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Lord Elgin
Chapter III - Political Difficulties


Lord Elgin made a most favourable impression on the public opinion of Canada from the first hour he arrived in Montreal, and had opportunities of meeting and addressing the people. His genial manner, his ready speech, his knowledge of the two languages, his obvious desire to understand thoroughly the condition of the country and to pursue British methods of constitutional government, were all calculated to attract the confidence of all nationalities, classes, and creeds. The supporters of responsible government heard with infinite pleasure the enunciation of the principles which would guide him in the discharge of his public duties. "I am sensible," he said in answer to a Montreal address, "that I shall but maintain the prerogative of the Crown, and most effectually carry out the instructions with which Her Majesty has honoured me, by manifesting a due regard for the wishes and feelings of the people and by seeking the advice and assistance of those who enjoy their confidence."

At this time the Draper Conservative ministry, formed under such peculiar circumstances by Lord Metcalfe, was still in office, and Lord Elgin, as in duty bound, gave it his support, although it was clear to him and to all other persons at all conversant with public opinion that it did not enjoy the confidence of the country at large, and must soon give place to an administration more worthy of popular favour. He recognized the fact that the crucial weakness in the political situation was "that a Conservative government meant a government of Upper Canadians, which is intolerable to the French, and a Radical government meant a government of French, which is no less hateful to the British." He believed that the political problem of "how to govern united Canada"--and the changes which took place later showed he was right--would be best solved "if the French would split into a Liberal and Conservative party, and join the Upper Canada parties which bear corresponding names." Holding these views, he decided at the outset to give the French Canadians full recognition in the reconstruction or formation of ministries during his term of office. And under all circumstances he was resolved to give "to his ministers all constitutional support, frankly and without reserve, and the benefit of the best advice" that he could afford them in their difficulties. In return for this he expected that they would, "in so far as it is possible for them to do so, carry out his views for the maintenance of the connection with Great Britain and the advancement of the interests of the province." On this tacit understanding, they--the governor-general and the Draper-Viger cabinet--had "acted together harmoniously," although he had "never concealed from them that he intended to do nothing" which would "prevent him from working cordially with their opponents." It was indispensable that "the head of the government should show that he has confidence in the loyalty of all the influential parties with which he has to deal, and that he should have no personal antipathies to prevent him from acting with leading men."

Despite the wishes of Lord Elgin, it was impossible to reconstruct the government with a due regard to French Canadian interests. Mr. Caron and Mr. Morin, both strong men, could not be induced to become ministers. The government continued to show signs of disintegration. Several members resigned and took judgeships in Lower Canada. Even Mr. Draper retired with the understanding that he should also go on the bench at the earliest opportunity in Upper Canada. Another effort was made to keep the ministry together, and Mr. Henry Sherwood became its head; but the most notable acquisition was Mr. John Alexander Macdonald as receiver-general. From that time this able man took a conspicuous place in the councils of the country, and eventually became prime minister of the old province of Canada, as well as of the federal dominion which was formed many years later in British North America, largely through his instrumentality. From his first entrance into politics he showed that versatility of intellect, that readiness to adapt himself to dominant political conditions and make them subservient to the interests of his party, that happy faculty of making and keeping personal friends, which were the most striking traits of his character. His mind enlarged as he had greater experience and opportunities of studying public life, and the man who entered parliament as a Tory became one of the most Liberal Conservatives who ever administered the affairs of a colonial dependency, and, at the same time, a statesman of a comprehensive intellect who recognized the strength of British institutions and the advantage of British connection.

The obvious weakness of the reconstructed ministry was the absence of any strong men from French Canada. Mr. Denis B. Papineau was in no sense a recognized representative of the French Canadians, and did not even possess those powers of eloquence--that ability to give forth "rhetorical flashes"--which were characteristic of his reckless but highly gifted brother. In fact the ministry as then organized was a mere makeshift until the time came for obtaining an expression of opinion from the people at the polls. When parliament met in June, 1847, it was quite clear that the ministry was on the eve of its downfall. It was sustained only by a feeble majority of two votes on the motion for the adoption of the address to the governor-general. The opposition, in which LaFontaine, Baldwin, Aylwin, and Chauveau were the most prominent figures, had clearly the best of the argument in the political controversies with the tottering ministry. Even in the legislative council resolutions, condemning it chiefly on the ground that the French province was inadequately represented in the cabinet, were only negatived by the vote of the president, Mr. McGill, a wealthy merchant of Montreal, who was also a member of the administration.

Despite the weakness of the government, the legislature was called upon to deal with several questions which pressed for immediate action. Among the important measures which were passed was one providing for the amendment of the law relating to forgery, which was no longer punishable by death. Another amended the law with respect to municipalities in Lower Canada, which, however, failed to satisfy the local requirements of the people, though it remained in force for eight years, when it was replaced by one better adapted to the conditions of the French province. The legislature also discussed the serious effects of free trade upon Canadian industry, and passed an address to the Crown praying for the repeal of the laws which prevented the free use of the St. Lawrence by ships of all nations. But the most important subject with which the government was called upon to deal was one which stifled all political rivalry and national prejudices, and demanded the earnest consideration of all parties. Canada, like the rest of the world, had heard of an unhappy land smitten with a hideous plague, of its crops lying in pestilential heaps and of its peasantry dying above them, of fathers, mothers, and children ghastly in their rags or nakedness, of dead unburied, and the living flying in terror, as it were, from a stricken battlefield. This dreadful Irish famine forced to Canada upwards of 100,000 persons, the greater number of whom were totally destitute and must have starved to death had they not received public or private charity. The miseries of these unhappy immigrants were aggravated to an inconceivable degree by the outbreak of disease of a most malignant character, stimulated by the wretched physical condition and by the disgraceful state of the pest ships in which they were brought across the ocean. In those days there was no effective inspection or other means taken to protect from infection the unhappy families who were driven from their old homes by poverty and misery. From Grosse Isle, the quarantine station on the Lower St. Lawrence, to the most distant towns in the western province, many thousands died in awful suffering, and left helpless orphans to evoke the aid and sympathy of pitying Canadians everywhere. Canada was in no sense responsible for this unfortunate state of things. The imperial government had allowed this Irish immigration to go on without making any effort whatever to prevent the evils that followed it from Ireland to the banks of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. It was a heavy burden which Canada should never have been called upon to bear at a time when money was scarce and trade was paralyzed by the action of the imperial parliament itself. Lord Elgin was fully alive to the weighty responsibility which the situation entailed upon the British government, and at the same time did full justice to the exertions of the Canadian people to cope with this sad crisis. The legislature voted a sum of money to relieve the distress among the immigrants, but it was soon found entirely inadequate to meet the emergency.

Lord Elgin did not fail to point out to the colonial secretary "the severe strain" that this sad state of things made, not only upon charity, but upon the very loyalty of the people to a government which had shown such culpable negligence since the outbreak of the famine and the exodus from the plague-stricken island. He expressed the emphatic opinion that "all things considered, a great deal of forbearance and good feeling had been shown by the colonists under this trial." He gave full expression to the general feeling of the country that "Great Britain must make good to the province the expenses entailed on it by this visitation." He did full justice to the men and women who showed an extraordinary spirit of self-sacrifice, a positive heroism, during this national crisis. "Nothing," he wrote, "can exceed the devotion of the nuns and Roman Catholic priests, and the conduct of the clergy and of many of the laity of other denominations has been most exemplary. Many lives have been sacrificed in attendance on the sick, and administering to their temporal and spiritual need.... This day the Mayor of Montreal, Mr. Mills, died, a very estimable man, who did much for the immigrants, and to whose firmness and philanthropy we chiefly owe it, that the immigrant sheds here were not tossed into the river by the people of the town during the summer. He has fallen a victim to his zeal on behalf of the poor plague-stricken strangers, having died of ship fever caught at the sheds." Among other prominent victims were Dr. Power, Roman Catholic Bishop of Toronto, Vicar-General Hudon of the same church, Mr. Roy, cure of Charlesbourg, and Mr. Chaderton, a Protestant clergyman. Thirteen Roman Catholic priests, if not more, died from their devotion to the unhappy people thus suddenly thrown upon their Christian charity. When the season of navigation was nearly closed, a ship arrived with a large number of people from the Irish estates of one of Her Majesty's ministers, Lord Palmerston. The natural result of this incident was to increase the feeling of indignation already aroused by the apathy of the British government during this national calamity. Happily Lord Elgin's appeals to the colonial secretary had effect, and the province was reimbursed eventually for the heavy expenses incurred by it in its efforts to fight disease, misery and death. English statesmen, after these painful experiences, recognized the necessity of enforcing strict regulations for the protection of emigrants crossing the ocean, against the greed of ship-owners. The sad story of 1847-8 cannot now be repeated in times when nations have awakened to their responsibilities towards the poor and distressed who are forced to leave their old homes for that new world which offers them well-paid work, political freedom, plenty of food and countless comforts.

