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George Brown
Chapter XX - Confederation and the Parties


WE are to consider now the long-vexed question of the connection of Mr. Brown with the coalition of 1864. Ought he to have entered the coalition government? Having entered it, was he justified in leaving it in 1865? Holton and Dorion told him that by his action in 1864, he had sacrificed his own party interests to those of John A. Macdonald j that Macdonald was in serious political difficulty, and had been defeated in the legislature; that he seized upon Brown’s suggestion merely as a means of keeping himself in office; that for the sake of office he accepted the idea of confederation, after having voted against it in Brown’s commitee. A most wise and faithful friend. Alexander Mackenzie, thought that Reformers should accept no representation in the cabinet, but that they should give confederation an outside support. That Macdonald and his party were immensely benefitted by Brown’s action, there can be no doubt. For several years they had either been in Opposition, or in office under a most precarious tenure, depending entirely upon a majority from Lower Canada. By Brown's action they were suddenly invested with an overwhelming majority, and they had an interrupted lease of power for the nine years between the coalition and the Pacific Scandal. Admitting that the interest of the country warranted this sacrifice of the interests of the Liberal party, we have still to consider whether it was wise for Mr. Brown to enter the ministry, and especially to enter it on the conditions that existed. The Lower Canadian Liberals were not represented, partly because Dorion and Holton held back, and partly because of the prejudice of Taché and Cartier against the Rouges; and this exclusion was a serious defect in a ministry supposed to be formed on a broad and patriotic basis. The result was, that while the Liberals were in a majority in the legislature, they had only three representatives in a ministry of twelve. Such a government,, with its dominant Conservative section led by a master in the handling of political combinations, was bound to lose its character of a coalition, and become Conservative out and out.

A broader question is involved than that of the mere party advantage obtained by Macdonald and his party in the retention of power and patronage. There was grave danger to the essential principles of Liberalism, of which Brown was the appointed guardian. Holton put this in a remarkable way during the debate on confederation. It was at the time when Macdonald had moved the previous question, when the coalition government was hurrying the debate to a conclusion, in the face of indignant protests and demands that the scheme should he submitted to the people. Holton told Brown that he had destroyed the Liberal party. Henceforth its members would be known as those who once ranged themselves together, in Upper and Lower Canada, under the Liberal banner. Then followed this remarkable appeal to his old friend: “ Most of us remember—those of us w ho have been for a few years in public life in this country must remember—a very striking speech delivered by the honourable member for South Oxford in Toronto in the. session of 1856 or 1857, in which he described the path of the attorney-general [Macdonald] as studded all along by the gravestones of his slaughtered colleagues. Well, there are not wanting those who think they can descry, in the not very remote distance, a yawning grave waiting for the noblest victim of them all. And I very much fear that unless the honourable gentleman has the courage to assert his own original strength—and he has great strength - and to discard the blandishments and the sweets of office, and to plant himself where he stood formerly, in the affections and confidence of the people of this country, as the foremost defender of the rights of the people, as the foremost champion of the privileges of a free parliament—unless he hastens to do that, I very much fear that he too may fall a victim, the noblest victim of them all, to the arts, if not the arms of the fell destroyer.”

There was a little humorous exaggeration in the personal references to Macdonald, for Holton and he were on friendly terms. But there was also matter for serious thought in his words. Though Macdonald had outgrown the fossil Toryism that opposed responsible government, he was essentially Conservative; and there was something not democratic in his habit of dealing with individuals rather than with people in the mass; and of accomplishing his ends by private letters and interview's, and by other forms of personal influence, rather than by the public advocacy of causes. Association with him was injurious to men of essentially Liberal and democratic tendencies, and subordination was fatal, if not to their usefulness, at least to their Liberal ideals. Macdougall and Howland remained in the ministry until confederation was achieved, and found reasons for remain.' lg there afterwards. At the Reform convention of 1867, when the relation of the Liberal party to the so-called coalition was considered, they defended their position With skill and force, but the association of one with Macdonald was very brief, and of the other very unhappy. Mr. Howland was not a very keen politician, and a year after confederation was accomplished he accepted the position of lieutenant-governor of Ontario. Mr. Macdougall had an unsatisfactory career as a minister, with an unhappy termination. He was clearly out of his element. Mr. Tilley was described as a Liberal, but there was nothing to distinguish him from his Conservative colleagues in his methods or his utterances, and he became the champion of the essentially Conservative policy of protection.

