Opposition to Confederation has existed since a union of British North American colonies was first proposed in the late 1840s. In the eastern parts of the country, opponents generally feared that Confederation would strip power from the provinces and hand it to the federal government; or that it would lead to higher taxes and military conscription. Many of these opponents ultimately gave up and even served in the Canadian government. In the West, Indigenous peoples in the Red River Colony were never asked if they wanted to join Confederation. Fearing for their culture and land rights under Canadian control, they mounted a five-month insurgency against the government. Many Quebec nationalists have long sought to separate from Confederation, either through the extreme measures of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), or through referenda in 1980 and 1995.
The Dorion Brothers in Canada East
As revolutions burned across Europe in 1848, a group of radical young francophones in Quebec created the Parti rouge. (It was also known as the Parti démocratique). The party wanted to repeal the Act of Union that had merged Upper and Lower Canada (which were renamed Canada West and Canada East) into a single colony. It also wanted the new Province of Canada annexed by the United States. (See Annexation Association.) The movement’s leaders had called for all government officials to be elected; for an expansion of the right to vote; and for an end to the hated seigneurial system. (This was a feudal system of land sharing. It forced 80 per cent of the population to be personally dependent on the local seigneur).
The Dorion brothers formed a powerful duo within the party. Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion, the younger brother, frequently unleashed a hot temper on his opponents; they called him the “enfant terrible.” His formal education did not go beyond elementary school, but he read widely. By 1844, he was working as a journalist and political activist. In 1847, he co-founded L’Avenir, a newspaper that advanced the Parti rouge cause.
Dorion believed the grand union of the British North American colonies, an idea then being considered, would fail. “I oppose Confederation because I foresee innumerable difficulties with the joint powers given to the local and general governments in several areas,” a translation of his French comments reads. “These conflicts will always be resolved in favour of the general government and to the detriment of the often legitimate claims of the provinces.”
Antoine-Aimé Dorion, the older brother by eight years, had a more temperate opposition. A lawyer, he became the Parti rouge leader in 1854. He held a seat in the Assembly of the Province of Canada. He celebrated American political structures, backed liberal ideas, and opposed the Catholic Church’s prominent role in public life, business and finance. He shared his brother’s desire to stop Confederation. He also believed it would strip power from the provinces and hand it to the federal government.
But Confederation rolled over their objections. Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion never saw it, though; he died in 1866 at the age of 40. Antoine-Aimé Dorion attended the 1864 Quebec Conference and denounced Confederation. But when it happened, he changed positions and served as the new country’s attorney general and minister of justice.
(See also Quebec and Confederation.)
Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia flourished as a British colony. It had a healthy sense of independence and industry dating back to the early 1700s. The idea of risking that prosperity to merge with other colonies struck many as a terrible idea. Halifax-born Joseph Howe used his supreme public speaking and writing skills to try and keep Nova Scotia out of Confederation.
Howe ran the Novascotian, the province’s most read newspaper. He landed in court in 1835, accused of criminal libel. His newspaper had criticized government officials, and they wanted him to pay. He was acquitted, but he left the courtroom with a deep suspicion of government.
Howe then led the fight to win responsible government for Nova Scotia in 1848. (See also Nova Scotia: The Cradle of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy.) This furthered his belief that the colony’s best future lay with independence. He proudly noted that the colony earned responsible government without “a blow struck or a pane of glass broken.”
Nova Scotians elected Howe as premier in 1860. From this perch, he argued that the same electorate should decide if Nova Scotia would join Confederation. He compared the proposal to uniting Scotland with Poland, making the case that Nova Scotia’s interests did not match Canada’s.
Howe brought the electorate with him. In the Nova Scotia election on 22 May 1867, Howe’s Anti-Confederation Party won 36 of 38 seats. But it didn’t matter. Charles Tupper, premier until September 1867, believed that joining Canada would strengthen Nova Scotia’s commercial sector; provide the colony with greater influence; and prevent annexation by the United States. He used his government’s majority in the colonial legislature to pass the terms of Confederation agreed to in Quebec City. ( See Quebec Resolutions.)
But public sentiment was not on his side. On the Halifax waterfront, protesters burned Tupper in effigy, along with a live rat. In the town of Yarmouth, some buildings were draped in black cloth in protest. The morning after the birth of Canada, the Morning Chronicle lamented: “Died! Last night at 12 o’clock, the free and enlightened Province of Nova Scotia.”
