Andrew Coyne: George Brown, the forgotten man of Canadian history

Ce suprématiste anglo-saxon anti-français n'est tout simplement pas montrable

“It’s the hundredth anniversary of Con-fed-er-ation, everybody sing!” So Bobby Gimby instructed us in 1967. On this 150th anniversary, there would seem little to sing about.
Aboriginal activists want nothing to do with it, denouncing the whole thing as a celebration of colonialism. The Parti Québécois is marking the occasion with a campaign promoting an “alternate” history of Canada, (sample theme: “150 years of Quebec-bashing”). The federal government, plainly spooked, is encouraging the celebration of something called “Canada 150,” but is scrupulous to avoid any mention of what it is the 150th anniversary of.
The CBC, meanwhile, is in the first of what one must assume will be many rounds of apologies for its pop history, The Story of Us, which in its first two episodes has already managed to offend somewhere around a third of the country. Not so the Bank of Canada, which issued a special commemorative note with not one, not two, but four heads on it; amazingly, one of them is the country’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, though I gather it was a near thing.
In the spirit of the times, let me add my own grievance to the gathering national pile. If by some oversight Confederation should somehow be discussed in its 150th anniversary year, it is a safe bet one figure in particular will be mentioned only in passing, if at all: George Brown. Father of Confederation, leader and principal architect of what was to become the Liberal party, founder of The Globe (later the Globe and Mail) newspaper, Brown is the forgotten man of Canadian history.
Even in accounts of our founding as a unified state, his role is generally downplayed, if not omitted: the Bank of Canada was hardly unusual in thinking to include George-Etienne Cartier, Macdonald’s Quebec ally, as the other Confederation-era statesman, but not Brown. Which is odd, because it was more or less his idea.
It was Brown who first championed, in the pages of the Globe, the idea of a federation of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, conjoined since 1841 as the single, though decidedly not united, province of Canada, as the solution to the impasse and instability that had enveloped its politics. He it was who committed the reborn Reform party, cobbled together out of various political factions — moderate Reformers, Clear Grit radicals and Lower Canadian Rouges — to the same proposal, and it was his motion, and the report of the all-party committee he chaired, that led to the idea being adopted by Parliament in 1864.
Most important, it was his decision to join the “Great Coalition” with the Conservative Macdonald, his bitter personal enemy and political rival, that broke the impasse and launched the broader project, a federation of all the British North American provinces, on its way. Much of the work of the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, indeed, was tailored to his design. Brown may not have invented the idea of “rep by pop” — representation by population in the House of Commons, rather than the equal distribution of seats between the two Canadas that had been the case until then — but it was he who insisted on it.
Somewhat less fortuitously, but crucially, Brown was also the champion of the principle that the Senate should remain unelected, that it might therefore be less powerful than the elected Commons. His speech during the Confederation debates was decisive; his role in presenting and explaining the proposal to the British, essential. Afterward, he was instrumental in putting westward expansion, via annexation of the Hudson’s Bay Company territories, on the new nation’s agenda.
And yet no airports are named in his honour; no national parks, or holidays. There is a Macdonald-Cartier highway, but not a Macdonald-Brown. Oh, he has a statue on Parliament Hill, and there’s a community college named after him in Toronto. The post office, I learn from Wikipedia, issued a stamp with his likeness in 1968. But that’s about it. Even the historians seem uninterested: There has been no major biography of Brown since J. M. S. Careless’s, Brown of the Globe, in 1963.
Why this puzzling, almost embarrassed silence? I think it was because he did not fit the narrative: as a staunch defender of Upper Canadian interests, of Confederation as a compact between French and English; as a free trader, of Canada as the triumph of Macdonald’s National Policy against the pull of continentalism; as an advocate of laissez-faire economics, of the whole Tory-Socialist theory of Canada’s evolution as essentially state-driven, an orderly series of public works projects.
This is unfair, and wrong. It’s true that he said some unfortunate things about French-Canadians and Catholics, but more out of a fierce devotion to the separation of church and state — a live issue at the time, of which the public funding of Catholic schools in Ontario is a legacy — than any real animus toward either: he was allied with the anti-clerical Rouges in this regard. Indeed, as a Victorian Liberal he was, by the standards of his day, a paragon of progressivism: a fervent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, and a prison reformer, among other liberal causes.
Is he a divisive figure in our history? No more, I would suggest, than Louis Riel, for whom there is now a statutory holiday, or Rene Levesque, memorials to whom are now federally funded. He deserves better. In this 150th anniversary year of Confederation, let us remember the man who was second only to Macdonald in making it all happen. Maybe not even second.

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