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Original title:  Photograph Sir Robert Shore Milnes, painting, copied 1925 Wm. Notman & Son 1925, 20th century Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process 25 x 20 cm Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd. VIEW-23514 © McCord Museum Keywords:  Art (2774) , Painting (2229) , painting (2226) , Photograph (77678)

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MILNES, Sir ROBERT SHORE, colonial administrator; b. c. 1754 in England, eldest son of John Milnes, of Wakefield, a magistrate and deputy lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Mary Shore, originally of Sheffield; m. 12 or 13 Nov. 1785 Charlotte Frances Bentinck, great-granddaughter of William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, and they had three sons and two daughters; d. 2 Dec. 1837 in Tunbridge Wells (Royal Tunbridge Wells), England.

Historical works have in general subscribed to the assessment that his contemporary, historian Robert Christie*, made of Robert Shore Milnes: a well-meaning administrator but not an able one, too easily influenced and lacking in self-confidence. This judgement, however, does not stand up to an examination of the man, his ideas, and his role.

After a military career in the Royal Horse Guards, Milnes left the army in 1788 with the rank of captain. Seven years later he was governor of Martinique. On 4 Nov. 1797 he was appointed lieutenant governor of Lower Canada, and on 15 June 1799, at 53 years of age, he was sworn in; on 30 July 1799 he replaced Governor Robert Prescott* as administrator of the province. A baronetcy was conferred on him on 21 March 1801. Milnes left for England on 5 Aug. 1805 but remained administrator until 12 Aug. 1805 and lieutenant governor until 29 Nov. 1808. Thomas Dunn* assumed his duties as administrator until Governor Sir James Henry Craig* arrived in October 1807.

Milnes had replaced Prescott, who was recalled because of the violent quarrelling between two British factions in the Executive Council over land grants in the townships. This conflict had paralysed the British party (also called the English or government party) since 1797. Moreover, the constitution of 1791 having in the event ensured that the Canadians would dominate the House of Assembly and the British both Legislative and Executive councils, an open confrontation between the Canadian party and the British party was inevitable. Internationally the climate of war lent itself to intrigues and unrest, even in Lower Canada. At the same time increasing integration of the colonial economy into the Atlantic one was transforming the socio-economic face of Lower Canada. The colony would be ready to exploit the massive opening up of imperial markets to Canadian timber, a sudden and important development in 1807.

Early in his administration Milnes achieved at first try what no British governor had accomplished until then without resort to force: the call-up of an eighth of the militia of Montreal and the surrounding region in 1801 to fend off a possible American invasion. Even at Trois-Rivières volunteers came pouring in. Long before Craig’s term, Milnes was in communication with spies who reported to him from the United States. And he could take pride in being able to send generous sums raised by subscription to defray the mother country’s expenditures for war. As for the remaining problems, he tackled them in a comprehensive and coherent manner, except perhaps for costly infrastructures (canals, for example) which the debt-ridden colonial legislature and the British government put off till later.

On 1 Nov. 1800 Milnes sent the home secretary, the Duke of Portland, a long dispatch identifying the obstacles to the growth of British settlement in Lower Canada and suggesting various measures to deal with them. In his opinion, although the 1791 constitution was based on unassailable fundamental principles, it would bear fruit only if the government had a strong and dynamic aristocracy to rely on as a counterweight to the humble folk who elected the assembly. Unfortunately, the colony, unlike England, had no such landed aristocracy, because the seigneurial régime levelled social classes and impoverished the seigneurs. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church was beyond state control and consequently the constitution and royal instructions were not applicable to it. The disbanding of the militia after the conquest had undermined another means of government influence. Finally, parliamentary government had added to the difficulties because the popular assembly debated government measures. The lieutenant governor’s correspondence makes it clear that in his view the Canadians remained French and were not moving any closer to the British.

To deal with these serious problems, Milnes considered it necessary to foster the rise of a powerful and rich aristocracy that would influence both the voters and the assembly, a body regrettably composed of easily swayed ignoramuses. Only an aristocracy could offset the popular element, on which the executive had no check. Various concrete measures could set the desired change in motion: getting British people to settle the townships quickly; bringing the Catholic clergy under the authority of the crown; making use of a then submissive clergy and the captains of a reorganized militia for political or even electoral ends to secure a majority in the assembly favourable to the government; increasing civil expenditures and patronage, since Canadian seigneurs sought positions just as did the British; maintaining the imperial government’s assistance with the expenses of civil government, assistance soon made up for by the income from crown lands in the townships; and lastly, encouraging education.

