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Lord Sydenham
Chapter V - Governor-General of Canada - Origin of the Canadian Problem


IT was doubtless the personal influenee of Lord John Russell, coupled with the small prospect of achieving further political reputation in connection with the discredited Whig administration at home, that finally determined Poulett Thomson to accept the position of Canadian governor. It was arranged at the time that, owing to the importance of the office, Lord John Russell himself should take the position of colonial secretary. That being so, Poulett Thomson knew that he would be relieved of all anxiety as to the imperial end of his mission. The perfect understanding which existed between the colonial secretary and the colonial governor undoubtedly had much to do with the success of Lord Sydenham's administration.

There appears to be little doubt that the new governor went out to Canada with the understanding that, if successful in his mission, he should be elevated to the peerage. Lord Sydenham's nature was one of those in which personal joy in the accomplishment of good work in the carrying through of great ideas to a successful practical issue was closely interwoven with that love of approbation which spurred him to additional effort, if not for popular applause, yet certainly for the approval of those whose opinion he specially valued. At the same time his whole career proved that his strong confidence in his own judgment enabled him readily, if not joyfully, to stand practically alone in defence of measures which had enlisted his sympathy or commanded his judgment.

When his appointment to the Canadian governorship, which took place on August 29th, 1839, was announced, it was received with very varied comments. Many of those who regarded him only from the point of view of popular standards, and who had little or no personal knowledge of him, condemned the selection in round terms. It is true that any choice was certain to be condemned on party grounds, political feeling being particularly bitter at the time, and Canada was one of the chief issues of the day. Judged, however, by the men who knew him intimately, or who had occasion to know what he had accomplished, there was no doubt as to his fitness for the position, and many who judged him harshly at the time of his appointment afterwards made ample amends in their acknowledgment of his distinguished success.

It will at least be evident from the foregoing summary of the business and political career of Poulett Thomson, that he was exceptionally well qualified, from his thorough and practical knowledge of the actual workings of the British system of political parties and cabinet government, to undertake the reconstruction of the Canadian government upon similar lines. His expert knowledge, at once of the public and private aspects of trade and finance, enabled him to greatly assist in introducing some rational system into the indescribable tangle of provincial finance, which was alike narrow in revenue and prodigally wasteful in expenditure.

Hitherto the British government had deemed it the part of wisdom to send as Canadian governors military experts instead of civil administrators; and, owing, one may suppose, to some beneficent system of compensation in nature, the very incompetency of the military administration in civil matters brought about in due course the requisite opportunity for the exercise of military talents, thus proving conclusively, for those who had an understanding for such matters, the great foresight of the home government in having on the spot military governors ready to cope with rebellion within the colony and foreign sympathizers without. Now, however, that the former system had done its worst, a new line of experiment was to be essayed, and a new type of governor appointed. What then was the nature of the problem which the new governor had to face?

As was fully recognized in Lord Durham's Report, the central difficulty which lay at the basis of the racial troubles in Canada, and which prevented the settlement of the political and economic problems which had grown up in that colony, was the policy of the Quebec Act. It was this measure which had established a radical and permanent cleavage between the French and English races in Canada. For the fatal consequences of this measure, therefore, Lord Sydenham had to provide a practical if not, in the eyes of all parties, a popular solution.

At the time of the conquest, the terms of capitulation and the Treaty of Paris, with a humanity as generous as it was rare under such circumstances, had guaranteed to the conquered people complete security of property and freedom of religious faith, demanding only submission to the general legal and political institutions of the government of which they were henceforth to be subjects. The British authorities made no attempt to interfere with the domestic customs and institutions of the French-Canadians; while under the British constitution and laws substituted for those of France, the general body of the people enjoyed an immunity from feudal exactions which contrasted happily with their former condition and introduced for Canada a period of unwonted prosperity. Unaccustomed to the more advanced forms of British freedom and self-government, which had been gradually established in the older colonies to the south, few of the French-Canadians understood or sympathized with the claims for representative government raised by the small but growing English clement which, attracted by the opportunities for trade, had resorted to the colony immediately after the conquest. These claims, though based upon the definite promises of the British government in 1763, which frankly contemplated for Canada a British future, were undoubtedly somewhat premature.

A special difficulty, as regards representative government, was presented by the character of certain English laws which had been expressly framed to exclude those professing the Roman Catholic religion from many of the normal privileges of British citizenship. The vast majority of the Canadians being Roman Catholics, it was not practicable to apply to Canada the British conditions of representative government, hence a special constitution would have been required, with new forms of oaths, to permit of Canadians being elected members of the legislature, or of holding public offices. For such a special constitution, most of the English element in Canada were quite prepared, though, in default of special legislation, some of them were evidently quite willing to assume the responsibility of legislating for the colony. However, no real inequality of rights seriously threatened the new subjects, and considering the many radical differences between French and English political institutions, rapid progress was being made in anglicizing the colony. How rapid this was the astonished officials of the provincial government afterwards amply testified, though with much chagrin.

