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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Sir Albert J. Smith



(1822-1883)

WHEN the Confederation wave at last swept New Brunswick in 1866, it broke down the dykes of fear and jealousy carefully reared by Albert J. Smith when he defeated Tilley and the unionist government a year earlier. Smith was a powerful influence in the anti-Confederation party, and led in the campaign of indignation, on the platform and in newspapers and pamphlets, after the Quebec Conference. It was a campaign in which Canada was pictured as a great, overpowering neighbor, ready to swallow the little Maritime Provinces. New Brunswick people were told that under Confederation they would have no country. Much was made of the financial needs of Canada and of the secrecy which had surrounded the negotiations. Thus warned of ills they knew not of, the electors struck the first blow at the agreement by defeating the Tilley Government in March, 1865, less than six months after the Quebec Conference.

Wreckage brought down by Smith, the country lawyer from Dorchester, was then salvaged by the patient apothecary from St. John, Samuel Leonard Tilley, and the battle began over again. It did not end until Lieutenant-Governor Gordon had strained the constitution by acting outside the advice of Premier Smith and his Cabinet, and until Smith had exhausted his resources in standing for responsible government as he understood it. It was a case of the end justifying the means. Arthur H. Gordon, the Lieutenant-Governor, had been opposed to union, or at least to the larger scheme. Some said he favored a union of the Maritime Provinces with himself at its head. He was recalled to England on a visit, and when he returned his views had changed.

“I am further instructed to express to you,” he told the Legislature in his Speech from the Throne in March, 1866, “the strong and deliberate opinion of Her Majesty’s Government that it is an object much to be desired that all the British North American Colonies should agree to unite in one government.”

It is clear from his own reminiscences that Peter Mitchell was responsible for the insertion of this paragraph. He was the pro-Confederation leader of the Legislative Council who was pulling the strings, and who brought the fall of the Smith Cabinet. The paragraph favoring Confederation caused surprise, in view of the election of the Government the year before on an anti-union platform. When it was read in the House the crowd outside the bar broke into a cheer. This was an ominous circumstance for the Ministry. A. R. Wet-more, elected as an anti-unionist and a supporter of the Government, went over to the other side. Opposition developed in other quarters, and a want of confidence motion was debated for three weeks.

Meantime, the crisis was developing in the Legislative Council. The unionist plot—not using the word in an offensive sense—was coming to a head. As it proceeded, Albert J. Smith doubtless felt the presence, as behind a curtain, of the masterful figure of Peter Mitchell, with whom Governor Gordon was taking counsel as he proceeded. Another circumstance tended to place Smith at a disadvantage. Early in 1866 he had accompanied delegates from Canada and Nova Scotia to Washington to seek a renewal of the reciprocity treaty, and while he was absent the unionist leaders made headway with their plans. They had also gained ground during Smith’s absence the previous year in England, whither he had gone with J. C. Allen to oppose the terms of union and to further the construction of the St. John & Shediac Railway to the Nova Scotia boundary. Events hastened to a climax in the Spring of 1866. The Smith Ministry, united only in their opposition to union, and composed of men of diverse parties and beliefs, had internal difficulties; an important by-election in York had been lost, the people were learning the real terms of union, and suddenly they were confronted with the Fenian enemy at their very gates. It was like the blast of a bugle. One thousand m£n were enrolled at once and sent to the Maine frontier, where they remained for three months, but the invasion did not materialize. As one New Bruns-wicker recently phrased it, “All the old women of both sexes got frightened.” The danger served to solidify union sentiment, for we find Mr. Tilley later replying to Mr. Smith in the Legislature, “dwelling on the impression of power which union would have on the minds of those abroad who were plotting our ruin.”

Mitchell had been asked by Governor Gordon to support Smith in securing union, and had agreed, though he doubted Smith’s sincerity in professing to favor Confederation, after attaining office on the opposite policy. Interviews followed, and the paragraph appeared in the Governor’s speech as an evidence of good faith, though it alienated more of the Government’s supporters. Debate in the House dragged, but in the Legislative Council an address favoring union was passed, and Gordon, with immoderate haste, made ready to accept and transmit it, with an endorsation of its sentiments. On the morning of April 7 Premier Smith called and told the Governor he ought simply to transmit the address. In the afternoon the Premier was again summoned to the Government House, when the Governor told him that he intended to receive the Legislative Council at 3 o’clock. Smith again protested, and to the suggestion that he drive down to the Assembly and consult his colleagues he replied that that was impossible as a debate on a want of confidence motion was going on and they could not leave the House.

