Fathers of Confederation

[George Brown’s decisive speech to the Great Reform Convention of 1859, urging the convention to adopt resolutions in favour of federalizing Upper and Lower Canada, under “some joint authority” to govern matters common to both. By pushing divisive issues down to the local governments, Brown argues Canada can “terminate the strifes of race and creed that almost threaten us with civil war.” Urging his party to stick to its great cause of constitutional reform, Brown declares: “Men die and go down to their graves and are not missed, but principles live forever.” At this milestone in his campaign for constitutional reform, Brown looks ahead to Confederation and the possibilities of a new Canadian nation: “Now, Sir, I do place the question on the ground of nationality. I do hope there is not one Canadian in this assembly who does not look forward with high hope to the day when these northern countries shall stand out among the world as one great confederation.”]

Hon. GEORGE BROWN, who, as several previous speakers had risen, had been loudly called for, now came to the stand and was received with loud and long continued applause. He said:

In rising, Mr. President, to close this most interesting debate, I must first congratulate the Convention on the gratifying results at which we have arrived. (Loud cheers.) When did it ever before occur that so large an assembly of prominent men were brought together from all sections of such a widely extended country – men actuated and animated by all the varied opinions and interests of a self-governed people – and displayed such cordial agreement of sentiment and of purpose? When before has such a debate been carried on for two days by such an assembly with such entire good feeling and courtesy? (Loud cheers.) Has one ungenerous expression been heard from any speaker from first to last? (“No, no.”)

The country was appealed to to send here gentlemen of all opinions on the great question of the day – to send them unfettered by conditions, free to speak their minds – and the appeal was nobly responded to; we have gentlemen here representing every view of the case entertained throughout the country – all have had an opportunity of declaring their opinions – and what is the result? A most remarkable, a most gratifying unanimity. (Cheers.)

First we have arrived unanimously at the conclusion that the present system of government ought no longer to be maintained – that the legislative union with Lower Canada ought to be dissolved. There is not one dissentient among us as to this, that come what may hereafter, Upper Canada will not consent to the continuance of the present state of things. (Loud cheers.) Had we agreed to no more than this, I maintain that this Convention would have been a great success – for at least we could all have united in a common agitation for the overthrow of the present system and in the discussion of what was best to take its place.

But our unanimity has by no means stopped here. We have recorded our unanimous conviction that one of the proposed remedies for our state evils – the double majority – is not a satisfactory remedy. We all agree to that. (Cheers.) Nor does our unanimity stop here.

We have also declared that necessary as written constitutional restraints on the borrowing and expenditure of money undoubtedly are in any change to be made, yet that alone would not remedy the evils we labour under. And even here our unanimity does not end.

A favourite remedy with many persons throughout the country has been a federal union of all the British North American Colonies; but after mature deliberation, this assembly has arrived at the conclusion that this would be no present remedy for our present difficulties.

So far there is entire harmony among us. We are all prepared to act cordially together in the political arena for these several positions. (Cheers.)

The whole question is thus narrowed down to the one proposition yet left to be decided – shall we demand dissolution with Lower Canada pure and simple,[1] or dissolution as regards all local affairs, but with a central government to regulate interests necessarily common to both? This, Sir, is the one sole point of difference to be found in this vast assembly – and it is very material to observe that deeply as our decision upon it may influence the results to flow from our proceedings, yet both proceed directly in one direction – we all concur heartily in dissolving the connection with Lower Canada so far as regards all local and sectional affairs; we merely differ as to those affairs that are necessarily common to both Provinces. (Cheers.)

Now, Sir, I am persuaded that if I can obtain the attention for a short space of our friends who advocate total dissolution – if I can get them to look at the question, not as one of theory but of practical statesmanship – if they will consider it not as argued throughout the country from a local but from a Provincial point of view – I am persuaded that while we may still retain our separate views as to what would be theoretically best, we shall notwithstanding arrive with the same unanimity as on the previous resolutions, at that which is best to demand as an attainable remedy. (Cheers.)

There is one thing, Mr. President, that cannot be too deeply impressed on this assembly and on the country – and that is, that whether we adopt dissolution or federation, we have a serious task before us to accomplish. (Hear, hear.) We have our political opponents to consider to some extent; we have our friends in the eastern section of Upper Canada to carry with us; we have Lower Canada to deal with; and the Imperial Government must finally approve. (Hear, hear.)

