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Sir John A MacDonald
The Clergy Reserves and Seigniorial Tenure - The Coalition of 1854

THE vote which led the Hincks-Morin government to resign in September, 1854, stood sixty-one to forty-six, but a closer analysis of the composition of the legislature showed that, of one hundred and thirty members, the defeated cabinet could claim fifty-five, the Conservative opposition forty, the Clear Grits and Rouges combined thirty-five.

While the government had been defeated, neither of the parties which had brought about the defeat was able to take its place. Coalition in some form was manifestly a necessity, if the queen's government was to be carried on. But coalition means compromise, and to some of the parties to the struggle anything like compromise presented almost insuperable difficulties. It might almost be said that the political situation at this time was dominated by the temperament of two men, Macdonald and George Brown. The latter had gradually come to be regarded as Macdonald's great antagonist in the public life of Canada. His figure is one of the largest in Canadian history. In Canadian politics his influence was for a long time only second, if second, to that of Macdonald himself. As a force in creating the public opinion on which reforms are based, he has strong claims to be reckoned in the first place. Like Macdonald, he was of Scottish birth. He was twenty-six years of age when, in 1844, the same year in which Macdonald entered parliament, he came to Canada, where soon after with his father he founded the Globe newspaper, with which his name will always be associated. The immense influence which George Brown long wielded in Upper Canada was won primarily as a journalist. Later he became a force in the legislature, though his parliamentary career was somewhat broken and erratic, partly through electoral defeats, partly through the difficulty he had in working with other men.

A man of intense convictions, a trenchant political writer, a vehement and powerful, though rather ungraceful, speaker, a thoroughly loyal British subject and a man devoted to the highest interests of his adopted country, his influence and success were somewhat marred by a domineering spirit and an uncompromising disposition which made little allowance for the opinions, the prejudices or the foibles of those with whom he had to deal. The real goodness of his heart and the earnestness of his purpose scarcely atoned at times for the bitterness of his polemics, which accentuated animosities and even alienated friends. As the vehement opponent of privilege and the untiring advocate of reform his record is unique in Canadian politics. He was deficient, however, in some of the qualities essential to a great leader of men.

The art of popular government has ever rested in a spirit of compromise, and never was this spirit more necessary than in the transition period of Canadian history. But compromise was a word not found in George Brown's vocabulary. He strained a principle to the breaking point—to a point where enemies were embittered and friends alienated. The note of personal antagonism and conflicting ambitions which marked the relations of the two men was largely the outcome of character. Brown's judgment was frequently warped by passion—while Macdonald was usually able to subject personal feeling to policy. Brown would have characterized Macdonald's compromising disposition as lack of fixed principle; while Macdonald no doubt considered that Brown's vehement and violent methods indicated lack of that common sense and knowledge of human nature necessary to successful statesmanship. There is a world of illumination thrown upon the history of the two men by the fact that of Macdonald's principal opponents at various stages of his career the majority became, sooner or later, his colleagues or supporters; that sooner or later George Brown found himself in opposition to most of those with whom he had at some time cooperated. Both men were patriots of whom Canada may be proud, and both were necessary to the country: the one to initiate and urge forward reforms, the other to reconcile opposing forces so as to make reforms possible in legislation. In the long political contest between them Macdonald won. In one of his poems Sir Walter Scott describes a conflict between a Lowland prince of trained skill and a Highland chieftain of blind but unflinching courage, ending in the victory of the former. In the rivalry between Macdonald and Brown these conditions were reversed. The skilful, adroit and restrained Highlander, with every faculty under control, proved more than a match for the furious onset of the Lowlander, armed though the latter usually was with a good cause and good intentions.

When the Clear Grit party first began to look upon itself and be regarded by others as a distinct political group, it met with George Brown's opposition. But as the reforming energy of the Liberal administration abated, Brown's impatience with his old friends gradually became more pronounced, and soon he was not merely opposing the Liberal leaders more vehemently than the Conservatives themselves, but was steadily moving towards the leadership of the Clear Grit party. Convinced that French and Roman Catholic influence was the cause of the government's hesitation, he proceeded to denounce with the utmost vehemence and in the most sweeping terms the racial ideals and the religious system of the people of Quebec. In a country inhabited by two races enjoying equal rights and entitled to equal freedom of opinion, such a course would be a mistake at any time. From the point of view of a man aspiring to political leadership in Canada, the mistake at the moment was fatal. The full strength of the Liberal party in both provinces was needed to form a government which could command a majority in the House; and Brown had made it practically impossible for any French-Canadian party to work with him, or for French members to support him without endangering their own seats in parliament.

