[A major speech given in the aftermath of Brown’s two-day government of 1858, outlining the negotiation with Lower Canada’s Antoine-Aimé Dorion leading to Canada’s first government pledged to constitutional reform. In return for representation by population, Brown agrees to “constitutional checks, constitutional protections” for Lower Canada’s special interests and institutions, an important step toward Canadian federalism.]
Defending his often combative approach to politics, Brown declares: “I might have announced general principles, and spoken in soft language to the end of time, and made no progress, but when I went straight to the mark and said to the evil doer, “Thou art the man,” then progress was made; and painful to me, deeply painful, as have been many of the scenes through which I have had to pass, I hold all as repaid, all as justified, by this one fact, that in five years I have been able to construct the strongest administration ever offered to the country, and that administration pledged to settle finally the great questions of sectional strife for the removal of which alone I entered Parliament.”
BROWN said: I have very often had occasion to meet my fellow-citizens in such assemblages as this, but I never came to any similar meeting with so clear a conviction as I have this night, that I am entitled to look my country men fearlessly in the face, and claim their full approval for every public act I have performed, for every position I have taken since I was returned by you last winter triumphantly to parliament. If there is one single act of my life above all others for which I am prepared to claim credit at the hands of the people of Canada, it is the part I have taken in the startling transactions of the last few days—it is for the bold stand I and my colleagues have just made in attempting to resist what I shall frankly characterize as a deliberate plot against the liberties of the people. I have come before you to-night in order that no time may be lost in placing the whole facts connected with the construction and fall of my administration clearly before the people, and that the taunts and injurious insinuations which have been directed against the conduct of myself and my colleagues may at once receive that complete and conclusive denial which we are able to give them.
But before proceeding to narrate recent transactions as they occurred, I desire to carry the minds of the audience back to the time of the general election, and to trace up events from that date to the present, that it may be clearly seen how the recent ministerial crisis arose, and the manner in which it was met. When I had the honour to be returned as the senior representative of the city of Toronto at the last general election, you will recollect that the invitation to me to become a candidate was the spontaneous act of the electors, and that the requisition bore an array of names far exceeding in numbers and influence? any that had ever appeared attached to a similar document in this city. This strong expression of confidence from my fellow-citizens was undoubtedly in a great measure intended to strengthen the hands of the opposition – was intended as a protest against the administration of the day, against their denial of representation by population, their extension of sectarian schools, their extravagance and corruption, against the enormous additions to the public debt, and the alarming increase of taxation.
You will also well recollect that the opposition contended that the cure for these evils was to find some common basis of legislative and administrative action on which the affairs of t he country could be carried on, without those constant appeals to sectarian and sectional feelings which had been the rule up to this time. And you will recollect that we contended that unless some such common basis were soon found, national bankruptcy must be the inevitable result. We showed that by the existing see-saw system of setting one section against the other and governing through their divisions, our public men were being demoralized, and losing the confidence of their constituents: the men in power for the time being regularly betook themselves to corruption, to a reckless use of the Crown patronage, to an extravagant and corrupt expenditure of the public money to buy up supporters in parliament and to mollify people out of parliament, and all for the noble end of keeping themselves in office.
One more trouble was this, that in regard to our school system we were threatened with its complete destruction by the growth of separate sectarian institutions grafted on the system – an evil which struck at the root of national education, and which it was feared would go on from year to year, till at last, by its wasteful expense and its weakening effect, the overthrow of the whole national school system would result. In common with my party, I urged that the only cure was to sweep away those sectarian schools altogether, and have one system which would be accessible to all classes alike, which would respect the religious feelings of all, and would do equal justice to all. You will recollect that, in addition to these views, we of the opposition demanded that a system of thorough retrenchment should be applied to the public finances; that the enormous expenditure should be cut down; that the hordes of public employees, brought into the public service for no other reason than that they were the dependants or relatives of the men in power, should be thinned, their salaries reduced to a proper scale of remuneration, and that stringent economy should be applied to every other part of the public service. On these and many other questions I raised distinct issues, and you endorsed my position by triumphantly electing me your representative.
The same feeling manifested in Toronto swept over Upper Canada. Few candidates dared to go to the polls with a doubtful sound on any of these questions. Three cabinet ministers who made the attempt lost their elections; and when the House met, the majority of the Upper Canada representatives were found firmly associated together in opposition, demanding a fair and final settlement of the differences between Upper and Lower Canada; while many on the treasury benches were found very heartily with us in their consciences, but unhappily willing to let principle rest rather than risk the loss of office for their party. Notwithstanding their defeat in their own section of the province, Mr. John A. Macdonald and his colleagues proceeded to carry on the executive and legislative business of Upper Canada by his large majority of Lower Canadian representatives, but in direct defiance of the recorded votes of the Upper Canada majority. To have men in power dispensing the patronage of the Crown, controlling the executive machinery, and guiding the legislation of Upper Canada – men whose conduct had been condemned at the polls by the people they pretended to govern – was a new and strange spectacle in our legislature, and one that created much dissatisfaction in both sections of the province.
