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The World’s Famous Orations.
Great Britain: II. (1780–1861). 1906.

Sir John Alexander Macdonald

On Canadian Confederation

I HAVE had the honor of being charged, on behalf of the government, to submit a scheme for the confederation of all the British North American Provinces—a scheme which has been received, I am glad to say, with general if not universal approbation in Canada. This subject is not a new one. For years it has more or less attracted the attention of every statesman and politician in these provinces, and has been looked upon by many far-seeing politicians as being eventually the means of deciding and settling very many of the vexed questions which have retarded the prosperity of the Colonies as a whole, and particularly the prosperity of Canada.

The subject, however, tho looked upon with favor by the country, and tho there were no distinct expressions of opposition to it from any party, did not begin to assume its present proportions until the last session. Then men of all parties and all shades of politics became alarmed at the aspect of affairs. They found that such was the opposition between the two sections of the Province, such was the danger of impending anarchy in consequence of the irreconcilable differences of opinion with respect to representation by population between Upper and Lower Canada, that unless some solution of the difficulty was arrived at we would suffer under a succession of weak governments—weak in numerical support, weak in force, and weak in power of doing good.

In the proposed constitution all matters of general interest are to be dealt with by the general legislature; while the local legislatures will deal with matters of local interest which do not affect the confederation as a whole, but are of the greatest importance to their particular sections. By such a division of labor the sittings of the general legislature would not be so protracted as even those of Canada alone. And so with the local legislatures: their attention being confined to subjects pertaining to their own sections, their sessions would be shorter and less expensive.

Then, when we consider the enormous saving that will be effected in the administration of affairs by one general government; when we reflect that each of the five Colonies has a government of its own with a complete establishment of public departments and all the machinery required for the transaction of the business of the country; that each has a separate executive, judicial, and militia system; that each Province has a separate ministry, including a minister of militia, with a complete adjutant-general’s department; that each has a finance minister, with a full customs and excise staff; that each Colony has as large and complete and administrative organization with as many executive officers as the general government will have—we can well understand the enormous saving that will result from a union of all the Colonies, from their having but one head and one central system. We in Canada already know something of the advantages and disadvantages of a federal union.

The whole scheme of confederation as propounded by the conference as agreed to and sanctioned by the Canadian government, and as now presented for the consideration of the people and the legislature, bears upon its face the marks of compromise. Of necessity there must have been a great deal of mutual discussion. When we think of the representatives of five Colonies, all supposed to have different interests, meeting together, charged with the duty of protecting those interests and of pressing the views of their own localities and sections, it must be admitted that had we not met in a spirit of conciliation and with an anxious desire to promote this union; if we had not been impressed with the idea contained in the words of the resolution,—“that the best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America would be promoted by a federal union under the Crown of Great Britain,”—all our efforts might have proved to be of no avail. If we had not felt that, after coming to this conclusion, we were bound to set aside our private opinions on matters of detail; if we had not felt ourselves bound to look at what was practicable—not obstinately rejecting the opinions of others nor adhering to our own; if we had not met, I say, in a spirit of conciliation, and with an anxious, overruling desire to form one people under one government, we never would have succeeded.

With these views we press the question on this House and the country. I say to this House, if you do not believe that the union of the Colonies is for the advantage of the country, that the joining of these five peoples into one nation under one sovereign is for the benefit of all, then reject the scheme. Reject if you do not believe it to be for the present advantage and future prosperity of yourselves and your children. But if, after a calm and full consideration of this scheme, it is believed, as a whole, to be for the advantage of this Province—if the House and country believe this union to be one which will ensure for us British laws, British connection, and British freedom, and increase and develop the social, political, and material prosperity of the country—then I implore this House and the country to lay aside all prejudices and accept the scheme which we offer. I ask this House to meet the question in the same spirit in which the delegates met it. I ask each member of this House to lay aside his own opinions as to particular details and to accept the scheme as to a whole, if he think it beneficial as a whole.

