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Lord Sydenham
Chapter VI - Government Under the Constitutional Act


IT had been quite generally assumed that the granting of representative government under the Constitutional Act would confer upon the Canadians, whether in I pper or Lower Canada, all the privileges and blessings of the British constitution. But those who lightly employed such language to enhance the concessions made in the Constitutional Act, in a vain effort to dispose of the troublesome Canadian problem, seem to have assumed that the essence of the constitution consisted merely of three allied governing powers, the King, the Lords, and the Commons. These powers Britain had had for centuries, and yet had obtained from them very different systems of government, depending upon a special arrangement and balance of the three correlative powers, but depending still more upon the social and political atmosphere in which they operated, and which was the expression of changing temperaments, ideals, and the general public opinion of the body of the nation. Thus, not only did these co-ordinate powers give many kinds of government in the course of their past adjustments, but were to give wholly unexpected, and to many of that age, quite shocking phases of government for the century to come. When, therefore, the Constitutional Act added to the governor and council of the Quebec Act a representative assembly, it did not follow that, because the system superficially resembled that of the Mother Country, it must of necessity produce the same results in Canada as in Britain, or even similar results in the two provinces into which the territory of Canada was divided. Nor did it follow that the balance of power and the adjustment of executive responsibility, as worked out in Canada, would at all resemble the British system of responsible government.

The governor who represented the king, just because his powers were delegated, of necessity occupied a very different position from that of the king, whose powers were original, though greatly limited by gradually developed traditions and usages. In some respects much more depended upon a governor in Canada than upon the king in Britain, in others much less. In his executive functions he was much freer from traditional limitations, and depended to a far less extent upon the responsible advice of his councillors, though, for quite other reasons, lie was commonly at the mercy of his council in many irresponsible ways. In other respects lie was supposed to be governed by specific Acts of the imperial parliament, and to operate under an elaborate body of instructions which curtailed his freedom in certain directions while forcing his interference in others. He was also required both to seek and accept special instruction and advice from the colonial office.

But there were other differences quite apart from constitutional questions. The governor was not born and reared in the midst of Canadian conditions, with family traditions and personal interests all connected with the past, present, and future of the country. lie came to Canada too often a stranger alike to its historic and its actual conditions, and, being commonly a military man, had little or no knowledge of the working principles of civil government. On the contrary, he had the traditions of a man n authority sent out to govern the distant possessions of the home country, the emigrants to which lost their capacity for sound judgment and the exercise of British liberty in much the same degree as if they had been recruited into the army. From the point of view of the colonists, too, the governor's position was very different from that of the king. While recognized, for the most part, as an exalted and important personage, this was chiefly due to the official position which he filled and the influence which he exercised with those in power at home, but his position was temporary and his powers delegated. His decisions might be appealed against, his tenure of office was uncertain, and by agitation it might be curtailed. Moreover, he was not, like the king, a person who could do no wrong, because of the responsibility of his ministers. His ministers might indeed be the real advisers of his actions, but they were not responsible for them, being always able to take shelter behind the authority of the governor, who, in turn, was responsible to the home government, and might on occasion take shelter behind his instructions from the colonial office. At the same time, every governor came to Canada as a stranger, and must, therefore, of necessity obtain most of his information and ideas on government from those who filled the administrative offices, and who were thoroughly familiar with local conditions, at least as seen from their particular {ingle of experience or interest. Hence each successive governor was naturally more or less at the mercy of his executive officers, the more important of whom commonly occupied seats in both the legislative and executive councils. The real governors of the colony were thus so sheltered that to attempt to attack them resulted in ail assault 011 the governor, and through him on the British government. The governor's position, therefore, and his relationship at once to the country and to the other estates in the government, were very different from those of the British king.

The legislative council was supposed to be the counterpart of the House of Lords. A great part of the Constitutional Act was taken up with provisions for securing in the colony a body of landed aristocracy which, when furnished with suitable titles of honour, would provide the requisite nobility from which to recruit the legislative council, or Canadian House of Lords. The proximity of the exalted rank and dignity of these Canadian nobles would incidentally sharpen the tooth of remorse which was assumed to be gnawing the consciences of those fallen republicans in the lower regions to the south.

As aristocratic institutions were still naturally associated with divine rights, so the normal support of an aristocracy was a State Church. Extensive provision was accordingly made in the same Act for the support of an Established Church. It is doubtful which of these two allied contributions of the Constitutional Act caused most trouble in the country before they were finally disposed of. The provision for an aristocracy contributed the Family Compact, with the necessary accompaniments of land-grabbing intrigues, for an impecunious aristocracy would inspire little awe and less envy. The provisions for a State Church contributed that apple of discord, the Clergy Reserves, which provided so many and so sadly neglected opportunities for the display of Christian charity.

As the members of the legislative council held their offices for life, they were free from the corrupting influences which press upon those who have to keep m touch with the vulgar multitude. They could, therefore, if so inclined, freely devote to public questions an enlightened mind and unbiassed judgment; or, if differently minded, they could devote themselves with equal effect to the pursuit of private interests and class privileges, with a calm disregard of public opinion.