In general legislation we had the same absence of principle, the same wasteful legislation, the same tying up of the members on the part of the administration as in the previous parliament. They were supported by a large majority from Lower Canada, and on that majority their tenure of office depended. But in opposition we had arranged a small but noble band from Lower Canada, with my valued friend Mr. Dorion, at their head, who stood out against wrong and injustice in every shape. Many of you, I have no doubt, have been within the halls of the legislature, and you must, I think, be ready to acknowledge that the opposition at least did their duty to the country; that if the administration did succeed in carrying many bad Acts, it was not without vigilant watching and earnest protest across the House. True, it has been charged against us that we wasted the public time; but I confidently affirm that not an hour was thrown away, and that the whole unnecessary delay which took place arose from the utter incapacity of the administration, from their knowledge that the moral strength was with us, and their dread to face the ordeal which all their measures had to pass. Though they were in office for years, I think it was the 42nd day of the session before one of the measures mentioned in the speech from the throne was laid on the table of the House. Only a few came then, and it was 50, 60, 80, 100, and even 110 days after the opening of the session before some of the government bills named in the speech from the throne were introduced. Indeed, one of the most important of them, the Crown Lands Bill, had not received a second reading at the end of five months. It was entirely with the administration that the delay took place, and not with us.
We might, however, have gone on for some time without being able to shake the solid phalanx of Lower Canadians that sustained the administration; but disclosures, in the recollection of you all, were made early in the session that not only shocked the people out of doors, but even touched the members of the House. I allude to the startling frauds that had been perpetrated by ministerial candidates at the general election. It was dragged to light that the poll books in many constituencies had been falsified; that large numbers of names had been fraudulently recorded after the polls were closed; that a cabinet minister and two other gentlemen were returned for one constituency by 15,000 false votes fraudulently recorded, and that not fewer than 32 seats were claimed from the sitting members on the grounds of fraud, violence or corruption. A partisan Speaker, entrusted with dangerous powers by the election law, and an unscrupulous majority, enabled the administration and their supporters speedily to dismiss nearly the whole of the petitions against the seats of their friends. The petition of the electors of Montreal against the return of Solicitor-General Rose, and the petition of the electors of Verchères against the return of Attorney-General Cartier, and many similar petitions, were at once disposed of by the Speaker, on some frivolous objection to the wording of a recognizance, and all the parties continued in their seats. Mr. Fellowes was declared duly elected by 320 false names of professed citizens of Rome, Albany and Troy, in the state o New York, fraudulently recorded, though with all these votes counted he had but 14 of a majority over his opponent. And the three members for Quebec have been allowed to this hour to discharge the full duties of representatives of the people by virtue of 15,000 false votes.
The strength of the opposition gradually increased, until at last ministers were defeated on an important part of their financial scheme for the year. They did not resign in consequence of that vote, but a few days later came a blow they could not evade. They had been trying to equivocate on the subject of the seat of government. One member of the cabinet said they were going to Quebec; another said they were going to Montreal; and a third said they were going to Ottawa; and you could not find what really was the policy of the government, if they had any. But at last they came out and stated definitely that they intended to carry the public departments permanently to Bytown; that Bytown should be the future seat of government of united Canada.
I held then, as I hold now, that until the great constitutional questions of this union were decided; until we knew distinctly whether the difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada could be overcome; until we saw what was to be the permanent future constitution of this country, it was not expedient to incur the enormous expense of a million of dollars and more for public buildings at a place to which we might never go.
At a meeting last night, Mr. Hillyard Cameron stated that I had insulted Her Majesty because I had voted that Bytown should not be the seat of government. Do you think Her Majesty cares a straw where the seat of government of Canada is fixed? People prate about our insulting the Crown because we speak out what nine-tenths of the whole people think; but do you ever hear from such people anything about insulting the people? If ever an insult was given to a people it was when the legislature and government of Canada declared that the Canadian people were unable to settle for themselves where their seat of government ought to be, and that they must go to a colonial minister three thousand miles off, who never had his foot on Canadian soil, to settle it for them under back stairs advice.
