Canada An American Nation

The Passing of the Old Order

This was the beginning of the long struggle between the conception, clearly envisaged from the outset and stoutly upheld, of the subordination of the colonies to the central imperial authority as the only possible basis for an empire; and the opposing principle of self-government which was carried, unconsciously, from the American colonies to the new settlement, there, growing slowly in darkness and obscurity, to become in the course of time the solvent, not only of the difficulties of Canada but of the problems of empire as well.

Not even in outline can the story of that long-extended struggle between opposing ideas of government be here told. Simcoe had not been ten years out of the country before the issue began to take form, and in another twenty years a majority of the members were demanding a transfer to the Assembly of the powers exercised by the close corporation made up of the governor and his nonrepresentative junta of advisers. Intrenched privilege fought all efforts at dislodgement by all the methods open to arbitrary power. By 1839 responsible government, which meant control of the executive by the elected body, was conceded in principle by Lord Durham in his famous report; and it was conceded, in fact and in practice, nine years later after a complete demonstration that the country could be governed on no other basis.

The critical and determining moment for Canada and for the whole Empire was that in which the issue of responsible government was settled: though the ultimate significance of the decision thus forced was far outside the ken of those who brought it about. They sought a solution for an intolerable local difficulty by a constitutional expedient which alone could bring relief; what, in fact, they did was to introduce an alien principle of government into the imperial system, which in the progress of the years undid the work of Pitt and Grenville and Dorchester and Simcoe and transformed the empire of privilege and central control into a brotherhood of democratic states.

The revolutionary character of the innovation was not hidden from those who resisted the change. What Governor Hutchinson said to the Legislature of Massachusetts in 1773 was said over and over again by the public men of Great Britain, by the resident governors to those who demanded the granting of responsible government. They posed the great constitutional dilemma to the advocates of change. How could the governor of a colony, an official of the British government subject to instructions from his superiors and responsible to them, also be obedient to the will of the people as expressed by a popular assembly? The thing, it was pointed out, simply could not be done. The ultimate authority had to be either the British government or the popular Assembly. If the latter, what would become of the Empire? Lord John Russell in his instructions to Poulett Thomson (afterwards Lord Sydenham), the first governor of Canada (created by the merger of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840), told him in effect that the case for responsible government was just so much nonsense. If the governor, Lord John explained, were to obey his instructions from the Queen (that is from Lord John and his colleagues of the British government) he could not accept conflicting advice from his executive council. If the conditions were such that he must accept the latter then “he is no longer a subordinate officer but an independent sovereign.”

And of course by the same token the colony would become an independent nation. The logic could not be answered in terms; but it had to give way to the overriding logic of hard facts. It became evident that the colony had to be subjected to the autocratic rule of the governor, backed by force; or the people must govern themselves with the governor balancing himself as well as he could between two conflicting responsibilities—that to his elected advisers and that to the government overseas from which he derived his commission. Once this was made clear there was nothing for it but to concede self-government involving popular control of the executive.

If the British colonies had remained separate from one another and therefore small and impotent, the anomalies of the relationship created by this change might never have become apparent, and the “perfect subordination” in external matters which Durham stipulated might have continued. But other influences brought about first the union of the Canadas and later the federation of the colonies, thus creating the physical basis for a nation and making inevitable the emergence of conditions and situations which required the assertion and the exercise of powers inherent in nationhood.

Sixty years ago voices in Canada began to question the theory that the external affairs of Canada were the concern of the British government solely. Edward Blake, afterwards leader of the Liberal Party, in 1874 spoke of Canadians as “four million Britons who are not free” because they had no control over foreign policy. In 1882 David Mills, another Liberal leader, declared that if the rule that external relations must remain in the hands of the British government was unchangeable, it would be the destiny of the Empire to fall to pieces. No open effort was made to modify the theory but there was, as occasion arose, a polite usurpation of the powers, which, according to the original design of Empire, were the exclusive possession of the central authority, with a ready consent by the British government which showed that it recognized that the old order must pass away.

The situation was anomalous and potentially dangerous. That it could so long continue, giving rise to so little friction, is a high tribute to the capacity for practical adjustment and for putting realities above theories and dignities which inheres in British methods of government.

It needed only some international event of first importance affecting the Empire to make the anomaly no longer tolerable; and this the War supplied. The declaration of the relationship among the British nations, necessitated by the development of events, which was made at the meeting of the Imperial Conference in 1917, in war time, was a reaffirmation of the principle put forward unavailingly by the leaders of the American colonists on the eve of the Revolution.

This theory of empire relations, accepted as a basis of adjustment by the British in 1917, was redefined in terms wider and more exact at the Imperial Conference of 1926, and given formal legal sanctions in the Westminster Statute of 1931.

Thus the Second Empire passed; and the British Commonwealth of Nations came into being, firmly based upon the foundation stone of principle which had been rejected in favor of an appeal to the sword just 150 years earlier. The wisdom of the potential rebels of 1774 and 1775 was thus vindicated; but a little too late to save all North America to the Empire. But if North America by reasons of the mistakes of long ago is now and must remain divided politically, it is nevertheless in a larger sense a unity. It remains a stronghold of democracy, a citadel of the English-speaking world.