New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Events Leading to the Caraquet Riots of 1875

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Events Leading to the Caraquet Riots of 1875

The Caraquet riots of 1875 happened as a result of public outrage among Catholic New Brunswickers with the provisions of the Common Schools Act of 1871. This Act provided, for the first time, for centrally regulated and publicly owned schools in New Brunswick. It also eliminated all religious education, religious dress, and religious symbols of all kinds from schools. Universal school taxes were also imposed to support the new school system.

This blog posting highlights in summary form some of the events leading to the riots and of the riots themselves. These highlights are supplemented with quotes from writings of the day, especially from newspapers.

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The Caraquet Riots; Death of Constable Gifford

Library and Archives Canada. Artist unknown.

There were many schools in New Brunswick during the first half of the 19th century, but they were nothing like the schools of today. The board of education had little power and did not control the curriculum. There was no Normal School or standards of teacher qualification. The Province did not build or own schools, which were run by individual teachers or by religious organizations, often churches. Most schools were financed through tuition, unless a student was accepted as a charity case. In short, there were no ‘public’ schools as we know them.

“The public seminaries in Fredericton … are King’s College; the Baptist Seminary; Grammar and Madras Schools; with a number of Sunday and other schools.” The grammar and parish schools each received small government grants to supplement other income. King’s College provided “education of youth in the principles of the Christian religion, and … in the various branches of literature and science,” and each day began and concluded with divine worship. [Notitia of New Brunswick for 1836 and Extending Into 1837, attributed to Peter Fisher.]

William Wishart was very critical of the system. He wanted to see a central board and a system of Normal Schools to solve the problem of too many independent schools and incompetent teaching. Many teachers were, he said, mere tools of religious denominations. College education was reserved mostly for the privileged, Anglican, classes. There were also more independent schools than New Brunswick could reasonably support. [Lectures on Political Economy Delivered During the Sessions of 1844-45 in the Hall of the Mechanics Institute of St. John, N.B.]

The Board of Directors of the Saint John Grammar School “had the privilege … of admitting eight free scholars into the school.” [Historical Sketch of the Saint John Grammar School from Its Establishment in 1805 to 1884, by John A. Bowes.] In other words, attendance at grammar school required either that tuition be paid, or that the student be accepted as a charity case. Parish schools were supported by the community by one means or another, but not through taxes.

By 1871, there were calls for change.

Some thought that N.B. needed a new political party to wipe away old rivalries. In any case, the Province needed to adapt to Confederation and modernise. “In matters local, the demand is in favour of the best possible management of the public lands, the best practicable measures for the promotion of the settlement of these lands, the effective improvement of our Common School system, so that New Brunswick may in regard to education be speedily put upon a level with Ontario and Nova Scotia, and the enforcement of the severest economy consistent with efficiency in the work of Local government and legislation.” [Saint John Daily Evening News, June 17, 1870.]

“New Brunswick must have a greatly improved Common School system.” [Saint John Daily Evening News, July 5, 1870.]

“It is the first duty of the governing power to make provision for the education of every child. The children of the poorest in our land should have free access to schools where they can receive, at least, the rudiments of an Education which will qualify them for an intelligent performance of their duties as citizens. Accordingly, I invite your most serious attention to this matter.” [From the Lieut. Governor’s address at the opening of the New Brunswick Assembly on February 16, 1871, as reported in The Morning Chronicle (Halifax), February 17, 1871.]

There were different opinions on the proposal, however.

“[King’s County] has pronounced against an advanced Common School system… The County was flooded with placards setting forth the awful, the enormous, the perfectly ruinous taxation to which King’s would be subjected if the Attorney General’s School Bill should become law… [They] would probably most graciously accept the Ontario or Nova Scotia Common School system if it could be got for nothing… Were the county overloaded with unprogressive Frenchmen …, one would not be surprised at the opinions expressed….” [The Daily Morning News (Saint John), July 6, 1870.]

