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In British North America of the 1840s, a Scottish-born newspaperman’s crusades for justice made powerful enemies – and his rapprochement with one of them would usher in a new country

This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

The whippings drove some prisoners insane. Seven floggings over 14 days for one inmate. A 14-year-old girl whipped five times within three months. One prisoner received 720 lashes during his imprisonment. A boy of 8 was confined to the dreaded “box” for staring. A 10-year-old boy was whipped for laughing. And the food was so vile that inmates stole from the pigs’ trough.

All these abuses and many others at the Kingston Penitentiary – “this den of brutality” – George Brown chronicled in his newspaper, The Globe.

“Who can calculate the amount of pain and agony that must be imposed in the pandemonium?” he wrote in 1846. “Who can tell the amount of evil passions, of revenge and of malice that must be engendered by such treatment?”

Three years later, Brown headed a commission that led the government of the United Province of Canada – the recently created amalgamation of Lower Canada (today’s Quebec) and Upper Canada (today’s Ontario) – to fire the warden, ban excessive corporal punishment and hire professional inspectors.

But the report offended the member for Kingston, 34-year-old Sir John A. Macdonald, who was a friend of the warden. From then on, Brown and Macdonald were at each other’s throats.

Their rivalry almost destroyed the Canadian experiment. Their reconciliation saved it. And The Globe, by far the most influential and successful newspaper in British North America, drove the story.

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John A. Macdonald also has a statue at Queen's Park, shown in 1964, on the opposite side of the south lawn from Brown's. The Macdonald statue was boarded up in 2020 after several acts of vandalism.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Brown was only 24 when he and his father, Peter – a reform-minded Presbyterian fleeing religious orthodoxy and his own financial embarrassment – arrived in Toronto in 1843 from Scotland via New York to establish the Banner, which championed religious freedom.

But George was more interested in politics than religion and the next year launched The Globe. The weekly paper was a critical and commercial success from the very beginning, owing to its closely reasoned editorials, its honest reporting and its owner’s willingness to invest in improved presses and an expanding roster of reporters.

There was plenty to report on. Upper Canada was a raw and rollicking land of immigrants and huge ambitions. The earliest settlers had fled the disloyal United States; then came English and Scots and Irish who were hungry for a new start and to get ahead.

Everything was newborn. Settlers carved frontier farms out of forests in the southwestern peninsula. Bone-shaking roads connected those farms to Toronto, an emerging city of church steeples, muddy, stinking streets, fine brick buildings, sheds and shacks and slums. Everyone argued loudly and at length, fighting over schools and religion and the shape that this newfound land should take.

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Toronto in 1845, as sketched by Denis C. O’Brien from the Islands (which were still a peninsula then, until a storm a few years later broke the last connection to the mainland).Toronto Public Library

The Globe supported the Reform, or Liberal, Party, and championed secular education, representation by population and annexing the Hudson’s Bay Company’s northwestern territories (now the Prairie provinces) to the united colony.

The Conservatives, or Tories, favoured established religion, equal representation of French and English in the legislature and government by oligarchy, they being the oligarchs. But the Tories were already in the minority in Upper Canada, pushed aside by the flood of newcomers.

The Roman Catholic Church dominated Lower Canada, already two centuries old. Conservative Bleus ruled here, with the reformist Rouges very much a minority.

French versus English, established versus new, sectarian versus secular. The British had mashed these two cultures into a single colonial province, a shared political space. How were they supposed to get along? It turned out, they couldn’t.

Brown, who by the late 1850s led the Reform Party (it was standard fare in those days to own a newspaper while engaging in partisan politics), was solid, mutton-chopped, determined, stiff-necked, hot-tempered, principled. Macdonald, who led the Conservatives, was the very opposite: subtle, smooth-shaven, calculating, ambitious, a politician to the core. The two men clashed year after year. Macdonald always won.

Brown “remained a journalist in politics,” his biographer, J.M.S. Careless, wrote a century later, “the forceful wielder of words and mass opinions, not the skilled master of men and tactics.”

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An 1873 caricature paints Brown as the 'sage of The Globe.'Library and Archives Canada

At his best, Brown and The Globe championed free speech, representative democracy and a Canada that might one day rise as a great nation.

“We have passed into a position in which we must think and act for ourselves,” the paper declared in April, 1848. “We require men at the helm who feel a nation is being formed, and that as we now choose, so shall our national character be.

“The people of Canada must be nationalized.”

At his worst, he was anti-Catholic – “in its very nature, the Popery is utterly opposed to civil liberty” – and anti-French – “the French … rule over, insult and plunder the loyal English.”

