In the 1860s political union of BRITISH NORTH AMERICA was an idea, the subject of occasional dinner speeches when wine raised a man's sights, softened political asperities, and broadened his horizons. But only in 1864 did it become a serious question in the PROVINCE OF CANADA, and in the Atlantic colonies a great deal of pressure would be necessary to convert romantic ideas of a nation a mari usque ad mare into political reality.
A series of fortuitous events helped. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had some interest in reuniting the 2 colonies separated since 1784; they were helped by the British COLONIAL OFFICE, which felt that a political union of all 3 Maritime colonies was desirable, including Prince Edward Island. Maritime union would abolish 3 colonial legislatures and governments and replace them with one.
In the spring of 1864 all 3 legislatures passed pious resolutions declaring a certain lukewarm interest in having a conference on the subject. But nothing was done; it was only when the Province of Canada positively announced its interest in being asked to attend such a conference that the Maritime governments woke up. If the Province of Canada was going to attend, then there had to be a conference for them to come to. The governor of Nova Scotia got busy; Charlottetown was appointed as the place - Prince Edward Island would not attend otherwise - and 1 September 1864 the time.
As the Province of Canada grew larger and more prosperous and developed politically, socially and industrially, so grew its internal rivalries and difficulties. Whereas the Conservative party believed the 1841 constitution had by no means outlived its usefulness, the Reform party insisted that change was essential. Canada West [Ontario], wanting divorce more than Canada East [Québec], could make difficult all ministries that did not conform to its belief in "representation by population." In 1864, after 4 short-lived ministries had fought to stay in power, a coalition was formed, promising Confederation.
The province's problems were to be solved by division of its 2 sections and the union of all BNA. With support from 3 of the province's 4 major political groups, the coalition gave Confederation a driving force that it never lost. Canada West's 2 major political groups were united on the issue; their leaders, John A. MACDONALD and George BROWN, were peculiar partners, but their alliance meant that Confederation proceeded with support from British North America's most populous province.
In Canada East, although Confederation was opposed by A.A. DORION's PARTI ROUGE, it was supported by the dominant political group, the Conservatives under George-Étienne CARTIER, Hector LANGEVIN and Alexander T. GALT. By 1867 they had the necessary support of the Catholic Church. Confederation was justified by the arguments that French Canadians would get back their provincial identity - the capital of their province would once more be Québec; the anglophone domination of Ottawa feared by French Canadians would be mitigated by the presence of strong French Canadian representation in the federal Cabinet; and Confederation was the least undesirable of the changes proposed.
So the "Canadians" sailed from Québec City on 29 August 1864, aboard the Canadian government steamer Queen Victoria for the CHARLOTTETOWN CONFERENCE. They were soon invited to join the conference, and open up their proposals, Maritime union not making very much headway. The "Canadian" ideas for a federal union of all the British North American provinces swept the board, and the glittering idea of a union a mari usque ad mare took over. The QUÉBEC CONFERENCE, called a month later, made explicit, in the form of 72 Resolutions, fundamental decisions already taken at Charlottetown.
The colonies were also joined in Québec by Newfoundland. The Atlantic colonies of Newfoundland, PEI, NS and NB each had aspirations, but none was as dissatisfied with the status quo as was Canada West. With the exception of Newfoundland, they felt comfortable as they were, and the bulk of the population, especially in NS and PEI, saw no reason to change their constitution just because Canada was finding it had outgrown its own.
Even Newfoundland, after economic difficulties in the 1860s had made it susceptible to mainland blandishments, postponed decision in 1865, and in the 1869 Newfoundland general election decisively rejected Confederation. The more prosperous PEI resisted almost from the start. A small, dedicated group of Confederationists made little headway until, early in the 1870s, the railway adventures of successive Island governments forced PEI to have its railway, and its debt, taken over by the new Dominion. NS was more complicated.
Along the axis of the railway that already ran from Halifax to Truro and was to continue to Québec, there was real support for Confederation. The manufacturing and coal-producing areas, Pictou County and to some extent Cape Breton, were also interested. But along the south shore and in the Annapolis Valley - the prosperous world of shipping, shipbuilding, potatoes and apples - Confederation appeared unattractive or even dangerous.
Conservative Premier Charles TUPPER, ambitious, aggressive and confident, went ahead with Confederation, convinced that in the long run it would be best for NS, and perhaps also for himself. Fortunately for Confederation, Tupper did not test his electorate: elected in 1863, his government did not need to go to the polls until 1867, after Confederation. Then, too late, it was clear that 65% of Nova Scotians opposed Confederation (see REPEAL MOVEMENT).
NB supported Confederation only slightly more than any other Atlantic province. In February 1865 the anti-Confederate government of A.J. SMITH was elected. Confederation could go nowhere until the Smith government collapsed, as it did in 1866 and a new pro-Confederate government was brought in, helped by the FENIAN invasions of April and June 1866, which badly weakened anti-Confederate positions.
