The Canadian boom of the 1850s and the road to Confederation, 1848–1864

Feb 19th, 2016 | By Randall White | Category: Heritage Now

In the early 21st century the loyal Canadian Pamela Anderson told a querulous talk show host on US TV that Canada is “more European” than the United States. In the middle of the 19th century you could see variations on this theme in the British North American triumph of responsible government (or early parliamentary democracy) in 1848 — also a year of inspiring if ultimately failed political change in continental Europe.

(Or, as the masterful Polish-British historian Lewis Namier titled his relevant short work,  1848 : The Revolution of the Intellectuals. As he further explained in a subsequent lecture : “1848 remains a seed-plot of history. It crystallized ideas and projected the pattern of things to come; it determined the course of the following century.” At the other end of this story from the ardent conservative Professor Namier is The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, first published in London, England, in German, on February 21, 1848.)

* * * *

The first part of British North America to officially win responsible government in 1848 was not the new United Province of Canada, but the old British Atlantic Province of Nova Scotia.

As explained on a plaque in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly today : “First Responsible Government in the British Empire … The first Executive Council chosen exclusively from the party having a majority in the representative branch of a colonial legislature was formed in Nova Scotia on 2 February 1848.”

In the United Province of Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec) Governor General Lord Elgin asked the French-English Reform alliance of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin to form a responsible government that took office on March 11, 1848. This followed the Reform alliance’s decisive Legislative Assembly triumph over its conservative opponents in the January 1848 general election (55 seats to 24), and the subsequent defeat of an earlier conservative government in the Assembly.

According to popular legend, the crucial principle of executive accountability to the majority in the elected legislature was dramatically confirmed when Lord Elgin signed the Lafontaine-Baldwin Reform government’s Rebellion Losses Bill into law on April 25, 1849.

This compensated “those who had suffered damage by acts of the troops and government in suppressing the rebellion” of 1837–38 in the old Lower Canada. As the full title of the legislation explained, it was a “Bill to provide for the Indemnification of Parties in Lower Canada whose Property was destroyed during the Rebellion in the years 1837 and 1838.”  And it authorized total payments of £90,000 (a  large enough sum in the middle of the 19th century, when the average annual income of an English journeyman printer was about £75).

Something similar had already been done for the old Upper Canada. And one additional crucial consequence of Governor General Elgin’s signing of the bill for Lower Canada was “to welcome French Canadians to power in equality with the English” (W.L. Morton).

Yet much local conservative anglophone opinion viewed legislation to “compensate rebels,” especially in French-speaking Lower Canada, with active dismay. At the time Montreal was the capital of the United Province, and host of its Legislative Assembly. When Lord Elgin signed the bilingual and bicultural Reform government’s Rebellion Losses Bill into law on April 25, 1849, Montreal was suddenly “at the mercy of an organized and aggressive Tory and Orange mob,” which rioted for two full days.

Elgin’s own carriage “was pelted with stones and rotten eggs.” Lafontaine’s house was attacked, and the Montreal parliament buildings were burned to the ground. (Even if  in the early 1840s it was “the rabid Toryism of Toronto,” not anglophone Montreal, that the touring Charles Dickens found “I speak seriously, appalling.”) Colonial parliamentary government had nonetheless arrived, in both French and English, and supported by both a decisive majority in the local elected legislature and the official representative of the British imperial government. Things would never be the same again, in Montreal (or Toronto, or Halifax) and every other part of British North America.

* * * *

With Nova Scotia leading the way in 1848, the British imperial government similarly granted responsible government to old colonial legislatures in Prince Edward Island in 1851, New Brunswick in 1854, and Newfoundland in 1855. Yet insofar as any institution connected with Europe had serious influence in what is now Canada north and especially west of the old United Province, in the middle of the 19th century, it was the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company.