Milnes’s opinions were based on personal observation and on the views of a set of British advisers who included the Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain*, the attorney general Jonathan Sewell, the civil secretary Herman Witsius Ryland, and the merchants John Richardson* and John Young*, the latter a member of the Executive Council. All were convinced that the ultimate solution lay in assimilating the Canadians. More than 40 years after the events of 1760, through their writings and their initiatives in the Executive and Legislative councils, and even in the assembly, this group tried to implement an overall plan for the creation and development of a British and Protestant society, which they considered the normal consequence of the conquest. But, unlike Craig, Milnes never threw himself into the fray. He thus retained full liberty of action, while at the same time supporting the British party discreetly and effectively. In contrast with what would happen in the period 1807–11, the party did not question the 1791 constitution.

Milnes’s viewpoint was in large measure shared by the Duke of Portland. Portland admitted that little could be done for the seigneurs – patronage was too important for the British and it occasioned too much quarrelling. He approved the idea of “prudently” subjecting the Catholic Church to the royal prerogative, even if it meant giving the bishop a generous allowance, and he was in favour of a thorough reorganization of the militia. According to the home secretary, British settlement would in time inevitably reduce the “ascendancy” of the old subjects, the Canadians.

Milnes unfolded his plan of action on all fronts. For instance, despite his numerous arguments with William Osgoode*, the independent-minded chief justice who was kept out of this scheming, he broke a deadlock in the Executive Council so that between 1799 and 1809 it distributed more than 1,400,000 acres among some 60 senior officials, rich merchants, and other large landowners, through the system of township leaders and associates [see Samuel Gale*]. Paradoxically this land speculation would in fact slow down British settlement, though accelerating it was the lieutenant governor’s primary aim. In 1822 Milnes himself was the beneficiary of a grant of 50,465 acres in Stanstead, Compton, and Barnston townships.

Following repeated complaints in the 1790s from the Canadians, particularly in the assembly, about the seizure by the crown of the Jesuit estates and the plan to give some of these lands to Jeffery, Lord Amherst*, as a reward for his military services, Milnes, with the backing of Sewell and Solicitor General Louis-Charles Foucher as well as of the Executive Council, took up an idea put forward by Mountain in 1799: using part of the estates to finance a public school system in which English would be taught free of charge to the Canadians, among whom it was making little headway. For him as for Mountain, it was their ignorance of English that was dividing the population into “two separate people, those who by their situation, their common interests, and their equal participation of the same laws and the same form of government should naturally form but one.”

In pursuit of this plan the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning [see Joseph Langley Mills*] was established in 1801 by an act that managed to pass in the assembly because of absenteeism among members of the Canadian party (several of the votes were close, for example 8 to 7, 11 to 10). In practice the statute conferred absolute control of public education in Lower Canada upon the civil administrator and his minions. A few Canadian “placemen” had backed the British majority in the assembly on certain points. Admittedly the basic intentions of the authors of the statute were apparent only in the confidential dispatches of the lieutenant governor, who considered the Royal Institution a temporary step and who would submit a plan in 1803 to use the income from crown lands to finance colleges and even a university. It was not until 1824 that the British authorities, at home and in the colony, accepted – if with bad grace – the creation of a parallel public school system under the control of Canadians.

Following a scenario conceived by Sewell, Milnes sought to abolish the seigneurial régime by degrees. He proposed to have the colonial legislature pass a law that would require payment of arrears on seigneurial dues accumulated in the crown seigneuries (essentially the towns of Quebec and Trois-Rivières) since the conquest. There would be a general outcry, he thought, and it would thus be necessary to change the system of tenure in those seigneuries, an example that little by little would be followed throughout the province. The aim of this measure was to attract British settlers into the seigneurial area, mingle British and Canadians, and assimilate the latter. The assembly, however, amended the 1801 act to such an extent that the hoped-for commotion never occurred.

