Confederation's Opponents

​The marriage of Canadian Confederation often cracks along French-English lines. The two solitudes spent centuries as ferocious rivals in Europe and in North America, before their colonial offshoots united as the Dominion of Canada in 1867.

Delegates at Charlottetown Conference
Convention at Charlottetown, P.E.I., of Delegates from the Legislatures of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island to take into consideration the Union of the British North American Colonies. September 11, 1864, Charlottetown, PEI. George P. Roberts / Library and Archives Canada / C-000733

The marriage of Canadian Confederation often cracks along French-English lines. The two solitudes spent centuries as ferocious rivals in Europe and in North America, before their colonial offshoots united as the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Most First Nations were never asked if they wanted to join Confederation, and many have launched staunch opposition. From Aboriginal resistance and financial concerns, to a political murder that brought troops onto city streets, opponents of Confederation have shaped the way we think about Canada.

Dorion Brothers

As revolutions burned across Europe in 1848, a group of radical young francophones created the Parti rouge (also known as the Parti démocratique) in Québec. The party wanted to repeal the Act of Union that wedded Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony, and wanted the Province of Canada annexed by the United States. The movement’s brightest thinkers pushed for elections for all government offices, expanding the vote, and ending the hated seigneurial system (a feudal system of land sharing that forced 80 per cent of the population into personal dependency 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, who called him the “enfant terrible.” His formal education did not go beyond elementary school, but he read widely and by 1844 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,” according to a translation of his French comments. “These conflicts will always be resolved in favour of the general government and to the detriment of the often legitimate claims of the provinces.”

Dorion, Sir Antoine-Aimé
A.A. Dorion in 1873. Dorion was a vigorous opponent of Confederation (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-25477).

Antoine-Aimé Dorion, his older brother by eight years, had a more temperate opposition. The lawyer became the Parti rouge leader in 1854 and held a seat in the Assembly of the Province of Canada. He often celebrated American political structures, backed liberal ideas and opposed the Roman Catholic Church’s prominent role in public life, business and finance.

He shared his brother’s fundamental fight to stop Confederation, believing 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, as he died in 1866 at age 40. Antoine-Aimé Dorion attended the 1864 Québec Conference to denounce the Confederation project, but when it happened, he changed directions and served as the new country’s attorney general and minister of justice.

The brothers’ political party followed the elder’s path of acceptance after Confederation, and merged with the Clear Grits of Canada West to form the Liberal Party.

Joseph Howe

Nova Scotia flourished as a British colony with a healthy sense of independence dating back to the early 1700s; risking that prosperity to merge with Canada struck many as a terrible idea. Halifax-born Joseph Howe deployed his supreme oratorical and writing skills to keep Nova Scotia out of Confederation.

Joseph Howe
The Nova Scotian patriot par excellence, Howe could use his oratorical powers to influence his compatriots as no other man has ever done (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-22002).

Howe ran the Novascotian, the province’s most read newspaper, which landed him in court in 1835, accused of criminal libel. His newspaper had criticized government officials, and they wanted him to pay. He was acquitted, but left the courtroom with a deep suspicion of government.

Howe then led the fight to win responsible government for Nova Scotia in 1848, furthering his belief that its 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 plan to uniting Scotland with Poland, making the case that Nova Scotia’s interests did not match Canada’s.

He brought the electorate with him: in the 1867 Nova Scotia election just before Confederation took place, Howe's Anti-Confederation Party won 36 of the 38 seats.

It didn’t matter. Charles Tupper, premier until September 1867, believed Nova Scotia should join Canada, and under Tupper's guidance it did so only months before the election. Lamented the Morning Chronicle the morning after the birth of Canada: “Died! Last night at 12 o’clock, the free and enlightened Province of Nova Scotia.”

Sir Charles Tupper, politician and former prime minister
Sir Charles Tupper was a delegate to all the Confederation conferences. He served the shortest tenure as PM in Canadian history (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-10109).

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, but they again made themselves clear in the first Canadian election. Of the province’s 19 seats in Ottawa, 18 went to Howe’s Anti-Confederation Party.

Encouraged by these results, Howe battled on to repeal Confederation, and when that hope slipped away he fought to improve the conditions in Confederation. In a very Canadian way, Howe, like Antoine-Aimé Dorion, finally accepted defeat in 1869 and joined the federal government. He became Nova Scotia’s lieutenant-governor in 1873, but died three weeks later.

Howe found friends across the Northumberland Strait, in Prince Edward Island’s Edward Palmer and James Pope.

PEI’s Resistance

Prince Edward Island hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, which birthed the plan for Confederation, but the colony decided not to join the new country.

Edward Palmer served as premier from 1859 to 1863 and rejected Confederation. Much 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, saying it would benefit the British government, but 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, saying he approved of “the abstract principle of the proposed union,” but could not accept the actual terms offered. He said they weren’t fair to Islanders.

A businessman and a member of the island’s assembly from 1863, Pope was born in England and immigrated to PEI in 1819. Despite his skepticism, when the Confederation debate ruptured 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 the premiership in 1863 and replaced him with Gray.

Pope in turn became premier in 1865. In 1866, he brought the “No terms Resolution” to the assembly. The resolution rejected the Québec Conference’s terms for entering Confederation and ensured that PEI would not join.

Quebec Conference of 1864

Pope and Palmer’s opposition to Confederation matched the public mood. Palmer worked with anti-Confederation movements in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and wanted to instead make a better 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, but backed the railway anyway out of political necessity.

Pope contested 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 legal profession, serving 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. That year, 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, where the public was invited to vote on whether PEI should remain in Canada.

