Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2006

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


George Brown's Role in Confederation


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





Although not in office, no one rejoiced more over the accomplishment of confederation than Mr. Brown. No political objects lay nearer his heart than the union of all the British provinces and perfect religious equality. Both objects were now accomplished. No church could lay claim to any superiority in the eye of the law ; no man could say that he was not represented in parliament. Every one could feel proud of being a citizen of a new colonial nation, about to work out its destiny in co-partnership with the motherland. To use Mr. Brown's eloquent words :

“The history of old Canada, with its contracted bounds and limited divisions of Upper and Lower, East and West, has been completed, and this day a new volume has been opened ; New Brunswick and Nova Scotia uniting with Ontario and Quebec to make the history of a greater Canada, already extending from the ocean to the head waters of the great lakes, and destined ere long to embrace the larger half of the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Let us gratefully acknowledge the hand of the Almighty disposer of events in bringing about this result, pregnant with so important an influence on the conditions and destinies of the inhabitants of these provinces, and of the teeming millions who in ages to come will people the Dominion from ocean to ocean, and give it its character in the annals of time. Let us acknowledge too, the sagacity, the patriotism, the forgetfulness of selfish and partisan considerations, on the part of our statesmen, to which under Providence are due the inception of a project of a British American confederation, and the carrying of it to a successful issue. Without much patient labour, a disposition to make mutual concessions, and an earnest large minded willingness to subordinate all party interests to the attainment of what would be for the lasting welfare of the whole people of British America, the result we celebrate this day would never have been achieved. It has taken just three years to accomplish, not certainly an unreasonable period of time for a work of such magnitude.”


Mr. Brown might indeed say that, chiefly by his own labour, the work of his life had been accomplished. Deeply attached to the mother country as a matter of interest as well as sentiment, neither the blunders of British governors or colonial ministers, nor the ri­diculous assumptions of leaders of the governing class at home, that colonists were unequal to the task of working responsible government, for a moment shook his ardour for the continuance of good relations with the empire, or his faith in the possibility of the permanence of a union mutually beneficial. He felt that, with a central government possessing wider powers and more extensive application, the chances of any collision were more remote ; that the desire to interfere in strictly American business, not involving the interests of the empire, would be reduced to a minimum. As an Ontario citizen he frequently referred with great satisfaction to the freedom of action obtained by the provinces. Ontario could now, unhampered by the less progres­sive province, take an independent course in developing the vast re-sources of the country, and adjust taxation to suit its own interests. The immediate acquisition of the North-West Territories, to attain which he had done so much, he looked forward to with great pleasure, as affording a large and almost limitless field for the enterprise of Canadians to fully develop. The removal of matters relating to edu­cation from the domain of Dominion political discussion, and the limit­ation of the powers of local governments to maintain the systems of education as they existed at the time of the union, so far as sectarian schools were concerned, was peculiarly welcome to Mr. Brown, who had at one time incurred some odium in one quarter for the strong ground he had always taken in favour of a non-sectarian system. This was one of the questions he was bound to deal with and settle when he formed his government in 1858. It was one of the difficult points which had to be dealt with in the confederation compact. The settlement might not be exactly all that he desired, or that his opponents on the education question demanded, but it was loyally accepted by all at the time as a fair compromise. The effects of the long and sometimes bitter controversy did not, however, at once disappear. Some disputes were afterwards brought before the Dominion parlia­ment, and some local irritation prevailed for a time in some provinces. In Ontario the last incident in that connection occurred in a correspondence between Mr. Brown and Dr. Ryerson. The controversy respecting Lord Metcalfe's struggle for absolutism necessarily involved sharp comment from the Globe on Dr. Ryerson's course as his princi­pal—we will not say defender, but apologist. The disputes concern­ing the establishment of separate schools, which continued for many years, also resulted, ultimately, in the Globe blaming Dr. Ryerson for allowing himself to be made the instrument in ministers' hands in ex-tending and perpetuating a system which he had frequently denounced as unsound ; and charging him with being substantially rewarded by the minister for yielding when principle, opinions and duty coun­selled him to resist. An article in the Globe of December 8th, 1858, reviewing the question and the superintendent's various opinions on it, provoked a lengthy reply from Dr. Ryerson, addressed to Mr. Brown personally. Mr. Brown, while not admitting the authorship of the article, replied in person ; both letters were published in the same number of the Globe. This reply was a severe one, but as the severity consisted chiefly in references to former expressions of opinions by Dr. Ryerson, and in references to questions of !fact which had transpired in the committees of parliament, the doctor had no special ground of complaint. This was the only occasion on which Mr. Brown was personally brought into contact with Dr. Ryerson, and that was caused by the doctor addressing him in person, and introducing matter which had no connection with the subject of separate schools, such as accusing Mr. Brown with forming a political alliance with Thomas D'Arcy McGee. The chief superintendent was bold enough, while at the head of the school system, to express himself freely on political topics and even to publish electioneering pamphlets. He was a hard hitter, but preferred to give blows rather than take them; he was never known to turn the other cheek to the smiter. Nevertheless, so impatient was he of contradiction, that he was disposed to regard those who did controvert his opinions, and did so in decided and severe terms, as personal enemies. An acknowledgment of his admitted services in the cause of education, to use the language of Mr. Brown's letter, would not alone satisfy the pugnacious superintendent. An amusing proof of this disposition was shown in the terms of a letter he wrote to Mr. Brown in 1868 ; which, however, while showing the disposition referred to, was tempered by an offer of forgiveness. The following are copies of the letter and Mr. Brown's reply, which are published to show the views held by Mr. Brown of the Globe's battles with Dr. Ryerson :


