Oliver Mowat

Sir Oliver Mowat, GCMG PC QC (July 22, 1820 – April 19, 1903) was a Canadian lawyer, politician, and Liberal Party leader. He served for nearly 24 years as the third Premier of Ontario. He was the eighth Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and one of the Fathers of Confederation. He is best known for defending successfully the constitutional rights of the provinces in the face of the centralizing tendency of the national government as represented by his longtime conservative adversary, John A. Macdonald. This longevity and power was due to his political maneuvering, in terms of building a political base around Liberals, Catholics, trade unions, and anti-French-Canadian sentiment.[1]

Sir Oliver Mowat

As Premier in 1873
3rd Premier of Ontario
In office
October 25, 1872  July 12, 1896
Lieutenant GovernorWilliam Pearce Howland
John Willoughby Crawford
Donald A. Macdonald
John Beverley Robinson
Alexander Campbell
George Airey Kirkpatrick
Preceded byEdward Blake
Succeeded byArthur Hardy
Ontario MPP
In office
November 29, 1872  July 14, 1896
Preceded byGeorge Perry
Succeeded byAndrew Pattulo
ConstituencyOxford North
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
In office
July 13, 1896  November 17, 1897
Preceded byArthur Rupert Dickey
Succeeded byDavid Mills
Leader of the Government in the Senate
In office
August 19, 1896  November 17, 1897
Preceded bySir Mackenzie Bowell
Succeeded byDavid Mills
8th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario
In office
November 18, 1897  April 19, 1903
Edward VII
Governor GeneralThe Earl of Aberdeen
The Earl of Minto
PremierArthur Sturgis Hardy
George William Ross
Preceded byCasimir Gzowski
Succeeded byWilliam Mortimer Clark
Personal details
Born(1820-07-22)July 22, 1820
Kingston, Upper Canada
DiedApril 19, 1903(1903-04-19) (aged 82)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Resting placeMount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto
Political partyOntario Liberal Party
Spouse(s)Jane Ewart

Despite years of public service, Mowat never achieved the fame and public attention of his conservative rival Sir John A. Macdonald who sought to outmaneuver him during their public life. Their personal relationship and political competition has become one of the foremost examples of political rivalry in Canadian politics.

Early years

Mowat was born in Kingston, Upper Canada (now Ontario), to John Mowat and Helen Levack, Scottish Presbyterians[2] both having emigrated from Caithness, Scotland.[3] As a youth, he had taken up arms with the loyalists during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, which suggested a conservative inclination in politics. However, he did not trust the politics of John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, or the other leaders of the Conservative Party, and instead joined the Reformers.

Mowat trained as a lawyer. On January 27, 1836, Mowat, not yet sixteen years old, articled in the law office of John A. Macdonald, during a time when there was no formal legal education in the province. Macdonald had just turned 21. Early in their work relationship, Mowat and Macdonald were close friends, and worked successfully to build the legal practice. But they grew apart over time, as Mowat matured into a genuine rival of the older Macdonald. Mowat was mostly even-tempered and moderate in his behaviour, in sharp contrast to Macdonald. As a young man, Mowat moved away from Kingston, eventually settling in Toronto, to develop his own career and life away from Macdonald's prominence.

Mowat was called to the bar of Upper Canada on November 5, 1841. In 1846, he married Jane Ewart, a daughter of John Ewart of Toronto. Mowat and his wife had three sons and four daughters. In 1856 Mowat was appointed Queen's Counsel.

He was known to be a tenacious legal practitioner, with two of his cases being upheld by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In the 1858 case Bowes v. City of Toronto, John George Bowes (previously Mayor of Toronto) was successfully sued for recovery of the share of the profit he was suspected to have made in collaboration with co-premier Francis Hincks out of a speculation in city debentures.[4] Afterwards, Mowat admitted, "I cannot speak with much force unless I have an opponent, and things are said by others which I do not altogether coincide with."

Political career before Confederation

He first entered politics as an alderman of the City of Toronto in 1857. From there, he became a member of the Legislative Assembly for South Ontario.

As a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada from 1858 to 1864, he was closely associated with George Brown. Mowat served as Provincial Secretary (1858) and Postmaster-General (1863–1864) in pre-Confederation government (the John Sandfield Macdonald administration), and was also an avid supporter of representation by population. With Brown, he helped create what became the Ontario Liberal Party as well as the Liberal Party of Canada.

