Archived - Notes for a speech for the 11th Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner of the Kingston Historical Society
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Kingston, January 11, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
It is both a pleasure and an honour to speak to you tonight, following such distinguished guests as Hugh Segal, Charlotte Gray and Richard Gwyn. At previous dinners, you have heard about Sir John A.'s political skills, his wit, his economic vision, his foibles. Your guests have, I am sure, a deeper historical knowledge of his life and accomplishments than I do.
But I was particularly grateful for this invitation because it has enabled me to deepen my understanding of one aspect of his political achievement: his success in building an effective relationship with French-speaking Canada.
You are probably familiar with his often-quoted remark about French-Canadians:
“Treat them as a nation, and they will act as a free people generally do—generously. Call them a faction and they become factious.”Footnote 1
This statement is part of a letter that Sir John wrote in January 1856 to Brown Chamberlin, a Montreal journalist and publisher—a letter that Richard Gwyn points out contains “some of the most insightful passages in all Canadian political prose.”Footnote 2
I became aware of the letter during an interview with Lucien Bouchard, almost exactly 21 years ago. He was then a member of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's cabinet—but he was increasingly frustrated by the attacks in English Canada on the Meech Lake Accord. He got up from his chair, took down a copy of Donald Creighton's biography of Macdonald, and read another line from that remarkable letter:
“The truth is that you British Lower Canadians never can forget that you were once supreme—that Jean Baptiste was your hewer of wood and drawer of water. You struggle, like the Protestant Irish, in Ireland... not for equality, but for ascendancy—the difference between you and those interesting and amiable people is that you have not the honesty to admit it. You can't and won't admit the principle that the majority must govern.”Footnote 3
Bouchard put back the book back and said, rather bitterly, “Things haven't changed much.” A few months later, he left the Cabinet, the Meech Lake Accord failed, and he formed the Bloc Québécois.
How did Macdonald arrive at the view conveyed and preserved in that letter? And why has his analysis proved to be so prescient, and given us such an acute insight into Canadian politics for the subsequent century and a half?
Let us take a step back for a moment. In 1856, Macdonald had been a member of the legislature for 12 years. “There seemed to be no one else available, so I was pitched upon,” he later told his secretary, Joseph Pope, saying that he had run “to fill a gap.”Footnote 4
Macdonald was a Tory, not a reformer; indeed, he was part of the crowd in Kingston that cheered Robert Baldwin's defeat in Hastings so loudly that Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, Baldwin's political partner, vowed to move the capital from Kingston—“removed from such a turbulent lot,” were his words. According to Pope, La Fontaine carried out the threat—and the capital was moved to Montreal. Pope also infers that Macdonald was involved in undermining one of Baldwin and La Fontaine’s attempts to return French as an official language of Parliament.
For his part, Macdonald spoke little or no French. Yet he soon developed an easy rapport with his French-speaking colleagues—and a close and enduring friendship with one of them: George-Etienne Cartier. It appears he was alone, however: the Draper government, in which Macdonald served as Receiver-General for almost 10 months, was defeated in 1847, failing to win a single French-speaking constituency. In its place, La Fontaine formed the government with Baldwin that established responsible government—and forged a working coalition between Upper Canadian and Lower Canadian reformers. Macdonald, now in opposition, watched and learned.
He was a quick study. Macdonald opposed the Rebellion Losses Bill, and was critical of the government for not taking precautions to prevent the riot that ensued on passage of the bill—a riot that resulted in the burning of the legislature. Unlike many of his Tory colleagues, however, he did not sign the Annexation Manifesto of 1849—a document that advocated political union with the United States. Instead, he helped found the British America League, which he later described as “a safety valve.”Footnote 5 The group resolved to keep the connection with the mother country and try to form a confederation of the British American provinces.