In the autumn of 1847, Lord Elgin was able to seek some relief from his many cares and perplexities of government, in a tour of the western province, where, to quote his own words, he met "a most gratifying and encouraging reception." He was much impressed with the many signs of prosperity which he saw on all sides. "It is indeed a glorious country," he wrote enthusiastically to Lord Grey, "and after passing, as I have done within the last fortnight, from the citadel of Quebec to the falls of Niagara, rubbing shoulders the while with its free and perfectly independent inhabitants, one begins to doubt whether it be possible to acquire a sufficient knowledge of man or nature, or to obtain an insight into the future of nations, without visiting America." During this interesting visit to Upper Canada, he seized the opportunity of giving his views on a subject which may be considered one of his hobbies, one to which he devoted much attention while in Jamaica, and this was the formation of agricultural associations for the purpose of stimulating scientific methods of husbandry.

Before the close of the first year of his administration Lord Elgin felt that the time had come for making an effort to obtain a stronger ministry by an appeal to the people. Accordingly he dissolved parliament in December, and the elections, which were hotly contested, resulted in the unequivocal condemnation of the Sherwood cabinet, and the complete success of the Liberal party led by LaFontaine and Baldwin. Among the prominent Liberals returned by the people of Upper Canada were Baldwin, Hincks, Blake, Price, Malcolm Cameron, Richards, Merritt and John Sandfield Macdonald. Among the leaders of the same party in Lower Canada were LaFontaine, Morin, Aylwin, Chauveau and Holmes. Several able Conservatives lost their seats, but Sir Allan MacNab, John A. Macdonald, Mr. Sherwood and John Hillyard Cameron succeeded in obtaining seats in the new parliament, which was, in fact, more notable than any other since the union for the ability of its members. Not the least noteworthy feature of the elections was the return of Mr. Louis J. Papineau, and Mr. Wolfred Nelson, rebels of 1837-8, both of whom had been allowed to return some time previously to the country. Mr. Papineau's career in parliament was not calculated to strengthen his position in impartial history. He proved beyond a doubt that he was only a demagogue, incapable of learning lessons of wise statesmanship during the years of reflection that were given him in exile. He continued to show his ignorance of the principles and workings of responsible government. Before the rebellion which he so rashly and vehemently forced on his credulous, impulsive countrymen, so apt to be deceived by flashy rhetoric and glittering generalities, he never made a speech or proposed a measure in support of the system of parliamentary government as explained by Baldwin and Howe, and even W. Lyon Mackenzie. His energy and eloquence were directed towards the establishment of an elective legislative council in which his compatriots would have necessarily the great majority, a supremacy that would enable him and his following to control the whole legislation and government, and promote his dominant idea of a Nation Canadienne in the valley of the St. Lawrence. After the union he made it the object of his political life to thwart in every way possible the sagacious, patriotic plans of LaFontaine, Morin, and other broad-minded statesmen of his own nationality, and to destroy that system of responsible government under which French Canada had become a progressive and influential section of the province.

As soon as parliament assembled at the end of February, the government was defeated on the vote for the speakership. Its nominee, Sir Allan MacNab, received only nineteen votes out of fifty-four, and Morin, the Liberal candidate, was then unanimously chosen. When the address in reply to the governor-general's speech came up for consideration, Baldwin moved an amendment, expressing a want of confidence in the ministry, which was carried by a majority of thirty votes in a house of seventy-four members, exclusive of the speaker, who votes only in case of a tie. Lord Elgin received and answered the address as soon as it was ready for presentation, and then sent for LaFontaine and Baldwin.

