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Lord Elgin
Chapter V - The End of the Lafontaine-Baldwin Ministry 1851


The LaFontaine-Baldwin government remained in office until October, 1851, when it was constitutionally dissolved by the retirement of the prime minister soon after the resignation of his colleague from Upper Canada, whose ability as a statesman and integrity as a man had given such popularity to the cabinet throughout the country. It has been well described by historians as "The Great Ministry." During its existence Canada obtained a full measure of self-government in all provincial affairs. Trade was left perfectly untrammeled by the repeal in June, 1849, of the navigation laws, in accordance with the urgent appeals of the governor-general to the colonial secretary. The immediate results were a stimulus to the whole commerce of the province, and an influx of shipping to the ports of the St. Lawrence. The full control of the post-office was handed over to the Canadian government. This was one of the most popular concessions made to the Canadian people, since it gave them opportunities for cheaper circulation of letters and newspapers, so necessary in a new and sparsely settled country, where the people were separated from each other in many districts by long distances. One of the grievances of the Canadians before the union had been the high postage imposed on letters throughout British North America. The poor settlers were not able to pay the three or four shillings, and even more, demanded for letters mailed from their old homes across the sea, and it was not unusual to find in country post-offices a large accumulation of dead letters, refused on account of the expense. The management of the postal service by imperial officers was in every way most unsatisfactory; it was chiefly carried on for the benefit of a few persons, and not for the convenience or consolation of the many who were always anxious for news of their kin in the "old country." After the union there was a little improvement in the system, but it was not really administered in the interests of the Canadian people until it was finally transferred to the colonial authorities. When this desirable change took place, an impulse was soon given to the dissemination of letters and newspapers. The government organized a post-office department, of which the head was a postmaster-general with a seat in the cabinet.

Other important measures made provision for the introduction of the decimal system into the provincial currency, the taking of a census every ten years, the more satisfactory conduct of parliamentary elections and the prevention of corruption, better facilities for the administration of justice in the two provinces, the abolition of primogeniture with respect to real estate in Upper Canada, and the more equitable division of property among the children of an intestate, based on the civil law of French Canada and old France.

Education also continued to show marked improvement in accordance with the wise policy adopted since 1841. Previous to the union popular education had been at a very low ebb, although there were a number of efficient private schools in all the provinces where the children of the well-to-do classes could be taught classics and many branches of knowledge. In Lower Canada not one-tenth of the children of the habitants could write, and only one-fifth could read. In Upper Canada the schoolmasters as a rule, according to Mrs. Anna Jameson,[11] were "ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-paid, or not paid at all." In the generality of cases they were either Scotsmen or Americans, totally unfit for the positions they filled. As late as 1833 Americans or anti-British adventurers taught in the greater proportion of the schools, where the pupils used United States text-books replete with sentiments hostile to England--a wretched state of things stopped by legislation only in 1846. Year by year after the union improvements were made in the school system, with the object of giving every possible educational facility to rich and poor alike.

In the course of time elementary education became practically free. The success of the system in the progressive province of Upper Canada largely rested on the public spirit of the municipalities. It was engrafted on the municipal institutions of each county, to which provincial aid was given in proportion to the amount raised by local assessment. The establishment of normal schools and public libraries was one of the useful features of school legislation in those days. The merits of the system naturally evoked the sympathy and praise of the governor-general, who was deeply interested in the intellectual progress of the country. The development of "individual self-reliance and local exertion under the superintendence of a central authority exercising an influence almost exclusively moral is the ruling principle of the system."

Provision was also made for the imparting of religious instruction by clergymen of the several religious denominations recognized by law, and for the establishment of separate schools for Protestants or Roman Catholics whenever there was a necessity for them in any local division. On the question of religious instruction Lord Elgin always entertained strong opinions. After expressing on one occasion his deep gratification at the adoption of legislation which had "enabled Upper Canada to place itself in the van among the nations in the important work of providing an efficient system of education for the whole community," he proceeded to commend the fact that "its foundation was laid deep in the framework of our common Christianity." He showed then how strong was the influence of the moral sense in his character:

"While the varying opinions of a mixed religious society are scrupulously respected.... it is confidently expected that every child who attends our common schools shall learn there that he is a being who has an interest in eternity as well as in time; that he has a Father towards whom he stands in a closer and more affecting and more endearing relationship than to any earthly father, and that that Father is in
heaven."