But the most notable example of the truth of Holton’s words and the soundness of his advice was Joseph Howe. Howe was in Nova Scotia “the foremost defender of the rights of people, the foremost champion of the privileges of free parliaments.” He had opposed the inclusion of Nova Scotia on the solid ground that it was accomplished by arbitrary means. At length he bowed to the inevitable. In ceasing to encourage a useless and dangerous agitation he stood on patriotic ground. But in an evil hour he was persuaded to seal his submission by joining the Macdonald government, and thenceforth his influence was at an end. His biographer says that Howe’s four years in Sir John Macdonald’s cabinet are the least glorious of his whole career. Howe had been accustomed ail his life to lead and control events. He found himself a member of a government of. which Sir John Macdonald was the supreme head, and of a cast of mind totally different from his own.

Sir John Macdonald was a shrewd political manager, an opportunist whose unfailing judgment led him unerringly to pursue the course most likely to succeed each hour, each day, each year. Howe had the genius of a bold Reformer, a courageous and creative type of mind, who thought in continents, dreamed dreams and conceived great ideas. Si" John Macdonald busied himself with what concerned the immediate interests of the hour in which he was then living, and yet Sir John Macdonald was a leader who permitted no insubordination. Sir Georges Cartier, a man not to be named in the same breath with Howe as a statesman, was, nevertheless, a thousand times of more moment and concern with his band of Bleu followers in the House of Commons, than a dozen Howes, and the consequence is that we find for four years the great old man playing second fiddle to his inferiors, and cutting a far from heroic figure in the arena.” What Holton said by way of warning to Brown was realized in the case of Howe. He was “the noblest victim of them all”

From the point of view of Liberalism and of his influence as a public man, Brown did not leave the ministry a moment too soon ; and there is much to be said in favour of Mackenzie's \ iew7 that he ought to have refused to enter the coalition at all, and confined himself to giving his general support to confederation. By this means he would not have been responsible for the methods by which the new constitution was brought into effect, methods that were in many respects repugnant to those essential principles of Liberalism of which Brown had been one of the foremost champions. At almost every stage in the proceedings there was a violation of those rights of self-government which had been so hardly won by Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The Quebec conference was a meeting of persons whose authority, so far as it was derived from the people, was to govern the provinces under their established constitutions, not to make a new constitution. Its deliberations were secret. It proceeded, without a mandate from the people, to create a new governing body, whose powers were obtained at the expense of those of the provinces. With the same lack of popular authority, it declared that the provinces should have only those powers which were expressly designated, and that the reserve of power should be in the central governing body. Had this body been created for the Canadas alone, this proceeding might have been justified, for they were already joined in a legislative union, though by practice and consent some features of federalism prevailed. But Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were separate, self-governing communities, and t was for them, not for the Quebec conference, to say what powers they would grant and what powers they would retain Again the people of Canada had declared that the second chamber should be elected, not appointed by the Crown. The Quebec conference, without consulting the people of Canada, reverted to the discarded system of nomination, and added the senate to the vast, body of patronage at the disposal of the federal government. The constitution adopted by this body was not, except in the case of New Brunswick, submitted to the people, and it can hardly be said that it was freely debated in the parliament of Canada, for it was declared that it was in the nature of a treaty, and must be accepted or rejected as a whole. In the midst of this debate the people of New Brunswick passed upon the scheme in a general election, and condemned it in the most decisive and explicit way. The British government was then induced to bring pressure to bear upon the province; and while it was contended that this pressure was only in the form of friendly advice it was otherwise interpreted by the governor, who strained his powers to compel the ministry to act in direct contravention of its mandate from the people, and when it resisted, forced it out of office. It is true that in a subsequent election this decision was reversed; but that is not a justification for the means adopted to bring about this result. It is no exaggeration to say that Nova Scotia was forced into the union against the express desire of a large majority of its people. There are arguments by which these proceedings may be defended, but they are not arguments that lie in the mouth of a Liberal. And if we say that the confederation, in spite of these taints in its origin, has worked well and has solved the difficulties of Canada, we use an argument which might justify the forcible annexation of a country by a powerful neighbour.