In entering on such a struggle then, would it not be true wisdom to look at the difficulties before us, and avoid raising unnecessary obstacles in our own way? – would it not be wise to content ourselves with demanding a change that secures the essential remedy of our grievances, rather than risk all by demanding the full adoption of what, from our standpoint may appear theoretically best, but which raises hostility not existing towards the milder remedy? (Cheers.) It is a very simple process to argue – “from our connection with Lower Canada our most serious evils have arisen – therefore let us cut off that connection root and branch” – but something beyond this is to be considered.

Now, there is my friend Mr. Lesslie. He comes on this stand, and with all the weight of his old experience and consistency as a politician, says he thinks simply dissolution the best remedy; but the mode of carrying it, he says, he has not considered, and cannot pretend to discuss. Now our friend, Mr. Lesslie, has been out of public life for several years, he has retired upon his well-earned wealth to his country seat, where he enjoys himself to his heart’s content, while others have been spending their strength for the country night and day. (Hear, hear.) On more than one occasion, when we have been hard pushed for an available candidate, I have gone to Mr. Lesslie and said, “You are a man of wealth, leisure and popularity – here is a constituency that will be glad to have you – come then and help us in the Legislature?” What has been invariably his reply? – that he would not go into public life, that he preferred his comfortable retirement.

Now he has spoken in favour of dissolution, he is about to vote for dissolution – but has he calculated the effect of that motion if carried, and is he prepared to come out of his retirement and help to work it out on the floor of Parliament? My friend Mr. Lesslie speaks to us from his snug retreat in the country – but there are many members of the Legislature here to-night who speak from the field of battle, who thoroughly understand the materials of which the Legislature is composed, and there is not one of them who will not tell you that it would be cause of deep regret were this Convention to declare for entire dissolution of the Union.

I mean not to say that in the opinion of all of us, dissolution is not theoretically the best remedy – but I do say, that the members of the Parliamentary Opposition who support the present movement unanimously advocate the scheme reported by the committee as the best practicable position for the Liberal party to occupy in view of all the circumstances. (Cheers.) Those who might prefer dissolution, are willing to accept the plan before us as a large instalment of their demands.

For myself, Mr. President, while I heartily prefer the main motion to the amendment, I have no morbid terror of dissolution – the bug-bears that have been raised about it do not frighten me – and were it carried tomorrow, I have no fear that the people of Upper Canada would ever desire to become the fag-end of the neighbouring republic. (Cheers.)

Looking at all the circumstances, at all the difficulties to be encountered, I think it clearly demonstrable that the whole of us, dissolutionists as well as Federalists, should unhesitatingly accept the proposition submitted by the committee on resolutions as the only one we can adopt with reasonable hope of early success. (Cheers.) It must be remembered that the vote about to be taken is not to affirm what each member of this Convention would individually like to see carried out – but what would be best and safest for the great Liberal Party to adopt as the ground work of united action. (Hear, hear.)

I rejoice that the dissolutionists have been so well represented here to-day; I rejoice they have stated their case so ably and fully; so far from injury resulting from our disagreement on this point, it cannot but give strength to our demand for the proposition of the Committee, that there are those behind us who, while willing to accept it, are desirous of a change much more radical. (Hear, hear.) We will be in apposition to tell our friends of Lower Canada, in the debate, and to tell the British Government – “Don’t fancy that we are the extreme people we are represented – there are thousands of energetic intelligent men in Upper Canada, who are but half satisfied with this moderate demand, and who, in case you reject our proposal will insist on something much less palatable to you.” (Cheers.)

Sir, I cannot but think that the friends of dissolution have hardly done justice in their speeches to the proposition of the Committee. They have asserted that under its operation the extravagance of the Government would be as great as it is now. If that were possible, I for one would go dead against it. It has been asserted that all the corruption and demoralization existing now, would under the proposed scheme of the Committee, exist still. If that were possible, I am persuaded that every member of the Opposition would go dead against it.

Unless the scheme we are prepared to bring before the country can be so framed as to effect a thorough cure of the evils we now deplore – not one of us would accept it. Dissolution – anything – rather than remain as we are now! (Cheers) But I think it clearly evident that the scheme of the Committee carries with it all the advantages of dissolution, without its disadvantages.

What is it that has most galled the people of Upper Canada in the working of the existing Union? Has it not been the injustice done to Upper Canada in local and sectional matters? Has it not been the expenditure of Provincial funds for local purposes of Lower Canada which here are defrayed from local taxation? Has it not been the control exercised by Lower Canada over matters purely pertaining to Upper Canada – the framing of our School laws, the selection of our ministers, the appointment of our local officials? Has it not been that the minority of Upper Canada rule here through Lower Canada votes – that extravagant expenditures are voted by men who have not to provide the means – that fresh taxes are continually imposed by those who have not to pay them? (Cheers.)

