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Memoir of the Right Reverend John Strachan
Chapter VII

Effects of the War—.Emigration to Canada.—Controversy with the Earl of Selkirk.—Mr. Robert Gourlay.

WAR is a great calamity, and it produces injuries to all individuals, and frequently to communities, which no after thrift or industry can compensate; yet war, especially to a new country, has its indirect benefits. The brave soldiers and sailors who fought in our defence, and who, on their return home, discovered that their active services were no longer required, gladly accepted grants of land in Canada; and diffusing, as they did, a knowledge of the country,—the healthfulness of its climate, the fertility of its soil, its mineral wealth, and boundless capabilities for manufacturing enterprise,—amongst their friends at home, who were realizing there but a scant subsistence, many were induced to emigrate and try their fortunes here.

A large importation of sturdy settlers, chiefly from Scotland, very soon transformed a wilderness of forest into fruitful fields and thriving villages, in the country comprising what was recently the Bathurst District. This was the beginning of the emigration enterprise; since then, it has come in with a continuous flow,—latterly, it is true, in streams more scant; so that our population, numbered then by a few tens of thousands, has, in the course of half a century, swelled to millions.

It seems that there were other portions of this continent under British rule, besides Canada, to invite the settler; at all events means were^ taken to entice them in a different direction, The Earl of Selkirk, a Scottish nobleman, had conceived the project of forming a settlement on the Red River in the Hudson’s Bay Territory. Various opinions were formed at the time, as to his Lordship’s intentions in undertaking this settlement. Some believed that his motives were pure and philanthrophic, prompted simply by the desire to better the condition of some of his poorer countrymen; but the impression amongst leading men in Canada prevailed very strongly, that one object of his emigration plans was aggression upon, and the final supplanting of the North West Fur Company, in favour either of the Hudson’s Bay Company, or of some selfish project of his own. This movement was naturally viewed by the North West Company with great suspicion and jealousy; and in the effort to counteract it, contentions arose of a very grave character.

The writer of this chanced to be at Montreal, enjoying one of his school vacations, in the summer of 1816, when the news arrived of the capture of Fort William by Lord Selkirk, and the arrest and imprisonment of some leading members of the Company. Montreal was deeply agitated, though somewhat divided in opinion, upon this quarrel. The North West Company, having their head-quarters of business in that city, had naturally a large number of supporters there; while not a few,. from disappointment or jealousy,—for the “North-westers” were the leaders of society in Montreal,—had their partialities on the other side. The excitement was intense when the news arrived “ of Lord Selkirk’s high-handed proceedings; and there could hardly have been more anxiety and distress, if news had arrived of some terrible reverse in war.

Dr. Strachan was not one to stand neutral in a case affecting so vitally the interests of the colony; and so he threw himself with characteristic energy into the contest. With his innate keen perception of acts and motives, he at once arrayed himself with the opponents of Lord Selkirk, and wrote a very powerful and able pamphlet, exposing his unfair acts and schemes, and maintaining the right and justice of the position assumed by the North West Company.

The collision between the high contending parties,—involving some lamentable acts of violence and bloodshed,— was at hist to be settled by the peaceful arbitrament of law. In successive courts of justice, the case was ably argued on both sides; and once, in his enthusiasm, a leading member of the Company, exclaimed in reference to one of their advocates,—“The Attorney-General (Robinson) is an ornament to the world.” At this stage of its history, Dr. Strachan wrote as follows to an old and dear friend in Scotland, on the 1st December, 1818 :—

“It was not altogether procrastination that prevented me from answering your most welcome favour dated January last; I was anxious to await the issue of some trials between the Earl of Selkirk and his opponents,—the issue of which, and the evidence adduced, would establish the guilt or innocence of the contending parties.

“The arts made use of by his Lordship to containiuate or obstruct the course of justice, aud to turn the proceedings of the law into engines of oppression, have exhibited wonderful talent and great resource, which, in a better cause, might have been productive of much good. But, as you are on friendly terms with his Lordship's relatives, I shall be extremely brief on this subject.

“First, then, all the miseries that have happened in the interior of this continent, the death of Mr. Semple and his followers, &c., were proved most clearly to have originated with the Earl of Selkirk ; that his instructions were even more violent than his servants durst put in execution.

“His Lordship at length finding all his acts discovered, and that he was soon to be called to give an account of his conduct, when no subterfuge would avail him, has fled hastily to England.

“I must likewise remark that my controversy with his Lordship respected liis colony only, and the deceptions he was practising on the poor people in Scotland, to induce them to emigrate.