Over the years, however, Brown and his paper mellowed. “We want neither English nor French ascendancy, neither Protestant nor Catholic domination,” The Globe declared in 1860. “We contend for equal rights for all, equal protection to all.”

From the first, Brown was determined that his newspaper would reach beyond Toronto to readers throughout Upper Canada and even into Lower Canada. He poured money into the latest technology: fast presses; swift delivery by coach and, increasingly, the new railroads; telegraph dispatches that damned the expense.

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The Globe moved into more spacious headquarters on King Street West in 1853, when it began publishing daily.

Within two years of its founding, the weekly had become a semiweekly. In 1853, it became a daily. By 1861, The Globe’s circulation had surpassed 30,000, three times that of any other newspaper in the two Canadas, with a fully staffed newsroom and pressroom, an Ottawa bureau and a writer sending dispatches from London.

Canada and The Globe were both prospering, but political paralysis threatened the colony’s future. Election after election produced a hung legislature: Bleus and Conservatives, Rouges and Reform, in equal balance.

In 1864, matters reached the breaking point. There had been four governments and two elections in less than three years and the latest Conservative coalition was set to fall. Although Upper Canada now had a considerably larger population than Lower Canada, both sections were guaranteed equal representation in the legislative assembly to protect the rights of the French minority, increasing tension and instability.

Some advocated a return to two separate colonies; others, annexation by the United States, where a great new power was emerging from civil war and looking hungrily to the north. If Upper and Lower Canada could not resolve their differences, neither might long survive.

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Brown's wife, Anne, holds one of their children.Notman and Fraser, Toronto

Brown had changed. Two years before, at the age of 43, he had met Anne Nelson, the 33-year-old daughter of a prosperous book publisher, during a visit to Scotland. They were soon married. Brown’s friends noticed how his opinions and temper began to moderate. Anne spoke French, had lived in Paris, and surely understood the fears of French Canadians, marooned on a continent of English speakers. She brought a sense of empathy to the partnership, a quality that Brown sometimes lacked.

“Perhaps the real father of Confederation was Mrs. Brown,” the historian Frank Underhill jested in 1927. Biographer Dr. Careless, in all seriousness, agreed. Brown’s “public conduct was so much affected by his private concerns, centred in his wife and family, that the former cannot be properly described without reference to the latter,” he wrote in 1960.

For Carmen Nielson, a historian at Mount Royal University who has studied the Fathers of Confederation, “looking at these men as fully formed humans” means looking at how their family and social networks helped shape their politics. In Brown’s case, that meant transitioning from obstinate bachelor to husband and father, concerned about his wife’s approval, “which gives us a clue to how important family relationships and the broader social-slash-family-slash-political network was,” Dr. Nielson believes. She speaks not of the Fathers of Confederation, but of the matrix of relationships that brought about Confederation.

With the legislature paralyzed, Brown proposed an all-party committee that would examine alternatives to the existing, broken model. Most committee members supported a proposal that Brown had been advocating for years: dissolving the united province and replacing it with separate governments for Upper and Lower Canada, with “some joint authority,” as Reformers called it, responsible for matters of common interest. A federal, rather than a unitary, state.

Brown let it be known that he was willing to co-operate with Macdonald in supporting a government that sought constitutional reform. The two men agreed to meet, even though being in the same room together was painful for both of them.

Macdonald, who for years had resisted dissolving the united province, now set forth a proposal of vast ambition: incorporating not just Lower and Upper Canada, but the Atlantic colonies, the northwestern territories, and eventually British Columbia into a continent-spanning federation, with separate governments for each province, and a central government for issues of national concern. To achieve this, he proposed a Great Coalition of all the parties in the assembly that would bring Brown and other Reformers into the cabinet.

George-Étienne Cartier, leader of the Bleus, decided that the French in Lower Canada would have a better chance of preserving their language and culture within a federal state than they would yoked to Upper Canada. But what of Brown?

Macdonald was proposing something more daring than anything he had in mind. Was it a trick, a scheme to stave off federating the two Canadas by proposing something so grandiose it could never be realized? And could George Brown possibly sit at the same cabinet table with John A. Macdonald?

Brown faced the most difficult political decision of his life. If he supported Macdonald’s plan, he would be betraying many of his most loyal supporters. But he knew better than anyone that things could not go on as they were. Canada must either move forward or fail.

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Macdonald, seated at middle, gathers in Charlottetown in 1864 with delegates from Canada and the Maritimes to discuss a British North American union.G. P. Roberts/ Library and Archives Canada

On June 22, 1864, Macdonald put before the legislative assembly his proposal for a new government dedicated to constitutional reform. Then Brown rose.

