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The Scot in British North America
Chapter III Constitutional Rule prior to 1812


The storm of the American Revolution failed to uproot the settled loyalty of the northern colonies. It does not appear that the Stamp Act, or any of those other ill-advised measures which, under Grenville and North, deprived England of thirteen Provinces, excited any commotion in Canada and Nova Scotia. On the contrary, they became the home of those loyal refugees from the south who had cast in their lot, for weal or woe, with the Crown. The effect of the struggle was, therefore, to intensify, rather than weaken, the ties which bound these colonies to the Empire. When peace was proclaimed, in 1783, public affairs began to settle down into normal shape, and under the Constitutional Act of 1791, the Franco-Canadians were, if not quite satisfied, at least tranquil and submissive. The old Province was divided into two, and thenceforward, for nearly fifty years, their affairs flowed side by side, apart, yet not unconnected. Upper Canada, having been freed from all vexed questions concerning French law and feudal tenure, started afresh as a purely British colony. Lower Canada, on the other hand, had been pacified, so far as the French population were concerned, by the establishment of their "religion, language, and laws." That there lingered, for many years, a feeling of discontent amongst the growing British population may be well supposed. The remonstrances they had pressed, through Adam Lymburner, had been summarily cast aside as unworthy of serious consideration. Pitt cherished, above all things, a desire to conciliate the French population. The threatening aspect of affairs in France, no doubt, urged him to this course, rather than risk having a second Paris on the banks of the St. Lawrence. His suspicions were certainly ill-founded; and yet, on the whole, he acted with sagacity, and in a liberal spirit.

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true, as Garneau remarks, [Book xiii., chap. i.] that the new constitution failed to give the Canadian Provinces that full measure of self-government which had been anticipated from it. The Colonial Office in London was too hasty in dictating a policy for the new governments, and the Lieutenant-Governors too often supposed that they occupied an exceptional position as heads of the Executive. The chief officers of the State were arbitrarily chosen by the representatives of the Crown, and so were the members of the Upper House. Responsible government, in the modern acceptation of the term, was unknown, indeed, at first, unsought for. The Assemblies could debate, no doubt; but no one had as yet hinted that the course of public policy, the tenure of Cabinet offices, or the control of public lands and interests, should be in the hands of the people’s representatives. At that early period in the history of Upper and Lower Canada, it is by no means certain that any other course would have been prudent. When the agitation for complete self-government began in Lower Canada, as will be seen hereafter, the French population and their few British allies were evidently struggling wildly, without possessing that prudent balance and soberness of aim which could alone enlarge the basis of the structure without overturning it altogether.

The first years under the new constitution need not be described in detail, inasmuch as sketches of Sir James Craig’s administration, and of some of the more prominent Scots antecedent to the time of 1812, were given in earlier pages. The first Lower Canadian Legislature was called together on the 30th of December, 1791. The lists of Legislative Councillors, members of Assembly, and Executive Councillors, contain, from time to time, a number of Scots, of whom little record remains except their names. Hon. Wm. Grant, a Quaker merchant, was an Executive Councillor; so was Hugh Finlay, who gave his name to the Finlay Market. Sir Alexander Mackenzie, of whom we shall have more to say in connection with the North-west, was originally a Canadian merchant. He was born at Inverness, and represented the County of Huntingdon in 1804. Hon. James McGill, who sat in several parliaments and was an Executive Councillor for some years, has already been referred to at length. There are other names such as those of J. Young, shipbuilder, John Craigie, David Munroe, John Murray, and John Lees. Most of the Scotsmen who attained positions in public life at that time, were engaged in mercantile or shipping houses, at Quebec, Three Rivers, or Montreal. Of course the House was preponderatingly French. In the Assembly of 1800, for example, out of fifty members only fourteen names indicate British origin, and one was Dutch, or more probably a settler from New York State, all the rest being French Canadians. [Christie, Vol. i. p. 214. Garneau complains that, in the Council, the Canadians were not properly represented, "except at the outset when they were four to eight; but by the year 1799, out of twenty-one members in the Council, only six were Canadians."] Sir James Craig arrived in the autumn of 1807, and the signs of an approaching storm began to appear upon the political horizon. In the Assembly of 1809, we note the names of Ralph Gray, James Stuart, W. McGillivray and J. Blackwood. The Stuart mentioned, was afterwards Sir James Stuart, of U. E. Loyalist origin; his nationality can scarcely be doubted, as his grandfather was a Presbyterian.

