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Sir John A MacDonald
Coalition to Carry Confederation, 1864 - 1865


THE year 1864 must always be memorable in Canadian history. It marks the point where the old system of governing the united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada broke down, and some new political departure became a necessity. After the defeat of the Tache-Macdonald ministry the outlook seemed practically hopeless, since there was no reason to expect that a further appeal to the electors would produce a different result. The union formed twenty-three years before had proved unworkable.

Only under strong protest had Macdonald taken part in this last ministry—his desire to withdraw from public life was openly expressed and, in all probability, sincerely felt. The difficulties of governing two provinces, in which racial and religious differences had been fanned into flame for party ends, were enough to deter the most courageous from carrying on the thankless task. But, as on more than one previous occasion, he recognized that the queen's government must be carried on; and so, nominally as attorney-general for Upper Canada, but really as the leader of the administration, he took office. We can now see that the complications, which seemed to render constitutional government in Canada well-nigh impossible, were in reality preparing the ground for a system adapted to the changing needs of the country, and capable of vast development. It seems unlikely that anything but a deadlock in the machinery of the legislature would have induced the leaders of the two great parties to drop for a time their animosities and unite in an effort to solve the complicated problems of Canadian politics. But the deadlock had now come. Two general elections and the defeat of four ministries within three years had done nothing to improve the situation. Ministry and Opposition sat facing each other on the floors of the legislature with nearly equal numbers; intrigue had done its utmost to incline the balance of advantage to either side; in the country one phalanx of irreconcilables resolutely faced another equally determined and equally strong. Fortunately beneath the surface heat of party passion there still glowed the steady fires of genuine Canadian patriotism. The vision of a greater union arose to make men forget, for a time at least, their personal animosities and differences and unite in a work of consolidation.

On the day that the Tache-Macdonald government was defeated, the proposal of a coalition framed to extricate the country from its difficulties was made, to his unending honour, by Macdonald's vehement opponent, George Brown. For a time at least the ardent party leader was transformed into the self-sacrificing patriot, and in this spirit he made the offer of assistance from himself and his friends to enable the defeated government to carry on the business of the country while preparing a scheme of federal union. The first suggestion was that this federation should embrace only Upper and Lower Canada; but the larger scheme for uniting all British North America had already seized upon the public imagination, and it was soon found that nothing less than this would furnish a sufficient rallying-point for party groups.

Many circumstances conspired to turn men's minds at this time towards the great national ideal of a union of the whole of British North America. The idea was not new. Political dreamers had suggested it early in the century—inspired, no doubt, by the example of the United States. -Lord Durham had outlined the vision it 1839. He found the public mind already in a measure prepared for its realization. In his report he says: "I discussed a general measure for the government of the colonies with the deputations from the Lower Provinces, and with various leading individuals and public bodies in both the Canadas . . . and I was gratified by finding the leading minds of the various colonies strongly and generally inclined to a scheme that would elevate their countries into something like a national existence." While the exigencies of the situation in Quebec led him to thrust aside the scheme of a general union as for the moment impracticable, he returns to the ideal with the foresight of a great statesman: "I am inclined to go further, and inquire whether all these objects would not more surely be obtained by extending this legislative union over all the British provinces in North America; and whether the advantages which I anticipate for two of them, might not, and should not in justice, be extended over all. Such a union would at once decisively settle the question of races; it would enable all the provinces to cooperate for all common purposes; and, above all, it would form a great and powerful people, possessing the means of securing good and responsible government for itself, and which, under the protection of the British empire, might in some measure counterbalance the preponderant and increasing influence of the United States on the American continent." He continues: "I do not anticipate that a colonial legislature thus strong and thus self-governing, would desire to abandon the connection with Great Britain. On the contrary, I believe that the practical relief from undue interference, which would be the result of such a change, would strengthen the present bonds of feeling and interests; and that the connection would only become more durable and advantageous by having more of equality, of freedom, and of local independence. But at any rate, our first duty is to secure the well-being of our colonial countrymen; and if in the hidden decrees of that wisdom by which this world is ruled, it is written that these countries are not forever to remain portions of the empire, we owe it to our honour to take good care, that, when they separate from us, they should not be the only countries on the American continent in which the Anglo-Saxon race shall be found unfit to govern itself."