As I stated in the preliminary discussion, we must consider this scheme in the light of a treaty. By the happy coincidence of circumstances, just when an administration had been formed in Canada for the purpose of attempting a solution of the difficulties under which we labored, at the same time the Lower Provinces, actuated by a similar feeling, appointed a conference with a view to a union among themselves, without being cognizant of the position the government was taking in Canada. If it had not been for this fortunate coincidence of events, never, perhaps, for a long series of years would we have been able to bring this scheme to a practical conclusion. But we did succeed. We made the arrangement, agreed upon the scheme, and the deputations from the several governments represented at the Conference went back pledged to lay it before their governments, and to ask the legislatures and people of their respective Provinces to assent to it. I trust the scheme will be assented to as a whole. I am sure this House will not seek to alter it in its unimportant details; and if altered in any important provisions the result must be that the whole will be set aside and we must begin de novo. If any important changes are made, every one of the Colonies will feel itself absolved from the implied obligation to deal with it as a treaty, each Province will feel itself at liberty to amend it ad libitum so as to suit its own views and interests; in fact the whole of our labors will have been for naught, and we will have to renew our negotiations with all the colonies for the purpose of establishing some new scheme.

I hope the House will not adopt any such course as will postpone, perhaps for ever, or at all events for a long period, all chances of union. All the statesmen and public men who have written or spoken on the subject admit the advantages of a union if it were practicable; and now, when it is proved to be practicable, if we do not embrace this opportunity, the present favorable time will pass away, and we may never have it again. Because, just so surely as this scheme is defeated, will be revived the original proposition for a union of the Maritime Provinces irrespective of Canada; they will not remain as they are now, powerless, scattered, helpless communities; they will form themselves into a power which, tho not so strong as if united with Canada, will nevertheless be a powerful and considerable community, and it will be then too late for us to attempt to strengthen ourselves by this scheme, which, in the words of the resolution, “is for the best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America.”

If we are not blind to our present position we must see the hazardous situation in which all the great interests of Canada stand in respect to the United States. I am no alarmist, I do not believe in the prospect of immediate war. I believe that the common sense of the two nations will prevent a war; still we can not trust to probabilities. The government and legislature would be wanting in their duty to the people if they ran any risk. We know that the United States at this moment are engaged in a war of enormous dimensions: that the occasion of a war with Great Britain has again and again arisen and may at any time in the future again arise. We can not foresee what may be the result; we can not say but that the two nations may drift into a war as other nations have done before. It would then be too late, when war had commenced, to think of measures for strengthening ourselves or to begin negotiations for a union with the sister Provinces.

At this moment, in consequence of the ill feeling which has arisen between England and the United States—a feeling of which Canada was not the cause—in consequence of the irritation which now exists owing to the unhappy state of affairs on this continent, the reciprocity treaty, it seems probable, is about to be brought to an end; our trade is hampered by the passport system, and at any moment we may be deprived of permission to carry our goods through United States channels; the bonded goods system may be done away with, and the winter trade through the United States put an end to. Our merchants may be obliged to return to the old system of bringing in during the summer months the supplies for the whole year. Ourselves already threatened, our trade interrupted, our intercourse, political and commercial, destroyed, if we do not take warning now when we have the opportunity, and, while one avenue is threatened to be closed, open another by taking advantage of the present arrangement and the desire of the Lower Provinces to draw closer the alliance between us, we may suffer commercial and political disadvantages it may take long for us to overcome.

It is the fashion now to enlarge on the defects of the Constitution of the United States, but I am not one of those who look upon it as a failure. I think and believe that it is one of the most skilful works which human intelligence ever created; is one of the most perfect organizations that ever governed a free people. To say that it has some defects is but to say that it is not the work of omniscience, but of human intellects. We are happily situated in having had the opportunity of watching its operation, seeing its working from its infancy till now. It was in the main formed on the model of the Constitution of Great Britain, adapted to the circumstances of a new country, and was perhaps the only practicable system that could have been adopted under the circumstances existing at the time of its formation. We can now take advantage of the experience of the last seventy-eight years during which that Constitution has existed, and I am strongly in the belief that we have in a great measure avoided in this system which we propose for the adoption of the people of Canada the defects which time and events have shown to exist in the American Constitution.

In the first place, by a resolution which meets with the universal approval of the people of this country, we have provided that for all time to come, so far as we can legislate for the future, we shall have as the head of the executive power the sovereign of Great Britain. No one can look into futurity and say what will be the destiny of this country. Changes come over nations and peoples in the course of ages. But so far as we can legislate we provide that for all time to come the sovereign of Great Britain shall be the sovereign of British North America. By adhering to the monarchical principle we avoid one defect inherent in the Constitution of the United States. By the election of the president by a majority and for a short period, he never is the sovereign and chief of the nation. He is never looked up to by the whole people as the head and front of the nation. He is at best but the successful leader of a party. This defect is all the greater on account of the practise of reelection. During his first term of office he is employed in taking steps to secure his own reelection, and for his party a continuance of power. We avoid this by adhering to the monarchical principle—the sovereign whom you respect and love. I believe that it is of the utmost importance to have that principle recognized so that we shall have a sovereign who is placed above the region of party—to whom all parties look up; who is not elevated by the action of one party nor depressed by the action of another; who is the common head and sovereign of all.

