Canada - Political Strife, 1815-1840
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
FOR twenty five years after the peace of 1815 Canada was plunged in a maelstrom of political strife. The constant fight for supremacy between the legislative and executive authorities culminated towards the end of this period in a series of outbreaks, none of them seriously threatening the suzerainty of Britain, but all indicating the canker which was eating into the heart of the country. " I find," said Lord Durham in his historic report, " two nations warring in the bosom of a single state ; I find a struggle not of principles, but of races." This was particularly true of Lower Canada, where the French Canadian majority was supreme in the lower house, whilst the English-speaking minority had the ear of the government.
In looking back on that period one may see that there was something to be said for and against both parties. It is perfectly true that the French Canadian majority was unfairly treated, was undoubtedly denied the rights which a majority should claim, and the arrogance of the British rulers was profoundly irritating to a free people. On the other hand, the French Canadian was not altogether blameless, and in several notable instances they appear to have misused the power which their numbers gave them.
Mr. Papineau, elected to be Speaker of the Assembly, was refused by the Governor-General because of his adverse criticism of the former's public work, and when the Assembly refused to elect another Speaker, Parliament was prorogued and did not meet again until the Governor-General was recalled. Lord Dalhousie, it must be said, like other Governor-Generals, was constantly thwarted and confused by varying and contradictory instructions from home, and he must have welcomed his appointment to India as a relief from the constant strife and anxiety of Canada.
This constant friction between legislative and executive culminated at last in absolute deadlock. Checked in its fight for complete independence and control of supply the Assembly refused to vote even necessary expenditures, with the result that all sorts of shifts were resorted to by the government to raise money for its routine business. The legislatures were dissolved, were re-elected, and were dissolved again with astounding frequency ; there was a constant war of appeals and counter-appeals to the home government, the public officials were obliged to side with one party or another, and even then were continually harassed by impeachments of their work. The situation was grievous enough, but was accentuated by the fact that the home government failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. In 1834 ninety-two resolutions were drawn up by the Papineau party setting forth their grievances, and in 1835 a commission was appointed to inquire into the nature of these grievances and their remedy. The Governor-General, Lord Gasford, was at the head of this commission, but Papineau and his party remained unappeased. In 1837 the deadlock of supply continued, and there were arrears of 150,000 sterling. It was with this deficit in his mind that Lord John Russell, in the House of Commons, carried his resolutions refusing the Canadian demand for an elective legislative council, and the other constitutional changes desired by the French Canadians. The resolutions empowered the executive government to pay the cost of public services out of such casual revenues as they might be able to lay their hands upon. It need hardly be said that the passing of these high-handed resolutions created a storm of anger in Lower Canada.
Before passing to the disturbances which arose in Lower Canada it will be well to glance at the other parts of the country. In the maritime provinces there. were the same disputes between the executive and legislative authorities, but in the end the public needs prevailed, and the revenues were voted. In Upper Canada the class to which we have already referred, the " Family Compact," as it was called, still held control of the province. The professional and military classes formed, as it were, an offensive and defensive political alliance against the incursions of democracy. Governor after Governor, coming out with an open mind to the province, fell under the sway of the " Family Compact," and public lands were freely bestowed upon the members. Towards 1820 the rays of discontent were focussed upon a cause sufficiently trivial in itself. Robert Gourlay, a land-agent, turned political champion, ex-posed some of the inequalities of the land monopoly. Declared by the government a dangerous person he was tried on two occasions for libelling them, but each time was acquitted. Failing in these attempts his enemies conspired to accuse him of sedition ; he was imprisoned for seven months, and when at last he was tried and sentenced to banishment the poor fellow was completely broken down by the hardships of prison life.
The Clergy Reserves dispute between the Episcopalians and the Dissenters was centred round large tracts of land which had been granted to the English Church by the Act of 1791, and the Dissenters banded themselves together to excite their followers by refusing the revenues demanded by the Church.
