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George Brown
Chapter XII - Brown and the Roman Catholics

THAT the Globe and Mr. Brown, as related in a previous chapter, became associated with Lord John Russell’s bill and the “no popery” agitation in England, may be regarded as a mere accident. The excitement would have died out here as it died out in England, if there had not been in Canada such a mass of inflammable material—so many questions in which the relations of Church and State were 1-volved. One of these was State endowment of denominational schools. During Brown’s early years in Canada the school system was being placed on a broad and popular basis. Salaries of teachers were wretchedly low. Fees were charged to children, and remitted only as an act of charity. Mr. Brown advocated a free and unsectarian system. Claims for denominational schools were put forward not only by the Roman Catholics but by the Anglicans. He argued that if this were allowed the public school system would be destroyed by division. The country could barely afford to maintain one good school system. To maintain a system for each denomination would require ar immense addition to the number of school-houses and teachers, and would absorb the whole revenue of the province. At the same time, the educational forces would be weakened by the division and thousands of children would grow up without education. “Under the non-sectarian system,” said Brown, “the day is at hand when we may hope to abolish the school-tax and offer free education to every child in the province.”

Eventually :t was found possible to carry out Mr. Brown’s idea of free education for every child in the province, and yet to allow Roman Catholic separate schools to be maintained. To this compromise Mr. Brown became reconciled, because it did not involve, as he had feared, the destruction of the free school system by division. The Roman Catholics of Upper Canada were allowed to maintain separate denominational schools, to have them supported by the taxes of Roman Catholic ratepayers and by provincial grants. So far as the education of Protestant children was concerned Mr. Brown’s advocacy was successful. He opposed denominational schools because he feared they would weaken or destroy the general system of free education for all. Under the agreement which was finally arrived at, this fear was not realized. In his speech on confederation he admitted that the sectarian system, carried to a limited extent and confined chiefly to cities and towns, had not been a very great practical injury. The real cause of alarm was that the admission of the sectarian principle was there, and that at any moment it might be extended to such a degree as to split up our school system altogether: “that the separate system might gradually extend itself until the whole country was studded with nurseries of sectarianism, most hurtful to the best interests of the province and entailing an enormous expense to sustain the hosts of teachers that so prodigal a system of public instruction must inevitably entail.”

This, however, was not the only question at issue between Mr. Brown and the Roman Catholic Church. It happened, as has been said above, that on his first entry into parliament, the place of meeting was the city of Quebec. The Edinburgh-bred man found himself in a Roman Catholic city, surrounded by every evidence of the power of the Church. As he looked up from the floor of the House to the galleries he saw a Catholic audience, its character emphasized by the appearance of priests clad in the distinctive garments of their orders. It was his duty to oppose a great mass of legislation intended to strengthen that Church and to add to its privileges. His spirit rose and he grew more dour and resolute as he realized the strength of the forces opposed to him.

It would be doing an injustice to the memory of Mr. Brown to gloss over or minimize a most important feature of his career, or to offer apologies which he himself would have despised. The battle was not fought with swords of lath, and whoever wants to read of an old-fashioned “no popery” fight, carried on with abounding fire and vigour, will find plenty of matter in the files of the Globe of the fifties. His success in the election of 1857, so far as Upper Canada was concerned, and especially his accomplishment of the rare feat of carrying a Toronto seat for the Reform party, was largely due to an agitation that aroused all the forces and many of the prejudices of Protestantism. Yet Brown kept and won many warm friends among Roman Catholics, both in Upper and in Lower Canada. His manliness attracted them. They saw in him, not a narrow-minded and cold-hearted bigot, seeking to force his opinions on others, but a brave and generous man, fighting for principles. And 'n Lower Canada there were many Roman Catholic laymen whose hearts were with him, and who were themselves entering upon a momentous struggle to free the electorate from clerical control. In his fight for the separation of Church and State, he came into conflict, not with Roman Catholics alone. In his own Presbyterian Church, at the time of the disruption, he strongly upheld the .side which was identified with liberty. For several years after his arrival in Canada he was fighting against the special privileges of the Anglican Church. He often said that he was actuated, not by prejudice against one Church, but by hatred of clerical privilege, and love of religious liberty and equality.