Mowat was a member of the Great Coalition government of 1864 and was a representative at that year's Quebec Conference, where he helped work out the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. On November 14, 1864, he was appointed to the judiciary as Vice-Chancellor of the Court of Chancery of Upper Canada,[5] He held this position until he was appointed premier on October 25, 1872. One of the more notable cases during his time on the Court was Dickson v Burnham in 1868,[6] whose underlying jurisprudence would be altered during his later time as Premier, with the passage of the Rivers and Streams Act, 1884.[7]

Premier and Attorney-General of Ontario

Mowat served as provincial member for the riding of Oxford North, about 150 km west of Toronto, for his entire term as premier.

As premier in the 1880s a series of disputes with the Dominion arose over Provincial boundaries,[8] jurisdiction over liquor licenses,[9] trade and commerce,[10] rivers and streams,[11] timber,[12] mineral rights[13] and other matters. In 1890, it was said:

These court battles resulted in a weakening of the power of the federal government in provincial matters. Although Macdonald had dismissed him as "Blake's jackal", Mowat's battles with the federal government greatly decentralized Canada, giving the provinces far more power than Macdonald had intended.

He also served as his own Attorney-General concurrently with his service as Premier, and introduced reforms such as the secret ballot in elections,[15] and the extension of suffrage beyond property owners.[16] He also extended laws regulating liquor[17] and consolidated the laws relating to the municipal level of government.[18] His policies, particularly regarding liquor regulation and separate schools, routinely drew criticism from political conservatives, including the Orange Lodge and its associated newspaper, The Sentinel.[19]

The boundary between Ontario and Manitoba became a hotly contested matter, with the federal government attempting to extend Manitoba's jurisdiction eastward to the Great Lakes, into the areas that Ontario claimed. In 1882 Premier Mowat threatened to pull Ontario from Confederation over the issue. Mowat sent police into the disputed territory to assert Ontario's claims, while Manitoba (at the behest of the national government) did the same.[20] The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain, serving as Canada's highest appeal court, repeatedly issued rulings taking the side of provincial rights. These decisions would to some extent neutralize the power of the central government, creating a more decentralized federation. John Ibbitson writes that by 1914:

Confederation had evolved into a creation beyond John A. Macdonald's worst nightmare. Powerful, independent provinces, sovereign within their own spheres, manipulated the rights of property, levied their own taxes—even income taxes, in a few cases—exploited their natural resources, and managed schools, hospitals, and relief for the poor, while a weak and ineffectual central government presided over not much of anything in the drab little capital on the banks of the Ottawa.[21]

George William Ross praised Mowat's ability to read the public mind, and John Stephen Willison remarked that his political genius rose from "the fact that for so long he had a generous support from the liquor interest and a still more generous support from Prohibitionists".

His government was moderate and attempted to cut across divisions in the province between Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as between country and city. He also oversaw the northward expansion of Ontario's boundaries and the development of its natural resources, as well as the emergence of the province into the economic powerhouse of Canada.[22]

Mowat's nearly 24 years as premier of Ontario remains the longest consecutive service by any premier in Ontario history, and is the third longest by any premier in Canada, behind only George Henry Murray of Nova Scotia and Ernest Manning of Alberta.

Federal level

In 1896 the leader of the opposition, Wilfrid Laurier, convinced Mowat to enter federal politics. It was thought that the combination of a French Canadian (Laurier) and the prestige of Sir Oliver Mowat in Ontario would be a winning ticket for the Liberal party. The slogan was "Laurier, Mowat and Victory". Victory was won, and Mowat became Minister of Justice and Senator.

In 1897 he was appointed the eighth Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and served until his death in office in 1903. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.

Macdonald and Mowat in power

The two former Kingston law partners, Macdonald as prime minister in Ottawa and Mowat as premier in Toronto, led their respective governments during the same era for a total of 14 years. Mowat was premier for just under 24 years.


Mowat's daughter, Jane Helen Mowat, married Charles Robert Webster Biggar, who wrote a two-volume biography of Mowat in 1905. Their son Oliver Mowat Biggar became Canada's first Chief Electoral Officer.