The sands in the Smith Administration glass had now all but run out. The Legislative Council was already in the building, including the redoubtable Mitchell. Mr. Smith, having refused responsibility for the Governor’s reply to the address, went away, and two days later the Government resigned. Smith had been squeezed out of office while he had still a majority in the House. A bolder politician might hare fared better and given the Governor an unpleasant time.

Let us see what it cost in damage to the constitution to carry Confederation in New Brunswick. The Cabinet’s remonstrance maintained that the Governor’s action in replying to the Council’s address without consulting his advisers was not “in accordance with the true spirit of the constitution.” They claimed that in a measure involving an organic change in the constitution, and political rights and privileges of the people, the people should be consulted. They reminded the Governor that the Quebec Scheme had been condemned by the people at the last election, that it had been subsequently condemned in the Assembly by twenty-nine to ten; that the Legislative Council, a body not elected by the people, had no right to ask for legislation the Assembly had rejected; that such proceeding violates every principle of responsible and self-government, is subversive of the rights and liberties of the people, and seeks to take from them their constitution not only without their consent but against their clearly expressed wishes. As a parting thrust, this outspoken letter accused the Governor of “having taken the advice, as they truly believe, of a gentleman of the Opposition as to the answer given to the Legislative Council on Saturday last instead of that of your constitutional advisers,” and “they would respectfully express their conviction that such a course was unconstitutional and without precedent in any country where responsible government exists.” They thereupon resigned in a body.

There was acid, too, in Governor Gordon’s reply. He said the Ministers’ reasoning would go far to destroy the position of the Legislative Council as a coordinate branch of the Legislature, a branch whose opinion had been asked, and whose opinion could be given without waiting for the views of the other House. The Governor reminded his advisers that their Ministerial responsibility was something “from which it is always in their power to escape,” and said that the noncommunication to the Cabinet of the reply in question was the result, not of design, but of accident, as it had been his intention to afford them a sufficient opportunity for its consideration. He added that his words by no means conveyed approval of that particular scheme for union, and that from previous communications with the leader of the Government he was entitled to assume that that hope was shared by the Cabinet.

Governor Gordon accused his late Ministers of vacillation in the cause they pretended to uphold. He reminded Mr. Smith that he had agreed to refer the question to a joint committee of both Houses, with the understanding that that committee should report in favor of a measure of union. Due weight was to be given to the objections raised to the scheme. Smith had left Fredericton to consult his party, the Governor said, and all seemed well, but after the Legislature met there had been little indication of movement toward union.

“His Excellency,” says the memorandum, “has never ceased to urge on Mr. Smith the expediency, and even the necessity, of a bold avowal of his intended policy, nor has he failed to express his apprehension as to the consequence of delay in so doing, believing that until that avowal was made Mr. Smith would become daily more and more entangled in contradictory pledges from which he would find it impossible to extricate himself, and which might act most prejudicially on the prospects of the cause.”

The Governor added that it had become more and more apparent that the Ministers lacked the power—he would not say they lacked the will—to carry out their original intention, and he would accept their resignations, believing that a vast change had already taken place in the opinions of the people on the subject.

Smith, as befitted a man who entered the Legislature in 1854 as a Liberal opponent of the Tory Family Compact of the day in New Brunswick, had stood up manfully for responsible government, but the issue was too great for that obstruction.

The Cabinet resigned on April 9, the Fenians arrived at Eastport on the Maine-New Brunswick border on the 10th, the elections followed in May and June, and the Government of Peter Mitchell won a great victory. The Legislature met on June 21 and by July 7 had adopted the Confederation resolutions and prorogued. The main Confederation resolution was in the following terms:

“Resolved that an humble address be presented to his Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor, praying that his Excellency be pleased to appoint delegates to unite with the delegates from the other Provinces in arranging with the Imperial Government for the Union of British North America upon such terms as will secure the just rights and interests of New Brunswick, accompanied with provision for the immediate construction of the Intercolonial Railway; each Province to have an equal voice in such delegation, Upper and Lower Canada to be considered as separate Provinces.”

