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Lord Elgin
Chapter II - Political Condition in Canada


To understand clearly the political state of Canada at the time Lord Elgin was appointed governor-general, it is necessary to go back for a number of years. The unfortunate rebellions which were precipitated by Louis Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie during 1837 in the two Canadas were the results of racial and political difficulties which had gradually arisen since the organization of the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada under the Constitutional Act of 1791. In the French section, the French and English Canadians--the latter always an insignificant minority as respects number--had in the course of time formed distinct parties. As in the courts of law and in the legislature, so it was in social and everyday life, the French Canadian was in direct antagonism to the English Canadian. Many members of the official and governing class, composed almost exclusively of English, were still too ready to consider French Canadians as inferior beings, and not entitled to the same rights and privileges in the government of the country. It was a time of passion and declamation, when men of fervent eloquence, like Papineau, might have aroused the French as one man, and brought about a general rebellion had they not been ultimately thwarted by the efforts of the moderate leaders of public opinion, especially of the priests who, in all national crises in Canada, have happily intervened on the side of reason and moderation, and in the interests of British connection, which they have always felt to be favourable to the continuance and security of their religious institutions. Lord Durham, in his memorable report on the condition of Canada, has summed up very expressively the nature of the conflict in the French province. "I expected," he said, "to find a contest between a government and a people; I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state; I found a struggle, not of principles, but of races."

While racial antagonisms intensified the difficulties in French Canada, there existed in all the provinces political conditions which arose from the imperfect nature of the constitutional system conceded by England in 1791, and which kept the country in a constant ferment. It was a mockery to tell British subjects conversant with British institutions, as Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe told the Upper Canadians in 1792, that their new system of government was "an image and transcript of the British constitution." While it gave to the people representative institutions, it left out the very principle which was necessary to make them work harmoniously--a government responsible to the legislature, and to the people in the last resort, for the conduct of legislation and the administration of affairs. In consequence of the absence of this vital principle, the machinery of government became clogged, and political strife convulsed the country from one end to the other. An "irrepressible conflict" arose between the government and the governed classes, especially in Lower Canada. The people who in the days of the French regime were without influence and power, had gained under their new system, defective as it was in essential respects, an insight into the operation of representative government, as understood in England. They found they were governed, not by men responsible to the legislature and the people, but by governors and officials who controlled both the executive and legislative councils. If there had always been wise and patient governors at the head of affairs, or if the imperial authorities could always have been made aware of the importance of the grievances laid before them, or had understood their exact character, the differences between the government and the majority of the people's representatives might have been arranged satisfactorily. But, unhappily, military governors like Sir James Craig only aggravated the dangers of the situation, and gave demagogues new opportunities for exciting the people. The imperial authorities, as a rule, were sincerely desirous of meeting the wishes of the people in a reasonable and fair spirit, but unfortunately for the country, they were too often ill-advised and ill-informed in those days of slow communication, and the fire of public discontent was allowed to smoulder until it burst forth in a dangerous form.

In all the provinces, but especially in Lower Canada, the people saw their representatives practically ignored by the governing body, their money expended without the authority of the legislature, and the country governed by irresponsible officials. A system which gave little or no weight to public opinion as represented in the House of Assembly, was necessarily imperfect and unstable, and the natural result was a deadlock between the legislative council, controlled by the official and governing class, and the house elected by the people. The governors necessarily took the side of the men whom they had themselves appointed, and with whom they were acting. In the maritime provinces in the course of time, the governors made an attempt now and then to conciliate the popular element by bringing in men who had influence in the assembly, but this was a matter entirely within their own discretion. The system of government as a whole was worked in direct contravention of the principle of responsibility to the majority in the popular house. Political agitators had abundant opportunities for exciting popular passion. In Lower Canada, Papineau, an eloquent but impulsive man, having rather the qualities of an
agitator than those of a statesman, led the majority of his compatriots.