Another local newspaper, The British Colonist, cheered Confederation, and the passing of “the days of isolation and dwarf-hood.” Nova Scotians never got a chance to vote on Confederation. They again made themselves clear in the first Canadian election, on 18 September 1867. Of the province’s 19 seats in Ottawa, 18 went to Howe’s Anti-Confederation Party.
Encouraged by these results, Howe led a two-year effort to repeal the union. (See Repeal Movement.) When that hope slipped away, he strove to improve Nova Scotia’s conditions. In a very Canadian way, Howe, like Antoine-Aimé Dorion, finally accepted defeat. He joined the federal government in 1869. In 1873, he became Nova Scotia’s lieutenant-governor. He died three weeks later.
(See also Nova Scotia and Confederation.)
Prince Edward Island’s Resistance
Edward Palmer, who served as premier from 1859 to 1863, rejected Confederation. Like Joseph Howe’s anti-Confederation movement in Nova Scotia, Palmer believed that joining Canada would shrink his province’s power. He opposed even a union with the other Maritime colonies; he thought it would benefit the British government, not PEI. “We would submit our rights and our prosperity, in a measure, into the hands of the general government and our voice in the united parliament would be very insignificant,” he said.
James Pope was initially warmer towards Confederation. He said he approved of “the abstract principle of the proposed union,” but could not accept the actual terms offered. He felt they were not fair to Islanders. Pope was a businessman and a member of the island’s assembly from 1863. He was born in England and emigrated to PEI in 1819. Despite his skepticism, when the Confederation debate broke into angry public disputes, Pope supported PEI’s pro-Confederation politician, John Hamilton Gray.
Palmer led the anti-Confederation side. But the John Hamilton Gray faction of the assembly ousted him from office in 1863 and replaced him with Gray.
Pope then became premier in 1865. In 1866, he brought the “No terms Resolution” to the assembly. The resolution rejected the Quebec Conference’s terms for entering Confederation and ensured that PEI would not join.
Pope and Palmer’s opposition to Confederation matched the public mood. Palmer worked with anti-Confederation movements in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He also wanted to improve the colony’s trade deal with the United States. The other two Maritime provinces joined Confederation, but PEI stayed out.
In 1871, PEI began building a railway to develop the province’s economy. It nearly destroyed the economy. The government fell heavily into debt and faced economic collapse in 1873. Palmer had warned of such a result from the start. He had backed the railway anyway out of political necessity.
Pope ran again in that year’s election, but with a very different promise; now he said he would bring PEI into Confederation. With heavy heart, Palmer likewise adopted a pro-Confederation view. Pope won the election and was PEI’s premier when the province joined Canada in 1873. Palmer left politics to return to the law. He served as chief justice until his death in 1889.
Anti-Confederation sentiments in PEI surfaced briefly again in 1973, as the Island was officially celebrating the 100th anniversary of its union with Canada. A handful of student activists won the hearts of many Islanders with a year-long campaign of stunts poking fun at Confederation. They draped the doors of the Legislature in black fabric and installed an outhouse on the grounds of Province House as a mock polling booth; the public was invited to enter and vote on whether PEI should remain in Canada.
(See also Prince Edward Island and Confederation.)
The North-West Rebellion
Those opposed to Confederation in Eastern Canada found moderate, economic grounds for not joining Canada. But motivations were quite different in the West.
After Confederation, Canada extended its reach by purchasing the vast territory of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870. (See also North-West Territories.) In 1885, those ambitions were met with violent resistance in the form of the North-West Rebellion. The five-month revolt was led by the Métis, Cree, Siksika, Kinai, Piikani and Saulteaux. It began as Canadian expansion into their lands pushed the First Nations toward starvation. In 1880, Cree leader Big Bear and Blackfoot leader Crowfoot founded the Blackfoot Confederacy. In 1884, Louis Riel, a Métis leader of the earlier Red River Resistance, sought to unite the peoples of the North-West to stand against the Canadian government.
