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Canadian History
Hon. Oliver Mowat


of Toronto, was born a Kingston, Ontario, on the 22nd of July, 1820. His father, the late Mr. John Mowat, was a native of Canisbay, Caithness-shire, Scotland, who in his youth had been in the British army, and served through the Peninsular war. In 1816 Mr. John Mowat came to Canada and settled in Kingston. Shortly afterwards he was married to Miss Helen Levack, also of Caithness, who had come out to Canada to link her fortunes with the Peninsular soldier. The fruit of this happy union was five children, three sons and two daughters, the eldest of whom was Oliver. He was educated under various teachers in Kingston, one of whom was the Rev. John Cruickshank, at that time held in high esteem as a teacher of youth. Among his fellow pupils were Sir John A. Macdonald, and the late Hon. John Billyard Cameron. As soon as he had completed his educational studies, he entered the law office of Mr. John A. Macdonald, who was then a prosperous young lawyer in Kingston. Young Mowat was brought up among a circle of tories, and naturally enough was tory in leaning till the new and better man burst the traditional shell. When the rebellion of 1837-38 broke out, and nobody could be still, every one seizing either a pitchfork or a Queen's rifle, young Mowat, with military instincts borrowed from his sire, joined the drilling royalists. Mr. Mowat spent four years in Mr. Macdonald's office, and then removed to Toronto, where he finished his studies with Robert E. Burns, who subsequently became a judge of the Court of Queen's Bench. In 1841, he was admitted to the bar, and subsequently entered into partnership with Mr. Burns, the firm being known as Burns & Mowat. Mr. P. M. Vankoughnet (afterwards Chancellor), subsequently joined the firm. After the retirement of Mr. Burns the business was continued under the firm of Mowat & Vankoughnet. Industrious, clear-headed, and persistent, Mr. Mowat soon became of of the leaders of his profession, and at the bar of the remodelled Court of Chancery, his presence was always felt. Business grew upon his hands from day to day, and after a time the partnership between Mr. Vankoughnet and himself was, by mutual consent, dissolved. He subsequently associated with himself several legal gentlemen, and the firms were respectively knows as Mowat, Ewart & Helliwell, and Mowatt, Roaf & Davis. Having reached the top round in the legal profession, and obtained the most extensive Chancery practice of any lawyer at the bar, he began to take a lively interest in the political questions of the day. Those who knew him as a tory boy marvelled that he had so completely sloughed his early leanings. Out and out, he was a Liberal, a reformer, though not one of the revolutionary type. He believed in the foundation virtue of the institutions which then existed, but was convinced that much reformation of the same was urgently and speedily needed. So when he entered the reform ranks, those fossils who believe that a man is born to his opinions as well as to his place, said "he has deserted his colours", not that he, ever since entering man/s estate, had allied himself, or voted with the tories, but because, forsooth, his "father before him" has been a tory.  That, however, was natural, it was the tory way. In 1856, he was created a Queen's Counsel, and appointed one of the commissioners to consolidate the general Statutes of Canada and Upper Canada, respectively. In 1857, he resigned his commissionership, and was elected to the House of Assembly for South Ontario, defeating Mr. Joseph Curran Morrison by nearly 800 votes. The Macdonald-Cartier administration was then in power, and Mr. Mowat found himself at issue with many of its measures. He was not then by any means a powerful of effective speaker, and has never since been noted for eloquence. He fell far, indeed, behind the impulsive, powerfur, but often reckless leader of the reformers - George Brown. In the short administration of 1858, which, after four days' existence was brought to an end by means of the double shuffle, Mr. Mowat was Provincial Secretary. In 1857, he sat as alderman of St. Lawrence Ward, Toronto, and the year following for St. James Ward, and while a civic legislator, carried a measure "to provide for the better administration of the affairs of the corporation", which legislation is known as "Alderman Mowat's By-law". In 1861, besides running and being elected for South Ontario, he was prevailed on to seek the overthrow of Mr. John A. Macdonald in Kingston, but was unsuccessful. When the Sandfield Macdonald-Dorion administration was formed in 1863, Mr. Mowat became Postmaster-General, retaining that position till the following year. In the Taché-Macdonald administration he was at the head of the Post-office Department for four months. He took part in the conference at Quebec for the preparation of the Confederation scheme; and in 1864, on the death of Vice-Chancellor Esten, was appointed to the Chancery Bench in Upper Canada. In this position he acquitted himself with tireless industry, with efficiency, and in such a manner as to elicit the approbation of litigants and the bar, for eight