For years he contended for a legislative council elected by the people: and it is curious to note that none of the men who were at the head of the popular party in Lower Canada ever recognized the fact, as did their contemporaries in Upper Canada, that the difficulty would be best solved, not by electing an upper house, but by obtaining an executive which would only hold office while supported by a majority of the representatives in the people's house. In Upper Canada the radical section of the Liberal party was led by Mr. William Lyon Mackenzie, who fought vigorously against what was generally known as the "Family Compact," which occupied all the public offices and controlled the government.

In the two provinces these two men at last precipitated a rebellion, in which blood was shed and much property destroyed, but which never reached any very extensive proportions. In the maritime provinces, however, where the public grievances were of less magnitude, the people showed no sympathy whatever with the rebellious elements of the upper provinces.

Amid the gloom that overhung Canada in those times there was one gleam of sunshine for England. Although discontent and dissatisfaction prevailed among the people on account of the manner in which the government was administered, and of the attempts of the minority to engross all power and influence, there was still a sentiment in favour of British connection, and the annexationists were relatively few in number. Even Sir Francis Bond Head--in no respect a man of sagacity--understood this well when he depended on the militia to crush the outbreak in the upper province; and Joseph Howe, the eminent leader of the popular party, uniformly asserted that the people of Nova Scotia were determined to preserve the integrity of the empire at all hazards. As a matter of fact, the majority of leading men, outside of the minority led by Papineau, Nelson and Mackenzie, had a conviction that England was animated by a desire to act considerately with the provinces and that little good would come from precipitating a conflict which could only add to the public misfortunes, and that the true remedy was to be found in constitutional methods of redress for the political grievances which undoubtedly existed throughout British North America.

The most important clauses of the Union Act, which was passed by the imperial parliament in 1840 but did not come into effect until February of the following year, made provision for a legislative assembly in which each section of the united provinces was represented by an equal number of members--forty-two for each and eighty-four for both; for the use of the English language alone in the written or printed proceedings of the legislature; for the placing of the public indebtedness of the two provinces at the union as a first charge on the revenues of the united provinces; for a two-thirds vote of the members of each House before any change could be made in the representation. These enactments, excepting the last which proved eventually to be in their interest, were resented by the French Canadians as clearly intended to place them in a position of inferiority to the English Canadians. Indeed it was with natural indignation they read that portion of Lord Durham's report which expressed the opinion that it was necessary to unite the two races on terms which would give the domination to the English. "Without effecting the change so rapidly or so roughly," he wrote, "as to shock the feelings or to trample on the welfare of the existing generation, it must henceforth be the first and steady purpose of the British government to establish an English population, with English laws and language, in this province, and to trust its government to none but a decidedly English legislature."

French Canadians dwelt with emphasis on the feet that their province had a population of 630,000 souls, or 160,000 more than Upper Canada, and nevertheless received only the same number of representatives. French Canada had been quite free from the financial embarrassment which had brought Upper Canada to the verge of bankruptcy before the union; in fact the former had actually a considerable surplus when its old constitution was revoked on the outbreak of the rebellion. It was, consequently, with some reason, considered an act of injustice to make the people of French Canada pay the debts of a province whose revenue had not for years met its liabilities. Then, to add to these decided grievances, there was a proscription of the French language, which was naturally resented as a flagrant insult to the race which first settled the valley of the St. Lawrence, and as the first blow levelled against the special institutions so dear to French Canadians and guaranteed by the Treaty of Paris and the Quebec Act. Mr. LaFontaine, whose name will frequently occur in the following chapters of this book, declared, when he presented himself at the first election under the Union Act, that "it was an act of injustice and despotism"; but, as we shall soon see, he became a prime minister under the very act he first condemned. Like the majority of his compatriots, he eventually found in its provisions protection for the rights of the people, and became perfectly satisfied with a system of government which enabled them to obtain their proper position in the public councils and restore their language to its legitimate place in the legislature.

