Read CHAPTER IV - IN OPPOSITION, 1878-1887 of The Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier A Chronicle of Our Own Time , free online book, by Oscar D. Skelton, on

The party leadership Tariff and railway Dominion and province The second Riel rebellion

In the general election of September 1878 the Liberal party suffered not merely defeat but utter and overwhelming rout, as unexpected and disastrous as a tropical earthquake. Only five years before, Mackenzie had been swept into power on a wave of moral indignation. The Conservative leaders had appeared hopelessly discredited, and the rank and file dispirited. Now a wave of economic despair swept the Liberals out of power. Their majority of two to one in 1873 was reversed by a Conservative majority of over two to one in 1878. The defeat was not local: every province except New Brunswick went against Mackenzie. Edward Blake, Richard Cartwright, Alfred G. Jones, and other stalwarts lost their seats, and though Sir John Macdonald suffered the same fate in Kingston, and though seats were soon found for the fallen leaders, the blow greatly damaged the prestige of the Liberal party.

Mackenzie was stunned. To the last he had been confident of victory. In spite of the warnings of Charlton, Cartwright, Laurier, and others, he had underestimated the impression which the campaign for protection, with its lavish promises of work and prosperity for all, made even in old Liberal strongholds. He could not believe that the people of Canada would take up the hérésies and fallacies which the people of Great Britain had discarded a generation earlier. He would not believe that they were prepared to send back to power men found guilty of corruption only five years before. For these illusions he paid the penalty, in bitter regrets, in loss of touch with the party, in broken health, and at last, in April 1880, in resignation of the leadership. Alexander Mackenzie had deserved well of Canada and of his party; but, apparently, both wanted more than the dauntless courage and the unyielding and stainless honour which were all he had to give them.

There was only one possible successor. Edward Blake had for many years been the choice of a large section of the party in Ontario, and he now became leader by unanimous vote. The new chief was a man of great intellectual capacity, of constructive vision, of untiring thoroughness and industry. He stood easily at the head of the bar in Canada. His short term of office as prime minister of Ontario had given proof of political sagacity and administrative power. He, if any one, it seemed, could retrieve the shattered fortunes of the Liberal party.

Mr Laurier’s position as first lieutenant for Quebec was now unquestioned. It was not a wholly enviable post. The Liberal representation from Quebec had fallen to twenty. There were few able men in the ranks. The Dorions were gone. Soon to go too were Holton and Huntington, the English leaders who formed the connecting link between the Liberals of Ontario and the French-speaking Liberals of Quebec. In the Eastern Townships John Henry Pope, that shrewdest and most pugnacious of Conservative politicians, was perfecting the organization which later made him the uncrowned king of several counties. True, Sir George Cartier, who for nearly forty years had dominated Quebec politics, was gone, but Langevin, his successor in the Conservative party, though not a strong man himself, had the clergy behind him; and Chapleau, who entered federal politics in 1882, brought a fiery eloquence to his party’s aid. It was clear that the young Liberal leader would have no easy task in winning his province.

Yet he was not content with provincial aims. Each year saw him more widely recognized as a man not of Quebec merely but of all Canada. The issues which arose in these trying years were such as to test to the utmost men’s power to rise above local and sectional prejudices and see Canada’s interest steadily and see it whole. Mr Laurier did not speak often in these early years, but when he did speak it was with increasing power and recognition. And in the councils of his party the soundness of his judgment became more fully appreciated as each of the great issues of the eighties developed.

The chief of these issues were: the Tariff, the Pacific Railway, Provincial Rights, and the troubles which arose out of the second Riel Rebellion. These may now be summarily reviewed.

Victorious on the issue of protection, the Government more than lived up to its promises in the first tariffs framed. ’Tell us how much protection you want,’ Sir John Macdonald had promised the manufacturers, ‘and we shall give you what you need.’ And whether it was cotton or sugar or furniture, needs and wants were judged to lie not far apart. Purely revenue duties on goods that continued to come in freely, purely protective duties on goods which were practically shut out, and duties which served both ends in some degree, all were advanced.

