Manitoba became the fifth province to join Confederation in 1870, after the failure of the Red River Rebellion to set up an autonomous Métis state. Soon after the Manitoba Act was passed to create the province, settlers from English Canada, mainly Ontario, began to arrive, in even greater numbers than they had come prior to the Rebellion (which was, in part, a reaction against them). The Manitoba Act had given equal rights to English language, Protestant schools, and French language, Roman Catholic schools, but by the 1880s this no longer reflected the linguistic makeup of the province. Many Métis had left, and settlers from Quebec were not as numerous as those from Ontario. As the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in the 1870s and 1880s, many more English speaking settlers had begun to arrive.
One of the most vocal opponents of separate French and English schools was D'Alton McCarthy, who formed the Equal Rights Association in 1889. By "equal rights," McCarthy meant fairer representation in the province, instead of privileges for the diminishing French population. McCarthy was supported by Joseph Martin, attorney general of Manitoba.
In 1890 Manitoba passed the Manitoba Schools Act, abolishing French as an official language of the province, and removing funding for Catholic schools. This was a contradiction of the Manitoba Act of 1870. Catholics in Manitoba, encouraged by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, appealed to the province's Supreme Court, but the Schools Act was upheld. They then brought the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which decided in favour of the original Manitoba Act. However, the Privy Council in Britain overruled them, favouring the Schools Act. Meanwhile, in 1892, the Northwest Territories also abolished French as an official language.
Under the British North America Act, which created Canada in 1867, the federal government could still intervene despite the decision of the Privy Council. The "Schools Question," as it was known, had divided the Conservative government since 1890, and especially after Macdonald's death in 1891 when no strong leader replaced him. In 1896 the government created a new school board for the Catholics; this was very unpopular, and Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell was forced to resign in April of that year.
The election of 1896 was centred around the Schools Question. It especially divided Conservatives in Quebec and Ontario; Quebec was offended that French was being eliminated in western Canada, just as the French-speaking Métis population had been forced off their land, while Ontario saw opposition to Catholic support by the strong Orange Order. The Liberals, under Wilfrid Laurier (a French Catholic), took advantage of the division in the Conservative party, and Laurier became Prime Minister in 1896.
Laurier developed a compromise with Thomas Greenway, Premier of Manitoba. They agreed that Catholic education would be permitted in public schools, and French would be used in teaching, but only on a school-by-school basis depending on the numbers of French-speaking students. They also re-established a Catholic school board, but without government funding. Many Catholics were still opposed to this compromise, and even appealed to Pope Leo XIII. The Pope sent an observer, who concluded, like Laurier, that the compromise was the fairest one possible with so few Catholics left in the province.
As French was no longer an official language, its use declined greatly. By 1916 the guarantee of French instruction was removed from the compromise, leaving English as the only language in use in the province.