In 1885, Riel’s supporters passed a Revolutionary Bill of Rights. It asserted Métis land claims and made demands of the Canadian government. That March, armed resistors formed a provisional government and named Riel president. The Métis-led forces occupied Duck Lake near Batoche, in present-day Saskatchewan. On 26 March, 100 North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) constables and citizen volunteers went to Duck Lake. The Métis and Indigenous resistance met the police outside the village. In the clash, 12 NWMP constables and six resistance fighters were killed.
The Canadian government sent 3,000 soldiers to join the 2,000 already stationed in the West. They ran into staunch resistance from forces such as Big Bear’s. He objected to Canada’s plans to move his people onto a reserve. His warriors launched small-scale attacks on priests, an Indian agent and a trader, killing several people. The two sides fought again in the Battle of Batoche; Cree chief Poundmaker led the Indigenous forces to victory.
Canadian forces pressed on, capturing Batoche in May. Riel surrendered on 15 May. The resistance’s last act played out on 3 June at Loon Lake, with a small skirmish between the two sides. On 26 May, Poundmaker and other Indigenous leaders surrendered to Canadian troops. Riel was executed on 16 November 1885, followed by Cree leader Wandering Spirit on 27 November. The North-West Rebellion was finished.
Opposition to Confederation among Indigenous peoples has continued into modern times. The 1990 Oka Crisis was sparked by Mohawk activists pressing Canada to recognize their pre-Confederation land rights. The Numbered Treaties in the West have also led to legal battles. Hayden King, the director of the Centre of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, has argued that First Nations view the treaties as sharing agreements, while Canada views them as land surrenders.
Many such disputes are resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada; for example, its 2014 ruling affirming the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s claim to land in the interior of British Columbia. As the legal struggles continue, new territories such as Nunavut show that First Nations can obtain greater local and regional autonomy within Confederation.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Newfoundland was the last British territory in North America to join Confederation. The colony sent delegates to the 1864 Quebec Conference. But anti-Confederation leaders such as Charles Fox Bennett argued against the union. He thought it would give Quebec undue influence on Newfoundland, and lead to higher taxes and military conscription.
Roman Catholics and merchants likewise opposed joining Canada. Many Catholics were from Ireland originally. They felt that Ireland owed most of its problems to British rule. In Newfoundland, the Irish had home rule, state-funded separate schools and other advantages their cousins in Ireland still fought for. Why risk the good, new life by uniting with Canada?
Merchants saw no economic advantage to Confederation. In fact, they expected higher taxes and tariffs that would hurt Newfoundland. The popular “The Anti-Confederation Song” warned, “Come near at your peril, Canadian wolf.” A popular phrase declared “Newfoundland for the Newfoundlanders” and urged people to “stick with our Old Mother Country, Great Britain.” Two years after Confederation, the 1869 election was won overwhelmingly by anti-unionists. Newfoundland remained outside Canada.
The colony started the 1900s in strong shape. The First World War brought economic prosperity. The government spent money building railways and highways. But when the war ended, Newfoundland faced a debt of $43 million. By the 1930s, the colony’s debt approached $100 million. Facing severe financial problems, its government turned to Britain for help. Britain recommended suspending responsible government and letting an appointed commission run the colony. This meant the British Parliament would make decisions for Newfoundland. The Commission government took over in 1934.
The colony thrived again during the Second World War. It became an important North Atlantic base for Allied forces. (See Gander.) After the war, Newfoundlanders voted on one of three options for their future: commission rule; self-government (responsible government); or Confederation. The campaign for Confederation was led by Joey Smallwood and F. Gordon Bradley. Opponents of Confederation included Peter Cashin, Chesley Crosbie and Roman Catholic archbishop Edward Patrick Roche, who supported responsible government. In the referendum of 3 June 1948, the commission option received only 14.3 per cent, while Confederation received 41.1 per cent and responsible government received 44.6 per cent. The commission option was dropped from a second referendum held on 22 July 1948. In the end, the pro-Confederation side won a narrow (52.3 per cent) victory. On 31 March 1949, Newfoundland officially became Canada’s 10th province.
Nationalist fires have simmered in Newfoundland ever since. In 2008, Ryan Cleary, editor of the St. John’s newspaper the Independent, wrote: “Now that we’re rolling in cash it may be time to consider breaking away from the country of Canada.” Four years later, Newfoundland author and entertainer Greg Malone argued in his book Don't Tell the Newfoundlanders: The true story of Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada, that the 1948 vote on joining Canada was illegally rigged in a conspiracy by Ottawa and Britain. The book was a bestseller in Newfoundland.