He spoke to them, as he tells us himself, "in a candid and friendly tone," and expressed the opinion that "there was a fair prospect, if they were moderate and firm, of forming an administration deserving and enjoying the confidence of parliament." He added that "they might count on all proper support and assistance from him." When they "dwelt on difficulties arising out of pretensions advanced in various quarters," he advised them "not to attach too much importance to such considerations, but to bring together a council strong in administrative talent, and to take their stand on the wisdom of their measures and policy." The result was the construction of a powerful government by LaFontaine with the aid of Baldwin. "My present council," Lord Elgin wrote to the colonial secretary, "unquestionably contains more talent, and has a firmer hold on the confidence of parliament and of the people than the last. There is, I think, moreover, on their part, a desire to prove, by proper deference for the authority of the governor-general (which they all admit has in my case never been abused), that they were libelled when they were accused of impracticability and anti-monarchical tendencies." These closing words go to show that the governor-general felt it was necessary to disabuse the minds of the colonial secretary and his colleagues of the false impression which the British government and people seemed to entertain, that the Tories and Conservatives were alone to be trusted in the conduct of public affairs. He saw at once that the best way of strengthening the connection with Great Britain was to give to the strongest political party in the country its true constitutional position in the administration of public affairs, and identify it thoroughly with the public interests.

The new government was constituted as follows:

Lower Canada.--Hon. L.H. LaFontaine, attorney-general of Lower Canada; Hon. James Leslie, president of the executive council; Hon. R.E. Caron, president of the legislative council; Hon. E.P. Taehe, chief commissioner of public works; Hon. I.C. Aylwin, solicitor-general for Lower Canada; Hon. L.M. Viger, receiver-general.

Upper Canada.--Hon. Robert Baldwin, attorney-general of Upper Canada; Hon. R.B. Sullivan, provincial secretary; Hon. F. Hincks, inspector-general; Hon. J.H. Price, commissioner of crown lands; Hon. Malcolm Cameron, assistant commissioner of public works; Hon. W.H. Blake, solicitor-general.

The LaFontaine-Baldwin ministry must always occupy a distinguished place in the political history of the Canadian people. It was the first to be formed strictly in accordance with the principles of responsible government, and from its entrance into public life must be dated a new era in which the relations between the governor and his advisers were at last placed on a sound constitutional basis, in which the constant appeals to the imperial government on matters of purely provincial significance came to an end, in which local self-government was established in the fullest sense compatible with the continuance of the connection with the empire. It was a ministry notable not only for the ability of its members, but for the many great measures which it was able to pass during its term of office--measures calculated to promote the material advancement of the province, and above all to dispel racial prejudices and allay sectional antagonisms by the adoption of wise methods of compromise, conciliation and justice to all classes and creeds.

In Lord Elgin's letters of 1848 to Earl Grey, we can clearly see how many difficulties surrounded the discharge of his administrative functions at this time, and how fortunate it was for Canada, as well as for Great Britain, that he should have been able to form a government which possessed so fully the confidence of both sections of the province, irrespective of nationality. The revolution of February in Paris, and the efforts of a large body of Irish in the United States to evoke sympathy in Canada on behalf of republicanism were matters of deep anxiety to the governor-general and other friends of the imperial state. "It is just as well," he wrote at this time to Lord Grey, "that I should have arranged my ministry, and committed the flag of Great Britain to the custody of those who are supported by the large majority of the representatives and constituencies of the province, before the arrival of the astounding news from Europe which reached us by the last mail. There are not wanting here persons who might, under different circumstances, have attempted by seditious harangues, if not by overt acts, to turn the example of France, and the sympathies of the United States to account."

