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George Brown
Chapter XIX - Brown Leaves the Coalition


THE series of events which gradually drew Mr. Brown out of the coalition began with the death of Sir Etienne P. Taehé on July 30th, 1805. By his age, his long experience, and a certain mild benignity of disposition, Taché was admirably fitted to be the dean of the coalition and the arbiter between its elements. He had served in Reform and Conservative governments, but without incurring the reproach of overweening love of office. With his departure that of Brown became only a matter of time. To work with Macdonald as an equal was a sufficiently disagreeable duty; to work under him, considering the personal relations of the two men, would have been humiliating Putting aside the question of where the blame for the long-standing feud lay, it was inevitable that the association should be temporary and brief. On August 3rd the governor-general asked Mr. Macdonald to form an administration. Mr. Macdonald consented, obtained the assent of Mr. Cartier and consulted Mr. Brown. I quote from an authorized memorandum of the conversation. “Mr. Brown replied that he was quite prepared to enter into arrangements for the continuance of the government in the same position as it occupied previous to the death of Sir Etienne P. Taché; but that the proposal now made involved a grave departure from that position. The government, heretofore, had been a coalition of three political parties, each represented by an active party leader, but all acting under one chief, who had ceased to be actuated by strong party feelings or personal ambitions, and who was well fitted to give confidence to all the three sections of the coalition that the conditions which united them would be carried out in good faith to the very letter. Mr. Macdonald, Mr. Cartier and himself [Mr. Brown] were, on the contrary, regarded as party leaders, with party feelings and aspirations, and to place any one of them in an attitude of superiority to the others, with the vast advantage of the premiership, would, in the public mind, lessen the security of good faith, and seriously endanger the existence of the coalition. It would be an entire change of the situation. Whichever of the three was so preferred, the act would amount to an abandonment of the coalition basis, and a reconstruction of the government on party lines under a party leader.*’ When the coalition was formed, the Liberals were in a majority in the legislature; for reasons of State they had relinquished their party advantage, and a government was formed in which the Conservatives had nine members and the Liberals three. In what light would the Liberal party regard this new proposition? Mr. Brown suggested that an invitation be extended to some gentleman of good position in the legislative council, under whom all parties could act with confidence, as successor to Colonel Taché. So far as to the party. Speaking, however, for himself alone, Mr. Brown said he occupied the same position as in 1864. Me stood prepared to give outside the ministry a frank and earnest support to any ministry that might be formed for the purpose of carrying out confederation.

Mr. Macdonald replied that he had no persona) feeling as to the premiership, and would readily stand aside; and he suggested the name of Mr. Cartier, as leader of the French-Canadians. Mr. Brown said that it would be necessary for him to consult with his political friends. Sir Narcisse F. Belleau, a member of the executive council, was then proposed by Mr. Macdonald, and accepted by Mr. Brown, on condition that the policy of confederation should be stated in precise terms. Sir Narcisse Belleau became nominal prime minister of Canada, and the difficulty was tided over for a few months.

The arrangement, however, was a mere makeshift. The objections set forth by Brown to Macdonald’s assuming the title of leader applied with equal force to his assuming the leadership in fact, as he necessarily did under Sir Narcisse Belleau; the discussion over this point, though couched in language of diplomatic courtesy, must have irritated both parties, and their relations grew steadily worse.

The immediate and assigned cause of the rupture was a disagreement in regard to negotiations for the renewal of the reciprocity treaty. It is admitted that it was only in part the real cause, and would not have severed the relations between men who were personally and politically n sympathy.

Mr. Brown had taken a deep interest in the subject of reciprocity. In 1863 he was in communication with John Sandfield Macdonald, then premier of Canada, and Luther Holton, minister of finance. He dwelt on the importance of opening communication with the American government during the administration of Lincoln, whom he regarded as favourable to the renewal of the treaty. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, suggested that Canada should have an agent at Washington, with whom he and Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, could confer on Canadian matters. The premier asked Brown to go, saying that all his colleagues were agreed upon his eminent fitness for the mission. Brown declined the mission, contending that Mr. Holton, besides being fully qualified, was, by virtue of his official position as minister of finance, the proper person to represent Canada. He kept urging the importance of taking action early, before the American movement against the renewal of the treaty could gather headway. But neither the Macdonald-Sicotte government nor its successor lived long enough to take action, and the opportunity was lost. The coalition government was fully employed with other matters during 1864, and it was not until the spring of 1865 that the matter of reciprocity was taken up. In the summer of that year the imperial government authorized the formation of a confederate council on reciprocity, consisting of representation from Canada and the other North American colonies, and presided over by the governor-general. Brown and Galt were the representatives of Canada on the council.