The Common Schools Act was introduced into the New Brunswick Assembly by George King on April 12, 1871, after some false starts. An amendment was then passed that the common schools be non-sectarian. There was much debate, and the law was vigorously opposed by Catholic members. The amended bill passed on May 17, 1871, despite the disagreement, and it came into effect on January 1, 1872. Common schools were now governed by a Board of Education which built new schools, and set teaching standards and curricula. The schools were non-sectarian and religious clothing and symbols were prohibited. Regulations also prohibited the teaching of the catechism.

Debate and objection continued, and the matter was far from settled. An attempt was made to have the Federal Minister of Justice disallow the Act. A further attempt was then made to petition the Queen to amend the constitution to protect sectarian schools, which would make the Act unconstitutional. Both attempts failed.

“As it was, however, seeing that the Minister of Justice had refused to disallow the Act, the motion of the member for Victoria was one of non-confidence… As to the amendment of the member for Quebec, he could not see how the constitution could be amended to accomplish the object, unless, in fact, they asked the Imperial Parliament to pass a school law for New Brunswick.” [The Montreal Daily Witness, May 29, 1872.]

The debate in Parliament was long and difficult and had serious implication for other provinces as well. In the end, they asked London for some legal advice, and asked New Brunswick to reconsider the Act.

“It is well perhaps for the Parliament at Ottawa that this vexed question has been placed beyond its reach, as its action in passing a resolution in favour of disallowance caused great dissatisfaction amongst the majority in New Brunswick. [The Montreal Daily Witness, March 25, 1874.]

The constitutional challenge had failed, but opposition continued. New Brunswick’s Bishop Sweeny called upon his colleagues in Quebec for support in the ongoing public debate, and this support was forthcoming.

“The school question is a question betwixt, not the ‘State and Church,’ but betwixt the ‘State and Family.’ The school question is, as we have put it; and as alone the State can deal with it, a Parent’s question, not a Priest’s question. In it is involved the question – ‘to whom does the child in the first instance belong? To the State or to the Family? To the Civil Magistrate or to the Father and Mother?’ … The Communists insist, and this with them is a fundamental principle, that neither the Family nor the Individual has, or can have, rights of any kind as against the State: that private property is theft; that children belong not to the Family or father or mother, but to the Community… Thus to anyone not a dunce it is evident in the School Question are involved all the issues betwixt ‘Communism’ and ‘Individualism,’ the two great contending forces in Society.” [The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (Montreal), July 4, 1873.]

The fact that people who were not willing to send their children to public schools were nonetheless subject to school taxes to pay for the education of other people’s children was also a major complaint.

“[The pastoral letter] states the injustice done to the Catholics of New Brunswick and P.E. Island, who are refused the justice long since fully accorded to the Protestant minority of Quebec and after years of agitation conceded in a stinted form to the Catholic minority of Ontario… The justice of their demand has been admitted, the Pastoral adds, by the Canadian Parliament [through its] sympathy with the minority in New Brunswick and its disapproval of the Act … to force upon them a school system which violates the rights of conscience, imposing upon them a taxation for the support of schools to which they cannot send their children.” [From a pastoral letter from the Bishop of Montreal to a meeting of Bishops in Halifax, as reported in The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (Montreal), January 2, 1874.]

The position of the Church was now so clear that several Members of Parliament hardened their opposition to the Act, encouraging MP John Costigan to raise the matter again.

“The irrepressible member for Victoria, N.B., Mr. Costigan, has evidently made up his mind that the question of the New Brunswick Schools shall not be allowed to die out for lack of agitation on his part… He moved that an humble address be presented to Her Majesty… that the Local Legislature of New Brunswick, in 1871, adopted a law respecting Common Schools, forbidding the imparting of any religious instruction and that the prohibition was opposed to the sentiments of the entire population of the Dominion in general, and to the religious convictions of the Roman Catholic population in particular; that the Roman Catholics of New Brunswick cannot conscientiously send their children to the schools established under such a law and are nevertheless compelled to pay taxes to be devoted to the maintenance of those schools ….” [The Quebec Sunday Budget (Quebec City), May 9, 1874.]

