Confederation of Canada, the federal union of former British colonies in North America, originally known as the Dominion of Canada but now called simply Canada. The Confederation began on July 1, 1867, with four provinces and a population of 3.4 million; it now includes ten provinces and three territories and has a population of almost 30,000,000.
The British lands in the northern half of North America did not take part in the American Revolution, and in the 1860s they were still part of the British Empire. More than 95 percent of the population lived in five colonies between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Superior. For most purposes they governed themselves through institutions modeled on the Parliament of Britain. However, the government of Britain provided military defense and conducted international relations for British North America, as the colonies were called.
The most important British possession in North America was the province of Canada, situated along the St. Lawrence River and the north side of the Great Lakes. Its population of 2.5 million was divided between French and British Canadians, and its administration was divided in a corresponding way. The French population was concentrated in the eastern section, known as Lower Canada or Canada East. There the laws, institutions, and prevalent language were French. In the western part (Upper Canada or Canada West), the laws and institutions were British, and the dominant language was English. Yet the two sections formed one province, with a single government and a single legislative assembly to represent both the French and the British.
|III||BEGINNING OF THE PROJECT|
Governing the two Canadian peoples through a single legislature was difficult because there were important matters on which British and French Canadians had fundamentally different ideas. Education and church-state relations were major examples. Yet the economies of the two sections were so closely linked that they did not want to break up the union altogether. Federalism seemed to offer a solution to this dilemma. Under a federal system, both sections could have their own government responsible for those matters on which the French and British disagreed; a federal government could take charge of the areas in which they had common interests.
The work of transforming Canada into a federation began in 1864 at the initiative of George Brown, the leader of the Reform Party in Upper Canada. Brown persuaded the majority leader in Lower Canada, George-Étienne Cartier, and the leader of the Conservative Party in Upper Canada, John A. Macdonald, to work with him to achieve it.
Cartier and Macdonald, however, wanted the new federation to include not just Canada, but other colonies in British North America as well. They hoped, no doubt, that including the Atlantic region—the colonies of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island—would weaken the influence of the Reform Party, whose strength was in Upper Canada. But they had economic and military reasons as well.
If the four Atlantic colonies were included, it would be easier to build railroads and develop economic relations between them and Canada. That seemed particularly important in the mid-1860s because all these colonies were about to lose markets for their products in the United States. In 1865 the U.S. government had announced that it would cancel a treaty that had provided for limited free trade with British North America. In addition, cancellation would increase the costs of shipping goods by way of U.S. ports to Canada’s other major market, Britain. Canadian businesses therefore wanted a railroad that would carry their products to the Atlantic colonies, giving them access to a seaport in British North American territory.
These considerations were certainly important to Cartier. He was the lawyer for Canada’s largest railroad company and represented the city of Montréal in the legislative assembly. That city was already the center of Canada’s railroad system, and its budding industries hoped to benefit from that position to conquer new markets.
But a railroad between Canada and the Atlantic colonies was also important for military defense. That had become clear in the winter of 1861-1862 when Britain and the United States had come close to war in the dispute known as the Trent Affair. When the American Civil War began in 1861, the United States was angered by Britain’s friendliness toward the rebel government in the South, the Confederate States of America. In the fall of 1861 an American naval vessel stopped a British mail ship, the Trent, in international waters and seized two Confederate agents who were aboard. The British government protested furiously, demanding the release of the men, and in the war scare that followed, it sent 14,000 troops to North America to defend Canada. But the St. Lawrence River was frozen for the winter, and the soldiers had to land in the seaside colony of New Brunswick and make their way slowly and painfully by sleigh from there.
Had war actually broken out, the delay could have been disastrous for the defense of Canada. Thus, a federation of all of British North America seemed desirable to promote economic development and military defense. So, in June of 1864, Brown, Cartier, and Macdonald formed a coalition to govern Canada and to obtain such a federation if possible. They agreed that if the other colonies could not be persuaded to join them, they would turn Canada alone into a two-province federation.
|IV||DEVELOPMENT OF A STRUCTURE|
That September, the new Canadian government presented its proposal for federation to members of the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In a conference at Charlottetown, the Prince Edward Island capital, they all agreed to the general idea, but they decided to postpone serious work on it until the following month. In October a second conference took place, this time in Canada’s oldest city, Québec. Here representatives from Newfoundland joined the others in adopting a series of resolutions that would form the basis of a new federal constitution.
