Munk Senior Fellow Alastair Gillespie, who leads the MLI Confederation Project, explores how leading statesmen from 1865 articulate the political challenges they grappled with. George Brown argued that Confederation would resolve many of the serious injustices that people faced.
By Alastair C. F. Gillespie, February 6, 2015
The Hon. George Brown, President of the Council, today delivered his speech in support of confederation, on the third day of debate on the resolutions to unite British North America. Bearing the marks of a man accustomed to years of opposition, Mr. Brown pitched confederation as the remedy for “evils” done to Upper Canada he has long been powerless to clear away. “I cannot help but feeling that the struggle of half a life-time for constitutional reform… the strife and the discord and the abuse of many years are all compensated by the great scheme of reform which is now in your hands.”
Mr. Brown opened with a jab delighting supporters, discomfiting his coalition colleagues. Macdonald and Cartier claimed the roots of confederation lay in their policy of 1858, and Brown regretted the “mysterious plant” was only now “forced to fruition.” There was laughter at this uncomfortable moment, for members know the justice of Mr. Brown’s complaint. It was Mr. Brown who ground the Union into crisis, his constitutional committee recommended federation the day the last government fell. It was Mr. Brown at the committee’s first meeting who famously locked the door, saying “now gentlemen, you must talk about this matter, as you cannot leave this room without coming to me.” Absent his offer to support any government pledged to constitutional change, the Great Coalition would not exist, and confederation would not be practical politics today. “For myself, sir,” said Mr. Brown, “I care not who gets the credit of this scheme.”
Confederation would end sectional discord, by banishing divisive questions to the new local legislatures, and removing the temptation to exploit local prejudice from national politics.
Mr. Brown warned the assembly of “perilous consequences” if confederation is not carried, and soon. “The constitutional system of Canada cannot remain as it is now. Something must be done. We cannot stand still. We cannot go back to chronic sectional hostility and discord – to a state of perpetual Ministerial crisis. The events of the last eight months cannot be obliterated… the claims of Upper Canada for justice must be met, and met now.” Mr. Brown’s voice is still surprising to hear from the government benches, and it is noteworthy he still speaks largely from an Upper Canadian point of view. If confederation cannot be carried for all of the colonies, Mr. Brown has extracted a promise of federation for Canada alone.
Next Mr. Brown surveyed the injustices confederation will remedy, a catalogue of Upper Canada’s complaints. Each relates to the difficulty of reconciling two popular wills in the machinery of a single state: “We in Upper Canada have complained that the minority of our representatives, the party defeated at the polls of Upper Canada, have been year after year, kept in office by Lower Canadian votes.” Representation by population would answer the “thousands of disfranchised freeholders of Upper Canada demanding justice at our hands.” Confederation would end the Union’s financial injustice, Upper Canada paying the bulk of the taxes, the proceeds being spent elsewhere. Confederation would end sectional discord, by banishing divisive questions to the new local legislatures, and removing the temptation to exploit local prejudice from national politics. “Here is a people composed of two distinct races, speaking different languages… with a Constitution so unjust in the view of one section as to justify any resort to enforce a remedy. And yet, sir, here we sit, patiently and temperately discussing how these great evils and hostilities may justly and amicably be swept away forever. We are endeavouring to adjust harmoniously greater difficulties than have plunged other countries into all the horrors of civil war.”
Mr. Brown outlined the compromises needed to secure these vital reforms, arguing confederation was “necessarily the work of concession.” Some objected to regional equality in the new upper house, but it was the “express condition” on which representation by population in the lower house was granted: “there was but one choice open to us – federal union or nothing.” Others objected to guarantees for minority education rights, the local legislatures being refused unfettered power. Mr. Brown said he supported common schools, believing parent and pastor the best religious instructors. He believes in separation of church and state, and did not wish to see the country “studded with nurseries of sectarianism.” However, he accepted the education guarantees as a “necessary condition of the scheme of union.” These were important admissions for Mr. Brown, whose career has hardly been characterized by conciliation. When Mr. Brown said no scheme could be carried “that has not the support of both sections of the province,” George- Étienne Cartier exclaimed, “There is the question!” Surely this was a good omen for the new confederation.
Such has been the journey of George Brown, from governmental impossibility to instigator of coalition, from regional opposition to national power.
For when Mr. Brown turned to the advantages of union, his tone markedly changed, from indignant regional leader to citizen pondering a national future. Union will “raise us from the attitude of a number of inconsiderable colonies into a great and powerful people.” We will “command a degree of respect and influence that we never can enjoy as separate provinces.” Union will give us a great common market and throw down barriers to trade between the provinces, making “a citizen of one, citizen of the whole.” Union will give Canada a seaboard at all seasons, and make us the third maritime state of the world. Union will give a new start to immigration, and secure the common defence. Some might live to see the day Mr. Brown said, “when a great and powerful people may have grown up in these lands – when the boundless forests all around us shall have given way to smiling fields and thriving towns.” Members of the new parliament “will meet at last as the citizens of a common country.”
Such has been the journey of George Brown, from governmental impossibility to instigator of coalition, from regional opposition to national power. The proposal he said was to “lay the foundations deep and strong of a powerful and prosperous people,” and “to set in motion the governmental machinery that will one day, we trust, extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” For long years Mr. Brown held it better to rule in opposition than to serve in government, largely because he could never make terms with French Canada. The irony is that his outsider path has been his slingshot to power, regional supremacy his entrance to the national stage. He and his newspaper have earned a controversialist reputation, ready to inflame any quarrel where others made peace. Yet if his methods have been troubling, it seems they were necessary, for true to the portion he is now the deliverance of the whole. Mr. Brown has had to break the Union before he could save it, and after years of antithesis, at last there is synthesis. Who may say now, that George Brown has not served his country well?
Alastair C.F. Gillespie, a Canadian lawyer living in London, U.K., is a Macdonald-Laurier Institute Munk Senior Fellow and leader of the MLI Confederation Project.