In so many ways, Canada is a lucky country, given its so many million square miles of varied geography, a myriad of natural resources, membership of the Anglosphere, and a relatively trouble-free history and thus few problems with political authority and legitimacy. It may seem curious to some, then, that there are real regrets among some Canadians that the story behind the country’s foundation on 1 July 1867 was not nearly so dramatic as the foundation stories behind, say, the United States or the French Republic. The Canadian writer and humorist Will Ferguson explains the thinking:
To the average American, the Declaration of Independence is a sacred document. “Words worth dying for”, as they say. In Canada, we are a little less patriotic. The US Constitution was baptized in blood, not floated in on champagne, and Canadians have often expressed a certain peculiar regret about this. We actually envy the Americans their bloodshed and gore. It’s ghoulish, really, this notion that Canadians haven’t been violent enough to inspire greatness. Ghoulish, and more than a bit neurotic.
It was in the 1840s that the British viceroy in the remaining North American colonies, Lord John Durham, put together a scheme known as “responsive government”, whereby the assemblies in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) and Lower Canada (present-day Québec) would be merged into one unified parliament, popularly elected. It solved virtually none of the problems that he had set out to solve: even though, over the next twenty years, French-speaking Canadians were outnumbered through the arrival of more English-speaking immigrants (as he had hoped), they and their political representatives still held the balance of power (as he had definitely not hoped): no government could possibly hope to survive without making deals with them. The result was constant bickering and frequent instability. To make matters even more tense, the Civil War in the States in 1861-5 was making everyone in Britain’s remaining North American colonies more than a little jittery and fearful that Lincoln’s soon-to-be victorious Union Army would, once it had dealt with the South, head North to finish the job started by Madison in 1812 – possibly as payback for the British government’s unwise tacit support of the Confederacy.
The best way to protect the colonies from American expansion was, it was thought, some sort of sovereign political union of them all, and the first moves towards discussing this possible future took place in a conference at Prince Edward Island in September 1864. Actually, “conference” would be a generous way of describing it, since, when the delegates from Upper- and Lower Canada arrived off the PEI boat, there was, erm, nobody there to greet them! Whether it was a communications failure or a general misunderstanding remains unknown, but an agreement was reached that the various delegates would meet again at another time. Perhaps it was all that champagne on offer that mollified any sense of humiliation about a wasted journey….
Further meetings, chief among them that in Québec City in October 1864, would agree the political shape of the new united country: it would be a parliamentary dominion on the British model; however, because of the state’s diverse nature, it would be a federal system on the American model, with some powers taken up by the provinces and others by the federal government. The new country would be a union of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The prime minister would be a relatively liberal-minded Conservative by the name of Sir John Alexander Macdonald (I say relatively liberal-minded, because although he was a member of the Orange Order he was not averse to a little drink or two – a taste for the sauce that pre-dated the failed PEI trip of September ’64), assisted by his Québécois deputy George-Étienne Cartier. Cartier had previously taken part in an armed rebellion in 1837, but over the years his radicalism had tempered to the point where he became enamoured of British parliamentary practices and traditions (to the extent that he named his daughter after Queen Victoria). On the occasions where Macdonald was too ill (sic) to carry out his prime ministerial functions, Cartier would take up the reins of government, and his key decisions included doubling Canada’s territory through the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and negotiating British Columbia’s accession to the Canadian confederation by promising them a railroad (and what a railroad it was…).
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Birth of Canada was the inclusion of the Maritime Provinces. They were very nearly not part of the original Confederation: when New Brunswick’s premier Leonard Tilley put the idea of Union to his legislature it resulted in his being swept from office at the next election. The new government in Saint John, however, was an unseemly combination of Reformers and Royalists, and which soon fell apart through petty infighting. With Tilley appearing as the man to save the province from anarchy in 1866, he was better able to sell Confederation, and won handsomely. With Charles Tupper, premier for Nova Scotia, however, the prochess was a little tougher. He sold Confederation – though only just – to the Halifax parliament, through various campaigns and delaying tactics, though never once submitted himself for election over the issue – possibly because he knew that he would have lost heavily if he had. Most in the Maritimes, after all, saw they had little to gain and much to lose (mainly economically) through a political union with a sovereign Canadian state, and it is no accident that Canada’s first separatist movement began not in Québec but in Nova Scotia.
Nevertheless, on 1 July 1867 a new, independent nation was born. What’s more, it kept getting bigger. Aside from Cartier’s purchase of Rupert’s Land and welcoming BC into the fold, Manitoba was created in 1870, and Prince Edward Island joined the new state in 1873 (after initially refusing to get involved). Of course, it was not completely independent of London – it would take Canada’s participation in two global conflicts to persuade Westminster to grant more political powers, and even then the process was not officially wound up until 1982. The Canadian Confederation still deserves to be regarded, though, as an impressive achievement, and not just by Canadians. Will Ferguson explains further:
Remember, by the 1860s the greatest battles had already been waged. The conquest of New France. The defeat of the Loyalists. The War of 1812. The Rebellions of 1837. But even more importantly, responsible government, the very cornerstone of modern democracy, had been won. Confederation was simply responsible government in action. It was never meant to be a revolutionary or seditious act.
Now, I suppose it would have been more entertaining had the Fathers duked it out in Charlottetown instead of drinking bubbly and trying to seduce each other’s wives. And it certainly would have been more cinematic had John A. reached the top by climbing over the bloody bodies of his fellow delegates. But to claim Confederation is uninspiring simply because it came about so smoothly is odd logic indeed.
The American Declaration of Independence enshrined as its central ideals “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During the French Revolution, the trio of catchwords was “liberty, equality and fraternity”. In Canada, however, Confederation enshrined as its three central goals “peace, order, good government”.
Peace. Order. Good government. Not words to die for, certainly, but maybe – just maybe – words worth living for.