But without the complete grant of responsible government it would never have been possible to give to French Canadians their legitimate influence in the administration and legislation of the country, or to reconcile the differences which had grown up between the two nationalities before the union and seemed likely to be perpetuated by the conditions of the Union Act just stated. Lord Durham touched the weakest spot in the old constitutional system of the Canadian provinces when he said that it was not "possible to secure harmony in any other way than by administering the government on those principles which have been found perfectly efficacious in Great Britain." He would not "impair a single prerogative of the crown"; on the contrary he believed "that the interests of the people of these provinces require the protection of prerogatives which have not hitherto been exercised." But he recognized the fact as a constitutional statesman that "the crown must, on the other hand, submit to the necessary consequences of representative institutions; and if it has to carry on the government in unison with a representative body, it must consent to carry it on by means of those in whom that representative body has confidence." He found it impossible "to understand how any English statesman could have ever imagined that representative and irresponsible government could be successfully combined." To suppose that such a system would work well there "implied a belief that French Canadians have enjoyed representative institutions for half a century without acquiring any of the characteristics of a free people; that Englishmen renounce every political opinion and feeling when they enter a colony, or that the spirit of Anglo-Saxon freedom is utterly changed and weakened among those who are transplanted across the Atlantic."

No one who studies carefully the history of responsible government from the appearance of Lord Durham's report and Lord John Russell's despatches of 1839 until the coming of Lord Elgin to Canada in 1847, can fail to see that there was always a doubt in the minds of the imperial authorities--a doubt more than once actually expressed in the instructions to the governors--whether it was possible to work the new system on the basis of a governor directly responsible to the parent state and at the same time acting under the advice of ministers directly responsible to the colonial parliament. Lord John Russell had been compelled to recognize the fact that it was not possible to govern Canada by the old methods of administration--that it was necessary to adopt a new colonial policy which would give a larger measure of political freedom to the people and ensure greater harmony between the executive government and the popular assemblies. Mr. Poulett Thomson, afterwards Lord Sydenham, was appointed governor-general with the definite objects of completing the union of the Canadas and inaugurating a more liberal system of colonial administration. As he informed the legislature of Upper Canada immediately after his arrival, in his anxiety to obtain its consent to the union, he had received "Her Majesty's commands to administer the government of these provinces in accordance with the well understood wishes and interests of the people." When the legislature of the united provinces met for the first time, he communicated two despatches in which the colonial secretary stated emphatically that, "Her Majesty had no desire to maintain any system or policy among her North American subjects which opinion condemns," and that there was "no surer way of gaining the approbation of the Queen than by maintaining the harmony of the executive with the legislative authorities." The governor-general was instructed, in order "to maintain the utmost possible harmony," to call to his councils and to employ in the public service "those persons who, by their position and character, have obtained the general confidence and esteem of the inhabitants of the province." He wished it to be generally made known by the governor-general that thereafter certain heads of departments would be called upon "to retire from the public service as often as any sufficient motives of public policy might suggest the expediency of that measure." It appears, however, that there was always a reservation in the minds of the colonial secretary and of governors who preceded Lord Elgin as to the meaning of responsible government and the methods of carrying it out in a colony dependent on the crown. Lord Sydenham himself believed that the council should be one "for the governor to consult and no more"; that the governor could "not be responsible to the government at home and also to the legislature of the province," for if it were so "then all colonial government becomes impossible." The governor, in his opinion, "must therefore be the minister [i.e., the colonial secretary], in which case he cannot be under control of men in the colony." But it was soon made clear to so astute a politician as Lord Sydenham that, whatever were his own views as to the meaning that should be attached to responsible government, he must yield as far as possible to the strong sentiment which prevailed in the country in favour of making the ministry dependent on the legislature for its continuance in office. The resolutions passed by the legislature in support of responsible government were understood to have his approval. They differed very little in words--in essential principle not at all--from those first introduced by Mr. Baldwin. The inference to be drawn from the political situation of that time is that the governor's friends in the council thought it advisable to gain all possible credit with the public in connection with the all-absorbing question of the day, and accordingly brought in the following resolutions in amendment to those presented by the Liberal chief:--

"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 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, the right to expect from such provincial administration the exercise of their best endeavours, that the imperial authority, within its constitutional limits, shall be exercised in the manner most consistent with their well-understood wishes and interests."