The Liberals, ex officio, that is, being out of office, opposed these increases one and all. Neither Blake nor Laurier, however, was an out-and-out free-trader like Mackenzie. Mackenzie had received his point of view from his British upbringing; his colleagues had been brought up on a continent where protection ruled. Blake, after a session or two, seemed content to accept the country’s verdict and criticized chiefly the details of the N.P., as the National Policy of Protection to Native Industries was affectionately called by its supporters. Laurier, while admitting that in theory it was possible to aid infant industries by tariff pap, criticized the indiscriminate and excessive rates of the new tariff, and the unfair burden it imposed upon the poorer citizens by its high specific rates on cheap goods. But in 1880, after a night of seven years, prosperity dawned in America. The revival of business in the United States proved as contagious in Canada as had been its slackening in the early seventies. The Canadian people gave the credit for the improvement in health to the well-advertised patent medicine they had taken just before the change set in; and for some years all criticisms of the N.P. were fated to fall on deaf ears.

Then came the contract for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the tariff question was shelved. Both parties were committed to build the road to the coast. Both had wavered between public and private construction. But the Macdonald Government had now decided upon pushing the road through with all speed, regardless as to whether current revenues sufficed to build it, while the Opposition advocated a policy of gradual construction within the country’s means, concurrent with a close and steady settlement of the western plains. The Government’s first plan of building the road out of the proceeds of the sale of a hundred million acres of prairie lands proved a flat failure. Then in 1880 a contract for its construction and operation was made with the famous Canadian Pacific Syndicate, in which the leading figures were a group of Canadians who had just reaped a fortune out of the reconstruction of a bankrupt Minnesota railway George Stephen, Richard B. Angus, James J. Hill, and in the background, Donald A. Smith.

Under Blake’s leadership instant and determined attack was made upon the bargain, in parliament, in the press, and on the platform. Blake himself moved against it a resolution of over a hundred clauses, which, as usual, exhausted the subject and left little for his lieutenants to say. Mr Laurier particularly criticized the large land-grant and the exemption from taxation. Had the policy of gradual construction been adopted, he contended, it would not have been necessary to take a leap in the dark and give the syndicate the power of a monopoly in the western country: ’there might have been fewer millionaires in this country, but there would have been many more happy and contented homes.’

The Government was, however, committed, and a party majority ratified the contract. After events justified both the policy of the Government and, to some extent, the criticism of the Opposition. Great national interests were at stake. Nothing short of an all-Canadian railway could bind together the far-flung Dominion. But the building of this railway, and still more its operation, would be a task to daunt all but the most fearless, and to those who undertook it generous terms were a necessity. In their clear understanding and courageous grasp of the facts, and in their persistent support of the company through all the dark days until the railway was completed, Macdonald and Tupper and Pope deserved well of their country. Yet it is equally clear now that in many points the criticism of the Opposition was well founded. The land-grant was of least value when most needed in the early years. The freedom of the company to select land where they pleased gave them a mortgage on the West and power to deter possible rival roads. The exemption from taxation of the company’s lands for twenty years after the issue of the patents, and of its capital stock and equipment for ever, threw unfair burdens upon the straggling settlers. Still more threatening to national unity was the monopoly clause, guaranteeing the company for twenty years against the chartering, either by the Dominion or by any province afterwards established, of any road enabling United States railways to tap western traffic.

The issue was decided, as to any immediate effects, by the success of the Conservatives in the general elections of 1882. The country wanted the road, and as usual was not disposed to read too closely the fine print in the contract. But the matter did not end there. Each party had been led by attack and counterattack to take a stronger stand of defence or opposition than was reasonable. For another ten years the Canadian Pacific Railway remained, if not an issue in politics, itself an active participant in politics. And its great weight thrown against the Liberal party turned the scales more than once.

In every federal state the adjustment of the powers of the central and of the local authorities gives occasion for much friction and difference of opinion. In Canada this adjustment, though never-ending, perhaps reached its climax in the eighties, when question after question as to the rights of the provinces came up for discussion.

We are apt to forget how recent a development the modern federal state is. Save for certain Latin-American countries, nominally federal, the Dominion of Canada is the third oldest of such states; the United States and Switzerland alone are of longer standing. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the North German Federation were formed in the same fateful year, 1867. There were, therefore, few models before the framers of the constitution of Canada, and the marvel is that they planned so wisely and so enduringly.

In determining what powers should be assigned to the Dominion and what to the provinces, the Fathers of Confederation were led, by the object-lesson which the Civil War in the United States afforded, to give the central government more authority. To the Dominion they assigned several fields of legislation which in the Republic fell to the respective states; and the Dominion was made residuary legatee of powers not specified. The central government, too, was given a right of veto over all provincial laws and empowered to appoint the lieutenant-governors of the provinces. Had Sir John Macdonald had his way, centralization would have gone much further, for he would have abolished the provincial governments entirely and set up a single parliament for the whole country. Fortunately Cartier and Brown prevented that unwieldy experiment from being tried.

