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Lord Sydenham
Chapter XIX - Responsible Government in Practice


THE first weeks of the new legislature were very naturally devoted to experimental tactics on the part of the various groups which composed the House, with a view to testing the strength and sympathies of the different parties and the possible combinations which might be effected. The House of Assembly contained many able men with strong views and considerable capacity for expressing them. As a result, during the first weeks of the session there was a great flow of parliamentary oratory of a fairly high order, though somewhat sharp in tone and bitter in flavour. Once, however, the more strenuous members of the House had sufficiently utilized the safety-valve of speech, and the various groups had oriented themselves, and especially when it was realized that the government was to have a good working majority, the w do-nothing-but-talk session," as the Kingston Chronicle styled it, began to get down to the serious business of legislation.

Many interesting analyses of the general political situation appeared shortly after the opening of the session; but the most concise and penetrating, and that which was most completely justified by subsequent events, was made by Lord Sydenham himself, as given in a confidential despatch to Lord John Russell, and which may be given in full as it de;ils with the Baldwin incident as well.

"I have already transmitted to your Lordship copies of the Speeches with which I opened the United Parliament of Canada on the 15th instant, and of the answer which I received from both Houses.

"A few days previous to the meeting of the Legislature the appearance of affairs was not promising for the harmony of the first proceedings of the House of Assembly, nor was I at all surprised that such should have been the ease. The people of Upper and Lower Canada respectively, are nearly, if not quite, as unacquainted with the habits and feelings of each other, with the political history and with the character and opinions of the more prominent public men of the division which was not their own, as they would be if they were separated by the Atlantic. It is indeed difficult to believe the extent to which this want of knowledge prevails, even amongst persons of good general acquirements and education, but the fact admits of no doubt. I was therefore perfectly prepared to expect that considerable misunderstanding and embarrassment would arise at first, which could only be removed by time affording the means of arriving on each side at a more correct judgment of the real views of either party.

"I have so frequently alluded to the state of public feeling in both Provinces, that it is unnecessary to describe it at any length. Party, according to our English sense, can scarcely be said to exist, and the English Party names though adopted here do not in the slightest degree describe the opinions of those who assume them or to whom they are assigned. They therefore serve only to delude.

"The composition of the House of Assembly is not a bad representation of the feelings of the Province.

"The Members returned from Lower Canada may be divided into two Classes, the Canadians and the British, not that either is exclusively composed of one or the other, but from the principles on which they were returned, which, like everything in that Province, was one of distinction of race. Thus, tho a person of English origin might be chosen by a purely French-Canadian constituency, it was because he avowed the most violent exclusively French-Canadian principles and was opposed to the Union, and a person of French origin, assisted by the British, received that assistance because he expressed sentiments favourable to British connection, and to the anglification of the Provinces. The Canadian Party, however, must again be subdivided. It contains a number of those who formerly sat in the House of Assembly, and advocated all the most violent measures under Mr. Papmeau's guidance; but it contains also others who are not desirous of having those scenes renewed, and will undoubtedly become moderate and useful members of the Legislature. Until, however, the question of the Union was disposed of, they would remain united with the others. The other Party which I have called the British, and which consists of nearly one-half the representation allotted to Lower Canada, are Gentlemen of both British and French origin, but returned as I have stated above, and have warmly at heart the interest and improvement of the Country.

"in Upper Canada, the representation may be thus classed. There are very few members, not more than two or three, who may be supposed to represent what is called the ' Compact.' There are a considerable number of Persons who, altlio' formerly not altogether unconnected with that party, have enlarged their views and are most anxious for a Government conducted on a liberal and less confined basis. There arc a large Body of men called Reformers who sincerely and anxiously desire to see practical improvements carried on, and there are a very few classed under the same name, whose views 1 cannot pretend to define, but whose object seems to be agitation.

"This is the real character of the House, and was well known to me to be so, but it is that which could only become apparent to the Public or to the Members themselves, after its assembling. The delusive nature of the party nicknames, borrowed from England, which 1 have before referred to, and falsely applied by the Press, gave to it a different appearance which nothing but the test of action and the communication of real opinions, could remove.

'"The extreme party in Upper Canada, to which I have last adverted, though numerically so insignificant, being the most active, attempted, a few days before the meeting, to assume the lead and act in the name of the larger body of their Colleagues, who were known like themselves under the designation of 'Reformers, and then (either being themselves deluded, or at all events deluding others into a belief that the French Canadian Party were Reformers too; whilst all those Gentlemen from Lower Canada who had been returned on British feeling were designated by them as enemies to popular rights) endeavoured to effect a junction between the great Body of Upper Canadian Members and the Canadian Party of the Lower Province, a combination winch would have proved most formidable to the good Government of the Country and have rendered all my efforts unavailing, for a time at least.

