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George Brown
Chapter XXI - Canada and the Great West


Very soon after his arrival in Canada, Mr. Brown became deeply interested in the North-West Territories. He was thrown into contact with men who knew the value of the country and desired to see it opened for settlement. One of these' was Robert Baldwin Sullivan, who, during the struggle for responsible government, wrote a series of brilliant letters over the signature of “Legion” advocating that principle, and who was for a time provincial secretary in the Baldwin-Lafontaine government. In 1847, Mr. Sullivan delivered, in the Mechanics’ Institute, Toronto, an address on the North-West Territories, which was published in full in the Globe. The Oregon settlement had recently been made, and the great westward trek of the Americans was in progress. Sullivan uttered the warning that the Americans would occupy and become masters of the British western territory, and outflank Canada, unless steps were taken to settle and develop it by British subjects. There was at this time much misconception of the character of the country, and one is surprised b\ the very accurate knowledge shown by Mr. Sullivan in regard to the resources of the country, its coal measures as well as its wheat fields.

Mr. Brown also obtained much information and assistance from Mr. Isbester, a “native of the country, who by his energy, ability and intelligence had raised himself from the position of a successful scholar at one of the schools of the settlement to that of a graduate of one of the British universities, and to a teacher of considerable rank. This gentleman had succeeded in inducing prominent members of the House of Commons to Interest themselves in the subject of appeals which, through him, were constantly being made against the injustice and persecution which the colonists of the Red River Settlement were suffering.”

Mr. Brown said that his attention was first drawn to the subject by a deputation sent to England by the people of the Red River Settlement to complain that the country was ill-governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to pray that the territory might be thrown open for settlement. “The movement,” said Mr. Brown, “was well received by the most prominent statesmen of Britain. The absurdity of so vast a country remaining in the hands of a trading company was readily admitted; and I well remember that Mr. Gladstone then made an excellent speech in the Commons, as he has recently done, admitting that the charter of the company was not valid, and that the matter should be dealt with by legislation. But the difficulty that constantly presented itself was what should be done with the territory were the charter broken up; what government should replace that of the company. The idea struck Mr. Isbester, a most able and enlightened member of the Red River deputation to London, that this difficulty would be met at once were Canada, to step in and claim the right to the territory. Through a mutual friend, I was communicated with on the subject, and agreed to have the question thoroughly agitated before the expiry of the company’s charter in 1859. I have since given the subject some study, and have on various occasions brought it before the public.” Mr. Brown referred to the matter in his maiden speech in parliament in 1851, and in 1854 and again n 1856 he gave notice of motion for a committee of inquiry, but was interrupted by other business. In 1852, the Globe contained an article so remarkable in its knowledge of the country that it may be reproduced here in part.

“It is a remarkable circumstance that so little attention has been paid in Canada to the immense tract of country lying to the north of our boundary line, and known as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territory. There can be no question that the injurious and demoralizing sway of that company over a region of four millions of square miles, will, ere long, be brought to an end, and that the destinies of this ’mmense country will be united with our own. It is unpardonable that civilization should be excluded from half a continent, on at best but a doubtful right of ownership, for the benefit of two hundred and thirty-two shareholders.

“Our present purpose is not, however, with the validity of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claim to the country north of the Canadian line—but to call attention to the value of that region, and the vast commercial importance to the country and especially to this section, which must, ere long, attach to it. The too general impression entertained is, that the territory in question is a frozen wilderness, incapable of cultivation and utterly unfit for colonization. This impression was undoubtedly set afloat, and has been maintained, for its own very evident purposes. So long as that opinion could be kept up, their charter was not likely to be disturbed. But a fight has been breaking in on the subject in spite of their efforts to keep it out. In a recent work by Mr. Edward Fitzgerald, it is stated that ‘ there is not a more favourable situation on the face of the earth for the employment of agricultural industry than the locality of the Red River.’ Mr. Fitzgerald asserts that there are five hundred thousand square miles of soil, a great part of which is favourable for settlement and agriculture, and all so well supplied with game as to give great facility for colonization. Here is a field for Canadian enterprise.