But since the expression of these emphatic opinions the tendency of legislation in the majority of the provinces--but not in French Canada, where the Roman Catholic clergy still largely control their own schools--has been to encourage secular and not religious education. It would be instructive to learn whether either morality or Christianity has been the gainer.

It is only justice to the memory of a man who died many years after he saw the full fruition of his labours to say that Upper Canada owes a debt of gratitude to the Rev. Egerton Ryerson for his services in connection with its public school system. He was far from being a man of deep knowledge or having a capacity for expressing his views with terseness or clearness. He had also a large fund of personal vanity which made him sometimes a busybody when inaction or silence would have been wiser for himself. We can only explain his conduct in relation to the constitutional controversy between Lord Metcalfe and the Liberal party by the supposition that he could not resist the blandishments of that eminent nobleman, when consulted by him, but allowed his reason to be captured and then gave expression to opinions and arguments which showed that he had entirely misunderstood the seriousness of the political crisis or the sound practice of the parliamentary system which Baldwin, LaFontaine and Howe had so long laboured to establish in British North America. The books he wrote can never be read with profit or interest. His "History of the United Empire Loyalists" is probably the dullest book ever compiled by a Canadian, and makes us thankful that he was never able to carry out the intention he expressed in a letter to Sir Francis Hincks of writing a constitutional history of Canada. But though he made no figure in Canadian letters, and was not always correct in his estimate of political issues, he succeeded in making for himself a reputation for public usefulness in connection with the educational system of Upper Canada far beyond that of the majority of his Canadian contemporaries.

The desire of the imperial and Canadian governments to bury in oblivion the unhappy events of 1837 and 1838 was very emphatically impressed by the concession of an amnesty in 1849 to all the persons who had been engaged in the rebellions. In the time of Lord Metcalfe, Papineau, Nelson, and other rebels long in exile, had been allowed to return to Canada either by virtue of special pardons granted by the Crown under the great seal, or by the issue of writs of nolle prosequi. The signal result of the Amnesty Act passed in 1849 by the Canadian legislature, in accordance with the recommendation in the speech from the throne, was the return of William Lyon Mackenzie, who had led an obscure and wretched life in the United States ever since his flight from Upper Canada in 1837, and had gained an experience which enabled him to value British institutions more highly than those of the republic.

An impartial historian must always acknowledge the fact that Mackenzie was ill-used by the family compact and English governors during his political career before the rebellion, and that he had sound views of constitutional government which were well worthy of the serious consideration of English statesmen. In this respect he showed more intelligence than Papineau, who never understood the true principles of parliamentary government, and whose superiority, compared with the little, pugnacious Upper Canadian, was the possession of a stately presence and a gift of fervid eloquence which was well adapted to impress and carry away his impulsive and too easily deceived countrymen. If Mackenzie had shown more control of his temper and confined himself to such legitimate constitutional agitation as was stirred up by a far abler man, Joseph Howe, the father of responsible government in the maritime provinces, he would have won a far higher place in Canadian history. He was never a statesman; only an agitator who failed entirely throughout his passionate career to understand the temper of the great body of Liberals--that they were in favour not of rebellion but of such a continuous and earnest enunciation of their constitutional principles as would win the whole province to their opinions and force the imperial government itself to make the reforms imperatively demanded in the public interests.[12] But, while we cannot recognize in him the qualities of a safe political leader, we should do justice to that honesty of purpose and that spirit of unselfishness which placed him on a far higher plane than many of those men who belonged to the combination derisively called the "family compact," and who never showed a willingness to consider other interests than their own. Like Papineau, Mackenzie became a member of the provincial legislature, but only to give additional evidence that he did not possess the capacity for discreet, practical statesmanship possessed by Hincks and Baldwin and other able Upper Canadians who could in those days devote themselves to the public interests with such satisfactory results to the province at large.

It was Baldwin who, while a member of the ministry, succeeded in carrying the measure which created the University of Toronto, and placed it on the broad basis on which it has rested ever since. His measure was the result of an agitation which had commenced before the union. Largely through the influence of Dr. Strachan, the first Anglican bishop of Upper Canada, Sir Peregrine Maitland, when lieutenant-governor, had been induced to grant a charter establishing King's College "at or near York" (Toronto), with university privileges. Like old King's in Nova Scotia, established before the beginning of the century, it was directly under the control of the Church of England, since its governing body and its professors had to subscribe to its thirty-nine articles. It received an endowment of the public lands available for educational purposes in the province, and every effort was made to give it a provincial character though conducted entirely on sectarian principles. The agitation which eventually followed its establishment led to some modifications in its character, but, for all that, it remained practically under the direction of the Anglican bishop and clergy, and did not obtain the support or approval of any dissenters. After the union a large edifice was commenced in the city of Toronto, on the site where the legislative and government buildings now stand, and an energetic movement was made to equip it fully as a university.

