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George Brown
Chapter XIII - Moving Towards Confederation


TO whom is due the confederation of the British North American provinces is a long vexed question. The Hon. D’Arcy McGee, in his speech on confederation, gave credit to Mr. Uniacke, a leading politician of Nova Scotia, who in 1800 submitted a scheme of colonial union to the imperial authorities; to Chief-Justice Sewell, to Sir John Beverley Robinson, to Lord Durham, to Mr. P. S. Hamilton, a Nova Scotia writer, and to Mr. Alexander Morris, then member for South Lanark, who had advocated the project in a pamphlet entitled Nova Britannia. “But,” he added, “whatever the private writer in his closet may have conceived, whatever even the individual statesman may have designed, so long as the public mind was uninterested in the adoption, even in the discussion of a change in our position so momentous as this, the union of these separate provinces, the individual laboured in vain—perhaps, not wholly in vain, for although his work may not have borne fruit then, it was ki. idling a fire that would ultimately light up the whole political horizon and herald the dawn of a better day for our country and our people. Events stronger than advocacy, events stronger than men, have come in at last like the fire behind the invisible writing, to bring out the truth of these writings and to impress them upon the mind of every thoughtful man who has considered the position and probable future of these scattered provinces.” Following Mr. McGee’s suggestion, let us try to deal with the question from the time that it ceased to be speculative and became practical, and especially to trace its development in the mind of one man.

In the later fifties Mr. Brown was pursuing a course which led almost with certainty to the goal of confederation. The people of Upper Canada were steadily coming over to his belief that they were suffering injustice under the union; that they paid more than their share of the Taxes, and yet that Lower Canadian influence was dominant in legislation and in the formation of ministries. Brown’s tremendous agitation convinced them that the situation was intolerable. But it was long before the true remedy was perceived. The French-Cana-dians would not agree to Brown’s remedy of representation by population. Brown opposed as reactionary the proposal that the union should be dissolved. He desired not to go back to the day of small things—on the contrary, even at this early day, he was advocating the union of the western territories with Canada. Nor was he at first in favour of the federal principle. In 1853, in a formal statement of its programme, the Globe advocated uniform legislation for the two provinces, and a Reform convention held at Toronto in 1857 recommended the same measure, together with representation by population and the add t ion of the North-West Territories to Canada,

In January, 1858, Brown wrote to his friend, Luther Holton in a manner which showed an open mind: “No honest man can desire that we should remain as we are, and what other way out of our difficulties can be suggested but a general legislative union, with representation by population, a federal union, or a dissolution of the present union. I am sure that a dissolution cry would be as ruinous to any party as (in my opinion) it would be wrong. A federal union, it appears to me, cannot be entertained for Canada alone, but when agitated must include all British America. We w il be past caring for politics when that measure is finally achieved. What powers should be given to the provincial legislatures, and what to the federal? Would you abolish county councils ? And yet, if you did not, what would the local parliaments have to control ? Would Montreal like to be put under the generous rule of the Quebec politicians ? Our friends here are prepared to consider dispassionately any scheme that may issue from your party in Lower Canada. They all feel keenly that something must be done. Their plan is representation by population, and a fair trial for the present union in its integrity; fading this, they are prepared to go for dissolution, I believe, but if you can suggest a federal or any other scheme that could be worked, it will have our most anxious examination. Can you sketch a plan of federation such as our friends below would agree to and could carry?”

Probably Dorion and other Lower Canadians had a part in converting Brown to federation. In 1856 Donon had moved a resolution favouring the confederation of the two Canadas. In August, 1858. Brown and Dorion undertook to form a government pledged to the settlement of the question that had arisen between Upper and Lower Canada. Dorion says it was agreed by the Brown-Dorion government “that the constitutional question should be taken up and settled, either by a confederation of the two provinces, or by representation according to population, with such checks and guarantees as would secure the religious faith, the laws, the language, and the peculiar institutions of each section of the country from encroachments on the part of the other.’’

At the same time an effort in the same direction was made by the Conservative party. A. T. Galt, in the session of 1858, advocated the federal union of all the British North American provinces. He declared that unless a union were effected, the provinces would inevitably drift into the United States. He proposed that questions relating to education and likely to arouse religious dissension, ought to be left to the provinces. The resolutions moved by Mr. Galt in 1858 give him a high place among the promoters of confederation. Galt was asked by Sir Edmund Head to form an administration on the resignation of the Brown government. Galt refused, but when he subsequently entered the Cartier government it was on condition that the promotion of federal union should be embodied in the policy of the government. Cartier, Ross and Galt visited England in fulfilment of this promise, and described the serious difficulties that had arisen in Canada, the movement failed because the co-operation of the Maritime Provinces could not be obtained.

