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Canadian Confederation and its Leaders
Before Confederation


FIFTY years ago the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia united as the Dominion of Canada under a federal system. Their acquaintance was slight, there were many incongruous elements and there were protesting voices that could not soon be stilled. In joining for greater strength and security some local powers were naturally surrendered, and during the years of experiment critics were numerous and unsparing.

A half century of Confederation has witnessed expansion from ocean to ocean, and the foundations are laid for a great commonwealth. The wisdom of the Fathers has been vindicated, an era has been closed by participation in a world war, and the future is faced with increasing confidence. Some voices call for further constitutional change, bringing the Imperial family closer together, while others ask only the continuance of the present freedom and healthy development.

Looking over the brief cycle of the Dominion’s history, courage seems to have been its watchword. It required courage to unite provinces distant and dissimilar, and to face the many differences which beset them. The same courage bridged the waste places with railways, carried canals over the resisting hills and opened new frontiers^ with a fresh summons to the world’s pioneers.

These measures followed naturally the leadership of the builders of Confederation. These were the cream of the statesmen of their day. Both parties gave of their best. Each man was in his prime and an experienced public servant. During the ’forties the Imperial Government loosed the irritating colonial strings and allowed the embryo nations to settle their own problems. Responsible government, which followed, soon bred a school of public men whose expanding vision naturally craved a union. When party government came to a standstill in the early ’sixties, decisive action was finally quickened by the entanglements of the American civil war.

Canada’s evolution to Confederation had been gradual. From Champlain’s founding of Quebec in 1608 to the end of the French regime in 1763, Royal Governors, black-robed missionaries and adventurous fur-traders had given color, if not population, to the backward colony. Lord Dorchester was not long in charge of the ill-assorted races before he fathered the Quebec Act in 1774, authorizing a Council “to make ordinances for the peace, welfare and good government of the said Province.” While it was declared to be “inexpedient” to give an Assembly, the right to the free exercise of their religion was guaranteed to the French-Canadians.

Thus started towards self-government, the French reciprocated by staunch support of British rule despite the appeals of the revolting American colonies. The Revolution had another effect—in fact, the course of Canada was continually influenced by her neighbor. At the close of the war thousands of Loyalist refugees from the Atlantic States settled in the British colonies. Upper Canada thus began by a settlement at Kingston, while the migration to the St. John Valley cradled New Brunswick, which was detached from Nova Scotia in 1784. The growth of Canada resulted in the Constitutional Act of 1791, which, under Lord Dorchester’s guidance, divided Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada, each with a Legislative Council and a Legislative Assembly. The Upper Province expanded under immigration from the British Isles, and Governor Simcoe laid foundations for years to come.

Canada became involved in the Napoleonic wars through the anger of the United States over the search of neutral vessels by British warships, and in 1812 the Republic declared war with all the hatred of a quarrel between blood relations. The war was inconclusive, but it determined once for all Canada’s adherence to the British flag, and has ever formed a glorious memory by her heroic defence of her own soil.

Inspiring though the memories were, Canada soon had internal troubles, which only ended when her constitution was remade. Immigration had poured in, public works kept pace with development, and settlement swept ever westward through the “Queen’s Bush.” But the Executive in both Provinces became less and less representative of public opinion. Finally, the discontent crystallized under two leaders, Louis J. Papineau in Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada, each representing the radical sentiment of his Province. The “Family Compact” was denounced bitterly and the inevitable clash came. The Rebellion of 1837 was short-lived. That it took that form was not the wish of many, even of the insurgents, but it served its purpose. Lord Durham, an advanced English radical, was sent as a special commissioner. At first he favored a federation of all the British North American colonies, but this was opposed by the Maritime Provinces. Eventually, in a report which forms one of Canada’s great charters, he recommended Responsible Government,—that is, government by an Executive in sympathy with the majority of the Legislature,—together with the union of the two Canadas. The latter was passed by the British Parliament and became effective in 1841; but Responsible Government was not finally won until the electoral victory of Robert Baldwin and L. H. Lafontaine in 1847. .

The idea of a united British North America was an old one, but it did not become a practical question until the ’fifties of last century. It recurred in a far-off, academic way through the years following the American Revolution. Federation was urged in 1791 by Chief Justice William Smith, a Loyalist from New York, who suggested definite clauses for the Constitutional Act to avert another secession from the Empire. Lord Dorchester, his Governor, forwarded the idea to London, but almost eighty years passed before federation was adopted.

Soon after the union of the two Canadas in 1841 George Brown voiced Upper Canada’s unrest at the stationary representation of that Province in the face of its surpassing growth. He campaigned vigorously in The Globe and on the platform for Representation by Population and prepared Upper Canada for constitutional change, whatever form it might take. In 1858 Alexander T. Galt, one of Lower Canada’s ablest statesmen, gave union a place in politics by advocacy in Parliament, and a few months later carried it as a policy into the Cartier-Macdonald Cabinet.

Meantime the seed of union was taking root in the Maritime Provinces. In 1854 Premier J. W. Johnstone carried a resolution in the Nova Scotia Legislature declaring:

“That a union or confederation of the British Provinces on just principles, while calculated to perpetuate their connection with the parent State, will promote their advancement and prosperity, increase their strength and influence, and elevate their position.”

Dr. Charles Tupper, a rapidly rising force in Nova Scotia politics, lectured in favor of federation in 1861, and at St. John, Samuel Leonard Tilley, afterwards a union leader in New Brunswick, was an approving listener. The era of railways and canals had dawned, and with a scientific renaissance came a political awakening. The American Civil War was burning at the doors of the British provinces, and with the ill-feeling engendered, threatened trouble at any time. Internal disputes joined with external dangers, and after the preliminary conferences had been held, the Fenians on the border helped to force the issue in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Tupper and Nova Scotia led in calling the conference at Charlottetown in September, 1864, which opened the way to Confederation. It was primarily to discuss a local union for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, but Canada, also eager for constitutional change, sent delegates, who secured a hearing for a larger union. The Conference at Quebec in the following month adopted seventy-two resolutions, which formed the basis of the British North America Act of 1867. It was attended by delegates from the Canadas, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

Opposition to the Quebec scheme speedily developed in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. Early in 1865 the Legislature of Newfoundland voted to defer action until after the next general election, the colony then being under the spell of a trade boom from reciprocity with the United States. The union scheme was never ratified, and although efforts were made again in 1868 and in 1893 to reach an agreement, the Island remains to this day outside Confederation. Prince Edward Island soon repudiated the action of its delegates to the Quebec Conference and resisted all efforts for union until 1873.

By the British North America Act, passed by the British Parliament, the new constitution for the Dominion of Canada was “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom.” In fact the name “Kingdom of Canada” was urged by John A. Macdonald during the framing of the bill, but subsequently abandoned. It provided for a federal system, with a general government over all and a legislature for each province. The general government has power over trade and commerce, military and naval services and defences, banking and other matters of a national character, while the provinces control education, municipal and merely local affairs. The eastern provinces gained an objective in provision for an Intercolonial Railway from the St. Lawrence River to Halifax, while the Canadas solved their deadlock by the establishment of local legislatures. Further clauses provided for the admission of other parts of British North America.

The struggle for Confederation covered years and called forth the best talent of the leaders of the provinces. Their individual services in this peaceful though momentous evolution are to be told in the succeeding pages.


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