Experience has shown that the central government should have full authority to deal with foreign affairs so far as they can be differentiated, and should have a wide measure of control over commerce and industry, which more and more are nation-wide in scope. But, this secured, it has been found equally essential that the provinces should be given wide power and responsibility. Fortunately Canada has only nine provinces, as against forty-eight states in the United States, so that authority is less divided here than in the Republic. In a country covering half a continent, with great diversity of climate and resources and industrial development, centralization of all power would mean the neglect of local needs and the disregard of local differences. Particularly where, as in Canada, thirty per cent of the people differ in race and language and creed from the majority, and are concentrated mainly in a single province, the need for local autonomy as the surest means of harmony is abundantly clear.

It was in Quebec that the first issue as to provincial rights arose. The Mackenzie Government in 1876 had appointed Luc Letellier de St Just, one of their most steadfast supporters, lieutenant-governor of that province. It was not long before political and personal antagonism strained to the breaking point the relations between the Liberal Letellier and his Conservative ministers at Quebec. The neglect of the premier, M. de Boucherville, to consult Letellier before introducing some railway legislation proved the last straw, and in March 1878 Boucherville was dismissed and Henri Joly de Lotbiniere was called upon to form a Cabinet. This sudden rupture raised a storm of protest in Quebec, of which the echoes soon reached Ottawa. Sir John Macdonald, then leader of the Opposition, moved a vote of censure upon Letellier, which was defeated on a party vote. A year later, after the change of government at Ottawa, a Quebec ministerialist again moved in the House of Commons the resolution of censure.

The Liberal leaders at Ottawa were inclined to agree that Letellier had been too sensitive about his dignity as governor, and Sir John Macdonald on his part would have preferred to let the matter rest, since the elections in the province had upheld Joly, had not his Quebec supporters demanded their pound of flesh. But the constitutional issue was clear, and on this the Liberals rested their case. It was for the people of Quebec, they contended, to decide whether or not the lieutenant-governor had violated their liberties. If the lieutenant-governor could find ministers with a legislative majority behind them to uphold his action, there was nothing more to be said: the doctrine of ministerial responsibility covered all his acts. And this support he had found; for the Joly Government, on appealing to the people, had turned a minority of twenty into a majority of one. ’The people of the province of Quebec,’ declared Mr Laurier in the Commons, ’who alone are interested in this question, have decided that in their opinion, whether that be right or wrong, the act of Mr Letellier was just and constitutional.... You say No. What are you here for if you say No? If your policy had been supported by the people of Quebec, you would not now be seeking vengeance at the hands of this House.’ But logic was in vain. The vote of censure carried, and Macdonald recommended to the governor-general, the Marquis of Lorne, that Letellier should be dismissed. Here again a nice question of responsibility arose. First the question had been whether the lieutenant-governor was to be guided by provincial ministers or by the federal government which appointed him. Now the problem was whether the governor-general should be guided by his advisers in Canada, or by the British Government which had appointed him. With the assent of the Canadian Cabinet the question was referred to the Colonial Office. Mackenzie’s protest against this colonial-minded appeal was in vain, but the upshot proved satisfactory to him. The colonial secretary replied that the lieutenant-governor was undoubtedly responsible to the governor-general for any act, and that equally undoubtedly the governor-general must act upon the advice, in this as in other matters, of his responsible ministers. The governor-general suggested reconsideration, but the Macdonald Cabinet was obdurate and Letellier was dismissed. Fortunately the precedent thus set has not been followed. The principle is now established that a lieutenant-governor may be dismissed only when he cannot find provincial ministers willing and able to support him.

The later constitutional issues were chiefly disputes between the Dominion and the province of Ontario. They were not merely differences of opinion on abstract constitutional points. They were in large part struggles for power and patronage between two very shrewd practical politicians, Sir John Macdonald and his one-time law-student at Kingston, Oliver Mowat, for many years premier of Ontario.

