Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
February 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


History of the Conservative Party of Quebec

in the XIXth Century



[This text was written by Thomas Chapais in 1900. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

THE origin of the Conservative party of the Province of Quebec can be traced back to a period prior to the Union of the two Canadas . From 1791 to 1832, there was only one party in the ranks of the French-Canadians - the "Patriot's party," successively headed by such men as Panet, Bédard, Joseph Papineau, Bourdages, Viger, L. J. Papineau, Vallières, Blanchet. This party, which was joined by some English-speaking members like Mr. John Neilson, had for its main object the maintenance and extension of the rights and privileges of the popular House and the limitation of the influence exercised by the "Castle" - that is to say by the Governors and their advisers who tried to rule with the support of the Legislative Council and without paying much attention to the opinions entertained by the Legislative Assembly. There were in those days several famous struggles. One was upon the question of the exclusion of judges from the Assembly, in 1809 and 1810, and another was on the question of the Civil List, from 1818 to 1837. Under the Craig Administration there was a momentary split in the French-Canadian party. The celebrated judge, P. A. de Bonne, became the leader of a small group favourable to the "Castle" and a newspaper, Le Courrier de Québec, was founded to counterbalance the influence of Le Canadien, the organ of Messrs. Panet, Bédard, Taschereau and others. But the breach was soon healed and union prevailed on all important questions until 1834.


Then a new split occurred when the "92 Resolutions" were submitted to the Legislative Assembly. Messrs. Neilson, Quesnel and Cuvillier, believing honestly that M. L. J. Papineau was going too far, seceded from his party. Two years later, in 1836, a new group of members, comprising Messrs. Elzéar Bédard, Caron, Vanfelson, Huot and others, refused to follow the popular leader and agitator on the Supply question. M. Papineau was the personification of extreme Liberalism, whilst the secessionists, although true Reformers, believed that it was a mistake to go beyond certain limits, and were not willing to paralyse the Government of the country. This conflict of principles became more obvious after the Union and caused the formation of the two great political parties of the Province of Quebec . It would be useless to speak here of the unfortunate events of 1837. Their immediate result was the Union of Lower Canada with Upper Canada . Lord Sydenham - Mr. Poulett Thomson - was sent out to try and arrange the adoption of the new system. And then began the fight for Responsible Government which lasted from 1840 to 1848. During that struggle the French-Canadian members were united under the leadership of M. Lafontaine, a lieutenant of M. Papineau previous to the Rebellion. The period of national crisis and ordeal which Lower Canada had gone through had matured his judgment, and as early as 1841, he showed himself a clever and straightforward statesman and acquired considerable prestige. Under his leadership the French-Canadian members formed a powerful organisation called the Liberal, or Reform, party, and this soon made an alliance with the Reform party of Upper Canada whose leader was Mr. Robert Baldwin.


The first Cabinet formed by Lord Sydenham after the Union contained no French-Canadian. It was composed of Upper Canada Tories, of a few Reformers and of three Lower Canada Tories - Messrs. Ogden, Daly and Day. Mr. Baldwin was one of its members for a few months; but he soon withdrew because the political principles of the Government did not seem to him in accordance with the spirit of the constitution. Lord Sydenham died on the 19th of September, 1841 . He was replaced by Sir Charles Bagot, who was desirous of taking as the rule of his Administration the principles of Responsible Government. The Reform parties in the two united Provinces had obtained a big majority, and on the 15th of September, 1842 , Messrs. Lafontaine and Baldwin formed their first Administration. It lasted until November, 1844, and enacted many important reforms. But Sir Charles Metcalfe, who had replaced Sir Charles Bagot in 1843, was not guided by the same principles. He did not understand the public situation as did his predecessor, and a serious difference of opinion having occurred between him and his Ministers on the question of the right of nomination to public offices, Messrs. Lafontaine and Baldwin had to resign. Then followed a crisis of nine months, during which time Canada had only a Provisional Council composed of Messrs. Denis Benjamin Viger, W. H. Draper and Dominick Daly. M. Viger, a member of the old "Patriot" party committed the grave mistake of putting himself in opposition to the majority of his fellow-countrymen upon the principles of Responsible Government which were at stake. At last, Sir Charles Metcalfe succeeded in forming a Cabinet composed of Upper Canada Conservatives, of two Lower Canada Conservatives and of two members of the old Lower Canada Liberal party. The two latter were Messrs. D. B. Viger and D. B. Papineau. The leaders of the Government were Messrs. Viger and Draper. Messrs. Lafontaine and Baldwin were at the head of the Opposition.


