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George Brown
Chapter XVII - The Confederation Debate


THE parliament of Canada assembled on January 10th, 1865, to consider the resolutions of the Quebec conference. The first presentation of the reasons for confederation was made in the Upper Chamber by the premier, Sir E. P. Taché. He described the measure as essential to British connection, to the preservation of “our institutions, our laws, and even our remembrances of the past.” If the opportunity were allowed to pass by unimproved, Canada would be forced into the American union by violence; or would be placed upon an inclined plane which would carry it there insensibly. Canada, during the winter, had no independent means of access to the sea, but was dependent on the favour of a neighbour which, in several ways, had shown a hostile spirit. The people of the Northern States had an exaggerated idea of Canadian sympathy with the South, and the consequences of this misapprehension were—first, the threatened abolition of the transit system; second, the discontinuance of reciprocity; third, a passport system, which was almost equivalent to a prohibition of intercourse. Union with the Maritime Provinces would give Canada continuous and independent access to the Atlantic; and the Maritime Provinces would bring into the common stock their magnificent harbours, their coal mines, their great fishing and shipping industries. Then he recounted the difficulties that had occurred in the government of Canada, ending in dead-lock, and a condition “bordering on civil strife.” He declared that Lower Canada had resisted representation by population under a legislative union, but that if a federal union were obtained, it would be tantamount to a separation of the provinces, and Lower Canada would thereby preserve its autonomy, together with all the institutions it held so dear. These were the main arguments for confederation, and in the speeches which followed on that side they were repeated, enforced, and illustrated in various ways.

In the assembly, Mj\_ John A. Macdonald, as attorney-general, gave a clear and concise description of the new constitution. He admitted that he had preferred a legislative union, but had recognized that such a union would not have been accepted either by Lower Canada or the Maritime Provinces. The union between Upper and Lower Canada, legislative in name, had been federal in fact, there being, by tacit consent and practice, a separate body of legislation for each part of the province. He described the new scheme of government as a happy combination of the strength of a legislative union with the freedom of a federal un on, and with protection to local interests. The constitution of the United States was “one of the most skilful works which human intelligence ever created ; one of the most perfect organizations that ever governed a free people.” Experience had shown that its main defect was the doctrine of State sovereignty. This blemish was avoided in the Canadian constitution by vesting all residuary powers in the central government and legislature. The Canadian system would also be distinguished from the American by the recognition of monarchy and of the principle of responsible government. The connection of Canada with Great Britain he regarded as tending towards a permanent alliance. “The colonies are now in a transition state. Gradually a different colonial system is being developed; and it will become year by year less a case of dependence on our part, and of overruling protection on the part of the mother country, and more a case of a hearty and cordial alliance. Instead of looking upon us as a merely dependent colony, England will have in us a friendly nation—a subordinate, but still a powerful people—to stand by her in North America, in peace or in war.”

Brown spoke on the night of February 8th, his speech, occupying four hours and a half in delivery, showing the marks of careful preparation. He drew an illustration from the mighty struggle that had well-nigh rent the republic asunder, and was then within a few weeks of its close. “We are striving,” he said, “to settle forever issues hardly less momentous than those that have rent the neighbouring republic and are now exposing it to all the horrors of civil war. Have we not then great cause for thankfulness that we have found a better way for the solution of our troubles ? And should not every one of us endeavour to rise to the magnitude of the occasion, and earnestly seek to deal with this question to the end, in the same candid and conciliatory spirit in which, so far, it has been discussed?” He warned the assembly that whatever else happened, the constitution of Canada, would not remain unchanged. “Something must be done. We cannot stand still. We cannot go back to chronic, sectional hostility and discord—to a state of perpetual ministerial crisis. The events of the last eight months cannot be obliterated—the solemn admissions of men of all parties can never be erased. The claims of Upper Canada for justice must be met, and met now. Every one who raises his voice in hostility to this measure is bound to keep before him, when he speaks, all the perilous consequences of its rejection. No man who has a true regard for the well-being of Canada can give a vote against this scheme unless he is prepared to offer, in amendment, some better remedy for the evils and injustice that have so long threatened the peace of our country.”

In the first place, he said confederation would provide a complete remedy for the injustice of the system of parliamentary representation, by giving Upper Canada, in the House of Commons, the number of members to which it was entitled by population. In the senate, the principle of representation by population would not be maintained, an equal number of senators being allotted to Ontario, to Quebec, and to the group of Maritime Provinces, without regard to population. Secondly, the plan would remedy the injustice of winch Upper Canada had complained in regard to public expenditures. “No longer shall we have to complain that one section pays the cash while the other spends it; hereafter they who pay will spend, and they who spend more than they ought, will bear the brunt. If we look back on our doings of the last fifteen years, I think it will be acknowledged that the greatest jobs perpetrated were of a sectional character, that our fiercest contests were about local matters that stirred up sectional jealousies and indignation to their deepest depth.” Confederation would end sectional discord between Upper and Lower Canada. Questions that used to excite sectional hostility and jealousy were now removed from the common legislature to the legislatures of the provinces. No man need be debarred from a public career because his opinions, popular in his own province, were unpopular in another. Among the local questions that had disturbed the peace of the common legislature, he mentioned the construction of local works, the endowment of ecclesiastical institutions, the granting of money for sectarian purposes, and interference with school systems.