I voted against that reference; I used every influence to prevent so ungracious a task being thrown on the Imperial government; I urged that they should not act upon the reference; I declared that the people would not abide by their decision if the place selected were unacceptable; and I unhesitatingly voted against Bytown because I felt that the permanent establishment of the government there, and especially at this moment, would be consonant neither with the wishes of the people nor the welfare of the country. The first thing in my consideration was the interests of the whole people of Canada, and not servility to Mr. Labouchère or any other colonial minister. I yield to no man for a single moment in loyalty to the Crown of England, and in humble respect and admiration of Her Majesty. But what has this purely Canadian question to do with loyalty? It is a most dangerous and ungracious thing to couple the name of Her Majesty with an affair so entirely local, and one as to which the sectional feelings of the people are so excited.
Well, the government were defeated on their declared policy of carrying the government to Bytown, and well knowing that a more damaging vote awaited them the following day, Mr. Macdonald and his colleagues placed their resignation in the hands of the Governor-General, who was pleased to accept the same. Immediately on the resignation of his advisers, His Excellency tendered to me, he was pleased to say, as “the most prominent member of the parliamentary opposition,” the duty of forming a new administration. I am fee to say now, as I have said always, that elevated and honourable – far beyond any merits or expectations of mine – as is the office of Prime Minister of this great country, it is a position I have never sought, and would most joyously have declined when tendered to me.
I came into parliament, after eight years of public life, with a full knowledge of the constitutional and social difficulties that marred the harmonious working of the union. I was thoroughly convinced that unless a basis of legislative and administrative action could be found, just to both sections of the province, but removing from the political arena those fertile sources of sectional and sectarian strife that separated the two races and the two provinces, our national animosities would increase from year to year, until at last the national fabric would be rudely rent asunder; and I entered parliament with a settled determination to grapple with those great evils, and devote my whole energies to their removal. From the first moment I proposed those remedial measures, which I have never ceased to urge up to this very moment, I defy all my opponents to show that for one day, or in one vote, or in one speech, I have swerved from the point at which I aimed.
And to those who demur to the bold manner in which I pursued my purpose, and the strong language that I have been at times compelled to use, I would simply urge in palliation that a desperate disease needs vigorous treatment; and that when you have bands of violent opponents, and your views are held to be utterly out of reason, you must speak freely and boldly if you mean not to be crushed. I might have announced general principles, and spoken in soft language to the end of time, and made no progress, but when I went straight to the mark and said to the evil doer, “Thou art the man,” then progress was made; and painful to me, deeply painful, as have been many of the scenes through which I have had to pass, I hold all as repaid, all as justified, by this one fact, that in five years I have been able to construct the strongest administration ever offered to the country, and that administration pledged to settle finally the great questions of sectional strife for the removal of which alone I entered parliament.
In carrying on the struggle I never thought of personal advancement; I cared nothing as to who should settle the vexed questions; all I sought was to urge their settlement on the public mind until somebody must do it; and it was little to me that, in urging the cause forward, by my bold tone I left behind me men personally inimical to myself, though compelled to acknowledge my policy. The constant taunt, therefore, of the last two or three years – “He can’t form a ministry” – was no taunt to me at all. I did not desire to form a ministry, or to be part of any ministry, but to see the great disturbing questions of my country settled, and then retire to private life. It was not that I doubted my ability to succeed if the opportunity was offered, but much rather would I have seen some other gentleman of the same principles called in my place, and right heartily would I have laboured outside to aid him in his work.
But this I could not conceal from myself, that those who had influenced my being called in to form a government were under the fullest conviction that I could no more undertake the task than any gentleman in this room. They had not the slightest doubt that, within an hour of the time when I might make the attempt, I would break down, and that the old set of incapables would be brought back at once with flying colours. That was the undoubted expectation; it was in the mouth of every man on the other side of the House of Assembly. Had I then stated to His Excellency that I would not undertake the task, corruption would have been fixed in power more sturdily than ever, and my opponents would never have ceased to throw my failure in my teeth. They would have said, and said with plausibility: “You profess that your views are the only correct ones; you have all along claimed that if your party only had the chance of forming a government you could carry out your principles; you have now had a chance; you have not succeeded; give up your position; no longer continue to do dog-in-the-manger policy, neither doing the work yourself nor letting us do it.”
The case was clear; no alternative was open to me but to accept the task, if I was able to accomplish it. I did undertake the task. I told the Governor-General I would see my friends immediately, and consult them on the subject. I called a meeting of my friends from Upper Canada in the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, and with one accord, without a dissenting voice, they, with a kindness I will never forget, gave me their cordial and generous support, assuring me that they would stand heartily by me whatever might ensue, in the full conviction that I would stand by my principles and never desert them.
