Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2006

Documents de l’histoire du Québec / Quebec History Documents


George Brown on the

Acquisition of the Northwest Territories


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[This text was written in 1882. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

Parliament met the day after the ministerial negotiations were com­pleted for a brief session, or half session, of forty-one days. At the beginning of the session the report of the deputation of ministers to England, already alluded to, was submitted, with accompanying dispatches from Mr. Cardwell. Next to the all-absorbing question of confederation, Mr. Brown placed the annexation of the North-West Territory to Canada. An arrangement was finally made to accomplish this purpose, which was afterwards carried out. For twenty years he had steadily urged the vast importance to Canada of the acquisition of the northern and western territories, so long held in the hands of a grasping monopoly. For many years a portion of the Canadian press made light of the representations of Mr. Brown and the Globe. The company industriously circulated the impression that these territories were valuable chiefly as a hunting ground, and comparatively few people had any knowledge of the country. Fewer still had any faith in it as a valuable one, for actual and close settlement, beyond the banks of the Red River. For many years the late Sir George Cartier and his friends resolutely opposed all attempts to open up these regions for settlement, on the pitiful plea that its development would add to the political power of Ontario. The adoption of the federal system at once removed all petty objections to the immediate acquirement of these western lands, which are yet to add so much to the wealth of Canada. Mr. Brown, all through his agitation for the opening up of the North-West, derived much assistance from Mr. Isbester, of London, formerly of the North-West, to whom Canada is largely indebted for assistance in this matter. On the day parliament was prorogued Mr. Brown met with the other members of what was called the " confederate council," formed at the instance of the Imperial government, of delegates from all the provinces, for the consideration of commercial treaties. At this meeting certain resolutions were passed relating to trade with the West Indies and South America, the appointment of a commission to these countries, and another to Washington, all abortive in the end.


From the period when the discussions in this council terminated, there is no doubt that Mr. Brown felt his position irksome. The dispute regarding Sir E. P. Taché's successor had not improved the feeling of latent hostility towards Mr. Brown, which existed with Mr. Macdonald and some other members of the cabinet. The new Pre­mier was a weak and vain man, totally unfit to hold the balance be­tween men much his superior in mental power and political experience. Sir N. Belleau was, in fact, quite ignored by Mr. Macdonald. When Mr. Brown resigned it was Mr. Macdonald, not the Premier, who in­vited Mr. Howland to take Mr. Brown's place, so the nominally Tory leader nominated the new reform leader, as he after nominated Sir Francis Hincks to succeed Mr. Howland. Mr. Macdonald was not an ardent advocate for the constitutional changes soon to be inaugu­rated, and he adopted the new policy, not because he loved it, but because it afforded the most convenient, if not the only, method of retaining office, and the most likely to break the power of the liberal party by the gradual absorption of its members who might, for strictly coalition purposes, enter the spider's "parlour." There was no hope of influencing Mr. Brown, but something might be hoped from the other members, and, as a matter of fact, the other members were swallowed up and remained in the Tory family. The constant effort to obtain party advantages on the one side had to be borne by the other and weaker side, necessarily with impatience. " As streams " their channels deeper wear " so, in this instance, did the steady political attrition daily render his position more unpleasant. It was there-fore with a sense of relief that he felt bound, a few weeks after the confederate council adjourned, to adopt such decided views on the question of reciprocity with the United States, against the views of his colleagues, as to render his resignation necessary. This was the immediate cause of his resignation. During Mr. Brown's absence from Ottawa on public business, Messrs. Galt and Howland were sent to Washington, and were negotiating there with the committee of ways and means. The ministers subsequently agreed to accept a scheme of concurrent legislation for the interchange of commodities instead of a treaty. Commercial intercourse by reciprocal legislation would inevitably derange our trade relations with the United States. Stability is an element that cannot be dispensed with in commerce, and so Mr. Brown considered. There can be no doubt, however, that Mr. Brown felt a personal slight was offered him when Mr. Howland was sent with Mr. Galt on a mission to promote reciprocity—when Mr. Howland, who was not a member of the confederate council on commercial treaties, was sent on such a mission, although Mr. Brown and Mr. Galt were the members of that council.