When the Draper-Viger ministry was in office, it was proposed to meet the growing opposition to the institution by establishing a university which should embrace three denominational colleges--King's College, Toronto, for the Church of England, Queen's College, Kingston, for the Presbyterians, and Victoria College, Cobourg, for the Methodists--but the bishop and adherents of the Anglican body strenuously opposed the measure, which failed to pass in a House where the Tories were in the ascendant. Baldwin had himself previously introduced a bill of a similar character as a compromise, but it had failed to meet with any support, and when he came into office he saw that he must go much further and establish a non-sectarian university if he expected to carry any measure on the subject in the legislature. The result was the establishment of the University of Toronto, on a strictly undenominational foundation. Bishop Strachan was deeply incensed at what he regarded as a violation of vested rights of the Church of England in the University of King's College, and never failed for years to style the provincial institution "the Godless university." In this as in other matters he failed to see that the dominant sentiment of the country would not sustain any attempt on the part of a single denomination to control a college which obtained its chief support from public aid. Whilst every tribute must be paid to the zeal, energy, and courage of the bishop, we mu st at the same time recognize the fact that his former connection with the family compact and his inability to understand the necessity of compromise in educational and other matters did much injury to a great church.

He succeeded unfortunately in identifying it with the unpopular and aristocratic party, opposed to the extension of popular government and the diffusion of cheap education among all classes of people. With that indomitable courage which never failed him at a crisis he set to work to advance the denomination whose interests he had always at heart, and succeeded by appeals to English aid in establishing Trinity College, which has always occupied a high position among Canadian universities, although for a while it failed to arouse sympathy in the public mind, until the feelings which had been evoked in connection with the establishment of King's had passed away. An effort is now (1901) being made to affiliate it with the same university which the bishop had so obstinately and bitterly opposed, in the hope of giving it larger opportunities for usefulness. Its complete success of late has been impeded by the want of adequate funds to maintain those departments of scientific instruction now imperatively demanded in modern education. When this affiliation takes place, the friends of Trinity, conversant with its history from its beginning, believe that the portrait of the old bishop, now hanging on the walls of Convocation Hall, should be covered with a dark veil, emblematic of the sorrow which he would feel were he to return to earth and see what to him would be the desecration of an institution which he built as a great remonstrance against the spoliation of the church in 1849.

The LaFontaine-Baldwin ministry also proved itself fully equal to the demands of public opinion by its vigorous policy with respect to the colonization of the wild lands of the province, the improvement of the navigation of the St. Lawrence, and the construction of railways. Measures were passed which had the effect of opening up and settling large districts by the offer of grants of public land at a nominal price and very easy terms of payment. In this way the government succeeded in keeping in the country a large number of French Canadians who otherwise would have gone to the United States, where the varied industries of a very enterprising people have always attracted a large number of Canadians of all classes and races.

The canals were at last completed in accordance with the wise policy inaugurated after the union by Lord Sydenham, whose commercial instincts at once recognized the necessity of giving western trade easy access to the ocean by the improvement of the great waterways of Canada. It had always been the ambition of the people of Upper Canada before the union to obtain a continuous and secure system of navigation from the lakes to Montreal. The Welland Canal between Lakes Erie and Ontario was commenced as early as 1824 through the enterprise of Mr. William Hamilton Merritt--afterwards a member of the LaFontaine-Baldwin ministry--and the first vessel passed its locks in 1829; but it was very badly managed, and the legislature, after having aided it from time to time, was eventually obliged to take control of it as a provincial work. The Cornwall Canal was also undertaken at an early day, but work had to be stopped when it became certain that the legislature of Lower Canada, then controlled by Papineau, would not respond to the aspirations of the west and improve that portion of the St. Lawrence within its provincial jurisdiction.