In 1871 Mr. Brown, In a letter addressed to prominent Roman Catholics, gave a straight-forward account of his relations with the Roman Catholic Church. It is repeated here in a somewhat abbreviated form, but as nearly as possible in his own words. In the early days of the political history of Upper Canada, the great mass of Catholics were staunch Reformers. They suffered from Downing Street rule, from the domination of the ‘'family compact,” from the clergy reserves and from other attempts to arm the Anglican Church with special privileges and powers ; they gave an intelligent and cordial support to liberal and progressive measures. They contributed to the victory of Baldwin and Lafontaine. But when that victory was achieved, the Upper Canadian Reformers found that a cause was operating to deprive them of its fruits,—“the French-Canadian members of the cabinet and their supporters in parliament, blocked the way.” They not only prevented or delayed the measures which the Reformers desired, but they forced through parliament measures which antagonized Reform sentiment. “Although much less numerous than the people of Upper Canada, and contributing to the common purse hardly a fourth of the annual revenue of the United Provinces, the Lower Canadians sent an equal number of representatives with the Upper Canadians to parliament, and, by their unity of action, obtained complete dominancy in the management of public affairs.” Unjust and injurious taxation, waste and extravagance, and great increases in the public debt followed. Seeking a remedy, the Upper Canadian Reformers demanded, first, representation by population, giving Upper Canada its just influence in the legislature, and second, the entire separation of Church and State, placing all denominations on a like footing and leaving each to support its own religious establishments from the funds of its own people. They believed that these measures would remove from the public arena causes of strife and heartburning, and would bring about solid .prosperity and internal peace. The battle was fought vigorously. “The most determined efforts were put forth for the final but just settlement of all those vexed questions by which religious sects were arrayed against each other. Clergymen were dragged as combatants into the political arena, religion was brought into contempt, and opportunity presented to our French-Canadian friends to rule us through our own dissensions.’* Clergy reserves, sectarian schools, the use of the public funds for sectarian purposes, were assailed. “On these and many similar questions, we were met by the French-Canadian phalanx in hostile array; our whole policy was denounced in language of the strongest character, and the men who upheld it were assailed as the basest of mankind. We, on our part., were not slow in returning blow for blow, and feelings were excited among the Catholics from Upper Canada that estranged the great bulk of them from our ranks.” The agitation was carried on, however, until the grievances of which the Reformers complained were removed by the Act of Confederation. Under that Act the people of Ontario enjoy representation according to population; they have entire control over their own local affairs; and the last remnant of the sectarian warfare—the separate school question—was settled forever by a compromise that was accepted as final by all parties concerned.

In this letter Mr. Brown said that he was not seeking to cloak over past feuds or apologize for past occurrences. He gloried n the justice and soundness of the principles and measures for which he and his party had contended, and he was proud of the results of the conflict. He asked Catholics to read calmly the page of history he had unfolded. “Let them blaze away at George Brown afterwards as vigorously as they please, but let not their old feuds with him close their eyes to the interests of their country, and their own interests as a powerful section of the body politic.”

The censure applied to those who wantonly draw sectarian questions into politics, and set Catholic against Protestant, is just. But it does not attach to those who attack the privileges of any Church, and who, when the Church steps into the political arena, strike at it with political weapons. This was Brown’s position. He was the sworn foe of clericalism. He had no affinity with the demagogues and professional agitators who make a business of attacking the Roman Catholic Church, nor with those whose souls are filled with vague alarms of papal supremacy, and who believe stories of Catholics drilling in churches to fight their Protestant neighbours. He fought against real tyranny, for the removal of real grievances. When he believed that he had found in confederation the real remedy, he was satisfied, and he did not keep up an agitation merely for agitation’s sake. It is not necessary to attempt to justify every word that may have been struck off in the heat of a great conflict. There was a’ battle to be fought; he fought with all the energy of his nature, and with the weapons that lay at hand. He would have shared Hotspur’s contempt for the fop who vowed that “but for these vile gun^ he would himself have been a soldier.”

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