Today, we come to our third of four prime ministers who were in power for two years or less following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald and before the arrival of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. This time, its Mackenzie Bowell, a man who came to power following the death of Prime Minister John Thompson and who had a long and illustrious career in the House of Commons outside of the top job.
Bowell was born in Rickinghall, England to John Bowell and his wife Elizabeth Marshall on Dec. 27, 1823. Bowell would come to Canada at the age of nine with his family, settling in Belleville, Upper Canada. As he grew older, he began to work as an apprentice to the printer at the newspaper, the Belleville Intelligencer. Learning from this experience, he became a printer, editor and eventually the owner of the newspaper. In 1841, he trained as a teacher and received his diploma from the Sydney Normal School in Hastings, just north of Belleville.
In 1847, he married Harriet Moore and together the couple had five sons and four daughters.
Bowell was a strong supporter of the militia in Hastings County and in 1857 he organized the First Volunteer Militia Rifle Company of Belleville, serving as an ensign with the company from 1858 to 1865, eventually becoming a Lt. Colonel. He would see active duty as well at Amherstburg, Upper Canada during the rising tensions of the American Civil War from 1864 to 1865, and then in 1866 he served as Prescott, Upper Canada during the Fenian Raids. From 1867 to 1872, he was a Lt. Col. With the 49th Hastings Battalion of Rifles.
Throughout his life, Bowell was a devout Protestant and a member of the Orange Order. The organization was founded in Ireland in 1795, and Bowell joined in 1852. In 1860, he was the president of the Belleville Orange Lodge, and he would help organize a celebration of the Prince of Wales’ royal tour of Canada. Eventually, he would become the Grand Master of British North America from 1870 to 1878. While in that role, he did not always vote along what the Orange Order wanted. In the 1890s, he defended the Catholic prime minister John Sparrow David Thompson from faith-based attacks and he sought to restore funds for the Manitoba Catholic School system, which I will get to later. These actions did cause anger among his fellow Orangemen.
With his newspaper, The Intelligencer, he would turn that from a weekly to a daily newspaper in 1867, and in 1875 he incorporated the business into the Intelligencer Printing and Publishing Company. Through his newspaper work, he would help found the Canadian Press Association in 1859, and served as its president from 1865 to 1866. In September 1883, during a tour of the west as an MP, Mackenzie Bowell stopped in at the offices of the Calgary Herald. Andrew Armour, who was publishing the paper at the time, knew of Bowell’s experience and immediately put him to work setting type for the next day’s edition.
In addition to his work with the newspaper, he also served as a director of the Grand Junction Railway, the President of the Hastings Mutual Fire Insurance Company and the Dominion Safety Gas Company.
The year that Canada came into being, 1867, was the same year that Bowell was first elected into the House of Commons. This was not his first foray into politics. He had spent 11 years as a chairman of the Board of School Trustees in Belleville, and was a member of the Board of Agriculture and Arts for three years. He had also pursued being a candidate for the Canadian Assembly in 1863 in the riding of Hastings but he was not elected.
At first he was a backbencher but in 1874 he began to advocate for the expulsion of Louis Riel from the House of Commons. Riel had ordered the execution of Thomas Scott in 1870 during the Red River Resistance. Scott was an Orangemen from Bowell’s riding and the fact that Riel was elected to Parliament in his riding in Manitoba, despite not being able to take his seat due to his exile, angered many people in Bowell’s riding and many Orange Order members. Bowell would introduce a motion to prevent Riel from taking his seat, which was passed. This would raise his profile in the House of Commons.
In his speech on April 15, 1874 regarding Riel, he would state, quote:
While most of the Conservative Party lost their seats in 1874 amidst the fallout of the Pacific Scandal, Bowell was able to keep his seat.
In 1878, he would serve as the Minister of Customs, followed by the Minister of Militia and Defence in 1892. He also served as an acting minister of railways and canals from June 1891 to January 1892.
As the Minister of Customs, his main task was the supervision of government revenue, and with the National Policy Tariff of 1879, new rules and new rates were established. A board of dominion customs appraisers was created in June 1879 and Bowell believed that it was essential to have common policies through the different ports in Halifax, Saint John, Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and London. The Customs Act was created as a result, which made the invoiced value of goods be based on fair market price in the country of origin. Bowell, in his role as Minister of Customs, would not always bend to political requests. When one MP named Paul-Etienne Grandbois came to Sir John A. Macdonald in 1884 with a plea that a Captain Charette, whose vessel had been seized for smuggling alcohol, be cleared after the cargo was condemned, Macdonald sent a note to Bowell stating, quote:
Bowell, responded with full documentation of the seizure, which put Macdonald on his side and ended the matter.
In his duties as a minister, he would effectively limit the number of Mormons who could come into Canada. In speaking with Charles O. Card, a Mormon who would settle in Alberta and found the community of Cardston, Bowell is reported to have said regarding polygamy, quote:
“It was not proper and very unpopular and consequently could not be admitted.”
When Sir John Thompson became prime minister, Bowell was moved into the Senate, becoming the government leader at the same time in the Senate. From September 1893 to January 1894, he went to Australia with Sir Sandford Fleming to discuss trade between Australia and Canada, and to propose a cable link between the two continents. The trade mission was so successful that Bowell would create and led the first leaders’ conference of British Colonies and territories. Six of the seven Australian colonies sent delegates, as did Fiji and Hawaii, which was still independent at the time.
By this point, Bowell was looking to scale back his work as he was now 71, and younger members of government had taken to calling him Grandpa Bowell. Despite the boost to his self-esteem of the Australian trip, he was ready to slow down.