The FLQ in Quebec
The most violent, modern opposition to Confederation came from within one of the founding provinces, 100 years after the country was formed. In the 1960s, radicals in Quebec formed parties such as the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois and Le Comité français de Libération nationale. The more radical members from both groups formed the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).
Quebecers Raymond Villeneuve and Gabriel Hudon, along with Belgian Georges Schoeters, founded the FLQ in 1963. They drew inspiration from anti-colonial revolutionaries of the time in Cuba and Algeria. The FLQ also borrowed imagery and ideas from the Patriotes, or Parti Canadien, that fought the Rebellion of 1837–38 in Lower Canada. ( See also Rebellions of 1837–38.) The FLQ wanted to create an independent state. Its members believed that this would give the Québécois more control over their lives, and better economic conditions.
FLQ members embarked on a campaign of terror. They planted bombs in mailboxes in prosperous Westmount, Montreal, to destroy symbols of English colonialism. They firebombed and vandalized government buildings. In 1964, they stole cash and military equipment from International Firearms; one member killed the company’s vice-president. The attacks intensified in the late 1960s, culminating in the 1970 October Crisis.
The FLQ kidnapped two government officials: British trade commissioner James Cross and Pierre Laporte, a provincial cabinet minister. They killed Laporte on 17 October 1970. The federal government of Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. It is the only time in Canadian history that the Act was used in peacetime. The federal government declared that belonging to the FLQ was a criminal act. Armed troops took to the streets. More than 450 people were arrested.
The FLQ faded. But desires for independence remained in Quebec and grew peaceably.
1980 Quebec Referendum
In 1976, Quebecers elected the Parti Québécois, whose goal was separation from Canada. ( See Sovereignty-Association.) Under Premier René Lévesque, the PQ made French the sole official language in Quebec. It also promised to hold a referendum on sovereignty-association during its first term.
On 22 May 1979, the federal Liberal Party, led by Pierre Trudeau, lost the Canadian general election. Lévesque would now be dealing with a federal minority government led by Joe Clark, a prime minister who had little influence in Quebec. Thus, conditions had at last become favourable for a referendum. On 21 June 1979, René Lévesque told Quebec’s National Assembly that the Quebec referendum would be held in the spring of 1980. In this referendum, the government asked the people of Quebec to give it a mandate to “negotiate a new constitutional agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations.”
However, by early December, the political calculus had changed again. Clark’s government lost a vote of confidence on its first budget. New federal elections were set for 18 February 1980. This time, the Liberals won, taking 74 out of 75 ridings in Quebec. Pierre Trudeau, who had returned as party leader, now formed a majority government. (See also Elections of 1979 and 1980). He promised that his government would reform federalism and that a “No” vote in the upcoming Quebec referendum would not be a vote for the status quo.
When the referendum was held on 20 May 1980, the “Yes” side was rejected by 59.56% of the vote. The participation rate was 85.61%. After the defeat, the Parti Québécois still held that sovereignty was the only viable option for Quebec and would one day win majority support. This hope was evident in the speech Lévesque gave on the night after the referendum; he said, “If I have understood you correctly, you are telling us, ‘until the next time.’”
1995 Quebec Referendum
After the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, the rest of Canada was tired of constitutional matters. However, the alienation of Quebec brought the Parti Québécois back into power in 1994. Premier Jacques Parizeau promised that a referendum on Quebec separation would be held sometime in 1995.
At the beginning of the referendum campaign, the “No” side (opposed to separation) had a substantial lead in the polls. But as the campaign progressed, the “Yes” side gained momentum. This was especially true after Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois, became the main spokesperson for the “Yes” side during the final three weeks of the campaign.
Ultimately, after an emotional and somewhat controversial campaign, the federalist forces won again, but with only a 50.58 per cent majority. Confederation remained intact, by the narrowest of margins.
In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Quebec does not have the right to unilaterally secede from Canada. However, the nine justices expressed the opinion that the other provinces and Ottawa would be obliged to negotiate with Quebec if voters there expressed their desire for independence by a clear majority. (See Reference re Secession of Quebec.)