He advocated confederation because it would convert a group of inconsiderable colonies into a powerful union of four million people, with a revenue of thirteen million dollars, a trade of one hundred and thirty-seven million five hundred thousand dollars, rich natural resources and important, industries. Among these he dwelt at length on the shipping of the Maritime Provinces. These were the days of the wooden ship, and Mr. Brown claimed that federated Canada would be the third maritime power in the world. Confederation would give a new impetus to immigration and settlement. Communication with the west would be opened up, as soon as the state of the finances permitted. Negotiations had been carried on with the imperial government for the addition of the North-West Territories to Canada; and when those fertile plains were opened for settlement, there would be an immense addition to the products of Canada. The establishment of free trade between Canada and the Maritime Provinces would be some compensation for the loss of trade with the United States, should the reciprocity treaty be abrogated. It would enable the country to assume a larger share of the burden of defence. The time had come when the people of the United Kingdom would insist on a reconsideration of the military relations of Canada to the empire, and that demand was just. Union would facilitate common defence. “The Civil War in the neighbouring republic—the possibility of war between Great Britain and the United States; the threatened repeal of the reciprocity treaty; the threatened abolition of the American bonding system for goods in transit to and from these provinces; the unsettled position of the Hudson’s Bay Company; the changed feeling of England as to the relations of Canada to the parent state; all combine at this moment to arrest the earnest attention to the gravity of the situation and unite us all in one vigourous effort to meet the emergency like men.”

A strong speech against confederation was made by Dorion, an old friend of Brown, a staunch Liberal. and a representative French-Canadian. He declared that he had seen no ground for changing his opinion on two points—the substitution of an Upper Chamber, nominated by the Crown, for an elective body; and the construction of the Intercolonial Railway, which he, with other Liberals, had always opposed. He had always admitted that representation by population was a just principle; and in 1856 he had suggested, in the legislature, the substitution of a federal for a legislative union of the Canadas; or failing this, representation by population, with such checks and guarantees as would secure local rights and interests, and preserve to Lower Canada its cherished institutions. When the Brown-Dorion government was formed, he had proposed a federation of the Canadas, but with the distinct understanding that he would not attempt to carry such a measure without the consent of a majority of the people of Lower Canada. From the document issued by the Lower Canadian Liberals in 1859, he quoted a passage in which it was laid down that the powers given to the central government should be only those that were essential, and that the local powers should be as ample as possible. “All that belongs to matters of a purely local character, such as education, the administration of justice, the militia, the laws relating to property, police, etc., ought to be referred to the local governments, whose powers ought generally to extend to all subjects which would not be given to the general government.” The vesting of residuary powers in the provinces was an important difference between this and the scheme of confederation; but the point most dwelt upon by Dorion was the inclusion of the Maritime Provinces, which he strongly opposed.

Dorion denied that the difficulty about representation was .-the source of the movement for confederation. He contended that the agitation for representation by population had died out, and that the real authors of confederation were the owners of the Grand Trunk Railway Company, who stood to gain by the construction of the Intercolonial. The Taohé-Macdonald government were defeated because the House condemned them for taking without authority one hundred thousand dollars out of the pub’ic chest for the Grand Trunk Railway, at a time when there had not been a party vote on representation by population for one or two sessions.” He declared that Macdonald had, in Brown’s committee of 1861, voted against confederation, and that he and his colleagues adopted the scheme simply to enable them to remain in office. Dorion also criticized adversely the change in the constitution of the Upper Chamber, from the elective to the nominative system. The Conservative instincts of Macdonald and Cartier, he said, led them to strengthen the power of the Crown at the expense of the people, and this constitution was a specimen of their handiwork. “With a governor-general appointed by the Crown; with local governors also appointed by the Crown; with legislative councils in the general legislature, and in all the provinces, nominated by the Crown, we shall have the most illiberal constitution ever heard of in any government where constitutional government prevails.”

He objected to the power vested in the governor-general-in-council to veto the acts of local legislatures. His expectation was that a minority ,n the local legislature might appeal to their party friends at Ottawa to veto laws which they disliked, and that thus there would be constant interference, agitation and strife between the central and the local authorities. lie suspected that the intention was ultimately to change the federal union to a legislative union. The scheme of confederation was being carried without submission to the people. What would prevent the change from a federal to a legislative union from being accomplished in a similar way? To this the people of Lower Canada would not subnet. “A million of inhabitants may seem a small affair to the mind of a philosopher who sits down to write out a constitution. He may think it would be better that there should be but one religion, one language and one system of laws ; and he goes to work to frame institutions that will bring all to that desirable state; but I can tell the honourable gentleman that the history of every country goes to show that not even by the power of the sword can such changes be accomplished.”

With some exaggeration Mr. Dorion struck at real faults in the scheme of confederation. The contention that the plan ought to have been submitted to the people is difficult to meet except upon the plea of necessity, or the plea that the end justifies the means. There was assuredly no warrant for depriving the people of the power of electing the second chamber; and the new method, appointment by the government of the day, has been as unsatisfactory in practice as it was unsound in principle. The federal veto on provincial laws has not been used to the extent that Dorion feared. But when we consider how partisan considerations have governed appointments to the senate, we can scarcely say that there was no ground for the fear that the power of disallowance would be similarly abused. Nor can we say that Mr. Dorion was needlessly anxious about provincial rights, when we remember how persistently these have been attacked, and what strength, skill and resolution have been required to defend them.


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