Hon. Attorney General John A. Macdonald on Avoiding State Rights in the Division of Powers of Canada

SourceParliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd Session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada, Legislative Council, Monday, March 13, 1865, pp. 1001-1003

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A young John A. Macdonald

A young John A. Macdonald

HON. ATTY. GEN. MACDONALD—The war in the United States is a most disastrous, and even barbarous civil war; but the word civil strife is not applicable to it. I have already explained the meaning of the term, and I hope now that my hon. friend sees the evil of his ways, he will abandon his opposition to the Government. (Hear, hear.) Mr. Speaker, for the sake of the character of this House, and for the sake of the public purse, I must protest against the current of the debate which has arisen from the motion of the hon. member for Peel. I thought we had got through with the discussion, and that as every hon. member had had the opportunity of speaking not only once or twice, but three or four times, we had finished the debate, and taken a vote which was rather satisfactory to the Government, by which the question had been introduced into the House, and that it was generally understood that the discussion of the propriety of the Confederation of the provinces was to end there. (Hear, hear.) But I find in the remarks of hon. gentlemen opposite a tendency to reopen the whole question, after it has been decided by this House, upon a motion made by myself for the appointment of a committee to draft an Address in which the resolutions should be embodied. I say, sir, that this is an abuse of parliamentary privilege, a waste of the time of this House and of the public money, while it serves no good purpose, and I am sure that the good feeling and common sense of this House will not allow anything of this kind to go on. One thing connected with this subject I greatly regret. I very much regret that although the debate has been so long protracted, and although we have had an expression from almost every member of this House, we have hitherto failed in getting the arguments promised in the speech of my hon. friend from Chateauguay. (Hear, hear)  For some reason or other we cannot get that speech out. Just as MOSES went up to Pisgah’s top and viewed the promised land in the distance, just so the hon. member gives us an occasional glimpse of the promised speech, but we have thus far been disappointed in our expectations of hearing it delivered. We have been promised it two or three times during the past month. The honorable member ought to remember that “hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” I am sure I desire to have the pleasure and satisfaction of hearing from the honorable gentleman, and having the advantage of the information which the honorable gentleman is well known to be able of giving this House; for though young in years, he is old in political wisdom aud in that political sagacity of which he denies me the possession. I say I am sorry, and this House must be sorry, aud the country must be sorry, that the hon. gentleman has practised so much self-denial as to refuse to allow his radiance to shine forth upon this great question. The thing which so utterly destroys the hon. gentleman’s utility is his extreme modesty. (Laughter.) Why, when he had to rush to the rescue of the disordered finances of this country, at great personal sacrifice, for the sake of saving the country from the ruin that hung over it through the lavish extravagance of my hon. friend the present Hon. Finance Minister, he looked, with the exercise of his great financial ability, down into the recesses of the public chest and speedily discovered the source of all the evils that had fallen upon the country, and yet the modesty of the hon. gentleman prevented him from making known the remedy. (Laughter.)  And so it is even now. He has been promising to give us his views upon this great question; but four weeks have passed, and his speech yet hangs fire. And