There were a few exceptions. Lord Selkirks’s Red River Colony of  Scottish settlers, established in 1812 in what is now the City of Winnipeg, continued to grow modestly after the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816. In 1841 some 200 settlers from the Red River Colony set out on what would prove a quixotic journey to the Pacific coast. And in 1846 the Oregon Treaty between Westminster and Washington defined the 49th parallel of latitude as the boundary between the new (second) British North America and the new United States of America, west of the Lake of the Woods.

In 1849 the British imperial government across the Atlantic Ocean created a new Pacific jurisdiction called the Colony of Vancouver Island — to bolster British claims to the whole island and the adjacent Gulf Islands, and to provide a North Pacific home port for the Royal Navy at Fort Victoria. By the mid-1850s, the Island Colony’s non-indigenous population was around 800 people; a mix of mostly British, French-Canadian, Metis,  Hawaiians, but with handfuls of Iroquoians and Cree in the employ of the fur company, and a few Belgian and French Oblate priests.”

By the late 1850s the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush had suddenly swelled the non-aboriginal population on the mainland across from Vancouver Island from “about 150 Hudson’s Bay Company employees and their families to about 20,000 prospectors, speculators, land agents, and merchants. The British colonial office acted swiftly, and the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed on August 2, 1858.” The Governor of the new colony was James Douglas, who had also become Governor of Vancouver Island in 1851.

This James Douglas (different from the Thomas Douglas, aka Lord Selkirk, who established the Red River Colony) is a still not well enough known character in modern Canadian history. He was born in Guyana to a Scottish planter father and a mixed African-European mother from Barbados. After several years at school in Britain, in 1819 a 16-year-old James Douglas joined the North West Company and shipped off to British North America. He subsequently rose in the service of the “merged” Hudson’s Bay Company. And he was a Chief Factor of the company in the Pacific region when he became Governor of Vancouver Island in 1851. Douglas was finally replaced as Governor of the new mainland colony of British Columbia in 1864 by the British imperial civil servant Frederick Seymour. And Seymour, not Douglas, would be the new Governor of the amalgamated colony of British Columbia and Vancouver Island (also just known as British Columbia) in 1866.

For better or worse, very little of this early northwest political history was dangerously mixed up with anything we would now call early parliamentary democracy. A colonial executive responsible to the majority in the local legislature did not even begin to arrive in the Red River Colony until the creation  of the new Canadian Province of Manitoba in 1870, three years after the  1867 confederation — and on the Pacific coast until the creation of the new Canadian Province of British Columbia in 1871.

* * * *

Meanwhile, back east of the Lake of the Woods, the United Province of Canada entered a turbulent but intriguing not-quite-two-decades of vigorous if ultimately unstable political development, from 1848 to 1867.

This political development arose on the back of several big social and economic trends. To start with, there was substantial population growth over the two-and-a-half decade history of the new United Province. And the leading edge of this growth was shifting west.

In the early 1840s  the predominantly English-speaking Upper Canada (Canada West or the future Ontario) was home to some 480,000 people, compared to 670,000 in Lower Canada (Canada East or Quebec), of whom about 510,000 were francophone Canadiens. By the early 1850s Canada West was more populous with 950,000 people compared to 890,000 in Canada East. And this trend carried on with 1.4 million in Canada West and 1.1 million in Canada East in the early 1860s.

These population numbers wreaked some considerable irony on Lord Durham’s original political reform scheme. This had assigned  equal numbers of seats in the United Province Assembly to Canada East and Canada West — in an effort to strengthen the hand of the (initially) less populous but predominantly anglophone Canada West. Once the leading edge of population growth shifted to Canada West, the equal seats provision in the 1841 founding British imperial legislation effectively strengthened the hand of the predominantly francophone Canada East!

Population in the Atlantic provinces also increased  in the middle of the 19th century. Nova Scotia reported  276,854 people in 1851 and  330,857 in 1861. During the same period New Brunswick grew from 193,800 to 252,047. Prince Edward Island grew from 62,678 to 80,857, and Newfoundland “from just over 100,000 to about 125,000.”