It must be remembered that it was not until 1829 that Methodist ministers were officially recognised. Those of the Church of England only were allowed to solemnize marriage. Where all were in earnest and many were bigoted it is difficult to pick out the leaders of the movement, but among the " Family Compact " can be numbered John Strachan, first bishop of Upper Canada, Beverly Robinson, first Attorney-General and later Chief Justice, Jonas Jones, and many another whose name has long since been forgotten. On the other side was William Lyon Mackenzie, the journalist, who was expelled five times from the Assembly for libellous statements and re-elected five times by the people who resented his treatment ; Robert Baldwin and Egerton Ryerson were reformers of a more prudent type. Papineau has already been mentioned as a strenuous reformer. Dr. Wolfred Nelson, a descendant of Loyalists, left his class to fight on the side of the reformers, and, on the other hand, John Neilson, who had a strong sympathy with the French Canadians, was sufficiently cool-headed to see that the reign of the " Family Compact " was better than disruption.
The crisis came with the appointment of Sir Francis Bond Head, who, refusing all advice from the moderate party, sided openly with the reformers, and threw all the weight of his office on their side in the elections of 1836, with the result that all the leading men of the extreme reformers were rejected.
The man of the hour in Lower Canada was Papineau. Public meetings and declamatory speeches in the Montreal and Richelieu districts were followed by strikes, and one finds in some of the speeches used at that day phrases reminiscent of the French Revolution. " Sons of Liberty " and " patriots " were the titles adopted. At meetings the reformers were " brothers," and they received " caps of liberty." But perhaps luckily for Lower Canada and for the whole Dominion the extreme reformers, though active, were few in numbers. The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were against them, and the great body of French Canadians refused to do more than grumble. Sir John Colborne was taken from Upper Canada to command the British troops, and by prompt action he nipped rebellion in the bud. A small body of rebels under Dr. Wolfred Nelson was defeated at St. Denis, and under Thomas Storrow Brown another small body at St. Charles met the same fate. Sporadic outbreaks occurred here and there, but before they gained any hold were stamped out—in many cases it is to be feared with considerable brutality. An occasion of this kind was too good to be missed by our neighbours on the American border, and a good deal of purposeless fighting occurred along the frontier until the United States Government took the matter firmly in hand and arrested some of the leaders. Upper Canada, denuded of troops, was thus at the mercy of the rebels, but luckily they were more earnest than clever, and they were arrested. Such leaders as escaped left for the United States, and, secure in the protection of American unfriendliness to Canada, continued their agitation on the other side of the border. As a result an island just above Niagara Falls was seized as the basis of operations. A steamer, the Caroline, was plying between the island and the mainland with supplies, and a Canadian expedition was sent to seize her. She was found to be on the American shore, but the Canadians nevertheless seized, set fire to her, and sent her adrift over the Falls.
This was only one typical instance of the petty annoyances which distracted the frontier for the next few years, and if so discouraging a thing as rebellion can be said to have a good result, it may be claimed that these outbreaks had this merit, that they broke up the " Family Compact" and brought about reforms which otherwise certainly would have been delayed for many years. A further good result was the awakening of the Imperial Govern-ment and the despatch of Lord Durham as Governor-General and High Commissioner of Canada to inquire into the condition of the country, and to report on the state of affairs.
Very few people in 1837 realised that the type of autocratic statesmanship which had been used for governing British possessions was passing away, to give place to the diplomacy which encourages nations to govern themselves. Lord Durham, whose life had been spent in the fight for representive government in England, saw at once that the Canadian constitution was incapable of holding together a population held apart by long distances, divided by political strife, and harassed by the arrogance of an autocratic minority.
Lord Durham's report on the state of Canada is without doubt one of the most important State Papers in existence, and it is not too much to say that its appearance advanced, as its subsequent effect has maintained, Canadian progress more than anything that had gone before in the history of the Dominion. The keynote of the report is to be found in the following passage : " I expected to find a contest between a government and a people. I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state : I found the struggle, not of principles, but of races, and I perceived that it would be idle to attempt any amelioration of the laws or institutions until we could first succeed in terminating the deadly animosity that now separates the inhabitants of Lower Canada into the hostile divisions of French and English."
