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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Sir Alexander T. Galt


SIR ALEXANDER TILLOCH GALT was a reservoir of ideas, a peerless exponent of finance and the first man to force Confederation into practical politics in Canada. As a father of protection, he penned a declaration of fiscal independence in 1859 which is one of the country’s steps in self-government. As the first Canadian High Commissioner in London, he blazed a new Imperial trail and proclaimed sentiments of loyalty which effaced the annexation ideas of his early manhood. Throughout his public career he was the champion of the Protestants of Quebec, and when he felt their rights were prejudiced he resigned as Minister of Finance in 1866. His constructive ability commanded general admiration, but fickleness and independence robbed him of the fame and influence he deserved.

Galt’s portly, erect form was familiar for a quarter century of public life, during which he counselled various leaders and supported different ministries, but he never lost the respect of the people. His was the generous, amiable personality of a robust, healthy man. He was a sincere and earnest speaker, with a well-modulated voice and an amazing mastery of facts, but he was not an orator. His diction was simple, without flowers of eloquence, but was rather the cold, colorless language of the economist.

Galt was essentially a practical man in politics. He left a successful business and put at his country’s service a financial expertness rare in public life. We think of Quebec as old and long settled, but Galt played a large part in colonizing the Eastern Townships in the ’thirties and ’forties of last century. His father, John Galt, the Scottish novelist, from whom he inherited his rich mental qualities, had preceded him in the land business, being the founder and Commissioner of the Canada Company, which colonized large tracts of the “Queen’s Bush” between Toronto and Lake Huron and founded Guelph and Goderich.

Alexander Galt was born in London on September 6, 1817, and came to Canada in 1834, as a junior clerk in the British American Land Company at Sherbrooke. He rose step by step until in 1844 he became Commissioner of the Company. He found its affairs in confusion, and by his ability and understanding brought them to order and prosperity. His business success attracted notice and in 1849 he was elected to Parliament for the County of Sherbrooke. He sat through the stormy session of 1849, when the Parliament Buildings in Montreal were burned, after the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill. This seemed to sicken young Galt of politics for the time, for he retired to private life.

It was in 1849 that a group of influential Lower Canadians issued a manifesto favoring annexation to the United States. A. T. Galt was one of the signers of this document. It is easy now to condemn such an extreme view of the country’s future, but Canadian prosperity was then endangered by the adoption of free trade by Britain in 1846, and Canadian pride was hurt by the indifference of British statesmen to their colonies. It was then the fashion in Britain to say the colonies cost more than they were worth. Galt was influenced, too, by a desire to secure relief from the domination of the Catholic Church.

During the next four years Galt became President of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Ry., extricated it from its difficulties by amalgamation with the Grand Trunk Ry., and participated in the construction of the Grand Trunk from Toronto to Sarnia. From 1852 to 1859 he was a director of the G.T.R. By 1853 he was back in Parliament, where he found scope for his talents in financial, trade and commercial questions. Upon the fall of the Brown-Dorion Government in 1858, Sir Edmund Head, impressed by Galt’s striking speech that year in favor of a federal union, asked him to form a Cabinet, but, realizing that his independent course, while spectacular, left him without a following, he declined. George E. Cartier, who was called on at Galt’s suggestion, took Galt as Minister of Finance, promising to adopt federal union as a Cabinet policy. The great issue of the time thus became a practical one.

Before tracing more in detail Galt’s contribution to Confederation, it is instructive to note his services in forming Canada’s financial policy. His first duty in taking office in 1858 was to restore the shattered finances of United Canada. Revenues were low and expenses high. It was his opportunity. Cayley, his predecessor, had been induced by Isaac 8uchanan of Hamilton, the leading figure in the Association for the Promotion of Canadian Industry, to give protection in the tariff to several manufacturing industries. Galt went farther in 1859 and raised the tariff from 15 to 20 per cent, on unenumerated articles. The object of this tariff, he told the House on March 18, was “to encourage the industrial portion of the community and to equally distribute the taxes necessary for revenue purposes.” He ridiculed the idea that British connection would be endangered, but before many months his policy had made trouble in the old country and in the United States. An American commission reported in 1860 that they were strongly impressed with the lack of good faith shown towards the United States by Galt’s policy, and Edward Porritt avers that feeling was so strong that even without the Alabama case, the St. Albans raid and other episodes, the reciprocity treaty would not have survived a day longer than it did.