The Viger-Draper Government lasted until 1848. It was replaced by the second Lafontaine-Baldwin Administration which ruled the affairs of the country until 1851. About that time a spirit of dissension began, however, to make itself felt in the ranks of the Ministerial party. M. Louis J. Papineau, who had lived in exile since 1837, had come back from Europe after the grant of a general amnesty. He was imbued with the most advanced democratic ideas. He committed the great fault of putting himself in opposition to M. Lafontaine and to the majority of his fellow-countrymen, who had accepted the Union for the purpose of making use of it in the interest of their political franchises. He declared himself favourable to annexation with the United States . Gathered around him were a number of young politicians, full of talent, who founded a democratic newspaper called L'Avenir, and clamoured for many radical reforms, such as the election of judges, annual Parliaments, the abolition of tithes, and so on. These were Messrs. Dorion, Dessaules, Doutre, Papin, Laberge, Laflamme. On the other hand, M. Lafontaine and his friends, satisfied with having obtained the political reforms for which they had fought, upheld Conservative principles in the social and religious questions of the moment. In 1846, M. Etienne Pascal Taché (later on Sir Etienne Taché), said in a famous speech : "We are in our habits, in our laws and in our religion, monarchists and Conservatives." M. Lafontaine, who had been one of the fiercests lieutenants of M. Papineau, before 1837, had become a true Conservative statesman since the victory of Responsible Government. This was exactly what a strong Liberal journal, Le Pays, wrote afterwards: "M. Lafontaine, who is deeply conservative, has allured the French-Canadian majority into Conservative policy . . . . Messrs. Lafontaine and Baldwin have made the Liberals become Conservatives, without knowing it."


Thus the old Liberal party, which had fought the battles of Responsible Government from 1841 to 1848, became gradually a Conservative party in its political principles and social doctrines whilst retaining the name of Liberal. And, on the other hand, the young democrats whose mouthpiece was L'Avenir and who hailed M. Papineau as their great leader, constituted a new Liberal party, radical and extreme in its tendencies and its utterances. Such was the state of things until the year 1854. Messrs. Lafontaine and Baldwin retired from public life in 1851, and had been replaced by Messrs. A. N. Morin and Francis Hincks. In Upper Canada , a new element had also come into life with the appearance of George Brown in the public press and in Parliament as a member of the Reform or Liberal party. Extreme in his views he soon became the leader of a new group which was known under the name of "Clear Grit," and had over the Liberal party of the Upper Province the same dissolving influence as the democratic faction had over the same party in the Lower.


In the course of time it was evident that a remodelling of the political parties was becoming inevitable. This happened after the general election of 1854. The Hincks-Morin Ministry having been beaten on the election of the Speaker, and again on a motion to postpone an enquiry into some electoral irregularities, the Cabinet resigned. Sir Allan McNab, the nominal Tory leader, was called upon to form a new Administration and with the aid of John A. Macdonald succeeded in getting the co-operation of M. Morin and his friends. This was the coalition of 1854, and the real birth of what is called the Liberal-Conservative party. I have always thought that this appellation was not a proper one. In fact the men who joined hands in 1854 to carry on the Government of the country were all Conservatives in their principles. The Upper Canada Conservatives, the old Tories, had been extreme in their views, before and after the Union . But of late they had become more moderate, and one of their ablest leaders, the Honourable John A. Macdonald, had written before the election of 1854: " I believe 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 will 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." As for the men who had followed M. Lafontaine, they were yet called " Liberals," as a remembrance of the time when they had fought for constitutional liberty. But that battle having been won, they were really " Conservatives " in their aims and doctrines. They stood against the Liberals of the new school for the Church and her rights ; for respect to all the religious and social traditions of French Canada ; for a wise equilibrium between authority and liberty in the Government of the country. An important Section of the Liberal party of Upper Canada having become bigoted, violently prejudiced and radical in their political opinions, under the influence of The Globe, nothing is more true than the observation of Mr. Joseph Pope in his Memoirs of Sir John A. Macdonald: "The party created by M. Lafontaine and afterwards led by M. Morin had really nothing in common with the Liberals of Upper Canada ; they were, when the echoes of the Rebellion died away, the Conservatives of the Lower Province."


