One of the least remembered Canadian “Fathers of Confederation” is a man named George Brown. For English Canadians, the “main man” in the formation of the “Dominion of Canada” – the original name for this enormous country occupying the northern half of Turtle Island – was and remains Sir John A. Macdonald.
Despite a recently diminished esteem, Macdonald remains a fixture in Canadian History. His reputation has been tarnished under the onslaught of denunciations for the government’s historic abuse, neglect, and disregard for Indigenous rights. There is certainly more than enough guilt to go round in that sorry tale, and Macdonald deserves his share for his cavalier dismissal of the concerns of the Indigenous peoples and the Métis during the years of his service as Canada’s first Prime Minister.
Before the unification of the original four provinces of British North America into Canada in 1867, Macdonald was not much of a believer in federal union. He was too concerned with gaining and holding power in the old United Province of Canada. This was an artificial “shot-gun” marriage of the French province of Lower Canada (Quebec) and the English province of Upper Canada (Ontario). This Union had a dual purpose of (1) calming the currents of rebellion against the Empire to prevent the two Canadas from rushing into the arms of the Great Republic to the south and (2) assimilating those pertinacious French-Canadians into the ever-expanding British sea as the population grew.
British Governor-General Lord Durham’s scheme half worked, for a time. By opening the door to limited representative democracy in British North America, he obviated most of the rebellious tendencies, giving opposition Reform groups access to political influence and, eventually, power. But those stubborn French Canadians learned how to play the game and would simply not become English!
It was in this environment that Macdonald cut his rather unscrupulous political teeth, learning to wheel and deal and compromise with Upper Canadian (Canada West) and Lower Canadian (Canada East) players of the political game of ever-changing alliances of convenience. From 1848 on, John A. was almost always an important office-holder no matter what combo held the reins. Eventually his opportunistic faction demonstrated its flexible principles by calling itself the “Liberal-Conservative Party of Upper Canada”. Their name indicated their openness to any program that could give them power by adjusting to whatever the majority of voters (propertied males) in Ontario fancied at the moment. Those standing on a program of strong principles could be readily labelled as fanatics of one stripe or another whose ravings were dangerous to law, order, and good government.
Enter a young Scot named George Brown. The Browns immigrated to Toronto, Canada West in 1843. The United Province was three years old.
Brown came with both business and journalistic experience. He quickly established an unaffiliated Reform newspaper called the Banner. Its main base was among Presbyterians, but Brown, while remaining a staunch Presbyterian all his life, quickly saw that to have real influence he must set up a secular press organ that could become representative of the wider Reform principles for all of Canada West. The Toronto Globe was born in 1844. It survives to this day as the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s premier news publications, still highly respected. (How remarkable this is in our age of digital journalism the reader can judge.)
Reform was in Brown’s blood. His faith principles informed his journalism. The Globe rapidly outstripped all its competitors in Canada West, and Brown became a man who could not be ignored. In addition, he was non-partisan in his zeal to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, whether they were “Liberal-Conservative” like Macdonald or nominally Reform, like George Hincks, another prominent Upper Canadian.
Eventually Brown felt compelled to “put his money where his mouth (pen) was” and run for office. He won on his second attempt in 1854. He was Independent Reform, but the Reformers gradually turned to him for inspiration and leadership.
Meanwhile, bad blood on a personal level had grown up between Macdonald and Brown when Brown had uncovered corruption and abuse at work in the Kingston Penitentiary, which was in Macdonald’s constituency. The warden and his son were Macdonald’s supporters and friends and were convicted. Macdonald attempted to have this quashed and denounced Brown for falsifying evidence. An independent inquiry vindicated Brown’s investigation. Macdonald attempted to have Brown censured in the legislature for falsifying the inquiry’s findings. When Brown produced irrefutable documentary proof, Macdonald was completely humiliated. The grudge would endure long.
To Macdonald, Brown was “a covenanting old gentleman” (although Brown was younger than he) whom fun had forgotten, while Brown regularly and publicly denounced Macdonald as a man without scruple or principle.
For Macdonald, politics was his life and his legal practice a sideshow he spent little time on. For Brown, his zeal and passion were all for making Canada, his adopted home, a better place according to his understanding of bringing Biblical principles to bear on law, society and government.
In that respect, he stood squarely in line with the legacy of William Wilberforce, whom we discussed in a previous post. Brown took the plight of refugee slaves arriving in Canada to heart. As his success grew, he used his new-found wealth to develop a settlement for these new arrivals. He set up schools and businesses to employ them. The objective was to enable them to live as free, independent citizens of Canada. The effort was noble, but had only moderate success before Brown could no longer support it due to financial troubles.
Brown always stood against injustice and discrimination, as he understood it. His causes were many, and he took them up with the pen and the wallet. He had his blind spots, and perhaps the biggest one was his antipathy for what he termed “French-Canadianism”, which he twinned with “Papism”. To understand this, without in any way agreeing with his notions, we need to recall that Protestant-Catholic hostility was still pretty hot back then. In Canada, it did not take violent form, but it had a strong influence in politics and society. As we reach the apogee of this story’s trajectory, this needs to be borne in mind.
All the main players on the stage of Canadian unification in the period leading up to and beyond 1867 were part of this dynamic. French-Canadian politicians were Roman Catholic. Almost all Anglo-Canadians were Protestant, mostly Presbyterian or Anglican. There were some Irish Catholics in play too, for example the ex-Fenian Thomas Darcy McGee from Montreal.