“The distance between Fort William and the Red River Settlement is about five hundred miles, and there is said to be water communication by river and lake all the way. But westward, beyond the Red River Settlement, there is said to be a magnificent country, through which the Saskatchewan River extends, and is navigable for boats and canoes through a course of one thousand four hundred miles.

“Much has been said of the extreme cold of the country, as indicated by the thermometer. It is well known, however, that it is not the degree hut the character of the cold which renders it obnoxious to men, and the climate of this country is quite as agreeable, if not more so, than the best part of Canada. The height of the latitude gives no clue whatever to the degree of cold or to the nature of the climate.

“Let any one look at the map, and if he can fancy the tenth part that is affirmed of the wide region of country stretching westward to the Rocky Mountains, he may form some idea of the profitable commerce which will soon pass through Lake Superior. Independent of the hope that the high road to the Pacific may yet take this direction, there is a field for enterprise presented, sufficient to satiate the warmest Pagination.”

It was not, however, until the year 1850 that public attention was aroused to the importance of the subject. In the autumn of that year there was a series of letters in the Globe signed “Huron,’’ drawing attention to the importance of the western country, attacking the administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and suggesting that the inhabitants, unless relieved, might seek to place the country under American government. In December 1856, there was a meeting of the Toronto Board of Trade at which addresses were delivered by Alan McDonnell and Captain Kennedy, Captain Kennedy said that he had lived for a quarter of a century in the territory in question, had eight or nine years before the meeting endeavoured to call attention to the country through the newspapers and had written a letter to Lord Elgin. He declared that the most important work before Canada was the settlement of two hundred and seventy-nine million acres of land lying west of the Lakes. The Board of Trade passed a resolution declaring that the claim of the Hudson's Bay Company to the exclusive right to trade in the country was injurious to the rights of the people of the territory and of British North America. The Board also petitioned the legislature to ascertain the rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to protect the interests of Canada. A few days afterwards the Globe sa d that the time had come to act, and thenceforward it carried on a vigorous campaign for the opening up of the territory to settlement and the establishment of communication with Canada.

During the year 1856, Mr. Brown addressed many meetings on the subject of the working of the union. He opposed the separation of the Canadas, proposed by some as a measure of relief for the grievances of Upper Canada. This would bring Canada back to the day of small things; he advocated expansion to the westward. William Macdougall, then a member of the Globe staff, was also an enthusiastic advocate of the union of the North-West Territories with Canada. In an article reviewing the events of the year 1850, the Globe said: “This year will be remembered as that in which the public mind was first aroused to the necessity of uniting to Canada the great tract of British American territory lying to the north-west, then in the occupation of a great trading monopoly. The year 1856 has only seen the birth of this movement. Let us hope that 1857 will see it crowned with success.”