Population growth in all of British North America east of the Lake of the Woods (and south of the Mattawa and French Rivers in Upper Canada) had everything to do with swelling numbers of new migrants, mostly from the United Kingdom, from the 1820s on, and with  the natural increase of established non-aboriginal populations (including the “revenge of the cradle” in the French Canada allegedly conquered in the middle of the 18th century). And all this arose on the back of a growing diversification in the northern North American resource economy pioneered by the transcontinental fur trade.

* * * *

The fur trade itself would continue to dominate in what is now Northern and Western Canada until the later 19th century.

(Though there were gold rushes on the Pacific coast in the 1850s and 1860s. And transient migrants from this source complicate estimates of the non-aboriginal population west of the Lake of the Woods.)

Fishing remained a crucial pursuit in the Atlantic provinces in the middle of the 19th century and beyond. But in both the United Province and some parts of the Atlantic region new resource economies of lumbering, wheat, and (ultimately) mining opened up new opportunities.

Wheat was also the new export crop for a rising society of 100 to 200 acre family farms in  the United Province and the Atlantic region, on what De Tocqueville called the “Anglo-American” model.

In both the founding legislation for the old Upper Canada, and the more long-established French civil-law practices of the old Lower Canada, there were surviving feudal elements in land tenure law, which went against the grain of the North American family farm. It is no accident that the old seigneurial system of land tenure in the lower St. Lawrence valley was abolished in 1854. And the Clergy Reserves in Upper Canada (originally, it seems, intended to provide for an established church, on some Anglican High Tory model) were altogether “secularized”in the same year.

Another key development in the public policy of the growing British North American economic base started with the mother country’s historic free-market repeal of the Corn Laws (which had protected British domestic grain markets for British producers) in 1846. This marked the start of a long era of British free trade in the emerging global village haphazardly being stitched together by 19th century European imperialism. And it threw a number of British North American resource economy and other interests into a period of awkward readjustment.

The immediate policy response put more stress on American markets close at hand. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854,  skilfully negotiated by Lord Elgin wielding cases of champagne for the US Congress in Washington, provided for free trade in primary or resource products between British North America and the adjacent United States.

This further stimulated inevitable continental economic connections that had already promoted discussions on an independent dollar currency by the United Province of Canada in the early 1850s. As of January 1, 1858 the United Province officially adopted “the decimal system of dollars and cents in Canada.” (And the Canadian dollar in this sense predates the Canadian confederation of 1867!)

* * * *

By the time the Reciprocity Treaty started to take effect British North America had also embarked on its first railway age.

The Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad, financed by the brewer John Molson and operating south of Montreal, had opened in the summer of 1836. But it just “served as a portage over the most troublesome part of the journey from Montréal to New York, which continued by steamer via Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.”

The Albion Mines Railway that opened in Nova Scotia  in 1839 was more down to earth. Yet it was not until the first great modern Canadian boom years of the 1850s that the dynamic new transportation technology of the 19th century made serious inroads in what Harold Innis would later call northern North America.

The Ontario Simcoe and Huron Railroad, from Toronto north to the upper Great Lakes, opened in the spring of 1853. The Great Western Railway from Niagara Falls to Windsor (Canada West), via Hamilton and London, opened in stages between late 1853 and early 1854, and connected with Toronto late in 1855.

In June 1856 the government of Nova Scotia opened the so-called Windsor (Nova Scotia) Branch — the beginning of the Nova Scotia Railway and ultimately the much later Dominion Atlantic Railway.

In early November 1856 the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway was celebrated over two event-filled days in Montreal. With corporate   headquarters in London, England and operating headquarters in Montreal, the Grand Trunk and its successors would be a prime vehicle for British overseas capital investment in British North America. By the end of 1859 it linked Sarnia in Canada West (Ontario) with Rivière-du-Loup in Canada East (Quebec) via Toronto and Montreal, and then with a year-round port on the Atlantic coast at Portland, Maine. (Winter typically interfered with Montreal as a year-round Atlantic port until the very much later 1960s.)