External forces such as the American Civil War and the truculence of American foreign policy (symbolized in the 1866 abrogation of the RECIPROCITY Treaty and 1867 Alaska purchase) made the separate colonies of BNA uneasy about their future. Duty would compel Britain to respond to any military aggression against BNA, as the TRENT AFFAIR showed; but Britain had no taste for it. The best British defence against the US was a BNA federation. Confederation thus had powerful support from London, especially from Colonial Secretary Edward Cardwell.
Cardwell instructed his BNA governors, in the strongest language possible, to support Confederation. They did. The LONDON CONFERENCE, December 1866 to February 1867, was the final stage of translating the 72 Resolutions of 1864 into legislation. The result was the British North America Act of 1867 (now called CONSTITUTION ACT, 1867) which passed through Parliament, the British House of Commons and House of Lords, and was signed by the Queen on 29 March 1867. It was proclaimed into law 1 July 1867.
British policy favouring the union of all of British North America continued under Cardwell's successors. The Hudson's Bay Co sold RUPERT'S LAND to Canada in 1870, and BC was brought into Confederation in 1871. The only defeat British policy sustained was in Newfoundland in 1869; but 80 years later it finally made its contribution to Confederation.
Although the form of Confederation was the product of 3 conferences and delegates from both sides of politics from 5 colonies, the practical ideas of how it might actually be achieved came from John A. Macdonald, with help on the financial side from A.T. Galt, and with G.-E. Cartier's insistence on a certain essential minimum of provincial rights. Confederation had not been originally Macdonald's idea; but he was finally the one who took hold of it and made the running. Thus, it is to Macdonald and his ideas that Canadians should look to understand the character of that 1867 union.
Author P.B. WAITE
J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe (1963); D.G. Creighton, The Road to Confederation (1964) and John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician (1952); W.L. Morton, The Critical Years (1964); P.B. Waite, The Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada (1963) and The Life and Times of Confederation (1962).
Links to Other Sites
Sir John A Macdonald Day
A guide to classroom activities for celebrating Sir John A Macdonald Day and learning about Confederation. Students investigate milestones in the life and political career of Canada's first prime minister and find out how historians determine the historical significance of specific people, events, or developments. Check out the interactive Sir John A Day Timeline and the informative videos on related topics. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
See the text of an article from "The Globe" newspaper about the day Confederation became the law of the land in Canada. From Library and Archives Canada.
Charlottetown Conference of 1864
This website covers the key issues and events at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. Also features biographical profiles and an impressive collection of archival photographs and documents. From Library and Archives Canada.
Canadian Illustrated News
Articles and pictures from the "Canadian Illustrated News", a periodical published in Montreal from 1869 to 1883. Interesting insights into Canadian life and politics. From Library and Archives Canada.
Canada: A People's History
This CBC feature program highlights significant events, issues, and personalities in Canadian history.
Celebrating Dominion Day 1867-1917
Browse the "Images Canada" collection for historical photos of Canadians celebrating "Dominion Day."
Keys to History
Search this "Keys to History" website for fascinating online exhibits about notable people, places, and events in Canadian history. From Montréal's McCord Museum.
Electoral Atlas of the Dominion of Canada (1895)
This website features an interactive map of the federal electoral boundaries in Canada as they existed in 1895. From Library and Archives Canada.
The Tenth Province
This website provides in-depth commentary about Joseph Smallwood and Newfoundland politics from 1949 to 1972. Produced by Melvin Baker at Memorial University.
Bellevue House National Historic Site
This Parks Canada site in Kingston, Ontario is the former home of Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada (1867-73, 1878-91). Check out the detailed overview of the life and political career of Sir John A. Macdonald.
Fathers of Confederation
Biographies of the Fathers of Confederation are part of the "Canadian Confederation" website from Library and Archives Canada. Includes historical photographs and other archival resources.
Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982
This website offers an official consolidation of the text of the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act, 1867), together with amendments made to it since its enactment, and the text of the Constitution Act, 1982, as amended since its enactment. The Constitution Act, 1982 contains the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other new provisions, including the procedure for amending the Constitution of Canada. From the Department of Justice.
Sir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site of Canada
Learn about the life and political career of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, one of the Fathers of Confederation. Also features learning activities for students and their teachers. A Parks Canada website.
Created by the Capital Commission of Prince Edward Island, Founders’ Hall tells the story of Canada from the meetings of 1864 in Charlottetown to present day. Their website is a great information source about the prinicipal players and issues related to Canadian Confederation.
Sir John A. Macdonald
This site is devoted to the life and political career of Sir John A. Macdonald. Features a splendid virtual exhibition of digitized documents, pictures, and other unique records from Library and Archives Canada.
Facebook: Canada's History Magazine
Join the conversation about noteworthy events and personalities in Canadian history.
Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter
A biography of Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter, lawyer, politician, and judge. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
John A: Birth of a Country
View the entire movie "John A: Birth of a Country", a TV drama that focuses on the pre-Confederation conflict between two pillars of Canadian politics, Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown. From the CBC website.
John A: Birth of a Country
The presskit for the riveting television drama "John A: Birth of a Country". Offers insights by cast and crew into the production and the life of John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister.
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