Under the circumstances he pressed upon the imperial authorities the wisdom of repealing that clause of the Union Act which restricted the use of the French language. "I am for one deeply convinced," and here he showed he differed from Lord Durham, "of the impolicy of all such attempts to denationalize the French. Generally speaking, they produce the opposite effect from that intended, causing the flame of national prejudice and animosity to burn more fiercely." But he went on to say, even were such attempts successful, what would be the inevitable result:

"You may perhaps Americanize, but, depend upon it, by methods of this description you will never Anglicize the French inhabitants of the province. Let them feel, on the other hand, that their religion, their habits, their prepossessions, their prejudices, if you will, are more considered and respected here than in other portions of this vast continent, who will venture to say that the last hand which waves the British flag on American ground may not be that of a French Canadian?"[8]

Lord Elgin had a strong antipathy to Papineau--"Guy Fawkes Papineau," as he called him in one of his letters--who was, he considered, "actuated by the most malignant passions, irritated vanity, disappointed ambition and national hatred," always ready to wave "a lighted torch among combustibles." Holding such opinions, he seized every practical opportunity of thwarting Papineau's persistent efforts to create a dangerous agitation among his impulsive countrymen. He shared fully the great desire of the bishops and clergy to stem the immigration of large numbers of French Canadians into the United States by the establishment of an association for colonization purposes. Papineau endeavoured to attribute this exodus to the effects of the policy of the imperial government, and to gain control of this association with the object of using it as a means of stimulating a feeling against England, and strengthening himself in French Canada by such insidious methods. Lord Elgin, with that intuitive sagacity which he applied to practical politics, recognized the importance of identifying himself with the movement initiated by the bishops and their friends, of putting himself "in so far as he could at its head," of imparting to it "as salutary a direction as possible, and thus wresting from Papineau's hands a potent instrument of agitation." This policy of conciliating the French population, and anticipating the great agitator in his design, was quite successful. To use Lord Elgin's own language, "Papineau retired to solitude and reflection at his seigniory, 'La Petite Nation,'" and the governor-general was able at the same time to call the attention of the colonial secretary to a presentment of the grand jury of Montreal, "in which that body adverts to the singularly tranquil, contented state of the province."

It was at this time that Lord Elgin commenced to give utterance to the views that he had formed with respect to the best method of giving a stimulus to the commercial and industrial interests that were so seriously crippled by the free trade policy of the British government. So serious had been its effects upon the economic conditions of the province that mill-owners, forwarders and merchants had been ruined "at one fell swoop," that the revenue had been reduced by the loss of the canal dues paid previously by the shipping engaged in the trade promoted by the old colonial policy of England, that private property had become unsaleable, that not a shilling could be raised on the credit of the province, that public officers of all grades, including the governor-general, had to be paid in debentures which were not exchangeable at par. Under such circumstances it was not strange, said the governor-general, that Canadians were too ready to make unfavourable comparisons between themselves and their republican neighbours. "What makes it more serious," he said, "is that all the prosperity of which Canada is thus robbed is transplanted to the other side of the line, as if to make Canadians feel more bitterly how much kinder England is to the children who desert her, than to those who remain faithful. It is the inconsistency of imperial legislation, and not the adoption of one policy rather than another, which is the bane of the colonies."

He believed that "the conviction that they would be better off if they were annexed," was almost universal among the commercial classes at that time, and the peaceful condition of the province under all the circumstances was often a matter of great astonishment even to himself. In his letters urging the imperial government to find an immediate remedy for this unfortunate condition of things, he acknowledged that there was "something captivating in the project of forming this vast British Empire into one huge Zollverein, with free interchange of commodities, and uniform duties against the world without; though perhaps without some federal legislation it might have been impossible to carry it out."[9] Undoubtedly, under such a system "the component parts of the empire would have been united by bonds which cannot be supplied under that on which we are now entering," but he felt that, whatever were his own views on the subject, it was then impossible to disturb the policy fixed by the imperial government, and that the only course open to them, if they hoped "to keep the colonies," was to repeal the navigation laws, and to allow them "to turn to the best possible account their contiguity to the States, that they might not have cause for dissatisfaction when they contrasted their own condition with that of their neighbours."

Some years, however, passed before the governor-general saw his views fully carried out. The imperial authorities, with that extraordinary indifference to colonial conditions which too often distinguished them in those times, hesitated until well into 1849 to follow his advice with respect to the navigation laws, and the Reciprocity Treaty was not successfully negotiated until a much later time. He had the gratification, however, before he left Canada of seeing the beneficial effects of the measures which he so earnestly laboured to promote in the interests of the country.


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