Provision for an Intercolonial Railway, that would provide a longer and more costly year-round Atlantic link to Montreal through the British North American Maritime provinces, would become part of the 1867 confederation settlement. The opening of the European and North American Railway from Saint John to Shediac in New Brunswick in the summer of 1860 was a step in this direction.

Meanwhile on the British North American Pacific coast still very far away from New Brunswick, the New Vancouver Coal Mining Company opened a line to move ballast and coal in the Nanaimo area of Vancouver Island in 1863. And this marked the start of the 19th century railway age in what is now  Western Canada.

* * * *

The vigorous but unstable political development that arose on the back of the social, economic, and technological boom in the United Province of Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec) was one key ingredient in the ultimate establishment of the wider Canadian confederation in 1867. The double-barrelled French-and-English governments of the united province from 1848 to 1867 are exotically intriguing in their own right as well. And they help explain Quebec attitudes to and understandings of the 1867 confederation that have in some ways persisted down to the present.

To start with, in some respects the United Province of Canada was from its immediate post-rebellion beginnings in 1841 never quite as united as the name might imply.

In form the old separate governments of Lower and Upper Canada (in the lower and upper regions of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes geography) were replaced by a single government. But the old lower region still had French civil law from the 1774 Quebec Act, and the old upper region still had English common law from the 1791 Constitutional Act. The old lower region was still majority francophone and Catholic. The old upper region had become majority anglophone and Protestant. (And aboriginal peoples were now minorities everywhere  in the more southerly Europeanized regions east of the Lake of the Woods.)

The two geographies, so to speak (culturally and otherwise) became the new sections of Canada East and Canada West within the single government of the united province. Each main office of government in the Executive Council (or modern cabinet today) had separate Canada East and Canada West administrations and administrators. There was an Attorney General Canada East and an Attorney General Canada West, a Secretary Canada East and a Secretary Canada West, and so forth.

This practice took on deeper significance — and became linked directly to the increasingly important early or proto democratic electoral process — with the arrival of Lord Elgin and responsible government in 1848. The subsequent governments responsible to the majority in the elected legislature became in effect dual administrations with two effective premiers or first ministers and doubled-barrelled names.

Under this proto-democratic dispensation the government and politics of the United Province of Canada, from 1848 to the advent of the wider Canadian confederation in 1867, became a thorny exercise in combining frequently antagonistic cultural, linguistic, political, and religious factions into all-too-often short-lived governing majorities in the Legislative Assembly. Six elections over 15 years (1848, 1851, 1854, 1857–58, 1861, and 1863) finally led to 12 different governments.

There was some stability in the immediate wake of responsible government. The lives of both the pioneering Liberal Reform government of Lafontaine-Baldwin, 1848–1851, and the more  centrist Liberal government of Hincks-Morin, 1851–1854, happily coincided with the elections of 1851 and 1854. But then there were four short-lived conservative governments (especially supported by les Bleus in Canada East) :  MacNab-Morin, 1854–55 ;  MacNab-Taché, 1855–1856 ; Macdonald-Taché, 1856–1857 ; and Macdonald-Cartier, 1857–1858.

An election that started late in 1857 and stretched over into early 1858 (not unusual when transportation and communications were still much  slower than now) profoundly unsettled the governing conservative coalition of Macdonald and Cartier. By the middle of the summer it was defeated in the Legislative Assembly, and very briefly succeeded by a government that tried  to combine the most radical or reform factions in both Canada East and Canada West.  Known as Brown-Dorion (and variously characterized as Clear Grit, Liberal, Reform, and Rouge), this only lasted four days, before collapsing under the weight of too many internal contradictions.

At this juncture a reformed so-called Liberal-Conservative Cartier-Macdonald coalition resurfaced, and managed to last all the way from August 6, 1858 to  May 24, 1862 — surviving the 1861 election in the process. This nourished the French-English conservative alliance between George-Étienne Cartier and John A. Macdonald that would play such an important role in negotiating the 1867 confederation with at least two of the British North American Atlantic provinces (with the Hudson’s Bay Company territories and British Columbia finally added in 1869 and 1871).