Taking all this into consideration, I believe that even if there was some ground for this appellation of "Liberal-Conservative" when given to the new party in 1854, on account of members of the political groups up to that time called "Liberal" joining the McNab Administration, that name should not have been retained. For my part I think that, though the appellation has yet some interest for the student of political history, it is now and it has been in the past a misnomer. (1) The new leader of the French Conservative party, M. Morin, was a gifted man. He was a scholar, a good writer and a thinker. Like M. Lafontaine he had been a lieutenant of M. Papineau, but had modified his political views since the Union . But he had no ambition and his health compelled him to retire in 1855. The McNab-Morin Ministry had, however, the honour of settling the two vexed questions of the secularisation of the Clergy Reserves and the abolition of the Feudal Tenure, during the session of 1854. M. Etienne Pascal Taché was the next Leader of the Conservatives of Lower Canada. He was loyal, intelligent and energetic. On the retirement of Sir Allan McNab, he became Prime Minister in 1856, whilst the chief of the Upper Canada section of the Cabinet was the Honourable John A. Macdonald. In 1857, M. Taché resigned, and Mr. Macdonald became Prime Minister. He entrusted the Hon. George Etienne Cartier, who had been a member of the previous Administration, with the task of forming the Lower Canada section of the Ministry. M. Cartier had a strong will, great earnestness of purpose, a wide legal and Parliamentary experience, and as a debater he was neither pleasant nor ornate, but clear, well-informed, effective, pugnacious and powerful. M. Cartier was a great leader, the worthy mate of Mr. Macdonald. These two men were destined to rule their country for years.


Under the direction of Cartier the Conservatives were supreme in Lower Canada , almost without interruption, from 1857 until 1872. Their opponents, the Liberals, also called the Rouges, under the leadership of the Hon. A. A. Dorion, were beaten repeatedly at the polls, and reduced to a handful in the House. In 1858, after an accidental defeat of the Ministry on a side issue in the Legislative Assembly, Messrs. Brown and Dorion formed a Liberal Administration whose tenure of office was only forty-eight hours. Then M. Cartier became again Prime Minister with Mr. Macdonald as his chief colleague for Upper Canada . During this period (1855 to 1863) many important measures were passed relating to the decentralisation of justice, to the codification of laws, to the construction of railways, to the development of public instruction, &c. In 1862 the Cartier-Macdonald Administration was defeated, and Mr. John Sandfield Macdonald formed a Cabinet with M. Sicotte as leader of the Lower Canada section. This was a moderate Liberal Administration. One year later, in 1863, it was replaced by a more democratic Government in which Mr. Sandfield Macdonald remained Prime Minister and M. Dorion became the head of the Lower Canada section. In 1864, the Conservatives came back to power and the old French Conservative leader, Sir Etienne Taché, was called upon by the Governor to form the new Administration. He selected as his French colleagues the Hon. G. E. Cartier, H. L. Langevin and J. C. Chapais while the Hon. John A. Macdonald remained the leader of the Upper Canada section. This Cabinet having been defeated after a few months, it became evident that "a strong measure was imperatively called for to relieve Canada from the deadlock, the virtual anarchy, that the equality of parties had produced. The leaders on both sides of the House became alarmed at the perilous state of affairs, and thought they would not be guiltless if party resentments or individual ambitions should prevent them from joining together for the common good, or rather for the cure of the growing evil." It was under such circumstances that the Coalition Government of 1864 was formed. George Brown joined the Government with two of his friends, and the Confederation scheme was resorted to as a means of restoring public confidence and harmony between the Provinces.


Sir Etienne Taché was the Prime Minister of the Coalition Government, and the Conservatives of Lower Canada were its strongest supporters. When Sir Etienne died a year later, Sir Narcisse Belleau became Prime Minister in his stead until 1867. The Confederation scheme was then successfully effected and the Hon. Messrs. Cartier, Langevin, Chapais and their French Conservative supporters very materially helped to secure the desired result. In 1867 a new era began for Canada . Quebec became a Province, having her own local Government like Ontario and the other Provinces, whilst they were all represented in the Federal Parliament at Ottawa . Sir George Etienne Cartier continued to lead the French Conservatives in the Federal arena. He died in 1873. The Hon. (now Sir) Hector L. Langevin was his successor. In 1873 the Conservative Government was defeated, and the Mackenzie Government ruled for five years. In 1878, the Conservatives came back to power and the Province of Quebec sent to Ottawa an overwhelming majority of Conservative members. In fact, as a rule, until 1886, the Province of Quebec was strongly Conservative. The principles of the Liberal party were distasteful to the majority of the people. In the Cabinet formed by Sir John Macdonald in 1878, Sir Hector Langevin and Hon. Messrs. Masson and Baby, represented the French Conservative party.


