The Great Coalition
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The Great Coalition

The men who engineered Canada's Confederation formed an unlikely alliance. Like the colonies they represented, they were divided by religious, political, and regional animosities.
Two of the leading Fathers of Confederation, George-Etienne Cartier (2nd from right) and John A. Macdonald (far right) first formed a political alliance in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada (Upper and Lower Canada) in the 1850s. (C
Two of the leading Fathers of Confederation, George-Etienne Cartier (2nd from right) and John A. Macdonald (far right) first formed a political alliance in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada (Upper and Lower Canada) in the 1850s. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

John A. Macdonald was a Scot who distrusted the English; George-Étienne Cartier was protector of the interests of French Canada; George Brown was a liberal Scots Presbyterian who wanted to eliminate aristocratic privilege; and Thomas D'Arcy McGee was an Irishman who once proudly signed a letter "Thomas D'Arcy McGee, A Traitor to the British Government."

Together they became the Fathers of Confederation.

Macdonald and Cartier were the first to join forces. The two were powerful politicians in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada - Upper and Lower Canada. But they often found it difficult to avoid political deadlocks that plagued the Assembly because of its underlying Catholic and Protestant divisions.

To avoid stalemates, Macdonald and Cartier came to depend upon one another to deliver votes from their respective sides of the House. Eventually a political alliance was formed.
George Brown founded Upper Canada's most influential newspaper, The Globe, and overcame political differences with John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier to become a prominent Father of Confederation. (Courtesy of the Metro Toronto Reference Library
George Brown founded Upper Canada's most influential newspaper, The Globe, and overcame political differences with John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier to become a prominent Father of Confederation. (Courtesy of the Metro Toronto Reference Library)

George Brown seemed an unlikely addition to a Macdonald and Cartier alliance. Brown owned the most influential newspaper in Upper Canada - The Globe - and used it unfailingly to voice his distrust of what he saw as Catholic scheming and his dislike of political conservatives, especially John A. Macdonald.

He never passed up an opportunity to ridicule Macdonald. On an occasion when Macdonald wore the ceremonial British civil uniform to meet with visiting royalty, Brown wrote, " A great deal of time has been wasted by John A. Macdonald in learning to walk, for the sword suspended to his waist has an awkward knack of getting between his legs, especially after dinner.''

Macdonald responded that the voters "would rather have a drunken John A. Macdonald than a sober George Brown."

By 1862, George Brown was a 43-year-old bachelor who had lost his seat in Parliament after 10 years as a member. Facing severe financial problems and worsening health, he traveled to Britain to recuperate. In London, Brown changed his attitudes towards Confederation. He learned how weary some British politicians had grown of their colonial burdens.

Back home, Brown declared that he had returned "with a better knowledge of public affairs and with a more ardent desire to serve." Brown was prepared to consider the unthinkable, joining forces with Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier to work toward the union of British North America. The three formed the base of a new coalition government whose singular cause was to promote the union of the colonies.

Brown saw it as the only way to achieve representation by population and the annexing of the west." I trust that ...whenever the great interests of Canada are at stake," he wrote, "we will forget our merely political partisanship and rally round the cause of our country."

Thomas McGee applauded Brown's gesture. "Brown has given the greatest exhibition of moral courage I ever knew," he wrote. "next to him the man who taken the greatest risk to his political career is Cartier."

Cartier was attacked in Lower Canada for allying himself with Brown, whose anti-French views were well documented. But Cartier felt that the union of the colonies would have several advantages for Lower Canada.

Together, Macdonald, Cartier and Brown would lay the groundwork for the union of British North America.

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