In January 1857, a convention of Reformers in Toronto adopted a platform including free trade, uniform legislation for both provinces, representation by population, national and non-sectarian education, and the incorporation of the Hudson Bay Territory. It was resolved “that the country known as the Hudson Bay Territory ought no longer to be cut off from civilization, that it is the duty of the legislature and executive of Canada to open negotiations with the imperial government for the incorporation of the said territory as Canadian soil.” The Globe's proposals at this early date provoked the merriment of some of its contemporaries. Tli6 Niagara Mail, January 1857, said: “The Toronto Globe comes out with a new and remarkable platform, one of the planks of which is the annexation of the frozen regions of the Hudson Bay Territory to Canada. Lord have mercy on us ! Canada has already a stiff reputation for cold in the world, but it is unfeeling in the Globe to want to make it deserve the reproach.” The Globe advised its contemporary not to commit itself hastily against the annexation of the North-West, “for it will assuredly be one of the strongest planks in our platform.” Another sceptic was the Montreal Transcript, which declared that the fertile spots in the territory were small and separated by immense distances, and described the Red River region as an oasis in the midst of a desert, “a vast treeless prairie on which scarcely a shrub :s to be seen.” The climate was unfavourable to the growth of grain. The summer, though warm enough, was too short in duration, so that even the few fertile spots could “with difficulty mature a small potato or cabbage.” The subject seemed to be constantly in Brown’s mind, and he referred to it frequently in public addresses. After the general election of 1857-8 a banquet was given at Belleville to celebrate the return of Mr. Wallbridge for Hastings. Mr. Brown there referred to a proposal to dissolve the union. He was for giving the union a fair trial. “Who can look at the map of this continent and mark the vast portion of it acknowledging British sovereignty, without feeling that union and not separation ought to be the foremost principle with British American statesmen? Who that examples the condition of the several provinces which constitute British America, can fail to feel that with the people of Canada must mainly rest the noble task, at no distant date, of consolidating these provinces, aye, and of redeeming to civilization and peopling with new life the vast territories to our north, now so unworthily held by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Who cannot see that Providence has entrusted to us the building up of a great northern people, fit to cope with our neighbours of the United States, and to advance step by step with them in the march of civilization ? Sir, it is my fervent aspiration and belief that some here to-night may live to see the day when the British American flag shall proudly wave from Labrador to Vancouver Island and from our own Niagara to the shores of Hudson Bay. Look abroad over the world and tell me what country possesses the advantages, if she but uses them aright, for achieving such a future, as Canada enjoys—a fertile soil, a healthful climate, a hardy and frugal people, with great mineral resources, noble rivers, boundless forests. We have within our grasp all the elements of prosperity. We are free from the thousand time-honoured evils and abuses that affect and retard the nations of the Old World. Not even our neighbours of the United States occupy an equal position of advantage, for we have not the canker-worm of domestic slavery to blight our tree of liberty. And greater than these, we are but commencing our career as a people, our institutions have yet to be established. We are free to look abroad over the earth and study the lessons of wisdom taught by the history of older countries, and choose those systems and those laws and customs that expedience has shown best for advancing the moral and material interests of the human family.”

As a member of the coalition of 1884, Brown had an opportunity to promote "his long-cherished . object of adding the North-West Territories to Canada. There had been some communication between the British and Canadian governments, and in November 1864, the latter government said that Canada was anxious to secure the settlement of the West and the establishment of local governments. As the Hudson’s Bay Company worked under an English charter, it was for that government to extinguish its rights and gi\ e Canada a clear title. Canada would then annex, govern and open up communication with the territory. When Brown accompanied Macdonald, Cartier and Galt to England in 1865, this matter was taken up, and an agreement was arrived at which was reported to the Canadian legislature iri the second session of 1865. The committee said that calling to mind the vital importance to Canada of having that great and fertile country open to Canadian enterprise and the tide of emigration into it directed through Canadian channels, remembering the danger of large grants of land passing into the hands of mere money corporations, and the risk that the recent discoveries of gold on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains might throw into the country large masses of settlers unaccustomed to British institutions, they arrived at the conclusion that the quickest solution of the question would be the best for Canada. They therefore proposed that the whole territory east of the Rockies and north of the American or Canadian line should be made over to Canada, subject to the rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company; and that the compensation to be made by Canada to the company should be met by a loan guaranteed by the British government. To this, the imperial government consented.

The subsequent history of the acquisition of the West need not be told here. In this case, as in others, Brown was a pioneer in a work which others finished. But his services were generously acknowledged by Sir John Macdonald, who said in the House of Commons in 1875: “From the first time that he had entered parliament, the people of Canada looked forward to a western extension of territory, and from the time he was first a minister, in 1854, the question was brought up time and again, and pressed with great ability and force by the Hon. George Brown, who was then a prominent man in opposition to the government.”


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