First came a struggle as to the western boundary of Ontario. The dividing line between the old province of Canada and the territories purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company had never been determined After ten years of negotiations a commission, consisting of one representative of the Dominion and one of Ontario together with the British ambassador at Washington, gave a unanimous award in 1878, an award which the Dominion refused to carry into effect. Other provinces were involved. The Dominion had presented Manitoba with much of the territory in dispute, and the conflict as to jurisdiction between that province and Ontario nearly led to bloodshed; while Quebec was stirred up to protest against the enlargement of Ontario, which would make Ontario, it was said, the preponderant power in the Dominion. Mr Laurier inveighed against what he termed the dishonourable course of the Dominion Government. When negotiating with the Hudson’s Bay Company for its lands, it had contended that the old province of Canada extended far west and north, but now it took precisely the opposite stand. As for Quebec’s interest, he continued: ’I do not fear the appeal that will be made against me in my own province. This award is binding on both parties and should be carried out in good faith. The consideration that the great province of Ontario may be made greater, I altogether lay aside as unfair, unfriendly, and unjust.’ The Government, however, persisted in rejecting the award, and forced an appeal to the Privy Council, only to have Ontario’s claim fully substantiated, and the total area of the province confirmed as more than double what Sir John Macdonald would have allowed it.

The next issue put to the test the power of the Dominion to veto provincial laws. It was, in form, merely a dispute between two lumbermen, M’Laren and Caldwell, as to whether the one higher up on the stream could use, upon paying tolls, timber-slides built by the other lower down. But, as Edward Blake declared in 1886, this was ’of all the controversies between the Dominion and the provinces, by far the most important from the constitutional point of view, for it involved the principle which must regulate the use by the Dominion Government of the power of disallowing provincial legislation.’ When in 1881 a court of justice in Ontario held that the lumberman on the lower reaches could prevent the one higher up from floating down his logs, Mowat had an act passed providing that all persons possessed, and were thereby declared always to have possessed, the right denied by this judgment. This measure was at once disallowed by the Dominion Government. Then the Privy Council upheld the contention of the Ontario Government as to what the law had been even before the act was passed; and, when in 1884 the provincial legislature again passed the same act, the Dominion conceded the point. Thereafter the veto power has been used only when Dominion or Imperial interests were concerned, or when a statute was claimed to be beyond the power of the province to pass. The wisdom or justice of measures affecting only the local interests of the citizens of a province has been left to the judgment of its own people to determine.

The regulation of the liquor traffic provided the next battle-ground. In 1876 Ontario had passed the Crooks Act, which took the power of granting licences from the municipalities and gave it to provincial commissioners. Two years later the Dominion parliament passed the Scott Act, giving counties power to prohibit the sale of liquor within their limits. The constitutionality of this act was upheld in 1882 in the Russell case, and Sir John Macdonald concluded that if the Dominion had power to pass the Scott Act, the province had not the power to pass the Crooks Act. ‘If I carry the country,’ he declared at a public meeting in 1882, ’as I will do, I will tell Mr Mowat, that little tyrant who has attempted to control public opinion by getting hold of every office from that of a Division Court bailiff to a tavern-keeper, that I will get a bill passed at Ottawa returning to the municipalities the power taken from them by the Licence Act.’ At the next session the M’Carthy Act was passed, providing, not for municipal control, but for control by federal commissioners. Here again the highest courts held in 1883 and 1884 that the Ontario measure was within the power of the province, but that the M’Carthy Act was beyond that of the Dominion. Once more ‘the little tyrant’ had scored!

The Dominion Franchise Act of 1885 was the last important measure which need be noted in this connection. By the British North America Act the Dominion was to adopt the provincial franchise lists for its elections until parliament should order otherwise. Sir John Macdonald decided, after eighteen years’ use of the provincial lists and six half-hearted attempts to change this situation, that the Dominion should set up its own standard, in order both to secure uniformity and to preserve the property qualifications which Ontario and the other provinces were throwing overboard. The Opposition contended that this was an attack upon provincial rights. The argument was weak; there could be no doubt of the constitutional power of the Dominion in this matter. Better founded were the attacks of the Opposition upon specific clauses of the measure, such as the proposal to enfranchise Indians living upon government reserves and under government control, and the proposal to put the revision of the lists in the hands of partisan revising barristers rather than of judges. The ‘Conservatives’ proposed, but did not press the point, to give single women the franchise, and the ‘Liberals’ opposed it. After months of obstruction the proposal to enfranchise the western Indians was dropped, an appeal to judges was provided for the revision of the lists, and the income and property standards were reduced. Inconsistently, in some provinces a variation from the general standards was permitted. The Franchise Act of 1885 remained in force until after the coming of the Liberals to power in 1896, when it was repealed without regret on either side.

