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THE HISTORY OF CANADA
FROM THE EARLIEST DATE OF FRENCH RULE.
I have mentioned in the previous volume* that at the meeting of the council in November, 1778, owing to the extremely high price of wheat and flour, all export of these cereals after the first of December had been forbidden, unless permission were obtained. There was in reality no scarcity to justify this advance. The fact is clearly stated by Haldimand, who, when bringing the matter to the notice of the British government, + attributed the result to an express having been sent from Halifax to a known Canadian mercantile firm to enter into a combination to maintain it.
Aided by several of the traders in Canada, the parties addressed undertook as a commercial speculation to give an artificial value to wheat and flour, so that they would be obtainable only at a most extravagant price. As the government was the principal buyer for the supply of the troops, the object was to force the commissaries to submit to this exaction, in order that the firms active in the intrigue and their friends could make large sums of money. In less than a fortnight, wheat rose from four shillings to four and sixpence a bushel. With the advice of the council a proclamation against forestalling was published. The crop in the district of Quebec in 1778 had not been good ; but there was
(Vol. VI., p. 487.) + The narrative of these events is contained in the letter of Haldimand to Germain (Can. Arch., B., p. 354, 25th October, 1780.]
no complaint of its character in Montreal. Nevertheless, by the artifices of these speculators, wheat reached the price of ten shillings a bushel, which at the present value of money would be four dollars.
The magistrates of Montreal and Quebec had great difficulty in inducing the bakers to continue their calling; indeed, there was difficulty in procuring flour for daily consumption in the towns. With an ample supply of wheat and flour in the country, families were being threatened by famine. Bread, the ordinary food of us all, was becoming a luxury, and, like all luxuries, obtainable only by those who could pay for it. All classes with limited means, and they must always include the majority, suffered privation. So much anxiety was created, that on the meeting of the council in May, 1779, the extremely high price of wheat and flour became the matter of serious deliberation, especially in its relationship to the production of bread for daily use. It was then agreed, that the bakers should be required to enter into recognizances for the due performance of their calling, and that they should receive every reasonable support from the government. Further, that the assize of bread should be regulated by the price of flour; the magistrates were likewise directed to inform themselves of the cause of the extraordinary advance in the prices of wheat and flour.
Every artifice was resorted to by the holders of wheat to maintain its exaggerated market value. Agents passed through the parishes, ostensibly as buyers, to give every encouragement to the farmers not to sell, assuring them the value would increase. This course was particularly followed on the river Richelieu. Having its source in lake Champlain and passing by Chambly, it was the direction that an army invading Canada would follow. Some of the traders interested in maintaining the price were regarded as disaffected to the government and as favouring congress. In consequence, Haldimand inferred that their pertinacity in the maintenance of high prices had more significance than the desire of profit. Should the invasion take place, the farmers in the parishes
NON-EXPORTATION OF WHEAT ENFORCED.
on the line of march by keeping their grain in possession were furnishing, more or less, a granary to sustain the troops of the invading force. Their stores gave an assurance of supplies on that event taking place.
The poor of the towns suffered greatly from the excessive dearness. To many bread became known but by name. It had been hoped that the harvest would improve matters, but no change was experienced ; public expectation was therefore turned to the legislative council in the hope that it would interfere and give some relief. Wheat was then ten shillings a bushel, flour forty shillings a barrel, and it was hoped in some vague way that the council would act with decision.
The council met on the 27th of January, 1780. The committee, appointed to report upon the situation, recommended an ordinance forbidding the export of wheat for a further special period, and the renewal of the proclamation against engrossing. This limited restriction being considered as incapable of effecting the benefit desired, and as actually there was no scarcity, it was proposed to extend the term of nonexportation until the new crop was harvested. The proposition led to great altercation. The members opposed to this course contended that the proceeding was illegal ; that the council, under the Quebec act, had no authority to levy taxes; and that arbitrarily to take steps to determine the price of four was identical with such legislation. The matter was referred for the opinion of the attorney-general Monk.* He coincided with this view ; but his opinion was so peculiarly and vaguely worded, as to shew that it was founded more on the form in which the question was submitted to him, than in itself an abstract conclusion as to the legality of the course involved.
It was then proposed to take the views of the council on the legality of the measure. By the majority of one the decision was adverse. +
Monk's opinion on the subject is to be found (Can. Arch., Q. 17.1, p. 311). That of Williams, which held that the council had the power to fix the price of wheat and flour as a matter of local police, is given [Can. Arch., Q. 17.1, p. 318].
+ The ayes for its legality were : Mabane, St. Luc, Bellestre, Gugy, Fraser,
When the vote was taken, no desire was expressed of placing on record the reasons for dissenting from the view of the majority. On a subsequent occasion, three of the minority asked to inscribe on the minutes the ground of their disagreement. Such a record on the minutes would have brought to the notice of the law officers of the crown in England the legal rights of the council in the emergency. The proposal was rejected, on the plea that it was at variance with the form followed in the council, an objection in itself frivolous, as there was no regulation in the council quoad form on any subject. The paper was, however, filed. The measure proposed was generally regarded as the one which could alone control speculation, and hence the opposition to it. Its legality was undoubted; it was, moreover, in every sense expedient, for it would have reduced to their just proportion the prices of the necessaries of life, which had been abnormally increased only by combination and contrivance.
The high prices, accordingly, continued for some months to the benefit of those who were maintaining them. The demand could not, however, be continued, for the harvest gave indications of being abundant; consequently, in August they commenced to decline, and by degrees the cause of discontent disappeared.
Haldimand clearly acted upon the dictates of his duty. In this case it was twofold; to secure cheap bread for the people, and to provide for the support of the troops, without the public purse being defrauded to pay the extreme prices exacted by the speculators. The course proposed would have been acceptable to the French Canadians. It was defeated, for it was distasteful to the majority of the council, many of them being engaged in operations in wheat.
To prevent any further attempt at erecting artificially high prices an ordinance was passed against the exportation of wheat for two years. An ordinance was likewise proposed
Caldwell, St. Ours, Longueuil, Baby and Holland-10. The nays : Cramahé, Finlay, Dunn, Cuthbert, L'Evêque, Collins, Pownall, Allsopp, de Léry, Harrison and Grant-1.