George Brown was the founder and editor of the Toronto Globe and leader of the Reform Party. Brown was a fierce opponent of John A Macdonald and the Conservatives and he advocated free trade and representation by population. Brown also believed that any close union with Lower Canada (Quebec) was an obstacle to the future prosperity of Upper Canada (Ontario). However, Brown may have come to realize that the continuing political gridlock benefited no one, or he saw in a pan-Canadian federation a solution that would eventually strengthen Protestant Upper Canada. Whatever his motive, Brown’s speech during the 1865 Confederation debates in the United Province of Canada legislative assembly was one of the best.
“It may be that some among us will live to see the day when, as a result of this measure, a great and powerful people have grown up in these lands”
The scene presented by this Chamber at this moment, I venture to affirm, has few parallels in history. One hundred years have passed away since these provinces became by conquest part of the British Empire. I speak in no boastful spirit—what was then the fortune of war of the brave French nation might have been ours on that well-fought field. I recall those olden times merely to mark the fact that here sit today the descendants of the victors and the vanquished in the fight of 1759, with all the differences of language, religion, civil law, and social habit nearly as distinctly marked as they were a century ago.
Extending the blessings
Here we sit today seeking amicably to find a remedy for constitutional evils and injustice complained of, by the vanquished? No, but complained of by the conquerors! Here sit the representatives of the British population claiming justice, only justice; and here sit the representatives of the French population discussing in the French tongue whether we shall have it. One hundred years have passed away since the conquest of Quebec, but here sit the children of the victor and the vanquished, all avowing hearty attachment to the British Crown, all earnestly deliberating how we shall best extend the blessings of British institutions, how a great people may be established on this continent in close and hearty connection with Great Britain.
No constitution ever framed was without defect; no act of human wisdom was ever free from imperfection; no amount of talent and wisdom and integrity combined in preparing such a scheme could have placed it beyond the reach of criticism. And the framers of this scheme had immense special difficulties to overcome. We had the prejudices of race and language and religion to deal with; and we had to encounter all the rivalries of trade and commerce, and all the jealousies of diversified local interests. To assert, then, that our scheme is without fault would be folly. It was necessarily the work of concession; not one of the thirty-three framers but had, on some points, to yield his opinions; and, for myself, I freely admit that I struggled earnestly, for days together, to have portions of the scheme amended.
But admitting all this, admitting all the difficulties that beset us, admitting frankly that defects in the measure exist, I say that, taking the scheme as a whole, it has my cordial, enthusiastic support, without hesitation or reservation. I believe that it will accomplish all, and more than all, that we, who have so long fought the battle of parliamentary reform, ever hoped to see accomplished. I believe that, while granting security for local interests, it will give free scope for carrying out the will of the whole people in general matters; that it will draw closer the bonds that unite us to Great Britain; and that it will lay the foundations deep and strong of a powerful and prosperous people . . .
Pass as presented
The interests to be affected by this scheme of union are very large and varied; but the pressure of circumstances upon all the colonies is so serious at this moment that if we cannot now banish partisanship and sectionalism and petty objections, and look at the matter on its broad intrinsic merits, what hope is there of our ever being able to do so? An appeal to the people of Canada on this measure simply means postponement of the question for a year, and who can tell how changed ere then may the circumstances surrounding us?
The man who strives for the postponement of this measure, on any ground, is doing what he can to kill it almost as effectually as if he voted against it. Let there be no mistake as to the manner in which the government presents this measure to the House. We do not present it as free from fault, but we do present it as a measure so advantageous to the people of Canada that all the blemishes, real or imaginary, averred against it sink into utter insignificance in presence of its merits. We present it, not in the precise shape we in Canada would desire it, but as in the best shape the five colonies to be united could agree upon it. We present it in the form in which the five governments have severally adopted it, in the form the imperial government has endorsed it, and in the form in which we believe all the legislatures of the province will accept it.
We ask the House to pass it in the exact form in which we have presented it, for we know not how alterations may affect its safety in other places; and the process of alteration once commenced in four different legislatures, who can tell where that would end? Every member of this House is free as air to criticize it if he so wills, and amend it if he is able; but we warn him of the danger of amendment, and throw on him all the responsibility of the consequences. We feel confident of carrying this scheme as it stands, but we cannot tell what we can do if it be amended.
Let not honourable gentlemen approach this measure as a sharp critic deals with an abstract question, striving to point out blemishes and display his ingenuity; but let us approach it as men having but one consideration before us, the establishment of the future peace and prosperity of our country. Let us look at it in the light of a few months back, in the light of the evils and injustice to which it applies a remedy, in the light of the years of discord and strife we have spent in seeking for that remedy, in the light with which the people of Canada would regard this measure were it to be lost and all the evils of past years to be brought back upon us again. Let honourable gentlemen look at the question in this view, and what one of them will take the responsibility of casting his vote against the measure?
Rise to the occasion
The future destiny of these great provinces may be affected by the decision we are about to give to an extent which at this moment we may be unable to estimate, but assuredly the welfare for many years of four millions of people hangs on our decision. Shall we then rise equal to the occasion? Shall we approach this discussion without partisanship, and free from every personal feeling but the earnest resolution to discharge conscientiously the duty which an overruling Providence has placed upon us?
A great and powerful people
It may be that some among us will live to see the day when, as the result of this measure, a great and powerful people have grown up in these lands, when all the boundless forests all around us shall have given way to smiling fields and thriving towns, and when one united government, under the British flag, shall extend from shore to shore. But who would desire to see that day if he could not recall with satisfaction the part he took in this discussion?
The proposal being debated was passed and Confederation came into being on July 1, 1867. As for Brown, he was shot by an irate employee at the Toronto Globe and later died of his injuries on May 9, 1880.
Brown’s speech is 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: 84-115. This is a photographic reproduction of the original from 1865.
Biographical information: The Canadian Encyclopedia. “George Brown”
Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada