The word coalition has become something of a bad word in Canadian federal politics, demonized during the last election by the Conservatives and rarely entertained in public by the opposition.
But 150 years ago this week, the surprise creation of a coalition between two bitter rivals was what helped pave the way towards Confederation.
In the spring of 1864, Liberal Leader George Brown and Liberal-Conservative Leader Sir John A. Macdonald were two men who could barely see eye-to-eye on anything in the legislative assembly of the united Canadas.
Brown, the strident voice of Canada West (Ontario) and editor of the Toronto Globe, had fought for a generation for representation by population. He seethed at the notion that francophone, Catholic Canada East (Quebec) could carry as much legislative weight as his more populous region.
Macdonald had managed to form governments by stitching together a power base with the help of George-Etienne Cartier’s Bleus in Canada East, but his administrations kept collapsing.
Finally, in June 1864, Brown emerged from a cross-party constitutional committee study professing his support for a Canadian federation. It came at an auspicious time, because the government was falling again.
A back-room meeting of rival politicians ensued at the St. Louis Hotel in Ottawa’s Byward Market area (now housing a gay bar and a sushi restaurant). Within less than a week, Brown had agreed to enter into a coalition with his nemesis.
“The arch-enemies John A. Macdonald and George Brown attempted to seize each other not by the hand but rather by the throat,” historian Ged Martin wrote in 1995 of the deal.
Brown went on to became a cabinet minister in the so-called Great Coalition.
“Can it be in any shape an object of ambition to sit down in the same cabinet with gentlemen to whom you have been opposed for a lifetime.” Brown said in a June 22 speech to the legislature, reprinted by MP James Young in his 1902 book.
“Nothing but the most stern sense of duty could have brought me into such a position.”
Barbara Messamore, a history professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, says the Great Coalition shouldn’t be viewed so much as a coming together, but of a breaking apart.
“The coalition wasn’t about people overcoming partisan differences in their own political ideologies, those were essentially intact, it was just kind of a recognition you might say that some sort of systemic change had to be made, that there was just something unworkable about things as they were,” said Messamore.
“It’s very much a pragmatic arrangement, maybe that’s the Canadian way.”
That pragmatic arrangement in June 1864 left the new coalition government free to devise a proposal to bring to talks with Maritime provinces in Charlottetown in September.
The Charlottetown Conference was supposed to be about striking a Maritime Union, but the emboldened Canadians decided to crash the party with a broader vision. Their strategy worked, and the principle of confederation took hold.