"It is needless to say that such a combination could not have stood the test of any long time, for there is really nothing in common between the parties. The Canadians are opposed to the Union— care nothing about the responsible Government which the Upper Canadians are so thankful for having had conceded to them to the intent of your Lordship's Despatch. They want no improvements —wish to incur no farther debt—in short have no principle in common, but the ignorance of each other's real sentiments rendered it not improbable that the manoeuvre might for the moment succeed, and m that case the effect upon public opinion in England, caused by a stormy opening of the Session, might have been very disastrous.

"This was rendered still more probable by the circumstance of my Solicitor-General for Upper Canada, Mr. Baldwin, altho' a Member of the Government, using his best endeavours to promote it. Acting upon some principle of conduct, which I can reconcile neither with honour or common sense, he strove to bring about this Union, and at last having, as he thought, effected it, coolly proposed to me, on the day before Parliament was to meet, to break up the Government altogether, dismiss several of his Colleagues and replace them by men whom I believe he had not known for twenty-four hours, but who are most of them thoroughly well known in Lower Canada (without going back to darker times) as the principal opponents to every measure for the improvement of that Province which has been passed by me, and as the most uncompromising enemies to the whole of my administration of affairs there.

"I had been made aware of this Gentleman's proceedings for two or three days, and certainly could hardly bring myself to tolerate them, but in my great anxiety to avoid if possible any disturbance, I had delayed taking any step. Upon receiving, however, from himself this extraordinary demand, I at once treated it, joined to his previous conduct, as a resignation of his office, and informed him that I accepted it without the least regret.

"I transmit to your Lordship a copy of Mr. Baldwin's letter, and of my answer, in reply to which I received his formal resignation. I gave him full power to publish not only these documents, but the whole of any correspondence he has ever had with me, of which permission he has not thought proper to avail himself, and I do not therefore trouble you with anything beyond these two letters.

"Parliament accordingly assembled on the following day with Mr. Baldwin no longer a Member of my Council, and the correctness of the view which I had taken of the real state of parties and of the course which would be followed by them, has been most amply and satisfactorily confirmed.

"No Union whatever has taken place between the parties designated as the ' Reformers ' of Upper and Lower Canada. The whole Body of Upper Canada Members with the exception of two or three extremes on either side, have given me their best and most active support. Mr. Baldwin has only been able to carry with him into opposition three or four from the whole of that part of the Province, and obtains the support of the Canadian Party from the Lower Province only. This, too, he has been enabled to acquire (as a whole) only by making or supporting motions entirely, in their sense, against the Union Act, and as the question is now disposed of, by the debate on the address, that portion of this party which I have described as not desirous to perpetuate agitation will undoubtedly separate and lend their assistance to the Administration. As it \s, even with the whole of the party united, the divisions in the debate on the Address have been two to one, or even in a still greater proportion.

"I therefore now entertain no doubt that the problem which I have felt, in common with your Lordship, so anxious to work out, will be practically solved. The Assembly acting in perfect harmony with the Executive, will, I confidently expect, occupy itself seriously and steadily upon the measures which will be submitted to it by me, or be devised by the Members themselves, and the Session will proceed usefully, peacefully, and in a manner to inspire confidence in England, and afford just grounds to the Imperial Parliament for rendering that assistance to the Province which Her Majesty's Government has pledged itself to propose, and for which the people of Canada feel deeply grateful.

"There may be some feeling displayed respecting the Civil List as settled in England, but I do not anticipate any serious difficulty on that score."

Incidental to this experimental stage of the session was the question as to how far the governor proposed to go in rendering the government responsible to the majority of the legislature, as tested by the resignation of the ministry should it suffer defeat on a government measure, or on a direct vote of want of confidence. Lord Sydenham very fully realized that this question could not be safely settled in the first stages of the session—perhaps not in the first parliament. He had to deal with a body of men who had no experience of responsible government in practical operation. In Britain, or in later days in Canada, the opposition would not wantonly defeat a government where it had no possible chance of taking office and maintaining itself in power, for the indispensable correlative of a responsible government is a responsible opposition. Moreover, by well established custom, the outcome of long practical experience, a government does not accept defeat on all adverse votes. There was not as yet, however, any accepted custom in Canada, nor any opposition which seriously sought to come into power. Mr. Neilson led the only coherent opposition, the object of which, so far from being to come into power, was to destroy the constitution altogether and thus break up the union. By a combination of forces, much more antagonistic to each other on constitutional matters than to the government in power, it might have been possible, as was actually the case on a few minor issues, to secure a majority against the government. For the government to have resigned on such an adverse vote would have been to insure not the working of responsible government but its complete frustration in its initial stages. Until, therefore, Lord Sydenham had fully tested the strength of the government majority and its cohesion under a variety of attacks, cunningly devised for purely destructive purposes, he was not prepared to state categorically whether the government must resign or not in consequence of an adverse vote. At the same time he freely admitted that the executive must govern in accordance with the well-recognized wishes of the majority.