If the United States was angry and retaliatory, the mother country was sullenly acquiescent. Sir Edmund Head, in forwarding the new tariff to the Colonial Secretary, was somewhat apologetic.

“I must necessarily leave the representatives of the people in Parliament,” he wrote, “to adopt the mode of raising supplies which they believe to be most beneficial to their constituents.”

Merchants of Sheffield protested against the new tariff and asked the British Government to discountenance it as “a system condemned by reason and experience.” The Duke of Newcastle, in forwarding the protest, regretted that the law had been passed, but sa.d he would probably have no other course than to signify the Queen’s assent to it. The Duke was right, as he was pointedly told by Galt in the return mail.

“The Government of Canada,” Galt wrote, “acting for its Legislature and people, cannot, through those feelings of deference which they owe to the Imperial authorities, in any measure waive or diminish the right of the people of Canada to decide for themselves both as to the mode and extent to which taxation shall be imposed. . . . Self-government would be utterly annihilated if the views of the Imperial Government were to be preferred to those of the people of Canada. It is, therefore, the duty of the present Government distinctly to affirm the right of the Canadian Legislature to adjust the taxation of the people in the way they deem best—even if it unfortunately should happen to meet with the disapproval of the Imperial Ministry. Her Majesty cannot be advised to disallow such acts unless her advisers are prepared to assume the administration of the affairs of the colony irrespective of the views of its inhabitants.”

Another important achievement by Galt at this time was the introduction into Canada in 1858 of the decimal currency system, which replaced the pounds, shillings and pence of the motherland.

There had been discussion of union of the British American Provinces for years, but Galt forced the issue by his speech in the Assembly at Toronto on July 6, 1858. He then outlined roughly the plan of union which was subsequently adopted. He declared that unless a union was formed the Province of Canada would inevitably drift into the United States. He saw merits in the union of the two Canadas, which had organized municipal government, settled the clergy reserves and seigniorial tenure questions, and made the Legislative Council elective. Yet the present Government, the strongest for several years, were unable to carry their measures. The present system could not go on, it was necessary to change the constitution, to adopt the federal principle. Questions of religion and race now promoted disunion. If they adopted the federal principle each section of the union might adopt whatever views it regarded as proper for itself.

Canada, he said, looking to the future, was the foremost colony of the foremost empire of the world. But in five months they had disposed of measures that should have been passed in as many weeks. They had not been able to take up the great subject of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and unless they extended themselves east and west and made one great northern confederation they must be content to fall into the arms of the neighboring federation. Was it nothing to them to control all this Hudson’s Bay territory? Such a thing was never known before that a continent ten times as large as Canada was offered to a state. He desired to see a wide and grand system of federation for the British North American colonies. He believed a universal desire prevailed that we should be no longer a colony—that we were fit for the dignity of nationhood. And to such an aspiration no bar was offered by the Imperial authority. He had no proclivities for office, he said. He only wished to see the necessary policy for the country adopted, and he would give his best support to any government who would carry out those principles.

Galt presented a resolution favoring federation, in part as follows:

“It is therefore the opinion of this House that the union of Upper with Lower Canada should be changed from a legislative to a federative union by the subdivision of the Province into two or more divisions, each governing itself in local and sectional matters, with a general legislature and government for subjects of national and common interest.”

He also proposed:

“That a general confederation of the Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island with Canada and the western territories is most desirable and calculated to promote their several and united interests by preserving to each Province the language control, management of its peculiar institutions and of those internal matters respecting which differences of opinion might arise with other members of the confederation, while it will increase that identity of feeling which pervades the possessions of the British Crown in North America.”

Strange to say, this clear-cut program attracted little notice at the time. George Brown said he preferred representation by population, but failing that he would take federal union of the Canadas. A little later Galt entered Cartier’s Cabinet, taking with him the policy of federation. Cartier, in announcing his Cabinet’s program, gave definite form to the policy when he declared:

“The expediency of a federal union of the British North American Provinces will be anxiously considered, and communications with the Home Government and the Lower Provinces entered into forthwith on this subject.”

