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George Brown
Chapter XVIII - The Mission to England


A NEW turn was given to the debate early in March by the defeat of the New Brunswick government in a general election, which meant a defeat for confederation, and by the arrival of news of an important debate in the House of Lords on the defences of Canada. The situation suddenly became critical. That part of the confederation scheme which related to the Maritime Provinces was i a grave danger of failure. At the same time the long-standing controversy between the imperial and colonial authorities as to the defence of Canada had come to a head. The two subjects were intimately connected. The British government had been led to believe that if confederation were accomplished, the defensive power of Canada would be much increased, and the new union would be ready to assume larger obligations. From this time the tone of the debate is entirely changed. It ceases to be a philosophic deliberation of the merits of the new scheme. A note of urgency and anxiety is found in the ministerial speeches; the previous question is moved, and the proceedings hurried to a close, amid angry protests from the Opposition.

Mr. Brown wrote on March 5th: “We are going to have a great scene in the House to-day. . . The government of New Brunswick appealed to the people on confederation by a general election, and have got beaten. This puts a serious obstacle in the way of our scheme, and we mean to act promptly and decidedly upon it. At three o’clock we are to announce the necessity of carrying the resolutions at once, sending home a deputation to England, and proroguing parliament without any unnecessary delay—say in a week.”

The announcement was made to the House by Attorney-General Macdonald, who laid much stress on the disappointment that would be occasioned in England by the abandonment of a scheme by which Canadian colonies should cease to be a source of embarrassment, and become a source of strength. The question of confederation was intimately connected with the question of defence, and that was a question of the most imminent necessity. The provincial government had been in continued correspondence with the home government as to defence “against every hostile pressure, from whatever source it may come.”

A lively debate ensued. John Sandfield Macdonald said that the defeat of the New Brunswick government meant the defeat of the larger scheme of confederation, unless it was intended that the people should be bribed into acquiescence or bullied into submission. “The Hon. Mr. Tilley and his followers are routed, horse and foot, by the honest people of the province, scouted by those whose interests he had betrayed, and whose behests he had neglected; and I think his fate ought to be a warning to those who adopted this scheme without authority, and who ask the House to ratify it en bloc, without seeking to obtain the sanction of the people." Later on he charged the ministers with the intention of manufacturing an entirely new bill, obtaining the sanction of the British government, and forcing it on the Canadian people, as was done in 1840.

This charge was hotly resented by Brown, and it drew from John A. Macdonald a more explicit statement of the intentions of the government. They would, if the legislature adopted the confederation resolutions, proceed to England, inform the imperial government of what had passed in Canada and New Brunswick, and take counsel with that government as to the affairs of Canada, especially in regard to defence and the reciprocity treaty. The legislature would then be called together again forthwith, the report of the. conferences in England submitted, and the business relating to confederation completed.

On the following day Macdonald made another announcement, referring to a debate in the House of Lords on February 20th, which he regarded as of the utmost importance. A report made by a Colonel Jervois on the defences of Canada had been published, and the publication, exposing the extreme weakness of Canada, was regarded as an official indiscretion. It asserted that under the arrangements then existing British and Canadian forces together could not defend the colony. Lord Lyveden brought the question up in the House of Lords, and dwelt upon the gravity of the situation created by the defencelessness of Canada and by the hostility of the United States. He held that Great Britain must tlo one of two things: withdraw her troops and abandon the country altogether, or defend it with the full power of the empire. It was folly to send troops out in driblets, and spend money in the same way. The Earl de Grey and Ripon, replying for the government, said that Jervois’ report contained nothing that was not previously known about the weakness of Canada. He explained the proposed arrangement by which the imperial government was to fortify Quebec at a cost of two hundred thousand pounds, and Canada would undertake the defence of Montreal and the West.

Commenting on a report of this discussion, Mr. Macdonald said there had been negotiations between the two governments, and that he hoped these would result in full provision for the defence of Canada, both east and west. It was of the utmost importance that Canada should be represented in England at this juncture. In order to expedite the debate by shutting out amendments, he moved the previous question.