Macdonald’s position was a nuanced one that reassured his political allies without enraging—or arming—his adversaries. Richard Gwyn quotes journalist Hector Fabre describing Macdonald's “matchless tact,” adding that he was “too clever and well-versed in the knowledge of mankind to be cruel: his executions are always amusing; they extort a smile even from the gloomiest victims.”Footnote 6
As the government grappled with the Rebellion Losses Bill and other political power kegs, Macdonald watched La Fontaine and Baldwin work closely together. And while Macdonald was their political opponent, and probably found the two reformers tedious company—La Fontaine was perhaps excessively self-important, trading on his physical resemblance to Napoleon, while Baldwin was perhaps excessively earnest—his admiration of their indivisible partnership was clear. When Macdonald became Attorney General, after Baldwin's defeat and retirement, he urged his political opponent to accept the position of Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1855. Baldwin declined, and died three years later.
In fact, Macdonald was often less generous to his political allies than to his adversaries. In February 1854, Macdonald wrote a letter to James McGill Strachan that was so candid in his appraisal of his colleagues that he urged Strachan to destroy it. Speaking of John Hillyard Cameron, Macdonald wrote:
“Cameron was useful in legal matters when in the House, but he lacks general intelligence, and is altogether devoid of political reading, so that he was absolutely a failure as a statesman. Lord Elgin truly called him ‘a presumptuous young gentleman.’ He seeks parliament again from selfish reasons, and I would be sorry to see him represent so powerful a constituency as Toronto. If he came in from Niagara, or fight some doubtful county, it would be all very well and he could be kept in his place.”Footnote 7
Tell us what you really think, John A.!
Whatever the accuracy of his insight, Macdonald’s wish did not come true. Cameron was elected in Toronto in the elections of 1854. Yet tucked in among the political gossip and evaluation of that letter, Macdonald included a strategy:
“My belief is that there must be a material alteration in the character of the new House,” he wrote. “I believe also that there must be a change of Ministry after the election and from my friendly relations with the French, I am inclined to believe my assistance would be sought.
There would be a new House and new people to choose from, and our aim should be to enlarge the bounds of our party so as to embrace every person desirous of being counted as a ‘progressive Conservative,’ and who will join us in a series of measures to put an end to the corruption which has ruined the present government and debauched all its followers.”Footnote 8
Macdonald came by this insight honestly. In his first decade in politics, from the mid-1840s until the mid-1850s, he had watched coalitions form and disintegrate. He had seen the legislature burned by an angry Tory mob—and Robert Baldwin defeated by a rigid, impatient, less moderate reformer. He had read George Brown's attacks on Catholics and French Canada, and had listened to Louis-Joseph Papineau's passionate, angry speeches in Parliament.
Armed with this experience and lessons gained from the failures of others, he became a key player, as he had predicted he would be, in building an alliance between Upper-Canadian conservatives and French-Canadian moderates—a coalition that won the approval of Robert Baldwin, then in retirement.Footnote 9 And he helped resolve the bitter debate over the bills that finally resolved the 15-year controversy over secularization: the question of the clergy reserves, and the abolition of seigneurial tenure—in Donald Creighton's words, “two great causes of strife which for many years had distracted the province of Canada.” And, again according to Creighton, “To Mr. Macdonald, more than any other man, is the credit of this settlement due.”Footnote 10
So it is an experienced and somewhat successful politician who sits by his sick wife's bedside on January 21, 1856, and writes a long and historic letter to Brown Chamberlin. Chamberlin is a lawyer who has become the publisher of the Montreal Gazette three years earlier. He first writes Macdonald in 1855 about some allegations against employees of the Attorney General, L. T. Drummond, that the paper had learned about, and had not yet published. Grateful for the information, Macdonald replies and shares his reasoning for a number of political appointments:
“We expect from our friends a generous confidence and hope that when you hear anything to our disadvantage, you will communicate with us, and hear our answer and explanations before committing yourself or your paper against us,” Macdonald wrote. In fact, we want you to:
‘Be to our faults a little blind
And to our virtues always kind.’”Footnote 11
This approach is what every politician wants from journalists, but few say it so bluntly any more!
