George Brown
Chapter III - Responsible Government


IN England, as well as in Canada, events were moving towards self-government. With the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 disappeared the preference to Canadian wheat. “Destroy this principle of protection,” said Lord Stanley in the House of Lords, “and you destroy the whole basis upon which your colonial system rests.” Loud complaints came from Canada, and in a despatch from Earl Cathcart to the colonial secretary, it was represented that the Catoadian waterways had been improved on the strength of the report made to Great Britain, and that the disappointment and loss resulting from the abolition of the preference would lead to alienation from the mother country and “annexation to our rival and enemy, the United States.” Gladstone, in his reply, denied that the basis of imperial unity was protection, “ the exchange, not of benefits, but of burdens the true basis lay in common feelings, traditions and hopes. The Globe held that Canada had no right to complain if the people of the United Kingdom did what was best for themselves. England, as an exporter of manufactures, had to meet competition at the world’s prices, and must have cheap food supplies. Canada had surely a higher destiny than to export a few hundred bushels of wheat and flour to England. Canadian home manufactures must be encouraged, and efforts made to obtain free trade with the United States. “The Tory press,” said the Globe, “are out in full cry against free trade. Their conduct affords an illustration of the unmitigated selfishness of Toryism. Give them everything they can desire and they are brimful of loyalty. They w ill shout pagans till they are sick, and drink goblets till they are bind in favour of ‘wise and benevolent governors’ who will give them all the offices and all the emoluments. But let their interests, real or imaginary, be affected, and how soon does their loyalty evaporate I Nothing is now talked of but separation from the mother country, unless the mother continues feeding them in the mode prescribed by the child.” Some tune afterwards, Lord Elgin, in his communications to the home government, said that the Canadian millers and shippers had a substantial grievance, not in the introduction of free trade, but in the constant tinkering incident to the abandoned system of imperial protection. The preference given in 1843 to Canadian wheat and to flour, even when made of American wheat, had stimulated milling in Canada; but almost before the newly-built mills were fairly at work, the free trade measure of 1846 swept the advantage away. What was wrong was not free trade, but Canadian dependence on imperial tariff legislation.

Elgin was one of the few statesmen of his day who perceived that the colonies might enjoy commercial independence and political equality, without separation. He declared that imperial unity did not depend on the exercise of dominion, the dispensing of patronage, or the maintenance of an imperial hot-bed for forcing commerce and manufactures. Yet he conceived of an empire not confined to the British Islands,*but growing, expanding, “strengthening itself from age to age, and drawing new supplies of vitality from virgin soils.” With Elgin’s administration began the new era of self-government. The legislature was dissolved towards the close of the year 1847, and the election resulted in a complete victory for the Reformers. In Upper Canada the contest was fairly close, but in Lower Canada the Conservative forces were almost annihilated, and on the first vote in parliament the government was defeated by a large majority. The second Baldwin-Lafontaine government received the full confidence and loyal support of the governor, and by its conduct and achievements justified the reform that had been so long delayed, and adopted with so many misgivings. But the fight for responsible government was not yet finished. The cry of French and rebel domination was raised, as it had been raised in the days of Governor Bagot. A Toronto journal reproachfully referred to Lord Elgin’s descent from “the Bruce,” and asked how a man of royal ancestry could so degrade himself as to consort with rebels and political jobbers. “ Surely the curse of Minerva, uttered by a great poet against the father, clings to the son.” The removal of the old office-holders seemed to this writer to be an act of desecration not unlike the removal of the famous marbles from the Parthenon. In a despatch explaining his course on the Rebellion Losses Bill, Lord Elgin said that long before that legislation there were evidences of the temper which finally produced the explosion. He quoted the following passage from a newspaper: “When French tyranny becomes insupportable, we shall find our Cromwell. Sheffield in olden times used to be famous for its keen and well-tempered whittles. Well, they make bayonets there now, just as sharp and just as well-tempered. When we can stand tyranny no longer, it will be seen whether good bayonets in Saxon hands will not be more than a match for a mace and a majority.” All the fuel for a conflagration was ready. There1 was race hatred, there was party hostility, there was commercial depression and there w as a sincere, though exaggerated, loyalty, which regarded rebellion as the unforgivable sin, and which was in constant dread of the spread of radical, republican and democratic ideas.