Suddenly the scene shifted, and, instead of the dry and bloodless court battles of constitutional lawyers, the fire and passion of armed rebellion and bitter racial feud held the Canadian stage. The rebellion itself was an affair of but a few brief weeks, but the fires lighted on the Saskatchewan swept through the whole Dominion, and for years the smoke of Duck Lake and Batoche disturbed the public life of Canada.

Long years before the Great West was more than a name to any but a handful in older Canada, hardy French voyageurs and Scottish adventurers had pushed their canoes or driven their Red River carts to the foot of the Rockies and beyond. They had mated with Indian women, and when in 1870 the Dominion came into possession of the great hunting preserve of the Hudson’s Bay Company, many of their half-breed children dwelt on the plains. The coming of the railway, the flocking in of settlers, and the rapid dwindling of the vast herds of buffalo which had provided the chief support of the half-breeds, made their nomadic life no longer possible. The economic difficulties of making the needed readjustment, of settling down to quiet farm activities, were heightened by the political difficulties due to the setting up of the new Dominion authority. Then it was on the banks of the Red River that these half-breeds, known as Metis, had risen under the firebrand Riel in armed revolt against the incoming regime. Now, in 1885, it was on the North and South Saskatchewan. There numerous groups of the Metis had made their settlements. And when the Canadian authorities came in to survey the land, to build railways, and to organize government, these people sought to have their rights and privileges accorded them. In Manitoba, after the insurrection of 1870, the dual claims of the old half-breed settlers had been recognized. As part Indian, they had been given scrip for 160 acres each, to extinguish the Indian title to the land, and as part white men, they were each allowed to homestead 160 acres like any other settler. The Metis in the North-West Territories now asked for the same privileges. They wanted also to have their holdings left as they were, long narrow strips of land facing the river front, like the settlements on the St Lawrence, with the houses sociably near in one long village street, rather than to have their land cut up into rectangular, isolated farms under the survey system which the Canadian Government had borrowed from the United States.

The requests were reasonable. Perhaps a narrow logic could have shown inconsistency in the demand to be considered both white and Indian at once, but the Manitoba Act had set a precedent. Only a few thousand acres were at stake, in a boundless land where the Government stood ready to set aside a hundred million acres for a railway. The expediency of winning the goodwill of the half-breeds was apparent to Canadians on the spot, especially now that the Indians, over whom the Metis had great influence, were also becoming restless because of the disappearance of the buffalo and the swarming in of settlers.

Yet the situation was never adequately faced. The Mackenzie Government, in 1877, on the petition of a hundred and fifty Scottish half-breeds at Prince Albert, agreed, where settlement had been effected on the narrow frontage system, to conform the surveys in harmony with this plan, and the Scottish holdings were so confirmed. Two years later the Macdonald Government passed an act authorizing the giving of scrip to the half-breeds of the North-West on the same terms as it had been given to those in Manitoba. So far so good. Then came year upon year of neglect, of clerkly procrastination, and of half-concessions. The French half-breeds passed resolution after resolution, sent to Ottawa petition after petition and delegation after delegation, but in vain. The Government forgot the act which it had itself passed in 1879. Nor were the half-breeds themselves the only petitioners. Time and again Father Andre and other missionaries urged their claims. Some of the Government’s own land agents on the spot urged them. Charles Mair of Prince Albert, one of the first of Ontario’s settlers in the West, appeared at Ottawa four times before the outbreak, to try to waken the Government to the seriousness of the situation. The North-West Council sent strong memorials backing the requests of the Metis. And still, though some of the grievances were redressed, in piecemeal fashion, no attempt was made to grapple adequately with the difficult questions presented by the meeting of two stages of civilization, to understand the disputes, the real wrongs, the baseless fears. When in 1883 Blake in the House of Commons called for papers, none were brought down for two years; when in 1884 Cameron called for a committee of investigation, the reply was that there was nothing to investigate.