It was soon apparent that the delegates were not of one mind about how to structure the federation. The Canadians were determined that the provinces should be represented in the federal parliament in proportion to their population. But the smaller colonies feared that such a system would leave them with too weak a voice in federal affairs. Prince Edward Island, for example, had a population of only 80,000, while Upper Canada had 1.4 million. On this point the Canadians had their way. However, they agreed that the smaller colonies could have nearly three-eighths of the seats (30 out of 78) in the parliament’s upper house, the Senate, with the other 48 equally divided between Upper and Lower Canada.
Another bone of contention was the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments. Many of the delegates, including Macdonald, wanted a strongly centralized union; others, particularly the French Canadians, wanted a looser federation with wide autonomy for the provinces. The resolutions finally adopted by the Québec conference seemed in many ways to give Macdonald the centralized union he wanted. The federal government would control banking, finance, defense, transportation, and commerce among the provinces. It would also have far greater powers of taxation than the provincial governments would have. In private, Macdonald predicted that the central government would be so strong that it would soon swallow up the provinces completely.
Yet the Québec resolutions were vague or contradictory enough to give equal hope to many who wanted more power for the provinces. Provincial governments were to have exclusive control over education, hospitals, natural resources, property and civil law, municipal institutions, and generally all matters of a local nature. In Lower Canada, Cartier’s party announced that this meant that the provincial government would have the power to promote the French Canadians’ distinctive nationality. In fact, the Québec resolutions were open to opposing interpretations, and it would remain for the future to see how they would work out in practice.
|V||THE APPROVAL PROCESS|
The resolutions were debated and ratified by the legislative assembly of Canada in early 1865. Elsewhere they ran into difficulty. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland quickly decided to drop out of the federation project altogether. And New Brunswick voters turned their pro-federation government out of office in the general elections of 1865. However, the pro-federation campaign got a boost the next year, shortly before election day, when a band of Irish American Fenians raided the colony. These veterans of the American Civil War hoped to capture British territory in North America and thereby force Britain to grant independence to Ireland. But the raid only frightened the people of New Brunswick and persuaded many that federation was necessary for the sake of defense. On election day the voters returned the federalists to power.
In the winter of 1866 and 1867, representatives of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia met with British authorities in London to finalize the details of their project and write it up in legal form. In the official version the scheme was now called a confederation rather than a federation. It was unclear what the distinction was, and Canadians have always used both words to mean the same thing. The new confederation would take the name Canada, and the old province of Canada would become two provinces: Ontario (the former Upper Canada) and Québec (the former Lower Canada).
The British Parliament passed the British North America Act, creating Confederation in March 1867. The new constitution went into effect on July 1, 1867. Macdonald became the first prime minister of the new Dominion of Canada. Within a year, the Confederation was seeking to expand.
Canadians were looking north and west to the immense territory between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. Officially under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, this territory was still inhabited chiefly by its indigenous peoples, and the fur trade was still the basis of its economy.
In March 1869 the Canadian government came to an agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company and British authorities. The company would surrender its claim on the land in return for compensation in cash and real estate, and Britain would transfer the territory to Canada. This would open the western prairies to settlement, create new markets for Canadian railroads and manufactures, and strengthen the British hold on a region that many feared might otherwise be appropriated by the United States.
But plans for the Canadian takeover were upset in the fall of 1869, when armed Métis, a mixed white-indigenous people living in the Red River colony (the region around the present-day city of Winnipeg), organized a resistance movement and prevented Canadian officials from entering the territory (see Red River Rebellion). The Canadian government was forced to offer guarantees for Métis property and other rights. As a result, the Red River region entered Canada as a province, called Manitoba, in 1870.
Beyond the prairies and the Rockies lay the province of British Columbia. In 1871 it too joined the Confederation, giving Canada a coast on the Pacific Ocean and allowing the railroad system to be extended across the continent. The federal commitment to build the railroad was one inducement to British Columbia to join. The federal government also promised to pay off British Columbia’s huge public debt and invest heavily in its economic development. A similar promise finally brought Prince Edward Island into the Confederation in 1873.
Meanwhile, settlement of the prairies had begun quickly after the area was annexed by Canada, and by 1905 the population was large enough for local self-government. That year, two new provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were established in the region between Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains.
Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949. It took two referendums, but Newfoundland’s people finally decided to join the Confederation they had rejected for the previous 85 years.