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Completing the Design, Growth of Provincial Power
BNA Act, Honore Mercier, British North America Act, Oliver Mowat, premier of Quebec
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was committed to a strong central government, but he was unable to prevent provincial governments from challenging his view of the British North America Act. Oliver Mowat, premier of the province of Ontario between 1872 and 1896, asserted provincial sovereignty against federal efforts to subordinate the provincial governments to Ottawa. In a series of rulings on the BNA Act, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (a British court to which Canadian cases could still be appealed) mostly supported Mowat’s interpretation. Federal powers to overrule provincial governments rapidly faded from use, ensuring the provinces an important place in Canadian political life.
Mowat did not fight his campaign alone. Honore Mercier, premier of Quebec from 1887 to 1891, linked provincial rights with French Canadian nationalism. He promoted Quebec’s provincial government as the defender of the French Canadian nation within Canada. He also promoted French Catholic colonization of frontier areas of Quebec and northern Ontario as an alternative to emigration and assimilation in New England. In 1887 Mercier called a conference of provincial premiers, and at this conference Mercier, Mowat, and three more of the seven provincial premiers demanded transfer of power to the provinces. Federal-provincial rivalries became an essential part of Canadian politics.
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