The Charlottetown Conference of September 1864 set Confederation in motion. The meeting brought together delegates from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to discuss the union of their three provinces. However, they were persuaded by a contingent from the Province of Canada – not originally on the guest list – to work for the union of all the British North American colonies.

A Social Affair

Discussions at Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, were held in the legislative council chamber of Province House between Thursday, 1 September and Wednesday, 7 September, with a break on Sunday. On 8 September — a holiday — a grand ball was hosted for the delegates at Province House. The council chamber was turned into a reception room, while the library served as a bar, and the legislative assembly chamber as a dance floor. The festivities carried on late into the night and early morning. Supper was served at 1 a.m. and speeches followed until 5 a.m., when delegates boarded the vessel Queen Victoria for the journey to Halifax.

Further meetings were held in Halifax, Saint John, and Fredericton, and the Charlottetown Conference discussions were formally concluded on 3 November 1864 in Toronto, while the delegates were touring central Canada following the Québec Conference.

Throughout the week in Charlottetown, much feasting accompanied the meeting, including, of course, the local speciality, lobster suppers. Hospitality enabled the participants to get to know one another.

Maritime Union

The Charlottetown Conference was organized by the three Maritime colonies in reaction to failed attempts to persuade the Province of Canada to contribute to the construction of a railway from Halifax to Québec. In 1862, the Province of Canada had refused to pay a portion of the costs for the Intercolonial Railway. That sparked discussions among the Maritime colonies about merging into a single unit in the hopes of gaining political strength and attracting overseas financial investment. Prince Edward Islanders welcomed any project that might buy out landlords who owned large swaths of island property, but lived outside the colony. Overall, however, support for Maritime union did not run deep.

Canadian Fears

The Province of Canada delegation was interested in creating a federal union with the Maritimes, mainly because of external threats. The creation of a huge United States army during the American Civil War, combined with Britain's desire to reduce its financial and military obligations to its colonies in North America, had boosted fears in Canada of American annexation. A string of weak and unstable colonial governments in the Province of Canada also added to pressures for a new political structure and demands for change.

When Canadian political leaders learned of the upcoming conference in Charlottetown, they seized on the chance to attend, sending a delegation which hadn't been invited by the Maritime organizers, but was welcomed anyway.

Maritime Delegates

The three Maritime provinces each named five delegates to Charlottetown. Each delegation included representatives of the Government and the Opposition.

Nova Scotia

Conservative premier Charles Tupper led the Nova Scotians, along with Attorney General William Alexander Henry, Robert Barry Dickey, Liberal leader Adams G. Archibald, and Jonathan McCully — who became a fervent supporter of Confederation.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick's Reform (Liberal) premier Samuel Leonard Tilley was also accompanied by his Attorney General, John Mercer Johnson, and another minister, William Henry Steeves, plus veteran Conservative Edward Barron Chandler and John Hamilton Gray.

Prince Edward Island

PEI's Conservative premier, John Hamilton Gray (namesake of the New Brunswick politician) was accompanied by two cabinet colleagues, William Henry Pope and Edward Palmer, and Liberals George Coles and Andrew A. Macdonald. Infighting dominated Island politics, and three of its delegates, Palmer, Coles and Macdonald later opposed Confederation. Despite this, all three are recognised as Fathers of Confederation — a tribute to Canadian tolerance.

Middle-aged and Ambitious

The Fathers weren't a bunch of old men. New Brunswick’s Chandler was 64, but the others ranged from 35 to 55. Tupper was 43 and Tilley 46 — middle-aged politicians hoping to someday operate the institutions they planned to create. The youngest, PEI’s Andrew Macdonald, stands out in the delegates' group photograph taken under the portico of Charlottetown's Government House. Leaning against a column, he jauntily raises his stovepipe hat to shield his eyes from the sunlight.

There were some notable omissions from the all-male group of Maritime delegates. No delegate spoke for the region's sizeable Irish communities. Andrew Macdonald was the only Catholic, and he came from a privileged Highland Scots background. Although the proposed united province was unofficially called Acadia, there were no francophone representatives. Meanwhile, Aboriginal people and Afro-Canadians were invisible in public life.

Experienced Players

Some accounts of the Charlottetown Conference imply that this gathering of small-town Maritime politicians was dazzled by the sophisticated Canadians into accepting a wholly new and wider vision of nationhood. In fact, Confederation with the Province of Canada had been widely debated for many years in the Maritimes, although it was mainly seen as a long-term development.

Nova Scotians Tupper and McCully had supported uniting all the provinces. Gray of New Brunswick had called for a federal union as far back as 1849, while Tilley was guardedly favourable. Gray of PEI claimed to have dreamed since his youth of a great British North American nation. Coles even outlined a Confederation scheme, although his insistence that the capital should be in Charlottetown was unrealistic.

As for their experience and political sophistication, Chandler, Tilley and Steeves, of New Brunswick, plus the Nova Scotians Archibald and McCully, had participated in Intercolonial Railway negotiations with Canada. They were well equipped to assess Canadian proposals. Joseph Howe, the most celebrated Nova Scotian Liberal, was invited to take part by Tupper, but was absent on an official mission. Expecting Charlottetown to produce a scheme for Maritime Union, he promised to co-operate in securing its adoption, but he soon rejected the wider scheme of Confederation.