The British American League, founded in 1849, largely under Macdonald's inspiration, as an offset to the annexation manifesto which followed Lord Elgin's assent to the Rebellion Losses Bill and the burning of the Parliament House at Montreal, adopted the confederation of all the provinces as one of its main objects, and embodied its convictions in a series of resolutions which united that aim with the creation of a national commercial policy and the fundamental principle of inviolable connection with the mother country.

The first formal adoption of the idea by a legislative body was in the province of Nova Scotia, where the assembly, in 1854, unanimously passed a resolution that, "the union or confederation of the British provinces, while calculated to perpetuate their connection with the parent state, will promote their advancement and prosperity, increase their strength and influence, and elevate their position."

The occasion was marked by a speech of remarkable power by .Joseph Howe, the leader of the Liberal party and one of the most brilliant orators that Canada has ever produced.

In Howe's mind a united British North America was the true stepping-stone to a firmly united empire, while both were essential to the highest political development of the nation. Howe's friend Haliburton (Sam Slick), the Canadian father of the American school of humour, had lent his keen wit and vigorous political intelligence to the same advocacy. In the year 1858, under the premiership of Sir Georges Cartier, an official stamp was given to the consideration of the question in the Canadian legislature by the following paragraph embodied in the speech from the throne:-

"I propose in the course of the recess to communicate with Her Majesty's government and with the governments of sister colonies on another matter of great importance. I am desirous of inviting them to discuss with us the principles upon which a bond of a federal character, uniting the provinces of North America, may perhaps hereafter be practicable."

In the debate which ensued Sir Alexander Galt had taken a prominent part, and in an able speech had demonstrated the possibility of working out such a scheme. Following up the discussion which then took place, Cartier, Galt and another colleague, Rose, proceeded, soon after the close of the session, to England to secure the approval of the British government and to get authority to consult the Maritime Provinces.

Meanwhile the impulse towards union was strengthened by various practical considerations. The age of railway development was fairly begun and there was now, among all interested in the growth of trade and commerce, a strong de-N' sire for free communication between the provinces. The customs barriers erected in every province checked the free interchange of products, and hence also the full development of industry. Postal and telegraph systems managed independently by each provincial government were seen to be inadequate to the public need; varying systems of law, civil and criminal, hampered the administration of justice and the operations of commerce. In a hundred directions it was felt that to confine within provincial bounds the currents of political life meant industrial and commercial atrophy. To these internal conditions external circumstances of great significance added their pressure, and made an enlarged and invigorated system of government more necessary than ever before. The American war of secession had broken out in 1861. The seizure by an American man-of-war of two Confederate commissioners, who were being carried to Europe on a British merchant ship, (the Trent) brought the two nations to the brink of conflict. Canada seemed threatened with invasion; troops poured across the Atlantic, and the militia were called out to defend the country. In the end the captured commissioners were surrendered and war was averted, but American animosity had been aroused and invasion was still possible. The tension was increased, on the one side by the exploits of the Southern privateer Alabama, which had escaped from a British port and was destroying American commerce, and on the other side by raids of Fenian filibusters upon the Canadian frontiers. The capacity of Canada to defend itself became an urgent question, not only among Canadians themselves but with the imperial government. The point of radical weakness evidently rested in the lack of any common policy or the means of joint action among the scattered and independent provinces.