The next step was to invite Mr. Dorion to aid me, as leader for Lower Canada. For four years I had acted with that gentleman in the ranks of the opposition, had learned to value most highly the uprightness of his character, the liberality of his opinions, and the firmness with which he carried out his convictions. On most questions of general public policy we heartily agreed, and regularly voted together; on the questions that have divided all Upper Canadians from all Lower Canadians, alone we differed, and on these we had held many earnest consultations from year to year with a view to their removal, and not without arriving at the conviction that when we had the opportunity we could find the mode.
Mr. Dorion met me with that frankness I anticipated from him. He at once expressed his willingness to aid me, provided we could come to an understanding on the old points of difference. Mutual friends were called in, grave deliberations were held, and at last we arrived at a groundwork on which we considered we could mutually uphold our principles honourably and consistently, and accept the task of forming a government pledged to the settlement of those great grievances which had for so many years distracted the province.
What, then, was the basis of our argument? I will tell you; there is no secret about it, none whatever; and, as you will see, all the statements that we have given up our principles are utterly without foundation.
Mr. Dorion’s first question to me was, “What are to be the principles of the administration?” I said to him, “Mr. Dorion, you can understand that I can form no administration in which the question of representation by population is not directly meant.” Mr. Dorion replied, “I have always admitted, and no person can deny, that population is the only just basis of representation in a popular government, but” he added, “this country is peculiarly situated; we are two races; we have two languages; and my countrymen in Lower Canada are very much alarmed that if representation by population were adopted, Upper Canada might obtain an overwhelming preponderance of representation over them; that the whole of our institutions would be swept away, and the people of Upper Canada would rule us with a rod of iron. For myself,” he continued, “I do not participate in these alarms. I think we French Canadians will always be able to hold our own under equal advantages with our British fellow-subjects. I admit, moreover, that the large votes which have been recorded by the representatives of Upper Canada in favour of representation by population compel us to meet the question, or run the risk of evils coming upon the country far greater than we now endure. I admit that we cannot have peace till this question is settled, and I am prepared to meet it fairly and endeavour to settle it. But then,” he went on, “to guard my people in Lower Canada, constitutional checks, constitutional protections, must be granted for our local institutions, in some such manner as under the Union Act.”
I said at once, “I am perfectly willing to agree to any reasonable protections for local interests; the people of Upper Canada desire no advantage over the people of Lower Canada. All we ask is justice; all we ask is that the province shall not be one for purposes of taxation and two for representation; our whole demand is that the same number of electors in Upper Canada and Lower Canada respectively shall return a representative to parliament. We want no advantage whatever over Lower Canada, but we will not submit to the unfair disadvantage now existing. Give us representation by population, and let it by all means be accompanied by every reasonable protection for your local interests and for ours.”
Earnest discussions followed as to the character of the desired protections and the mode of securing them, whether by a written constitution proceeding direct from the people, or by a Canadian Bill of Rights, guaranteed by Imperial statute, or by the adoption of a federal union, with provincial rights guaranteed, in place of the legislative union that now exists. We had little time to arrange details, and if we had, out of office as we now are, it would be unreasonable to expect that we should disclose them for the benefit of our opponents. It is sufficient that I say to you that we found the strongest reason to believe that we could mature a measure, acknowledging population as the basis of representation, that would be acceptable to both sections of the province; and this measure we pledged ourselves to lay before parliament at its next assembling, and to stand or fall by it as a government.
The next question that came up was that of the seat of government. I said then, as I say now, that the seat of government should be a ministerial question, and should not be left a matter of local contention. I stated to Mr. Dorion that I was willing, along with our measure to settle the vital constitutional questions to which I have referred, to bring down a bill for the settlement of the permanent seat of government as a ministerial question, and to stand or fall by it as part of our policy.
The next question that came up was that of education. Mr. Dorion asked, “What do you propose on that?” I said, “I want of course that the common school system of Upper Canada shall be made entirely uniform, and that all the children, of whatever denomination, shall come into the same school-room, sit at the same desks, grow up hand in hand, and forget those sectarian animosities that now form the greatest obstacle in the way of our progress as a people.” And what was Mr. Dorion’s reply? He said, “Undoubtedly, Mr. Brown, these are most desirable ends; but we cannot conceal this from ourselves, that the Catholics are a very large and influential portion of the people of Upper Canada; that they now number greatly over two hundred thousand; that they hold that religion should be the basis of all education; and that they contend that the present national system does not admit of that.”
I endeavoured to show that our Upper Canada system was based upon the broad principles of revealed religion and morality, and I claimed that we, as Protestants, held as strongly as men could hold that religion was the true foundation of education and of every man’s act. “But,” I went on to argue, “there is this difference between us; we of Upper Canada hold that while it is desirable that religious truth should be instilled into the child, that religious instruction should go along with secular, we hold also with equal firmness that the state should not give that instruction, and, amid the endless sectarian divisions among us, could not give it – could not step beyond the elements of religious truth, without getting into a sea of sectarian differences utterly inconsistent, and assuming a right in matters of conscience that in no manner pertains to it. We hold that the state should only give secular instruction, and that the parent and the church should give religious instruction.”
