Early Attempts at British North American Union
According to historian P.B. Waite, “Confederation appeared in Canada in fits and starts.” The union of British North American colonies was an idea Lord Durham discussed in his 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America. The Durham Report, as it came to be known, called for the union of Upper and Lower Canada, which was achieved in 1841 (see Act of Union).
In 1849, in response to a movement advocating Canada’s annexation to the United States (see Annexation Association), the British American League, a Tory association, called for a study of the creation of a union of British North American colonies. Union was discussed in the legislature of the Province of Canada and written about in newspapers with some frequency between 1856 and 1859, usually as a remedy for a particular political or economic crisis. The call for a federation of BNA colonies was issued by Amor de Cosmos, a politician and newspaper publisher in British Columbia, in the first issue of The British Colonist in 1858.
That same year, politicians from Canada East and West — Alexander Tilloch Galt, George-Étienne Cartier and John Ross — presented a proposal for a British North American federation to the Colonial Office in London, England. It was received with “polite indifference.”
By the 1860s, when negotiations for the union of British North America gained traction, Confederation had been a long-simmering idea.
Reasons for Confederation
Confederation was inspired in part by fears of United States domination and even annexation of British North America (see Manifest Destiny). These fears grew following the American Civil War (1861–65), at a time when many believed that Britain was becoming increasingly reluctant to defend its North American colonies against possible American aggression.
The violence and chaos of the Civil War shocked many in British North America. They saw the war as partly the result of a weak central United States government. This inspired ideas about the need for a strong central government among the BNA colonies (see Federalism).
After winning the war, the American North was also left with a large and powerful army. There was talk in US newspapers of invading and annexing Canada — partly to avenge Britain’s collaboration with the American South during the war. Several US politicians also favoured annexing Rupert’s Land, the vast territory that would eventually become Canada’s western provinces. The American appetite for expansionism was made clear with the US purchase of Alaska in 1867.
Anger at British support for the American South also led, at the end of the Civil War, to the US cancellation or abrogation of the reciprocity treaty that had allowed free trade on many items between the US and British North America. Suddenly, Confederation offered the colonies a chance to create a new, free-trade market, north of the American border.
The combination of protectionist US trade policy, fears of American aggression and expansion, and Britain’s increasing reluctance to maintain the expense of defending British North America, fueled the idea of uniting the BNA colonies in a single country. Confederation offered Britain an honourable means of easing its economic and military burden in North America, while giving its colonies there strength through unity.
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 (what is now Ontario and Quebec) was the first step in a slow but steady nation-building exercise that would come to encompass other territories and provinces, and eventually fulfill the dream of a country from sea to sea — A Mari usque ad Mare (Canada’s motto).
By 1864, Confederation had become a serious question in the Province of Canada (formerly Lower Canada and Upper Canada). 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 some interest in having a conference on the subject. But nothing was done. It was only when representatives of the Province of Canada announced their interest in attending such a meeting that the Maritime governments began to organize. Charlottetown was appointed as the place — Prince Edward Island would not attend otherwise — and 1 September 1864 was chosen as the date (see Charlottetown Conference).
Political Deadlock in the Province of Canada
As the Province of Canada grew more prosperous and developed politically, socially and industrially, so grew its internal rivalries. As a result, the job of governing Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec) from a single, fractious legislature became difficult (see also Act of Union).
After achieving responsible government, politicians in Canada West began agitating for true representation by population. In the 1840s, Canada West benefitted from having a disproportionately large number of seats in the legislature, thanks to a smaller population than Canada East. By the 1850s its population was the bigger of the two, and reformers supported the campaign for representation by population — in other words, more seats for the West.
This and other divisive issues — such as government funding for Catholic schools throughout the colony — created suspicions among English Protestants in Canada West of unchecked French Catholic power flowing from Canada East. By 1859, the rift between English and French, as well as a growing divide between conservatives and reformers within Canada West, had created years of unstable government and political deadlock, which made solving the colony’s needs and problems nearly impossible. Structural change was required to break the political paralysis.
Confederation — which would include separation of the two Canadas — was posed as a solution to these problems.
The Great Coalition
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 conservative Parti bleu under George-Étienne Cartier, Hector Langevin and Alexander Tilloch 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 Quebec City; the anglophone domination of government 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.
The “Canadians” sailed to the Charlottetown Conference on 29 August 1864, aboard the Canadian government steamer SS 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 (see Constitutional History).
The Canadian Resolutions outlined the concept of federalism — with powers and responsibilities strictly divided between the provinces and the federal government (see Distribution of Powers). 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. A semblance of balance was reached between these two ideas.