Increasing difficulties, however, with the older colonies, caused the military governors to look with growing suspicion upon the anglicizing process which was so rapidly going on in Canada. In the official mind the idea was soon firmly planted that the lack of submission to those in authority manifested by some of the adjoining British colonies was due to the removal of the dread of invasion from French Canada and its Indian allies. Hence, disregarding all else than the maintenance of British authority, the governing mind conceived the idea of restoring Canada to the condition which it had occupied under French rule, merely substituting George III for Louis XV, clothing him with the same feudal powers, and, as a necessary incident, restoring the military and feudal privileges of the noblesse, and placing the Church also in its former relationship to the system. This involved the reversal of the previous British policy, adopted only after careful consideration of the present and future of the colony, the abandonment of voluntary pledges and the abolition of such English laws and institutions as had been introduced, the discouragement of British immigration, and the securing as far as possible of the withdrawal of the English element already in the colony.

To accomplish these results the Quebec Act was passed. Injustice to the authors of that Act and to the policy which it expressed, it must be acknowledged that they had no idea of attempting to govern under it two distinct races. It was framed to govern one race only, and that exclusively French-Canadian. Such a policy, however impracticable, was at least self-consistent. The subsequent absurdities in the Canadian government were due to a radical change of policy without a corresponding change of constitution, resulting in a system which was neither self-consistent nor practical.

But before the Quebec Act could be put into execution the American revolution, of which it was one of the chief precipitating causes, had run ;ts course, and rendered the policy of the Act useless. Through the irony of fate Canada now remained the most important portion of the British possessions in North America, and the Quebec Act, if honestly administered, would have guaranteed it a French, and not a British, future. For a time after the loss of the American colonies, the British people and their government seemed anxious to forget that unfortunate episode and the policy which had induced it. At any rate, while the central policy of the Quebec Act was rendered meaningless by the loss of the southern colonies, and while the coming of the Loyalists caused the administration of the French system to become very embarrassing, still the government had not the courage to revert to its former policy, and the fact that it was urged to do so by the Opposition naturally prevented its adoption. On the contrary, the most unfortunate course possible was taken. A process of piecemeal encroachment upon the Act and nullification of its leading principles was entered upon. This movement immediately precipitated the most vigorous protests on the part of the French lawyers, judges, and members of the council, supported by a few of the English officials who had been instrumental in getting the Act passed. The English element, however, and the judges and officials who sided with them, began from the first to introduce English law and rules of court, and English features of administration quite contrary to the spirit of the Quebec Act.

Technically, of course, the Quebec Act, while restoring the French-Canadian system of law, tenures of land, and other feudal obligations, naturally provided for additions and amendments to the law for the future, through the medium of a legislative council. But, under a policy which frankly abolished the British laws and institutions in order to restore the French system, it could not be imagined that, except by obvious breach of faith, the legislative powers of the council would be employed to gradually abolish the French and reintroduce the English system. Yet this is what was actually attempted, and it was the very obvious lack of frankness in the process of reversing the policy of the Quebec Act, while professing to respect it, which increasingly exasperated the French-Canadians. The English law and legal procedure were introduced into the practice of the courts where the cases of English subjects were tried. The result was not only a breach of faith, but endless confusion in the courts. As was so fully admitted in the exhaustive reports of 1786-7, the English element in the colony refused to accept the Quebec Act as final, but instead of leaving the colony, as Carleton had hoped and as they themselves freely admitted would be necessary if the Act were to be taken as final, they remained and continued to contend for what they claimed to be then- rights under the first pledges given by the government.

It is true that various amendments to the law, in the direction of introducing British features, were brought up in council and hotly debated there. Yet, except during the brief administration of Lieutenant-Governor Hamilton, after the recall of Governor Haldimand, these amendments were invariably defeated. The first English governors, Carleton, who secured the passing of the Act, Haldimand, Hope, and Carleton again, during the first part of his administration as Lord Dorchester, stood by the Quebec Act, and sided with the French element against the British. But Dorchester, after a futile effort to compel the English Loyalists to give up their British institutions and come under the yoke of French feudalism, gave up the contest and, while deprecating in a feeble manner the bitterness which was rapidly developing under the breakdown of his system, adopted a neutral attitude. He mildly protested against the dismemberment of the province but accepted the fatal compromise of the Constitutional Act, which, without repealing the Quebec Act which had arrayed the two races against each other, simply furnished each with a weapon to smite the other.