I went on to contend that separatism for one church could not exist without separatism for all churches, and that, with separatism for all, the national system must be broken up, and ignorance prevail among the masses. But, I continued, it is of the utmost importance that in making the system uniform, it should be rendered as acceptable as possible to all denominations; and if you can show any way in which, without deviating from principle, facilities can be given to the clergy of all denominations for the religious instruction of the children, I am prepared to agree to it. I am prepared to give every possible guarantee that the religious feelings of no child should be interfered with by the teacher, or in the contents of the school books, and if the clergy are willing to give religious instruction to the children of their several flocks, a certain number of hours on so many days of the week, or a certain day in each week, might be fixed on which the children should be discharged from school, and instructed to attend the religious instruction of their pastors.
Another suggestion was made. Why, it was suggested, should not a settlement of this fertile cause of discord be found by engrafting on our school system some of the modifications of the Irish national schools? That system, it was urged, was recognized by Protestant and Catholic alike to be admirably adapted for a mixed population, because, while it acknowledged the primary principles of Christianity, no sectarian dogmas were allowed to intrude. These schools were now attended by many hundred thousand children of all denominations; and if, by the adoption of the best portion of that system, it might reconcile all differences, and entirely do away with the desire for separate schools, why should it not be done?
My reply was, “I am not intimately acquainted with the details of the Irish system, but I know that the Presbyterians of Ulster, and the Church of England in Ireland, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, do unite in sustaining that system; we know also that the great mass of the south of Ireland, Roman Catholic and Protestant, are being educated under it; every one acquainted with the modern history of Ireland admits the satisfactory results which have flowed from it. And I am prepared, therefore, to say that I will go with you into a full and generous consideration of that system, with a view to the introduction here of such modifications from it as will bring in all denominations in hearty support of the national schools of Upper Canada; this investigation to proceed forthwith, and the bill founded upon it to be a government measure, by which we should stand or fall.”
But one other sectional problem remained to be solved – the final settlement of the seigniorial tenure question of Lower Canada. My friends Mr. Dorion and Mr. Drummond contended that the government and legislature of Canada were pledged to complete the abolition of the tenure, and bound to find the means declared by their own statute to be necessary to that end. I demurred; I contended that this was a local matter, with which we in Upper Canada had nothing to do. But let me say frankly, that I would have been ill-content that the limited sum alleged to be required should stand in the way of the final removal of sectional strifes, which are entailing on the country every year, in corruption and extravagance, vastly more than the whole demands of the censitaires. Fortunately, that option was not required. We considered earnestly how the money could be obtained, and I am happy to say several modes were found by which the end could be attained without injustice to Upper Canada. We were prepared to grapple with that question satisfactorily so soon as it presented itself.
Now, I have put before you the whole story from beginning to end, without evasion, without varnish; and I fearlessly ask you, did I abandon my principles? I appeal to you if the measures here traced in outline, if carefully matured, would not have removed, in a great measure, the animosities between the two sections of the province, would not have infinitely lessened the grave difficulties which have distracted our country; and whether on this platform all could not have united, Upper and Lower Canadian, French and British, Protestant and Catholic?
But let it not be thought that our whole policy ended here. Coupled with these measures, we were prepared to initiate a system of rigid economy; we proposed to reorganize the public departments, and to set ourselves with earnest determination to consolidate the public debt, collect the public arrears, and reduce the burdens of the people. We were prepared to consider anxiously by what means reciprocity could be extended with the United States, and the markets and the ports of the great republic be thrown open to our manufacturers and our ships. At the time of the last election, I had no idea of the state in which the public finances were; I had no idea that the extravagance was so monstrous, or that the danger to our public credit was so alarming as it is. To bring the finances into a proper state was a task from which the boldest might have shrunk; but it was one to which, from the very outset, we were prepared to apply ourselves.
The principles and measures of the administration satisfactorily arranged, we soon found that the difficulty was not to find gentlemen from Lower Canada prepared to enter a cabinet with that dreadful George Brown in it, but the difficulty was to make room for the capable men whom we desired to have with us, and who were willing to come; and if the vote which followed our inauguration was joined in by not a few we were unprepared to find in it, we have reason to attribute that fact to other reasons than hostility to our principles.
