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“His memory will live, not only in the hearts of all his countrymen,
but enshrined in the history … of the great Dominion
which he did so much to create, and which he so fondly loved.”
Hunter & Co. / National Archives of Canada / C-009558
Leonard Tilley was an affluent New Brunswick apothecary and temperance advocate who became premier and led his province into confederation. In fact, it was Tilley, inspired by reading Psalm 72, who suggested the title Dominion of Canada.
Tilley was born in 1818 in Gagetown, New Brunswick. He was the son of a storekeeper and one of eight children. At thirteen, he apprenticed as a druggist, becoming a certified pharmacist in 1838. Success in business made him one of Gagetown’s wealthiest citizens by the time he entered politics.
At twenty-one, Tilley heard a sermon of the Reverend William Harrison that moved him to make what he described as a “new departure.” He immersed himself in the Bible and committed himself to God. His evangelical beliefs emphasized biblical faith with a social conscience and provided the framework for his life. He became a devoted member of the Church of England, teaching Sunday school and becoming a churchwarden, and was also a member of the Saint John’s Religious Tract Society and a life member of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Tilley entered public life partly as an extension of his involvement with the temperance movement. The brutal murder of a local woman by her drunken husband haunted him. Hearing the couple’s young daughter’s cries, he had rushed to the scene. What he saw remained with him: “There lay the mother withering in her blood, her little children crying around her, and the husband and father under arrest for murder, and rum the cause of it all.” When the first New Brunswick branch of the Sons of Temperance opened in 1847, Tilley was named to its executive council.
In 1848, Tilley’s strong temperance advocacy led to his election to municipal government in St. John. Two years later, in 1850, he was elected to the provincial legislature as a Liberal.
In 1855, Tilley introduced the Prohibition bill as a private member. It included “the arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and the incarceration of intoxicated people until they revealed their source supply.” It also proved to be the most controversial legislation of his career. When it cam into effect in 1856, Tilley found the act and himself under continuous assault. Burned in effigy, his house attacked, his life threatened, he never flinched in defence of the legislation.
In 1857, Tilley was appointed provincial secretary. Seven years later, he became the premier of New Brunswick. Tilley thus stood at the helm of the province’s political destiny during those crucial years when Confederation moved form dream to reality.
The move unite the Canadian provinces was the most notable change within the British Empire since the American Declaration of Independence. Tilley realized that the time had come for the British possessions of North America to either join forces politically or else fall, one by one, to the influence of the United States. In 1864, the political leaders of the four Maritime colonies arranged a meeting in Charlottetown. When the delegates from Upper and Lower Canada arrived—after having requested an invitation—the dimensions of the issues changed, and everyone agreed to continue discussions in Quebec later in the year. At the Quebec Conference, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island opted out, but Tilley and Charles Tupper—who headed the Nova Scotia delegation—accepted Confederation. Together with the Canadian delegates, they worked out a formula for presentation to Britain.
Tilley’s enthusiasm, however, was not shared by all his constituents. When he called an election in 1865 for a mandate to continue negotiations, his party was narrowly defeated. Confederation and Tilley’s career were threatened. New Brunswick was an essential link in the union, and Tilley had staked everything on its joining. Fortunately, another election was called in 1866, and with the Fenian raids creating fear of a possible American invasion, Tilley and his Liberals were returned to power.
In December 1866, the Westminister Conference finalized the details of the British North America Act, which Tilley helped to write. Tilley’s best-known contribution, though, came when discussing a name for the new union. A letter written by Tilley’s son describes how the Dominion of Canada came into being:
When the fathers of Confederation were assembled discussing the terms and conditions of Confederation and the drafting of the British North America Act there had been considerable discussion the day before and many suggestions as to what the new United Canada should be called, and no conclusion had been reached. The discussion on the name stood over until the next day. The next morning, as was Sir Leonard’s custom, he read a chapter from the Bible, and that particular morning he read Psalm Seventy-two. When reading verse eight of the said Psalm—He shall have Dominion also from sea to sea—the thought occurred to him, what a splendid name to give Canada. When he went back to the sitting of the convention that morning he suggested the word “Dominion,” which was agreed to, and Canada was called the “Dominion of Canada.”
A letter signed by John A. MacDonald explained to Queen Victoria that the name was “a tribute to the principles they earnestly desired to uphold.”
When the British North America Act came into force by royal proclamation on July 1, 1867, MacDonald was the first to lay his hand upon a Bible and be sworn in as a member of the Privy Council, followed by George-Étienne Cartier. Tilley was next, and he became the minister of customs in Canada’s inaugural federal government.
Tilley’s impeccable character and reputation remained intact even when others around him fell. When charges of corruption were brought against MacDonald’s government in connection with the Canadian Pacific Railway, Tilley was not among the guilty. Prior to that government’s resignation in 1873, the fifty-five-year-old Tilley was thus appointed the lieutenant governor of New Brunswick.
In summer 1878, Tilley resigned his provincial post to re-enter federal politics. When MacDonald defeated Alexander Mackenzie, Tilley was named the minister of finance.
Queen Victoria made Tilley a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1879. In 1885, amid failing health, he received yet another honour by once again being appointed New Brunswick’s lieutenant governor, a position that he filled for the next eight years.
Sir Leonard Tilley, aged seventy-eight, died in June 1896 from blood poisoning received through a minor cut. One of his last wishes was that a plain tombstone be erected to his memory with the inscription “His trust was in Jesus.” Tilley hoped that “passers-by might be helped in their earthly pilgrimage.”
Tilley’s rector paid him homage at his funeral, saying, “His heart went out in sympathy and brotherly recognition to all who loved the Lord in sincerity. And the reason … was in the reality of his Christianity. For him it was a real thing.” Even the Telegraph, a St. John paper that had been politically opposed to Tilley for many years, stated: “His memory will live, not only in the hearts of all his countrymen, but enshrined in the history of this his native province, and of the great Dominion which he did so much to create, and which he so fondly loved.”