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Lord Sydenham
Chapter XII - Radical Changes Required


IT is quite obvious that many and radical changes were required in the Canadian system of government before it could attain even to the American, much less to the British, form of responsible government. To convert the Canadian system from the decidedly non-British condition in which it had been placed and maintained, chiefly by the power of the family Compact party, was the essential and all-important work required of the new governor in connection with the introduction of responsible government. This had been recognized ui Lord Durham's Report as the most difficult task in the introduction of responsible government, though the Report itself apparently erred in representing it when introduced as indistinguishable from complete and independent sovereignty.

What then were the most important changes which must be made in the Canadian system of government in order to render it possible to operate that system of responsible government advocated in the Durham Report, which Lord John Russell accepted and encouraged Governor Poulett Thomson to introduce. In the first place, the members of the executive council must be made to hold their positions at the pleasure of the Crown." Should the Crown in future, as Lord John Russell's despatch indicated, pay special respect to the wishes of the representatives of the Canadian people, then the members of the executive council must be brought into harmony with the legislature. The legislative council, even as an appointed body, must no longer represent a close corporation of court favourites. In the spirit of mutual confidence established between the Crown and the people, the council must be filled with those who will command the respect of the province. Again, in order that the chief executive officers might represent a connected and self-consistent policy, which would be able to command the intelligent support of a majority in the assembly, the executive officers must be in sufficient agreement on all the essential points of provincial policy that there might be no public friction among them. To this end it was necessary that they should be organized under an acknowledged leader. In other words, there must be formed a responsible cabinet composed of the chief executive officers, with seats in one or other branch of the legislature, and able to command the support of the majority of the assembly. to secure such a harmony of interests as would bring into a working agreement the legislative, executive, and imperial interests was just the object to be secured by that informal adjustment of powers which Lord John Russell's despatch represented as the true and only expression of responsible government within self-governing portions of the British empire.

To introduce these great changes, amounting to a virtual revolution as regards the previous system of Canadian politics, and to lay the foundations for a system of precedent and custom which would in time render Canadian cabinet government as stable and its evolution as safe as that of the British constitution itself, was the unique service to be rendered by Lord Sydenham. Once definitely introduced, the system had to be gradually developed m its practice and traditions, and the division of responsibility on this or that subject had to be readjusted from time to time. Similarly, the weight of responsibility as between the home government and the colonies had to be gradually shifted and adapted as the development and self-reliance of the colonies increased, and in proportion as they showed their appreciation of their liberty and their ability to work harmoniously with the home government oil those lines of mutual respect and confidence referred to by Lord John Russell.

The first great step in this transformation of colonial practice was of necessity the breaking up of the proprietary position of the chief executive officers, which was the essence of what was known as the Family Compact. The Compact was not in reality a political party, for the members of it did not, as a matter of fact, always agree among themselves on questions of public policy. Neither was it, as its members constantly pointed out in their stock argument in rebuttal, a body of persons specially connected by blood relationship. It was simply a group of persons, more or less bound together by strong ties of personal interest, establishing and maintaining their hold upon the executive offices, and consequently upon the governors, and all public grants, emoluments, and appointments depending upon the executive power. The dissolving of the proprietary control of the executive offices was accomplished very adroitly by another despatch from Lord John Russell, laying down the future conditions as to the tenure of these offices. This important despatch, also addressed to Governor Poulett Thomson, s as follows:—

"Downing Street, October 16, 1839.

"Sir,—I am desirous of directing your attention to the tenure on which public offices <n the gift of the Crown appear to be held throughout the British colonies. I find that the governor himself, and every person serving under him, are appointed during the royal pleasure, but with this important difference: the governor's commission is, in fact, revoked whenever the interests of the public service are supposed to require such a change in the administration of local affairs; but the commissions of all other public officers are very rarely indeed recalled, except for positive misconduct. I cannot learn that during the present or the two last reigns, a single instance has occurred of a change in the subordinate colonial officers, except in cases of death or resignation, incapacity or misconduct. This system of converting a tenure at pleasure into a tenure for life, originated probably in the practice which formerly prevailed of selecting all the higher class of colonial functionaries from persons who, at the time of their appointment, were resident in this country; and amongst other motives which afforded such persons a virtual security for the continued possession of their places, it was not the least considerable that, except on those terms, they were unwilling to incur the risk and expense of transferring their residence to remote, and often to unhealthy, climates. Rut the habit which has obtained of late years of preferring, as far as possible, for places of trust in the colonics, persons resident there, has taken away the strongest motive which could thus be alleged in favour of a practice to which there are many objections of the greatest weight. It is time, therefore, that a different course should be followed, and the object of my present communication is to announce to you the rules which will be hereafter observed on this subject in the province of Lower Canada.

