Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2006

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


George Brown and the Great Coalition



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[This text was written in 1882 by Alexander Mackenzie. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]




Mr. Morris having reported to the conservative leaders Mr. Brown's conversations, on the following day, June 16th, Mr. John A. Macdonald asked if Mr. Brown would meet Mr. Galt and himself to discuss the situation and the proposed remedy. This was at once assented to, and a preliminary meeting was held next morning, at which Messrs. Macdonald and Galt appeared as a delegation from the defeated administration, authorized to invite Mr. Brown to strengthen them, with a view to their carrying on the government for the purpose of settling the sectional difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada. When this proposal was made Mr. Brown at once informed them that nothing but the extreme urgency of the present crisis, and the hope of settling the sectional troubles of the province for ever, could, in his opinion, justify their meeting together with a view to common political action. . . . Mr. Brown then stated, on grounds purely personal, that, it was quite impossible that he could be a mem­ber of any administration at present, and that even had this been otherwise, he would have conceived it highly objectionable that parties who had been so long and so strongly opposed to each other, as he and some members of the administration had been, should enter the same cabinet. He thought the public mind would be shocked by such an arrangement, but he felt very strongly that the present crisis pre­sented an opportunity of dealing with this question that might never occur again. Both political parties had tried in turn to govern the country, but without success ; and repeated elections only arrayed sectional majorities against each other more strongly than before. Another general election at this moment presented little hope of a much altered result ; and he believed that both parties were far better prepared than they had ever been before to look the true cause of all the difficulties firmly in the face, and endeavour to settle the represen­tation question on an equitable and permanent basis. Mr. Brown added that if the administration were prepared to do this, and would pledge themselves clearly and publicly to bring in a measure next session that would be acceptable to Upper Canada, the basis to be now settled and announced to parliament, he would heartily co-operate with them, and try to induce his friends—in which he hoped to be successful—to sustain them until they had an opportunity of present­ing their measure next session.


Mr. Macdonald replied that he considered it would be essential that Mr. Brown himself should become a member of the cabinet, with a view to give guarantees to the opposition and to the country for the earnestness of the government.


Mr. Brown rejoined that other members of the opposition could, equally with himself, give that guarantee to their party and the country by entering the government in the event of a satisfactory basis being arrived at. He felt that his position had been such for many years as to place a greater bar in the way of his entering the government than in that of any other member of the opposition.


Mr. Macdonald then said he thought it would be necessary that Mr. Brown himself should, in any case, be identified with the nego­tiations that would necessarily have to take place, and that if he did not himself enter the cabinet he might undertake a mission to the Lower Provinces, or to England, or both, in order to identify himself with the action of the Canadian government in carrying out the measure agreed upon.


It was then suggested by Mr. Brown, and agreed to, that all ques­tions of a personal character, and the necessary guarantees, should be waived for the present, and the discussion conducted with a view of ascertaining if a satisfactory solution of the sectional difficulty could be agreed upon.


Mr. Brown asked what the government proposed as a remedy for the injustice complained of by Upper Canada, and as a settlement of the sectional troubles. Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Galt replied that their remedy was a federal union of all the British North American provinces ; local matters being committed to local bodies, and matters common to all to a general legislature, constituted on the well understood principles of federal government.


Mr. Brown objected that this was uncertain and remote, as there were so many bodies to be consulted, and stated that the measure acceptable to Upper Canada would be parliamentary reform based on population, without regard to a separating line between Upper and Lower Canada.


Messrs. Macdonald and Galt said it would be impossible for them to accede to or for any government to carry such a measure, and that unless a basis could be framed on the federative principle suggested by the report of Mr. Brown's committee, it did not appear to them that anything could be settled.


Ultimately it was found that a compromise might probably be had in the adoption of the federal principle for all the provinces as the larger question, or for Canada alone, with provision for the admission of the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory.


Mr. Brown contended that the Canadian confederation should be constituted first, in order that such securities might be taken in regard to the position of Upper Canada as would satisfy that section of the country, and that in the negotiations with the Lower Provinces, the interests of Upper Canada would in no case be overlooked.


It was then agreed to communicate to parliament that day, June 17th, a statement that the state of the negotiations warranted a hope of an ultimate understanding.


On the 19th, a general accord was reached, “that . . . as the views of Upper Canada could not be met under our present system, the remedy must be sought in the adoption of the federal principle.”


At this stage of the negotiations Mr. Brown requested to have the views of the government in writing. This was done that same afternoon, Mr. Brown in the meantime seeing the Governor-General. The following memorandum, approved by the government and the Governor-General, was then given to him :



The government are prepared to state that immediately after the prorogation they will address themselves in the most earnest manner to the negotiations for a confederation of all the British North American provinces.

That, failing a successful issue to such negotiations, they are prepared to pledge themselves to legislation during next session of parliament for the purpose of remedying existing difficulties, by introducing the federal principle for Canada alone, coupled with such provisions as will permit the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory to be hereafter incorporated into the Canadian system. 