Yet in the late 1850s and early 1860s even the skills of Cartier and Macdonald finally proved unequal to the accelerating challenges of governing the united province. Although it survived the 1861 election, in the spring of 1862 their double-barrelled government gave way to a new more liberal but still moderate coalition led by John Sandfield Macdonald and Louis-Victor Sicotte — known en français as les Mauves (yet another attempt to blend Bleu and Rouge philosophies, this time sponsored by liberals). But Sandfield Macdonald then felt it necessary to trade Sicotte for the more radical Rouge Antoine-Aimé Dorion (formerly of Brown-Dorion) as his Canada East partner, to prepare for the 1863 election.

The new Sandfield Macdonald-Dorion Liberal government survived the 1863 election, but then came unstuck in the spring of 1864. It was succeeded by a more shaky Liberal-Conservative regime known as Taché-Macdonald. In the midst of much talk about the need for new constitutional directions, this government soon enough inspired or at least shrewdly adopted the especially diverse and non-partisan “Great Coalition,” supported by George-Étienne Cartier, John A. Macdonald, and George Brown. And this led to the united province’s meeting with the Maritime provinces in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, September 1–9, 1864, to discuss plans for a wider confederation in all of British North America.

The road from Charlottetown to the actual “Canadian federal experiment” of 1867 had its own ups and downs. In the middle of the summer of 1865 they helped lead to the final doubled-barrelled governing coalition of the united province known as Belleau-Macdonald. This managed to remain in office until what the textbooks subsequently called “political deadlock in the United Province of Canada” was finally resolved by the new confederation of British North American provinces, officially launched on July 1, 1867. (More or less at the same time as the modernizing “Meiji Restoration” in Japan, following the end of the legendary Tokugawa Shogunate on November 9, 1867!)

* * * *

One further aspect of the exotically intriguing political history of the  United Province of Canada in the middle of the 19th century is probably worth noting in the early 21st century. Yet another feature of the bilingual and bicultural province’s instability was the locally sovereign legislature’s inability to agree on a permanent capital city.

The capital began in 1841 in Kingston, Canada West — possibly as a place approximately mid-way between the emerging regional centres   of Toronto and Montreal. This was not seen as altogether suitable by many in Canada East, and in 1844 the capital was moved to Montreal.

The Tory and Orange mob that rioted for two full days against the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849 then prompted a move of the capital to Toronto from 1849 to 1852. Again Canada East Members of the Provincial Parliament objected, and the capital was moved to Quebec City  from 1852 to 1856. Then Canada West members objected and it was in Toronto again from 1856 to 1858. But then it was back in Quebec City from 1859 to 1866.

Finally, in 1857 the fractious united province had asked Queen Victoria in the imperial metropolis across the seas to decide on a permanent capital city. She and/or her advisors somehow came up with Ottawa, straddling the border between Canada East and Canada West — and described by a former Regius Professor of History at Oxford University in the later 19th century as “the last lumber village before the North Pole.” In 1866 the last Belleau-Macdonald government of the united province moved into elegant new parliament buildings, on a hill close enough to the banks of the Ottawa River, as much larger changes loomed in the local air.

FROM
Children of the Global Village
Canada in the 21st Century : Tales about the history that matters

Randall White
eastendbooks  2016

(For background on the larger series of which this is a part, see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.)

PART II
SECOND BRITISH NORTH AMERICA, 1763–1867
3

1848 in British North America and Europe  … Final triumph of responsible government in Nova Scotia and the United Province … The Great Northwest and British Columbia … Population growth east of the Lake of the Woods  …  Resource economy diversification, Reciprocity Treaty with US, and birth of the Canadian dollar …  First Railway Age in British North America … Political deadlock in the United Province … A wandering capital city comes to rest in Ottawa

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