The politics of the Province of Canada in the early 1860s were marked by instability and deadlock. The Great Coalition of 1864 united Reformers and Conservatives in the cause of constitutional reform. It proved to be a turning point in Canadian history, paving the way for the Charlottetown Conference and Confederation.
During the early 1860s, Canadian politics were in a state of crisis. The 1841 union of Upper and Lower Canada had failed to contain the growing ethnic and religious tensions in the two colonies, and the political system was coming close to paralysis.
The union had created a single political unit, the Province of Canada, encompassing Canada West (present-day Ontario), which was mostly English-speaking, and Canada East (present-day Québec), which was mostly French-speaking (see Act of Union).
Canada West was given the same number of seats as Canada East in the colonial legislature even though Canada West had fewer people than Canada East. This meant English-speaking Canadians were over-represented relative to their population. The system was designed to protect the English-speaking minority in the united colony from French Canadian dominance, and to create conditions under which French Canadians would eventually become assimilated to English Canadian culture and norms.
During the 1840s and 1850s, immigration from Britain and Ireland created massive population growth, mostly in Canada West. By 1861, Canada West's population exceeded that of Canada East by over a quarter-million people. It was now the French Canadians who were over-represented in the legislature, relative to their population — a situation that a growing number of English-speaking Canadians regarded as unfair.
Alliances and Tensions
Determined to protect their language, culture and religion from Anglo-Protestant (English) influences, French Canadian politicians made alliances with those in Canada West who supported the idea of responsible government — a more democratic government, responsible to the elected members of the legislature rather than to British-appointed governors. During the 1850s, an alliance with Conservatives in Canada West gave French Canadian leaders considerable control over the levers of power. They had succeeded in turning to their own advantage a political system that was designed to assimilate them.
For a growing number of people in Canada West, this amounted to nothing less than “French domination.” As this view spread, political groups that called themselves Liberals, Reformers and Radicals, became increasingly popular in Canada West. Many were hostile towards and suspicious of Roman Catholicism.
In Canada East, French Canadian Conservatives were a powerful political force, closely connected to the Catholic Church and working with Conservatives in Canada West. If a situation arose in which there was a Liberal-Reform majority in Canada West, and a Conservative majority in Canada East, the province would become increasingly unstable, lurching from one cobbled-together government to another, in an atmosphere of seething resentments and fears — which is exactly what happened during the early 1860s.
Representation by Population
One possible solution – preferred by George Brown, the powerful Reform Party leader in Canada West and editor of the prominent Globe newspaper – was to replace the idea of sectional equality (the balancing of legislative seats between Canada East and West) with representation by population. Under this system all voters would be treated equally, no matter where they lived or what language they spoke, and governments would reflect the wishes of the majority of voters in the whole united province.
Such an arrangement, however, was completely unacceptable to many French Canadians. Many believed representation by population would result in them becoming a permanent minority in an expanding English-speaking, Protestant province — with potentially disastrous consequences for their religion, language and culture.
The Canada West Reformers’ insistence on individual rights ran headlong into French Canadian determination to protect their collective rights.
Another solution, which appealed to many Radicals (also called Clear Grits) in Canada West, was simply to dissolve the union. English Canadians in Canada West could control their own affairs, as could French Canadians in Canada East. But this would leave vulnerable minorities in each territory — English-speakers in Canada East, and Irish Catholics in Canada West.
There was also the possibility that dissolving the union would open the way for annexation of the resulting provinces by the United States. Not surprisingly, Britain opposed anything that might weaken its North American empire — and British opposition to dissolving the union would be difficult to overcome.
A third option was to govern the province according to the principle of the “double majority” — legislation must have the support of a majority from each of Canada West and Canada East. But this would only work if each section elected like-minded majorities, which was not happening.
George Brown's Federalism
Given the difficulties with these approaches, George Brown became increasingly attracted to the idea of a federal arrangement between Canada East and Canada West — the creation of two separate provinces linked by a new federal parliament. He also favoured expanding any federation to include the North West territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In 1860, Brown introduced the idea in the Province of Canada legislature, but he got nowhere. Brown’s proposals nearly split his own party, and were rejected by a decisive majority. Most French Canadian politicians saw no reason to change the status quo, which gave them the power they wanted. And as long as John A. Macdonald's Liberal Conservative coalition in Canada West remained in alliance with Conservative majorities in Canada East, Macdonald's supporters would be part of the government even if they were a political minority in Canada West.
In 1860, Confederation seemed dead in the water.