Governor Haldimand had, from 1779-1782, constructed a very simple temporary system of canals to overcome the rapids called the Cascades, Cedars and Coteau, and some slight improvements were made in these primitive works from year to year until the completion of the Beauharnois Canal in 1845. The Lachine Canal was completed, after a fashion, in 1828, but nothing was done to give a continuous river navigation between Montreal and the west until 1845, when the Beauharnois Canal was first opened. The Rideau Canal originated in the experiences of the war of 1812-14, which showed the necessity of a secure inland communication between Montreal and the country on Lake Ontario; but though first constructed for defensive purposes, it had for years decided commercial advantages for the people of Upper Canada, especially of the Kingston district. The Grenville canal on the Ottawa was the natural continuation of this canal, as it ensured uninterrupted water communication between Bytown--now the city of Ottawa--and Montreal.

The heavy public debt contracted by Upper Canada prior to 1840 had been largely accumulated by the efforts of its people to obtain the active sympathy and cooperation of the legislature of French Canada, where Papineau and his followers seemed averse to the development of British interests in the valley of the St. Lawrence. After the union, happily for Canada, public men of all parties and races awoke to the necessity of a vigorous canal policy, and large sums of money were annually expended to give the shipping of the lakes safe and continuous navigation to Montreal. At the same time the channel of Lake St. Peter between Montreal and Quebec was improved by the harbour commissioners of the former city, aided by the government. Before the LaFontaine-Baldwin cabinet left office, it was able to see the complete success of this thoroughly Canadian or national policy. The improvement of this canal system--now the most magnificent in the world--has kept pace with the development of the country down to the present time.

It was mainly, if not entirely, through the influence of Hincks, finance minister in the government, that a vigorous impulse was given to railway construction in the province. The first railroad in British North America was built in 1837 by the enterprise of Montreal capitalists, from La Prairie on the south side of the St. Lawrence as far as St. John's on the Richelieu, a distance of only sixteen miles. The only railroad in Upper Canada for many years was a horse tramway, opened in 1839 between Queenston and Chippewa by the old portage road round the falls of Niagara. In 1845 the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway Company--afterwards a portion of the Grand Trunk Railway--obtained a charter for a line to connect with the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railway Company of Portland, in the State of Maine. The year 1846 saw the commencement of the Lachine Railway. In 1849 the Great Western, the Northern, and the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railways were stimulated by legislation which gave a provincial guarantee for the construction of lines not less than seventy-five miles in length. In 1851 Hincks succeeded in passing a measure which provided for the building of a great trunk line connecting Quebec with the western limits of Upper Canada. It was hoped at first that this road would join the great military railway contemplated between Quebec and Halifax, and then earnestly advocated by Howe and other public men of the maritime provinces with the prospect of receiving aid from the imperial government. If these railway interests could be combined, an Intercolonial railroad would be constructed from the Atlantic seaboard to the lakes, and a great stimulus given not merely to the commerce but to the national unity of British North America, In case, however, this great idea could not be realized, it was the intention of the Canadian government to make every possible exertion to induce British capitalists to invest their money in the great trunk line by a liberal offer of assistance from the provincial exchequer, and the municipalities directly interested in its construction.

The practical result of Hincks's policy was the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, not by public aid as originally proposed, but by British capitalists. The greater inter-colonial scheme failed in consequence of the conflict of rival routes in the maritime provinces, and the determination of the British government to give its assistance only to a road that would be constructed at a long distance from the United States frontier, and consequently available for military and defensive purposes--in fact such a road as was actually built after the confederation of the provinces with the aid of an imperial guarantee. The history of the negotiations between the Canadian government and the maritime provinces with respect to the Intercolonial scheme is exceedingly complicated. An angry controversy arose between Hincks and Howe; the latter always accused the former of a breach of faith, and of having been influenced by a desire to promote the interests of the capitalists concerned in the Grand Trunk without reference to those of the maritime provinces. Be that as it may, we know that Hincks left the wordy politicians of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to quarrel over rival routes, and, as we shall see later, went ahead with the Grand Trunk, and had it successfully completed many years before the first sod on the Intercolonial route was turned.

In addition to these claims of the LaFontaine-Baldwin government to be considered "a great ministry," there is the fact that, through the financial ability of Hincks, the credit of the province steadily advanced, and it was at last possible to borrow money in the London market on very favourable terms. The government entered heartily into the policy of Lord Elgin with respect to reciprocity with the United States, and the encouragement of trade between the different provinces of British North America. It was, however, unable to dispose of two great questions which had long agitated the province--the abolition of the seigniorial tenure, which was antagonistic to settlement and colonization, and the secularization of the clergy reserves, granted to the Protestant clergy by the Constitutional Act of 1791. These questions will be reviewed at some length in later chapters, and all that it is necessary to say here is that, while the LaFontaine-Baldwin cabinet supported preliminary steps that were taken in the legislature for the purpose of bringing about a settlement of these vexatious subjects, it never showed any earnest desire to take them up as parts of its ministerial policy, and remove them from political controversy.

