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George Brown
Chapter XXIII - Canadian Nationalism


IT will be remembered that after the victory won by the Reformers in 1848, there was an outbreak of radical sentiment, represented by the Clear Grits in Upper Canada and by the Rouges in Lower Canada. It may be more than a coincidence that there was a similar stirring of the blood in Ontario and in Quebec after the Liberal victory of 1874. The founding of the Liberal and of the Nation, of the National Club and of the Canada First Association, Mr. Blake’s speech at Aurora, and Mr. Goldwin Smith’s utterances combined to mark this period as one of extraordinary intellectual activity". Orthodox Liberalism was disquieted by these movements. It had won a great, and as was then believed, a permanent victory over Macdonald and all that he represented, and it had no sympathy with a disturbing force likely to break up party lines, and to lead young men into new and unknown paths.

The platform of Canada First was not in itself revolutionary. It embraced, (1) British connection: (2) closer trade relations with the British West India Islands, with a view to ultimate political connection; (3) an income franchise; (4) the ballot, with the addition of compulsory voting; (5) a scheme for the representation of minorities; (6) encouragement of immigration and free homesteads in the public domain; (7) the imposition of duties for revenue so adjusted as to afford every possible encouragement to native industry; (8) an improved militia system under command of trained Dominion officers; (9) no property qualifications in members of the House of Commons; (10) reorganization of the senate; (11) pure and economic administration of public affairs. This programme was severely criticized by the Globe. Some of the articles, such as purity and economy, were scornfully treated as commonplaces of politics. “Yea, and who knoweth not such things as these.” The framers of the platform were rebuked for their presumption in setting themselves above the old parties, and were advised to “tarry in Jericho until their beards be grown.” But the letter of the programme did not evince the spirit of Canada First, which was more clearly set forth in the prospectus of the Nation. There it was said that the one thing needful was the cultivation of a national spirit. The country required the stimulus of patriotism. Old prejudices of English, Scottish, Irish and German people were crystallized. Canadians must assert their nationality, their position as members of a nation. These and other declarations were analyzed by the Globe, and the heralds of the new gospel were pressed for a plainer avowal of their intentions. Throughout the editorial utterances of the Globe there was shown a growing suspicion that the ulterior aim of the Canada First movement was to bring about the independence of Canada. The quarrel came to a head when Mr. Gold win Smith was elected president of the National Club. The Globe, in its issue of October 27th, 1874, brought its heaviest artillery to bear on the members of the Canada First party. It accused them of lack of courage and frankness. When brought to book as to their principles, it said, they repudiated everything. They repudiated nativism; they repudiated independence; they abhorred the very idea of annexation. The movement was without meaning when judged by these repudiations, but was very significant and involved grave practical issues when judged by the practices of its members. They had talked loudly and foolishly of emancipation from political thraldom, as if the present connection of Canada with Great Britain were a yoke and a burden too heavy and too galling to be borne. They had adopted the plank of British connection by a majority of only four. They had chosen as their standard-bearer, their prophet and their president, one whose chief claim to prominence lay in the persistency with which he had advocated the breaking up of the British empire. Mr. Goldwin Smith had come into a peaceful community to do his best for the furtherance of a cause which meant simply revolution. The advocacy of independence, said the Globe, could not be treated as an academic question. It touched every Canadian in his dearest and most important relations. It jeopardized his material, social and religious interests. Canada was not a mere dead limb of the British tree, ready to fall of its own weight. The union was real, and the branch was a living one. Great Britain, it was true, would not fight to hold Canada against her will, but if the great mass of Canadians believed in British connection, those who wished to break the bond must be ready to take their lives in their hands. The very proposal to cut loose from Britain would be only the beginning of trouble. In any ease what was sought was revolution, and those who preached it ought to contemplate all the possibilities of such a course. They might be the fathers and founders of a new nationally, but they might also be simply mischief-makers, whose insignificance and powerlessness were their sole protection, who were not important enough for “either a traitor’s trial or a traitor’s doom.”