As for the Catholic Church, the state lost no opportunity to interfere in its internal administration, for instance, with complaints about parish priests, requests for information, particularly from the Sulpicians, and a refusal to grant the fabrique of Notre-Dame in Montreal permission to hold property in mortmain. Sewell even proposed an overall plan to Milnes which would make the Catholic Church subject to the royal prerogative and undermine its internal and external influence alike: “patronage” – the appointment of parish priests – would be entrusted to the government and the bishop was to be brought into the councils and consequently into politics. Sewell suggested other methods, such as isolating the clergy by excluding foreign priests, and obliging the bishops to reside at Quebec, which would mean their having to live in a style befitting their social rank.

The Anglican bishop also pressed Milnes. In 1803, 1804, and on various occasions later Mountain waxed indignant at what he perceived to be the wide powers, the autonomy, the wealth, honours, and privileges enjoyed by “the Church of Rome.” He demanded vigorous measures to subordinate it and to establish the Church of England more firmly. He hoped, however, that as the townships were settled, “at no very distant period, the Protestants in this Province will outnumber the Papists.” This sentiment was shared by Ryland, who expressed his disgust regarding the papists and demanded the submission of the “superintendent” of the Church of Rome to the royal prerogative. However, in the troubled international context, London considered it ill advised to provoke a religious war.

In the law courts Attorney General Sewell intervened in the name of the state to deny the legal existence of the Catholic bishop and of the parishes created after the conquest. In 1805 he conducted strenous negotiations about this matter with the coadjutor, Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis*, who was representing Bishop Pierre Denaut*. Attracted by the apparent moderation of Milnes, Denaut petitioned the king for civil recognition of his title as Catholic bishop of Quebec. Milnes was secretly congratulating himself on his victory and was already calculating the income to be drawn from the Sulpician estates. He could not know that after his departure from the colony, Denaut would die and the administrator Thomas Dunn would proceed in all haste to swear in an episcopal successor, without waiting for instructions from London.

Where civil jurisdiction was concerned Milnes and London disregarded the minority opinion of the Canadian judges and decreed that English law applied in matters of inheritance and dower for lands held in free and common socage. As another element of his strategy the lieutenant governor persuaded the assembly in 1803 to pass an act reorganizing the militia.

Milnes also intervened to encourage prestigious British figures to run in the 1804 elections in order to get more of their number into the assembly. Similarly he secretly solicited petitions to get separate electoral ridings for the townships and thus bring an additional “10 or 12 British members” into the assembly.

These plans for assimilation and for putting things in order inevitably created a stir, even though they were often fairly moderate and long-term initiatives, compared with the more radical projects and more clear-cut opinions of the British party. It quarrelled regularly in the assembly with the Canadian party about a host of questions. In 1800 the two groups confronted each other over the Jesuit estates, the qualifications of assemblymen, the quorum, and civil law. In 1801 the issues were the abolition of seigneurial tenure, the Royal Institution, and the use of French civil law which in Sewell’s view made it impossible to create an effective aristocracy since it prevented social inequalities. The assembly did, however, agree to extend trial by jury to the entire civil field through a bill that, ironically, was amended drastically by the Legislative Council, which for once had a majority of Canadians. In 1802 there were clashes over paying the expenses of assembly members from ridings at a distance from Quebec in order to reduce absenteeism (the bill was defeated). The disputes in 1803 were over the plan to form companies of volunteers, and the demands of the townships for such things as registry offices, roads, new ridings, a court of common pleas, or a census. In 1804 the issues were the use of patronage, and establishment of the Presbyterian Church in the townships (one of the votes of 8 to 8 was decided by the speaker). In 1805 they were in conflict over the proposals for the abolition of seigneurial tenure and of lineal repurchase, printing in French of a table of contents for the Lex parliamentaria, and the house translator’s salary; at the same time an all-British committee of the Executive Council was proposing that the lieutenant governor ask London directly for the creation of new ridings and circuit courts, the construction of highways, and the establishing of registry offices, the Church of England, and the militia in the townships.