Thus it was that when, largely through his untiring energy and fixed resolution, the question of the Clergy Reserves had been brought in Upper Canada to the verge of settlement, others than he were called in to complete the business. That question had long vexed Canadian politics; it had run like a thread through every electoral struggle since Macdonald had entered parliament and George Brown had started on his journalistic career; and the consideration of its nature and history, delayed so far for the sake of greater unity of treatment, must now be briefly dealt with before proceeding to the solution which finally removed it from the sphere of party conflict.

By a clause in the Act of 1791 which constituted the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada it was provided that, in granting allotments to settlers, other lands "equal in value to the seventh part of the lands so granted should be set apart for the support of a 'Protestant Clergy.'" This legislation, intended to give assurance that religious and moral training should go hand in hand with material development, seemed a singularly propitious start for a new country, but it proved in the end the most fruitful source of political strife that the colony had ever known. The Reserves were claimed at first for the exclusive use of the Anglican Church, and for a time this claim was not questioned. But the Church of Scotland began, in 1822, to assert its right to a proportion of the endowment, on the ground that it was recognized in the Act of Union between England and Scotland as an Established Protestant Church. Other denominations claimed at a later period that they too should have a share, arguing that the intention of the Act was only to exclude the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church from the benefit of the endowment. The acrimony of the dispute was increased by the fact that these reserved lands, scattered through every township, and remaining for the most part uncleared, untilled and untaxed, had grown to be one of the greatest drawbacks to the progress of settlement and the general improvement of the country.

No doubt the clauses of the Constitutional Act creating the Clergy Reserves had been framed and enacted with the most praiseworthy motives. The desire to make religious training a part of education has been a compelling influence amongst almost all Christian bodies in the later as well as the earlier history of Canada. The strenuous and self-sacrificing efforts made by Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other Christian organizations to establish institutions where religious training is duly recognized furnish convincing evidence that the purpose of the framers of this Act has its counterpart in many bodies outside the Anglican Church. Nor was the early interpretation put upon it without plausible justification. To men accustomed to the overshadowing influence of the Established Church in England, as were the framers of the Act, it must have seemed a perfectly natural thing to associate the religious training which they wished to secure with the teaching of that Church alone, and to aim at the organization of a parochial system such as that which existed in the motherland. But they had overlooked the new conditions which were sure to arise in a new country. Although the majority of the earlier English settlers and practically the whole body of officials belonged to the Anglican communion, at no time was there any formal recognition in Upper Canada of an Established Church.

The subsequent flow of immigration tended to diminish rapidly the proportion to the whole population of the Anglican body. The Irish famine added greatly to the Roman Catholic population of Canada. The large majority of Scottish immigrants were Presbyterian. The greater number of those who came from the United States belonged to non-Episcopal denominations. In many ways the enthusiasm and popular methods of other religious bodies appeal more strongly to a rural population than the severe and dignified ritual of the Church of England. These and other causes tended to a large increase in the proportion of the population which was out of sympathy with the Anglican communion and unwilling that it should hold a privileged position among other religious bodies. Such a position the Act creating the Clergy Reserves, coupled with the interpretation put upon it, certainly gave to the Anglican Church. Hence, the bitter struggle which followed was prolonged through almost an entire generation. This contest formed part of the broader struggle for responsible government. It was the source of angry conflict in the legislature for many years before the union and for many years afterwards, it perplexed the policy of successive administrations and furnished the chief subject of contention in several general elections.

As early as 1817 the attention of the legislature was drawn to the abuse which was being created by the operation of the Act. It was in 1819 that the law officers of the Crown gave their opinion in favour of the Presbyterian claims. The agitation increased from that time forward, the Church of England, under the leadership of the exceedingly able but uncompromising Dr. Strachan, afterwards first Bishop of Toronto, stoutly resisting all attempts to infringe what were considered its legal and exclusive rights. Fuel was added to the fire of discussion in 1836, when Sir John Colborne, just as he was resigning his post as lieutenant-governor, acting on the recommendation of the executive council, created and endowed forty-four rectories, giving to them, as an endowment, lands which in the aggregate amounted to more than seventeen thousand acres. A storm of protest followed, and helped to swell the complaints which formed the pretext for the uprising of 1837. When the rebellion had been put down and Mr. Poulett Thomson (Lord Sydenham) was sent to Canada in October, 1839, to prepare the country for the union soon to follow, the settlement of the question seemed to him so essential to future harmony that, by extraordinary exertions and the exercise of infinite tact, he secured the passage by the assembly, in January, 1840, of an Act providing that the Reserves should be sold, and the proceeds distributed in certain proportions among the various religious denominations recognized by law. This Act was vehemently opposed by Dr. Strachan and his friends; it was far from satisfying popular opinion in Canada; on being sent to England it was, on technical grounds, disallowed by the judges, who considered that certain of its provisions exceeded the powers of the legislature.