It is quite possible that had Lord Sydenham lived to complete his term of office, the serious difficulties that afterwards arose in the practice of responsible government would not have occurred. Gifted with a clear insight into political conditions and a thorough knowledge of the working of representative institutions, he would have understood that if parliamentary government was ever to be introduced into the colony it must be not in a half-hearted way, or with such reservations as he had had in his mind when he first came to the province. Amid the regret of all parties he died from the effects of a fall from his horse a few months after the inauguration of the union, and was succeeded by Sir Charles Bagot, who distinguished himself in a short administration of two years by the conciliatory spirit which he showed to the French Canadians, even at the risk of offending the ultra loyalists who seemed to think, for some years after the union, that they alone were entitled to govern the dependency.

The first ministry after that change was composed of Conservatives and moderate Liberals, but it was soon entirely controlled by the former, and never had the confidence of Mr. Baldwin. That eminent statesman had been a member of this administration at the time of the union, but he resigned on the ground that it ought to be reconstructed if it was to represent the true sentiment of the country at large. When Sir Charles Bagot became governor the Conservatives were very sanguine that they would soon obtain exclusive control of the government, as he was known to be a supporter of the Conservative party in England. It was not long, however, before it was evident that his administration would be conducted, not in the interests of any set of politicians, but on principles of compromise and justice to all political parties, and, above all, with the hope of conciliating the French Canadians and bringing them into harmony with the new conditions. One of his first acts was the appointment of an eminent French Canadian, M. Vallieres de Saint-Real, to the chief-justiceship of Montreal. Other appointments of able French Canadians to prominent public positions evoked the ire of the Tories, then led by the Sherwoods and Sir Allan MacNab, who had taken a conspicuous part in putting down the rebellion of 1837-8. Sir Charles Bagot, however, persevered in his policy of attempting to stifle racial prejudices and to work out the principles of responsible government on broad national lines. He appointed an able Liberal and master of finance, Mr. Francis Hincks, to the position of inspector-general with a seat in the cabinet. The influence of the French Canadians in parliament was now steadily increasing, and even strong Conservatives like Mr. Draper were forced to acknowledge that it was not possible to govern the province on the principle that they were an inferior and subject people, whose representatives could not be safely entrusted with any responsibilities as ministers of the crown. Negotiations for the entrance of prominent French Canadians in opposition to the government went on without result for some time, but they were at last successful, and the first LaFontaine-Baldwin cabinet came into existence in 1842, largely through the instrumentality of Sir Charles Bagot. Mr. Baldwin was a statesman whose greatest desire was the success of responsible government without a single reservation. Mr. LaFontaine was a French Canadian who had wisely recognized the necessity of accepting the union he had at first opposed, and of making responsible government an instrument for the advancement of the interests of his compatriots and of bringing them into unison with all nationalities for the promotion of the common good. The other prominent French Canadian in the ministry was Mr. A.N. Morin, who possessed the confidence and respect of his people, but was wanting in the energy and ability to initiate and press public measures which his leader possessed.

The new administration had not been long in office when the governor-general fell a victim to an attack of dropsy, complicated by heart disease, and was succeeded by Sir Charles Metcalfe, who had held prominent official positions in India, and was governor of Jamaica previous to Lord Elgin's appointment. No one who has studied his character can doubt the honesty of his motives or his amiable qualities, but his political education in India and Jamaica rendered him in many ways incapable of understanding the political conditions of a country like Canada, where the people were determined to work out the system of parliamentary government on strictly British principles. He could have obtained little assistance from British statesmen had he been desirous of mastering and applying the principles of responsible government to the dependency. Their opinions and instructions were still distinguished by a perplexing vagueness. They would not believe that a governor of a dependency could occupy exactly the same relation with respect to his responsible advisers and to political parties as is occupied with such admirable results by the sovereign of England. It was considered necessary that a governor should make himself as powerful a factor as possible in the administration of public affairs--that he should be practically the prime minister, responsible, not directly to the colonial legislature, but to the imperial government, whose servant he was and to whom he should constantly refer for advice and assistance whenever in his opinion the occasion arose. In other words it was almost impossible to remove from the mind of any British statesman, certainly not from the colonial office of those days, the idea that parliamentary government meant one thing in England and the reverse in the colonies, that Englishmen at home could be entrusted with a responsibility which it was inexpedient to allow to Englishmen or Frenchmen across the sea. The colonial office was still reluctant to give up complete control of the local administration of the province, and wished to retain a veto by means of the governor, who considered official favour more desirable than the approval of any colonial legislature. More or less imbued with such views, Sir Charles Metcalfe was bound to come into conflict with LaFontaine and Baldwin, who had studied deeply the principles and practice of parliamentary government, and knew perfectly well that they could be carried out only by following the precedents established in the parent state.