During Sir James Craig’s administration, there was a critical struggle between the advanced spirits of the French Canadian party and the Executive. Le Canadien was suppressed, and a number of gentlemen arrested. Into this controversy it is unnecessary to enter. The embers of discontent, however, kept alive during the war of 1812, and broke out with renewed fury during the next period of our history. One symptom of this discontent, in its preliminary stages, was a gradual decrease in the number of representatives of British origin. In 1809, only nine were elected. The dissatisfaction at this period arose, not from any defects in the constitutional system, but in the method of its administration. "An irresponsible executive," says McMullen, "was at the root of most public disorders, and as time progressed, it became evident that Lower Canada would pass through the same revolutionary ordeal as its western sister. In both Provinces identical modes were producing similar results, and at nearly the same time." [History, p. 231. Also Christie, vol. i. pp. 347-50. Garneau, who always takes the extreme French Canadian view, dignifies Craig’s term by the name of "the reign of terror." Bell’s trans. Book xiii. chap. ii.]

The first years of Upper Canadian history have been briefly sketched in a previous chapter. It only remains to indicate the general course of affairs during the early period as far as the limited resources at command will permit. Simcoe’s career, as Governor, was too short for the welfare of the Province. He was a man of broad, constitutional views; and, had he remained here for a longer period, the seeds of discontent and disorder would not have so soon brought forth fruits. At the close of the first session of the first Legislature, he said, "At this conjuncture, I particularly recommend to you to explain (i. e. to their constituents) that this Province is singularly blest with, not a mutilated constitution, but with a constitution that has stood the test of experience, and is the very image and transcript of that of Great Britain." How far that view of the colonial system was shared by those subsequently in power will appear in the sequel; meanwhile, it may be concluded from Simcoe’s own words, that his views of administration were not reconcilable with the irresponsibility of the executive, as afterwards maintained by his successors. The early grievances of the settlers were not connected with this subject. It was the land system of which complaint was earliest made, as will appear more fully hereafter. The rapid influx of immigrants from Europe and from the United States might have been taken advantage of, had a sound and equitable disposal of the soil been made. This, however, was what the old residents were determined to prevent. They looked upon themselves as the legitimate disposers of the territory, and proceeded to parcel it out amongst their friends and relatives, simply for purposes of speculation. Actual occupants were thus either driven away, or had to pay fancy prices for their land; in lots separated from one another by forests, as effectually locked up as if in mortmain. [McMullen: History, p. 238.] It was in these early years that the nucleus of the so-called "Family Compact" was formed, chiefly of U. E. Loyalists, half-pay officers and poor gentlemen. These families constituted a sort of ready-made aristocracy, and, in the primitive time of which we are speaking, their influence was largely for good. They monopolized, as was natural, all the culture and polish of the colony, and were therefore not indisposed to look upon new settlers with something approaching disdain. The Government was in their hands, and although Upper Canada secured the form of representative institutions, their power and efficacy were entirely wanting. There was a House of sixteen, and a Legislative Council of six; an irresponsible Executive, [As Dr. Scadding remarks, offices were then literally held during pleasure. Some Trustees complained to Governor Hunter that they could not get their patents. Hunter, after questioning all the rest, fixed the blame upon Mr. William Jarvis, Secretary and Registrar, and this is how he addressed him: "Sir, if they are not forthcoming, every one of them and placed in the hands of these gentlemen in my presence at noon on Thursday next, by George! I’ll un-Jarvis you." Toronto of Old, p. 478.] and a judiciary which, while not independent, was made worse by the participation of the judges in political life. The oligarchy was in fact supreme in every department; whilst the people, at that time absorbed in reclaiming the soil, attended but little to public affairs, and cared less. Upper Canada was passing through that primitive stage of colonial society out of which it began to emerge shortly after the war. It is too much the habit of historians to look at that simple state of politics with jaundiced eyes. They persist in looking at the rude systems of the past through spectacles provided by the present. As will be seen hereafter, great injustice has thus been done to the pioneers in the management of public affairs. Meanwhile it is only necessary to make this remark by the way.