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 resolutions also included specific financial commitments, including the construction by the new federal government of the Intercolonial Railway from Quebec to the Maritimes. The colonies recognized they needed to improve communications and grow economically. Railways between the colonies would boost economic opportunity through increased trade (see Railway History). The memory of the United States invading British North America during the War of 1812 also provided support: railways would make borders more defensible by enabling the quick movement of troops and weaponry.
Some Maritime delegates declared that the building of an intercolonial rail line was a precondition of their joining Canada. It was this key undertaking that secured the decision of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to join Confederation.
Atlantic Canada and Confederation
None of the Atlantic colonies of Newfoundland, PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was as dissatisfied with the status quo as was Canada West. All except Newfoundland enjoyed prosperous economies and felt comfortable as they were. The bulk of the population, especially in Nova Scotia and PEI, saw no reason to change their constitution just because Canada was finding it had outgrown its own.
Even Newfoundland, despite economic difficulties in the 1860s, postponed a decision on Confederation in 1865, and in an 1869 election decisively rejected it (see Newfoundland and Labrador and Confederation).
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 (see PEI and Confederation).
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 Nova Scotia, 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 per cent of Nova Scotians who opposed the idea (see Repeal Movement; Nova Scotia and Confederation).
New Brunswick was only a little more enthusiastic. In 1865, the anti-Confederation government of A.J. Smith was elected (see Confederation’s Opponents). It collapsed the following year and was replaced by a new pro-Confederation government. Its support for a British North American union was helped by the Fenian invasions of that spring, which badly weakened anti-Confederation positions. Their raids revealed shortfalls in the leadership, structure and training of the Canadian militia, which led to a number of reforms and improvements in the years to come. More importantly, the threat the irregular Fenian armies posed to British North America, along with growing concerns over American military and economic might, led to increased support among British and Canadian officials for Confederation (see New Brunswick and Confederation).
Indigenous Perspectives on Confederation
Indigenous peoples were not invited to or represented at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, even though they had established what they believed to be bilateral (nation-to-nation) relationships and commitments with the Crown through historic treaties (see Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada). Paternalistic views about Indigenous peoples effectively left Canada’s first peoples out of the formal discussions about unifying the nation.
Despite their exclusion, Confederation still had a significant impact on Indigenous communities. In 1867, the federal government assumed responsibility over Indigenous affairs from the colonies. With the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1869, the Dominion of Canada extended its influence over the Indigenous peoples living in that region. Seeking to develop, settle and claim these lands, as well as those in the surrounding area, the Dominion signed a series of 11 treaties from 1871 to 1921 with various Indigenous peoples, promising them money, certain rights to the land and other concessions in exchange for the cession (surrender) of their traditional territories. Most of these promises went unfulfilled or were misunderstood by the signatories (see Numbered Treaties). The years following Confederation saw increased government systems of assimilation, including reserves, the Indian Act and residential schools.
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. Confederation meant Canada would have to pay for its own defence against any American aggression, rather than relying on colonial funds.
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, 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 (see Canada Day).
The Dominion Grows
British policy favouring the union 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 Territories 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. In 1999, Nunavut, meaning “our land” in Inuktitut, was carved out of the Northwest Territories as part of the largest Indigenous land claim settlement in Canadian history.
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 Alexander Tilloch Galt, and with George-Étienne 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.
Fathers of Confederation
The 36 men traditionally regarded as the Fathers of Confederation were those who represented British North American colonies at one or more of the conferences that led to Confederation (see also Fathers of Confederation Table). The subject of who should be included among the Fathers of Confederation has been a matter of some debate and the definition can be expanded to include those who were instrumental in the creation of Manitoba (Louis Riel), bringing British Columbia (Amor de Cosmos) and Newfoundland and Labrador (Joey Smallwood) into Confederation, and the creation of Nunavut (Tagak Curley).
Mothers of Confederation
The wives and daughters of the original 36 men have also been described as the Mothers of Confederation for their role in the social gatherings that were a vital part of the Charlottetown, Quebec and London Conferences. Official records of the 1864 Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences are sparse. But historians have been able to flesh out the social and political dynamics at play in these conferences by consulting the letters and journals of the Mothers of Confederation including: Anne Brown, spouse of George Brown; Mercy Coles, the daughter of PEI Premier George Coles; and Agnes Macdonald, Sir John A. Macdonald’s wife. They not only provide a view into the experiences of privileged women of the era but draw attention to the contributions those women made to the historic record and political landscape.
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 three people. Foremost among them was John A. Macdonald (who became the new country’s first prime minister) with help from Alexander Tilloch Galt. Macdonald also made essential concessions for George-Étienne Cartier’s insistence on a minimum of provincial rights.
Though Confederation was not Macdonald’s idea, he was finally the one who took hold of it and made it a political reality. 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|
|Prince Edward Island||1873|