It was not long before the rupture came between men holding views so diametrically opposed to each other with respect to the conduct of government. The governor-general decided not to distribute the patronage of the crown under the advice of his responsible ministry, as was, of necessity, the constitutional practice in England, but to ignore the latter, as he boldly declared, whenever he deemed it expedient. "I wish," he wrote to the colonial secretary, "to make the patronage of the government conducive to the conciliation of all parties by bringing into the public service men of the greatest merit and efficiency without any party distinction." These were noble sentiments, sound in theory, but entirely incompatible with the operation of responsible government. If patronage is to be properly exercised in the interests of the people at large, it must be done by men who are directly responsible to the representatives of the people. If a governor-general is to make appointments without reference to his advisers, he must be more or less subject to party criticism, without having the advantage of defending himself in the legislature, or of having men duly authorized by constitutional usage to do so. The revival of that personal government which had evoked so much political rancour, and brought governors into the arena of party strife before the rebellion, was the natural result of the obstinate and unconstitutional attitude assumed by Lord Metcalfe with respect to appointments to office and other matters of administration.

All the members of the LaFontaine-Baldwin government, with the exception of Mr. Dominick Daly, resigned in consequence of the governor's action. Mr. Daly had no special party proclivities, and found it to his personal interests to remain his Excellency's sole adviser. Practically the province was without an administration for many months, and when, at last, the governor-general was forced by public opinion to show a measure of respect for constitutional methods of government, he succeeded after most strenuous efforts in forming a Conservative cabinet, in which Mr. Draper was the only man of conspicuous ability. The French Canadians were represented by Mr. Viger and Mr. Denis B. Papineau, a brother of the famous rebel, neither of whom had any real influence or strength in Lower Canada, where the people recognized LaFontaine as their true leader and ablest public man. In the general election which soon followed the reconstruction of the government, it was sustained by a small majority, won only by the most unblushing bribery, by bitter appeals to national passion, and by the personal influence of the governor-general, as was the election which immediately preceded the rising in Upper Canada. In later years, Lord Grey[4] remarked that this success was "dearly purchased, by the circumstance that the parliamentary opposition was no longer directed against the advisers of the governor but against the governor himself, and the British government, of which he was the organ." The majority of the government was obtained from Upper Canada, where a large body of people were misled by appeals made to their loyalty and attachment to the crown, and where a large number of Methodists were influenced by the extraordinary action of the Rev. Egerton Ryerson, a son of a United Empire Loyalist, who defended the position of the governor-general, and showed how imperfectly he understood the principles and practice of responsible government. In a life of Sir Charles Metcalfe,[5] which appeared shortly after his death, it is stated that the governor-general "could not disguise from himself that the government was not strong, that it was continually on the brink of defeat, and that it was only enabled to hold its position by resorting to shifts and expedients, or what are called tactics, which in his inmost soul Lord Metcalfe abhorred."