What was the cause of this neglect? At bottom, the Government’s ignorance of the West. There was not in the Cabinet a man who knew its conditions and needs. The Metis were two thousand miles away, and they had no votes, for the North-West Territories were not then represented at Ottawa. For five years Sir John Macdonald himself had acted as minister of the Interior. In taking over the cares of a busy department, added to the office of prime minister, he made the mistake that Mackenzie had made. But while Mackenzie put in ten to fourteen hours a day at departmental routine, at the expense of his duties as leader, Macdonald did his work as leader at the expense of his department. ‘Old To-Morrow’ solved many a problem wisely by leaving it to time to solve, but some problems proved the more serious for every year’s delay. Late in 1883 Sir John gave up the portfolio, but his successor, Sir David Macpherson, effected little change. Late in 1885 Thomas White, an energetic and sympathetic administrator, became minister, but the mischief was then already done.

In its defence the Government urged that no half-breed had actually been dispossessed of his river-front claim, and that many who were demanding scrip had already received land in Manitoba. It contended further that the agitation of the half-breeds was fanned by white settlers in Prince Albert, eager to speculate in scrip, and hinted darkly at mysterious forces and personages in the background, in Canada and elsewhere. No attempt was made, however, to prove the truth of these latter charges or to bring the guilty to justice. Doubtless the grievances were not so great as to justify rebellion; the less excuse, then, for not curing what was curable. Doubtless, also, this was not the first time nor the last that a government lacked energy or vision, and had it not been for the other factor in the situation, Louis Riel, no heavy penalty might have followed. But unfortunately, luck or Nemesis, the other factor was very much to the fore.

Wearied of unending delay, the Metis looked again to Riel, then living in exile in Montana. He was the one half-breed with any measure of book-education and knowledge of the vague world beyond the Lakes. Early in the summer of 1884 James Isbester, Gabriel Dumont, Moise Ouellette, and Michel Dumas trudged seven hundred miles to Montana, and laid their case before him. He needed little urging. The call appealed strongly to his erratic ambition. His term of banishment had expired, and he hastened to the Saskatchewan to organize the Metis. Still the Government did not stir, though it knew the reckless daring of Riel and the influence he wielded. Riel at once set to work to fan the discontent into flame. Though the English-speaking half-breeds drew back, he soon gained remarkable ascendancy over his French-speaking compatriots. He preached a new religion, with himself as prophet, threatened to dethrone the Pope, and denounced the local priests who resisted his campaign. He held meeting after meeting, drew up an extravagant Bill of Rights, and endeavoured to enlist the support of the Indian tribes. Still all the Government did was to send, in January 1885, a commission to take the census of the half-breeds, preparatory to settling their claims. Yet, speaking in the House of Commons, on March 26, 1885, Sir John Macdonald made it clear that the half-breeds could not get both Indian scrip and white man’s homestead. On the very day that this refusal was reiterated the first shot had been fired at Duck Lake, where a superior force of insurgents under Riel and Dumont routed a party of Mounted Police and volunteers, killing twelve, and seized the supplies in the government post. Open rebellion had come for a second time.

Now at last the Government acted with energy. On the 6th of April, ten days after Duck Lake, instructions were telegraphed from Ottawa to give the half-breeds the scrip they had sought, and to allow occupants to acquire title by possession. At the same time troops were hastily mobilized and speeded west over the broken stretches of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The young volunteers faced danger and hardship like veterans. In spite of the skilful tactics of Riel’s lieutenant, Gabriel Dumont, a born general, the volunteers soon crushed the half-breeds and prevented the much more serious danger of an Indian uprising from going far.

Once the back of the revolt was broken, the storm broke out in Eastern Canada. In one way the rebellion had made for national unity. Nova Scotia and Ontario and the West had thrilled in common suspense and common endeavour. But this gain was much more than offset by the bitter antagonism which developed between Ontario and Quebec, an antagonism which for a time threatened to wreck the Dominion. The two provinces saw different sides of the shield. Ontario saw the murderer of Thomas Scott an Ontario man and an Orangeman a second time stirring up revolt, and cried for summary punishment. Quebec saw the grievances which had stirred the men of French blood to rebel. Riel was tried in Regina in September, and found guilty of treason, with a recommendation to mercy. The Queen’s Bench of Manitoba confirmed the verdict, and the Government, in spite of many protests, refused to grant a pardon or to commute the sentence to imprisonment. On the 16th of November 1885 Riel’s chequered existence ended on the scaffold at Regina.