The Rebellion Losses Bill was all that was needed to fan the embers into flame. This was a measure intended to compensate persons who had suffered losses during the rebellion in Lower Canada. It was attacked as a measure for “rewarding rebels" Lord Elgin afterwards said that he did not believe a rebel would receive a farthing. But even if we suppose that some rebels or rebel sympathizers were included in the list, the outcry against the bill was unreasonable. A general amnesty had been proclaimed; French-Canadians had been admitted to a full share of political power. The greater things having been granted, it was mere pedantry to haggle about the less, and to hold an elaborate inquiry into the principles of every man whose barns had been burned during the rebellion. When responsible government was conceded, it was ad' mitted that even the rebels had not been wholly wrong. It would have been straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel to say “we will give you these free institutions for the sake of which you rebelled, but we will not pay you the small sum of money necessary to recompense you for losses arising out of the rebellion.”

However, it is easier to discuss these matters coolly in 1906 than it was in 1849, and in 1849 the notion of “rewarding the rebels” produced another rebellion on a small scale. A large quantity of important legislation was brought down by the new government when it met the legislature early in 1849, but everything else was forgotten when Mr. Lafontaine introduced the resolution on which the Rebellion Losses Bill was founded. In various parts of Upper Canada meetings were held and protests made against the measure. In Toronto the protests took the form of mob violence, foreshadowing what was to come in Montreal. Effigies of Baldwin and Blake were carried through the streets and burned. William Lyon Mackenzie had lately returned to Canada, and was living at the house of a citizen named Mackintosh. The mob went to the house, threatened to pull it down, and burned an effigy of Mackenzie. The windows of the house were broken and stones and bricks thrown nr. The Globe office was apparently not molested, but about midnight the mob went to the dwelling-house of the Browns, battered at the door and broke some w indows. The Globe in this trying time stood staunchly by the government and Lord Elgin, and powerfully influenced the public opinion of Upper Canada in their favour. Addresses calling for the withdrawal of Lord Elgin were met by addresses supporting his action, and the signatures to the friendly addresses outnumbered the other by one hundred and twenty thousand. George Brown, Col. C. T. Baldwin, and W. P. Howland were deputed to present an address from the Reformers of Upper Canada. Sir William Howland has said that Lord Elgin was so much affected that; he shed tears.

This is not the place, however great the temptation may be, to describe the stirring scenes that were enacted in Montreal; the stormy debate, the fiery speech in which William Hume Blake hurled back at the Tories the charge of disloyalty; the tumult in the galleries, the burning of the parliament buildings, and the mobbing and stoning of the governor-general.

Lord Elgin’s bearing under this severe trial was admirable. He was most desirous that blood should not be shed, and for this reason avoided the use of troops or the proclamation of martial law; and he had the satisfaction of seeing the storm gradually subside. A less dangerous evidence of discontent was a manifesto signed by leading citizens of Montreal advocating annexation to the United States, not only to relieve commercial depression, but "to settle the race question forever, by bringing to bear on the French-Canadians the powerful assimulating forces of the republic.” The signers of this document were leniently dealt with; but those among them who afterwards took a prominent part in politics, were not permitted to forget their error. Elgin was of opinion that there was ground for discontent on commercial grounds, and he advocated the removal of imperial restriction on navigation, and the establishment of reciprocity between the United States and the British North American provinces. The annexation movement was confined chiefly to Montreal. In Upper Canada an association railed the British American League was formed, and a convention held at Kingston in 1849. The familiar topics of commercial depression and French domination were discussed; some violent language was used, but the remedies proposed were sane enough; they were protection, retrenchment, and the union of the British provinces. Union, it was said, would put an end to French domination, and would give Canada better access to the sea and increased commerce. The British American League figures in the old, and not very profitable, controversy as to the share of credit to be allotted to each political party for the work of confederation. It is part of the Conservative case. But the platform was abandoned for the time, and confederation remained in the realm of speculation rather than of action.


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