"You will understand and will cause it to be made generally known, that hereafter the tenure of colonial offices held during Her Majesty's pleasure will not be regarded as equivalent to a tenure during good behaviour; but that not only such officers will be called upon to retire from the public service as often as any sufficient motives of public policy may suggest the expediency of that measure, but that a change in the person of the governor will be considered as a sufficient reason for any alterations which his successor may deem it expedient to make in the list of public functionaries, subject, of course, to the future confirmation of the sovereign.

"These remarks do not extend to judicial offices, nor are they meant to apply to places which are altogether ministerial, and which do not devolve upon the holders of them duties in the right discharge of which the character and policy of the government are directly involved. They are intended to apply rather to the heads of departments than to persons serving as clerks or in similar capacities under them. Neither do they extend to officers in the service of lords commissioners of the treasury. The functionaries who will be chiefly, though not exclusively, affected by them, are the colonial secretary, the treasurer or receiver-general, the surveyor-general, the attorney- and solicitor-general, the sheriff or provost-marshal, and other officers who, under different designations from these, are intrusted. with the same or similar duties. To this list must also be added the members of the council, especially in those colonics in which the legislative and executive councils are distinct bodies.

"The application of these rules to officers to be hereafter appointed will be attended with no practical difficulty. It may not be equally easy to enforce them in the case of existing officers, and especially of those who may have left this country for the express purpose of accepting the offices they at present fill. Every reasonable indulgence must be shown for the expectations which such persons have been encouraged to form. Rut even in these instances it will be necessary that the right of enforcing these regulations should be distinctly maintained ih practice, as well as in theory, as often as the public good may clearly demand the enforcement of them. It may not be unadvisable to compensate any such officers for their disappointment even by pecuniary grants, when it may appear unjust to dispense with their services without such an indemnity."

This despatch was hailed with delight by the responsible government party, because it was recognized as evidently designed to open the way for a change of ministry whenever the members of the executive council had lost the confidence of the legislature. On the other hand it was received with something like consternation by the office-holders, and with very great doubt by their backers and the Conservative clement generally. They, too, recognized that it meant the virtual introduction of responsible government, though without specifically naming it. "People are 110 longer to hold offices subject to good behaviour," said the Kingston Chronicle, "giving lis plainly to understand that good behaviour is an indifferent sort of recommendation to a Whig colonial ministry." The Quebec Gazette, unshakenly devoted to the old paths, criticized the measure very harshly, fearing that while it implied on the face of it responsibility to the executive and the Crown, it was very likely to degenerate into responsibility to the majority, as it would be difficult for the governor to resist the majority, and practically impossible for the executive officers to do so. In Canada the heads of departments lived by their offices, and had not, as in Britain, the independent means which would enable them to place principle before profit and refuse to change their views in response to the clamours of the multitude. The Toronto 4Patriot, however, already wavering in its opposition to the new governor, saw no great danger m that form of responsible government, the responsibility being to the Crown.

While the policy of this despatch undoubtedly rendered responsible government possible, yet, as we have seen, much remained to be done before it could be rendered actual. There was as yet no constitutional machinery for effecting an orderly change of ministry. There was no regular party system with recognized leadership, and consequently no plain indication to the governor, through formal divisions of the House, as to what particular policy on any given issue the public would support, Neither was there any organization to suggest with any certainty who were the individuals commanding the confidence of a majority in the assembly on any special issue, and still less indication as to whether the parties who might receive the support of the majority on this or that issue could agree among themselves as to a general policy or a mutually acceptable programme on the leading issues. With all this lack of organization there could be no position corresponding to that of the prime minister of to-day. There were indeed various tentative efforts towards the formation of political groups, but they were generally organized for the purpose of promoting this or that special object. The Reformers were never definitely united on any issue before that of responsible government, and as they were united on nothing else, they could not have worked responsible government. There was a general though vague distinction between Reformers and Conservatives, which under definite organization would naturally crystallize into two great parties, but there was as yet little harmony between the different sections of either wing. As we have seen, in taking the attitude of the different sections of the people on the two great questions then before them—union and responsible government—the arrangement of groups on one of these questions was quite different from their arrangement on the other. In Upper Canada also, that other great question, the Clergy Reserves, divided the people differently from either of the others. Numerous other instances of cross-divisions could be given, if we followed up the attitude of leading politicians on other important matters discussed within the preceding years, and on which it was essential that a ministry should have a connected policy. The existing situation was such, then, that any popular ministry formed directly in response to the cry for responsible government would be apt to have a sweeping majority on one question and find itself in a hopeless minority on many others. Rut, as we know, a responsible government of the British type cannot be carried on upon these terms. There must be party organization with accepted leadership and a coherent programme.

