Dorion led the Parti Rouge (Liberals) in the 1850s and he had served with George Brown in a short-lived government. Early in 1865 representatives from the United Province of Canada (today’s Quebec and Ontario) met to decide if they would proceed with a federation that had been negotiated to include the English colonies in Atlantic Canada. Dorion was opposed to this wider confederation, as were a majority of the francophone delegates. They feared that the English majority would overwhelm the French. Dorion also opposed the idea of a legislative union, in which the central government held most of the power. His arguments in 1865 illustrate the historic disagreement over the founding reality of Canada. Was confederation to be the union of two nations, or was it a federation of equal provinces? These conflicting views still exist.
“The French will be completely overwhelmed by the majority of British representatives”
I should have desired to make my remarks to the House in French, but considering the large number of honourable members who are not familiar with that language, I think it my duty to speak at the present time in English . . .
No rep by pop
I should say that, when the Brown–Dorion administration was formed, the honourable president of the council urged very strongly that representation by population should be taken up as the method by which to settle the constitutional question; while, on the contrary, I saw the difficulty of so taking it up, even with such checks and guarantees as were spoken of, and made the counterproposition that a confederation of the two provinces should be formed . . .
I know that majorities are naturally aggressive and how the possession of power engenders despotism, and I can understand how a majority, animated this moment by the best feelings, might in six or nine months be willing to abuse its power and trample on the rights of the minority, while acting in good faith, and on what it considered to be its right. We know also the ill feelings that might be engendered by such a course . . .
Who holds the power?
With these views on the question of representation, I pronounced in favour of a confederation of the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada as the best means of protecting the varied interests of the two sections. But the confederation I advocated was a real confederation, giving the largest powers to the local governments, and merely a delegated authority to the general government, in that respect differing in toto from the one now proposed which gives all the powers to the central government, and reserves for the local governments the smallest possible amount of freedom of action. There is nothing besides in what I have ever written or said that can be interpreted as favouring a confederation of all the provinces. This I always opposed . . .
This scheme proposes a union not only with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, but also with British Columbia and Vancouver’s Island. Although I have not been able to get the information from the government, for they do not seem to be very ready to give information, yet I understand that there are dispatches to hand, stating that resolutions have been adopted in the legislature of British Columbia asking for admission into the confederation at once. I must confess . . . that it looks like a burlesque to speak as a means of defence of a scheme of confederation to unite the whole country extending from Newfoundland to Vancouver’s Island, thousands of miles intervening without any communication, except through the United States or around Cape Horn . . .
French Canada objects
So far as Lower Canada is concerned, I need hardly stop to point out the objections to the scheme. It is evident, from what has transpired, that it is intended eventually to form a legislative union of all the provinces. The local governments in addition to the general government will be found so burdensome that a majority of the people will appeal to the imperial government for the formation of a legislative union . . .
Honourable members from Lower Canada are made aware that the delegates all desired a legislative union, but it could not be accomplished at once. This confederation is the first necessary step towards it. The British government is ready to grant a federal union at once, and when that is accomplished the French element will be completely overwhelmed by the majority of British representatives. What then would prevent the federal government from passing a set of resolutions in a similar way to those we are called upon to pass, without submitting them to the people, calling upon the imperial government to set aside the federal form of government and give a legislative union instead of it?
Attached to our institutions
Perhaps the people of Upper Canada think a legislative union a most desirable thing. I can tell those gentlemen that the people of Lower Canada are attached to their institutions in a manner that defies any attempt to change them in that way. They will not change their religious institutions, their laws, and their language, for any consideration whatever. A million of inhabitants may seem a small affair to the mind of a philosopher who sits down to write out a constitution. He may think it would be better that there should be but one religion, one language, and one system of laws, and he goes to work to frame institutions that will bring all to that desirable state; but I can tell honourable gentlemen that the history of every country goes to show that not even by the power of the sword can such changes be accomplished . . .
There is no hurry in regard to the scheme. We are now legislating for the future as well as for the present, and feeling that we ought to make a constitution as perfect as possible, and as far as possible in harmony with the views of the people, I maintain that we ought not to pass the measure now, but leave it to another year, in order to ascertain in the meantime what the views and sentiments of the people actually are.
Dorion’s speech is to be found in The Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd Session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1951), pp. 245-69. This is a photographic reproduction of the original from 1865.
“Sir Antoine-Aimé Dorion,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sir-antoine-aime-dorion/
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada