Peter Russell’s Mistake about George Brown

Peter H. Russell argues that George Brown disliked French Canadians and that
this personal distaste contributed to the political strife of the
pre-Confederation period. He cites a letter from George B. to Mrs. Brown,
written at the conclusion of the Quebec Conference (1864). It reads in part:
“Is it not wonderful? French Canadianism entirely extinguished!”
(Constitutional Odyssey, page 33).
Well for goodness sakes! The Ideal File has been working overtime in past
entries to suggest that Brown and the French Canadians worked together
amicably in the Confederation debates. I’ve been talking about the “two
Georges” – George Brown and George-Etienne Cartier – as if they were bosom
It’s time to admit that Russell’s right on one point. The Georges were not
personal best friends. (I’m reading and enjoying Alistair Sweeny’s biography
of Cartier.) Brown had been quarrelling with Cartier, H.-L Langevin and
others for years. He and the French Canadians were reconciled only in 1864
and 65, and then only for the one purpose, to secure the division of
legislative powers proposed in the Quebec Resolutions. But Russell’s wrong
to believe that Brown’s pronouncements in the legislature reflect personal
In the debates in the Canadian Legislative Assembly Brown sets aside
personal views. He’s on fire with a great political discovery, which in his
opinion overrides particular feelings and indeed forbids them. (See the Idea
File, “George Brown’s Big Boast.”) He’s convinced that he and the French
Canadians, chief among them Cartier, together have found a way to abort the
kind of dangerous political conflict that had made Canadian politics
miserable in the past.
In the letter to his wife he is not expressing dislike for the French and
French Canadianism. He is conveying his satisfaction that  debate in the
national legislature of the new federation would never consider intractable
matters of nationality and particular religious sentiment. It would not
entertain debates on “French Canadianism.”  French Canadianism and all such
particular demands would be “extinguished.”
What the world need now is love, sweet love? If we agree with Brown we we’ll
say, phooey. What the world needs now are politicians who can set aside
personal preferences and grievances, to participate in fruitful political
dialogue. In the Canadian political science literature Russell is cited
repeatedly as an authority on the Canadian Constitution. But on this
essential point, he’s missed the boat.
We’ve seen that Cartier was in agreement with Brown. “Now 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.”
Cartier saw the fact that issues dear to French Canadians would be excluded
from the national legislature as the surest way to protect French Canadian
interests in a federation with an English majority. French-speaking
Canadians would of course take their seats in the general government of the
nation. And Cartier very naturally expected to wield considerable power in
that government. But he knew that the French Canadians’ role in the
Parliament of Canada would not be to represent French Canadian interests.
Their task would be first, to deliberate on all the issues proper to the
national legislature under the British North America Act, and second, to
resist attempts by English-speaking members to meddle in the particularities
of French Canadian life.
Brown and Cartier: it was a match made in heaven. Brown wanted to get
contentious issues out of the national legislature. The French wanted to
curtail the power of the English-speakers to suppress French Canadian
traditions and institutions. Voilà, the Canadian “political nationality.”
(Now can I “think together” – to use the phrase made familiar by George
Grant – the idea of the “political nationality” and the jumble of
pronouncements that is the Bouchard-Taylor Report? That’s some assignment!)


1 Response to “Peter Russell’s Mistake about George Brown”

  1. 1 Alastair Sweeny June 9, 2008 at 6:28 pm


    Cartier was an immensely practical politician. He had two main goals: to reestablish the old province of Quebec where his people would have a majority, and to create a new nationality whose entrepot would be the city of Montreal.

    In all the years of deadlock LaFontaine and Cartier maintained the voting block that nine times out of ten would control the union to this end.

    Many of the other fathers wished for a unitary state like Britain, instead of a federation. To Cartier, there was no question of this happening.

    In my research, I never detected any animosity on the part of Cartier toward George Brown, but no friendliness either. Brown was simply a radical preaching rep by pop who had to come to his senses.

    When Brown finally came to realize there was no way out of the deadlock without a temporary union with Cartier and the Bleus, then Confederation was achieved.

    When Brown wrote to his wife Ann, “Is it not wonderful? French Canadianism entirely extinguished!” he naively believed it to be so. Don’t forget at the time Montreal had a majority English population, and Brown felt that Confederation would finally eliminate the bother of the French fact.

    Alastair Sweeny

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