To fears of armed invasion was added the threat of commercial war. The need of a more extensive home market was brought home to - Canadian statesmen by the manifest intention of the American government to denounce the treaty of reciprocity negotiated by Lord Elgin in 1854. This treaty had been of great advantage to both nations; while, during the war, the balance of trade had been in favour of Canada, the United States enjoyed the still greater boon of ability to obtain cheap and plentiful supplies at a time of great national peril. But some Canadian expressions of sympathy for the South aroused great anger, though such verbal aid to their enemies might have been considered as offset by the presence of forty thousand soldiers of Canadian blood in the armies of the North. Nor can it be doubted that the abrogation of the treaty was regarded by many American politicians as the first step in the process of starving Canada into union. At a great convention of business men held in Detroit early in 1865, a speech by Joseph Howe won a unanimous vote in favour of the renewal of the treaty, but later in the year it was denounced by the American government, and came to an end in March, 1866. Threatened in 1864 with this impending blow, and also with the abrogation of the bonding privilege, by which goods from foreign countries might be brought into Canada through American territory without breaking bulk or paying duty at the American port of entry, the need for a more extensive home market and for independent lines of connection with the sea was obvious.

But while the older generation of Canadians may have thought of Confederation chiefly as a means of escape from the political tangles of past years, or as a means of defence, to the younger men of the country it appealed mainly as a national inspiration. There had never seemed any sufficient reason why the Canadian provinces should move so slowly as they did while development, vast and rapid, was going on beyond the boundary line to the South. It was irritating to find that those who sought a larger field for enterprise or industry gradually drifted away from Canadian farms and villages to find scope for themselves in an alien country. Provincial narrowness of view, hostile interprovincial tariffs, lack of easy communication between the old Canadian provinces and those of the Atlantic seaboard, an absence of that national spirit which springs from the sense of united strength and a great future, were the reasons which naturally suggested themselves to every thinking man when he began to weigh the reasons for Canadian inferiority on the American continent. The outside world inclined to attribute the situation to that severity of climate which appeared to terrify the emigrants who poured in thousands into regions further south, or to some lack of natural resources. But those who were better acquainted with the facts and who knew the country's wealth of forest, fisheries, mine, and . productive soil, knew also that the cause of comparative failure in the rate of progress must be sought in other circumstances, and they seemed to find it in the dispersion of force inseparable from the existing political conditions.

Yet, although since 1849 federation had been Macdonald's ideal, constantly held, and frequently expressed, he by no means leaped at this opportunity of realizing it with the quick impulsiveness of George Brown. No man knew so well the difficulties and dangers to be faced, especially in the province of Quebec; difficulties not only in the execution of the scheme, but in its subsequent operation. During the last days of the Macdonald Dorion ministry, a committee of the leading members of both sides of the House had been appointed, at the instance of George Brown, "to enquire and report on the important subjects embraced in" the memorandum submitted in February, 1859, by Messrs. Cartier, Galt and Ross to the imperial government, "and the best means of remedying the evils therein set forth." This committee, which sat with closed doors, brought in a report in favour of "a federative system, applied either to Canada alone, or to the whole British North American provinces." Of the three members of the committee who opposed the adoption of the report, Macdonald was one. When later Brown made his historic offer, long conferences with Cartier, Galt and his other chief supporters from Lower Canada, preceded Macdonald's acceptance. But, when finally convinced that the hour had come, he rose at once to the height of his great opportunity, and, during the next three years of negotiations with recalcitrant supporters, with hesitating sister provinces, and with the mother country, displayed a skill that, by comparison, dwarfs the efforts of any of his colleagues. Much ink has been wasted to decide the paternity of Confederation. The question would be simplified if the disputants remembered that men and circumstances must concur to bring great natural movements to the birth. Confederation had many fathers; to one man alone is it mainly due that the child took a vigorous hold of life.

Brown had at first been anxious to give to the ministry only an outside support, but Macdonald was inflexible in the demand that Brown should take all the responsibilities of cabinet position in working out the scheme, and the patriotism of the latter finally overcame his personal and party prejudices. At the cost of a rupture with Holton, Dorion and the Rouges, he entered with two colleagues the ministry of Sir Etienne Tache. Though for years no word had passed between Macdonald and himself, both men now honourably sank their differences. In Macdonald's words, "We acted together, dined at public places together, played euchre in crossing the Atlantic, and went into society in England together. And yet on the day after he resigned we resumed our old positions and ceased to speak."