Obviously the very machinery for working responsible government had to be created. In order to create it, introduce it, and get it into a fairly good working condition, it was necessary that the governor-general should virtually take the initiative, and for the time exercise very extraordinary [lowers, playing the combined role of prime minister, lieutenant-governor, and governor-general; and in the meantime be given a remarkably free hand by the home government. Thus it fell out that the governor-general who was to introduce responsible government and prepare the way for a gradual retirement from actual politics of all future governors-general from Lord Elgin on, was himself to exercise a personal power in ministerial control unknown to any of his predecessors or successors. In breaking up the Compact party and their hold upon the ad ministration, the governor had to temporarily take over all their powers into his own hands in order to bestow them afresh either upon the same men under new conditions of office, or upon a new set of ministers taking up their duties on a mutually responsible basis.

To make such a transition possible in Canada, under the conditions of the time, two things were necessary, first, that the governor must thoroughly understand the practical workings of the cabinet system based upon party government. This qualification Lord Sydenham certainly had, and was the first of Canadian governors to possess. On the other hand, it would never have done to transfer the executive power directly from the Compact party to a number of their opponents, amenable only to an amorphous assembly, quite untrained in the most vital features of British parliamentary procedure. Such a policy, though advocated, as we shall see, by conscientious Reformers such as Baldwin, would have been utterly impracticable. It would have inevitably produced riot in Upper Canada, and was simply inconceivable in Lower Canada. But, however distasteful to the ultra-Conservatives, it was strictly within the powers of the governor-general, according to the soundest doctrine of the Compact party, to take the direction of the executive government into his own hands, even while permitting the existing holders of office to remain, subject however to his pleasure. This the new instructions on the tenure of office permitted the governor to do. Thereafter, m making any changes in office, he could place in the executive positions such persons as he recognized might command the respect and confidence of a majority of the .assembly. Rut, as this would be for some time an experimental process, by keeping sufficient reserve power in his own hands he could, on the one hand, correct any mistakes in the filling of the offices, and, on the other, prevent his ministry from being thrown out before the new system had had time to crystallize into a working organization. As the ministry acquired facility in working in harmony with each other, until they could hold together of their own accord and trust themselves to the tender mercies of a parliamentary majority, itself requiring considerable coaching, it would be possible for the governor to relax his power and admit ultimately the complete responsibility of his ministry. How much patience, wisdom, and tact, rapid and accurate judgment of men and measures, how much of the wisdom of the serpent masked under the harmlessness of the dove this process required, only those who are familiar with the chaotic condition of Canadian public life, the bitter recriminations, deep jealousies, and far-reaching antagonisms of that period, can understand.

To attempt to effect such an administrative revolution in an atmosphere surcharged with the most opposite views on the question of responsible government was especially difficult, for it was quite obvious that during the whole process of transition the question would be repeated in scores of forms, and with the most opposite motives: Must the ministry resign on an adverse vote ? It was plain that at the beginning of the process the ministry could not necessarily be sacrificed on every adverse vote, even on important issues, while at the close of the process the ministry must of necessity resign on a definite adverse vote. At the beginning of the process the ministry were the chosen instruments of the governor-general, and depended upon him for their cohesion, their unity of policy and tenure of office; but at the end of the process they were the instruments of the legislature, and dependent upon the majority of the assembly for their political support and tenure of office. During the interval all the difficult stages of transition must be traversed. This transition process was naturally distasteful to impatient and rigid theorists of both extremes, bringing upon the governor the opposition of ultra-Tories and ultra-Radicals.

In addition to proving practically the only feasible method of introducing the British system of responsible cabinet government into Canada, Lord Sydenham's policy achieved the introduction of this system on the terms laid down in Lord John Russell's despatch. At the close of the first session of the united parliament, after a great deal of successful fencing, the principle was at length openly recognized that the ministry must resign on an adverse vote; yet it was recognized on such terms that the rights of the three estates, the assembly, the council, and the Crown, were preserved. All definition of their respective spheres of influence was avoided; the responsibility of the ministers and the colonial relationship were left simply as working principles, and they have remained such from that day to this, amid all the readjustments of the balance of power between the three estates and within the empire. The messages of Lord John Russell on responsible government and the tenure of office marked the beginning of this process; the working out of it is to be traced in the practical details of Lord Sydenham's administration and that of his successors within the following decade.


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