The Road to Charlottetown II: The tyranny of the French

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

By David M. Bulger (commentary)

(Editor’s Note: Retired UPEI political science professor David M. Bulger has written a series of articles about the 1864 Charlottetown Conference which attempt to show why the “Canadians” took the Road to Charlottetown. This is part 2)

On September 1st, 1864, the steamship, S.S. Queen Victoria, entered Charlottetown harbour carrying a cargo of champagne, brandy and desperate men.

The men were desperate because they had lived through better than a decade of internal tensions in the United Province of Canada, coupled with a growing demand for greater democracy in the western part of the province–which was resisted in the east. The political centre was not holding and the essential divisions remained.

On July 1, 1867, George Brown wrote to his wife that, with Confederation now a reality, Canada West — the new Ontario — had been delivered from “the tyranny of the French.” That Brown could have considered the French “tyrants” stemmed from three factors: first, the fact that the more populous western half of the United Province had exactly the same number of seats as the less populated eastern half; second, a huge cultural divide between east and west; third, a kind of political practice which had grown up, dominated politics and, then had begun to fall apart.

The political practice stemmed from that failure of the British Government to follow Durham’s recommendation that the United Province be given a responsible form of government. Whether or not Durham conferred with the Baldwins —Dr. William Warren Baldwin and his son Robert — they were among a group of politicians in Upper Canada who believed that responsible government was the only way that the power of the so-called “Family Compact” (a group of Tory/Loyalists who dominated the executive and legislative councils) could be broken.

With Louis-Joseph Papineau in exile, the most significant politician in the eastern half of the United Province was Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine. As early as the spring of 1839, when the general outlines of the new province were known, Francis Hincks, an ally of Robert Baldwin (and like Baldwin, a transplanted Anglo-Irishman), was writing to LaFontaine. What Hincks was proposing was an alliance between LaFontaine’s party and Baldwin’s. While Baldwin did not command anything like a majority of the seats in Canada West, both parties together could command a majority in the House of the United Province.

It worked. And produced among the French the notion that, if they could stick together, command a large enough voting block, ally themselves with someone in the West, they could control the parliament. It was a notion that persisted. In the beginning, the alliance was Baldwin and LaFontaine, later in the history of the United Province, the pairing would be MacDonald and Cartier, but the net effect, always, was that it allowed the French bloc to control the legislature.  

It is likely that, sooner or later, this French dominance was going to produce cultural tensions, but it was helped along by events and developments both within the province and elsewhere. The western part of Canada West had seen a considerable influx of so-called “late Loyalists,” Americans who had lingered in the U.S. until decades after the original flight of the “Tories” in the 1780s. Two of these were significant.

The first was “voluntarism.” This was the basic notion of the separation of church and state. Involvement in religion should be “voluntary”, not enforced by the organs of the state or, on the other hand, rewarded by the state. The second was representation by population, the fundamental notion that is still with us, that the make-up of the legislature should follow population distribution. In the western part of Canada West, there grew up a political party which numbered these ideals among its policies, a party known as the Clear Grits — a party which would eventually be subsumed into the Reform-Liberal party under George Brown, who would maintain those ideals.

The situation in Canada East could not have been more opposed to those ideals. The government of the Eastern half was completely intermixed with the Roman Catholic church.  Hospitals, schools, the various functions we would now characterize as “welfare,” were under the control of the church (and remained so until the 1960s).  Further, the bulwark against being forced to alter this situation, to stave off assimilation, lay in that equal division of seats in the legislature which, by the 1850s, gave the east more seats than it should have had under the principle of representation by population.

Had the two groups been able to remain within their enclaves — the shadowy outlines of Upper and Lower Canada — the divisions might have been largely irritants, the continuing agitation for “rep by pop” notwithstanding, but an event entirely outside their territory was going to significantly affect the cultural, and in particular, the religious balances as the United Province entered the 1850s. That event was due to a fungus on the other side of the Atlantic.

With the failure of successive potato crops in Ireland, between 1845 and 1850, tens of thousands of mainly Roman Catholic Irish found themselves in “coffin ships” making the crossing to North America and landed, for the most part, at the quarantine hospital at Grosse Isle down river from Quebec City but the vast majority made their way to Canada West.

The coming of the Irish could give rise to outrage in the West producing the outcry that there was different “justice” for Protestants and Catholics in Lower Canada). But the main source of contention and division lay in the area of education.

In the East, of course, the schools were run by the Catholic church. In the West, as a result of the Common Schools Act of 1846, schools were supported by taxpayers and were non-denominational. But as more and more Roman Catholic Irish flooded into Canada West, and found their political voices, the demand grew for what are still called “separate schools” in the western half of the province, on the grounds that they should have the same rights as their co-religionists in the east. A series of School Acts for Upper Canada firmly established separate schools in that half of the province.

And those bills carried, over the objections of Western Protestants, because of the power of the French Catholic voting bloc in the parliament of the United Province — for George Brown a shining example of the tyranny of the French.

The failure of the British Government to follow all of Durham’s recommendations had, effectively, produced this situation. The failure to grant “responsible government” had inadvertently given rise to the French voting bloc. So even though Canada was supposed to be a United Province, those in Canada West saw the French political power as a threat to what were considered “internal matters” in their enclave.  

By the middle of the 1850s, it was becoming apparent that the two cultural groups were not going to be able to live comfortably together.  So, the solution looked to be a divorce, a separation of what the Act of Union of 1840 had produced, a return to what had been Upper and Lower Canada, where the French could retain their language, law, culture and intermingling of church and state in a new eastern province, and the Westerners could have all the “rep by pop” that their growing population could justify.

But there was a problem. And that problem is what, ultimately, brought the S.S. Queen Victoria to Charlottetown on September 1, 1864.

David M. Bulger is a retired UPEI adjunct professor of political science

Organizations: House of the United Province.It, Clear Grits, Catholic church Common Schools School Acts for Upper Canada

Geographic location: Canada West, United Province, Charlottetown Durham Ontario U.S. Ireland North America Grosse Isle Quebec City Western Protestants

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page