Costigan’s appeal was also unsuccessful, but opposition continued on the ground with some people refusing to pay school taxes.

“The School War – Another Prisoner – M.J. McKenna, a young man, a student at the Christian Brothers’ Academy, who is making many sacrifices to obtain a good education, was arrested on Saturday for the school taxes and other taxes due to the town of Portland and put in goal, although his father made affidavit that he was under twenty years of age… (The Bishop) says ‘The Catholics support their own schools; why then force them to pay this odious tax, without giving them any return? What is it for? The taxes of the wealthy Protestant majority should be sufficient for their own schools.’” [The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (Montreal), December 18, 1874.]

Opposition also continued in the New Brunswick Legislature, where both Members of Parliament for Gloucester County opposed to the Act. Popular opinion in Gloucester County was especially strong, and there was widespread refusal to pay the school tax. No changes were made to the Act, however.

On January 14, 1875, there was a government-sponsored meeting in Caraquet aimed at quelling opposition to the school tax. The meeting broke up in a melee and, the next day, there were demonstrations which caused damage to the store and home of the President of the New Brunswick Executive Council, whose wife was threatened.

Several of the following newspaper accounts were not found in their original form online. However, they exist at the New Brunswick Provincial Archives and were transcribed by Jacques Paul Couturier, of the Université de Moncton. The transcriptions are available at

“Sheriff Vail arrived here [Caraquet] at two o’clock, a.m., and soon after started out with eight men and arrested three of the ring leaders in the late riot – Joseph Leboullier, Eloie Lantin and Gustau Lantin.” [The Daily News, January 27, 1875 as compiled by Jacques Paul Couturier. The report is the first of two dispatches of events of the previous day, January 26th.]

“About twenty men arrived this morning from Chatham and Newcastle [to Caraquet] to assist Sheriff Vail in arresting rioters. Sixteen were taken prisoners. Whilst the Constables and assistants were engaged in the execution of their duty to-day at Andrew Albert’s house, one of the Sheriff’s party, John Gifford, was killed by the discharge of a gun in the hands of one of the rioters. There were probably eleven men in Albert’s house, who were armed with guns and clubs when Deputy Sheriff Cable and party entered. No resistance was offered to the party in the house. In answer to Cable, the owner of the house, Albert, said there was no one in the house except himself and two women. Finding that there was a party of men up stairs, among whom were prominent leaders in the riot, the Constable, with Gifford and others, proceeded to ascend. When Gifford’s head came above the level of the loft he was shot dead by a gun in the hands of one of the fiends. The moment poor Gifford fell the Sheriff’s party made a rush on the rioters, and succeeded in arresting the whole party. It is rumored two rioters were seriously wounded. An Inquest is now being held on Gifford’s body.” [The Daily News, January 27, 1875 as compiled by Jacques Paul Couturier. The report is the second of two dispatches of events of the previous day, January 26th.]

“The Caraquet insurrection is over and peace reigns again. / Thirteen of the principal rioters were lodged in (Bathurst) goal this afternoon. / The valiant army who paraded the streets and levied black mail on women and individuals slunk into corners and garrets when the Officers of Justice approached. / An inquest was held to-day on the body of Gifford who came to his death as he thrust his head through the flooring of a garret in which some of the rioters were lodged, and was shot in the head, falling dead without a word or struggle. / … / After Gifford was shot there was firing on both sides for some time, in which, Mailloux and Lanteigne were shot. The former threw up his arm and fell uttering groans. He was carried home and died this morning.” [The Daily News, January 29, 1875 as compiled by Jacques Paul Couturier. The report is of events of the previous day, January 28th.]

There was great excitement over the news. “Knots of people are to be seen everywhere discussing the event, and the opinion generally expressed is that a firm stand should be taken against the rioters, and lawlessness signally punished in a section of the country where hitherto the rabble have ruled.” [The Daily Telegraph (Saint John), January 28, 1875. From a longer article compiled by Jacques Paul Couturier.]