The Constitutional Act divided the province, to placate the Loyalist settlements, and added a representative assembly to the legislative council provided by the Quebec Act. Otherwise it left the inhabitants to settle as best they could whether the future of Canadian institutions was to be British or French. In Upper Canada the majority at once settled the question in favour of a British future. In Lower Canada the majority would have settled the question as readily in favour of a French future had they been entirely permitted to do so.

Pitt, prime minister at the time of the passing of the Constitutional Act, was absorbed in matters nearer home which naturally appeared of vastly more importance than the constitution of Quebec. He therefore dismissed the most vital issue in the Canadian problem with the easy declaration that, having permitted, by the division of the province, the people of Upper Canada to change from French to British institutions, the Lower Province would probably soon follow their example. The painful contrast which the antiquated, and illiberal institutions of Lower Canada would present m comparison with the British institutions of Upper Canada would naturally, he claimed, open the eyes of the French-Canadians to the superiority of the British system, and lead to its voluntary adoption. Needless to say, with the exception of a few French-Canadians whose education and business associations rendered them familiar with British institutions, the only parties in Lower Canada who realized the undesirable consequence of retaining the French system were the English element of the cities and of the newer settlements. But the more strongly they endeavoured to secure the introduction of British features, the more stubbornly were they resisted by the French-Canadian majority, with the result that even the most obsolete and antiquated commercial features in the French-Canadian system were defended with a vigour and a length and refinement of argument in direct proportion to their weakness. Moreover, as time went on, the administration of Upper Canada under the much-vaunted British institutions, seemed to present a very doubtful example of peace and felicity.

In the meantime, the governors who succeeded Dorchester increasingly allied themselves with the English element in the colony, and took every opportunity to enlarge the English and diminish the French features in the public law and administration of the country. Naturally, with the expansion of the colony and the development of its commercial interests, the introduction of new and the amendmeat of old laws would be required, but, owing to the peculiar antagonism which existed between the laws and customs of the two races, every proposed amendment to the French law was looked upon with extreme suspicion as simply a further attempt to encroach upon the French nationality. On the other hand, the numerous amendments to the English law in the Upper Province passed without comment. Soon the national position of the two races came to be reversed. When the Quebec Act was passed the French were the loyal and the British the disloyal element; under the administrations subsequent to the Constitutional Act, the British became the loyal and the French the disloyal parties. Moreover, the French were constantly accused not only of disloyalty but of base ingratitude for not giving up at a later stage and under pressure, that which they had been voluntarily granted and encouraged to accept, many of the common people much against their will, when the Quebec Act was passed. In other words, having been at one time invited and even coerced to remain French they were afterwards accused of disloyalty for refusing to give up their French nationality and become British. But as the French-Canadian poet Frechette has put it, "while the French-Canadians undoubtedly owed Britain a permanent debt of gratitude, was from the fact that after the conquest she had not required them to become British." Had the French-Canadians been frankly left to themselves under the Quebec Act, they would undoubtedly have gradually modified and developed what was in many respects an obsolete and antiquated system of law even at the conquest. But, owing to the antagonism of races and institutions, they dared not admit any defects in their system or any necessity for amendments, since this would afford a pretext to substitute the laws of their rivals.

One cannot avoid a certain sympathy with the unprogressive and even reactionary policy of the French-Canadians if one considers what would have been the consequences had a colony of Englishmen been conquered by France, and, to suit some special domestic policy of the French government, had not only been allowed but encouraged to maintain their British laws and institutions. And if, afterwards, without any change of constitution or professed change of policy, they found their English laws and institutions being gradually encroached upon with the obvious, and indeed confessed, intention of forcing them to become French, what must have been their feelings, and, m consequence, their actions? Can we suppose that a British colony thus treated would feel such affection for the sovereign power of France that they would voluntarily assist in such efforts to change their nationality? They would undoubtedly strive to throw off the foreign yoke which alone prevented the untrammelled enjoyment of their native institutions.

It is true, as already indicated, that under the Quebec Act alone, with a governor in sympathy with the English element in the province, and consequently with a legislative and executive council ultimately of the same complexion, it would have been constitutionally quite a simple matter to have abolished the French-Canadian laws and institutions and substituted a British system in their stead. But having provided by the Constitutional Act for an assembly representative of the popular element in the province, it was impossible to restore the British laws without the consent of the popular majority, and this of course was steadily withheld. Thus, by one of the numerous ironies of fate which pursued British policy in Lower Canada, the introduction of representative government, without the repeal of the Quebec Act, instead of effecting, as was intended, the introduction of a characteristically British and anglicizing factor, proved to be the most effective means which could have been devised for putting a complete check upon every British innovation other than those which were irregularly, and more or less surreptitiously, introduced through the medium of the executive government.


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