The general election in 1800, like that of 1804, was hotly disputed, with much brawling, lampooning, and insults. In 1804 as a result of the quality of the candidates and the exceptional efforts of the British their numbers in the assembly increased from 14 to 17. In 1805 the quarrels and passions intensified. The British party realized it was fated to remain a minority in the assembly, even though it was the dominant force in the councils. It suffered a severe set-back when the majority imposed a tax on trade rather than on land in order to build new prisons in the towns [see Ignace-Michel-Louis-Antoine d’Irumberry* de Salaberry]. In the colony and in London its petitions met with a certain indifference from the authorities, who were more responsive to the interests of landowners and aware of the urgent need for putting up these buildings.

The British party’s newspaper, the Quebec Mercury, was launched at the beginning of January 1805 [see Thomas Cary*], and it quickly mounted frontal attacks on the Canadians’ nationality, customs, laws, and religion; it assumed an increasingly violent tone and ultimately demanded that Lower Canada be transformed into what it ought to have been: a British colony. The violence of this quarrel, which had, however, broken out after numerous altercations, has led to the mistaken belief that the “race war” began in 1805. The refusal of Milnes to intervene publicly in politics meant that the debates were carried at a pitch different from that under Craig, who presented himself as the head of the British party, now become a party of officialdom. Undeniably, however, in Milnes’s administration the climate was deteriorating and collaboration of the two parties on social and economic questions (public works, social measures, public finances), which had thus far been possible, would become increasingly rare and difficult in the years to come.

Milnes was a sociable man, interested in arts and letters, and he enjoyed receptions which Lady Milnes, reputed to be beautiful and charming, graced by her presence. He apparently had an active family life. Skilled at maintaining ambiguity, he forged links with some of the Canadians, even though he was secretely advocating their assimilation. In support of the community, he was a member of the Fire Society and contributed to a fund in aid of the victims of the conflagration at Quebec in 1804.

Milnes left for England on 5 Aug. 1805, after receiving addresses of thanks and good wishes. From time to time he was to be consulted on Canadian affairs, but he would play no decisive role, probably because of the direct and committed style of his successor, Craig. In 1809, 1810, and 1811 Craig would simply make the same overall assessment as Milnes, but he would recommend different means to arrive at the same ends. Certainly Milnes had not displayed the same vigour in acting. There is no doubt whatsoever about the lucidity of his reasoning, and in other circumstances his program might have had a better chance of success.

Jean-Pierre Wallot

Materials from a number of manuscript and record groups at the PAC were consulted, including MG 17, A7-2; MG 23, GII, 10; MG 24,B1; B3; L3; RG 7, G1; G2; G15C; RG 8, I (C ser.); RG 14, A1; A3. Useful for the period 1797–1805 were RG 4, A1; A2; for 1797–1808, MG 11, [CO 42] Q; RG 1, E1; L1; L3L; and for 1799–1805, MG 5, B2 (transcripts); RG 9, I, A1; RG 10.

AAQ, 210 A, 1797–1808. ACC-Q, 72–77, 86–88. Univ. de Montréal, Service des bibliothèques, coll. spéciales, coll. Melzack. Docs. relating to constitutional hist., 1791–1818 (Doughty and McArthur). Gentlemans Magazine, 1785, January–June 1838. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1793–1809. Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, Henri Têtu et C.-O. Gagnon, édit. (18v. parus, Québec, 1887–  ). British American Register (Quebec), 1802–3. Le Canadien, 1806–8. Montreal Gazette, 1797–1808. Quebec Gazette, 1797–1808. Quebec Mercury, 1805–8. Burkes peerage (1890), 1114–16. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Denaut,” ANQ Rapport, 1931–32; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Hubert et de Mgr Bailly de Messein,” 1930–31; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Panet,” 1933–34; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” 1927–28, 1928–29, 1932–33. H. J. Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians, 134. L.-P. Audet, Le système scolaire, vol.3. Christie, Hist. of L.C. (1848–55), vols.1, 6. Ouellet, Bas-Canada. Taft Manning, Revolt of French Canada. J.-P. Wallot, Intrigues françaises et américaines au Canada, 1800–1802 (Montréal, 1965); Un Québec qui bougeait.

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Jean-Pierre Wallot, “MILNES, Sir ROBERT SHORE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/milnes_robert_shore_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/milnes_robert_shore_7E.html
Author of Article:   Jean-Pierre Wallot
Title of Article:   MILNES, Sir ROBERT SHORE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   June 23, 2024