At this time the climax of the deadlock had not been reached, but political rivalries and racial jealousies were fast bringing about an impasse. There were able men in plenty in public life, but the inequalities between Upper and Lower Canada were causing ill-feeling and anxiety, with no solution in sight. Cartier implemented his promise, and with Galt and John Ross went to England. Their memorandum to the Colonial Secretary, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, urged confederation on grounds peculiar to Canada and considerations affecting the interests of the other colonies and the whole empire. It referred to the demand for increased representation for Upper Canada, which had resulted in “an agitation fraught with great danger to the peaceful and harmonious working of our constitutional system, and consequently detrimental to the progress of the Province.” The memorandum set forth the desirability of uniting Canada, the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland, and added:

“The population, trade and resources of all these Provinces have so rapidly increased of late years, and the removal of trade restrictions has made them in so great a degree self-sustaining, that it appears to the Government of Canada exceedingly important to bind still more closely the ties of their common allegiance to the British Crown, and to obtain for general purposes such an identity of legislation as may serve to consolidate their growing powers, thus raising in the British Empire an important federation on the North American continent.”

Little encouragement followed this formal appeal. The Colonial Secretary showed no enthusiasm for the union, and writing a month later said the Imperial Government could go no further at present, as they had received a reply on the subject from only one Province.

Other events were to move the union scheme forward, and Mr. Galt found his opportunity first as a diplomat in arranging the coalition and afterwards as a Canadian delegate to the Charlottetown Conference. He was one of the Ministers to sail on the Queen Victoria, the ship of destiny freighted with the inarticulated hopes of a nation yet to be. Galt’s unique powers as an exponent of finance were never used to better advantage than here. At that momentous gathering, called to discuss “the reunion of the Maritime Provinces,” as Tupper had aptly phrased it, Galt made an impressive address.

“The financial position of Canada,” says John Hamilton Gray, the delegate-historian of the Confederation Conference, of Galt’s speech, “was contrasted with the other Provinces, their several sources of wealth, their comparative increases, the detrimental way in which their conflicting tariffs operated to each other’s disadvantage, the expansion of their commerce, the expansion of their manufactures, and the development of the various internal resources that would be fostered by a further increase of trade and a greater unity of interest, were pointed out with great power by Mr. Galt in a speech of three hours. Statistics were piled upon statistics, confirming his various positions and producing a marked effect upon the convention. It might almost be said of him on this occasion as was once said of Pope, though speaking of figures in a different sense:

“‘He lisped in numbers—for the numbers came.’”

From now on, for the next two years, Galt was a virile leader in promoting the cause of union. At the Quebec Conference he played an important part in finally adjusting the financial relations of the Provinces under the union scheme, a point which at one time brought deadlock and almost wrecked the convention. At a banquet during the Quebec Conference Galt prophesied great prosperity as a result of Confederation, pointing to the enormous free trade area of the United States as an object lesson in promoting commerce.

At Sherbrooke, on November 23 of the same year, in an important speech, Galt defended the union of 1841 as far as it had gone, and held that the concession of representation by population would be attended by a dangerous agitation. The Provinces of British North America, if united, he said, would form a power on the northern half of the continent “which would be able to make itself respected, and which he trusted would furnish hereafter happy and prosperous homes to many millions of the industrial classes from Europe now struggling for existence.”

“By a union with the Maritime Provinces,” he added, “we should be able to strike a blow on sea, and, like the glorious old mother country, carry our flag in triumph over the waters of the great ocean.” If Galt meant the creation of a Canadian navy or a Canadian wing of the British navy, history has shown him too optimistic on that one point. In this speech Galt also upheld the rights of the minority in education in all Provinces, rights which he said must be protected in the new constitution.

Mr. Galt made one of the important speeches during the Confederation debates in 1865, when in his thorough manner he discussed the economics of the situation. He quoted the trade returns of the various Provinces in 1863 as follows: Total exports and imports— Canada, $87,795,000 or $35 per head; New Brunswick, $16,729,680, or $66 per head; Nova Scotia, $18,622,359, or $56 per head; Prince Edward Island, $3,055,568 or $37 per head; Newfoundland $11,245,032 or $86 per head; a total of $137,447,567. These figures compared with the total trade of the Dominion of Canada of over two billion dollars in 1916—much of it, it is true, a forced development from the war—are a flashlight on the success which has followed Confederation, at least in that direction. Galt foresaw much of this growth and in a passage in this speech gave rein to his imagination:

“Possessing as we do in the far western part of Canada perhaps the most fertile wheat-growing tracts on this continent, in central and eastern Canada facilities for manufacturing such as cannot anywhere be surpassed, and in the eastern or Maritime Provinces an abundance of that most useful of all minerals, coal, as well as the most magnificent and valuable fisheries in the world; extending as this country does over two thousand miles, traversed by the finest navigable river in the world, we might well look forward to our future with hopeful anticipation of seeing the realization not merely of what we have hitherto thought would be the commerce of Canada, great as that might become, but to the possession of Atlantic ports which we should help to build to a position equal to that of the chief cities of the American continent.”