It is spring, 1864. After a two-year absence from the political scene Brown has returned to Parliament, which is sitting in Quebec City. He has quickly been chosen leader of the “Pure Grits” – the Reformers who have taken up the new program of Federal Union for Canada. It is the alternative proposal (Brown’s and the Globe’s)to the perpetually stalemated United Province where nothing ever gets done because of rival interests for Canada East and West always blocking one another.
Through the Globe and now in Parliament, Brown has been relentlessly flogging three propositions as the only way forward: (1) representation by population, (2) Federal Government with each province having its own Assembly for its own affairs and a federal government for joint affairs, and (3) expansion of Canada into Rupert’s Land, the vast domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company stretching across the West to British Columbia.
For Macdonald, these propositions are theoretical pipe-dreams, but even John A. is beginning to see that the old system is paralyzed.
The newly-elected Parliament has a shaky administration led by Macdonald for Canada West and Taché for Canada East. Brown proposes a committee to study the idea of Federal Union. Miraculously, against Macdonald’s opposition, it is approved. Brown drafts all the leaders of all the parties into it. Five weeks later, its report is almost unanimously in favour. Macdonald’s is one of only three dissenting voices.
Just after the report is submitted, the shaky coalition collapses. It looks like another futile election will produce nothing new. Canada will go on spinning its wheels unless something amazing happens, but this seems impossible given the entrenched interests and obvious animosities of the parties and leaders. Time is pressing to forestall American expansionism as the Civil War winds down.
Alone in his hotel room, Brown prays. He has an epiphany. He later relates it as a flash of insight and inspiration which does not originate from his own will. It was “Providence” – an old-fashioned euphemism for God intervening.
That evening in mid-June 1864, George senses that a once-in-a-lifetime moment has come. It is time to set aside personal hostility and old grudges for the greater good, for the country, for the future of all British North America. He doesn’t call together advisors whom he knows will try to argue him out of his conviction. He calls in a member of Macdonald’s party he respects and asks him to tell Mr. Macdonald that he wants to offer him a way forward. He tells him he must bring M. Cartier of Canada East into it from the get-go to make it work. Brown already knows, respects, and likes Cartier, contrary to his supposed firm dislike of French Catholics. Cartier likes Brown. Thet became fast friends for life. Throughout the sleepless night, the messages go back and forth until the two rivals finally meet and agree to work together. They exchange their first handshake in fifteen years.
In “The Great Coalition” of 1864, Brown stakes his whole prestige and career on forming an alliance with his nemesis and working under his Premiership in order to break the impasse and change the constitution of Canada to a Federal State.
At the time, this incredible act was labelled “miraculous”, “incredible”, and even “heroic”. Some members of the House were in tears when it was announced with the effect of a lightning bolt. The huzzahs and applause were thunderous! “It was pandemonium!” said one report. One diminutive French-Canadian member rushed across the floor of the House in tears and leapt onto the huge, stately figure of Brown (well over six feet) to hug him and kiss him on both cheeks!
The new Canadian government soon learned that three Atlantic provinces were to meet in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in September for a very similar purpose – to form a Maritime Federation. The Canadians invited themselves. At Charlottetown, a union of all the British North American provinces was proposed and accepted in principle. A second conference in Quebec in October hammered out many details. Brown played a masterful role in laying out the financial background of how it could all work.
In 1867, four provinces initiate the new nation. In 1870, it becomes five. In 1871, it becomes six. In 1873 it becomes seven. In 1905, two more make the nation nine provinces. In 1949, Newfoundland joins to make it ten.
Once committed to the great project he had long remained so sceptical about, John A. Macdonald spear-headed it very ably and overcame all the obstacles. He deservedly became its first Prime Minister. He and a host of other “Fathers” were knighted by Queen Victoria in 1867.
George Brown retired from politics in 1867, his task done. He was shamefully left off the list of new knights. He has largely been forgotten. But it is fair to say that without his momentous, inspired and daring move (his party could have disowned him as a traitor rather than follow him), Confederation would have been long delayed and perhaps would never have occurred. The Stars and Stripes might have been flying across the West and much else right now.
George Brown of the Globe remains one of the key difference-makers in Canadian history. Besides laying the cornerstone of Federal Union, Brown left an enormous legacy in journalism which endures to this day. He also founded the Liberal Party of Canada, which governs Canada right now and has ruled Canada for 90 of the 154 ½ years since July 1, 1867.
Marquis, Vincent. A Truly Loyal Subject: an Account of the Life of George Brown and the
Founding of Canada. Copyright: 1997, 2006, 2017, 2020. Available through Amazon in print and Kindle e-book editions.
For other sources, both primary and secondary, consult the lists at the back of A Truly Loyal Subject.
2 thoughts on “Difference Makers, 3 – George Brown”
Fascinating history, Vince! I can see why you admire George Brown.
I didn’t know you had done a book on George Brown. I will be sure to get it. Another often overlooked difference maker was Alexander Mackenzie who became the first Reform / Liberal prime minister with an impressive list of accomplishments, including the Canadian Supreme Court and the secret ballot, besides being Brown’s close associate advocating a new system of government. Neither of them were knighted, Mackenzie because it was against his principles (though the title of Sir was offered to him). I agree with you that John A. was actually against the founding of Canada which he later embraced. See my blog post “American slave helps found Canada,” Feb. 2020 (Canada & USA). A good biography of PM Mackenzie is an old one entitled “True Grit.” Lastly, the Protestant-Catholic hostility may not have led to murder (unless it had something to do with Whelan’s murder of McGee) but I used to live in the Peterborough Ont. area where there were stories of violence between Protestant and Catholic Irish, in which they exchanged barn burnings (the nearby Catholic community of Cavan were known as “The Cavan Blazers.” Thank for a great article.