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to-day he told us, after drawing himself up with that righteous indignation which he can so well affect, that the Honorable Attorney General West had tried to stop the publication of the debates, and that he himself had yet to fire his speech on this great subject, because it was too late to do so on Saturday morning; and yet, when the honorable gentleman gets up, he says he will confine himself to this resolution. He did so, and confined himself very narrowly to it, (Hear, hear.) The hon. gentleman has somehow or other become the guardian of my political reputation. He has, on two or three occasions, warned me that although the course I took was, perhaps, that of a practical man — that of one who desired merely to keep office and become famous for political acuteness — yet it would never secure for me the fame of being a great statesman. Well, sir, I am satisfied to confine myself to practical things — to the securing of such practical measures as the country really wants. I am satisfied not to have a reputation for indulging in imaginary schemes and harboring visionary ideas that may end sometimes in an annexation movement, sometimes in Federation and sometimes in a legislative union, but always Utopian and never practical. I am satisfied to leave the imaginary, the poetic and the impossible to the hon. member for Chateauguay. The other day the honorable gentleman paused to say, in the course of one of his little, numerous, by the by speeches, that in taking the course I have done on this question — that of advocating a Federal instead of a Legislative union — I violated all the principles of my former life having a bearing on this subject. Mr. Speaker, it is quite true that after a careful examination of the Constitution of the United States, in connection with its practical working, and the civil war that has grown out of it, I saw many weaknesses in connection with the Federal system, as operated in that country, and I was as desirous as any man could be in taking part in the Conference relating to union between the Provinces of British North America, that as much as the legislative form of government as possible, and as few of the weaknesses which experience had shown to exist in the American Constitution, should be incorporated in ours. I do not like to refer to any remarks of mine in times past; but as this charge has been brought against me, I will read, by permission of the House, a passage from a speech of mine, in relation to representation by population. And I might here say that it is the only speech I ever delivered in my life, which I have ever taken any particular trouble to revise. The hon. gentleman will see, from this passage, what my sentiments were, in 1861, on the subject, while taking part in a debate on representation by population. I was replying to a speech made by my present colleague, the Hon. Minister of Agriculture. I said: —

The only feasible scheme which presented itself to his (my) mind, as a remedy for the evils complained of, was a Confederation of all the provinces. (Hear, hear.) But in speaking of a Confederation he [Mr. Macdonald] must not be understood as alluding to it in the sense of the one on the other side of the line. For that had not been successful. But then he did not say so from any feeling of satisfaction at such a result. Far from him be any such idea. He heartily agreed with the junior member for Montreal (Hon. Mr. McGee) in every word of regret which he had expressed at the unhappy and lamentable state of things which they now witnessed in the States, for he remembered that they were of the same blood as ourselves. He still looked hopefully to the future of the United States. He believed there was a vigor, a vitality, in the Anglo-Saxon character and the Anglo-Saxon institutions of the United States, that would carry them through this great convulsion, as they had carried through our Mother Country in days of old. (Loud cheers from both sides of the House.)  He hoped with that honorable gentleman (Hon. Mr. McGee), that if they were to be severed in two — as severed in two he believed they would be — two great, two noble, two free nations would exist in place of one. (Hear, hear.)  But, while he thus sympathized with them, be must say, let it be a warning to ourselves that we do not split on the same rock which they had done. The fatal error which they had committed — and it was, perhaps, unavoidable from the state of the colonies at the time of the revolution — was in making each state a distinct sovereignty, and giving to each a distinct sovereign power, except in those instances where they were specially reserved by the Constitution and conferred upon the General Government. The true principle of a Confederation lay in giving to the General Government all the principles and powers of sovereignty, and that the subordinate or individual states should have no powers but those expressly be bestowed on them. We should thus have a powerful Central Government, a powerful Central Legislature, and a decentralized system of minor legislatures for local purposes.

These, sir, were the opinions I uttered in a

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speech delivered in 1861; and I say that the Constitution which this House, by a majority of three to one, has carried out as far as it is concerned, is, in spirit and letter, that which I then pointed out; and that was not the result of my experience, my thought and my opinion alone, but of the experience, thought and opinion of every man who had studied and taken into consideration the character of the Constitution of the United States. I know that in making that quotation I am committing the error which I have charged upon other hon. members of the House of going back in the debate ; but I thought that it was due to myself to read it to the House, because the hon. member for Chateauguay — not in that blunt, plain-spoken style which characterises some hon. gentlemen, but with that soothing, soft language that is so grateful to one’s feelings— (laughter)—stated that in proposing a Federal union of these provinces I belied the whole of my political life, and that it was for this reason I made so feeble and ineffectual a speech when I offered these resolutions to the House. As to the feebleness and ineffectiveness of my speech, that, sir, I admit; but as to my sentiments on Confederation, they were the sentiments of my life, my sentiments in Parliament years ago, my sentiments in the Conference, and my sentiments now. (Hear, hear.)