The spade work for Confederation in Canada had now been done, though much remained as yet to reconcile Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Galt had his part in the mission to London in 1865. All was then smooth, but in August, 1866, he startled the country by resigning as Finance Minister on the determination of the Government not to proceed with the Lower Canada education bill. This bill was promoted by the Protestant minority of Lower Canada, and the Roman Catholic majority would not permit it to pass unless a similar bill with reference to the Roman Catholic minority in Upper Canada was also enacted. John A. Macdonald, in voicing the Government’s position, said the policy advocated for the minorities would give the Maritime Provinces an unfortunate spectacle of two Houses divided against themselves. “Instead of a double majority,” he said, “we should have a double minority.”

Notwithstanding his resignation from the Cabinet, Galt’s abilities were requisitioned for the final stages of the Confederation bill, and he accompanied the Ministerial delegation to England in the fall of 1866 to draft the B. N, A. Act. He entered the first Confederation Cabinet as Minister of Finance and, like Cartier, revolted at the proffered C. B. as insufficient recognition for his services, and was subsequently, in 1869, made a K. C. M. G. His tractability was of short duration. In November, 1867, he resigned from the Cabinet, and there has always been an air of mystery as to the cause. Sir John Rose, who succeeded him, told friends that he found the business of the Department in ragged shape, so far as preparing for the next Budget was concerned, a fact which might indicate irresolution for some time. The correspondence subsequently made public shows that he resented the refusal of his colleagues to go to the rescue of the Commercial Bank, in which he was heavily interested. His letter of November 3 to Sir John Macdonald affirms his decision to “withdraw from official life until at least I have had the opportunity of putting my affairs in something like order.”*

The portfolio of Finance was again offered him in 1869 if he would renounce his views in favor of the independence of Canada, but he declined. Galt then went into opposition to Sir John Macdonald, who reciprocated the opposition with the utmost heartiness. Writing to Sir John Rose on February 23, 1870, Sir John said:

“Galt has come out, I am glad to say, formally in opposition and relieved me of the difficulty connected with him. . . . He is now finally dead as a Canadian politician.”

Galt was, however, far from dead and buried. In 1876, in a letter to Senator James Ferrier, he criticized Macdonald for his connection with the Pacific Scandal. The Conservative chieftain, then in defeat and dejection, expressed the anger of a man wounded in the house of a friend, and responded half-heartedly to approaches for a renewal of friendship. A year later the Mackenzie Government used Galt’s diplomacy with good result on the Fisheries Commission at Halifax, and in 1880 Sir John Macdonald made him the first Canadian High Commissioner to Great Britain, declaring him to be “the most available man for the position.” To Galt, however, the post was a disappointment, as he felt he was little more than an emigration agent. He resigned in 1883. In a speech in London on January 25,1881, Galt admonished the old country for not entering upon a policy of settling her people in the Dominions. His words have a strange flavor of the year 1917.

“I speak now,” he said, “not of Canada alone, but of her sister colonies as well, when I affirm that within the limits of the British Empire everything required by civilized man can be produced as well as in the whole of the rest of the world; while if facility of access be taken into account Canada stands on more than an equal footing with her great rival, the United States. . . Canada is now doing her part in the effort to colonize British North America, and it rests with the Government and the people of England to do theirs.”

Galt’s last ten years of life were spent in comparative retirement, interrupted by business investments in coal lands in western Canada. His death in Montreal on September 19, 1893, from cancer qf the throat, followed a long illness.

Sir Alexander Galt’s death drew praise from far and wide for his services in shaping the young Canadian nation. He brought to the councils of State a clear mind, an alert business judgment, and an independent character. He left the memory of a sturdy, lovable man whose services were generous and unselfish, and who was too big to be controlled for sinister political purposes.

The Life and Times of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt
By Oscar Douglas Skelton (1920)

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