Mowat was also the great-great-uncle of the Canadian author Farley Mowat.

Other achievements

Mowat was knighted in 1892.

Mowat was himself the author of two small books in the field of Christian apologetics:

  • Mowat, Oliver (1890). Christianity and Some of Its Evidences: An Address. Toronto: Williamson & Co.
  • Mowat, Oliver (1898). Christianity and Its Influence. Toronto: Hunter Rose.

Mowat also documented his government's first 18 years of Ontario government (from 1872 to 1890) in an 1890 book.


After his death, Wilfrid Laurier placed Mowat's policy of sectarian tolerance second in historical importance only to his role in giving confederation its character as a federal compact. He credited Mowat with giving Ontario "a Government which can be cited as a model for all Governments: a Government which was honest, progressive, courageous, and tolerant".[24]

By nature a secretive individual, he left instructions in his will that resulted in the destruction of nearly all his papers.

Mowat is honoured by a statue in Queen's Park. Mowat Avenue in Kingston is named in his honour.

Mowat is the inspiration for the naming of The Mowat Centre, an independent Canadian public policy think tank associated with the School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto.

The Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate Institute in Toronto was named in his honour.

Queen's University organized a two-day historical colloquium in 1970 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mowat's birth.

Mowat was portrayed by David Onley (the 28th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario) in the Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries in 2013 in the episode "The Ghost of Queen's Park."[25]

Mowat was portrayed by Kingston actor Patrick Downes, in 2015, in Kingston-based Salon Theatre's stage productions featuring the life of Sir John A. Macdonald, staged during the Bicentennial celebrations of Sir John A. Macdonald's birth.[26]

The building where Mowat and Macdonald practiced law together in the 1830s, on Wellington Street between King and Brock Streets in Kingston, east side, was renovated, restored, and expanded, from 2014–18, but has had its heritage elements preserved, insofar as possible, under direction from Kingston City Council. The building re-opened as the 'Kensington' in 2018, and now features, on its street level, an alley portraying historical and heritage aspects of its past, along with the Macdonald-Mowat relationship.


  1. Romney, Paul (1994). "Mowat, Sir Oliver". In Cook, Ramsay; Hamelin, Jean (eds.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XIII (1901–1910) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.
  2. http://schoolweb.tdsb.on.ca/sirolivermowat/About-Us/History
  3. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/QuebecHistory/encyclopedia/OliverMowat-CanadianHistory.htm
  4. John George Bowes v The City of Toronto (1858) XI Moo PC 463; [1858] UKPC 10, 14 ER 770, P.C. (UK)
  5. which became part of the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1881.
  6. Dickson v Burnham, 14 Grant's Ch 594 (1868).
  7. An Act for protecting the Public interest in Rivers, Streams and Creeks, S.O. 1884, c. 17
  8. "Ontario-Manitoba Boundary Case". 1884. Archived from the original on October 4, 2012.
  9. Hodge v The Queen (Canada) [1883] UKPC 59, 9 App Cas 117 (15 December 1883), P.C. (on appeal from Ontario)
  10. The Citizens Insurance Company of Canada and The Queen Insurance Company v Parsons [1881] UKPC 49, (1881) 7 A.C. 96 (26 November 1881), P.C. (on appeal from Canada)
  11. Caldwell and another v McLaren [1884] UKPC 21, (1884) 9 A.C. 392 (7 April 1884), P.C. (on appeal from Canada)
  12. St. Catherines Milling and Lumber Company v The Queen [1888] UKPC 70, [1888] 14 AC 46 (12 December 1888), P.C. (on appeal from Canada)
  13. The Attorney General of Ontario v Mercer [1883] UKPC 42, [1883] 8 AC 767 (18 July 1883), P.C. (on appeal from Canada)
  14. Mowat 1890, p. 29.
  15. An Act to provide for voting by Ballot at Elections to the Legislative Assembly, S.O. 1874, c. 5
  16. An Act to extend the Elective Franchise, S.O. 1874, c. 3
  17. An Act to amend the Acts respecting Tavern and Shop Licenses, S.O. 1873, c. 34 , An Act to Amend and Consolidate the Law for the Sale of Fermented and Spirituous Liquors, S.O. 1874, c. 32 , An Act to amend the Law respecting the Sale of Fermented and Spirituous Liquors, S.O. 1875-76, c. 26
  18. An Act respecting Municipal Institutions in the Province of Ontario, S.O. 1873, c. 48
  19. Thomson, Andrew (1983). The Sentinel and Orange and Protestant Advocate, 1877–1896: An Orange view of Canada (M.A.). Wilfrid Laurier University.
  20. Ibbitson 2001, p. 46.
  21. Ibbitson 2001, p. 49.
  22. Canadian Encyclopedia
  23. https://www.ola.org/en/visit-learn/about-ontarios-parliament/queens-park-grounds
  24. Ramsay Cook, ed. (1994). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Springer. p. 741.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  25. "Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley films cameo for CBC drama 'Murdoch Mysteries'". WinnipegFreePress.com. Retrieved July 13, 2012.
  26. See "Songs of Salon" 2016

