Academic journal article Historical Studies

The East Hastings By-Election of 1936 and the Ontario Separate School Tax Question

Academic journal article Historical Studies

The East Hastings By-Election of 1936 and the Ontario Separate School Tax Question

Article excerpt

Integral to the development of relations between Protestants and Catholics in Ontario, the East Hantings By-Election of 1936 served an the turning point in the effort to bring closure to the age-old school tax question. Embodied in the work of the Catholic Taxpayer's Association, led by Toronto businessman Martin J. Quinn, the "Catholic Action" agitation had negotiated the introduction that spring of amendments to Ontario's restrictive school tax laws with Liberal Premier Mitchell Hepburn. The by-election called that fall, engaging the participation of the premier and leading Conservatives, wan important for its perception an a microcosm of provincial feeling over the divisive issue. Quickly devolving into a bitter sectarian campaign, separate schools, and Catholics in general were vilified at East Hastings. Publicly humiliated by his first campaign loss, Hepburn would repeal the amendments the following spring, effectively ending the work of the most successful movement of Catholic Action in education, the C atholic Taxpayer's Association.

Partie integrante du development des relations entre catholiques et protestants en Ontario, l'election partielle a East Hastings a l'automne 1936 servit de pivot aux efforts visant a regler la question de la taxe scolaire. Sous la forme d'une association de contribuables catholiques, la Catholic Taxpayer's Association, dirigee par l'homme d'affaires torontois Martin J. Quinn, l'Action catholique fut a l'origine des amendements aux lois sur la taxe scolaire restrictive en Ontario, proposes par le Premier ministre liberal Mitchell Hepburn. L'election partielle, a laquelle participerent les conservateurs majoritaires, revela par contre l'opinion des Ontariens sur l'enjeu des amendements; elle degenera rapidement en une campagne sectaire, ou les ecoles laiques et les catholiques en general furent calomnies. Humilie publiquement par l'echec de sa premiere campagne electorale, le Premier ministre Hepburn dut abroger les arnendements au printemps 1936: d'ou l'echec de la Catholic Taxpayer's Association comme organe de l'Action catholique dans l'education.

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He gave the R.C. schools a share 
Of their people's yearly tax, 
It was a simple act of justice 
When we clearly know the facts, 
We may not advocate separate schools 
But since by law they are there, 
 
We have a right to be honest with taxes 
Upright, just and fair! (1) 

Composed to accompany Liberal Premier Mitchell Hepburn's arrival to the Ontario riding of East Hastings in the fall of 1936, these lyrics embodied what should have been the cornerstone of his by-election platform. As circumstances would soon dictate, justice was not on the minds of either his political opponents or the majority of electors. Committing himself to a herculean personal effort in the campaign, Hepburn saw East Hastings as an opportunity to test his overall popularity and to promote the Liberal's sound fiscal management, avoiding discussion of his recent controversial amendments to Ontario's school tax laws. The campaign quickly reverted to a maelstrom of sectarian bigotry. Determined to make a singular issue out of the "school tax question," the Conservatives assembled a Protestant alliance that laced speeches throughout the riding with a steady volume of anti-Catholic invective. What should have been a routine by-election ultimately marked the greatest political challenge of Mitchell Hepburn's c areer and, in the process, initiated the disintegration of the most successful lay agitation in Ontario history: the Catholic Taxpayer's Association.

The byproduct of religio-political tensions inflamed in the post-Confederation era, the school tax question became the key economic imperative of the Ontario bishops in the twentieth century. While the Scott Act of 1863 allowed Catholics to direct their property taxes to fund separate schools, the growth of corporations and creation of numerous public utilities soon weakened the impact of these assessments. …

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