Province House, Charlottetown
Site of the provincial legislature of PEI (photo by John Sylvester).

The North-West Rebellion

While eastern opposition to Confederation found moderate, economic grounds for not joining Canada, motivations were quite different in the West. After Confederation, Canada sought to extend its reach, and the vast North-West Territories were added to the country in 1870.

In 1885, those ambitions ran into violent resistance in the North-West Rebellion. The five-month revolt led by the Métis, Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Saulteaux began as Canadian expansion into their western lands pushed the First Nations toward starvation. In 1880, Cree leader Big Bear and Blackfoot leader Crowfoot founded an Aboriginal 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.

Riel, Louis and the Provisional Government
Riel's (centre), first provisional government, 1869 (courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-1039-1).
Despite his restraint during the North-West Rebellion, Poundmaker was convicted of treason (courtesy Glenbow Archives).
Battle of Batoche
The Capture of Batoche, lithograph by Sergeant Grundy (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-2424).

In 1885, Riel’s supporters passed a Revolutionary Bill of Rights making land claims for the Métis, as well as other demands on the Canadian government. That March, armed militants formed a provisional government and named Riel president. The Métis-led rebels occupied Duck Lake near Batoche, in present-day Saskatchewan. On 26 March, 100 North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) and citizen volunteers went to Duck Lake. The Métis and Aboriginal resistance met the police outside the village. The clash left 12 dead on the NWMP side and 6 dead on the rebel side.

The Canadian government sent 3,000 soldiers to join the 2,000 already stationed in the West. They ran into staunch resistance from forces like Big Bear’s, who 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, where Cree chief Poundmaker led the Aboriginal forces to victory.

Canadian forces pressed on, capturing Batoche in May. Riel surrendered on 15 May. The rebellion’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 Aboriginal leaders surrendered to Canadian troops. Riel was executed on 16 November 1885, Cree leader Wandering Spirit was executed on 27 November, and the North-West Rebellion was finished.

Aboriginal opposition to Confederation has continued into modern times. The 1990 Oka Crisis was sparked by Mohawk activists pressing Canada to recognize their pre-Confederation land rights. The western Numbered Treaties have also led to legal battles. Hayden King, the director of the Centre of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, argues that First Nations view the treaties as sharing agreements, while Canada views them as land surrenders.

Oka Confrontation
Summer 1990 (courtesy Canapress).

Many such disputes are resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada including its 2014 ruling affirming the Tsilqot’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 Québec Conference, but anti-Confederation leaders like Charles Fox Bennett argued against the union. He thought it would give Québec 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, and said Ireland, then a colony of Britain, owed most of its problems to British rule. In Newfoundland, the Irish already 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?

Colonial Building
1847-50, St John's, Newfoundland and Labrador; Architect, James Purcell (courtesy Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador/C1-126).

Merchants saw no economic advantage to Confederation, yet expected higher taxes and tariffs that would hurt Newfoundland. A well-known song at the time 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, and Newfoundland remained outside Canada.

The colony started the 1900s in strong economic shape, and the First World War brought added prosperity. The government spent money building railways and highways. But when the war ended, Newfoundland faced a debt of $43 million. By the 1930s, Newfoundland had a debt approaching $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. The Commission government took over in 1934 meaning the British Parliament would make decisions for Newfoundland.

The colony thrived again during the Second World War, becoming an important North Atlantic base. After the war, Newfoundlanders would vote on one of three options for their future commission rule, self-government or Confederation. After two referendums, the pro-Confederation side won a narrow (52 per cent) victory. Joey Smallwood led the colony into Canada in April 1949.

Joseph Smallwood, politician
Smallwood signing the agreement that brought Newfoundland into Canada (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-1280).
Newfoundland Joins Canada

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 most violent, modern opposition to Confederation came 100 years after the country was formed, from within one of the founding provinces. In the 1960s, radicals in Québec formed parties like the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois and Le Comité français de Libération nationale, which became 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 183738 in Lower Canada. The FLQ wanted to create an independent state, which its members believed would give Québécois more control over their lives, and better economic conditions.

FLQ members embarked on a campaign of terror, planting bombs in mailboxes in prosperous Westmount, Montréal, to destroy symbols of English colonialism. 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.

Soldier and Child
Soldier and child, 18 October 1970, during the October Crisis (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-117477).

The FLQ kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and then Pierre Laporte, a provincial cabinet minister, and killed Laporte on 17 October. The federal government invoked the War Measures Act during peacetime for the first time. Armed troops took to the streets and the federal government declared that belonging to the FLQ was a criminal act. More than 450 people were arrested.

The FLQ faded. However, desires for independence remained in Québec and grew peaceably. In 1976, Quebecers elected the Parti Québécois into office, whose goal was separation from Canada. Under the premiership of René Lévesque, the PQ made French the sole official language and in 1980 held a referendum on leaving Confederation. Lévesque and his government lost the referendum, but won the 1984 provincial election. The party then lost power for a decade, but was returned to office in 1994 under Premier Jacques Parizeau, and held a second referendum in 1995. This time the pro-Confederation, or "federalist" forces won again, but with only a 50.58 per cent majority. Confederation remained intact, by the narrowest of margins.

Jacques Parizeau, politician
Former Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau, September 1989. In 1994, he became the second leader of the separatist PQ to become premier (photo by Jim Merrithew).

Further Reading

  • Greg Malone, Don't Tell the Newfoundlanders: The true story of Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada. (2012); J.M. Bumsted, The Peoples of Canada: A pre-Confederation history. (2010).

External Links