Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2006

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George Brown on

Roman Catholic Schools of Ontario



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Early in 1871 Mr. Brown had some correspondence with prominent Roman Catholics in relation to their position politically in the province of Ontario. The controversies respecting separate schools and ecclesiastical corporations had resulted in a serious secession of Roman Catholics from the ranks of the reform party. Now that these matters of difference were all removed by the new constitution, many of both sides were desirous of reaching an understanding. The following letter was published on the 9th March, 1871, in response to a paper laid before Mr. Brown by the Roman Catholic committee to whom it was addressed :


To John O'Donohue, Patrick Hughes, J. D. Merrick, and Thomas Mc-Crosson, Esquires, a Committee acting on behalf of a Meeting of Prominent Catholics from all Sections of Ontario.


GENTLEMEN,—I have read with care the paper you have been good enough to place in my hands, with the request that I should reply to it in writing.


I am in no manner entitled to speak officially for the reformers of Ontario. At the convention of 1867 I voluntarily resigned the leadership of that party, and have not since then taken any action in that capacity. Mr. Alexander Mackenzie is now leader of the liberal party from Ontario in the House of Commons, and Mr. Edward Blake is leader in the Ontario Assembly ; they have my most cordial confidence and support, and to them I refer you for an official answer to your questions.


I explained this verbally to you when you did me the honour to call upon me, but you still thought it desirable to have a reply from me, as one who took a prominent part in the agitation which in past years separ­ated the great mass of the Roman Catholic body from the liberal ranks, and who has reliable personal knowledge of the feelings and sentiments of the reformers of Ontario. From this stand-point I have no objection to answer your queries. Indeed, I am glad you have given me an opportunity of doing so, and at the same time of vindicating the policy which the party I had so long the privilege of leading in parliament felt it their duty to inaugurate, and carried to a successful termination.


In what I shall say I trust no offence will be taken if I speak frankly and plainly as to matters of past history and the present situation. The action you and your co-religionists now take may affect most materially the future stability and prosperity of our young Dominion; and it would be but petty statesmanship to conceal from ourselves either the prejudices that have been created in the past, or the principles of justice and equality on which alone a lasting reunion of all sections of the liberal party can be formed.


Will you pardon me for making another preliminary observation ? I am sure you did not mean to convey that it was either possible or desirable that the whole catholic vote of Ontario could be transferred to one political party. God, for His own wise purposes, has created us of different minds, so that, with equal intelligence and equal honesty of purpose, dif­ferent men will come to totally different conclusions from the same premises ; and assuredly it would he most unwise and unjust to constrain catholics, or any others, to cast their votes in a manner contrary to their conscientious convictions. I quite understand that the entire scope of your present application is to enable you to lay before your catholic fellow-countrymen the principles and policy to be maintained by the liberal party of Ontario in the future, so that the large portion of them who hold reform principles, as contra-distinguished from conservative principles, may judge whether it is expedient for them to cast in their lot with the great liberal party.

In the early days of the political history of Upper Canada, the great mass of the Roman Catholics were earnest and reliable members of the reform party. They suffered from Downing Street rule, from family compactism, from a dominant Anglican church establishment, and from clergy reserves, rectories, and ecclesiastical disabilities, in common with the numerous protestant bodies who with them were insolently styled "dis­senters ;" and they fought the battle of civil and religious liberty and equality side by side with their protestant fellow-reformers. And had Upper Canada remained as it then was, a separate province, they would, I doubt not, have fought the same battle up to the hour of its final triumph. The union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841 was the commencement of a change. The French Canadian element then came into the political field and gave the catholics a position of dominance they had not previously held. From 1843 (when Mr. Baldwin as leader of the Upper Canada re-formers formed a political alliance with Mr. Lafontaine as leader of the French Canadians), up to the year 1850, the protestant and catholic reformers continued to act together harmoniously. The Globe was the recognized organ of the party in Upper Canada, and I remember with pleasure the intelligent and cordial manner in which the Irish catholics through these years sustained all liberal and progressive measures. We were then fighting the battle for responsible government in opposition to Sir Charles Metcalfe and his conservative advisers—which was closed triumphantly in the winter of 1847-48 by a grand success at the polls, and the complete establishment of the great reform for which we had so long and so earnestly contended.


Messrs. Baldwin and Lafontaine came into office in March, 1848 ; the reform party was all-powerful in both houses of parliament : and the reformers of Upper Canada had the right to expect that the principles and measures they (protestant and catholic alike) had contended for, and been taught by their leaders to expect, would now be carried into full operation. The French Canadian members of the cabinet and their supporters in par­liament blocked the way. Not only were reformers refused that which had been promised for years, but principles and measures were urged or endorsed by the reform government in direct hostility to the views and feelings of the reformers of Upper Canada. A large section of the liberal party became alarmed, and remonstrated ; but without effect. Indignation and estrangement followed. The French Canadians felt their power and used it relentlessly ; a section of the Upper Canada reformers went into opposition, while another section adhered to the government, and the party became thoroughly disorganized.


