against the mullion bar between the open windows. “Yes, I suppose I’m the only man ever lived that took Edward Blake down, once on the floor of the House and once in the lobby.”
“Metaphorically speaking, eh?” Sanford looked down the table and gave John Thompson and his wife, Annie, a wink and a nod. Canada’s fourth prime minister and his family were also guests of the Sanfords that summer. They were staying at Lorelei, the Sanfords’ quaint guest cottage across the bay from Sans Souci.
“Not by a jugful! No, flopped him fair on his back.” Bowell brought his hand down flat on the table with a bang. “Yes, Blake got gibing me a bit one night after the House adjourned, and I said: ‘Now, a little more of that and I’ll take you down right here.’ He allowed that I couldn’t do that. I insisted that I could. And then” — Bowell snapped forward, snatched his arms around his imaginary foe — “the big elephant came at me!” Everyone jerked back and laughed.
“Oh, I never was a very big man, but what there was of me was hard as nails.” Bowell patted his bicep and leaned back against the mullion again with a big grin.
“And that was it?” Sanford nudged Faith Fenton’s elbow and winked. The country’s most famous female reporter was also staying at Sans Souci that week. She was on assignment for the Toronto Empire, writing an exclusive on the notoriously private prime minister.
Bowell continued. “Well, I downed him, but it wasn’t exactly easy. He chased me ’round the table, but Blake never could run in anything but an election.” Thompson shook his head, pulled his kerchief from his pocket, and wiped the tears streaming from his eyes. Sir John was at his heaviest that summer — he’d topped the scales at Port Carling earlier in the week at over two hundred — and his body fairly bounced from the laughter.
Bowell paused again. He’d dined out on the Blake story for years and knew exactly when to deliver the coup de grâce. “A few days afterwards I met Blake in the lobby. He started to come at me like a bull at a toreador. ‘Now, look out, old fellow,’ I said, ‘I’ll down you again.’ ‘You can’t do it,’ Blake said, crisply. ‘But by jingo, I will.’ So I ducked and grabbed him under the hips somewhere. I heaved him as high as I could and came down on top of him. George, I cracked a rib, nearly broke a finger, and didn’t get over that flop for a month!”
The Naiad got under way again after lunch, the breeze providing welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the late August afternoon. Sir John resumed his seat in the bow of the yacht and Sanford took up his station at the helm ten feet behind. Bowell, Fenton, and Thompson’s two adult sons, John and Joe, sprawled beneath the canopy next to the cabin. Everyone else was inside napping.
“When we reach the head of Lake Joseph, where shall we be?” Sir John called back from his perch.
“We shall be precisely at the head of Lake Joseph,” Joe replied promptly.
Not to be outdone by his younger brother, John added, “Port Cockburn is a little summering place at the head of Lake Joseph, and when we reach it we shall be within twelve miles east of Parry Sound.” Sir John nodded slowly, pleased with the boys’ attention to detail.
“Is there any outlet between these lakes and Georgian Bay?” Sir John continued.
“Only one, and that is in Lake Muskoka; but it is full of rapids and is unnavigable,” Joe explained. John gave him a shove.
“And the only way to get the Naiad or any other steamer out of the Muskoka lakes is to put her on board a few flatcars,” Sanford added.
A couple of miles out of Port Sandfield, the Naiad emerged from a narrow channel and onto a stretch of open water where two canoes came into view. From a distance, they appeared abandoned, but as Sanford brought the Naiad, closer, four female paddlers popped their heads up to see who was approaching.
“Would you like a lift?” Sanford called as the Naiad coasted closer. The young women said they’d been out since morning and would be ever so grateful.
The Thompson boys tied the canoes to the stern of the yacht and Sanford escorted the rescuees to the foredeck where one of the women spied Sir John’s gold-braided captain’s cap. It was a custom Sanford insisted upon while the prime minister was on board. Sanford himself wore the first mate’s silver braids.
“Thank you so much,” the woman said to Sir John. “It was so good of you to take us in; we had undertaken too long a row and were getting so tired.”
“I appreciate that, but it is not me who deserves the thanks,” Sir John replied.
The woman looked puzzled.
“Do you sail these lakes many months of the year?” one of the other women asked Sanford.
“Only through July and August,” Sanford replied. “It is a very short season, but of course it is very pleasant.”
The first woman tried to engage Thompson again.
“You have such a pretty yacht,” she said. Thompson explained it wasn’t his, but Sanford’s.
“Oh,” she said. Still confused, she walked back to the seats beneath the canopy and joined Bowell, Fenton, and the Thompson boys.
“Just who is that?” the woman asked.
Fenton explained it was the prime minister, Sir John Thompson. Bowell winked at the boys and told the woman the gold-braided cap should have given it away: it was, after all, the prime minister’s official insignia.
The sun was setting by the time the Naiad chugged south of Tobin Island, a couple of miles west of Sans Souci. The crew had set the running lights and were handing out blankets to insulate against the cool evening air. On one of the smaller islands just past Tobin, a massive bonfire was blazing onshore. The merrymakers recognized the Naiad’s lights and called out for Sanford and his guests to come and join the festivities. Sanford manoeuvred to drop anchor while a landing party rowed out to ferry everyone to shore. Sir John and Annie elected to stay on board and protect the Naiad against the pirates they claimed were lurking in the shadows. The two sat conspiratorially on the bow, one blanket across their laps, another pulled around their shoulders, the bonfire crackling away in the distance and the stars twinkling in the late summer sky.
The wharf and trail to the party were festooned with Chinese lanterns. Children ran back and forth throwing cedar branches onto the fire and squealed when showers of sparks erupted skyward. Someone pulled out a mandolin and strummed out the first few bars of “Down upon the Swanee River” and everyone soon joined in.
When the bonfire burned low, Sanford rounded up his revellers and returned to the Naiad. Everyone was sleepy, chilled, and ready for bed. Back on Sans Souci, the crew helped Thompson and his family into their skiffs for the final leg back to Lorelei, three hundred yards across the bay. As the boats pulled away, Fenton, Bowell, and the Sanfords waved and called out good night. “Bonne nuit!” came the reply, as the Thompsons glided through the darkness toward the distant lanterns.

Editorial Reviews

A Very Canadian Coup is an absorbing story of political intrigue in a turbulent time. Through extensive research, Ted Glenn has created a meticulous account of a remarkable episode in Canada’s past.

Stephen Azzi, professor of Political Management at Carleton University and author of Historical Dictionary of Canada

Few Canadians know that the key issue in the 1896 federal election was the Manitoba Schools question; fewer know that religion and language once played a very important part in our elections; and fewer still know that Sir Mackenzie Bowell, former Grandmaster of the Orange Lodge of British North America, proposed remedial legislation which would have returned to French Roman Catholics their rights to language and religion. Bowell’s views were controversial within his caucus and a coup was staged to remove him as Prime Minister. I well remember the heat the issue generated in the 1960s when my boss, the Honourable Duff Roblin, Premier of Manitoba, tried to restore justice. Ted Glenn is an excellent author with a sound command of the historical issues and the structure of the English language.

Joe Martin, author of Relentless Change, A Case Book for the Study of Canadian Business History

Ted Glenn has taken one of the most dramatic yet little-known events in Canadian history and made it come alive. He tells the detailed story with compelling language. His research is impeccable as he navigates the tricky issues of the 1890s. This is precisely how to present historical non-fiction. The characters shine through, one can sense the tone of the era and it reads like a suspense novel from beginning to end.

Michael Hill, Author of The Lost Prime Ministers

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