The action of the British ministry during this crisis in Canadian affairs proved quite conclusively that it was not yet prepared to concede responsible government in its fullest sense. Both Lord Stanley, then secretary of state for the colonies, and Lord John Russell, who had held the same office in a Whig administration, endorsed the action of the governor-general, who was raised to the peerage under the title of Baron Metcalfe of Fernhill, in the county of Berks. Earthly honours were now of little avail to the new peer. He had been a martyr for years to a cancer in the face, and when it assumed a most dangerous form he went back to England and died soon after his return. So strong was the feeling against him among a large body of the people, especially in French Canada, that he was bitterly assailed until the hour when he left, a dying man. Personally he was generous and charitable to a fault, but he should never have been sent to a colony at a crisis when the call was for a man versed in the practice of parliamentary government, and able to sympathize with the aspirations of a people determined to enjoy political freedom in accordance with the principles of the parliamentary institutions of England. With a remarkable ignorance of the political conditions of the province--too often shown by British statesmen in those days--so great a historian and parliamentarian as Lord Macaulay actually wrote on a tablet to Lord Metcalfe's memory:--"In Canada, not yet recovered from the calamities of civil war, he reconciled contending factions to each other and to the mother country." The truth is, as written by Sir Francis Hincks[6] fifty years later, "he embittered the party feeling that had been considerably assuaged by Sir Charles Bagot."

Lord Metcalfe was succeeded by Lord Cathcart, a military man, who was chosen because of the threatening aspect of the relations between England and the United States on the question of the Oregon boundary. During his short term of office he did not directly interfere in politics, but carefully studied the defence of the country and quietly made preparations for a rupture with the neighbouring republic. The result of his judicious action was the disappearance of much of the political bitterness which had existed during Lord Metcalfe's administration. The country, indeed, had to face issues of vital importance to its material progress. Industry and commerce were seriously affected by the adoption of free trade in England, and the consequent removal of duties which had given a preference in the British markets to Canadian wheat, flour, and other commodities. The effect upon the trade of the province would not have been so serious had England at this time repealed the old navigation laws which closed the St. Lawrence to foreign shipping and prevented the extension of commerce to other markets. Such a course might have immediately compensated Canadians for the loss of those of the motherland. The anxiety that was generally felt by Canadians on the reversal of the British commercial policy under which they had been able to build up a very profitable trade, was shown in the language of a very largely signed address from the assembly to the Queen. "We cannot but fear," it was stated in this document, "that the abandonment of the protective principle, the very basis of the colonial commercial system, is not only calculated to retard the agricultural improvement of the country and check its hitherto rising prosperity, but seriously to impair our ability to purchase the manufactured goods of Great Britain--a result alike prejudicial to this country and the parent state." But this appeal to the selfishness of British manufacturers had no influence on British statesmen so far as their fiscal policy was concerned. But while they were not prepared to depart in any measure from the principles of free trade and give the colonies a preference in British markets over foreign countries, they became conscious that the time had come for removing, as far as possible, all causes of public discontent in the provinces, at this critical period of commercial depression. British statesmen had suddenly awakened to the mistakes of Lord Metcalfe's administration of Canadian affairs, and decided to pursue a policy towards Canada which would restore confidence in the good faith and justice of the imperial government. "The Queen's representative"--this is a citation from a London paper[7] supporting the Whig government--"should not assume that he degrades the crown by following in a colony with a constitutional government the example of the crown at home. Responsible government has been conceded to Canada, and should be attended in its workings with all the consequences of responsible government in the mother country. What the Queen cannot do in England the governor-general should not be permitted to do in Canada. In making imperial appointments she is bound to consult her cabinet; in making provincial appointments the governor-general should be bound to do the same."

The Oregon dispute had been settled, like the question of the Maine boundary, without any regard to British interests in America, and it was now deemed expedient to replace Lord Cathcart by a civil governor, who would be able to carry out, in the valley of the St. Lawrence, the new policy of the colonial office, and strengthen the ties between the province and the parent state.

As I have previously stated, Lord John Russell's ministry made a wise choice in the person of Lord Elgin. In the following pages I shall endeavour to show how fully were realized the high expectations of those British statesmen who sent him across the Atlantic at this critical epoch in the political and industrial conditions of the Canadian dependency.


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