Mr. Brown was in the Maritime Provinces in November, 1865, on government business. On his return to Toronto be was surprised to read .n American papers a statement that Mr. Galt and Mr. Howland were negotiating with the Committee of Ways and Means at Washington. Explanations were given by Galt at a meeting of the cabinet at Ottawa on December 17th. Seward had told him that the treaty could not be renewed, but that something might be done by reciprocal legislation. After some demur, Mr. Galt went on to discuss the matter on that basis. He suggested the free exchange of natural products, and a designated list of manufactures. The customs duties on foreign goods were to be assimilated as far as possible. Inland waters and canals might be used in common, and maintained at the joint expense of the two countries. Mr. Galt followed up his narrative by proposing that a minute of council be adopted, ratifying what he had done, and authorizing him to proceed to Washington and continue the negotiations.

The discussion that followed lasted several days. Mr. Brown objected strongly to the proceeding. Fie declared that “ Mr. Galt had flung at the heads of the Americans every concession that we had in our power to make, and some that we certainly could not make, so that our case was foreclosed before the commission was opened.” He objected still more strongly to the plan of reciprocal legislation, which would keep the people of Canada “dangling from year to year on the legislation of the American congress, looking to Washington instead of to Ottawa as the controller of their commerce and prosperity.” The scheme was admirably designed by the Americans to promote annexation. Before each congress the United States press would contain articles threatening ruin to Canadian trade. The Maritime Province* would take offence at being ignored, and confederation as well as reciprocity might be lost. His own proposal was to treat Mr. Galt’s proceedings at Washington as unofficial, call the confederate council, and begin anew to “make a dead set to have this reciprocal legislation idea upset before proceeding with the discussion.”

Galt at length suggested a compromise. His proceedings at Washington were to be treated as unofficial, and no order-m-council passed. Galt and Howland were to be sent to Washington to obtain a treaty if possible, and if not to learn what terms could be arranged, and report to the government.

Brown regarded this motion as intended to remove him from the confederate council, and substitute Mr. Howland, and said so; but he declared that he would accept the compromise nevertheless. It appeared, however, that there had been a misunderstanding as to the recording of a minute of the proceedings. The first minute was withdrawn ; but as Mr. Brown considered that the second minute still sanctioned the idea of reciprocal legislation, he refused to sign it, and decided to place his resignation in the hands of the premier, and to we it upon the governor-general. After hearing the explanation, His Excellency said: “Then, Mr. Brown, I am called upon to decide between your policy and that of the other members of the government?” Mr. Brown replied, “Yes, sir, and if I am allowed to give advice in the matter, I should say that the government ought to be sustained, though the decision is against myself. I consider the great question of confederation as of far greater consequence to the country than reciprocity negotiations. My resignation may aid in preventing their policy on the reciprocity question from being carried out, or at, least call forth a full expression of opinion on the subject, and the government should be sustained, if wrong in this, for the sake of confederation.”

The debate in council had occupied several days, and had evidently aroused strong feelings. Undoubtedly Mr. Brown’s decision was affected by the affront that he considered had been put upon him by virtually removing him from the confederate council and sending Mr. Howland instead of himself to Washington as the colleague of Mr. Galt. He disapproved on public grounds of the policy of the government, and he resented the manner in which he had been ignored throughout the transaction. On the day after the rupture Mr. Cartier wrote Mr. Brown asking him whether he could reconsider his resignation. Mr. Brown replied, “ I have received your kind note, and think It right to state frankly at once that the step I have taken cannot be revoked. The interests involved are too great. I think a very great blunder has been committed in a matter involving the most important interests of the country, and that the order-in-council you have passed endorses that blunder and authorizes persistence in it. ... I confess I was much annoyed at the personal affront offered me, but that feeling has passed away in view of the serious character of the matter at issue, which casts all personal feeling aside.”

If it were necessary to seek for justification of Mr. Brown’s action in leaving the ministry at this time, it might be found either in his disagreement with the government on' he question of policy, or in the treatment accorded to him by his colleagues. Sandfield Macdonald and his colleagues had on a former occasion recognized Mr. Brown’s eminent fitness to represent Canada in the negotiations at Washington, not only because of his thorough acquaintance with the subject, but because of his steadily maintained attitude of friendship for the North. He was a member of the confederate council on reciprocity. His position in the ministry was not that of a subordinate, but of the representative of a powerful party. In resenting the manner in which his position was ignored, he does not seem to have exceeded the bounds of proper self-assertion. However, this controversy assumes less importance if it is recognized that the rupture w'as inevitable. The precise time or occasion is of less importance than the force which was always and under all circumstances operating to draw Mr. Brown away from an association injurious to himself and to Liberalism, in its broad sense as well as in its party sense, and to his influence as a public man. This had better be considered in another place.


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