Here was the true Imperial note. Another passage, quite as pregnant with wisdom, referred to the control exercised by ignorant Downing Street and the permanent officials there. At this system Lord Durham's report strikes hard, for it was not so much the figure-head of the administration who was to blame, though he was too often ignorant to the last degree of his responsibilities to the colonies, but the permanent officials, men of family, men of influence, but rarely men of keen and practical intelligence, who out of the depths of their ignorance dealt with the destines of a continent.
It is true that Lord Durham's government lasted only for little over five months, between the end of May and the beginning of November, 1838, and in that five months his ordinances sentencing certain British subjects to transportation without trial was extremely repugnant to the British sense of justice. On the other hand, his report was in the highest degree statesmanlike, and did much to clear away the cloud of misunderstanding which hung over the country.
The offensive ordinance pronounced sentence of transportation on Wolfred Nelson, Bouchette, Viger and five others in prison, and Papineau, Cartier, and other refugees over the border were threatened with death if they ever re-entered the country.
After the departure of Lord Durham, Sir John Colborne became Governor-General. Upon his advice the govern-ment decided to stiffen their policy with regard to rebels, and twelve were executed whilst others were driven across the border.
As an immediate result of Lord Durham's report the Imperial Act of Union was passed, re-uniting the provinces into one with a legislature of two houses. The two provinces were given equal representation in one legislature, a larger measure of self-government was granted, and an effort was made to bring together the two races so far as possible.
A part of the Act which caused considerable heart-burning in the French portions of the community was the placing of the English language in a position of superiority in Parliamentary and official proceedings.
With the Act of Union the drum and trumpet history of Canada ceases, and after 1840 the student of affairs must occupy himself with a more humdrum record ; humdrum only in the sense that the actual clash of arms does not sound, but vitally interesting in that it is a record of steady growth and progress, checked it is true from time to time, but continuous, resistless, inevitable.
With the stamping out of the rebellion there was, not only in Canada, but in the rest of the English-speaking world, a marked revival of confidence in the destiny of the Dominion. The population took firmer hold of their affairs, an ever-increasing flow of immigration began to come into the country, and the growth of cities and villages at this time became phenomenal. Lord Durham's report had not been without its effect ; for Her Majesty's commands to Mr. Poulett Thomson, on his appointment as Governor-General, were that he was to govern the young province " in accordance with the well-understood wishes of the people," adding a word of advice about the choice of his assistants, i.e., to choose " only those persons who have obtained the general confidence and esteem of the inhabitants of the province."
Good as were the intentions of the home government it cannot be said that the first few years were without their trials for both sides ; Mr. Poulett Thomson, who died in 1841 as Lord Sydenham, was succeeded by Lord Metcalfe who, with true autocratic spirit, tried to insist upon his right to appoint public servants without reference to his council. Sir Colin Campbell in Nova Scotia proved a better soldier than diplomatist, and he was recalled, to be succeeded by Lord Falkland, who, as an administrator was even less of a success. He in turn was replaced by Sir John Harvey, who was one of the most strenuous fighters for Parliamentary government. In 1847, Lord Elgin was appointed Governor-General with definite instructions to act upon the advice of his executive council, and so good was the spirit with which he carried out these views that within four years not only Canada as then defined, but Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were fully self-governing.
At the time of the passing of the Act the French Canadians of Lower Canada had feared that the Act of Union would be to their detriment. Their fears proved groundless, and the unpardonable mistake of attempting to substitute the English language for French in official and other proceedings was remedied by an alteration in the Act. The Seignioral land question, which at one time threatened to be a bar to progress, was settled by buying out the Seigniors, so relieving the population of the rather vexatious duties which some of the older Seigniors insisted upon as a right. The fierce controversy over the Clergy Reserves question came to an end when the land was sold for public purposes. Municipal institutions also showed a very large growth at this period, and local affairs, now that the country was quiet, absorbed a great deal of attention which previously had been devoted to party politics. A beginning was made with the magnificent educational system which now obtains throughout Canada, and the foundation was laid of a permanent public service on the lines of the English Civil Service.