In a very short space of time the cabinet was completed; and I hesitate not to repeat that, for talent and business capacity, and political influence in the country, it has not been surpassed, if it has ever been equalled, by any government in the history of Canada. I need say nothing of the Upper Canada section. Our fiercest opponents have not dared to question the capacity of a ministry which included the names of Messrs. Sandfield Macdonald, Mowat, Connor, Foley, and Morris. The only cause of regret – and of deep regret to me – was that I was forced to omit from the list the names of several firm friends who were entitled equally with ourselves, by their ability and long service to the cause, to be included in the arrangements; and I shall remember to the end of my life the kindness and generosity with which those friends voluntarily requested me to forget all personal considerations, and to think only of what would conduce to the best interests of the country.
As regards Lower Canada, the personnel of the government was to the full as satisfactory. My opponents have indeed preferred the charge, that my alliance with the gentlemen of Lower Canada was but one of those unworthy coalitions that I have so strongly denounced in others; that all our opinions were antagonistic; that office was our sole bold of union. I utterly deny the charge; nothing could be more unjust. On the contrary, I say that never were twelve leading politicians brought together under such circumstances, so naturally and consistently, as were the gentlemen who formed the late cabinet. For five sessions of parliament
Mr. Dorion, as the leader of the Lower Canada opposition, and myself as a prominent member of the Upper Canada opposition, had sat side by side, working cordially together so far as sectional differences would permit, and not concealing them, but attempting to remove them. Rarely did I draw a motion which was not shown to him first for his advice, and as uniformly I think did he the same to me. We never rose to vote without knowing beforehand how the other should go, and striving if possible to be on the same side. We had a perfect knowledge of each other’s views on all political questions, and the journals of the House will show that for every division in which we stood apart, there were many in which we were found together, and in all the time never did one harsh word pass between us. On the general policy of the country, on measures affecting the whole province, on questions of commerce, of finance, or retrenchment, of departmental organization, and on all questions of reform and progress, you who witnessed the debates in the galleries must have seen that Mr. Dorion and myself almost entirely agreed, and with a unanimity rarely witnessed in opposition. The only questions on which we disagreed, as I have said, were those on which all Upper Canadians differ from all Lower Canadians.
A cabinet better fitted to do the work it had under taken could not possibly have been imagined, and its thorough capacity was undoubtedly the very thing that so aroused the dire alarm of the old place-holders, and drove them to those fierce measures of hostility which will live on record to their disgrace.
Now, gentlemen, I have told you how we got into office; let me tell you next how we got out. On Saturday morning I waited on the Governor-General, and informed him that, having consulted with my friends, and having obtained the aid of Mr. Dorion, I was prepared to undertake the task of forming a new administration. I have no doubt that up to this moment every person connected with the late government, outside and within, felt absolutely certain that I must fail, and that I and my friends must return to our seats and become the butts for their wit during the remainder of the parliament. But in proportion to the confidence of their anticipations, was their indignation and disappointment when they found out their mistake. During the day negotiations went on, and when Saturday night arrived the success was established – the government was formed.
On Saturday night I parted with Mr. Dorion, with the understanding that the new government should meet on Monday morning, and on Sunday it was known over town who were to compose the new ministry. At nine o’clock on Sunday night, learning that Mr. Dorion was ill, I went to see him at his apartments at the Rossin House, and while with him the Governor’s secretary entered and handed me a dispatch. No sooner did I see the outside of the document than I understood it all. I felt at once that the whole corruptionist camp had been in commotion at the prospect of the whole of the public departments being subjected to the investigations of such a second Public Accounts Committee. I comprehended at once that the transmission of such a dispatch at such an hour could have but the one intention, or raising an obstacle in the way of the new cabinet taking office, and I was not mistaken.
The contents of Sir Edmund’s memorandum are before the country, and I will venture to assert that the document is without a parallel – that nothing so indefensible was ever directed by the representative of the Crown to one charged with the formation of a responsible cabinet under a British parliamentary constitution. We have all heard of Sir Francis Bond Head’s high-handed proceedings; but in his days there was no pretension to responsible government – the system was an oligarchy. We have heard, too, of Sir Charles Metcalfe’s doings; how, to carry his personal point, he dismissed his cabinet while commanding large majorities in both Houses of Parliament; but I apprehend there was nothing in Sir Charles Metcalfe’s first movement at all approaching in wrongful assumption, or in danger to the rights of the people, this attempt of Sir Edmund Head to lay down conditions precedent, to enforce a stipulation as the price of office on men constitutionally summoned to advise the Crown.