Mr. Brown felt that in leaving the government then he was not jeopardizing the confederation scheme. To use his own words, he thought “that confederation had even then reached that point where no danger of its failure need be apprehended." It was true the great question had reached such a stage, but it is equally true that some important changes were afterwards made, and action in other matters adverse to the liberal party taken, which his presence would probably have prevented. Still, the resignation was not only justifiable but unavoidable. Strenuous efforts were made by some of his colleagues to induce him to remain. The following letter was sent by Mr. Cartier :



19th Dec., 1865.


MY DEAR BROWN,—I have just called at your hotel with Campbell, with a view to have with you a friendly interview. We were very sorry and much disappointed to find that you were out. Both of us left our cards. We intend calling again this afternoon in the hope of being more suc­cessful. If perchance you happen to be in when this note reaches you, be kind enough to send me word that you are at your hotel. I hope, and every one of your colleagues hope, that after a friendly interview you will be induced to reconsider your present intention.

Believe me, my dear Brown, your devoted colleague,

(Signed),           G. E. C.


To this letter Mr. Brown sent the following reply :




MY DEAR CARTIER,--I have received your kind note, and think it right to state frankly at once that the step I have taken cannot be revoked. The interests involved are too great. I think a very great blunder has been committed in a matter involving the most important interests of the country, and that the Order in Council you have passed endorses that blunder and authorizes persistence in it… I confess I was much annoyed at the personal affront offered me, but that feeling has passed away in view of the serious character of the matters at issue, which casts all personal feeling aside.


I desire to leave you in perfect harmony. I shall, of course, place in writ­ing my grounds of resignation, but seeing the prejudicial effect their present publication might have on the negotiations, I propose that no reason be given for my resignation until the reciprocity question is settled one way or other. I propose to state in to-morrow's Globe that my resignation has occurred from a grave difference in the cabinet, in which I stand alone on an important public question ; that the explanations will be given in parlia­ment in due time, and that it would be inexpedient for the public interests that they should be given sooner. I make this suggestion believing it the best thing for the public interest, and on that ground alone ; but any other proper course of procedure I am ready to adopt at the wish of my late colleagues.


In conclusion, let me say that if you stick to the compact you made with me when Sir Narcisse came into the government, my being out of the government will not change my course in the slightest, and that you will have my best aid in carrying out the constitutional changes we were pledged to.



19th Dec., 1865.


MY DEAR BROWN,—I feel very sorry at your telling me that this step you have taken cannot be revoked. Whatever might be, at this moment, the strength of your determination, I flatter myself that after a friendly in­terview with you, Campbell and myself, this evening, you might be induced to change your mind. Mr. Campbell happens to be at the same hotel with you ; arrange with him the time and place at which we may meet after dinner ; Campbell will let me know when and where, and I will not fail to hasten to the rendezvous. Until we see you try and bring your mind to a listening mood. I must frankly say, that if unfortunately you cannot be induced to retrace the step you have taken, the terms and mode you sug­gest to make known your resignation, by a telegram to the Globe, are the most consistent with the public interests. The same announcement will have to be made by us. Allow me to say to you that whatever may be the result of our interview this evening, I will always feel very thankful to you for the patriotic and generous sentiments you are so kind to express in your note to me.


Believe me, my dear Brown, yours very truly,




The personal interview with Messrs. Cartier and Campbell did not affect the decision Mr. Brown had arrived at. To use his own words, he stood alone ; Mr. McDougall was not in Canada, and even had he been it is more than probable he would not have stood by his leader in resignation ; Mr. Howland had committed himself to the policy of the government on the reciprocity question, and there was a possible danger ahead of his getting himself committed to a perpetua­tion of the coalition after the cause and justification for its existence had passed away.