“Great excitement still prevails over the Caraquet affair… Two detachments of the Newcastle Field Battery of Artillery, numbering thirty men and officers, left about three this afternoon. The officers are Capt. R.R. Call, commanding; Lieut. James Mitchell and Surgeon J.S. Benson. A large detachment of the 72nd Battalion left Chatman today for the place. They expect to reach Caraquet some time on Saturday. One of the Frenchmen wounded yesterday has since died. [The Times (Ottawa), January 30, 1875. The article is dated the previous day, January 29th.]

“The jury in the inquest on the body of Gifford, the victim of the Caraquet riots, have brought in a verdict of ‘willful murder,’ implicating all of the Frenchmen who were in the house at the time of the shooting of Gifford. Gifford’s funeral took place at Newcastle on Tuesday, and was attended by fully 5,000 persons. [The Times (Ottawa), February 4, 1875.]

“… The scene of these disturbances is a place known as Caraquet bay – the occasion, an attempt, apparently, to seize property for the payment of the odious State-School tax. The attempt, as was often the case in Ireland, when the Protestant State-Church taxes were once levied at the point of a bayonet provoked resistance; constables and military were called in, shots were fired, and a man named Gifford, a constable, was killed, apparently while forcing his way into a house inhabited by a French family, whose members defended themselves. – Others were wounded amongst them a Frenchman, who has since died of his wounds. Such are the fruits of State-Schoolism in New Brunswick, as reported by the papers.” and, … “Now, from this account it appears that Gifford and his gang were the aggressors; it certainly does not appear that they showed any warrant to apprehend any person or persons in particular; for it can scarcely be believed that even a New Brunswick Protestant magistrate would issue a warrant for the apprehension of Frenchmen in general….” [The True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (Montreal), February 19, 1875.]

Amendments were made to the Common Schools act in early 1875, including several important compromises regarding Catholic schools. The teaching of the catechism was permitted with conditions, and school buildings belonging to the Church could still be used while leases were being arranged with the Province. Teachers in these schools would not have to attend Normal School, but would still be subject to examinations before being certified. The Church and the Province also agreed to cooperate in reviewing the content of school texts.

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These events were of such importance in our history that more lengthy study would be needed to form a definitive opinion about them. This is my blog, however, and I will therefore offer some attitude in place of informed opinion:

It had been a long time since the Loyalists arrived and in New Brunswick and set up a British province with no official religion. ‘Official’ or not, it was understood that the important offices of government had to be occupied by ‘gentlemen’, meaning people of a certain class who, by the way, would undoubtedly be of the Church of England. A society therefore developed in which members of the Church of England had more representation in the halls of power than would otherwise have been expected. At the same time, the school system was fractured into a large number of private schools run, in many cases, by religious organizations. Even the Parish schools were unduly influenced by local opinions on every important issue. King’s College was a special irritant because it was the principal academy of higher learning and, while officially non-sectarian, catered mainly to people of means and stressed Church of England theology.

This situation was not sustainable. A merchant class had arisen and it was they who controlled most of the wealth. Furthermore, the merchants were not stalwarts of the gentleman class and represented all sorts of Protestant denominations. Confederation had also come and in Canada, as in the United States, jurisdictions were deciding in favour of universal public education. It was therefore logical that a non-denominational public schooling system be pursued so that the members of one Protestant denomination would not have to send their children to schools dominated by another denomination.

The Church of England had opposed the move toward non-sectarian schooling. But they were part of the power structure and had lost the debate by democratic process. The Acadians were quite another matter, being a minority and not being members of the elite. There is no doubt that religious chauvinism between Protestants and Catholics was rampant and the opinions of the Catholics, Acadians in particular, were summarily dismissed in considering the Common Schools Act. This was a failure of the democratic process to include all constituencies in the decision making process, and the result was conflict.

There, I feel better now.


Written by johnwood1946

May 28, 2014 at 11:03 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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