Macdonald’s motion provoked charges of burking free discussion, and counter-charges of obstruction, want of patriotism and inclinations towards annexation. The debate lost its academic calm and became acrimonious. Holton’s motion for an adjournment, for the purpose of obtaining further information as to the scheme, was ruled out of order. The same fate befell Dorion’s motion for an adjournment of the debate and an appeal to the people, on the ground that it involved fundamental changes in the political institutions and political relations of the province; changes not contemplated at the last general election.

On March 12th the main motion adopting the resolutions of the Quebec conference was carried by ninety-one to thirty-three. On the follow ing day an amendment similar to Dorion’s, for an appeal to the people, was moved by the Hon. John Hillyard Cameron, of Peel, seconded by Matthew Crooks Cameron, of North Ontario. Undoubtedly the argument for submission to the people was strong, and was hardly met by Brown’s vigorous speech in reply. But the overwhelming opinion of the House was against delay, and on March 13th the discussion came to an end.

The prospects for the inclusion of the Maritime Provinces were now poor. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island withdrew. A strong feeling against confederation was arising in Nova Scotia, and it was proposed there to return to the original idea of a separate maritime union. It was decided to ask the aid of the British government in overcoming the hesitation of the Maritime Provinces. The British authorities were pressing Canada to assume increased obligations as to defence. Defence depended on confederation, and England, by exercising some friendly pressure on New Brunswick, might promote both objects.

The committee appointed to confer with the British government was composed of Macdonald, Brown, Cartier and Galt. They met in England a committee of the imperial cabinet, Gladstone, Cardwell, the Duke of Somerset and Earl de Grey and Ripon. An agreement was arrived at as to defence. Canada would undertake works of defence at and west of Montreal, and maintain a certain mil ilia force; Great Britain would complete fortifications at Quebec, provide the whole armament and guarantee a loan for the sum necessary to construct the works undertaken by Canada, and in case of war would defend every portion of Canada with all the resources of the empire. An agreement was made as to the acquisition of the Hudson Bay Territory by Canada, and as to the influence to be brought to bear on the Maritime Provinces. “The idea of coercing the Maritime Provinces into the measure was never for a moment entertained.” The end sought was to impress upon them the grave responsibility of thwarting a measure so pregnant with future prosperity to British America.

In spite of the mild language used in regard to New Brunswick, the fact that its consent was a vital part of the whole scheme must have been an incentive to heroic measures, and these were taken.

One of the causes of the defeat of the confederation government of New Brunswick had been the active hostility of the lieutenant-governor, Mr. Arthur Hamilton Gordon, son of the Earl of Aberdeen. He was strongly opposed to the change, and is believed to have gone to the limit of his authority in aiding and encouraging its opponents in the election of 1865. Soon afterwards he visited England, and it is believed that he was sent for by the home authorities and was taken to task for his conduct, and instructed to assist in carrying out confederation. A despatch from Cardwell, secretary of state for the colonies, to Governor Gordon, expressed the strong and deliberate opinion of Her Majesty’s government in favour of a union of all the North American colonies.

The governor carried out his instructions with the zeal of a convert, showed the despatch to the head of his government, set about converting him also, and believed he had been partly successful. The substance of the despatch was inserted in the speech from the throne, when the legislature met on March 8th, 1806. The legislative council adopted an address asking for imperial legislation to unite the British North American colonies. The governor, without waiting for the action of the assembly, made a reply to the council, expressing pleasure at their address, and declaring that he would transmit it to the secretary of state for the colonies. Thereupon the Smith ministry resigned, contending that they ought to have been consulted about the reply, that the council, not having been elected by the people, had no authority to ask the imperial parliament to pass a measure which the people of New Brunswick had expressly rejected at the polls. A protest in similar terms might have been made in the legislative assembly, but the opportunity was not given. A government favourable to confederation was formed under Peter Mitchell, with Tilley as his chief lieutenant, and the legislature was dissolved.

A threatened Fenian invasion helped to turn the tide of public opinion, and the confederate ministry was returned with a large majority. That result, however desirable, did not sanctify the means taken to bring about a verdict for confederation, which could hardly have been more arbitrary.


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