Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Live-blogging the Quebec conference #2

Tuesday, October 11, 1864: John A. Macdonald: "I am willing provisionally to adopt the suggestion of Mr. Chandler, but I think the whole question should be carefully reconsidered at the eventual revise of the minutes.” A good deal of the second day of the Quebec conference is occupied with procedural matters like these.

Reading the minutes, one gets the very strong impression that they loved all this parliamentary procedure. It looks routine: appointing officers of the conference, working out schedules, confirming procedures. Today a similar conference would delegate a minor official, a “parliamentarian,” to handle such matters. A politician who took an interest in the rules of order would be seen as a crank or an obsessive. Stanley Knowles was admired, but admired as obsessives and eccentrics are.

But at Quebec it is the heavyweights who mix themselves into questions of parliamentary procedure. True, there is political calculation here. Who controls the minutes controls the conference, and Mr. Chandler’s idea will never be found in the final record. But these politicians do have a genuine affinity for parliamentary process. It feels to them like freedom, like power.

Most of these politicians, even those in their forties – and they are a youngish group for senior politicians – are the children of the sea-change of 1847-8, of responsible government. They knew from personal experience, or at least from that of their mentors, the era when all the important political decisions in British North America were made by appointed administrators from Britain or their staff and advisors. They knew it was parliamentary struggle and the achievement of self-governing powers in the British North American legislatures that had inaugurated the powers they now wielded. Only three of the 33 delegates had been born outside Canada – two in Scotland, one in the United States. The transfer of power from retired generals and sons of earls to these local representatives from Kingston and Vercheres and Cumberland and Saint John was intimately wrapped up with faith in legislatures and parliamentary procedures. It was not rote to these men; it was a belief system, and they never disdained to entangle themselves with procedural details. Procedure was legitimacy.

So Tuesday is largely procedural, including the appointment of Hewitt Bernard, who will keep the minutes, an agreement on voting (one vote per province except the united province of Canada East and Canada West gets two), and a decision that the conference will meet daily from eleven to four. It looks dull to us; it was meat and drink to them.

They also debate and pass one resolution moved the first day by Macdonald of Canada West and Tilley of New Brunswick, a resolution based on the principles agreed to at Charlottetown in September. Its last phrase, after “provided” defines the Quebec conference’s agenda:
That the best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America will be promoted by a federal union under the crown of Great Britain provided such union can be effected on principles just to the several provinces.
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