The imperial parliament, recognizing the necessity for dealing promptly with the question, passed an Act in the same year providing that no further reservations should be made; that of the proceeds of previous sales two-thirds should go to the Church of England and one-third to the Church of Scotland; that in the case of future sales the Church of England should have a third, the Church of Scotland a sixth, the remainder to be applied by the governor, with the advice of his council, "for purposes of public worship and religious instruction in Canada," a phrase intended to recognize the claims of other religious denominations. For a few years after the union this decision, although by many considered inequitable, remained undisturbed. Then the entire secularization of the Reserves became a plank in the platform of the Reform party. When a Reform government came into power in 1848 their most zealous supporters hoped that immediate action would be taken to carry out secularization. But, as has been said before, neither Mr. Baldwin nor Mr. LaFontaine was eager for this, and both rather deprecated the opening of the question. Besides, the legislature could not move till the Imperial Act of 1840 had been repealed. The hesitation of the ministry in asking for this repeal, the doubts about the justice of secularization entertained by both Mr. Baldwin and Mr. LaFontaine, irritated the Clear Grits and hastened the break-up of the Reform party.

George Brown did his utmost in the election of 1854 to defeat the regular Liberal candidates, with the result already mentioned—the overthrow of the Hincks-Morin ministry—by the joint votes of Conservatives and Clear Grits, the name now given to Brown's followers. Sir Allan Mac-Nab, the leader of the Conservative opposition, was called upon to form an administration. It was a difficult position in which he found himself placed. The election had made plain the wishes of a majority of the electorate, and, if he took office at all, it must be to carry out measures which he had steadily opposed, and in coalition with men who had been his bitter opponents. But a final settlement of the chief question at issue was a supreme necessity in the interests of the country, drifting as it was under the renewed agitation towards political anarchy. Any doubts that Sir Allan entertained were swept away by the decisive judgment of the young lieutenant, who was already beginning to be looked upon as the virtual leader of the Conservative party.

Macdonald's keen political sagacity enabled him to recognize in the relation of parties an opportunity for which he had long been watching and planning. Never from the first had he been entirely in sympathy with the extreme Tory party with which he had been associated. He saw that some of the old party lines must be abandoned. It is true the Conservatives had always favoured the view of the Church of England in the matter of the Clergy Reserves; but successive elections had now made it clear that the people were bent on secularization, and that no administration could be formed, with any hope of stability, which did not place this upon its programme. Seigniorial tenure stood in the same position in Quebec. Macdonald determined to bow to the popular will, and to educate his party to follow him in doing this. He saw that there might be established a real bond of union, as there was a real unity of purpose, between the less rigid wing of the Conservative party and the more moderate advocates of reform in Upper Canada. He had taken trouble to ingratiate himself with the French members, to whom his buoyant disposition, his keen sense of humour, his courtesy and the gaiety of manner and speech under which he often concealed his deeper purposes, presented an attractive contrast to the grimly earnest temperament of the Clear Grit leader. There was evidently no insuperable antagonism between the Upper Canadian Conservatives and the more moderate of the French-Canadian Liberals; indeed in many respects they were natural allies.

It was apparently at this time that the goal towards which he was working became clear to Macdonald. Already his imagination had conceived the great Liberal-Conservative party which was afterwards to prove in his skilful hands such a potent instrument in lifting Canada to a new level of national life. The idea was still in embryo, but even in 1854 it had enough of vitality to break down long-standing hostilities and bring men together to work for the common good.

The coalition known as the MacNab-Morin administration contained six members of the previous Liberal government, with an addition of four Conservatives. Macdonald's own post was that of attorney-general for Upper Canada. This ministry has always been regarded as the offspring of his constructive ability. It applied itself at once and vigorously to the task to which it was committed. The programme submitted to the legislature embraced measures for the secularization of the Clergy Reserves, and for dealing with the seigniorial tenure. What the Conservative party would never have done of itself, what the Reform party had never dared to attempt, the new administration promptly carried out.