The North-West Rebellion in 1885 and the Riel affair, gave a distinct blow to Conservative ascendency in the Province of Quebec . Up to that time, in local politics, the Conservatives had ruled with only a short interruption. From 1867 to 1873 the Chauveau Cabinet had administered the Provincial affairs at Quebec . The head of that Government, the Hon. P. J. O. Chauveau, was a well-known orator and writer, and had been for twelve years Superintendent of Education for Lower Canada . Being appointed Speaker of the Senate in 1873 he was replaced by the Hon M. Ouimet, who retired in 1874 on account of the "Tanneries Affair," which raised a storm against the Ministers though it was afterwards established that they were guilty of no wrong-doing in the matter. Another Conservative Government, with M. de Boucherville as Prime Minister, succeeded to the Ouimet Administration. In 1878, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province, M. Letellier de St. Just, a Liberal, dismissed the Government without serious reason for such an extreme action. A Liberal Administration was formed under the leadership of the Hon. H. J. Joly de Lotbinière. A general election took place and the two parties came back from the polls almost evenly divided. The coup d'état of M. Letellier was condemned by a majority of one vote in the Legislative Assembly, but the Government managed in such a way that it remained in power for some months with the casting vote of the Speaker. At last, after eighteen months of this precarious tenure of office, the Joly Administration was beaten, in the autumn of 1879. In the meantime, M. Letellier, strenuously assailed for the dismissal of his Ministers, had been dismissed himself by the Government of Sir John Macdonald, after a Resolution condemning his action had been adopted by a majority of 85 in the Commons, and a reference of the case made to the Imperial Government.


The Hon. J. A. Chapleau had been entrusted with the charge of forming an Administration in 1879, when M. Joly was defeated. He was one of the most brilliant leaders of the Conservative party, and gifted with great oratorical powers. His majority was small at first, but after the general election of 1881 the Conservatives came back with their old strength, and the Liberals were left with about 15 seats in the House out of 65. Then came the sale of the North Shore Railway, which caused a division in the ranks of the Conservatives. M. Chapleau's prestige was shaken by that transaction, and in July, 1882, he left Quebec for Ottawa where he was appointed Secretary of State in the Government of Sir John Macdonald, replacing the Hon. M. Mousseau ; whilst the latter assumed the position of Prime Minister in Quebec. The Mousseau Administration - a weak one - was of short duration. In the beginning of 1884 the head of that Government was appointed a judge of the Superior Court, and the Hon. Dr. Ross formed a new Conservative Cabinet, which seemed likely to conciliate and unite all sections of the party. Unfortunately the Riel execution, which took place in November, 1885, created an intense agitation and racial feeling against the Conservative Administration at Ottawa, and the local Conservative Ministry suffered correspondingly. At the general elections of 1886, a group of Conservatives known as the "Nationalist Conservatives" seceded from the party and put the Opposition in power. The well-known M. Mercier, Leader of the Provincial Liberal party, succeeded in forming a Coalition Government, having the support of "Le Parti National ," and ruled with a strong and lavish hand for five years - from January, 1870, to December, 1891. Then the revelation of the celebrated "Baie des Chaleurs deal," followed by other scandalous exposures, compelled Lieut.-Governor Angers to replace M. Mercier and his colleagues by other advisers. M. de Boucherville was called upon again to form a Ministry, and the Conservatives ruled the Province under M. de Boucherville (1891-1892), M. Taillon (1892-1896), and Mr. E. J. Flynn (1896-1897), until, in the general elections of 1897, they were badly beaten. Quebec has now a Liberal Administration headed by the Hon. M. Marchand.


Let me now go back to Federal politics, which I have left aside for a time to trace the influence of the Riel affair over the fortunes of the Conservative party in the Province of Quebec. At the Dominion election of 1887, though suffering heavy losses in the Province on account of the Nationalist movement, the Government of Sir John Macdonald secured a majority. The leaders of the French Conservatives were then Sir Hector Langevin, acknowledged as the successor of Sir George Cartier, and Sir Adolphe Caron and Mr. J. A. Chapleau. At the general election of 1891 the Government was again victorious in the Dominion as a whole. But the Province of Quebec sent to Ottawa a majority of Liberal members. Sir John Macdonald died in the spring of that year, and the death of its great leader was for the Conservative party an irreparable loss. He was replaced successively by Sir John Abbott, Sir John Thompson, Sir Mackenzie Bowell and Sir Charles Tupper. But the fortunes of the party were declining. The Manitoba School question which Sir C. Tupper loyally and courageously undertook to settle according to the Constitution and equity was a stumbling-­block in his path. The Conservatives of Quebec, notwithstanding their efforts in favour of the cause which was still dear to them, could not stem the tide which was evidently pressing M. Laurier towards the shores of power. The "silver-tongued " orator succeeded in persuading his fellow-countrymen that he could do more for the Catholic minority of Manitoba than anyone else; and he swept his native Province. At the present time (1899) the Conservative party of the Province of Quebec is in op­position both in Federal and in Provincial poli­tics.


(1)  Note by Castell Hopkins : So far as the politics of the Dominion and of to-day are concerned the application of the name may be said to have had a natural origin in the coalition which Sir John Macdonald claimed to have effected in his Federal .Cabinet of 1867.


Source: Thomas CHAPAIS, "Historical Sketch of the Conservative Party in the Province of Quebec", in J. Castell HOPKINS, ed., Canada: An Encyclopaedia of the Country, Vol. VI,   Toronto, The Linscott Publishing Company, 1899, pp. 207-212.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College