Indeed it is clear that LaFontaine's conservative instincts, which became stronger with age and experience of political conditions, forced him to proceed very slowly and cautiously with respect to a movement that would interfere with a tenure so deeply engrafted in the social and economic structure of his own province, while as a Roman Catholic he was at heart always doubtful of the justice of diverting to secular purposes those lands which had been granted by Great Britain for the support of a Protestant clergy. Baldwin was also slow to make up his mind as to the proper disposition of the reserves, and certainly weakened himself in his own province by his reluctance to express himself distinctly with respect to a land question which had been so long a grievance and a subject of earnest agitation among the men who supported him in and out of the legislature. Indeed when he presented himself for the last time before his constituents in 1857, he was emphatically attacked on the hustings as an opponent of the secularization of the reserves for refusing to give a distinct pledge as to the course he would take on the question. This fact, taken in connection with his previous utterances in the legislature, certainly gives force to the opinion which has been more than once expressed by Canadian historians that he was not prepared, any more than LaFontaine himself, to divert funds given for an express purpose to one of an entirely different character. Under these circumstances it is easy to come to the conclusion that the LaFontaine-Baldwin ministry was not willing at any time to make these two questions parts of its policy--questions on which it was ready to stand or fall as a government.

The first step towards the breaking up of the ministry was the resignation of Baldwin following upon the support given by a majority of the Reformers in Upper Canada to a notion presented by William Lyon Mackenzie for the abolition of the court of chancery and the transfer of its functions to the courts of common law. The motion was voted down in the House, but Baldwin was a believer in the doctrine that a minister from a particular province should receive the confidence and support of the majority of its representatives in cases where a measure affected its interests exclusively. He had taken some pride in the passage of the act which reorganized the court, reformed old abuses in its practice, and made it, as he was convinced, useful in litigation; but when he found that his efforts in this direction were condemned by the votes of the very men who should have supported him in the province affected by the measure, he promptly offered his resignation, which was accepted with great reluctance not only by LaFontaine but by Lord Elgin, who had learned to admire and respect this upright, unselfish Canadian statesman. A few months later he was defeated at an election in one of the ridings of York by an unknown man, largely on account of his attitude on the question of the clergy reserves. He never again offered himself for parliament, but lived in complete retirement in Toronto, where he died in 1858. Then the people whom he had so long faithfully served, after years of neglect, became conscious that a true patriot had passed away.

LaFontaine placed his resignation in the hands of the governor-general, who accepted it with regret. No doubt the former had deeply felt the loss of his able colleague, and was alive to the growing belief among the Liberal politicians of Upper Canada that the government was not proceeding fast enough in carrying out the reforms which they considered necessary. LaFontaine had become a Conservative as is usual with men after some experience of the responsibilities of public administration, and probably felt that he had better retire before he lost his influence with his party, and before the elements of disintegration that were forming within it had fully developed. After his retirement he returned to the practice of law, and in 1853 he became chief justice of the court of appeal of Lower Canada on the death of Sir James Stuart. At the same time he received from the Crown the honour of a baronetcy, which was also conferred on the chief justice of Upper Canada, Sir John Beverley Robinson.

Political historians justly place LaFontaine in the first rank of Canadian statesmen on account of his extensive knowledge, his sound judgment, his breadth of view, his firmness in political crises, and above all his desire to promote the best interests of his countrymen on those principles of compromise and conciliation which alone can bind together the distinct nationalities and creeds of a country peopled like Canada. As a judge he was dignified, learned and impartial. His judicial decisions were distinguished by the same lucidity which was conspicuous in his parliamentary addresses. He died  ten years later than the great Upper Canadian, whose honoured name must be always associated with his own in the annals of a memorable epoch, when the principles of responsible government were at last, after years of perplexity and trouble, carried out in their entirety, and when the French Canadians had come to recognize as a truth that under no other system would it have been possible for them to obtain that influence in the public councils to which they were fully entitled, or to reconcile and unite the diverse interests of a great province, divided by the Ottawa river into two sections, the one French and Roman Catholic, and the other English and Protestant.


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