How Canada’s creation changed the world

Posted on in Governance History – Full Comment
May 15, 2014.   F.H. Buckley

Canada had the good fortune to create its constitution at a time when the defects of the American constitution had become apparent. We are apt to forget this, and our modesty is an attractive trait when contrasted with American boastfulness. And yet our road to Confederation, the work of Canadians, was an event of world-historical significance. Our example of a peaceful accession to independence with a Westminster system of government came to be followed by 50 countries with a combined population of more than 2-billion people, and that is no small thing.

September 1, 1864 was a day of high excitement in Charlottetown, for Slaymaker and Nichol’s Olympic Circus had arrived, and the town’s 20 small hotels were full of people who had come to see the acting dogs and monkeys, Mlle Caroline (“maîtresse de cheval”) and Mr. John Allen, the “Celebrated Nestor and Wit Extraordinary.” No one paid much attention to a meeting of politicians from the Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, who themselves were eager to see the elephants.

Less attention still was paid to the 200-ton steamship that pulled into the harbor that morning, bearing with it two-thirds of the Canadian cabinet, for the surprise visitors were gatecrashers. With everyone else otherwise occupied, a lone provincial secretary rowed out in a bumboat to greet them. The Charlottetown conference had been called to discuss the union of the Maritime provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the Canadians dropped in to propose a union — which people were beginning to call Confederation — of all of the British North American colonies.

The Charlottetown conference had been convened by the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, Arthur Hamilton Gordon. As a youth, Gordon had been coddled by his father, Lord Aberdeen, and according to his admiring biographer was left with “personality defects that he never completely overcame.” He had, he confessed, “an excessive desire to be eminent,” and as he did not think he would achieve this in Britain he thought he might do so in the smaller pond of Canada.

After a desultory career as a backbench MP and minor diplomat (where he managed to snub the King of the Belgians), he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick in 1861. On arriving in Fredericton, however, he found the job less than rewarding. It was a bore to be surrounded by one’s inferiors; nor had he, in an era of responsible government, the political power his father had enjoyed as prime minister of Britain.

In 1860 New Brunswick had a population of 250,000, Nova Scotia 330,000 and little Prince Edward Island 80,000. Put them together, thought Gordon, and they might amount to something. They were dwarfed by Ontario (Canada West) with its 1.4-million and Quebec (Canada East) with its 1.1-million inhabitants, to say nothing of the 31-million Americans, but Gordon did not want his little backwater to be swamped by pushy Canadians and resisted anything more extensive than a union of the Maritime colonies.

For their part, Canadians were eager for the federal solution to which the awkward structure of their government inclined them. Lord Durham, who had proposed a federation of all of the British North American colonies, had hoped that French Canadians would be assimilated into the broader anglophone world that surrounded them. While that was not on the cards, the 1840 Act of Union gave anglophone Canada West equal representation in the House of Assembly even though it had fewer people than francophone Canada East. By the 1860s, however, this had been reversed, and the radicals of Canada West, not entirely free from anti-Catholic bigotry, demanded “representation by population” and an increase in the anglophone Ontario members of the Assembly. Francophones in Quebec stoutly resisted “rep by pop,” fearing that were it adopted French Canada would go the way of Louisiana, its language and institutions dissolved in an English sea. Equal representation in the legislature, which had been adopted to reduce French-Canadian political power, had now become a protection against shrinking francophone numbers.

The Act of Union also resulted in gridlock, as it became impossible to pass legislation without the support from both sections of the United Canadas. John C. Calhoun’s theory of “concurrent majorities,” rejected in the United States, was adopted in Canada to protect French Canadian institutions. A “double majority” from both Canada East and West was taken to be necessary to pass legislation, so that a majority in one section could always block a majority in the other section. Important legislation was held up, including an 1861 militia bill proposed to respond to the threat of an American invasion. To the great annoyance of Britain, which had sent 14,000 men to defend Canada, the Canadians could not agree to do what was necessary to defend themselves. This, thought the Anglo-Canadian intellectual Goldwyn Smith, was the real motive behind the desire for a new constitution. “Whoever may lay claim to the parentage of Confederation … its real parent was Deadlock.”