Again, there was much force in Dorion’s contention that the new constitution was an illiberal constitution, increasing those powers of the executive which were already too large. To the inordinate strength of the executive, under the delusive name of the Crown, may be traced many of the worst evils of Canadian politics : the abuse of the prerogative of dissolution, the delay in holding bye-elections, the gerrymandering of the constituencies by a parliament registering the decree of a government. To these powers of the government the Confederation Act added that of filling one branch of the legislature with its own nominees. By the power of disallowance, by the' equivocal language used in regard to education, and in regard to the creation of new provinces, pretexts were furnished for federal interference in local affairs. But for the resolute opposition of Mowat and his colleagues, the subordination of the provinces to the central authority would have gone very far towards realizing Macdonald’s ideal of a legislative union; and recent events have shown that the danger of centralization is by no means at an end.

It was a true, liberal and patriotic impulse that induced Brown to offer his aid in breaking the dead-lock of 1864. He desired that Upper Canada should be fairly represented in parliament, and should have freedom to manage its local affairs. He desired that the Maritime Provinces and the North-West should, in the course of time, be brought :n on similar terms of freedom. But by joining the coalition he became a participant in a different course of procedure; and if we give him a large, perhaps the largest share, of the credit for the ultimate benefits of confederation, we cannot divest him of responsibility for the methods by which it was brought about, so long, at least, as he remained a member of the government.

In the year and a half that elapsed between his withdrawal, from the government and the first general election under the new-constitution, he had a somewhat-difficult .part to play. He had to aid .n Ithe work of carrying confederation, and at the same time to aid in the work of re-organizing the Liberal party, which had been temporarily divided and weakened by the new issue introduced nto politics. In the Reform convention of 1867 the attitude of the party towards confederation was considered. It was resolved that “while the new constitution contained obvious defects, it was, on the whole, based upon equitable principles and should be accepted with the determination to work 't loyally and patiently, and to provide such amendments as experience from year to year may prove to be expedient.” It was declared that coalitions of opposing political parties for ordinary administrative purposes resulted in corruption, extravagance and the abandonment of principle; that the coalition of 1804 could be justified only on the ground of imperious necessity, as the only available means of obtaining just representation for Upper Canada, and should come to an end when that object was attained; and that the temporary alliance of the Reform and Conservative parties should cease. Howland and Macdougall, who had decided to remain in the ministry, strove to maintain that it was a true coalition, and that the old issues that divided the parties were at an end; and their bearing before a hostile audience was tactful and courageous. But Brown and his friends carried all before them.

Brown argued strongly against the proposal to turn the coalition formed for confederation into a coalition for ordinary administrative purposes; and in a passage of unusual fervour he asked whether his Reform friends were to be subjected to the humiliation of following in the train of John A. Macdonald.

It is difficult to understand how so chimerical a notion as a non-party government led by Macdonald could have been entertained by practical politicians. A permanent position in a Macdonald ministry would have been out of the question for Brown, not only because of his standing as a public man, but because of his control of the Globe, which under such an arrangement would have been reduced to the position of an organ of the Conservative government. There were also all the elements of a powerful Liberal party, which soon after confederation rallied its forces and overthrew Sir John Macdonald’s government at Ottawa, and the coalition government he had established at Toronto. Giving Macdougall every credit for good intentions, it must be admitted that he committed an error in casting in his political fortunes with Sir John Macdonald, and that both he and Joseph Howe would have found more freedom, more scope for their energies and a wider field of usefulness, in fighting by the side of Mackenzie and Blake.


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