Sir Mackenzie Bowell, (December 27, 1823 – December 10, 1917) was an English born Canadian politician who served as the fifth Prime Minister of Canada from December 21, 1894 to April 27, 1896.
Bowell was born in Rickinghall, Suffolk, England to John Bowell and Elizabeth Marshall. In 1832 his family emigrated thence to Belleville, Upper Canada, where he apprenticed with the printer at the town newspaper, The Belleville Intelligencer. He became a successful printer and editor with that newspaper, and later its owner. He was a Freemason but also an outstanding Orangeman, becoming Grandmaster of the Orange Order of British North America, 1870–1878. In 1847 he married Harriet Moore (1829–1884), with whom he had four sons and five daughters.
Early political life
Bowell was first elected to the House of Commons in 1867, as a Conservative, for the riding of North Hastings, Ontario. He held his seat for the Conservatives when they lost the election of January 1874, in the wake of the Pacific Scandal. Later that year he was instrumental in having Louis Riel expelled from the House. In 1878, with the Conservatives again governing, he joined the cabinet as Minister of Customs. In 1892 he became Minister of Militia and Defence. A competent, hardworking administrator, Bowell remained in Cabinet as Minister of Trade and Commerce, a newly made portfolio, after he became a Senator that same year. His visit to Australia in 1893 led to the first conference of British colonies and territories, held in Ottawa in 1894. He became Leader of the Government in the Senate on October 31, 1893
Prime Minister (1894-1896)
In December 1894, Prime Minister Sir John Thompson died suddenly and Bowell, as the most senior Cabinet minister, was appointed in Thompson’s stead by the Governor General. Bowell thus became the second of just two Canadian Prime Ministers to hold that office while serving in the Senate rather than the House of Commons. (The first was John Abbott.)
As Prime Minister, Bowell faced the troublesome Manitoba Schools Question. In 1890 Manitoba had abolished public funding for denominational schools, both Catholic and Protestant, which many thought was contrary to the provisions made for denominational schools in the Manitoba Act of 1870. However, in a court challenge, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council held that Manitoba’s abolition of public funding for denominational schools was consistent with the Manitoba Act provision. In a second court case, the Judicial Committee held that the federal Parliament had the authority to enact remedial legislation to force Manitoba to re-establish the funding.
Bowell and his predecessors had struggled to solve this problem. The issue had divided the country, the government, and even Bowell’s own Cabinet. He was further hampered in his handling of the issue by his own indecisiveness on it, and by his inability, as a Senator, to take part in debates in the House of Commons. Bowell backed legislation, already drafted, that would have forced Manitoba to restore its Catholic schools, but then postponed it due to opposition within his Cabinet. With the ordinary business of government at a standstill, Bowell’s Cabinet decided he was incompetent to lead and so, to force him to step down, seven ministers resigned, then foiled the appointment of successors. Though Bowell denounced them as “a nest of traitors,” he had to agree to resign. After ten days, through an intervention on Bowell’s behalf by the Governor General, the government crisis was resolved and matters seemingly returned to normal when six of the ministers were reinstated, but leadership was thenceforth effectively held by Charles Tupper, who had joined Cabinet at the same time, filling the seventh place. Tupper, who had been Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, had been recalled by the plotters to replace Bowell. Bowell formally resigned in favour of Tupper at the end of the parliamentary session.
Bowell stayed on in the Senate, serving as his party’s leader there until 1906, and afterward as a plain Senator until his death. He died of pneumonia in Belleville, only days short of his 94th birthday, and was buried in the Belleville Cemetery. His funeral was attended by a full complement of the Orange Order, but not by any currently or formerly elected member of the government.
Bowell’s descendants live in Hertfordshire, England and Ontario, Canada.
In their 1999 study of the Canadian Prime Ministers up through Jean Chrétien, J. L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer found that a survey of Canadian historians ranked Bowell #19 out of the 20 Prime Ministers up until then.