Everything changed for Bowell in December of 1894 when Prime Minister Sir John Sparrow David Thompson died of a sudden heart attack in England.
There was work for the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen, to do now. The death of Thompson had resulted in the cabinet falling into individual prejudices and jealousies. John Graham Haggart was seen as an able leader but was considered lazy, while Charles Tupper was seen as the most capable of the people in the cabinet, but was seen as head strong and self-willed. In addition, Thompson had disliked Tupper. At the time, Bowell was the acting prime minister, while Thompson was in London. With the death of Thompson, it was decided by the Governor General to appoint Bowell into the top position, becoming one of just two prime ministers, after John Abbott, to serve in the Senate rather than the House of Commons.
Taking office on Dec. 21, 1894, Bowell put together his cabinet, using all the ministers from Thompson’s cabinet, with eight members keeping their previous positions. On Jan. 1, 1895, Bowell was knighted.
Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, was not a fan of Bowell, stating that he was, quote:
On Sept. 1, 1895, Bowell made his first trip out west as Prime Minister, travelling with NWMP Commissioner Herchmer, visiting Onion Lake where a new detachment had been opened, followed by a journey into Battleford.
As prime minister, Bowell would be forced to deal with an issue that had started as a small matter in Manitoba and grown to become a national issue. It was the Manitoba Schools Question. In 1890, Manitoba had abolished funding for all denominational schools, which many felt violated the Manitoba Act of 1870. A court challenge that reached the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council held that the abolition of the public funding was consistent with the Act, and a second court case had the committee rule that Parliament had the authority to enact remedial legislation to force Manitoba to re-establish the funding. This issue would only grow during Bowell’s time in office, eventually helping to bring in the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals in a few year’s time. Bowell was indecisive on the matter and since he was a senator and not in the House of Commons, he could not take part in debates over it in the House of Commons. Bowell would put his support behind legislation that would force Manitoba to restore its Catholic schools but then postponed this because he saw opposition to it in his own cabinet.
Bowell would say, quote:
“I am quite convinced from the utterances made by most of the Brethren in the press and on the platform that they do not understand the question, nor draw the distinction which exists between this matter and the Jesuits’ Estates Act.”
By January 1896, things were turning to the worse and cabinet minutes began to resign, beginning with the minister of agriculture. Parliament would open on Jan. 2, 1896 and the government was in total disarray. Within one day, there was a revolt against Bowell by his cabinet. Seven cabinet ministers resigned on Jan. 4, and the cabinet began to urge the Governor General to replace Bowell with Charles Tupper. By Jan. 8, Bowell tendered his resignation. This makes Bowell the only prime minister in Canadian history to be forced to resign by his own cabinet. His last day as prime minister would be April 27, 1896.
In all, he served as prime minister for 493 days. Soon after the government crisis was resolved and six of the ministers were reinstated and Charles Tupper took over as prime minister. Bowell would remain in the Senate in various capacities until 1917. This allowed him to serve 50 years as a federal parliamentarian. He also returned to work at The Intelligencer in 1896, continuing to work in his newspaper office until 1913.
Bowell never forgave or forgot the men he called traitors who pushed him out of the office. He would stay loyal to his work in the senate. In an article published in the Yukon World on March 3, 1905, it related a speech that Bowell gave in Ottawa. He stated that he if he did not call the seven ministers traitors, he should have done so and would do so again. He also stated that the conspiracy against him was long standing and that the Honourable George Foster was the chief of the conspirators. Bowell also stated that their claim that they resigned over a question of policy was unfounded. As for why he resigned, he said it was to free himself of the traitors by whom he was surrounded. He did have high praise for Sir Charles Tupper, the man who succeeded him, stating that he always treated him with courtesy.
In 1916, at the age of 93, he would set out to see his son in Vancouver and then travelled up to the Yukon.
On Dec. 10, 1917, only a few weeks before his 94th birthday, he would pass away from pneumonia. Despite his long career in government, no current or formerly elected member of the government attended his funeral. He would be buried at the Belleville Cemetery, the same cemetery as author Susanna Moodie and Samuel Green, an early pioneer in deaf education in Ontario.
Upon his death, the Belleville Daily Ontario would state that he was not a great lawmaker or parliamentarian and had no independent cast of mind. It would continue to say that his aptness of public life he was, quote:
“administrative rather than constructive, he administrated the affairs of the department honestly, fearlessly, efficiently. He left to others the long speeches and the framing of the statutes while he kept the machinery of the government in motion.”
In 1945, he was named a National Historic Person and a stamp was created in his honour in 1954. In 1998, in a ranking of the first 20 prime ministers, Bowell finished 19th. Mount Sir Mackenzie Bowell in the Cariboo Mountains was named for him in On Sept. 6, 1927. It had been called Mount Welcome when it was first climbed in 1924. The communities of Bowell, Ontario and Bowell, Alberta are also named for him.
In a Maclean’s Magazine ranking of the top 20 prime ministers as of 1999, Bowell finished 19th, with only Kim Campbell lower down than him. Since then, his ranking has not improved. In a similar poll in 2016, he came in 21st, with only John Turner and Kim Campbell below him.
Until 2017, Bowell was the only prime minister without a biography of their life and career. Besty Dewar Boyce would write The Accidental Prime Minister, which was published in 2017, ten years after Boyce had passed away after not being able to find a publisher for her book.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Government of Canada, Wikipedia, Biographi, Land of Second Chance, Stories on Old, Calgary: A Not Too Solemn Look At Calgary’s First 100 Years, Historic Hastings, Yukon World, Government of British Columbia,