Towards the Great Coalition
Four years later, however, George Brown’s Reformers, plus John A. Macdonald's Liberal Conservatives in Canada West, and George-Étienne Cartier's bleus in Canada East, were working together in support of Confederation. It was one of the most remarkable and rapid transformations in Canadian political history. What had happened?
Part of the answer lies in external events — specifically, the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861. As the war continued, the Union army expanded to unprecedented levels, and tensions between the US and Britain threatened to escalate into war — something that came close to happening in the winter of 1861–62. Canada could not possibly stand up to American power without British support. But Britain believed that Canada should play a larger role in defending itself and felt that a united British North America would be a more effective counterweight to American power than would a string of separate colonies.
Amid this pressure, Canadian politicians struggled to form strong, lasting governments. Two elections and a string of weak administrations between 1861 and 1864 meant that something in the political system of the Province of Canada needed to change.
"Spirit of Compromise"
George Brown decided that drastic action was necessary. In October 1863, he announced his intention of proposing an all-party legislative committee to discuss Canada’s constitutional future. Everything would be on the table — the idea was to have an open, non-partisan discussion on ways to break the political logjam of Canadian politics.
When he introduced his proposal in the legislature in May 1864, the Liberal Conservative government was clinging to power by its fingernails. Brown’s resolution was opposed by Conservative leaders such as John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, and by prominent Reformers such as Luther Holton and Antoine-Aimé Dorion. But both the Conservative and Reform rank and file were internally divided on the question. To the surprise of Macdonald and Cartier, the resolution received sufficient cross-party support to pass.
Brown immediately appointed a committee of members drawn from both parties to discuss constitutional reform. At the first meeting, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. “Now gentlemen,” he said, “you must talk about this matter, as you cannot leave this room without coming to me.” And so, 17 men, some of whom could not stand one another, were trapped in a room trying to find a way out of Canada’s constitutional difficulties. John A. Macdonald and Cartier were members of the committee, as were Holton and Dorion. Despite their personal and political differences, they approached their work, in Brown’s words, “frankly and in a spirit of compromise.”
During eight meetings, they discussed the relative merits and shortcomings of representation-by-population, dissolution of the union, the double majority, federalism, and continuing the status quo. On 14 June, Brown reported to the House that the committee had a “strong feeling… in favour of changes in the direction of a federative system, applied either to Canada alone or to the whole British North American Provinces.”
Later that day, the Liberal Conservative government was defeated in the House on an unrelated non-confidence motion. This would almost certainly mean yet another election, followed by yet another unstable government.
A New Alliance
Then something surprising happened. Brown believed the political crisis offered an opportunity to break the constitutional logjam. John A. Macdonald decided a political alliance with George Brown could open up all kinds of possibilities. After a brief meeting between the two men on 16 June, the talks began.
In subsequent negotiations, the Liberal Conservatives insisted that Brown and his Reform supporters must become part of a governing coalition rather than offering informal support. The Liberal Conservatives believed that if Brown was actually in the Cabinet of the new government, he and his supporters would be easier to control. For this very reason, Brown was reluctant to join a government with his old enemies. But he came under intense pressure from not only the Conservatives but also his own supporters, who argued that he could best influence events from a position of power. Rather than risk the breakdown of negotiations, Brown decided that he and his party would come into the government.
The other question was whether a federal solution should apply only to Canada or to British North America in general. Brown preferred a federal arrangement for Canada alone, partly because such an arrangement would leave the Reformers in control of Canada West and partly because any attempt at a wider solution could detract from the urgent task of dealing with the Province of Canada’s constitutional crisis.
John A. Macdonald had never liked the idea of limiting a federal arrangement to the two Canadas. He also believed a British North American settlement could counter the continental expansion of the United States and broaden his Conservative base by bringing in the Maritimes. After four days of discussions, a compromise was reached. Legislation would be introduced in the next parliamentary session for federalism among the Canadas. In the meantime, the coalition government would explore the possibilities of a wider British North American federal arrangement.
In late June 1864 — the same week that the Great Coalition was formed — the Governor General of the Province of Canada, Lord Monck, wrote to his counterpart in Nova Scotia, requesting that a Canadian delegation attend a conference on Maritime union that was already being planned in the colony of Prince Edward Island. The request was accepted.
Members of the Great Coalition joined government and opposition politicians from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI for the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864. The conference was, in the words of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, an “extraordinary armistice in party warfare” — and one that paved the way for Confederation in 1867.
A turning point in Canadian history, the Great Coalition proved to be remarkably successful in breaking the logjam of central Canadian politics and in helping to create a new country.