At a later stage of the session, when the House had gained some experience of the new parliamentary methods and when Lord Sydenham had realized that the government majority was sufficiently stable, he frankly admitted, subject only to imperial connection, the principle of domestic responsibility as expressed in the following resolutions moved by Mr. Harrison, leader of the government in the House of Assembly.

"1. That the head of the Executive Government of the Province being, within the limits of his Government, the representative of the Sovereign, is responsible to the Imperial authority alone; but that nevertheless the management of our local affairs can only be conducted by him, by and with the assistance, counsel, and information of subordinate officers in the Province.

"2. That in order to preserve between the different branches of the Provincial Parliament that harmony which is essential to the peace, welfare, and good government of the Province, the chief advisers of the representative of the Sovereign, constituting a provincial Administration under him, ought to be men possessed of the confidence of the representatives of the people; thus affording a guarantee that the well-understood wishes and interests of the people, which our gracious Sovereign has declared shall be the rule of the Provincial Government, will on all occasions be faithfully represented and advocated.

"3. That the people of this Province have, moreover, a right to expect from such Provincial Administration the exertion of their best endeavour that the Imperial authority, within its constitutional limits, shall be exercised in the manner most consistent with their well-understood wishes and interests."

This declaration of policy was naturally regarded as quite satisfactory and as establishing at once, rule by majority, responsible government, and the necessity for harmony between the British and Canadian governments, not by the Canadian government accepting subordination to British policy as a matter of necessity, but as a matter of mutual arrangement and compromise. Knowing only the outward stages by which this declaration of policy had been readied, it was perhaps not unnatural for a number at that time, or even since, to have held that Lord Sydenham did not really subscribe to these principles, but simply accepted what was forced upon him by others. Now, however, that we have access to his confidential despatches, several of which have been freely quoted in this volume, it is plain that these resolutions embodied not only the principles, but even the language which Lord Sydenham had steadily set forth from the time that he had carefully appreciated the political situation in Canada. Lord Sydenham's successor, Sir Charles Bagot, fully comprehended Lord Sydenham's views and statements on this subject, having the advantage of Lord Sydenham's secretary, Mr. Murdoch, as the interpreter of his policy. Lord Metcalfe, however, who succeeded Sir Charles Bagot, recurring to the rigid logic of British supremacy while acknowledging that Lord Sydenham's administration so obviously involved responsible government that he could not believe Lord Sydenham unaware of the fact, yet considered him in reality opposed to it. Lord Metcalfe thus expressed his view of Lord Sydenham's policy in a despatch to Lord Stanley:—

"In adopting the very form and practice of the Home Government, by which the principal Ministers of the Crown form a Cabinet, acknowledged by the nation as the executive administration, and themselves acknowledging responsibility to Parliament, he rendered it inevitable that the Council here should obtain and ascribe to themselves, in at least some degree, the character of a Cabinet of Ministers. If Lord Sydenham did not intend this, he was more mistaken than from his known ability one would suppose to be possible; and if he did intend it, he, with his eyes open, carried into practice that very theory of Responsible Colonial Government which he had pronounced his opinion decidedly against."

That Lord Sydenham pronounced his opinion decidedly against such responsible government is nowhere proved from his own statements. What Lord Metcalfe assumed was that such responsible government could not co-exist with British connection and the responsibility of the Canadian governor to the home government; but this is exactly what Lord Sydenham claimed could be maintained in practice and what he himself considered his chief service to have both introduced and maintained. It was this same principle which Lord Elgin was to re-establish, after Lord Metcalfe's somewhat reactionary but very instructive policy, though with a division, by that time made possible, of the chief functions of the governor and the prune minister. It is this same principle which, gradually expanding with the enlarging interests of the country, has been maintained from that day to this; though there have not been wanting various reactionary movements discovering anew Lord Metcalfe's conviction that such an imperial connection is unworkable, and that we must, like him, revert to some form of the system discarded by Lord Sydenham.


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