9th Day: 3 February

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Council Chamber, Upper Fort Garry

Thursday, 3 February 1870[1]

Eleven o’clock, A.M. — Convention in session.

Debate resumed on article 19.

Mr. Riel, in French, as translated by Mr. Ross — I would call attention to the fact that, under this article we decide on the rights, both of foreigners and natives. Of course, whatever our decision is, some parties will have fault to find. As a principle of action, we must seek to do what is right, and at the same time have a special regard to the interests of the people of this country. We must seek to preserve the existence of our own people. We must not by our own act allow ourselves to be swamped. If the day comes when that is done, it must be by no act of ours. I do not wish in anything I may do to hurt the stranger; but we must, primarily, do what is right and proper for our own interests. In this connection, all outsiders are to be looked upon as strangers — not merely Americans, but Canadians, English, Irish and Scotch. All are strangers in the sense that they are outsiders, that they do not appreciate the circumstances in which we live, and are not likely to enter fully into our views and feelings. Though in a sense British subjects, we must look on all coming in from abroad as foreigners, and while paying all respect to these foreigners, we must at the same time respect ourselves. The circumstances of our country are peculiar; and if therefore we do anything peculiar, looking at analogous cases, it must be explained on the principle that we are a peculiar people in exceptional circumstances. For myself, I am for leaving the article as it stands, except as regards the period of the voter’s residence. One year is too short; two years are too short; and as for three, that would be a fair matter for consideration. If we allow all residents of one year in the country the right to vote, it is not impossible but in the second year they may rule us; and that surely is not for us to seek. Looking at the composition of this Convention, I am not sure that this will triumph, but those who come after will thank us for our efforts, even if we should fail.

Mr. Schmidt, seconded by Mr. C. Nolin, moved in amendment — “That every man of this country, except Indians, who has attained the age of twenty-one years, and every British subject, a stranger to this Territory, after three years of residence in the Territory,— shall have the right to vote; and every foreigner, not a British subject, shall have the right to vote after residing the same length of time in the Territory, on condition that he take the oath of allegiance.”

Mr. Scott — Merely taking the oath of allegiance does not make a man a British subject. He must declare his intention to be a British subject, and when that is done, he takes the oath of allegiance.

Dr. Bird proposed in amendment that instead of the words, after “three years’ residence,” the words be inserted “every British subject being a householder, after one years’ residence in the Territory.”[2]

Mr. Bunn seconded the amendment.

Mr. Scott — The last amendment seems to conflict directly with the spirit of Mr. Schmidt’s motion, that there should be no property qualification.

Mr. Riel — In my opinion the original motion is better than the amendment. We cannot look on property as the best test of title to vote. In this country, in fact, the poorer we are, the more honest we are; and to say that only the rich are to be entitled to exercise this right, is slander on our people. My own opinion is that the system prevailing in the States is better than that in Canada. I have seen more disturbance in Montreal at elections than ever I have seen in the United States. Liberty to vote is what would be best for us. There should be no discrimination against foreigners. Let us do justice to them.

Mr. Ross — I am very much astonished that Mr. Riel, who is working for the people of the country, should make such a speech. I am astonished. However, as the day is far advanced, I would suggest that we adjourn for dinner.