Now, sir, can it be denied that the scheme of the Committee strikes at the root of all these grievances? In the first place, all local and sectional matters are to be left to the localities, and to be defrayed from local funds (hear, hear); those of a general character, and those only, are to be left to the general government. And the matters assigned to the general government are to be clearly defined – not left to doubt, not left open to future encroachment.

Now, will not this remove the chief sources of complaint? Will it not put an end at once to the interference of Lower Canada in our local affairs? – will it not put an end for ever to Lower Canada works being built with Upper Canada funds – to Lower Canada farms being purchased with Upper Canada money? – will it not terminate the strifes of race and creed that almost threaten us with civil war? And if the general government shall be absolutely forbidden to borrow money without a vote of the people, (Cheers,) or to levy more taxes than the annual necessities of the State and the gradual reduction of the public debt shall require – will not that remove the imminent peril of financial embarrassment that now hangs over us?

Undoubtedly the safety of the scheme depends very much on the duties which shall be assigned to the general government. It would be folly for us at this stage of the agitation to attempt to define dogmatically those duties – but I may be permitted to express an individual opinion that these should be as few as absolute necessity requires. (Cheers.) The collection of revenue to meet the necessary expenditure of the general government and the interest and the sinking fund of the public debt – the management of the Post-Office – the control of the navigation of the St. Lawrence from Lake Superior to the Gulf – and the enactment of common commercial and criminal laws would, I apprehend, embrace the main if not the sole duties entrusted to the central government. It has been said that the management of the Crown Lands might be added – but against this I would resolutely protest. (Cheers.) There can be no reason why Lower Canada should not manage her own lands and leave us to dispose of ours.

One great argument used against the scheme has been its assumed expensiveness – but if it is carried out in its integrity as proposed, it will be infinitely less costly than the present system. Were it necessary, I might readily name a few items of the present expenditure for local purposes on which an annual saving to Upper Canada would at once be made, far exceeding the entire cost of the general government. (Hear, hear.)

And this fact can never be lost sight of in the argument – that the scheme of the committee would secure us free access to the Ocean, and every facility for trading with Lower Canada – while Dissolution would place us in both respects, to a certain extent, at the mercy of Lower Canada. Are you content to hand over to Lower Canada the entire control of the St. Lawrence – to have custom-house officers stopping our railroad cars and our steamers at certain points on their downward journey and overhauling all the passengers as if entering a foreign country? (Hear, hear.)

Oh, said one gentleman, there is no fear of that – Lower Canada understands her true interests better than to throw any obstacle in the in the way of free commercial intercourse. Can we be so certain of that as to risk yielding up our present rights? How many years did the American States fail to see the advantages to them of Trade Reciprocity? Even to this day, is a British bottom allowed to pass through the Erie Canal? One gentleman cited as an argument in favour of entire Dissolution, that we could then abolish customs duties in Upper Canada – but would Lower Canada, if separated from us, adopt such a policy? – and if not, how should we be situated with a high tariff in Lower Canada and no duties here? The whole valley of the Ottawa – the whole district of country from Glengarry to Kingston is supplied with merchandise from Montreal, and sells there its timber and produce in return. Do you fancy you can satisfy the people of that vast section of country that it would be well to cut off that trade in one day? Is it not clear that unless you secure the continuance of that traffic on the same footing as heretofore, you at once raise a barrier to your obtaining the consent of that section of Upper Canada to the changes we demand?

You all heard what Mr. McDonald and Mr. McBain said on this subject, and it has yet to appear that there is one man in the Convention from east of Kingston who would prefer a dissolution, pure and simple. And the reason is perfectly plain. Their business is with Montreal, and dissolution would cut them off from the market where they buy their goods and sell their produce. Oh, but, said a dissolutionist, that difficulty can be provided for by an arrangement as to commercial matters. Oh, said another, the Imperial Government will control that. Nay, even my friend Mr. Sheppard talked of a Zollverein to regulate internal commerce.

Now, Sir, I do think these admissions cover all we ask. (Hear, hear.) What is the General Government proposed for matters “necessarily common to both sections,” but an arrangement for commercial interests – what is it by a species of Zollverein such as Mr. Sheppard suggested? (Hear, hear.) Will the Convention notice that not one speaker in favour of Dissolution has failed to recognize the necessity of some power to settle difficulties which may hereafter arise between the two countries?

Now, if there must be such a power, is it not preferable that the people of Canada should themselves control that power? Is it not clear that we must either do it ourselves r let England do it for us? – and have we cause to be so enamoured of Downing-street rule as to be willing to transfer to a Colonial Minister, in office to-day and out to-morrow, what we can far better execute ourselves? (Cheers.)