That, for the purpose of carrying on the negotiations, and settling the details of the proposed legislation, a royal commission shall be issued, com­posed of three members of the government and three members of the opposition, of whom Mr. Brown shall be one, and the government pledge themselves to give all the influence of the administration to secure to the said commission the means of advancing the great object in view.

That, subject to the House permitting the government to carry through the public business, no dissolution of parliament shall take place, but the administration will again meet the present House.


Shortly after six the parties met at the same place, when Mr. Brown stated that . . . he had seen a sufficient number of his friends to warrant him in expressing the belief that the bulk of them would accept a measure for the federative union of the Canadas, with provision for admitting the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory. The proposal was then formally agreed to in the following terms, subject to the approval of His Excellency :


The government are prepared to pledge themselves to bring in a measure next session, for the purpose of removing existing difficulties by introducing the federal principle into Canada, coupled with such provision as will permit the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory to be incor­porated into the same system of government.

And the government will seek, by sending representatives to the Lower Provinces and England, to secure the assent of those interests which are beyond the control of our own legislation, to such a measure as may enable all British North America to be united under a general legislature based upon the federal principle.


Mr. Brown then stated that, having arrived at a basis which he believed would be generally acceptable to the great mass of his political friends, he had to add, that as the proposition was so general in its terms, and the advantages of the measure depended on the details that might finally be adopted, it was the very general feeling of his friends that security must be given for the fairness of those details, and the good faith with which the whole movement would be prosecuted, by the introduction into the cabinet of a fair representation of his political friends.


Mr. Brown stated that he had not put this question directly to his friends, but that he perceived very clearly that this was the strong opinion of a large majority of them, and that his own personal opinion on this (to which he still adhered) was participated in by only a small number. Messrs. Macdonald, Cartier and Galt, replied that they had of course understood, in proposing that Mr. Brown should enter the government, that he would not come alone, but that the number of seats at his disposal had not been considered by their colleagues. Mr. Brown was requested to state his views on this point, and he replied that the opposition were half of the House, and ought to have an equal influence in the government.


On Monday, June 21st, at 10.30 a.m., Messrs. Macdonald, Cartier and Galt, called on Mr. Brown, and they went together to the secre­tary's office ; when Mr. Brown, having been asked how he proposed to arrange equal representation in the cabinet, replied that he desired to be understood as meaning four members for Upper Canada and two for Lower Canada, to be chosen by the opposition.


In reply, Messrs. Cartier and Galt stated that, so far as related to the constitution of the cabinet for Lower Canada, they believed it already afforded ample guarantees for their sincerity, and that a change in its personnel would be more likely to produce embarrassment than assistance, as the majority of the people of Lower Canada, both French Canadians and English, had implicit confidence in their leaders, which it would not be desirable to shake in any way. That in approaching the important question of settling the sectional difficulties, it appeared to them essential that the party led by Sir E. P. Taché should have ample assurance that their interests would be protected, which, it was feared, would not be strengthened by the introduction into the cabinet of the Lower Canada opposition.


Mr. Macdonald stated that, as regards Upper Canada, in his opinion

the reduction to two of the number of the gentlemen in the cabinet who now represent Upper Canada would involve the withdrawal of the confidence of those who now support them in the House of Assembly, but that he would be prepared for the admission into the cabinet of three gentlemen of the opposition, on its being ascertained that they would bring with them a support equal to that now enjoyed by the government from Upper Canada.


Mr. Brown asked in what manner it was proposed the six Upper Canada ministers should be selected. Was each party to have carte blanche in suggesting to the head of the government the names to be chosen? To which Mr. Macdonald replied, that as a matter of course he would expect Mr. Brown himself to be a member of the adminis­tration, as affording the best if not the only guarantee for the adhe­sion of his friends. That Mr. Macdonald, on Mr. Brown giving his assent, would confer with him as to the selection of the Upper Canada colleagues from both sides, who would be the most acceptable to their respective friends, and most likely to work harmoniously for the great object which alone could justify the arrangement proposed.


Mr. Brown then inquired what Mr. Macdonald proposed in regard to the Upper Canada leadership. Mr. Macdonald said that, as far as he was concerned, he could not with propriety, or without diminishing his usefulness, alter his position, but that he was, as he had been for some time, anxious to retire from the government, and would be quite ready to facilitate arrangements for doing so. Of course, he could not retire from the government without Sir E. P. Taché's consent.


Mr. Brown then stated that, without discussing the propriety or reasonableness of the proposition, he would consult his friends and give an early reply.


Immediately after this meeting Mr. Brown summoned a meeting of the Upper Canada opposition members, to whom he fully detailed all that had taken place between himself and the members of the government, and then invited them to consider what course the party would pursue. The following minutes give the proceedings, though not the discussion at length :



QUEBEC, June 21st, 1864.