At half-past one, the Convention adjourned for an hour and a half.

~~~

Three o’clock, P.M. — Debate resumed.

Mr. Scott — By the amendment it seems that foreigners — American or British subjects — having no property in the country, have no right to vote, although they may have lived here 100 years. That is directly making a property qualification.

The Chairman — Property to the extent of occupying a house.

Mr. Scott — Is that the idea?

Mr. Bunn — It is.

Mr. Riel, after translating Mr. Scott’s remark, went on to allude to the question of property qualification. I think, he said, it is unjust that a man should be required to be a householder before he can vote. Suppose a man’s house were burned down, is he to be deprived of his vote? Does he lose his intelligence, because his house happens to be burned down? To advocate a property qualification is to speak in the interests of the rich as against the poor. Are there more honest men among the rich than among the poor? Are we not honest, though poor? Taken as a whole, where are there honester people than among the poor? Suppose, instead of choosing Mr. Bruce to be the head of the Provisional Government, we had chosen a man on account of his riches. The good results flowing from his Presidency would not have been felt.

Mr. Ross — I do not deny the force of Mr. Riel’s remarks. I am quite willing that he should ascribe to the poor man all honesty which, we know, generally characterises that class. I am also quite willing to admit that among those who have property there may be a great deal of deceit, chicanery and dishonesty. But that is aside of the question we are discussing. I cannot regard our natives and half-breeds as poor in the sense alluded to. I think our population is extremely well off, and will compare favorably with the rural population of any foreign country (cheers). I am proud of this and thankful for it. For poor people we must go to those foreign countries. I do not think that our people will ever be classed among that miserable class of paupers who have to be clothed and fed from day to day, and nurtured like children. We are well off — hardly a poor person within our whole limits. Almost every man has a house and land, horses and cattle. Thanks to our industry and intelligence, we have a settlement, composed of men not in the rank of paupers (cheers). This question of the voting power is one of great importance: for the voters, after all, will have to decide all the questions which come up in the Legislature,— they have the source of power in their hands. If we put this source of power in the hands of parties not working for the good of the country, we are practically doing this: while on the one hand we secure certain benefits; on the other we provide machinery to cheat us out of them. For my part I would wish to secure greater benefits for the people of this country than are asked either by the motion or amendment. It is important, in giving a man the right to vote in any country, that that man should have some interest in the country. In this country we have a mixed population. Take the population at present here, and I would be quite willing to look upon them as having an interest in the country, even though they had not a shilling or a house. But in view of emigration, we ought to provide that a man shall have some material interest in the country before he be allowed to vote. The original resolution proposed that a man having had three years’ residence in the country, without any household qualification, should have a vote. The amendment proposed one year’s residence and household qualification. My opinion is that it ought to be three years’ residence and household qualification for all except the present inhabitants. We should fence ourselves in such a way as to prevent us from being swamped by outsiders having no stake in the country. I am certain that what I have proposed is for the benefit of the present people of Red River. A great many of the claims we make, may, if granted, do good to the country. But is it certain that they are all going to do good to the present population of the Settlement? I am doubtful of it, and we must be on our guard lest we, practically, go through the unpleasant process of cutting our heads off, by demanding something which will vitally injure us. As to the three years’ qualification I tell you frankly it shuts me out from the polls. But I do not care for that: for if it shuts me out, it shuts out, probably twenty others whom I would like to see deprived of the voting power.

Mr. Riel — It would shut me out too.

Mr. Ross — I would almost wish to see an exceptional law in your favor (laughter). It is objected that by making the term three years, instead of one, we may keep away men of capital and means, for every such man who would be debarred from exercising the franchise for three years, fifteen or twenty would also be excluded, whose votes would be an injury to the country. Allow a man who is not a householder to vote, and you may find that vote set off in Winnipeg, for instance, against that of such men as Mr. Andrew McDermott or Mr. Bannatyne (hear, hear).