A year later, the two men have become better acquainted; “My dear sir” has become “My dear Chamberlin.” Macdonald begins the historic bedside letter to his new friend by saying that Chamberlin's latest letter has reminded him of all those he has not answered:
“I am sitting up with Mrs. McD who is ill, and I shall therefore bestow a little of my tediousness upon you,” he banters. “I have hunted up your old letters, so that you see I cherish them if I do not reply.”
Macdonald then shares some political gossip about who might run in a by-election in Renfrew to succeed Francis Hincks, and about his friend John Rose's political ambitions. Then he lights into what he sees as Chamberlin's—and Rose's—inability to grasp the demographic and political realities of the situation. These are the words I quoted at the start of my remarks, yet I believe they deserve repeating:
“The truth is,” Macdonald writes, “that you British Lower Canadians never can forget that you were once supreme—that Jean Baptiste was your hewer of wood and drawer of water. You struggle, like the Protestant Irish, in Ireland, like the Norman invaders in England, not for equality, but for ascendancy—the difference between you and those interesting and amiable people is that you have not the honesty to admit it. You can't and won't admit the principle that the majority must govern.”Footnote 12
French-Canadians, whom Macdonald describes as “Galicians,” represent two thirds of the population of Lower Canada, while “the other races who are lumped together as Anglo-Saxons” represent one-third.
“Heaven save the mark!” he continues. “Now you have nearly one-third if not quite of the representation of Lower Canada, and if not, why it is the misfortune of your position that you are in the minority and therefore can't command the majority of votes. The only remedies are immigration and copulation and these will work wonders.”
Macdonald goes on to point out that fully one-half of the judges are British, and the English have ascendancy in official positions. “Take care that the French don't find out and make a counter-cry,” he warns, and then alludes to rioting that followed an anti-Catholic campaign. “True you suffer occasionally from a Gavazzi riot or so, but in the first place you Anglo-Saxons are not bad hands at riots yourselves and in the second place, the rioters are not Franco-Canadians, nor Canadians of any kind. A proper jury law—if the present one does not suit—is all you can want.”
However, he added a caveat. “But you must be represented in cabinet.” The key thing for the English minority, Macdonald argues, is to make itself strong enough and work together effectively enough to give its support to a ministry; in that case, he says, “you will be entreated, besought, urged to place your best man among the Councillors of the time being. As it is, you are a bundle of twigs with the surrounding band untied, and so fares it with your influence and your chance of a seat in cabinet.”
Macdonald does not spare his friends from this trenchant analysis: “Now Rose has never got this into his hair,” Macdonald writes. “And until he does, adieu to all hopes of high political station.”Footnote 13
John Rose actually went on to succeed Alexander Galt as Finance Minister after Confederation; presumably, John A. was satisfied that Rose had got the message!
Further on in his letter to Chamberlin, Macdonald lays out his prescient insight into the political dynamics between English- and French-speaking Canadians:
“No man in his senses can suppose that this government can for a century to come be governed by a totally unfrenchified Government. If a Lower Canadian Britisher desires to conquer, he must ‘stoop to conquer.’ He must make friends with the French; without sacrificing the status of his race or lineage, he must respect their nationality. Treat them as a nation, and they will act as a free people generally do—generously. Call them a faction and they become factious.”
He then makes a prediction based on this insight:
“Supposing the numerical preponderance of British in Canada became much greater than it is, I think the French would give more trouble than they are said now to do,” he wrote.“ At present they divide, as we do, they are split into several sections and are governed more or less by defined principles of action. As they become smaller and feebler, so they will be more united, from a sense of self-preservation they will act as one man and hold the balance of power.”
