Mackenzie Bowell

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The Honourable
Sir Mackenzie Bowell
5th Prime Minister of Canada
In office
December 21, 1894 – April 27, 1896
Monarch Victoria
Governor-General The Earl of Aberdeen
Preceded by John Thompson
Succeeded by Charles Tupper
Personal details
Born (1823-12-27)December 27, 1823
Rickinghall, Suffolk, England
Died December 10, 1917(1917-12-10) (aged 93)
Belleville, Ontario, Canada
Cause of death Pneumonia
Resting place Belleville Cemetery, Belleville, Ontario
Nationality Canadian
Political party Conservative
Spouse(s) Harriet Bowell (m. 1847; her death 1884)
Children 9
Military service
Allegiance Province of Canada
Dominion of Canada
Service/branch Canadian militia (1861–1867)
Canadian Army (1867-1872)
Years of service 1861–1872
Rank Lieutenant-Colonel
Unit 49th Hastings Battalion

Sir Mackenzie Bowell PC KCMG (/ˈb.əl/; December 27, 1823 – December 10, 1917) was a Canadian politician who served as the fifth Prime Minister of Canada, in office from 1894 to 1896.

Bowell was born in Rickinghall, Suffolk, England. He and his family moved to Belleville, Ontario, when he was young. Bowell was apprenticed to the owner of a local newspaper, the Belleville Intelligencer, and eventually became its owner and proprietor. In 1867, following Confederation, he was elected to the House of Commons for the Conservative Party. Bowell entered cabinet in 1878, and would serve under three prime ministers – John A. Macdonald, John Abbott, and John Thompson. He served variously as Minister of Customs (1878–1892), Minister of Militia and Defence (1892), and Minister of Trade and Commerce (1892–1894).

In 1892, Bowell was appointed to the Senate. He became Leader of the Government in the Senate the following year. In December 1894, John Thompson unexpectedly died in office, aged only 49. The Earl of Aberdeen, Canada's Governor General, appointed Bowell to replace him as prime minister, due to his status as the most senior cabinet member. The main problem of Bowell's premiership was the Manitoba Schools Question. His attempts at compromise alienated members of his own party, and following a cabinet revolt in early 1896 he was forced to resign in favour of Charles Tupper. Bowell stayed on as a senator until his death at the age of 93, but never again held ministerial office.

Early life[edit]

Bowell was born in Rickinghall, England, to John Bowell and Elizabeth Marshall. In 1832 his family emigrated 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[1] but also an Orangeman, becoming Grandmaster of the Orange Order of British North America, 1870–1878. In 1847 he married Harriet Moore, with whom he had five sons and four daughters.

Early political life[edit]

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)[edit]

In December 1894, Prime Minister Sir John Sparrow David 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 (after John Abbott) to hold that office while serving in the Senate rather than the House of Commons.

As Prime Minister, Bowell faced the 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.[2] 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.[3]

Bowell and his predecessors struggled to solve this problem, which 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 that he was incompetent to lead and so, to force him to step down, seven ministers resigned and then foiled the appointment of successors. Though Bowell denounced them as "a nest of traitors," he had to agree to resign. After ten days, after 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 then 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.

Later life[edit]

Bowell stayed 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, seventeen days short of his 94th birthday. He was buried in the Belleville cemetery.[4][5] His funeral was attended by a full complement of the Orange Order, but not by any currently or formerly elected member of the government.[citation needed]

In their 1998 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.[6]

Supreme Court appointments[edit]

The following jurist was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada by the Governor General during Bowell's tenure:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A few famous freemasons at
  2. ^ City of Winnipeg v. Barrett; City of Winnipeg v. Logan, [1892] A.C. 445 (P.C.).
  3. ^ Brophy v. Attorney General of Manitoba, [1895] A.C. 202 (P.C.).
  4. ^ Waite, P. B. (1998). "BOWELL, Sir MACKENZIE". In Cook, Ramsay; Hamelin, Jean. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XIV (1911–1920) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 
  5. ^ "Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada - Former Prime Ministers and Their Grave Sites - The Honourable Sir Mackenzie Bowell". Parks Canada. Government of Canada. December 20, 2010. Retrieved March 2, 2014. 
  6. ^ Hillmer, Norman & Granatstein, J. L. "Historians rank the BEST AND WORST Canadian Prime Ministers". Diefenbaker Web. Maclean's. Retrieved March 27, 2012. 

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