“My motive was entirely disinterested, and had nothing to do with the Earl's rivalship with the North West Company, or the propriety of the Fur Trade. On this contest I was a neutral spectator, taking no step on either side ; though 1 knew then, as well as I do now, that his Lordship was the aggressor.

“My pamphlet was sent to my brother in Aberdeen to be transmitted to you for perusal, and any alterations in style you pleased to make; but it has been printed without this benefit. The facts, however, can be incontestably proved, and much more than I thought it necessary to advance: my object was to give an opportunity to my poor countrymen of judging for themselves, by seeing both sides of the question. In this point of view it has done some good ; and this consoles me for his Lordship's implacable hatred, and incessant calumnies, which I value not a straw.

"The letter to his Lordship was published before I became a public character, otherwise I should not have thought it prudent to meddle in the business; for I knew that the disputes already commenced were daily assuming a more serious aspect, and must sooner or later arrest the attention of Government

“I could say much on this subject, and feel confident that, if the matter were fully explained, you would be with me in every particular; but I have no desire to disturb your tranquillity.

“The narratives and documents which were sent you, I have likewise seen. They are full of the grossest misrepresentations, and every fact suppressed that made against the writer. Moreover, great care was taken to distribute them before the trials of the persons particularly implicated, and amongst the people that chiefly compose the juries; nevertheless, when the trials were had, the facts came out entirely different.

“I can assure you that his Lordship was not abandoned by the Government, till he himself abandoned justice and humanity. I am willing to believe that, when his Lordship commenced this undertaking, he had no intention of doing many things which he has since done; but from the first I believe it was a deep laid scheme to ruin the trade of the North West Company,—an enterprise unworthy of a British peer. But enough, and more than enough, of this. Let it not, I beseech you, disturb your peace. I have no personal enmity to Lord Selkirk, though I dislike his plans. Let Mr. Haskett and I, though differing upon this subject, remain your dear friends as before.”

Up to the present period, such a thing as political contention was utterly unknown in Upper Canada. There was but one simple public policy ; and all seemed to coalesce in upholding it. If anything was ever obtruded that savoured of opposition to public opinion, it was regarded with amazement if not with alarm; and the abettor of it viewed as an eccentric or perverse being, who should be ridiculed or avoided according to the character of his pretensions.

People are often advised that this is an unhealthy and pernicious state of things, and that a ruffle now and then of the public tranquillity is wholesome and beneficial. The effort therefore is made, and it is frequently succesful, to make people believe that the political system they have been quietly living under so long, is unsound and despotic, at the same time that they have felt themselves free, contented, and prosperous. They are persuaded that they have been all along under an unhappy delusion, and that he is to be hailed as a friend and benefactor who comes forth to waken them out of it.

Early in the year 1818, there arrived in Canada a Mr. Robert Gourlay,—a Scotch radical of the most decided stamp, and fresh from the tuition imparted by the political riots in several towns of his native country during the preceding year. He came brimful of specifics for the cure of every political malady; and if he did not discover any thing in Upper Canada that required the application of his skill, he was not slow in conjuring up imaginary diseases, and dictating a suitable remedy.

He sent broadcast through the province, various documents designed to throw light upon our political state, and retrieve us from the political wretchedness into which he assured us we had fallen. He was a fluent and taking writer, though a heavy and ungainly speaker; and the printed sheets he circulated far and wide veiy much astonished many of our quiet-going population. As, however, there was on the surface of these documents an apparent anxiety to develop the natural resources of the country and give a spur to our arts and commerce, many intelligent and educated men viewed them at first with favour, and appeared disposed to give him a fair support in carrying out his views.

But it was not so easy to impose upon Dr. Strachan. He had not lost all recollection of what Scottish radicalism was, and there was still some memory of the specious way in which advances are made by political charlatans to gain over partisans. So he felt it his duty to denounce Mr. Gourlay as a fire-brand and a demagogue; and he warned his friends in various parts of the Province against giving him any countenance. In writing to a friend in Scotland, about the close of the year 1818, he says:—

“There has been here for about a year past, a Mr. Gourlay, from Fifeshire, trying to get us by the ears. He has done a good deal of mischief in the province by his seditious publications, exciting discontent amongst the people. I saw through him at once and opposed him with my usual vigour; upon which the press groaned with his abuse of me. By this he destroyed much of his influence. All my pupils, now leading characters in many parts of the Province opposed him sternly. . A character like Mr. Gourlay, in a quiet colony like this, where there has been little or no spirit of inquiry and very little knowledge can do much harm; and notwithstanding the check he has received he has already done great mischief. I tried to infuse more energy into the administration of the Government; but it was too feeble until Sir Peregime Maitland arrived. Matters are now falling back to their old peaceful state; and as we have in truth no grievances, the people are regaining their senses.”