With us the sovereign, or in this country the representative of the sovereign, can act only on the advice of his ministers, those ministers being responsible to the people through Parliament. Prior to the formation of the American Union, as we all know, the different States which entered into it were separate Colonies. They had no connection with each other further than that of having a common sovereign, just as with us at present. Their constitutions and their laws were different. They might and did legislate against each other, and when they revolted against the mother country they acted as separate sovereignties and carried on the war by a kind of treaty of alliance against the common enemy. Ever since the Union was formed, the difficulty of what is called “State rights” has existed, and this had much to do in bringing on the present unhappy war in the United States. They commenced, in fact, at the wrong end. They declared by their Constitution that each State was a sovereignty in itself, and that all the powers incident to a sovereignty belonged to each State, except those powers which by the Constitution were conferred upon the general government and Congress.

Here we have adopted a different system. We have strengthened the general government. We have given the general legislature all the great subjects of legislation. We have conferred on them, not only specifically and in detail all the powers which are incident to sovereignty, but we have expressly declared that all subjects of general interest not distinctly and exclusively conferred upon the local governments and local legislatures shall be conferred upon the general government and legislature. We have thus avoided that great source of weakness which has been the cause of the disruption of the United States. We have avoided all conflict of jurisdiction and authority, and if this Constitution is carried out, as it will be in full detail in the imperial act to be passed if the colonies adopt the scheme, we will have in fact, as I said before, all the advantages of a legislative union under one administration, with at the same time the guaranties for local institutions and for local laws which are insisted upon by so many in the Provinces now, I hope, to be united.

I think it is well that in framing our Constitution our first act should have been to recognize the sovereignty of her majesty. I believe that while England has no desire to lose her Colonies, but wishes to retain them—while I am satisfied that the public mind of England would deeply regret the loss of these Provinces—yet, if the people of British North America, after full deliberation, had stated that they considered it was for their interest, for the advantage of the future British North America, to sever the tie, such is the generosity of the people of England that, whatever their desire to keep these Colonies, they would not seek to compel us to remain unwilling subjects of the British Crown. If, therefore, at the conference, we had arrived at the conclusion that it was for the interest of these Provinces that a severance should take place, I am sure that her majesty and the imperial Parliament would have sanctioned that severance. We accordingly felt that there was a propriety in giving a distinct declaration of opinion on that point, and that in framing the Constitution its first sentence should declare that “The executive authority or government shall be vested in the sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and be administered according to the well-understood principles of the British Constitution, by the sovereign personally, or by the representative of the sovereign duly authorized.”

That resolution met with the unanimous assent of the conference. The desire to remain connected with Great Britain and to retain our allegiance to her majesty was unanimous. Not a single suggestion was made that it could by any possibility be for the interest of the Colonies, or of any section or portion of them, that there should be a severance of our connection. Altho we knew it to be possible that Canada, from her position, might be exposed to all the horrors of war by reason of causes of hostility arising between Great Britain and the United States—causes over which we had no control and which we had no hand in bringing about—yet there was a unanimous feeling of willingness to run all the hazards of war, if war must come, rather than lose the connection between the mother country and these Colonies.

We provide that “the executive authority shall be administered by the sovereign personally, or by the representative of the sovereign duly authorized.” It is too much to expect that the queen should vouchsafe us her personal governance or presence except to pay us—as the heir-apparent to the throne, our future sovereign, has already paid us—the graceful compliment of a visit. The executive authority must therefore be administered by her majesty’s representative. We place no restriction on her majesty’s prerogative in the selection of her representative. As it is now, so it will be if this Constitution is adopted. The sovereign has unrestricted freedom of choice. Whether in making her selection, she may send us one of her own family, a royal prince, as a viceroy to rule over us, or one of the great statesmen of England to represent her, we know not. We leave that to her majesty in all confidence. But we may be permitted to hope that when the union takes place, and we become the great country which British North America is certain to be, it will be an object worthy the ambition of the statesmen of England to be charged with presiding over our destinies.