The Dominion of Canada wasn't born out of revolution, or a sweeping outburst of nationalism. Rather, it was created in a series of conferences and orderly negotiations, culminating in the terms of Confederation on 1 July 1867. The union of the British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada was the first step in a slow but steady nation-building exercise that would come to encompass other territories, and eventually fulfill the dream of a country a mari usque ad mare [from sea to sea].

The Case For a Country

By the 1860s, the union of British North America had been a long-simmering idea, the subject of occasional dinner speeches. It was fueled in part by fears of United States domination, and even annexation, following the American Civil War, and the belief that Britain was becoming increasingly reluctant to defend its North American colonies against possible US aggression. Confederation would offer the colonies strength through unity, an idea that gained steady support, especially in the wake of the US abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866, and the US purchase of Alaska the following year.

Confederation had become a serious question in the Province of Canada [formerly Lower Canada and Upper Canada] by 1864. In the Atlantic colonies, however, a great deal of pressure would still be necessary to convert romantic ideas of a single northern nation spanning the continent into political reality.

A series of fortuitous events helped. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had some interest in reuniting as a single colony following their division in 1784; they were helped by the British Colonial Office which felt that a political union of all three Maritime colonies was desirable, including Prince Edward Island. Maritime union would abolish three colonial legislatures and replace them with one.

In the spring of 1864 all three legislatures passed resolutions declaring lukewarm interest in having a conference on the subject. But nothing was done; it was only when the Province of Canada announced its interest in being asked to attend such a meeting 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. Charlottetown was appointed as the place—Prince Edward Island would not attend otherwise—and 1 September 1864 was chosen as the date.

Change in the Two Canadas

As the Province of Canada grew more prosperous and developed politically, socially and industrially, so grew its internal rivalries, and the job of governing Canada West [Ontario] and Canada East [Quebec] from a single, fractious legislature became difficult.

Confederation—which would include division of the two Canadas—was posed as a solution to these problems. In 1864, after four short-lived governments had fought to stay in power, a coalition was formed promising union with the Atlantic colonies.

With support from three of the Province of Canada's four major political groups, the coalition gave Confederation a driving force that it never lost. The alliance of Canada West's two principal groups, led by John A. Macdonald (Conservatives) and George Brown (Clear Grits), meant that Confederation proceeded with support from British North America's most populous region.

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 in public by the arguments that French Canadians would get back their provincial identity and their capital 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.

Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences

The "Canadians" sailed to the Charlottetown Conference on 29 August 1864, aboard the Canadian government steamer Queen Victoria. The conference was already underway and discussions for Maritime union were not making much progress. So the Canadians were invited to submit their own proposals for a union of all the British North American colonies. The idea swept the board, and the glittering idea of a united country took over.

A month later the colonies called a second meeting to discuss Confederation. At the Quebec Conference, the delegates passed 72 Resolutions, which explicitly laid out the fundamental decisions made at Charlottetown, including a constitutional framework for a new country. The Resolutions were legalistic and contractual in tone, deliberately different from the revolutionary nature of the American Constitution drafted a century earlier.

The Canadian Resolutions outlined the concept of federalism – with powers and responsibilities strictly divided between the provinces and the federal government. Cartier pushed hard for provincial powers and rights, while Macdonald, keen to avoid the mistakes that had led to the US Civil War, advocated for a strong central government. Between these two ideas a semblance of balance was reached.

The Resolutions also outlined the shape of a national Parliament, with an elected House of Commons based on representation by population, and an appointed Senate whose seats would be equally split between three regions: Canada West, Canada East and the Atlantic colonies, for the purpose of providing each region with an equal voice in the appointed chamber.

The Atlantic View

None of the Atlantic colonies of Newfoundland, PEI, NS and NB was as dissatisfied with the status quo as was Canada West. All except Nfld enjoyed prosperous economies and felt comfortable as they were. 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 Nfld, despite economic difficulties in the 1860s, postponed a decision on Confederation in 1865, and in an 1869 election decisively rejected it.

The more prosperous PEI resisted almost from the start. A small, dedicated group of Confederationists made little headway until early in the 1870s when PEI, badly indebted by the construction of an Island railway, joined Confederation in return for Canada taking over its loan payments.

Nova Scotians were divided. Confederation was popular in the northern areas of the mainland and in Cape Breton, but along the south shore and in the Annapolis Valley—the prosperous world of shipping, shipbuilding, potatoes and apples—the idea seemed unattractive or even dangerous. Conservative Premier Charles Tupper, ambitious, aggressive and confident, went ahead with Confederation anyway, convinced that in the long run it would be best for NS, and perhaps also for himself. His government did not need to go to the polls until after Confederation was finalized. By that time it was too late for the 65% of Nova Scotians who opposed the idea (see Repeal Movement).

New Brunswick was only a little more enthusiastic. In 1865 the anti-Confederation government of A.J. Smith was elected. It collapsed the following year and was replaced by a new pro-Confederation government, whose support for a British North America union was helped by the Fenian invasions of that spring, which badly weakened anti-Confederation positions.

The View in London

Worried about the cost of defending Britain’s North American colonies against potential US aggression, British Colonial Secretary Edward Cardwell was a strong supporter of Confederation. He instructed his governors in North America in the strongest language possible, to promote the idea, which they did. The London Conference, from 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 the Constitution Act, 1867) which passed through the British Parliament and was signed by Queen Victoria on 29 March 1867. It was proclaimed into law on 1 July 1867.

The Dominion Grows

British policy favoring the union of all of British North America continued under Cardwell's successors. The Hudson's Bay Company sold Rupert's Land to Canada in 1870, and the young country expanded with the addition of Manitoba and the North-West Territory that same year. British Columbia was brought into Confederation in 1871 and PEI in 1873. The Yukon territory was created in 1898 and the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905.

Having rejected Confederation in 1869, Newfoundland and Labrador finally joined in 1949. Nunavut was carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999.

Macdonald's Vision

Although Confederation was the product, in the 1860s, of three conferences and delegates from five colonies, the practical ideas of how it might actually be achieved came from John A. Macdonald (who became the new country's first prime minister) with help 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.

A Country in 13 Parts

Province or Territory

Joined Confederation:

Alberta

1905

British Columbia

1871

Manitoba

1870

New Brunswick

1867

Newfoundland

1949

Northwest Territories

1870

Nova Scotia

1867

Nunavut

1999

Ontario

1867

Prince Edward Island

1873

Québec

1867

Saskatchewan

1905

Yukon

1898