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Lord Elgin
Chapter XI - Political Progress


In the foregoing pages I have endeavoured to review--very imperfectly, I am afraid--all those important events in the political history of Canada from 1847 to 1854, which have had the most potent influence on its material, social, and political development. Any one who carefully studies the conditions of the country during that critical period of Canadian affairs cannot fail to come to the conclusion that the gradual elevation of Canada from the depression which was so prevalent for years in political as well as commercial matters, to a position of political strength and industrial prosperity, was largely owing to the success of the principles of self-government which Lord Elgin initiated and carried out while at the head of the Canadian executive. These principles have been clearly set forth in his speeches and in his despatches to the secretary of state for the colonies as well as in instructive volumes on the colonial policy of Lord John Russell's administration by Lord Grey, the imperial minister who so wisely recommended Lord Elgin's appointment as governor-general Briefly stated these principles are as follows:--

That it is neither desirable nor possible to carry on the government of a province in opposition to the opinion of its people.

That a governor-general can have no ministers who do not enjoy the full confidence of the popular House, or, in the last resort, of the people.

That the governor-general should not refuse his consent to any measure proposed by the ministry unless it is clear that it is of such an extreme party character that the assembly or people could not approve of it.

That the governor-general should not identify himself with any party but make himself "a mediator and moderator between all parties."

That colonial communities should be encouraged to cultivate "a national and manly tone of political morals," and should look to their own parliaments for the solution of all problems of provincial government instead of making constant appeals to the colonial office or to opinion in the mother country, "always ill-informed, and therefore credulous, in matters of colonial politics."

That the governor-general should endeavour to impart to these rising communities the full advantages of British laws, British institutions, and British freedom, and maintain in this way the connection between them and the parent state.

We have seen in previous chapters how industriously, patiently, and discreetly Lord Elgin laboured to carry out these principles in the administration of his government. In 1849 he risked his own life that he might give full scope to the principles of responsible government with respect to the adjustment of a question which should be settled by the Canadian people themselves without the interference of the parent state, and on the same ground he impressed on the imperial government the necessity of giving to the Canadian legislature full control of the settlement of the clergy reserves. He had no patience with those who believed that, in allowing the colonists to exercise their right to self-government in matters exclusively affecting themselves, there was any risk whatever so far as imperial interests were concerned. One of his ablest letters was that which he wrote to Earl Grey as an answer to the unwise utterances of the prime minister, Lord John Russell, in the course of a speech on the colonies in which, "amid the plaudits of a full senate, he declared that he looked forward to the day when the ties which he was endeavouring to render so easy and mutually advantageous would be severed." Lord Elgin held it to be "a perfectly unsound and most dangerous theory, that British colonies could not attain maturity without separation," and in this connection he quoted the language of Mr. Baldwin to whom he had read that part of Lord John Russell's speech to which he took such strong exception. "For myself," said the eminent Canadian, "if the anticipations therein expressed prove to be well founded, my interest in public affairs is gone forever. But is it not hard upon us while we are labouring, through good and evil report, to thwart the designs of those who would dismember the empire, that our adversaries should be informed that the difference between them and the prime minister of England is only one of time? If the British government has really come to the conclusion that we are a burden to be cast off, whenever a favourable opportunity offers, surely we ought to be warned." In Lord Elgin's opinion, based on a thorough study of colonial conditions, if the Canadian or any other system of government was to be successful, British statesmen must "renounce the habit of telling the colonies that the colonial is a provisional existence." They should be taught to believe that "without severing the bonds which unite them to England, they may attain the degree of perfection, and of social and political development to which organized communities of free men have a right to aspire." The true policy in his judgment was "to throw the whole weight of responsibility on those who exercise the real power, for after all, the sense of responsibility is the best security against the abuse of power; and as respects the connection, to act and speak on this hypothesis--that there is nothing in it to check the development of healthy national life in these young communities." He was "possessed," he used the word advisedly, "with the idea that it was possible to maintain on the soil of North America, and in the face of Republican America, British connection and British institutions, if you give the latter freely and trustingly." The history of Canada from the day those words were penned down to the beginning of the twentieth century proves their political wisdom. Under the inspiring influence of responsible government Canada has developed in 1902, not into an independent nation, as predicted by Lord John Russell and other British statesmen after him, but into a confederation of five millions and a half of people, in which a French Canadian prime minister gives expression to the dominant idea not only of his own race but of all nationalities within the Dominion, that the true interest lies not in the severance but in the continuance of the ties that have so long bound them to the imperial state.