His Excellency is the representative of Her Majesty in this province, and it is my duty as a subject of Her Majesty to speak of her representative with all due respect; but I would not be true to you or to the cause I represent did I hesitate to explain the whole transaction, and to show you that throughout it all my colleagues and I sought only to maintain the rights and liberties of the people, and that the course we took was the only course open to us. What right had the Governor-General to lay down conditions, on which only I would be allowed to assume office? What right had he to settle beforehand the measures that must be taken up or laid aside? Why insult us by inviting us to become the constitutional advisers of the Crown, if we were only to execute his mandates? And why lead us to believe that we had his whole confidence, that we should enjoy all the influence to which men in our position were entitled, and then at the close of four days’ negotiations, on the very eve of being sworn in, throw this missile of war at our heads?
From the moment I read His Excellency’s dispatch, I felt that I would be a traitor to my own position and to the rights of the people, if I submitted to enter office shackled by any stipulations whatever imposed upon me by the Crown. I felt that I could only accept office with the full powers of Prime Minister, or not accept it at all. I felt that my submission in this case might be a precedent for worse concessions by other ministers hereafter. I felt that I ought not to go into office shackled by any conditions: that after going in, it was my duty to advise His Excellency on all public affairs, and if he refused my advice, at once to retire. I resolved that the Governor-General’s memorandum must be met at once and by myself, without reference to my colleagues, and very early on Monday morning I sent this note to His Excellency:
“Mr. Brown was the honour to acknowledge receipt of His Excellency the Governor-General’s note of last night, with accompanying memorandum. Before receiving His Excellency’s note Mr. Brown had successfully fulfilled the duty entrusted to him by the Governor-General, and will be prepared, at the appointed hour this morning, to submit for His Excellency’s approval the names of the gentlemen whom he proposes to be associated with himself in the new government. Mr. Brown respectfully submits that, until they have assumed the functions of constitutional advisers of the Crown, he and his proposed colleagues will not be in a position to discuss the important measures and questions of public policy referred to in His Excellency’s memorandum.”
This was the only manner in which I could meet His Excellency’s memorandum, and it was for him now to break off the negotiations if he had not entire confidence, and was not prepared to give us all the support that other men in our position had at all times received. He gave no such intimation – he admitted that the position I had taken was the truly constitutional one.
At half-past nine on Monday morning I met my colleagues and read to them His Excellency’s memorandum and my answer to it. With one voice they said I had taken the only course open to me with honour, and they cordially endorsed what I had done. We then sat down deliberately to consider what was the object in sending such a document at such a moment, and what course it was our duty to pursue. We came unanimously to the conclusion that it was written purposely to raise a bar in the way of our accepting office, and that the paragraph in regard to dissolution was the one on which issue was expected to be raised. It ran thus: “The Governor-General gives no pledge or promise, express or implied, with reference to dissolving parliament. When advice is tendered to His Excellency on this subject he will make up his mind according to the circumstances then existing and the reasons then laid before him.”
Now, what need was there for this instruction? Whoever thought of demanding any such pledge? It was time enough when the necessity arose for us to demand a dissolution, and for His Excellency to assent to or refuse our demand. Clearly the expectation was, that the moment we read that warning sentence we could get alarmed and post down to Government House and demand a promise that if we could not command a majority in the present House we should have an immediate dissolution. And why did you not do so? asked Mr. John A. Macdonald yesterday in the House of Assembly. Well he knew why; well he knew that such a demand would have been utterly unconstitutional; and well he knew that he was standing ready to raise the cry of “The prerogative in danger!” the moment we should do it.
Let us suppose that before being sworn in we had gone to the Governor-General and demanded a dissolution, what would his answer have been? He would of course have answered in the words of his letter, “I cannot pledge myself; when the case arises I will hear your arguments, and judge from them.” And then suppose we had answered, “That will not do; we must either have a distinct pledge or we won’t accept office.” What then? Only this, that we would have been out of pain at once, and we must have risen that night in the House and declared that we were called to form a government – that we did form one and a powerful one – but that the Governor-General would not pledge himself to a dissolution, and we therefore declined to be sworn in.
Only fancy then the triumph with which Mr. John A. Macdonald would have risen! “What!” he would have exclaimed, “not content without your great powers as advisers of the Crown, would nothing serve but to tear from His Excellency’s hands the prerogative of his royal mistress? You would not consent to be sworn in, forsooth, until you bound the Governor-General hand and foot to dissolve parliament! Before the necessity had arisen – without the facts before him, without any knowledge of what changes might arise in the meanwhile – he must pledge himself, at all hazards and in all events, to dissolve the legislature at your bidding! Did he not promise you his whole confidence, the entire authority of men in your position? Did he not promise to receive and consider your advice when the necessity for dissolution arose? Ah! It is clear you felt your government impossible, and you took this means of evading the task you have always been telling us you were prepared to undertake!”