To the HON. GEORGE BROWN.         

TORONTO, March 24, 1868.


DEAR SIR,—I desire on this, the 65th anniversary of my birth, to assure you of my hearty forgiveness of the personal wrongs which I think you have clone me in past years, and of my forgetfulness of them, so far at least as involves the least unkindness or unfriendliness of feeling.


To express free and independent opinions on the public acts of public men ; to animadvert severely upon them, when considered unavoidable, is both the right and duty of the press ; nor have I ever been discourteous or felt any animosity towards those who have condemned my official acts or denounced my opinions. Had I considered that you had done nothing worse in regard to myself, I should have felt and acted differently from what I have done in regard to you—the only public man in Canada with whom I have not been on speaking and personally friendly terms. But while I wish in no way to influence your judgment or proceedings in rela­tion to myself, I beg to say that I cherish no other than those feelings of good-will towards you with which I hope to—as I soon must—stand before the Judge of all the earth, imploring as well as granting forgiveness for all the wrong deeds done in the flesh.


Yours very sincerely.


(Signed,) E. RYERSON.


The following reply was sent by Mr. Brown. The writer is not aware whether it was followed up by any further correspondence.


TORONTO, 24th March, 1868.


Sir,—I have received your letter of this day and note its contents. I am entirely unconscious of any “personal wrong” ever done you by me, and had no thought of receiving “forgiveness” at your hands. What I have said or written of your public conduct or writings has been dictated solely by a sense of public duty, and has never, I feel confident, exceeded the bounds of legitimate criticism, in view of all attendant circumstances. What has been written of you by others in the columns of the Globe has been always restrained within the limits of fair criticism towards one holding a position of public trust.


As to your personal attacks upon myself—those who pursue the fearless course of a public journalist and politician, as I have done for a quarter of a century, cannot expect to escape abuse and misrepresentation, and assuredly your assaults on me have never affected my course towards you in the slightest degree. Your series of letters printed in the Leader newspaper some years ago were not, I am told, conceived in a very Christian spirit. But I was ill at the time they were published, and have never read them. Your dragging my name into your controversy with the Messrs. Campbell, in a matter with which I had no concern whatever, was one of those devices unhappily too often resorted to in political squabbles to be capable of exciting more than momentary indignation.


I am, Sir,


Your most obedient servant,



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Source: Alexander MACKENZIE, "George Brown's Role in Confederation", in The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 108-111.


© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College