Few men in the Province of Ontario are more thoroughly self educated and self made than the Hon. Mackenzie Bowell, Minister of Customs, to which position he was appointed on the 18th of October, 1878, after the defeat of the Mackenzie Government in the previous month. He entered a printing office at eleven years of age as “devil,” and grew up and educated himself in the same office, being connected with it in various relations apprentice, journeyman foreman, joint proprietor and sole proprietor from 1834 to 1875. Whatever he is he owes largely to his own industry and economy of time. Thrown upon his own resources early in life, by perseverance, self reliance and an honorable course in everything he did, he soon obtained the respect and confidence of his employer and those by whom he was surrounded. From boyhood he took an active part in politics, and at an early age his aid was always sought by the party to which he allied himself, whenever it became involved in any contest, until he was looked upon as one of the leaders of the Conservatives in his county.
Mr. Bowell is a son of John Bowell, and Elizabeth Marshall, and was born at Rickinghall, Suffolk, England, December 27, 1823. The family came to Belleville, Canada, when he was ten years old, and that pleasant town has been his home ever since. A small boned, loose jointed lad, in his eleventh year he entered the office of the Belleville Intelligencer; had charge of it before he was out of his apprenticeship, and was its sole proprietor from 1853 until he disposed of the office and paper in 1875, at which time it was published daily, and had acquired one of the most influential positions among the Conservative journals in Central Ontario. He is well known to every newspaper man in the Dominion, and was at one time President of the Ontario Press Association, and at another, Vice-President of the Dominion Editors and Reporters’ Association.
He is President of the Belleville and North Hastings Railway Company; a Director of the Grand Junction Railway; and has been President of the Hastings Mutual Fire Insurance Company; the West Hastings Agricultural Society; the Farren Manufacturing Company, and the Dominion Safety Gas Company.
He is a Lieutenant-Colonel of Volunteer Rifles; was in active service for four months during the American Civil war, being stationed at the head of Lake Erie after the seizure of the steamer “Parsons,” by a number of Southerners, in order to prevent a violation of the neutrality laws, there being a large number of Southerners who had fled to Canada for refuge. Subsequently he was on duty at Prescott at the time of the Fenian raid.
Mr. Bowell was chairman of the Board of School Trustees of Belleville for eleven consecutive years; was a member of the Board of Agriculture and Arts for three years, and one year its Vice-President. Holding decided views upon the question of Roman Catholicism, he joined the Orange Association at eighteen years of age, and was for eight years Grand Master of the Provincial Orange Grand Lodge of Ontario East; was Most Worshipful Grand Master and Sovereign of the Orange Association of British America from 1870 to 1878, when he declined re-election and was Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Black Chapter of Ireland; and President of the Grand Triennial Orange Council of the World, having been elected to that position at Derry, Ireland, in July, 1876, Mr. Bowell was an unsuccessful candidate for the North Riding of Hastings in the Canadian Assembly in 1863, but was returned for that constituency in 1867, being the first Parliament after Confederation, and was re-elected in 1872, 1874, and 1878, and by acclamation after his acceptance of the Portfolio of Minister of Customs in the Dominion Cabinet.
From his first taking a seat in the Legislative halls of his country, Mr. Bowell took an active part in the proceedings of the House. He fast distinguished himself by attacking the Government upon its militia policy, and defeating it upon some important details of the bill, though at the time the Government had a majority of between 60 and 70 in a house of 186 members. After the rebellion in the North-West, the leader of the rebellion, Louis Riel, was returned for a French Parish in Manitoba, and went to Ottawa and took the oath of office and signed the roll. Mr. Bowell immediately took steps to prevent him from taking his seat, and instituted an investigation into his complicity in the murder of one Thomas Scott, an Irish Orangeman, whom he, Riel, had taken prisoner for being a loyalist. This investigation Mr. Bowell conducted with much skill, and it resulted in Riel’s expulsion from the House in 1874, by a large majority, on a motion made by the subject of this memoir. His most important movement in the House was to attack the Mackenzie Government in 187G, for having in violation of the Independence of Parliament Act, given contracts to a number of members of Parliament, including the Speaker of the House, the Hon. Timothy Anglin. The result of this was the unseating of seven members, including the Speaker and Minister of Militia; which resulted in the introduction and passage of a much more stringent Independence of Parliament Act. Mr. Bowell was an active and hard working member of the most important committees of the House, and when his party returned to power in the autumn of 1878, he was called upon to fill the important position of Minister of Customs.
In December, 1847, Mr. Bowell married Harriett Louisa, daughter of Jacob G. Moore of Belleville, and they have five children living and have buried four.