Mr. Goldwin Smith’s reply to this attack was that he was an advocate, not of revolution but of evolution. “Gradual emancipation,” he said, “means nothing more than the gradual concession by the mother country to the colonies of powers of self government; this process has already been carried far. Should it be carried further and ultimately consummated, as I frankly avow my belief it must, the mode of proceeding will be the same that it has always been. Each step will be an Act of parliament passed with the assent of the Crown. As to the filial tie between England and Canada, I hope it will endure forever.”

Mr. Goldwin Smith’s views were held by some other members of the Canada First party. Another and a larger section were Imperialists, who believed that Canada should assert herself by demanding a larger share of self-government within the empire, and by demanding the privileges and responsibilities of citizens of the empire. The bond that united the Imperialists and the advocates of independence was national spirit. This was what the Globe failed to perceive, or at least to recognize fully. Its article of October 27th is powerful and logical, strong in sarcasm and invective. It displays every purely intellectual quality necessary for the treatment of the subject, but lacks the insight that comes from imagination and sympathy. The declarations of those whose motto was “Canada first,” could fairly be criticized as vague, but this vagueness was the result, not of cowardice or insincerity, but of the inherent difficulty of putting the spirit of the movement into words. A youth whose heart is stirred by all the aspirations of coming manhood, “yearning for the large excitement that the coming years would yield,” might have the same hesitation in writing down his yearnings and aspirations on a sheet of paper, and might be as unwisely snubbed by his elders.

The greatest intellect of the Liberal party felt the impulse. At Aurora Edward Blake startled the more cautious members of the party by advocating the federation of the empire, the reorganization of the senate, compulsory voting, extension of the franchise and representation of minorities. His real theme was national spirit. National spirit would be lacking until we undertook national responsibilities. He described the Canadian people as “four millions of Britons who are not free.” By the policy of England, in which we had no voice or control, Canada might be plunged into the horrors of war. Recently, without our consent, the navigation of the St. Lawrence had been ceded forever to the United States. We could not complain of these things unless we were prepared to assume the. full responsibilities of citizenship within the empire!. The young men of Canada heard these words with a thrill of enthusiasm, but the note was not struck again. The movement apparently ceased, and politics apparently flowed back into their old channels. But while the name, the organization and the organs of Canada First In the press disappeared, the force and spirit remained, and exercised a powerful influence upon Canadian politics for many years.

There can be little doubt that the Liberal party was injured by the uncompromising hostility which was shown to the movement of 1871. Young men, enthusiasts, bold and original thinkers, began to look upon Liberalism as a creed harsh, dry, tyrannical, unprogressive and hostile to new ideas. When the independent lodgment afforded by Canada First disappeared, many of them drifted over to the Conservative party, whose leader was shrewd enough to perceive the strength of the spirit of nationalism, and to give it what countenance he could. Protection triumphed at the polls in 1878, not merely by the use of economic arguments, but because it was heralded as the “National Policy ” and hailed as a declaration of the commercial independence of Canada. A few years later the legislation for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, bold to the point of rashness, as it seemed, and unwise and improvident in some of its provisions, was heartily approved by the count ry, because it was regarded as a measure of national growth and expansion. The strength of the Conservative party from 1878 to 1891 was largely due to its adoption of the vital principle and spirit of Canada First.

The Globe’s attacks upon the Canada First party also had the effect of fixing in the public mind a picture of George Brown as a dictator and a relentless wielder of the party whip, a picture contrasting strangely with those suggested by his early career. He had fought for responsible government, for freedom from clerical dictation; he had been one of the boldest of rebels against party discipline; he had carelessly thrown away a great party advantage in order to promote confederation; he had been the steady opponent of slavery. In 1874 the Liberals were in power both at Ottawa and at Toronto, and Mr. Brown may not have been free from the party man’s delusion that when his party is in power all is well, and agitation for change is mischievous. Canada First threatened to change the formation of political parties, and seemed to him to threaten a change in the relations of Canada to the empire. But these explanations do not alter the fact that his attitude caused the Liberal party to lose touch with a movement characterized by intellectual keenness and generosity of sentiment, representing a real though ill-defined national impulse, and destined to leave its mark upon the history of the country.


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