The executive council, gradually shaping itself into a body of ministers with specialized functions, consisted, as a rule, of the special members of the legislative council who presided over the administration of government. Theoretically they were selected by the governor, practically, as we have seen, they were commonly selected by the office-holding cliques who monopolized the ear of the governor. The governor, however, was ultimately responsible for their actions, on practically the same terms as the president of the United States is responsible for his cabinet of secretaries. Not being mutually responsible to the people, as in the present form of the British or Canadian cabinet, they might be, and sometimes were, quite at variance with each other, whether as to the general policy of administration, or as to special, though vital, features. Quite generally, however, the absence of mutual responsibility to the legislature was supplied by the bonds of self-interest and mutual appointment essential to the effective control of successive governors. These close corporations of office-holders were known in Upper Canada as the Family Compact, and in Lower Canada by various names, among them the "Scotch party."

The foundation of the Family Compact in Upper Canada was laid by Governor Simcoe, who brought with him as his first executive officials a number of men for the most part associated with him in the late Revolutionary War. Appointing these to the chief offices of trust and to seats in the legislative council, lie virtually established for them a life tenure m the executive offices. These were the men who were encouraged by Simcoe to regard themselves as the foundation stones of that new aristocracy which, with their successors, would become the bulwark of the British authority, and ensure the remaining British possessions in America against the subtle inroads of democracy which had undermined the authority of the home government in the lost colonies to the south. These gentlemen took their functions very seriously. With lavish hand they bestowed upon themselves in the king's name vast tracts of the best land in the province. In the meantime, while the poorer immigrants in the surrounding settlements were raising these idle lands into valuable estates, they subsisted on the various offices of considerable emolument in the province, and in various ways so identified themselves with the king's interest that to doubt their authority or their rights was to dispute the royal prerogative, to question their pretensions was disloyalty, to attack their privileges was treason, and to seek to overthrow their power, or to subordinate the executive to the representative body was republicanism and rebellion.

In Lower Canada, after furnishing the French-Canadians with an assembly as their organ, the legislative and executive councils became the stronghold of the English element, who, naturally furnishing a controlling atmosphere for the successive governors, persuaded them that in spite of the Quebec Act the province was destined to be ultimately British. By means of more or less active measures they assisted in promoting that idea. The French element, becoming more pronounced in their opposition to this policy, utilized, with increasing skill, their majority in the assembly to block this purpose. But, by putting themselves in opposition to the English element, they became a party of disloyalty, losing incidentally the confidence of the governor and therefore all prospect of filling any important offices in the administration of the province.

Obviously, during the regime of the Constitutional Act, the legislative council in both provinces was anything but an obsolete institution. It was the only vital organ for expressing the wishes of the British element in Lower Canada; in a somewhat less special degree it was the organ of a very select class of interests in Upper Canada. Since all legislation must either originate with the assembly or at least receive its sanction, the majority in the assembly could, on the one hand, insist upon their favourite measures being brought forward, or, on the other, block any measures distasteful to them which might originate in the council or were introduced by the minority in the assembly who sympathized with the council. As from the first the French-Canadians were in a majority in the assembly of Lower Canada, and could control it when so minded, and as, after the introduction of the Constitutional Act, the English element predominated in the council, the race cleavage was enabled to express itself effectively in the two branches of the legislature. But, while each branch of the legislature was all-powerful in blocking any objectionable movements on the part of the other for the introduction of new laws or the amendment of old ones, each was correspondingly impotent to insure the enactment of any legislation, no matter how vital it might be for the interests of the country. Only such measures, therefore, could be passed as were of a neutral character as regards the racial issues, or such as were absolutely requisite for even a hand-to-mouth provincial existence, and on which a compromise might be arranged.

The leaders of the popular party in Canada became familiar with the superficial aspects at least of the powers and functions of the House of Commons in Britain and the virtual responsibility of the ministers of the Crown to the majority iu that House. It was then readily perceived that, if this principle could be introduced and secure recognition in Canada, it would enable the popular party to control the situation. In the Lower Province it would give to the French-Canadian nationality, through its leaders, a complete control of the government of that province, while in Upper Canada it would enable the party controlling the majority in the legislature to control also the executive government. In Lower Canada, once the French-Canadian party was efficiently organized, this would have meant that, by the introduction of this one feature from British constitutional practice, the French-Canadians would have been able to prevent any other British element from being brought in to contaminate their historic institutions. They would then have been free to accomplish Carleton's aspiration in preventing any further British immigration to Lower Canada, and would have regarded with much complacency the exodus of the British settlers to escape the French system. In Upper Canada it would probably have had the opposite effect, as the majority in the assembly professedly favoured progress and innovation, though it must be admitted, from a survey of the measures which they frequently advocated, that their conception of progress was distinguished for its ardour rather than its wisdom, and their innovations were frequently ill-digested arid even impossible. In neither province, however, with a very few exceptions in Upper Canada, did those who advocated the British system of a government controlled by the popular branch of the legislature understand what that really meant as operated in England. Nor did they realize what were the characteristic details of political organization and practical administration which must of necessity accompany responsible government in order that it might be operated in Canada witli anything like the same efficiency as in Britain. It was one of the chief functions of Lord Sydenham's administration to enlighten the Canadian politicians on this subject, and to demonstrate to them, from his own personal experience, how many other factors and how much of detailed organization were indispensable to the elementary working of responsible government.