A meeting of the Upper Canada opposition was held this day in the Kent House. Robert Bell, Esq., M.P.P., of Lanark, was called to occupy the chair.


Mr. Brown then gave a statement of the negotiation he had for some days carried on with the government respecting the reconstruction of the government, with a view to accomplish a settlement of the constitutional difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada.


It was moved by Mr. Hope F. Mackenzie, seconded by Mr. McGivern, “That we approve of the course which has been pursued by Mr. Brown in the negotiations with the government, and that we approve of the pro­ject of a federal union of the Canadas, with provision for its extension tothe Maritime Provinces and the North-West Teiritory, as one basis on which the constitutional difficulties now existing could be settled.”—Car­ried. Thirty-tour voted for the motion, namely : Messrs. Ault, Bell (Lanark), Bowman, Brown, Burwell, Cowan, Dickson, Dunsford, Howland, McFarlane, McIntyre, Mackenzie (Lambton), Mackenzie (Oxford), McConkey, McDougall, McGivern, McKellar, Mowat, Munro, Notman, Par­ker, Ross (Prince Edward), Rankin, Rymal, Scoble, Smith (Durham), Smith (Toronto), Stirton, Thompson, Wallbridge (Speaker), Wallbridge (N. Hastings), Wells, White and Wright. The following members de­clined to vote either yea or nay, namely: Messrs. Biggar, MacDonald (Glengarry), MacDonald (Cornwall), Macdonald (Toronto), and Scatcherd.


It was moved by the Hon. J. S. Macdonald, “That the proposition for at least three members of the opposition entering the government be ac­cepted.”


Mr. Mackenzie (of Lambton) moved in amendment, “That the proposition for three members entering the cabinet be rejected, and that the proposition for the settlement of sectional difficulties receive an outside support."


Mr. Mowat suggested that a division be taken on the understanding that those voting “yea” were in favour of the first proposition, and those voting “nay” were in favour of the second proposition.—Agreed to.


The yeas and nays were then taken as follows : Yeas—Messrs. Ault, Bell, Dunsford, Howland, Macdonald (Glengarry), MacDonald (Cornwall), McFarlane, McConkey, McDougall, McGivern, McIntyre, Munro, Not-man, Parker, Rankin, Ross (Prince Edward), Rymal, Smith (Toronto), Smith (Durham), Stirton, Thompson, Wallbridge (Speaker), Wallbridge (N. Hastings), Wells, White and Wright—26. Nays—Messrs. Bowman, Brown, Burwell, Cowan, Dickson, Mackenzie (,Lambton), Mackenzie (Ox-ford), McKellar, Mowat, Scatcherd and Scoble—11. Mr. Macdonald (Toronto) declined to vote.


Moved by Hon. Mr. MacDonald, of Cornwall, “That it is all important that Mr. Brown should be one of the ‘party' to enter the cabinet."—Carried unanimously, with the exception of Mr. Scatcherd, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Burwell.


Moved by Mr. White, and carried unanimously, “That Mr. Brown be requested to continue the negotiations with the government."


R. BELL, Chairman.


Another meeting was held on Tuesday, 22nd, by Mr. Brown and the Messrs. Taché, Macdonald, Cartier, and Galt, when Mr. Brown informed these gentlemen that his friends had authorized him to continue the negotiations.


A further meeting was held at 8.30 p.m., at which the details of the arrangements, in case Mr. Brown and his friends accepted office, were discussed at great length.

Mr. Brown contended strongly that the reformers should have a larger representation in the cabinet than three members. To which it was replied that the administration believed it was quite impossible to satisfy their own friends with a different arrangement.


Mr. Brown then asked if he could be sworn in as an executive councillor, without department or salary, in addition to the three de­partmental offices to be filled by his friends. Mr. Macdonald replied that the principle of equality would in this case be destroyed, and he was satisfied that it could not be done.


Mr. Brown asked if it was a sine qua non that he himself should enter the cabinet ? To which it was replied, that to secure a successful issue to the attempt to settle the sectional difficulties, it was con­sidered that Mr. Brown's acceptance of office was indispensable.


Mr. Brown then stated that it was now for him to consider what course he should pursue, entertaining as he still did the strongest re­pugnance to accepting office.


On Wednesday Mr. Brown met the same ministers, and informed them of his final decision, that he would consent to the reconstruction of the cabinet as proposed; but inasmuch as he did not wish to assume the responsibility of the government business before the House, he preferred leaving till after the prorogation the consideration of the acceptance of office by himself and the two gentlemen who might be ultimately selected to enter the administration with him.


Sir E. P. Taché and Mr. Macdonald thereon stated that after the prorogation they would be prepared to place three seats in the cabinet at the disposal of Mr. Brown.


The preceding narrative of the negotiations of Mr. Brown with the conservative leaders is nearly verbatim from the memoranda published at the time.

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Source: Alexander MACKENZIE, "George Brown and the Great Coalition", in The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 88-94.

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