Brown's first proposition had been for a federal union of the two provinces, and his enthusiasm for the larger scheme was probably due to the freedom which it promised to Ontario from "French domination." Macdonald's eye was turned rather to the possibility of building up what he described as "a nation, a subordinate, but still a powerful, people to stand by Britain in North America, in peace or in war," and, in describing the opportunities for growth which lay before the new nation, he showed what was for him an unusual warmth of enthusiasm. II When this union takes place, we shall be at the outset no inconsiderable people. And a rapidly increasing population—for I am satisfied that under this union our population will increase in a still greater ratio than ever before —with increased credit—with a higher position in the eyes of Europe—with the increased security we can offer to emigrants, who would naturally prefer to seek a new home in what is known to them as a great country, than in any one little colony or another—with all this I am satisfied that, great as has been our progress in the last twenty-five years since the union between Upper and Lower Canada, our future progress, during the next quarter of a century, will be vastly greater. And when, by means of this rapid increase, we become a nation of eight or nine millions of inhabitants, our alliance will be worthy of being sought by the great nations of the earth."

To build up this new nation, harbours open throughout the year were indispensable, and could be obtained only by union with the Maritime Provinces. An opportunity for negotiation soon presented itself. Under the guidance of Dr. (afterwards Sir Charles) Tupper, the energetic premier of Nova Scotia, a conference to discuss the union of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, had been arranged at Charlottetown. The Canadian ministry obtained permission to send delegates to set before this meeting the wider prospect. Early in September the conference met, and so great was the impression made by the Canadian proposals, that it was resolved to discuss them at a more formal gathering at Quebec. Before returning home the Canadian delegates made a short tour through the Maritime Provinces, and attended a banquet at Halifax, at which impressive speeches were made by Brown and Macdonald.

On October 10th the conference met in Quebec. The place that had witnessed the decisive conflict between Frenchmen and Englishmen for supremacy in America was now to see French and English met together in a peaceful consultation aiming at the political organization of half the continent. Appropriate and historically significant was the fact that with universal approval the French-Canadian premier of Canada, Sir Etienne Tach6, was selected as chairman. The leadership lost in arms in 1759 had thus been regained in the council room in 1864, a circumstance noted at the time as testifying no less to the genius of the defeated race than to the perfect equality of political opportunity accorded by the victors.

The conference at Quebec proclaimed the fact that within the British empire evolution had taken the place of revolution as the path of political development.

Eighty-eight years before, another conference of British colonists had met at Philadelphia to establish new political relations based upon revolt, and later to be established by prolonged conflict in arms. A great nation was founded, but at the price of animosities which a century of history has barely effaced. But at Quebec the conference met with the full approval of the people and parliament of the motherland. They were the free representatives of a free people, charged with the peaceful task of framing a political system adapted to the needs of a country which had before it an almost limitless horizon of expansion. They had the experience of both England and the neighbouring republic to draw upon—they had the model which each afforded to copy or refuse.

It was decided that the convention should conduct its deliberations with closed doors. The arguments for this course were strong. A new set of political problems was to be discussed—views would be modified as consideration proceeded—and delegates should not be prejudiced in forming final judgments by early expressions of opinion.

The ablest men of all sides of politics had met, not to fight old party battles or use old party cries, but to find how, by mutual concession, divergent interests could be harmonized for a great national end. In such a gathering appeals to the gallery would be singularly out of place. The utmost freedom of debate was thus assured, while publicity—that greatest of political safeguards—was guaranteed ultimately by the fact that the conclusions of the conference, matured in unrestrained debate, would be fully discussed by the press, on the platform, and in the legislatures before they could have constitutional effect.