years. Many of the judgements which he wrote are held now in high esteem by the legal profession for their strong grasp and marked elucidation of principles; for their clear interpretation of legal points, and their logical application of canons of law. It was a loss to the bench to be deplored that in 1872, the Vice-Chancellor re-entered political life; but if the judiciary sustained a loss, politics decidedly gained by this step. The circumstances that led to this course was as follows: Under the recently adopted Act prohibiting dual representation, representation in the Dominion parliament, Messrs. Blake and Mackenzie resigned their offices in the Ontario administration for the wider and more alluring field, and Mr. Mowat was called on by the Lieutenant-Governor to form a new administration. On the 25th of October, therefore, it was announced that an administration had been formed with Oliver Mowat at the head as Attorney-General. During the years that have since elapsed, he has held the position of leader of the Government of Ontario, and continues to enjoy the confidence of a considerable majority of the people of his Province, who see in him an honest man, whose effort is always, even though not uniformly successful, to do that which he believes to be best for the country's interest. In 1872, Mr. Mowat was elected for North Oxford; in 1875 he was again chosen by acclamation, and was again triumphant in 1879 and 1883. At the last general election for Ontario, he was opposed by the combined forces of the opposition under Mr. Meredith and of the Dominion Government, but came out of the ordeal successfully, though with a diminished following. Fears were entertained by some during the following session that there would be a bolt of weak knees to the opposition, but the stars were sturdily fighting on the side of Mr. Mowat. A number of persons, with pockets full of money, obtained from no one just now knows where, had set themselves deliberately at work to purchase over to the opposition some of the Premier's followers. But the infamous enterprise was balked by some of the members tampered with, who promptly disclosed the plot and laid in the hands of the Speaker the money of the tempters. The result was that the public conscience became more strongly than ever in sympathy with Mr. Mowat, and more hostile than before to the opposing party. It does not seem fair to hold a leader responsible for the evil doings of his followers; nevertheless it can hardly be called unjust to affix some of the stain of this deep and deplorable disgrace upon the whole local Conservative party of Ontario. Space forbids us to enumerate all the measures of legislation which Mr. Oliver Mowat has been instrumental in calling into existence, but among the most important will be found the following: Act for the settlement of the Municipal Loan Fund; Act for the Consolidation of the Municipal Law; Act respecting the Administration of Justice; Act extending the franchise to income voters, and introducing the principal of voting by ballot; Act substituting a Committee of the Executive Council for the Council of Public Instruction, and appointing a Minister of Education instead of a Chief Superintendent; Act respecting education, for the encouragement of agriculture, horticulture, arts and manufactures; Act regulating the public service in Ontario; Act defining the powers of justices of the peace, act establishing a fund of $200,000 in aid of the drainage operations, and to confirm the determination of the northerly and westerly boundaries of Ontario by the arbitrators, and to provide for the administration of justice therein; Act for the revision of the Statute Law of the Province; the Judicature Act, abolishing the distinction between law and equity and establishing a uniform mode of pleading and practice in the Courts; and a Registration Act founded on the "Torrens'" system. In addition to these, in later years, a bureau of statistics, one of the most important departments in the public service, has been established; a board of health, which is likely to be potent for great good, has been formed; and a sub-department of forestry has been connected with one of the public offices. Mr. Mowat still enjoys unimpaired health, and is enthusiastic in his conviction that the "evil ones" opposing him cannot prevail. Through all the stormy time in which he has been leader, the periods when men put no bridle upon their tongues, whatever may have been said against their administration, no reproach has ever been breathed against his private character. Perhaps the event in his career of which he feels and ought to feel, most proud, is having obtained in England, before the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council, a decision in favour of Ontario for an extensive territory long in dispute and supposed to comprise 100,000 square miles. Mr. Mowat had always maintained that this territory belonged to Ontario; Sir John A. Macdonald took opposite grounds; so that now, for that and other reasons, followers of the Ontario premier say that their chief has brought from England the belt for the championship on constitutional law.


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