Attorney-General Charles Fisher’s brief speech brought a reply—a last futile protest—from Mr. Smith, who was now leader of the Opposition, lasting almost two days. Mr. Smith objected to giving delegates power to fix the destinies of the Provinces forever without again submitting the union scheme to the people. He also criticized the constitution of the Upper House of the proposed union parliament, declaring that each Province should have an equal number of representatives in it, as was the case in the United States. He moved an amendment to the effect that no act or measure for a union with Canada take effect until approved by the Legislature or the people of the Province.

As soon as the Confederation resolutions were passed, Mr. Smith moved a resolution which included provisions for an equal number of Legislative Councillors (as the Senators were then termed) from each Province, that the number of representatives in the federal Parliament be limited, that a court be established to settle disputes between the federal and local governments, that New Brunswick be exempted from taxation for the construction and enlargement of canals in Upper Canada, and for other things. Following this he delivered a lengthy pessimistic speech, declaring Confederation was a great experiment at best and that the Government was acting in a most high-handed manner.

New Brunswick’s delegation to the London Conference consisted of S. L. Tilley, R. D. Wilmot, Charles Fisher, Peter Mitchell, J. M. Johnson, and E. B. Chandler. The delicate relations still existing with Canada were further strained by the weary wait of several months in London for the Canadian representatives, who were delayed by John A. Macdonald’s ill-health, and by other causes not well defined. The battle was won, and Albert J. Smith moved to another arena.

Easy material conditions made it possible for Mr. Smith to devote long years to the public service. He had been born in the village of Shediac, Westmoreland County, on March 12, 1822, of Loyalist descent. He attended the local grammar school, and later became a student in the law office of E. B. Chandler,* afterwards a Father of Confederation, and a Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. He was called to the Bar in 1847, and opening an office in Dorchester, soon developed a profitable practice. Young Smith had qualities for public life which found a ready outlet in an era when many men afterwards famous were responding to the public call. He was elected to the Assembly in 1852 as a Liberal, and two years later joined Charles Fisher, W. J. Ritchie, and S. L. Tilley in forming the first Liberal government of the Province. They went out of office after the failure of the prohibition bill in 1856, but were returned the following year on a deadlock being reached. In 1862 Smith became Attorney-General, but resigned a year later on disagreeing with his colleagues on matters connected with the construction of the Intercolonial Railway. He objected to the terms by which his Province was to pay three and one-half twelfths of the cost, which he considered too high a proportion. As the Intercolonial was a part of the union scheme, his opposition to both was at least consistent.

When Albert Smith’s battle against Confederation had ended in defeat, he, like most of the leading opponents in other Provinces, cheerfully accepted the situation and lived to render useful service under the new constitution. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1867 and gave a nominal support to Sir John Macdonald until 1873, when he assisted the Liberals in their efforts to uncover the Pacific Scandal. On the Mackenzie Government’s succession to office, Smith became Minister of Marine and Fisheries in succession to Peter Mitchell, his old antagonist in the union battle. During his four years of office Smith rendered one notable service in the preparation of the evidence for, and attendance at, the sittings of the Halifax Fisheries Conference in 1877. This resulted in an award of $5,500,000 for Canada and Newfoundland, to be paid by the United States for the use of fisheries. For this work Smith was knighted in 1879. His public life, marked by honor and uprightness at every turn, closed in an unexpected defeat in 1882, after fourteen victories in his native county of Westmoreland, and an unbroken service of thirty years. The voting element of the riding had changed, and the warrior’s lack of contact with the people lessened his popularity. His health was seen to be broken, his lack of physical exercise contributing to this end, and he passed away, at the age of 61, in Dorchester, on June 30, 1883.

Sir Albert Smith was a man of popular traits and a persuasive speaker. Though successful with juries, he largely abandoned law for business and shipping in his adopted home of Dorchester, and amassed considerable wealth. He was a sincere and ready debater, and met the attacks of opponents with grace and without bitterness. Though a man of energy and industry, for one of his portly body, he was cautious and hesitant in matters of policy. His opposition to Confederation was part of his opposition to change of any kind. He became naturally the exponent of a policy of doubt on the question of union, which was swept away only as the true terms became known, and the Fenian horde on the frontier made unity appear the only safeguard for national well-being.


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