Now the storm raged with renewed fury. The Liberal party all held the Government responsible for the outbreak, but were not a unit in condemning the execution of Riel. By clever tactics the Government took advantage of this divergence. Early in the session of 1886 a Quebec Conservative, Auguste Philippe Landry, moved a resolution condemning the execution. The Liberals had intended to shift the discussion to the record of the Government, but before they could propose an amendment, the minister of Public Works, Hector Langevin, moved the previous question, thus barring any further motion. Forced to vote on Landry’s resolution, most of the Ontario Liberals, including Mackenzie and Cartwright, sided with the Government; Blake and Laurier took the other side.

The crisis brought Wilfrid Laurier to the front. Hitherto he had been considered, especially in Ontario, as a man of brilliant promise, but not yet of the stature of veterans like Blake and Mackenzie and Cartwright. But now an occasion had come which summoned all his latent powers, and henceforth his place in the first rank was unquestioned. It was an issue peculiarly fitted to bring out his deepest feelings, his passion for liberty and straightforward justice, his keen realization of the need of harmony between French and English, a harmony that must be rooted in sympathy and understanding. He had faced a hostile Quebec, and was to face it again, in defence of the rights of the English-speaking provinces. Now he faced a hostile Ontario, and told Toronto exactly what he told Montreal. In the great meeting of protest which was held in the Champ de Mars in Montreal on the Sunday after Riel’s execution, Mr Laurier took a leading part, and a year later he spoke before a great audience in Toronto and pressed home the case against the Government that ’the half-breeds were denied for long years right and justice, rights which were admitted as soon as they were asked by bullets.’

But it was in the House of Commons that he rose to the full height of the theme and of his powers. Seconding Blake’s indictment of the Government in July 1885, and replying to Sir John Macdonald, he analysed mercilessly the long record of neglect. Then, replying to the contention that the grievances were petty and that Riel alone was to blame, he made a pointed contrast:

Few men have there been anywhere who have wielded greater sway over their fellow countrymen than did Mr Papineau at a certain time in the history of Lower Canada, and no man ever lived who had been more profusely endowed by nature to be the idol of a nation. A man of commanding presence, of majestic countenance, of impassioned eloquence, of unblemished character, of pure, disinterested patriotism, for years he held over the hearts of his fellow countrymen almost unbounded sway, and even to this day the mention of his name will arouse throughout the length and breadth of Lower Canada a thrill of enthusiasm in the breasts of all, men or women, old or young. What was the secret of that great power he held at one time? Was it simply his eloquence, his commanding intellect, his pure patriotism? No doubt they all contributed, but the main cause of his authority over his fellow countrymen was this, that at that time his fellow countrymen were an oppressed race, and he was the champion of their cause. But when the day of relief came, the influence of Mr Papineau, however great it might have been and however great it still remained, ceased to be paramount. When eventually the Union Act was carried, Papineau violently assailed it, showed all its defects, deficiencies and dangers, and yet he could not rouse his followers and the people to agitate for the repeal of that Act. What was the reason? The conditions were no more the same. Imperfect as was the Union Act, it still gave a measure of freedom and justice to the people, and men who once at the mere sound of Mr Papineau’s voice would have gladly courted death on battle-field or scaffold, then stood silent and irresponsive, though he asked from them nothing more than a constitutional agitation for a repeal of the Union Act. Conditions were no more the same. Tyranny and oppression had made rebels of the people of Lower Canada, while justice and freedom made them the true and loyal subjects which they have been ever since. And now to tell us that Louis Riel, simply by his influence, could bring those men from peace to war, to tell us that they had no grievances, to tell us that they were brought into a state of rebellion either through pure malice or through imbecile adherence to an adventurer, is an insult to the intelligence of the people at large, and an unjust aspersion on the people of the Saskatchewan.

When the debate on the Landry motion came on in the following session, Laurier and Blake again shared the honours, along with the new minister of Justice, John S. D. Thompson, who spoke forcefully for the Government. Mr Laurier’s speech on this occasion was perhaps the greatest of his career, and made a profound impression. He was called upon to speak unexpectedly, late at night, through the tactics of the Government in not putting up a speaker. Two dull speeches had nearly emptied the House. No one rose to follow, and the speaker had asked whether the question should be put, when Mr Laurier rose. The House filled quickly, and for two hours he held it breathless, so that not a sound but the orator’s ringing voice and the ticking of the clock could be heard in the chamber. When he sat down, the opinion of the House was unanimous that this was one of the rare occasions of a parliamentary lifetime. Thomas White generously voiced the feeling of the Government benches when he declared: ’I think it is a matter of common pride to us that any man in Canada can make, on the floor of parliament, such a speech as we listened to last night.’ Edward Blake declared the speech was ’the crowning proof of French domination. My honourable friend, not content with having for a long time in his own tongue borne away the palm of parliamentary eloquence, has invaded ours, and in that field has pronounced a speech, which, in my humble judgment, merits this compliment, because it is the truth, that it was the finest parliamentary speech ever pronounced in the parliament of Canada since Confederation.’