As examples, he points to the Scots and the Irish who used their members at Westminster to exercise control:
“So long as the French have 20 votes they will be a power and must be conciliated,” he continues. “I doubt much, however, if the French will lose their numerical majority in Lower Canada in a hurry. What with the cessation of immigration from Europe, their own spread in the Townships, the opening up of the Ottawa and St. Maurice and the certainty that they will ere long be the labourers in our factories that are fast coming, I am inclined to think they will hold their own for many a day yet.”
In the rest of his letter, Macdonald ducks a detailed discussion of duties but indicates that he thinks imposing them would be a step backwards, dismisses the idea of a Georgian Bay canal (“I look on it as being made when our grandchildren are greybeards”), and makes a few quips before signing off affectionately.
What a tour de force! No matter how many times I reread this letter, I marvel at Macdonald’s blend of personal shrewdness, psychological insight, political wisdom and sociological prescience—all jotted down as he sits at the bedside of his sick wife.
In that one letter, he lays out the blueprint for every successful Prime Minister who wins a majority government over the next 150 years: Laurier, King, St-Laurent, Diefenbaker, Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien. His analysis can be applied to the conscription crises, the October Crisis, the reaction to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the persistence of the Bloc Québécois, and Parliament’s recognition of Quebeckers as a nation.
Macdonald’s insight also shaped his understanding of Confederation. On the last night of the Confederation Debates—March 10, 1865—he responds to a question about the status of French in the new political arrangement that was being developed. He rises to reply, saying that, “the use of the French language should form one of the principles on which the Confederation should be established.” His friend and colleague, George-Étienne Cartier, immediately adds that it is also necessary to protect the English minorities in Lower Canada with respect to the use of their language.Footnote 14
That reflex, which established the foundations for respect for linguistic duality as a fundamental Canadian value, and that capacity for conciliation, only failed Macdonald once—with the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885. “The conviction of Riel is satisfactory,” he says in a telegraph. “There is an attempt in Quebec to pump up a patriotic feeling about him—but I don't think it will amount to much.”Footnote 15
He certainly got that wrong. It was a decision that hung like an albatross around the neck of the Conservative Party for the next 100 years. For all his wisdom with regard to French Canada, he could not escape his racist view of Riel as a “half-breed Wahdi.”
But that is a subject for another talk.
Thank you for listening.
- Footnote 1
Donald Creighton. John A. Macdonald, The Young Politician. Toronto, The Macmillan Co. of Canada, 1952, p. 227; Macdonald in J.K. Johnson, ed. Les Lettres de Sir John A. Macdonald 1836-1857. Ottawa, Public Archives of Canada, 1971, p. 339; Richard Gwyn. John A. The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald Vol. One: 1815-1867. Toronto, Random House Canada, 2007, p. 128.
- Footnote 2
Gwyn., p. 128.
- Footnote 3
Creighton, p. 226. (Italics in original.)
- Footnote 4
Joseph Pope. Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald. Ottawa, J. Durie & Son, 1894, p. 33.
- Footnote 5
Pope, p. 71.
- Footnote 6
Gwyn, p. 105.
- Footnote 7
J.K. Johnson, p. 201; Pope, p. 102.
- Footnote 8
J.K. Johnson, p. 201, 202; Pope, p. 103.
- Footnote 9
See Baldwin's letter to Hincks in Pope, p. 127.
- Footnote 10
Creighton, p. 131.
- Footnote 11
Macdonald to Chamberlin, February 2, 1855 in J.K. Johnson, p. 235.
- Footnote 12
J.K. Johnson, p. 338. (Italics in original.)
- Footnote 13
J.K. Johnson, p. 339.
- Footnote 14
Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada. Quebec, Hunter, Rose & Co, 1865, pp. 944-945. See also Gwyn, p. 323.
- Footnote 15
Telegram to Edgar Dewdney, August 17, 1885, in Library and Archives Canada, Macdonald Papers, Book 23; also quoted by George G. F. Stanley, Louis Riel, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1963, p. 361.