George Brown was a bigoted partisan and had little sympathy for French Canadians or respect for their religion

What was needed was a compromise, and this came in June 1864 when a Canadian coalition government adopted the principle of federalism as a way out, with rep by pop for the central government in Ottawa and provincial rights for a francophone Quebec. Federalism also offered a basis for a grand union of the British North American colonies, the Maritime colonies in the east, British Columbia in the west and between it and Ontario the vast Rupert’s Land of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the prairies and the North-Western Territories.

The great compromise was the work of Toronto reformer George Brown, the owner and editor of the Toronto Globe. Brown was a bigoted partisan and had little sympathy for French Canadians or respect for their religion. He also had an inflexible sense of political entitlement and a large capacity for moral indignation. Goldwyn Smith observed that “Of liberality of character and sentiment, of breadth of view and toleration of difference of opinion, no human being was ever more devoid” than Brown. Nevertheless, he had recognized the possibility of a grand bargain with the hated Tories, led by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, and the coalition they formed created the Canada of today. When the coalition was announced, French Canadian representatives gathered round Brown to embrace him, to his great embarrassment.

Like the Reform Baldwin-Lafontaine government of the 1840s, the Tory Macdonald-Cartier ministry was an Anglo-French partnership between the two sections of the United Canadas. Macdonald was a lawyer from Kingston, Ontario, and a political natural. Of him, Goldwyn Smith wrote admiringly that “the study of his life from his earliest years had been the manipulation of human nature for the purposes of party. In that craft he was unrivalled.” He had an infectious zest for life, and at age 71 rode 150 miles through the Rocky Mountains on the cow-catcher of a Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive, ordering the train to stop over a 300 foot trestle to admire the view of the torrent below.

He was also an alcoholic who in a crisis was apt to disappear into a bottle. In dismissing the Irish-Canadian Thomas D’Arcy McGee from his cabinet, he is supposed to have said “You’ll have to quit drinking, McGee. There’s room for only one drunk in this government.” He made no secret of his binges, and to a heckler who accused him of being drunk replied “Yes, but the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.” As indeed they did. People loved him for the evident delight he took in the simple tasks of politics, the hustings and the cabinet-making, and for his ready wit. To a woman who asked him how it was that he, a man, could vote, while she could not, he pretended to ponder and then replied “Madam, I cannot conceive.”

He was devoid of meanness and possessed gifts of friendship and empathy that Brown and the Reformers (now called Liberals or “Grits”) wholly lacked. One day in Parliament he met a Grit MP who had been seriously ill. “Davy, old man,” said Macdonald, “I’m glad to see you back. I hope you’ll soon be yourself again and live many a day to vote against me — as you always have done.” The sick man, who had been greeted curtly by the leaders of his own party, later recalled “I never gave the old man a vote in my life, but hang me if it doesn’t go against my grain to follow the men who haven’t a word of kind greeting for me, and oppose a man with a heart like Sir John’s.”

America’s Founding Fathers were children of the Enlightenment. The Canadians, on the other hand, were mid-Victorians, bred in the traditions of parliamentary government

Nothing could be more dissimilar than the way in which the Americans and Canadians made their constitutions. The Americans were children of the Enlightenment who debated the first principles of government before the stern eye of George Washington. The Canadians were mid-Victorians, bred in the traditions of parliamentary government, who read John Stuart Mill and The Economist. They did not aspire to begin the world anew, and did not think constitution-making inconsistent with an epic lark.

On their way to Charlottetown, the Canadians stopped in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to entertain the locals. There was a great feast in St. John, New Brunswick and a dinner and reception in the provincial capital of Fredericton. There followed a week in Halifax, with more festivities in Halifax, including picnics and a dance on the deck of HMS Duncan. Charlottetown was a series of banquets and balls. The French Canadians, whom the Maritimers were apt to find a little intimidating, put on a great show of bonhomie, singing À la claire fontaine and pretending to paddle voyageur canoes as they did so. The Canadians had brought with them $13,000 worth of champagne, and as they uncorked the bottles, said historian P.B. Waite, the road to confederation truly began.

National Post

Excerpted, with permission, from F.H. Buckley’s “The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America” (Encounter Books, April 2014). ©2014 by F.H. Buckley.

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