In the autumn of 1859 two important steps leading towards federation were taken. In October the Lower Canadian members of the Opposition met in Montreal and declared for a federal union of the Canadas. They went so far as to specify the subjects of federal and local jurisdiction, allowing to the central authority the customs tariff, the post-office, patents and copyrights, and the currency: and to the local legislatures education, the laws of property, the administration of justice, and the control of the militia. In September a meeting of the. Liberal ; members of both Houses was held at Toronto, and a circular calling a convention of Upper Canadian Reformers was issued. It declared that “the financial and political evils of the provinces have reached such a point as to demand a thorough reconsideration of the relations between Upper and Lower Canada, and the adoption of constitutional changes framed to remedy the great abuses that have arisen under the present system”; that the nature of the changes had been discussed, but that it was felt that before coming to a conclusion “the whole Liberal party throughout Upper Canada should be consulted.” The discussion would be free and unfettered. “Supporters of the Opposition advocating a written constitution or a dissolution of the union— or a federal union of all the British North American provinces—or a federal system for Canada alone— or any other plan calculated, a their opinion, to meet the existing evils—are all equally welcome to the convention./^The one sole object is to discuss the whole subject with candour and without prejudice, that the best remedy may be found.” Then came an account of the grievances for which a remedy was sought: “The position of Upper Canada at this moment is truly anomalous and alarming. With a population much more numerous than that of Lower Canada, and contributing to the general revenue a much larger share of taxation than the sister province, Upper Canada finds herself without power in the administration of the affairs of the union. With a constitution professedly based on the principle that the will of the majority should prevail, a minority of the people 01 Upper Canada, by combination with the Lower Canada majority, are enabled to rule the upper province in direct hostility to the popular will. Extravagant expenditures and hurtful legislative measures are forced on us in defiance of the protests of large majorities of the representatives of the people ; the most needful reforms are denied, and offices of honour and emolument are conferred on persons destitute of popular sympathy, and without qualification beyond that of unhesitating subserviency to the men who misgovern the country.”

The convention of nearly six hundred delegates gave evidence of a genuine, popular movement for constitutional changes. Though it was composed of members of only one party, its discussions were of general interest, and were upon a high level of intelligence and public spirit. The convention was divided between dissolution and federal union. Federation first got the ear of the meeting. Free access to the sea by the St. Lawrence, free trade between Upper and Lower Canada, were urged as reasons for continuing the union. Oliver Mowat made a closely reasoned speech on the same side. Representation by population alone would not be accepted by Lower Canada. Dissolution was impracticable and could not, at best, be obtained without long agitation. Federation would give all the advantages of dissolution without its difficulties.

Mowat’s speech was received with much favour, and the current had set strongly for federation when George Sheppard arose as the chief advocate of dissolution. Sheppard had been an editorial writer on the Colonist, had been attracted by Brown and his policy and had joined the staff’ of the Globe. His main argument was that the central government under federation would be a costly and elaborate affair, and would ultimately overshadow the governments of the provinces. There would be a central parliament, a viceroy with all the expense of a court. “A federal government without federal dignity would be all moonshine. There was an inherent tendency in central bodies to acquire increased power. In the United States a federal party had advocated a strong central government, and excuses were always being sought to add to its glory and influence. On the other side was a democratic party, championing State rights. “In Canada, too, we may expect to see federation followed by the rise of two parties, one fighting for a strong central government, the others like Mr. Brown, contending for State rights, local control, and the limited authority of the central power, ” One of the arguments for federation was that it provided for bringing n the North-West Territory. That implied an expensive federal government for the purpose of organizing the new territory, building its roads, etc. “Is this federation,” he asked, “proposed as a step towards nationality? If so, I am with you. Federation implies nationality. For colonial purposes only it would be a needless incumbrance.”

This speech, with its accurate forecast of the growth of the central power, produced such an impression that the federalists amended their resolution, and proposed, instead of a general government, “some joint authority” for federal purposes. This concession was made by William Macdougall, one of the secretaries and chief figures of the convention, who said that he had been much impressed by Sheppard’s eloquence and logic. The creation of a powerful, elaborate and expensive central government such as now exists did not form part oi‘ the plans of the Liberals either in Upper or Lower Canada at that time.

Brown, who spoke towards the close of the convention, declared that he had no morbid fear of dissolution of the union, but preferred the plan of federation, as giving Upper Canada the advantage of free trade with Lower Canada and the free navigation of the St. Lawrence. One of his most forcible passages was an answer to Sheppard’s question whether, the federation was a step towards nationality. “I do place the question on grounds of nationality. I do hope there is not one Canadian in this assembly who does not look forward with high hope to the day when these northern countries shall stand out among the nations of the world as one great confederation. What true Canadian can witness the tide of emigration now commencing to flow into the vast territories of the North-West without longing to have a share in the first settlement of that great, fertile country ? Who does not feel that to us rightfully belong the right and the duty of carrying the blessings of civilization throughout those boundless regions, and making our own country the highway of traffic to the Pacific? But is it necessary that all this should be accomplished at once? Is it not true wisdom to commence federation with our own country, and leave it open to extension hereafter If time and experience shall prove it desirable ? And shall we not then have better control over the terms of federation than if all were made parties to the original compact, and how can there be the slightest question with one who longs for such a nationality between dissolution and the scheme of the day? Is it not clear that the former would be the death blow to the hope of future union, while the latter will readily furnish the machinery for a great federation?”

The resolutions adopted by the convention declared that the legislative union, because of antagonisms developed through differences of origin, local interests, and other causes, could no longer be maintained; that the plan known as the “double majority” did not afford a permanent remedy; that a federal union of all the British North American colonies was out of the range of remedies for present evils; that the principle of representation by population must be recognized in any new union, and that “the best practical remedy for the evils now encountered in the government of Canada is to be found in the formation of two or more local governments, to which shall be committed the control of all matters of a local or sectional character, and some joint authority charged with such matters as are necessarily common to both sections of the province.”

The hopes that had been aroused by this convention were disappointed, or rather deferred. When Brown, in the following session of the legislature, brought forward resolutions in the sense of those adopted by the convention, he found coldness and dissension in his own party, and the resolutions were defeated by a large majority.) Subsequently Mr. Brown had a long illness, retired from the leadership, and spent some time in England and Scotland. In his absence the movement for constitutional change was stayed. But “events stronger than advocacy,” in Mr. McGee’s words, were operating. Power oscillated between the Conservative and Reform parties, and two general elections, held within as many years, failed to solve the difficulty. When federation was next proposed, it had become a political necessity.


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