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Louis-Joseph Papineau
Chapter III - The Parliamentary Regime


THE new constitution, which created only a legislative council appointed by the Crown, was welcomed with enthusiasm by England's new subjects, but it contained no provision enabling them to take part in public affairs. That it should, despite this shortcoming, have satisfied the aspirations of our ancestors need not surprise us in the least Men do not always feel the privation of advantages which they have never enjoyed. Now, in 1774, the separation from France had existed but fourteen years, and the recollection of the absolute French regime, imparted to the English rule an appearance of comparative freedom. The principles of self-government did not form part of the mental outfit of the Canadian of that day, habituated as he was by monarchical tradition to look to the king for everything, and to await his commands as the child awaits his father's. Hence when the question was first mooted of creating a House of Assembly composed of representatives of the people, to act side by side with the legislative council and the governor, the project met with anything but a cordial reception on their part, for it was to them fraught with all the terrors of the unknown. We have before us the text of the protest forwarded to London on the subject. Embodied in their petition is the following:—

"What we cling to most closely is our religion and the laws regulating our property and our personal freedom, and the Quebec Act of 1774 secured us all that. We dread the establishment of an assembly, in view of the possible consequences of the creation of such a body. Can we as Catholics hope to preserve in an assembly the same privileges as the Protestants? And must not the time come when the influence of the latter will preponderate over that of our descendants? If the proposed changes were carried out, should we ourselves, or should our descendants, enjoy the privileges afforded by the existing constitution? Moreover are we not justified in fearing that the taxes now levied on commerce and paid it is true, indirectly, by the inhabitants of the country, but only in proportion to individual consumption,—may be levied on our properties? Have we not reason to fear that this assembly of representatives may one day sow the germs of discord which would find a congenial soil in the intestinal animosities resulting from the conflicting interests of the old and new subjects of His Majesty?"

These objections to the creation of a representative chamber, manifest a degree of foresight and prescience on the part of those by whom they were formulated, which an English historian felt bound to notice. The Canadians of 1778, in view of the current of immigration into our country, which the American revolution had created, foresaw that the new comers—the Loyalists—would come into conflict with them on the very first- contact This protest of the Canadians made a certain impression in London, and instead of establishing but one assembly for the whole colony, in accordance with the first proposal, it was decided to divide Canada into two provinces, each having its legislature.

This constitution of 1791, with the governor and the ministry, the legislative council appointed by the Crown and the chamber of representatives, was to be in reality, in its working, but a prolongation of the Quebec Act On the whole it promised much more than it gave. As a governmental instrument it lacked elasticity. Under its rule the country remained as before, subject to the personal control of the governor. While the assembly held certain powers, they were purely negative, the governor, supported by the legislative council filled with his own supporters, being always able to hold the popular branch under restraint Deprived of all means of rendering service to the people, the members of the Lower House one day discovered the fact that they had been involuntarily allowed to retain the power of making themselves disagreeable and thwarting the action of the government; they ventured to use and in fact abuse that power.

While the constitution of 1791 wore a threatening aspect for the Canadians living under the paternal, and absolute regime of the Quebec Act, their successors, with that keenness of vision which seems to be a special quality of the French Canadian in matters political, soon foresaw all the advantages it would be possible for them to derive from a popular chamber endowed with the ordinary attributes of such an institution. Great was their disappointment when the absolutism of the governors made them feel that they were still living under a regime recalling the French regime du bonplaisir.

The Canadians entertained for a time the hope of securing the means of wielding effective influence. Up to 1818, the English government provided the funds for the civil list of Quebec. It struck them that if they were entrusted with the payment of the government officials, they would have only to refuse the vote of supplies to the Crown, in order to bring everything to a standstill and compel the governor to respect the will of the assembly. It was an illusion. Yielding to their wishes, the English government granted the assembly, in 1818, the privilege of voting supplies to the Crown, which implied the cognate privilege of a refusal. This expedient did not prove a success, for when it was attempted the governor parried the blow by drawing from the military chest the funds required for the public service. What was lacking in the government system of that day was a provision for points of contact between its several parts. Logically, the ministers should have sat in the chamber, in order to explain to the representatives of the people the policy of the governor, and when necessary, to defend it, and to open up more frequent intercourse between the supreme authority and the people; but there was no law compelling them to be elected ; they were not responsible to the people and were accountable only to the colonial office that appointed them.

The difficulties of the situation would have been mitigated had the legislative council intervened as mediator between the assembly and the governor; but far from so doing, it undertook to fan the flame of discord, under the influence of the governor, who filled it with his own friends in order to use it as an ally against the assembly and as an instrument of obstruction.

All things considered, the Quebec Act would for a while have suited the country better. While it did not bestow upon the people self-government, it stated the fact without hesitation or circumlocution, whereas the regime of 1791 was but an arbitrary rule disguised under the features of popular government The fatal defect of this system was that it yielded to the people a mere semblance of political rights, giving an impetus to the national representation and then tripping it up when it had entered upon its career. To this fatal defect was superadded the abuse of personal power in surrounding the governor with a multitude of courtiers overflowing with interested loyalty and the exclusive recipients of all honours and places of emolument. The same cause produced everywhere the same effects. In Upper Canada the family compact monopolized all the patronage. In our province there were no favours for any but the bureaucrats. But when the partisans of the system were asked to account for the deadlock which ensued, the answer in reference to the western province was "It is the fault of the constitution," but as to Montreal and Quebec, Papineau and his friends were held responsible for the like trouble. Nova Scotia, which was placed under a regime identical with that of the two Canadas, succeeded no better. We need only mention that, in 1840, Lord Sydenham was compelled to proceed from Montreal to Halifax where the governor and the assembly were at loggerheads. Lord Sydenham refers to the subject as follows:—"As in Upper Canada, the population in Nova Scotia has gradually outgrown the monopoly of power in the hands of a few large families."

The remedy of the strained and dangerous situation created by the constitution of 1791, was in the hands of the government. Why not obey the dictates of logic which manifestly urged them to carry out their principles to a conclusion? The creation of a representative chamber implied the presence in that body of the advisers of the Crown, responsible to the people for their conduct. The responsibility of ministers is a wonderful instrument of government. It brings into power, in turn, the leading men of the two parties, instead of condemning one party to perpetual opposition, as occurred here before 1837. This alternation of administrations acts as a safety-valve for the overflow of political strife, and affords the relaxation needed amid the extreme tension caused by party struggles.

For want of this mechanism, the faction hostile to the government in Lower Canada rushed into political agitation of a quasi revolutionary character, and dark days saddened the country. Those who had, so to speak, provoked the storm, suffered least from its effects, while the thunderbolt fell on the victims of a state of things for which the sufferers were in no sense responsible. The scaffold and proscription did their work after the uprising of 1837-38, and the constitution of 1791 was forthwith suspended.


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