Anyone who has studied Mackenzie Bowell (and there aren’t too many) seems to dislike him. He became prime minister under weird circumstances, and was almost certainly the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Among the many short-serving, unimpressive prime ministers who briefly held office following the death of John A. Macdonald (1815-1891), Bowell seems to be regarded as the worst of the bunch.
Bowell emigrated to Canada from England as a young boy and worked as a newspaper writer and publisher during the mid-19th century — a viciously partisan job in those days. An aggressively religious man, Bowell was a proud member of the radical Anglican Orange Order, a secret society of right-wing anti-Catholics who exercised a great deal of political power within the Conservative Party of the time. Elected to the first Canadian parliament in 1867, he was a token hard-right member of Prime Minister Macdonald’s cabinet and held several important posts during the country’s long period of Conservative rule. In 1892 he was appointed head of the Canadian Senate.
In December of 1894, following the death of Macdonald, the resignation of John Abbott (1821-1893), and the death of John Thompson (1844-1894), Bowell was chosen to be prime minister by Canada’s British governor general, Lord Aberdeen (1847-1934). Though the decision was much criticized, in the Lord’s mind there simply weren’t a lot of good Conservatives left to choose from.
Bowell’s short prime ministership was dominated by his controversial (and seemingly out of character) decision to support government-funded Catholic schools in the new province of Manitoba. The rights of Catholic schoolchildren had long been tangled up in the courts, and all of Bowell’s predecessors had tried their best to avoid taking a position on the issue. When Bowell finally did, his decision triggered a massive revolt of hardline anti-Catholics in the Conservative Party, and he was forced to resign. Despite the shame, he would remain in Senate until his death in 1917.