Need I remind you of what followed? Although much less numerous than the people of Upper Canada, and contributing to the common purse hardly a fourth of the annual revenue of the united provinces, the Lower Canadians sent an equal number of representatives with the Upper Canadians to parliament, and by their unity of action obtained complete domi­nancy in the management of public affairs. Acting on the well-known adage "Nous avons l'avantage, profitons-en !" the French Canadians turned the divisions among Upper Canadians to their own advantage in every possible way. Unjust and injurious legislation, waste and extravagance in every public department, increased debt and heavier taxation, were the speedy consequences, until the credit of the country was seriously imperilled.


A remedy had to be applied to this state of things ; and it had to be such a remedy as would overthrow the unjust dominancy of the Lower Canadians over Upper Canada affairs, and remove from the public arena as far as possible all such questions as excited strife and heartburning among our own people. That remedy was believed to be found, first, in the adoption of population as the basis of parliamentary representation, thereby securing to Upper Canada her just influence in the legislature ; and, second, in the entire separation of church and state, placing all denominations on a like footing, and leaving each to support its own religious establishments from the funds of its own people. The reform party became strongly impressed with the conviction that until these measures of reform were obtained, good government was impossible, and sectional and sectarian strife would continue to afflict the country. They as heartily believed that if legislation and the control over the public expenditures were placed by just representation in the hands of those who paid the taxes, and if the state were debarred from regarding the people in their sectarian character, but treated all alike without regard to their religious opinions, a clay of solid prosperity and internal peace would dawn on Canada such as had not before been witnessed.


Acting on these strong convictions, and in the conscientious belief (rightly or wrongly entertained) that by no other measures could the end sought be permanently secured--the reform party entered on an organized agitation for a reformed system of representation, and for the sweeping away from the public arena of all sectarian issues. The men who led in that agitation fully comprehended the gravity of the responsibility they assumed, and the painful separations that it must entail ; but they were upheld by earnest belief in the absolute necessity of the course they were taking : and they looked forward with hope and pleasure to the day when their policy would be vindicated by the results it would achieve. In parliament and out of it, the agitation was prosecuted with all vigour. The injustice of the existing system of representation was attacked on all occasions, and the practical evils flowing from it were pressed on the public mind ; petitions for its reform were poured into parliament, and at every election throughout the land the hustings was made a battlefield for the promotion of the great end sought. At the same time, the most determined efforts were put forth for the final but just settlement of all those vexed questions by which religious sects were arrayed against each other, clergy-men dragged as combatants into the political arena, religion brought into contempt, and opportunity presented to our French Canadian friends to rule us through our own dissensions. The clergy reserve injustice was assailed, the 57 rectories were exposed, the impolicy of separating the youth of our country, and studding the land with sectarian schools, was strongly enforced ; and the waste and impolicy of using the public funds for sectarian uses was firmly maintained and enforced. On all these and many similar questions we were met by the French Canadian phalanx in hostile array ; our whole policy was denounced in language of the strongest charac­ter, and the men who upheld it were assailed -as the basest of mankind. We on our side were not slow in returning blow for blow, and feelings were excited among the catholics of Upper Canada that estranged the great bulk of them from our ranks.


But the cause advanced. Our annual motions for reformed representa­tion got a stronger support every session, until hardly a candidate dared present himself for election without pledging himself to go for it. Our anti-sectarian motions were still more successful. The justice of them commended itself to the public mind, and one after another all these vexed questions found permanent solution and disappeared from parliamentary discussion. And I call your attention to this fact,  that settled though some of these questions were in a very unsatisfactory fashion, the day of their settlement was the last of their existence as topics of debate. Not in a single instance was it proposed to rake their ashes from the tomb, or make the mode of their settlement, after the event, the subject of party warfare.


Need I remind you how, year after year, the reform party stuck to their great purpose ; and how, at last, by a party sacrifice having few parallels in party history, they won for the people of Upper Canada—protestant and catholic alike—that great measure of justice embodied in the Act of 1867. Under that Act the people of Ontario enjoy representation according to population ; they have entire control over their own local affairs ; and the last remnant of the sectarian warfare—the separate school question—was settled forever by a compromise that was accepted as final by all parties concerned.


I deny not that in this protracted contest words were spoken and lines were penned that had been better clothed in more courteous guise. But when men go to war they are apt to take their gloves off ; and assuredly if one side struck hard blows the other was not slow in returning them. And looking back on the whole contest, and the ends it has already accomplished, I do think every dispassionate person must confess that had the battle been ten times fiercer than it was, and the words spoken ten times more bitter than they were, the triumphant success that has attended the long agitation would have sunk all the evils attending it into utter insignificance. We have obtained our just share in the administra­tion of the affairs of the Dominion ; we have obtained exclusive control over our provincial affairs ; we have banished sectarian discord from our legislative and executive chambers ; and we enjoy a degree of material prosperity, and have a degree of consideration for the religions views and feelings of each other, that no living man ever witnessed in Canada till now.