No, gentlemen, we knew our position better than to make such a mistake as this; we were not willing that the Governor-General should encroach on our domain, but we were quite as unwilling to encroach on his. And besides our general knowledge of what our proper course should be, there was one notable circumstance that prevented our falling into this particular snare. In 1843, precisely the same trap was set by the astute hand of Mr. Wm. H. Draper for Messrs. Baldwin and Lafontaine; and in consequence of its success, the liberal party were kept five years out of power. It was rather too much to expect that such a game could be played twice with effect; no one but the original author of the device could possibly have fancied so.
Let me state the case of 1843. Messrs. Baldwin and Lafontaine learned by accident that Sir Charles Metcalfe had made an important appointment without consulting them. They properly deemed this in direct hostility to constitutional government; and they waited forthwith on the Governor-General and told him so. He refused to yield, and they declared they could not retain office without a change in this matter. They resigned; Sir Charles called Mr. Draper to his counsels, and raised the cry of the prerogative. In his explanation to the House of Assembly, the Governor-General thus stated the case: “On Friday Mr. Lafontaine and Mr. Baldwin came to the Government House, and after some other business, and some preliminary remarks as to the cause of their proceeding, demanded of the Governor-General that he should agree to make no appointment, and no offer of an appointment, without previously taking the advice of his council.” . . . In other words, that the patronage of the Crown should be surrendered to the council…The Governor-General replied that he would not make any such stipulation, and could not degrade the character of his office, nor violate his duty, by such a surrender of the prerogative of the Crown.
Gentlemen, we had those words fresh in our memories, and we perfectly understood how they could be made to apply to us, if we asked a pledge of a dissolution. We had a salutary recollection of the long years of misrule that resulted from the trick of 1843, and we were willing to risk our being turned out of office within twenty-four hours, but we were not willing to place ourselves constitutionally in a false position. We distinctly contemplated all that Sir Edmund Head could do and that he has done; and we concluded that it was our duty to accept office, and throw on the Governor-General the responsibility of denying us the support we were entitled to, and which he had extended so abundantly to our predecessors. True, we might have declined office without an explanation, but we all felt, I believe, that this would have been very injurious to our position before the country, and that no option was left, consistent with our dignity and the interests of the public, but to be sworn in.
I need not tell you that we had not taken possession of the council chamber an hour, when the war commenced against us. The late ministers had telegraphed all over the country for their friends; a special train was run on Sunday over the Grand Trunk to bring them up in time; and the Governor-General’s name was freely used in assuring certain members that if the new government were voted down from the start there would be no dissolution of parliament, but let them get over the session, and that dread alarm of such a House, a dissolution, was inevitable. With the ten ministers absent from the House, and many of our friends away unsuspicious of so unprecedented a proceeding, a vote of want of confidence in the new government was immediately moved at the instigation of the late ministers, and sustained, I need hardly remind you, by these gallant gentlemen with dastardly assaults, false and fierce, against absent men. No doubt we will live to repay them, but I trust in more many fashion.
The following morning the cabinet advised a dissolution. His Excellency demanded reasons in writing. They were furnished; our advice was refused, and we instantly resigned. Not in a hundred and fifty years of English history, nor in the whole history of Canada, can a single case be found in which men in our position were refused a dissolution. When His Excellency called on me to form a government, well he knew that I was in the minority of the House, and that I had so assailed the electoral frauds by which so many of the members were returned, that it was next to impossible to proceed without a general election. Why then expose us to the mockery of a hollow invitation?
And why not say frankly at once that he would not grant a dissolution?
If a designed intention had existed to get the leaders of the opposition out of the House, and then pass the numerous obnoxious bills before parliament, no more direct way could have been taken than that followed by His Excellency. And to cap the climax of the affair, on dismissing our government, he sent for a gentleman – and he a Lower Canadian – to form a new one who had not and never had one follower in the House, and who was only known to public life as the author of the famous Grand Trunk prospectus, offering 11 ½ per cent. dividend to all who were fortunate enough to get shares!
I submit to you that a grievous wrong has been done throughout this matter, and I ask you if you will not show your condemnation of such work by returning me again with an overwhelming majority? I ask you if the government I formed ought not to have had a fair trial; that at least we should have had time to appear in our seats to vindicate our policy: and if so, I urge you to put all your hands to work, and we will get another and better opportunity ere many months elapse. In one way this strange crisis has done great good; we have found a method of settling the differences between Upper and Lower Canada; we have formed a strong party in opposition, in both sections, on the basis laid down by the late government; and when parliament meets a few months hence, the effect will soon be shown.
Gentlemen, I had a great deal more to say, but I am exhausted with heat and recent indisposition, and I can proceed no further. I shall address you many times in the course of the election contest, and it only now remains for me to thank you very cordially for your kind attention.