1864: A Great Coalition & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “The Road to Canada”, 1864-1899

Problems existed almost from the very beginning of the Province of Canada’s new system of government. It seemed to achieve not only the semblance of a democratic system but also the gradual assimilation of the French Canadians with time, but apart from the achievement of the former (with some difficulties), the latter had failed miserably due to the rise to power of La Fontaine and others like him. By the mid-1860s, not only had French Canada managed to survive despite Irish immigration and other English-speaking peoples, French Canada’s Canada West was actually overrepresented in the legislative assembly, with its English counterpart having more people to represent per seat. Canada East’s surplus was over 50 000 people. Plans for representation for population failed, with the English seeing it as a threat due to the number of French Canadians that would be represented in the legislative assembly and with the French Canadians seeing it as a threat to the political power they already wielded.

Further complicating the problems to the governmental system was its instability. With French Canada having a tendency to vote in block for parties that would guarantee the survival of their culture and English Canada voting for parties that would guarantee their own culture, majorities were hard to find and were often unsteady. By the end of the 1850s, there were four dominant parties, each vying for their chance to rule as the governing party: in Canada West, Antoine Aimé-Dorion’s Parti rouge (descendants of the Patriotes), George-Étienne Cartier’s Parti bleu; in Canada East, John A. Macdonald’s Conservative party and George Brown’s Liberal party (“Clear Grits”). Coalitions in the same vein as the Baldwin-La Fontaine government worked in principle and were indeed a necessity in order to have some form of stability, and yet this stability seemed far from happening: in twenty-six years, the role of Premier had changed hands eighteen times. The most extreme example happened in 1858, when a non-confidence vote force a coalition between Macdonald and Cartier out, leaving Brown and Dorion forming a very short-lived coalition for a few days before Macdonald and Cartier came back into power.

Attempts to create a more centralised, streamlined version of the governmental system failed but circumstances would come together in the 1860s that would favour its creation: with the threat of British involvement in the American Civil War and the potential threat of another invasion of the Province of Canada, Cartier, Macdonald, and Brown formed a three-party coalition ensuring the stability of the government through these difficult times. Dorion was left to be the official Leader of the Opposition.

Any resemblances to actual stability, however, are greatly exaggerated: Brown would resign less than three months into the coalition after a disagreement with Macdonald. The precedent of parties working towards a stable goal, however, was not abandoned. With a letter from the Maritimes that invited the Province of Canada to join in on potential plans to create a larger union, the seed of Confederation was planted.