Mr Scott — While I believe with Mr Ross, that the three years’ residence would not be a bad stipulation; I cannot support a property qualification. It is well known that the poor people more than any other class in the country need a representative. For the poor more than the rich, is the protection of good laws needed. If the rich only are represented among the law-makers of the country, what follow? The laws are made for the rich and are of such a character as will make the rich man richer and the poor poorer. What cares the rich man for placing an efficient school system within reach of all? He can educate his children at a private seminary. Look again at the priests across the river, who are sworn to poverty. Are they to have no voice in the making of the laws, because they are not rich? It is preposterous. Why, on the same principle, if the twelve apostles came to this country, they would not have any vote either (laughter). Is it, I would ask, the house or the man who is to vote?

Mr. Cummings — I say there is scarcely a poor man in the country. I have been here eleven years and I hardly ever saw a poor man yet (hear, hear). And here I altogether differ with Mr. Scott. There is scarcely a man in this country but has a house and land and is making a good living unless he is too lazy.

Mr. Scott — I spoke of the poor people who came here — not the poor people of the country. The people here now, are all to have the right to vote.

Mr. Riel, in French, recommended strongly to the consideration of the Convention the substance of Mr. Ross’s remarks — specially in so far as they related to the three years’ residence as against one.

Mr. O’Donoghue — It is not clear to me that all those born in the country shall be entitled to vote on coming to the age of twenty-one. I think that not only those in the country at present, but all born here hereafter, on coming to that age, should be entitled to vote. As to a property qualification, I do not think that any kind of a house ought to do; and I also think there should be a distinction between those who own and those who rent houses.

The Chairman — The object of those proposing and supporting the amendment is to prevent the foreign element coming here from exercising electoral rights for three years. For my own part, I have very serious misgivings as to the propriety of this three- years period. It seems to imply a very great distrust, on our part, of British subjects who may come to this country from any other Colony (hear, hear). I do not know that there are any sufficient grounds to warrant such distrust, provided things are properly directed, and provided, as has already been provided, that the population of the country have a fair share of the power in the Legislature. My own ideas would hardly have led me to think of more than two years. Perhaps such a period as that might be looked on as justifiable in the peculiar circumstances of the country. But three years,— I am afraid, if incorporated into a law,— might stand in the way of the progress and prosperity of the country. Then again, as to the property part of the qualification, if we believe that the two great functions of government are the protection of life and property, it cannot be thought strange that we should look a little at the question of property in fixing the voting qualification. If the parties to the amendment could have adopted this intermediate period of two years, I think it might be feasibly put forward. Let us look at it in the light of the other Colonies. In the Australian group, for instance, they do not ask a man what part of the Empire he comes from, or whether he has property or not. Universal suffrage prevails there. To a man who has been six months in the country and is twenty-one years of age, the invitation is freely given,— Come along and vote. Now if that period has been fixed in these Colonies,— Colonies which are allowed all over the world to have very liberal constitution[s],— and if, even in Old England, this period of three years would not be listened to,— may you not be exposing yourselves to very considerable danger in asking for this very long period of probation?

Mr. Bunn — What is the danger?

The Chairman — Simply this, if you will pardon me for stating so palpable a truism: inasmuch as three is more than two, a person in coming into the country may not unreasonably take fright at the figure of three, whereas he might be contented with two (hear and laughter). A man,— a very desirable man — might be deterred from coming into the country by the difference between the figures three and two. I quite enter into the desire of those who wish for some special legislation in favor of those who have lived all their days in a country like this. And if I may be permitted to allude to myself, I believe you can all hear me witness that in the discharge of my public duties, I have always endeavored to see that special care should be taken of the interests of our comparatively unsophisticated people when they were brought into contact with the conditions of a more advanced civilization. I have always made it my duty to see that the community among whom my lot has been cast for nearly a quarter of a century, should suffer as little as possible from that contact (cheers). I can therefore see some reason for some special legislation — but I think you are going too far in this exceptional direction. I do not press my suggestions, but simply place them before you. Let some special precautions be taken, if you will, to prevent the people from being suddenly submerged. But let your measures not be such as to roll back the tide of population which is required to make this the great country we desire it to become (cheers).