Lord Elgin in his valuable letters to the imperial authorities, always impressed on them the fact that the office of a Canadian governor-general has not by any means been lowered to that of a mere subscriber of orders-in-council--of a mere official automaton, speaking and acting by the orders of the prime minister and the cabinet. On the contrary, he gave it as his experience that in Jamaica, where there was no responsible government, he had "not half the power" he had in Canada "with a constitutional and changing cabinet." With respect to the maintenance of the position and due influence of the governor, he used language which gives a true solution of the problem involved in the adaptation of parliamentary government to the colonial system. "As the imperial government and parliament gradually withdraw from legislative interference, and from the exercise of patronage in colonial affairs, the office of governor tends to become, in the most emphatic sense of the term, the link which connects the mother country and the colony, and his influence the means by which harmony of action between the local and imperial authorities is to be preserved. It is not, however, in my humble judgment, by evincing an anxious desire to stretch to the utmost constitutional principles in his favour, but, on the contrary, by the frank acceptance of the conditions of the parliamentary system, that this influence can be most surely extended and confirmed. Placed by his position above the strife of parties--holding office by a tenure less precarious than the ministers who surround him--having no political interests to serve but those of the community whose affairs he is appointed to administer--his opinion cannot fail, when all cause for suspicion and jealousy is removed, to have great weight in colonial councils, while he is set at liberty to constitute himself in an especial manner the patron of those larger and higher interests--such interests, for example, as those of education, and of moral and material progress in all its branches--which, unlike the contests of party, unite instead of dividing the members of the body politic."

As we study the political history of Canada for the fifty years which have elapsed since Lord Elgin enunciated in his admirable letters to the imperial government the principles which guided him in his Canadian administration, we cannot fail to see clearly that responsible government has brought about the following results, which are at once a guarantee of efficient home government and of a harmonious cooperation between the dependency and the central authority of the empire.

The misunderstandings that so constantly occurred between the legislative bodies and the imperial authorities, on account of the latter failing so often to appreciate fully the nature of the political grievances that agitated the public mind, and on account of their constant interference in matters which should have been left exclusively to the control of the people directly interested, have been entirely removed in conformity with the wise policy of making Canada a self-governing country in the full sense of the phrase. These provinces are as a consequence no longer a source of irritation and danger to the parent state, but, possessing full independence in all matters of local concern, are now among the chief sources of England's pride and greatness.

The governor-general instead of being constantly brought into conflict with the political parties of the country, and made immediately responsible for the continuance of public grievances, has gained in dignity and influence since he has been removed from the arena of public controversy. He now occupies a position in harmony with the principles that have given additional strength and prestige to the throne itself. As the legally accredited representative of the sovereign, as the recognized head of society, he represents what Bagehot has aptly styled "the dignified part of our constitution," which has much value in a country like ours where we fortunately retain the permanent form of monarchy in harmony with the democratic machinery of our government. If the governor-general is a man of parliamentary experience and constitutional knowledge, possessing tact and judgment, and imbued with the true spirit of his high vocation--and these high functionaries have been notably so since the commencement of confederation--he can sensibly influence, in the way Lord Elgin points out, the course of administration and benefit the country at critical periods of its history. Standing above all party, having the unity of the empire at heart, a governor-general can at times soothe the public mind, and give additional confidence to the country, when it is threatened with some national calamity, or there is distrust abroad as to the future. As an imperial officer he has large responsibilities of which the general public has naturally no very clear idea, and if it were possible to obtain access to the confidential and secret despatches which seldom see the light in the colonial office--certainly not in the lifetime of the men who wrote them--it would be found how much, for a quarter of a century past, the colonial department has gained by having had in the Dominion, men, no longer acting under the influence of personal feeling through being made personally responsible for the conduct of public affairs, but actuated simply by a desire to benefit the country over which they preside, and to bring Canadian interests into union with those of the empire itself.

The effects on the character of public men and on the body politic have been for the public advantage. It has brought out the best qualities of colonial statesmanship, lessened the influence of mere agitators and demagogues, and taught our public men to rely on themselves in all crises affecting the welfare and integrity of the country. Responsible government means self-reliance, the capacity to govern ourselves, the ability to build up a great nation.

When we review the trials and struggles of the past that we may gain from them lessons of confidence for the future, let us not forget to pay a tribute to the men who have laid the foundations of these communities, still on the threshold of their development, and on whom the great burden fell; to the French Canadians who, despite the neglect and indifference of their kings, amid toil and privation, amid war and famine, built up a province which they have made their own by their patience and industry, and who should, differ as we may from them, evoke our respect for their fidelity to the institutions of their origin, for their appreciation of the advantages of English self-government, and for their cooperation in all great measures essential to the unity of the federation; to the Loyalists of last century who left their homes for the sake of "king and country," and laid the foundations of prosperous and loyal English communities by the sea and by the great lakes, and whose descendants have ever stood true to the principles of the institutions which have made Britain free and great; to the unknown body of pioneers some of whose names perhaps still linger on a headland or river or on a neglected gravestone, who let in the sunlight year by year to the dense forests of these countries, and built up by their industry the large and thriving provinces of this Dominion; above all, to the statesmen--Elgin, Baldwin, LaFontaine, Morin, Howe, and many others--who laid deep and firm, beneath the political structure of this confederation, those principles of self-government which give harmony to our constitutional system and bring out the best qualities of an intelligent people. In the early times in which they struggled they had to bear much obloquy, and their errors of judgment have been often severely arraigned at the bar of public opinion; many of them lived long enough to see how soon men may pass into oblivion; but we who enjoy the benefit of their earnest endeavours, now that the voice of the party passion of their times is hushed, should never forget that, though they are not here to reap the fruit of their labours, their work survives in the energetic and hopeful communities which stretch from Cape Breton to Victoria.


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