It was, however, a well-known historic fact that the chief means by which the English House of Commons had risen from a very subordinate, to a distinctly controlling position, was its command over the national purse. This avenue to power had not, it may be imagined, been neglected by the popular leaders in the assembly of either province. However, certain difficulties had been met with from the first. Before the days of representative government in the Canadas, certain imperial Acts had provided sources of revenue which were beyond the control of the assembly, this revenue was provided for before Britain pledged herself, in a belated effort to reconcile the American colonies, not to levy further specific taxes upon any of the colonies. Moreover, in the earlier days of the assembly, certain revenue Acts were made permanent, but these could be amended, to give the assembly annual control, only with the assent of the legislative council, which was of course steadily refused, the purpose of the .amendment being too well understood. With these permanent sources of revenue and some assistance from time to time from imperial funds, it was possible for the executive government to continue its functions even when the assembly refused to vote supplies. For such public objects as the assembly could not afford to neglect, they were compelled to vote specific sums. Control of the revenue being an all-important factor in the conflict with the executive and legislative councils, especially in Lower Canada, the contest tended to centre round this problem. The central object of attack, however, was the legislative council with its adjunct the executive council. The lines of attack were not always very consistent with each other. It was finally demanded, as the most direct way out of the difficulty, that the legislative council should be made elective, which would give the French the command of both houses of the legislature.

In Upper Canada, there being no racial problem, there was much less definiteness in the issues which divided the political groups.- Class privileges and an office-holding oligarchy were the chief objects of attack. A whole volume of grievances was ultimately compiled, but the majority of the items resolved themselves into instances of arrogance and self-seeking by the favoured group who sought to monopolize the most promising resources of the province, especially the public offices. One of the most prominent subjects of discord, the Clergy Reserves, was simply a case in point, being essentially a question of class privilege in the enjoyment of public funds. In Upper Canada the movement towards popular control of the executive was steadily working out, though in a rather crude fashion. It was simply a matter of time, accompanied, of course, with much political friction, as to the final control by the assembly. It suited the purpose of the Compact party and of the lieutenant-governor, who was their very willing instrument, to identify the Mackenzie episode with the purpose of the reform party, in order to brand their movement as essentially treasonable. In this, for a time, the oligarchy was fairly successful. The cause of reform appeared to have received an indefinite set-back, when, fortunately for its advocates, the Durham Report exploded the reactionary programme. While condemning the small body of desperate men who attempted or favoured rebellion, Durham's Report strongly supported the more rational features of the reform policy, and boldly advocated the adoption of the British system of responsible government as an ultimate remedy for the political difficulties of the Upper Province.

In Lower Canada, on the other hand, most far-sighted observers had perceived, even from the tune of the adoption of the policy of the Quebec Act, and afterwards at the time of passing the Constitutional Act, that the situation in that province must lead ultimately to an open rupture between the two races, and even between the two provinces. To insure to the French-Canadians all the essentials of their nationality, and yet to deny to them the logical and necessary consequences of a complete control of their domestic affairs and of an ultimate escape from the national humiliation of a foreign yoke, was nothing short of the refinement of racial cruelty, which, fortunately for the reputation of British humanity, the English people have repeatedly condemned when practised by other countries. To expect the French-Canadians to voluntarily forego their nationality, and peacefully resign themselves to British citizenship, was the height of absurdity. There was plainly no alternative, consistent with reason and humanity, other than that of granting them full independence as a distinct people, or to take away once and for all the occasion of those tantalizing dreams of French nationality, and give them to understand that, however distasteful for the present, their ultimate fate was to be a corporate part of an Anglo-Saxon colony with unified and harmonious political institutions.

Wisdom and humanity had long demanded one or other of these alternatives. No one of the long series of frequently changing colonial secretaries and their delegated governors could find any other solution. But, with the exception of a half-hearted attempt to reunite the provinces in 1822, in the face of the plainest warnings, no one of them had the 80 courage to face either alternative. They simply temporized while the situation steadily grew worse, each contenting himself with the prayer that peace might he vouchsafed in his time. At last the inevitable and long-expected happened. It matters little whose pipe sets the heather on fire when any spark will start a blaze.

Had the French-Canadians been as well organized as they were ripe for revolt, and had those beginning the rebellion enjoyed competent leadership, a few initial successes would have brought the great majority to their assistance, while almost none would have declined to join an independent French government. The Loyalist party in such a case would have been easily taken care of. But French-Canadian leadership was woefully deficient, and the rebellion was short-lived; nor was a second outbreak, immediately following Lord Durham's departure, any better managed or more successful.


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