Again, Sir, even Mr. Sheppard admits that, if the question is placed on the ground of nationality, he must go for Federation – but a Federation of all the British North American Colonies. (Hear, hear.) Now, Sir, I do place the question on the ground of nationality. I do hope there is not one Canadian in this assembly who does not look forward with high hope to the day when these northern countries shall stand out among the nations of the world as one great confederation. (Cheers.) What true Canadian can witness the tide of immigration now commencing to flow into the vast territories of the North-West, without longing to have a share in the first settlement of that great and fertile country – who does not feel that to us rightfully belongs the right and the duty of carrying the blessings of civilization throughout those boundless regions, and making our own country the highway of traffic to the Pacific? (Cheers.)

But is it necessary that all this should be accomplished at once? Is it not true wisdom to commence the federative system with our own country, and leave it open to extension hereafter, if time and experience shall prove it to be desirable? Shall we not thus have better control over the terms of the confederation, than if all were made parties to the original compact? And how can there be the slightest question with one who longs for such a nationality, between complete dissolution and the scheme of the Committee? (Hear, hear.) Is it not clear that the former would be a death-blow to the hope of future union, while the latter might, at some future day, readily furnish the machinery of a great confederation? (Cheers.)

But, Mr. President, it appears to me there is another strong argument in favour of the scheme of the Committee. One gentleman who spoke in favour of Dissolution, rested his chief objection to the other plan on the ground that it would entail the overthrow of the British constitutional system in Canada. Now, Sir, were the Dissolutionists, present or absent, to be asked whether they would be satisfied with dissolution and the continuance of the present system of government in Upper Canada when separated – what would be their reply? Assuredly that they would not be content – that they want a written constitution in regard to the whole machinery of government, and stern responsibility to the Law for every State Functionary. But is such a system compatible with any other than an elective head? Could an appointed Governor be part of such a system? Would not the cry be raised against it, that it severed the connection between Canada and the mother country? (Hear, hear.)

Now, Sir, the scheme of the committee is not open to this objection. It permits of the establishment of a purely elective system for the local governments – and an appointed representative of the Crown to preside as head of the general government. (Hear, hear.) I by no means admit that British connection might not be fully maintained even were the Governor General elected by the people of Canada. Such a system has been known to British Colonies ere now, and may very possibly be again – but of this I am very certain that few persons in Upper Canada would view without regret its introduction at present here; and were it otherwise, with our present enormous debt it would be utter madness to risk assuming a position which might entail upon us new and serious responsibilities. (Hear, hear.)

Mr. President, there are many other suggestions that might be adduced in favour of the main motion, did time permit of their discussion – but if all were to fail, there is one argument which, it appears to me, should be final and conclusive with every man in this assembly. The present Parliamentary Opposition began with a few members on the floor of the Assembly – it has gradually gathered strength and influence, until it now assumes the magnificent dimensions we see before us this night. (Cheers.) We have now an Upper Canada majority in the Assembly and a vast majority in the country – but this point has not been reached without much toll, much endurance, and I warn you to beware lest by your vote of this night you dissipate the work of many years. (Cheers.)

I offer no threat – nothing could be further from my thoughts – I heartily endorse what fell from a previous speaker, that men die and go down to their graves and are not missed, but principles live for ever. But it is my duty respectfully to say to this assembly, that if the resolution reported by the Committee is adopted, there is every probability that the Parliamentary Opposition will stand shoulder to shoulder almost unanimously in its advocacy; but that if Dissolution is adopted, we will be divided, our Upper Canada majority will be gone, and the present ministers unrestrained for two years more to come. (Cheers.)

A VOICE – Every speaker said that he would be bound by the decision of the Committee.

Mr. BROWN – I think my friend is mistaken. I do not think every speaker made such a pledge – and if he had, perhaps his constituents might not endorse it. Let me assure the Convention that it has not been without labour and concession that a near approach to unanimity has been obtained in the Upper Canada Opposition, and that for Dissolution it would be at present impossible. And it is not only in Upper Canada that a decision for dissolution would affect us.

In Lower Canada, our friends have already spoken out in favour of just such a scheme as that reported by the Committee, and if it is adopted we will have a united party from both sections of the Province cordially contending for its adoption – a party for the first time cordially cooperating. (Cheers.) Nay, if I am rightly informed, there are five French Canadian newspapers advocating Federation, but not one in favour of Dissolution. (Hear, hear.) I am very far from agreeing with a speaker who said that our friends in Lower Canada were an insignificant minority. I cannot believe that were a fair appeal to the people obtained such men as Dorion, and Holton, and Dessaulles, and Drummond, and McGee and Papin, and Sanborn would fail to obtain a verdict from Lower Canada against such men as Cartier and his colleagues. There is every reason to believe that a general election, come when it may, will show very different results in Lower Canada, as well as here, from what we witness now. (Cheers.)