Further reading


  • Janet B. Kerr (1963). "Sir Oliver Mowat and the campaign of 1894". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 55: 1–3.
  • A. Margaret Evans (1964). "The Ontario press on Oliver Mowat's first six weeks as premier". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 56: 125–141.
  • A. Margaret Evans (1967). "The Mowat Era, 1872–1896". Profiles of a Province. Ontario Historical Society: 75–83.
  • A. Margaret Evans (1970). "Oliver Mowat: the pre-premier and post-premier years". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 62: 137–150.
  • A. Margaret Evans (1979). "Oliver Mowat: Vice-Chancellor of Upper Canada, 1864–1872". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 71 (2): 75–83.
  • Peter Neary, ed. (1979). "'Neither Radical Nor Tory Nor Whig': letters by Oliver Mowat to John Mowat, 1843–1846". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 71 (2): 84–131.
  • Graham White (1981). "'Christian humility and partisan ingenuity': Sir Oliver Mowat's redistribution of 1874". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 73 (4): 219–238.
  • Kenneth McLaughlin (1992). "Ontario's 'grand old man': Oliver Mowat's last hurrah". Ontario History. Ontario Historical Society. 84 (1): 15–31.
  • Romney, Paul (1994). "Mowat, Sir Oliver". In Cook, Ramsay; Hamelin, Jean (eds.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XIII (1901–1910) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press., a short scholarly biography

Books (historical)

Books (general)

  • Middletown, Jesse Edgar (1923). The Municipality of Toronto – A History. Toronto: Dominion Publishing.
  • Vaudry, R.W. (1990). "Oliver Mowat". In Daniel G. Reid; Robert D. Linder; Bruce L. Shelley; Harry S. Stout (eds.). Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0-8308-1776-X.
Professional and academic associations
Preceded by
William Henry Draper
President of the Royal Canadian Institute
Succeeded by
Henry Holmes Croft
Government offices
Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada
Preceded by
John McVeagh Lumsden
MLA for South Ontario
Succeeded by
Thomas Nicholson Gibbs
Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Preceded by
George Perry
MLA for Oxford North
Succeeded by
Andrew Pattulo
Parliament of Canada
Preceded by
John Ferguson
Senator for Ontario
Succeeded by
William Kerr
Court offices
Preceded by
James Christie Palmer Esten
Vice-Chancellor of the Court of Chancery of Upper Canada
Served alongside: John Godfrey Spragge (1850–1869)
Samuel Henry Strong (1869–1874)
Succeeded by
Samuel Hume Blake
Party political offices
Preceded by
Edward Blake
Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party
Succeeded by
Arthur Hardy
Political offices
Preceded by
Michael Hamilton Foley
Postmaster General for the Province of Canada
May 1863 – March 1864
Succeeded by
Michael Hamilton Foley
Preceded by
Michael Hamilton Foley
Postmaster General for the Province of Canada
June 1864 – November 1864
Succeeded by
William Pearce Howland
Preceded by
Edward Blake
Premier of Ontario
Succeeded by
Arthur Hardy
Preceded by
Adam Crooks
Attorney General of Ontario
Preceded by
Mackenzie Bowell
Leader of the Government in the Senate of Canada
Succeeded by
David Mills
Preceded by
Arthur Rupert Dickey
Minister of Justice
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