In the Upper Canada Almanac for 1803 there is a list of all the public men of the time. The Macdonells appear in great force. Alexander and Angus Macdonell represented Glengarry and Prescott, while another Angus sat for Durham, Simcoe and East York. John Macdonell was Lieutenant of Glengarry county, and Archibald Macdonell, of Prince Edward. In the Militia lists of the same date there were nine Macdonells of the Glengarry battalion—the Colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel, two Captains, three Lieutenants, and two Ensigns. Robert Gray was at that time member for Stormont and Russell, and Donald McLean, Clerk of the House.

Before entering on the next, or as it may be termed the first, political period, some reference must be made to the Hon. William Allan. Concerning Mr. Allan’s early career beyond the fact of his Scottish origin we are without information. He first appears as the holder of a number of offices, none of which taken alone could, in those simpler times, have been over lucrative. He was the first postmaster of Toronto, and the office was situated on his own premises on the west side of Frederick Street. South of that on the water side was the Merchants’ Wharf, also his property, and the Custom House of which Mr. Allan was collector. ["We gather also from the Calendars of the day that Mr. Allan was likewise Inspector of Flour, Pot and Pearl Ash; and Inspector of Shop, Stall and Tavern duties. In an early, limited state of society, a man of more than the ordinary aptitude of affairs is required to act in many capacities." Scadding, p. 39.] Mr. Allan, however, was not a mere office-holder; but a public spirited citizen ready to serve his fellows in any useful work. He was one of the trustees for the Mall, a pleasure promenade which, like its successor, the Prince of Wales’ Walk, has disappeared forever. Largely interested in the development of the district he busied himself with road-making, the levelling of hills, the improvement of Yonge Street, and the opening up of Queen Street to the Don. As an ardent churchman he took part in the erection of the first Church of St. James, and was a liberal contributor to the fund for its support. A justice of the peace at an early date, he subsequently became a member of the Legislative Council. During the war he was in active service as Major in the York Militia, and fought, we believe, at Queenston.

The period antecedent to 1812 may now be dismissed as eminently barren and unfruitful. Notwithstanding some fitful efforts after political vitality—merely of the embryo sort—there really was no public life worthy of the name. The struggle for existence, under the pressing necessities of early settlement, absorbed all human activities, and society, if not in the patriarchal stage, approached it in its rude activity. One has only to turn over any of the dingy yellow journals of the period to perceive that the future life of the Provinces, ultimately to form a nation, was only in the making. Trade was in a refreshing state of simplicity, although there seems to have been no lack of vigorous enterprise conducted under adverse conditions. The sparse population, devoted to agriculture, was sufficiently occupied with the exigent duty of subduing nature, and politics were abandoned practically to those who made office-holding a profession. Then, as always hitherto in Canada, the lawyers, doctors and other fairly cultured classes monopolized the government prizes. The forms of constitutional rule existed; yet practically the representatives of the people were chosen from an extremely limited circle; and the legislature, after all, exercised but little control upon public affairs. The early settlers, many of whom were tolerably educated, having been officers in the army and navy, or the sons of U.E. Loyalists, mainly gentlemen in the conventional sense, assumed the leading places, and filled all the lucrative offices as a matter of prescriptive right. The Governors naturally depended on them for counsel and support, and, in return, rewarded them lavishly with such gifts as were at the disposal of the Crown. It is easy to cast reflections now upon a state of things which was then more or less inevitable. The country as a whole had not yet been aroused to political activity, and it was certainly better that the country should be ruled by an oligarchy than not ruled at all. On the whole it was well governed, and with the exception of some personal grievances, as well as a few glaring instances of personal aggrandizement at the public expense, there is not much fault to be found with the regime preceding the war.


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