As already stated, Mr. Brown entered the coalition government reluctantly, and only on the urgent representation of a party caucus. That the circumstances were such as justified a coalition of political parties no one will doubt, unless indeed it be affirmed that no circum­stances will justify such a movement. That there were strong reasons to be urged for his entering the government as leader of the Upper Canada liberals cannot be denied. He was the originator of the revolu­tionary movement just commenced. The strongest man in the cabinet, Mr. John A. Macdonald, only accepted the proposed policy as an immediate political necessity. He was opposed to a federal union, and made no secret of his preference for a legislative union. It was there-fore feared that, if Mr. Brown, with two strong colleagues, were not in the cabinet, the opposing power would render the federative system about to be adopted more or less incomplete, with a view to an early return to the other system, which was then abandoned. He felt himself the greatest repugnance to joining the government, and this feeling was shared by his most intimate friends, but the force of the reasons on the opposite side were at last admitted and acted upon. One prominent member of the assembly, now dead, wrote to Mr. Brown as follows : “How can you hope to secure the settlement of the constitutional questions without your own personal participation in the preliminary and advanced stages of the negotiation. The negotiation must go on during recess and session, hail, rain, or shine. But you, unless a minister, cannot be on the spot, cannot enter the council chamber—cannot, in short, speak, think or act for yourself, unless you are a member of the government.”


The general feeling amongst liberals was one of pleasure that their leader had retired from a position which was by them regarded with more or less dislike from the first. The promise made by Mr. Brown to Mr. Cartier, to give the government his “best aid in carrying out the constitutional changes” if they adhered to the compact, was religiously kept. He gave the ministry his full support in getting the address through the House.


The government did not, however, adhere to the determination formerly arrived at, to avoid any unnecessary legislation which could place any section of the combined forces in a false position, or force them to divide. Legislation on banking, the tariff, and other ques­tions, which forced Mr. Brown to oppose the government, was pro-posed at the ensuing session. His intention was that as soon as the Confederation Act became law the two parties should resume their normal position, and that the general election which must be held would determine which party should succeed to power for the first parliamentary term. The existing administration of Canada would necessarily, so far as the provinces of Quebec and Ontario were con­cerned, have the organization of the local governments in their hands, as well as the provisional arrangements for the Dominion, though nomi­nally all this might be supposed to be done after the first day of July, 1867. That administration might now be said to be conservative, though there was a nominal representation of the reform side still in it, and the determination of these representatives to remain in Sir John Macdonald's government only realized previous apprehensions. Some reformers thought that Mr. Brown should have made an effort to remain in the government until the time came for the inau­guration of the new system, to guard the interests of his political friends. Much might be said in favour of his doing so, since he had consented at all to enter a coalition government by those who urged that step. Those who were behind the scenes knew that this would have been a matter of extreme difficulty, and the great mass of the liberal party never liked the coalition even for the special purpose in view, and were glad when Mr. Brown was constrained to leave it by a difference with his colleagues on another subject. Had his reform colleagues left it promptly when its work was done, probably little harm would have been done by their remaining after he left. As it was, they became members of Mr. Macdonald's ministry, thereby owning his leadership, making the pitiful and sham plea, that they remained to secure the safety of the union and set the “new machine" working ; and the little influence they possessed, when thrown into the Tory scales, sufficed to cost the liberal party a number of constituencies. The first day of July, 1867, saw the great reform accomplished for which Mr. Brown had toiled so many years, and saw also the con­servatives who opposed it to the last now reaping the fruit of their opponent's labour. Thenceforward Mr. Macdonald would be able to boast that he was the father of confederation, on the same ground that he boasted of carrying the measure to secularize the clergy reserve lands. He strongly opposed both measures, on principle, as long as it was possible to do so, and then joined the men who initiated and carried forward the movement of both, and declared the work was all his own. Having no great work of his own to boast about, he bravely plucks the laurel from the brows of the actual combatants and real victors, and fastens it on his own head.

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Source: Alex. MACKENZIE, The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 102-107.

© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College