“For 10 years I have stood opposed to the honourable gentlemen opposite in the most hostile manner,” he told the assembly.

But “a great crisis has arisen in the Province; that election has followed election; that one ministerial crisis has followed another, without bringing any solution for the difficulties in carrying on the government of the country.”

Brown would cross the floor, he declared, and join the coalition dedicated to establishing a new federal union. With that decision, Canada became possible. Men from both sides of the House cheered and crowded around Brown, shaking his hand and clapping him on the back.

“A great good has been achieved,” The Globe pronounced in its editorial endorsing the coalition. “The gloom of a week since has given place to a bright prospect of a speedy and harmonious settlement of our difficulties.”

The rest is our history. The boozy, party-filled meetings between Canadian and Maritime leaders at Charlottetown that year. The tough negotiations in rainy Quebec City to hammer out the details of the new federal state.

The Maritime provinces soon regretted their earlier enthusiasm, rightly seeing Confederation as a solution to a central Canadian problem that would leave them on the margins. But Ottawa and London were determined to make the union happen and arm-twisted Nova Scotia and New Brunswick back in.

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The Globe had a bigger office on King Street East in the 1860s, when Brown took part in the Confederation talks.Capital Press Service

In December, 1866, delegates representing the two Canadas, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick began final negotiations with the British in London for a new federal, self-governing Dominion, as it would be called. It took until February for colonial and imperial legislators to work out the details of the British North America Act.

On Feb. 25, in the greatest scoop in the paper’s history, then or later, The Globe published the entire text of the act, four days before the government in Ottawa received its copy. Newspapers and politicians howled. Who had leaked the BNA Act to The Globe? An editorial impishly pointed out that its proprietor knew the highest authorities. “For instance, could it not have occurred to our contemporaries that a most gracious lady – but we forbear!” To the best of our knowledge, The Globe’s source was not Queen Victoria.

Brown, Macdonald and the other Fathers of Confederation offered the world a unique alternative to empire or rebellion: a new federal Dominion that recognized from the moment of its creation the linguistic and cultural rights of a minority at a time when most national and imperial powers sought only to deny and suppress minority rights. This “was something quite remarkable,” says Marcel Martel, a Canadian historian at York University. “The rest of the world paid attention to Confederation.”

But not all minorities were respected, not all voices heard. The Fathers of Confederation gave little thought to the rights of Indigenous Canadians, simply assuming they would be assimilated into the larger European, Christian society. Even the stoutest rep-by-pop Reformers saw no reason to grant the vote to women, or to men who didn’t own property.

“People estimate that only about 15 per cent of the population were able to vote,” says Patrice Dutil, a political scientist at Toronto Metropolitan University. “It was a Confederation for some, but not for others.”

Though as both Dr. Dutil and Paul Litt, a historian at Carleton University, remind us, while we can’t avoid filtering the past through present values, we should at least try to view it through the lens of those who lived within it.

“Democracy was only in its infancy in Canada” at Confederation, observes Dr. Litt. “Canadian elites feared that, if given the vote, the rabble would be manipulated by populist demagogues.”

For Brown and his peers, the tumultuous politics of the republic to the south had to be avoided at any cost.

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The Globe's edition from July 1, 1867, had a long and laudatory editorial packed with tables of statistics about the new country.Globe and Mail archives

On July 1, 1867, as bands played, bells pealed and fireworks flashed across darkened skies, The Globe published a 9,000-word editorial to mark the birth of the new Dominion. “Old things have passed away,” Brown wrote, “ … and this day a new volume is opened, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia uniting with Ontario and Quebec to make the history of a greater Canada already extending from the ocean to the headwaters of the great lakes, and destined ere long to embrace the larger half of this North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

Macdonald’s Conservatives beat Brown’s Liberals in that summer’s first national election, ending Brown’s political career. He remained influential in the debates of the nation through The Globe until his voice was cut short in 1880 when a former employee, objecting to the terms of his dismissal, shot Brown in the leg during a struggle. The wound became infected and after weeks of agony and delirium, Brown died on May 9, at the age of 61.

There were a number of fathers – and mothers and sons and daughters – of Confederation. But it was George Brown who realized that the United Province of Canada must dissolve if a greater Canada were to arise. It was George Brown who overcame decades of hostility to cross the floor and sit beside John A. Macdonald.

It was George Brown who founded the newspaper that has told the story of Canada to Canadians, from his day to ours.

John Ibbitson is writer at large at The Globe and Mail and general editor of A Nation’s Paper.

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