Blake and Laurier differed in their view of the tactics to be followed by the Opposition. Mr Blake wished to throw the chief emphasis upon the question of Riel’s insanity, leaving aside the thorny question of the division of responsibility. Mr Laurier wanted to go further. While equally convinced that Riel was insane, he thought that the main effort of the Opposition should be to divert attention from Riel’s sorry figure and concentrate it on the question of the Government’s neglect. Accordingly in this speech Mr Laurier reviewed once more the conduct of the Government, arraigning it unsparingly for its common share in the guilt of the rebellion. He denied that the people of Quebec were demanding that no French Canadian should be punished, guilty or not guilty. As for Riel, who shared with the Government the responsibility for the blood and sufferings of the revolt, he urged, with Blake, that it was impossible to consider him sane and accountable for his actions. ‘Sir,’ he declared, ’I am not one of those who look upon Louis Riel as a hero. Nature had endowed him with many brilliant qualities, but nature had denied him that supreme quality without which all other qualities, however brilliant, are of no avail. Nature had denied him a well-balanced mind. At his worst he was a fit subject for an asylum, at his best he was a religious and political monomaniac.’ True, some of the Government’s experts had reported that, while insane on religious questions, Riel was otherwise accountable for his actions, but other experts had held him insane without qualification. In any event, the same experts for the Government had declared that Riel’s secretary, an English half-breed, William Jackson, was insane on religious questions, and dazed at times, but that ‘his actions were not uncontrollable’; yet Quebec bitterly reflected that one of these men had been acquitted, sent to an asylum and then allowed to escape, while the other was sent to the gallows. ’Jackson is free to-day, and Riel is in his grave.’

On wider grounds the Government should have stood for clemency. Who was right in the United States after the Civil War President Johnson, who wished to try Lee for treason, or General Grant, who insisted that he be not touched? Twenty years after, the unity of North and South proves unmistakably Grant’s far-seeing wisdom. ’We cannot make a nation of this new country by shedding blood,’ Mr Laurier concluded. ’Our prisons are full of men, who, despairing of getting justice by peace, sought it by war, who, despairing of ever being treated like freemen, took their lives in their hands rather than be treated as slaves. They have suffered greatly, they are suffering still, yet their sacrifice will not be without reward.... They are in durance to-day, but the rights for which they were fighting have been acknowledged. We have not the report of the commission yet, but we know that more than two thousand claims so long denied have at last been granted. And more still more: we have it in the Speech from the Throne that at last representation is to be granted to those Territories. This side of the House long sought, but sought in vain, to obtain that measure of justice. It could not come then, but it came after the war; it came as the last conquest of that insurrection. And again I say that “their country has conquered with their martyrdom,” and if we look at that one fact alone there was cause sufficient, independent of all other, to extend mercy to the one who is dead and to those who live.’

In parliament, for all the eloquence of Laurier and Blake, the Government had its way. In the country the controversy raged in more serious fashion. In Quebec Honore Mercier, the brilliant, tempestuous leader of the Liberals, carried on a violent agitation, and in January 1887 rode the whirlwind into power. Wild and bitter words were many in the contest, and they found more than an answer in Ontario, where the leading ministerial organ, the Mail, declared it better to ‘smash Confederation into its original fragments’ rather than yield to French dictation.

The general elections, held in February 1887, proved that in Ontario the guilt of Riel was more to the fore than the misdeeds of the Government, and the Conservatives lost only two seats. On the other hand, the Liberals gained less in Quebec in the Dominion contest, where the Riel question was a legitimate issue, than in the provincial contest, where it properly had no place. The influence of the Church, though now transferred to Mercier in provincial politics, remained on the side of Sir John Macdonald in Dominion politics. Counting on the Liberal side the former Conservatives who had deserted the Government, the returns showed the province about equally divided; but after it was seen that Sir John was again in power, several of the wanderers returned to his fold, influenced by his personal ascendancy or by the loaves and fishes of patronage and office.