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Autonomy Bills (1905)

The Autonomy Bills created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, but precipitated bitter debates over party politics, the division of federal-provincial powers, and French-English rights in Canada. A Lieutenant-Governor for the North-West Territories had been appointed in 1876 and empowered to govern in co-operation with, and on the advice of, an appointed Legislative Council. Over the next decade the Council grew to include elected members, and its authority slowly increased to include most areas of provincial jurisdiction. In 1888, the Legislative Council was replaced by the Legislative Assembly of the North-West Territories. Responsible government was granted in 1897, with Frederick W.G. Haultain as the first Premier. The government was responsible for Education, roads, and other services in the Territories. By 1901, the Assembly was vested with the full powers of a provincial Legislature, with the exception of the ability to raise revenue by direct Taxation and the management of Crown lands. Parliament voted a yearly grant-in-aid to compensate for these omissions, but when the federal government repeatedly failed to provide a grant large enough to cover the territorial government’s growing expenses, Haultain demanded that the North-West Territories be given provincial autonomy.

In 1903, Haultain proposed to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier that one large province, stretching from Manitoba to British Columbia, replace the Territories. When the Saskatchewan Act and the Alberta Act were introduced in the House of Commons in 1905, however, they proposed two provinces of approximately equal size and population. Haultain maintained that the region’s integrated economy and shared history pointed to the practicality of one province; but Laurier feared that in light of the rapid population growth on the Prairies one province stretching from Manitoba to British Columbia to the Arctic Ocean would become unmanageably large. Other Liberals were concerned about the power such a large province could potentially wield in Parliament. Two clauses in the Acts initiated a storm of controversy across the country. In their original form, the bills reinstated the educational system outlined in the North-West Territories Act, 1875, which guaranteed linguistic and religious minorities the right to manage their own schools. Anglo-Canadians were outraged; Haultain objected strongly to the provision; and Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, resigned rather than support the measure. It was felt that the school system should be used to assimilate immigrants to the English language and British culture rather than to encourage plurality of Religion and language. Many Franco-Canadians, led by MP and journalist Henri Bourassa, objected to what they saw as an attack on the French culture and the Catholic faith, arguing that the western provinces should be bilingual and bicultural, like Manitoba. Laurier struck a compromise by reinstating the 1901 educational system, which gave minorities the right to maintain separate schools but required them to teach the provincial curriculum.

The Acts also reserved the management of Crown lands and natural resources to the federal government; without this authority, Parliament would have lost control over the dispersal of homesteads, and thereby over western settlement. The two new provinces were awarded yearly transfer payments to compensate for losses in revenue, but their lack of control over resources hindered economic growth. The provision, both at the time and since, has been cited as an insult to western equality and one of the root causes of Western Alienation. The Saskatchewan Act received Royal Assent on July 20, 1905, and the proclamation creating the province was issued by the Governor General during a ceremony in Victoria Park in Regina on September 4. Canada’s first protest party, the Provincial Rights Party, was formed in response to the failure of the federal government to give Saskatchewan equal jurisdiction with the original provinces. Headed by Haultain, it served as opposition to Saskatchewan’s Liberal government, led by Premier Walter Scott, until 1912. Their objections did little, however, and power over resources and land were not returned to Saskatchewan and Alberta until 1930.

Erin Millions, Michael Thome

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Further Reading

Brennan, J.W. 1980. “The ‘Autonomy Question’ and the Creation of Saskatchewan and Alberta, 1905.” Pp. 43–63 in H. Palmer and D.B. Smith (eds.), The New Provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan. Vancouver: Tantalus Research; Lingard, C.C. 1978. Territorial Government in Canada: The Autonomy Question in the Old North-West Territories. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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