The conference sat from October 10th till October 28th. Though towards the last its deliberations were hurried, and though several changes were eventually made in its proposals, the seventy-two resolutions which it passed embody the main lines on which Confederation was finally accomplished, and are a work of great political wisdom and sagacity. A mass of notes preserved by Sir John Macdonald still remains unedited in the hands of Mr. Pope, but from material that has been published the general trend of the negotiations can be followed. The war raging in the United States seemed to Canadian statesmen to show that the great vice of the American constitution was the vagueness which had enabled the seceding states to claim that they were independent and sovereign bodies, with full right to resume the powers which they had temporarily delegated to a central authority. Hence, from the first, it was determined to subordinate the provincial legislatures to the federal. "In framing the constitution " said Macdonald at the opening session, "care should be taken to avoid the mistakes and weaknesses of the United States' system, the primary error of which was the reservation to the different states of all powers not delegated to the general government. We must reverse this process by establishing a strong central government, to which shall belong all powers not specially conferred on the provinces. Canada, in my opinion, is better off as she stands than she would be as a member of a confederacy composed of five sovereign states, which would be the result if the powers of the local governments were not defined."

"Those who were at Charlottetown will remember," said Dr. Tupper on October 24th, "that it was finally specified there that all the powers not given to local, should be reserved to the federal, government. This was stated as being a prominent feature of the Canadian scheme, and it was said then that it was desirable to have a plan contrary to that adopted by the United States. It was a fundamental principle laid down by Canada and the basis of our negotiations." Macdonald indeed was strongly in favour of a legislative union, but the strong local patriotism of the Maritime Provinces, and still more that of Lower Canada, rendered such an idea impossible.

"I have again and again stated in the House," he said in the next year, "that, if practicable, I thought a legislative union would be preferable. I have always contended that if we could agree to have one government and one parliament legislating for the whole of these peoples, it would be the best, the cheapest, the most vigorous, and the strongest system of government that we could adopt. But, on looking at the subject at the conference, and discussing the matter, as we did, most unreservedly, with a desire to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, we found that such a system was impracticable. In the first place, it would not meet the assent of the people of Lower Canada, because they felt that, in their peculiar position,—being in a minority, with a different language, nationality, and religion from the majority,—in case of a junction with the other provinces, their institutions and their laws might be assailed, and their ancestral associations on which they prided themselves attacked and prejudiced; it was found that any proposition which involved the absorption of the individuality of Lower Canada,—if I may use the expression,—would not be received with favour by her people. We found too, that though their people speak the same language and enjoy the same system of law as Upper Canada, a system founded on the common law of England, there was as great a disinclination on the part of the people of the Maritime Provinces to lose their individuality as separate political organizations as we observed in the case of Lower Canada itself. Therefore we were forced to the conclusion that we must either abandon the idea of union altogether, or devise a system of union in which the separate provincial organizations would in some degree be preserved. So that those who were, like myself, in favour of a legislative union, were obliged to modify their views, and accept the project of a federal union as the only scheme practicable even for the Maritime Provinces."

Mr. DeCelles in his life of Cartier, in this series, produces some evidence for a remarkable story that, during the subsequent negotiations in London, Macdonald tried to force a legislative union upon his colleagues, hoping that the dissatisfaction in the recalcitrant provinces would die down when they were confronted with the fait accompli, and that he was only foiled by the refusal of Cartier. Though the idea may have crossed his mind, he must have known too well its impossibility to make such a proposal in any other spirit than that of whimsical jest. But it is evident that the great majority of the delegates at Quebec wished to make the central authority as powerful as was consistent with the federal principle, and that in this respect the Canadian constitution stands at the opposite pole from that of the United States. The long struggle for provincial rights to be described in Chapter IX, prevented the complete fulfilment of Macdonald's ideal, but the autonomy of the Canadian provinces is far more extensively curtailed than that of the American or Australian states.