Canadian Visitors

Eight of the 12 members of the Province of Canada's Great Coalition cabinet travelled to Charlottetown, a sign that they meant business. Several were political heavyweights. Legal knowledge and political smarts made Conservative John A. Macdonald a key figure in the proceedings. George Brown, owner of the Toronto Globe, was the principal Reformer (Liberal) in the Coalition and spoke for the Canada West (Ontario) half of the Province. Canada East was represented by the financial expert Alexander Tilloch Galt, and by the Irish Catholic orator D'Arcy McGee. The sole francophones, George-Étienne Cartier and Hector-Louis Langevin, were both fluent in English, and it is unlikely that French was spoken at Charlottetown. The remaining Canadians were Reformer William McDougall and Conservative Alexander Campbell.

The Canadians were mostly in their 40s. The youngest, Langevin, was just 38; the oldest, Cartier, turned 50 during the Conference. McGee was the only one who knew the Maritimes well: he had liaised with Tilley to initiate Canadian attendance at Charlottetown. The Canadians also brought two senior bureaucrats with them, plus a shorthand writer, suggesting that they hoped to hammer out a detailed Confederation scheme at Charlottetown.

Meetings Begin in a Muddle

The arrival of the Nova Scotian and New Brunswick delegates on 31 August revealed the administrative shortcomings of their PEI hosts. No hotel accommodation had been reserved, and little was available because Charlottetown was packed with visitors attending a circus. The contrast between Maritime muddle and Canadian efficiency was underlined by the arrival next morning of the Queen Victoria, the official Government of Canada steamship that functioned as a floating hotel for those Canadians who could not locate beds on land. PEI minister W.H. Pope was rowed out to greet them in a fishing boat, sitting on a barrel of flour. Later, the Canadians were rowed ashore by smartly uniformed crewmen.

On the afternoon of 1 September and the following morning, the Maritime delegates assembled at Province House. They elected Premier Gray as chairman and examined the resolutions accrediting the three delegations. The Nova Scotian legislature had authorised consideration of a plan for Maritime Union, but the New Brunswick and PEI delegations were mandated only to engage in general discussion. The Conference had encountered a problem of divided aims at the outset.

Marriage Banns Proclaimed

There was a general session to welcome the Canadians on the afternoon of 2 September, a Friday. After further talk and speeches the next morning, the Canadian visitors hosted a champagne luncheon on board Queen Victoria. Someone quoted words from the Anglican marriage ceremony: if anyone knew any reason why the provinces should not be united in matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace. General laughter confirmed for some that the marriage banns of a new Canada had been proclaimed, and that union would proceed.

In fact, the Maritime delegations had not yet agreed to Confederation. Still, the moment was interpreted by Canadian delegate George Brown as proof that they would. Writes historian J.M.S. Careless in his biography, Brown of the Globe: "There, in the chief stateroom of the Queen Victoria, amid the wineglasses and cigar smoke, 23 men had warmly agreed to found a new nation. Other states might have a more dramatic start – but few, surely, a more enjoyable one."

During the all-day sessions the following Monday and Tuesday, the distinction between the official Maritime and the unofficial Canadian contingents was practically abandoned.

Canadian Ultimatum

The precise order of the Canadian contributions remains unclear, but it seems that Cartier spoke first. Determined that Confederation should guarantee French Canadian autonomy, Cartier could reassure the Maritimers that he also wanted them to retain local control over vital regional issues within a wider federation. Brown, who perhaps spoke twice, also stressed that Canada West wished to run its own affairs. He probably emphasized that if Confederation could not be reached within a year, the Great Coalition was pledged to restructure the Province of Canada into a local, two-headed (Ontario and Quebec) federation. Maritime delegates faced a genteel Canadian ultimatum: if they favoured Confederation in principle, it was now — or maybe never.

John A. Macdonald balanced the emphasis upon provincial rights with a strong centralist message. Particularly important was Galt's impressive presentation, on 3 September, outlining how the provinces would be financed under Confederation. Galt defended Canada's high public debt, which alarmed the frugal Maritimers, arguing that because of Canada's higher population, its per capita (per person) debt was smaller than that of New Brunswick.

In 1862–63, Canada had repudiated a scheme to pay five-twelfths the cost of the Intercolonial Railway. Now, however, construction of the line would be guaranteed under Confederation, and five-sixths of the cost, double the previous share, would be borne by the more prosperous Canadian taxpayers. It was an attractive offer.

Conditional 'Yes'

After a private discussion on 7 September, the Maritime delegates gave the Canadians their answer: they were unanimous in supporting a federation of all the provinces, provided the terms were satisfactory.

The consensus extended beyond the general principle of Confederation. Several major issues were later regarded at the Québec Conference to have been unofficially agreed to at Charlottetown. The Intercolonial was central to the deal. The Maritimers would accept Confederation if they got the railway; the Canadians would only build it as part of a political union. Also agreed was the principle of sectional equality in the future upper house (Senate) — the Charlottetown arithmetic assumed 20 Senate members would come from the Maritimes as a whole, and 20 each from the future Ontario and Québec.

A Unique Gathering

Tupper was reluctant to abandon Maritime Union altogether. However, Tilley believed the Maritimes would secure better terms from the Canadians if they entered Confederation as separate provinces. The New Brunswickers were particularly troubled by the “seat-of-government” issue: Where would the capital of the united province be located? If Halifax claimed the prize, Maritime Union looked like Greater Nova Scotia. Tilley was prepared to consider regional union if the larger scheme failed, and he argued that the three Maritime colonies could easily be merged into one single province after Confederation — something often discussed but never seriously attempted since. His fellow delegates generally agreed and persuaded Tupper not to press his motion to a vote.

Charlottetown is unique in the history of Canadian public debate. Constitutional conferences have often failed in Canada. Charlottetown was convened to discuss one project, Maritime Union, but its participants agreed to work towards the far grander scheme of Confederation.