The question then for our friends who advocate Dissolution to consider is this – will you accept the scheme of the Committee and secure all but unanimity, or will you insist on Dissolution with the certainty of splitting up your party? (Hear, hear) Will you accept a remedy that essentially meets the disease, or will you let the ravages of the disease proceed unchecked rather than accept any remedy but your own? I do not ask any gentleman to abandon his convictions. The dissolutionists may be right in principle, and we may be wrong – but assuredly under all the circumstances there can be no room to doubt that the measure which promises unanimity should be heartily accepted by us all. (Cheers.)

Will gentlemen bear this in mind, that ere the work is accomplished, the whole matter must be often and again argued before the public – that a matured scheme must be submitted to the people ere it can be adopted. If then the details should not prove satisfactory – if they carry not with them all the benefits of dissolution, there will be ample opportunity for criticism and amendment.

Sir, I do feel that serious responsibility rests on every person present as to the vote he is about to give. It is not the part of wisdom to refuse to look at difficulties, when the abandonment of principle is not at issue. There is no question here of giving up a principle – we are all agreed as to the principle, the only doubt is as to the best mode of effecting what is sought.

One word more and I have done. There are three motions before the chair. One for dissolution so far as local affairs are concerned, with a general government for matters common to both Provinces. The second is for absolute dissolution. The third strikes out a middle course, and while endorsing dissolution for local matters, seeks to confine within the narrowest limit the scope of the general Government.

Now, Sir, I do think that this last amendment of Mr. McDougall affords room for an honourable compromise by all parties, and for one I am prepared to accept it. (Loud cheering.) The case was very fairly put by Mr. McDougall, who was at one time a dissolutionist, but after weeks of examination came to the conclusion that the other was the right remedy to be demanded. I intreat the friends of dissolution to consider whether in view of all the circumstances they will not accept the proffered compromise, and enable us all to arrive at a unanimous conclusion.

(The hon. gentleman sat down amid loud applause.)

Mr. SHEPPARD said that, as the mover of the second amendment, he had been appealed to and asked whether he would not withdraw it. It was to answer that appeal, and not to intrude upon the meeting another speech, that he had stepped upon the platform. The wonder was that after all the beating of the last four or five hours there was still life left in him to say something in reply, if an opportunity had been afforded him. (Laughter.)

The amendment moved by Mr. McDougall was regarded by many as a compromise which could be honourably accepted. He (Mr. Sheppard) did not profess to say that it was altogether as satisfactory as he could have wished it, and that it did not imply in any respect a concession which the advocates of Dissolution might be unwilling to make. On the other hand he felt it might subject them and others who had stood by him in this contest to a charge of stupid obstinacy if he did not listen to the appeals which had been addressed to him, if he did not say, so far as he was concerned, that he and Mr. Lesslie and others around him were entirely in the hands of their friends in the body of the hall. (Cheers.) If his amendment could be put aside, and Mr. McDougall’s accepted without any compromise of principle on their part, he believed they were willing to make the concession. (Cheers.) If no imputation is cast upon us of having advocated a principle, and then thrown it away, we are willing to surrender our particular proposition and to accept the proposition of Mr. McDougall. Our desire being that the action of this Convention shall be such as to produce party unanimity and party strength. (Loud cheers.)

The CHAIRMAN – I am sure we must all feel that the gentleman who has just left the platform has behaved in a most candid and handsome manner, and shown that he has the interests of his country truly at hear. (Cheers.)

Mr. McDougall’s amendment was then put to the meeting and carried almost unanimously, only four hands being raised in the negative. The sixth resolution was also put and carried.

Mr. BROWN hoped that gentlemen would remember that the business of the Convention was not yet finished, and that none would leave who were not absolutely compelled, that they might meet to-morrow, to get these resolutions embodied in a shape to put before the Legislature, and to commence the organization of the party.

Three cheers were then given for Her Majesty the Queen, and the Convention adjourned till Friday morning at nine o’clock.

[1] George Sheppard, an editor of the Globe, had moved an amendment to the fifth resolution, in favour of dissolving the Union of the Canadas: “Resolved,  – That in the judgment of this Convention, a totally unqualified dissolution affords the most simple and efficacious remedy for the prevailing administrative evils, which flow from the legislative union of Upper and Lower Canada.

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