In a subsequent letter, after speaking of Lord Selkirk, whose death had recently taken place, in the following terms, he adds what is quoted in reference to Mr. Gourlay:

“In regard to the personal interest which you have discovered in Lord Selkirk, I consider it laudable. My predilections were once in the same channel; but his conduct placed his character and views in a new light, and I became his opponent. I feel, however, that I was only opposed to him in principle; and while I disapproved of his plans, and lamented that a person of his brilliant attainments should have stooped so low, I entertained no dislike for the man. That I was right, events have shewn; since his death, the Hudson’s Bay Company have compromised matters, and united with the North West,—allowing, in the arrangement, more than half the interest to the latter. In a moral point of view this union is to be applauded, as it will put a stop to all the feuds and crimes that were continually happening in the interior of this continent It will likewise prove favourable to the Indian nations. The rival Companies were in the habit of supplying them with great quantities of ardent spirits, in order to maintain their influence; but now acting as one, they will find it their interest to carry very little of this poison to their savage friends.

“But if I am disposed to draw a veil over Lord Selkirk and his transactions, now that he is gone, I feel. very differently towards Mr. Gourlay. This man I must always consider as a wicked and malignant person; who paid no regard to the truth, and composed and published the most venomous and unfeeling slander. It was not his politics that I regarded, but his venomous attacks on the characters of all who dared to differ from him in opinion. In this respect he was a perfect despot; for he allowed no man the liberty of thinking but himself, and the moment that any of his friends differed from him, this unworthy apostle of freedom denounced him. 1 had no personal communication with the man, nor did I know for a long time that 1 was offensive to him. This I discovered by seeing long paragraphs in the newspapers, in which my character "was traduced in the most infamous manner, and my name coupled with every thing that was base and mean. But the general indignation rose against him; and as I had warm friends amongst the most respectable ranks in every part of the Province, his attacks on me ultimately led to his banishment.”

From the days of Robert Gourlay politicians in Canada took sides, and we had, though on a small scale, an organized opposition in our Legislature. And where this is composed of honest and disinterested men, it is not to be lamented. Differences of opinion are inseparable from the constitution of human nature; and while the party in power are thus kept in check, and made to proceed more warily as well as with more zeal for the public interests, these collisions of opinion, with the discussions they provoke amongst intelligent men, stimulate inquiry and lead to the acquisition of information that may be turned to the account of the general good.

Though born and educated a Tory, the writer of these pages has learned to respect a wholesome opposition in Government. There is a danger to the political, as well as physical and’ moral health, in an unbroken monotony,— a dead level of feeling and sentiment. There would follow too surely a stagnation of thought, a prostration of energy. This, too, contracts the intellectual vision, and bounds its grasp and conceptions within a narrow range. Persons, for example, wedded by association and habit to a particular set of political opinions, are led to apprehend that the adoption of a policy essentially opposed to what they have been always instructed to maintain, must end in revolution,—a disorganization of the social structure, the prostration and overthrow of the public interests.

How deeply and widely was this apprehension felt in regard to the influence of the Reform Bill in England in 1831-2! But though this may have been followed by some social ills, it has not shaken in the least the stability of the Throne, the influence of the Peerage, or the moral power of the Church. On the contrary, energies have been evoked which have given to all three a weight and influence they never possessed so legitimately before; and since the abolition of the Com Laws, the effects of which were viewed with so much alarm, there has been a prosperity and content in the Empire to which, for centuries, there has been no parallel.

So we in Canada, who were educated with a different bias, dreaded much the effects of Responsible Government, as unsuited to a colony; but this, though it has been attended with some practical evils, and engendered a large amount of corruption in the administration of the Government, has, without a doubt, shaken us out of a state of political boyhood, into one of manly energy and enterprise. It has taught us, as it were, to walk without support,—to swim without bladders.

In regard to Mr. Gourlay, he was unquestionably a man of coarse feelings and violent temper; but time has shewn that there was some mental aberration provoking this unseemly acrimony. A relative of his mentioned to me in Scotland in 1831, that in a freak of annoyance and spite he once left his home and hired himself to break stones upon the highway. In the autumn of 1838, when time had mellowed his feelings, and his native asperity seemed all but gone, he called upon me, and spoke in a manner, though calm and gentle, yet so wild and incoherent, that we saw at once the intellectual wreck he had now become.

Poor Mr. Gourlay! The time had come about when he found himself alone and a stranger in Canada. After all the bitterness and commotion he had excited, he had become an object of pity to those whom, in bygone years, he had forced to be his enemies, but who were now willing to soothe him in his misfortunes, and befriend him in his necessities.

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