Mr. Riel, after alluding to the Chairman’s remarks said — I think three years quite short enough. It is impossible to say what danger may beset us after we enter Confederation,— and three years of this amount of protection is the very least we could ask. We must keep what rights and property we have now by every means in our power. The grasshoppers did us some damage a year ago, and threw us back. They might do so this year, and that would throw us within two years of the time when the privileges of these outsiders would come into force. If the question of two years is urged, I must say that I would feel very much inclined to go for four. It strikes me as a novelty to see a representative of the Company here,— a Company which has hitherto denied the right of voting altogether — to see such a representative endeavoring to make the time as short as possible until the period of voting comes.

Mr. K. McKenzie — As a newcomer from Canada this proposed law would act unfairly towards me in shutting me out.

Mr. Ross — All those in the country at present, of twenty-one years of age, have the right to vote.

Mr. Riel — If we had any guarantee that the men coming from Canada were such honest and good men as Mr. McKenzie, we would welcome them heartily to every privilege. We would wish that four railroads, instead of one, were built to hurry them in (laughter and cheers). But unfortunately the bad will come in with the good.

Mr. Scott — Is it the intention of the Convention to allow women to vote? No doubt many such will come in and be householders (laughter).

The Chairman — All these resolutions will have to be submitted to a good deal of filing.

Mr. Ross — Mr. Schmidt’s motion gives every stranger the right to vote at the end of three years, even if he has not a cent’s worth of property in the country. The amendment requires not only a three years’ residence, but that he should hold some property.

Mr. Riel — The motion is so extremely important that I wish the Convention would allow me time for a short conference with Mr. Ross on the subject.

Mr. Riel and Mr. Ross having conferred together, Mr. Schmidt’s amendment was put and carried, in the following shape:—

“That every man in the country (except uncivilized and unsettled Indians) who had attained the age of twenty-one years, and every British subject, a stranger to this country, who has resided three years in this country and is a householder, shall have a right to vote at the election of a member to serve in the Legislature of the country and in the Dominion Parliament; and every foreign subject, other than a British subject, who has resided the same length of time in the country, and is a householder, shall have the same right to vote on condition of his taking the oath of allegiance,— it being understood that this article be subject to amendment exclusively by the Local Legislature.”

Mr. George Gunn, seconded by Mr. Klyne, moved the adoption of Article 20.[3]

“20. That the North-West Territory shall never be held liable for any portion of the £300,000 paid to the Hudson Bay Company, or for any portion of the public debt of Canada, as it stands at the time of our entering the Confederation; and if thereafter we shall be called upon to assume our share of said public debt, we consent only on condition that we first be allowed the amount for which we shall be held liable.”— Carried.[4]

Mr. Riel, in French,— interpreted by Mr. Ross — We have got to-night to the last of the articles, and I cannot lose this opportunity of making a few remarks. We have been now some fifteen days or thereabouts in consultation on matters of the gravest importance, and the spirit shown all through the Convention has been most praiseworthy. We have shown ourselves to the world to be capable of discussing creditably, matters of the utmost political consequence. If differences have occurred, they have been only such as would naturally arise between men of intellect and reason in discussing important matters (cheers). I sincerely congratulate the Convention on this, and heartily wish the members, bon noir [sic] (cheers).

A short interval having elapsed, Mr. Riel again rose and said — The committee to whom was referred the consideration of the points to be brought before the Convention drew up two lists, one to be presented to Mr. Smith on the event of our seeking admission into the Dominion as a Territory; the other in the event of our going in as a Province. The conditions under which a Province stands in the Confederation, are laid down in the Confederation Act. It is a very simple matter, and probably in the forenoon of to-morrow might be discussed without difficulty. As a Territory we have made out our list; but the list for admission as a Province, has also its advantages.

Mr. Ross — It is a question whether we should not direct the Secretaries to make out for Mr. Smith a copy of the List of Rights, and present them, with a view to his being called on to pass an opinion on them to-morrow morning.

Mr. Riel opposed the latter suggestion, and ultimately the Convention adjourned till the following morning.

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Next page: 10th Day: 4 February


[1] “Convention at Fort Garry, Very Important Debates, The Bill of Rights,” New Nation (11 February 1870), 1–2; HBCA, E.9/1, 14.

[2] HBCA, E.9/1, 14.

[3] HBCA, E.9/1, 14 obverse.

[4] Ibid., 15.

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