I claim that to accomplish these great ends was, all through our agita­tion, the avowed object for which we fought. I claim that the principles involved in our agitation were precisely those that the catholics of Canada held and firmly contended for in the olden time when they worked cordially in the liberal ranks. I repeat my conviction that, had it not been for the intrusion of French Canadian dictation in our affairs, the reform party might have remained intact until this day. And I ask those of you who can do so, to carry your minds back to the position held by catholics in times gone by, and say whether any other section of the people of Upper Canada has such good reason to rejoice in the banishment of sec­tarian issues from the political arena, and the perfect equality of all denominations now so firmly and so happily enjoyed, as have the catholics of Ontario.


There are tens of thousands of catholics throughout the province who can well remember the days when protestant and catholic reformers acted cordially together. They have had fifteen years trial of alliance with our opponents, and I ask them to say frankly how the position they have held, as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the high church and state Anglican party, compares with the just consideration they received when allied with us ? How many Irish catholics have been elected for conservative constituencies ? How much of the enormous patronage of the Crown in the past fifteen years has fallen into catholic hands ? What pretence of consideration has been shown to the prominent catholics of the province, except the honour of marching up to the polls and voting for Tory candidates? Ay, and what disadvantages might not the catholics to this hour have been labouring under, had protestant reformers left them to the tender mercies of the men whom they are now striving to bolster up?


As I have already said, I am in no official position to entitle me to speak for the reformers of Ontario ; but thirty years of journalism in close con­nection with that party, and many years of leadership in parliament, have given me a thorough knowledge of their principles, and feelings, and opinions ; and I am persuaded I shall not err when I say that protestant reformers, with very trifling exceptions, would welcome with gladness the return of catholic reformers to their party, and that as they were treated in the olden time, so they would be treated now. All the vexed questions that caused the separation have been settled and swept away, and now all are free to act together for the advancement and prosperity of our country, and to treat all men alike, without regard to their religious opinions.


I believe it is the universal feeling of protestant reformers throughout Ontario, now that French Canadian interference in our affairs has been brought to an end—now that the protestant majority is completely dominant in our province, and the catholics placed by their scattered position at disadvantage—that it is the incumbent duty of the reform party, dictated as well by their most cherished principles as by justice and good policy, that a full share of parliamentary representation according to their numbers, and generous consideration in all public matters, should be awarded to the catholic minority. And they have shown their sincerity by placing Irish catholic reformers—not because they are catholics, but because they are good men and true all of them—as candidates for seats in the assembly in four most important constituencies, and with every prospect of success—with certainty of success should their fellow-catholic electors cast their votes in their favour. This the reform party has done voluntarily, gladly, without condition, although a vast preponderance of the catholic electors will in all probability cast their votes in the coming contest in favour of our opponents and against our candidates. I leave you to judge from this, how different your position as catholics would have been to-day, had we been able to bring forward liberal candidates in other constituencies where, from the strength of the catholic vote and its opposition to our candidates, we have been unable to make a move. 'In the position you now occupy, you get but the little you can extort from the fears of those you serve ; but as members of the liberal party you would have all the influence and all the advantages that perfect equality and common interests can secure.


Now, don't mistake the drift of this paper. I am not assuming to advise catholic reformers as to the course they should pursue in public affairs. That is for them alone to judge and decide. Neither am I seeking to cloak over past feuds or apologize for past occurrences. The principles and measures my party contended for in the past I contend for still. I glory in the justice and soundness of those principles and measures. I am proud of the men who, amid long and bitter discouragement, stuck to the good cause until they carried it to victory—and I point with glad thankfulness to the banishment of religious jealousy and discord that so long rent our country, and to the peace and prosperity that now reign amongst us, as the undeniable fruits of the twenty years' conflict of the great reform party of Upper Canada.


I have written as I have done simply to show catholic reformers in plain language, from a reform point of view, how the separation between protestant and catholic liberals arose ; the great ends for which the agitation was carried on ; the signal success that has attended it ; and the entire settlement and removal by it of all these questions that barred the way to a reunion of the old reform party. All I ask is that they shall forget for a few minutes whose name is attached to this paper, and read calmly what is written. Let them blaze away at George Brown afterwards as vigor­ously as they please, but let not their old feuds with him close their eyes to the interests of their country, and their own interests as a powerful section of the body politic. I am no longer in parliamentary life, and have no public favours to ask of anybody ; but I confess it is with no slight satisfaction I entertain the conviction that the day is near at hand, if indeed it has not already come, when even our catholic fellow-citizens will be ready to admit that the wisdom and patriotism of the policy of the reform party from 1854 to 1867 has been amply justified by the great results it has brought about.


I remain, Gentlemen, yours truly,



GLOBE OFFICE, Toronto, 9th March, 1871.

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Source: George BROWN, "Letter to the Roman Catholic Committee (re. Roman Catholic Schools of Ontario", in Alex. MACKENZIE, The Life and Speeches of Hon. George Brown, Toronto, The Globe Printing Company, 1882, 381p., pp. 122-127.

© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College