George Brown’s Big Boast

“We are striving to do peacefully what Holland and Belgium, after years of
strife, were unable to accomplish. We are seeking by calm discussion to
settle questions that Austria and Hungary, that Denmark and Germany, that
Russia and Poland, could only crush by the iron heel, or armed force. We are
seeking to do without foreign intervention that which deluged in blood the
sunny plains of Italy. We are striving to settle forever issues hardly less
momentous than those that have rent the neighbouring republic and are now
exposing it to all the horrors of civil war.” The speaker is George Brown
and the date is 1865. (See Ajzenstat et al., eds, Canada’s Founding Debates,
University of Toronto Press, 2003, page 14).

Brown is arguing that the Fathers of Confederation have discovered a
constitutional formula for preventing armed rebellions, civil wars, and
foreign interventions, a formula unknown in Europe and in the United States.

The contention is astounding. It’s really some boast! Aren’t Canadians
supposed to be more modest? We boast of course, but in self-deprecating
fashion. Apparently things were different in pre-Confederation days.

It isn’t just Brown’s boldness that surprises. His talk of “blood-soaked
plains,” and revolution seems like wild exaggeration. After 1838 British
North Americans stopped “doing” rebellion. Revolution and civil war in the
Dominion of Canada? It’s too bad we can’t go back to reassure Brown. “Mr.
Brown, we’re from 143 years in the future and we can tell you that frightful
occurrences like those you describe aren’t going to happen here.”

But let’s think. Why didn’t these things happen?  Canadians tend to take
their peaceable history for granted. Perhaps we shouldn’t. There certainly
wasn’t anything essentially pacific about the peoples who settled British
North America. Consider the men in the Legislative Assembly of the Province
of Canada listening to Brown. Normans, Saxons, highland Scots, and so
on, scions of famous warrior “races.”

I think we have to accept Brown’s argument. There is something in the
formula drafted at the Quebec Conference of 1864 that has profoundly worked
to promote civil peace. In brief, the Fathers of Confederation first
identified the matters that pit citizens of one country against each in
armed conflict: religion and national origin. (Think about that argument,
you multi-culturalists!) They then wrote a constitution in which those
matters would never come before the national legislature. In the
constitutional division of legislative powers devised at Quebec, the
dangerously intractable matters were assigned to the provinces. Simple eh?

Or perhaps not so simple. To be continued!

But first: this is the place to say that the formula of which George Brown
is so proud, did not originate with him. Well, to be honest I do not know
just how much credit should go to Brown. But what is usually said is that
the other George invented it. George-Etienne Cartier. Certainly the
best-known one-line statement  is Cartier’s: “[when] we were united together,
if union were attained, we would form a political nationality with which
neither the national origin, nor the religion of any individual would
interfere.”

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