Loud and bitter was the outcry of Tory veterans of many a hard fought field when they saw the surrender of the central citadel around which their past conflicts had been waged. Louder still and still more dread were the denunciations hurled against what they called the "Unholy Alliance " by those who had themselves expected to give the finishing blow to those ancient grievances that had so long furnished the staple of political agitation.

But moderate men on all sides recognized the necessity for the coalition. From his retirement the great Reform leader, Robert Baldwin, wrote to express his formal approval. "However disinclined myself," he said, "to adventure on such combinations, they are unquestionably, in my opinion, under certain circumstances, not only justifiable but expedient, and even necessary. The government of the country must be carried on. It ought to be carried on with vigour. If that can be done in no other way than by mutual concessions and a coalition of parties, they become necessary. And those who, under such circumstances, assume the arduous duties of being parties to them, so far from deserving the opprobrium that is too frequently and often too successfully heaped upon them, have, in my opinion, the strongest claims upon public sympathy and support."

Mr. Hincks, the defeated premier, promised and gave his assistance. Even Mr. Dorion, the Rouge leader, considered the union between the Conservatives and Mr. Morin's wing of the Liberal party a natural one. The members who had accepted office in the ministry were all reelected on going back to their constituents; and thus the seal of popular approval was in a measure put upon the policy of coalition.

Macdonald himself introduced the bill for the secularization of the Clergy Reserves on October 17th, 1854; on November 23rd it passed the assembly by a vote of sixty-two to thirty-nine; on December 10th the legislative council agreed to it without amendment; and thus in a few short weeks the coalition rid the country forever of a question which for many years had been a fruitful source of strife. In this final settlement due regard was paid to those vested interests to which the faith of the Crown was pledged. Provision was made for the payment during the lives of existing incumbents of those stipends or allowances which had been charged upon the Reserves. The government was empowered to commute these stipends for their money value on an equitable basis, though only with the consent of the incumbents themselves, the money so paid being capitalized and invested for the good of the church concerned. In cases like those of the Wesleyan and Roman Catholic bodies, where annual grants had been made in a block sum without reference to individual incumbents, it was provided that the payments should be continued for a term of twenty years. When all these first charges on the fund had been paid, the residue was to be divided among the city and county municipalities in proportion to their population, and applied to ordinary municipal purposes.

While these terms of settlement were doubtless better than would have been granted at less sympathetic hands, the clergy, and especially those of the Anglican Church, who were most largely concerned, lost heavily in comparison with their legal claims. Yet even by them this settlement was accepted as final, and in a spirit which justified the high compliment paid to them by Macdonald in a public speech a few years later. "To the credit of the churches concerned, and of their clergy, be it said, that, great as was their loss, and enormous their sacrifice—for they had a claim on the full half of the proceeds—they acquiesced in the settlement we proposed, because they felt that they ought not to be the cause of strife, and would not be placed in a false position, and have it said that they looked more after temporal than spiritual things. Though the pittances paid were small, I am happy to have personally received assurances from the clergy of these churches—from their bishops downward—that they are glad our legislation succeeded."

While the Clergy Reserves were being dealt with, another Act finally settling the question of seigniorial tenure was being pushed through the legislature. This grievance was an inheritance from the old French regime, under which an effort was made to introduce into the New World the feudal system of France in the Middle Ages. Large blocks of territory were granted to seigniors or superior vassals by the Crown on a tenure of "faith and homage," together with other conditions, among which was an obligation to clear the land within a limited time on pain of forfeiture. The seigniors subdivided their land among the peasants or habitants, who in turn were subject to various feudal imposts and dues. The exaction of these dues and of various feudal obligations connected with this system of land tenure had gradually become exceedingly vexatious, and furnished much ground for discontent in Lower Canada. In the settlement now made the radical method of cure, by confiscation, was avoided, and regard was had for those vested rights which the seigniors had acquired by original grant and by the lapse of time. Commissioners were appointed to enquire into and fix the value of these rights; a tribunal was provided to which doubtful questions could be referred, and a commutation fund was set apart for the indemnification of the seigniors. But all feudal rights and duties in Lower Canada were finally abolished, and when the commissioners finished their work five years later, and the necessary money to close the accounts for payment was voted, this remnant of the mediaval system of France, which had been so fruitful a source of agitation and discontent, disappeared from the field of Canadian politics. At a few points along the St. Lawrence certain harmless survivals of seigniorial ownership still remain to add picturesqueness to the conditions of life, but they no longer furnish grounds for irritation.

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