The financial relations between the various provinces and the central authority proved a problem which taxed all the skill of Galt, Tilley, and the other financial experts among the delegates to whom this part of the negotiations was chiefly entrusted. The equitable distribution of the public debts of the various provinces, which were to be assumed by the Dominion, presented considerable difficulty. The commercial policy of the Maritime Provinces tended towards free trade, that of the Canadas to protection; the Canadas had a municipal system which, in the Upper Province especially, had attained to a high degree of perfection, and which controlled numerous local matters, the expenses of which in the Maritime Provinces were paid from the provincial treasury. Though the solution reached has proved, in the main, satisfactory, it has been found necessary more than once to make amendments, and the agitation of Nova Scotia for 11 better terms " did much to embitter the early years of the Dominion.

The constitution of the Upper House absorbed a larger amount of time and anxious thought than its subsequent influence in the government of the country has justified. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had nominative upper chambers, while in the Canadas the legislative council had, since 1856, been elective. In practice this addition to the already large number of elections had not proved a success; men of age and experience would not endure the trouble and uncertainty of an election, while the young and ambitious made the popular chamber their goal. Hence both Brown and Macdonald concurred in advocating a nominative upper chamber. To this they were also led by their wish to imitate as far as possible the British Constitution, Macdonald comparing the senators to so many life peers. Besides, such a chamber was an indispensable portion of the federal scheme, since the smaller provincial units of the Dominion would not have consented to federation unless the inequality of representation by population in the Commons had been balanced by the equal representation of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and the Maritime Provinces taken as a group in the senate. In actual fact the Canadian senate has not, save in a very few exceptional instances, wielded any power at all corresponding to that of the House of Lords in England, or that of the senate in the United States. For this failure to realize the expectations of those who framed its constitution, Macdonald himself must be held largely responsible. An Upper House gets its weight either from ancient tradition and lineage, from being the choice of the electors, or from personal and collective ability, combined with impartiality, in its members. From the first two of these sources of prestige a nominated body like the senate is cut off. When Macdonald established the system of using his power of nomination to the senate only as an instrument to strengthen his party—to reward defeated candidates or faithful supporters, without much reference to ability—he struck at the very root of what makes an Upper House powerful in the confidence of the country. The original nominations to the senate included an equal proportion of Conservatives and Liberals, and it then furnished the germ for a very influential legislative body, but during his long subsequent tenure of office only a single Liberal senator was appointed by Macdonald. His example has been strictly followed by the Liberal party when in power. Had Macdonald used the same discretion in strengthening the senate that he did in strengthening the judiciary of the Dominion, the history of that chamber might have been one of increasing, rather than diminishing, usefulness and influence. His excuse, and that of other premiers, for the course actually followed, lies in the tyranny of party feeling. A more enlightened public opinion can alone supply the remedy.

The vexed question of representation by population was solved in a manner justly styled by Macdonald "equally ingenious and simple" since it granted this much desired boon without joining thereto his bugbear of manhood suffrage. "By adopting the representation of Lower Canada as a fixed standard," he said, "as the pivot on which the whole would turn—that province being the best suited for the purpose, on account of the comparatively permanent character of its population, and from its having neither the largest nor the least number of inhabitants, we have been enabled to overcome the difficulty I have mentioned. We have introduced the system of representation by population without the danger of an inconvenient increase in the number of representatives on the recurrence of each decennial period. The whole thing is worked by a simple Rule of Three. For instance, we have in Upper Canada 1,400,000 of a population; in Lower Canada 1,100,000. Now, the proposition is simply this, if Lower Canada with its population of 1,100,000 has a right to sixty-five members, how many members should Upper Canada have, with its larger population of 1,400,000? The same rule applies to the other provinces, the proportion is always observed and the principle of representation by population carried out. If an increase is made, Lower Canada is still to remain the pivot on which the whole calculation will turn."

George Brown was satisfied with this solution of the question which had so long provided the chief motive power of his politics. The great principles of federation having been settled, unanimity on minor points was reached without much difficulty. For once the foremost leaders of party politics had nobly responded to the demand for higher aims and larger statesmanship.


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