The American Civil War and the British North America Act, 1867

Apr 15th, 2016 | By | Category: Heritage Now

Political deadlock in the United Province of Canada probably was a big enough cause of the wider confederation of British North American provinces, for the 2.5 million people who were living in the United Province by the early 1860s.

It meant next to nothing, however, for the 583,000 people in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — the two Atlantic provinces that (with less than raging enthusiasm) joined with a United Province newly divided into present-day Ontario and Quebec, on July 1, 1867.

(A new North West Territory in the Hudson’s Bay Company lands followed in 1869. Then came Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, and Prince Edward Island in 1873. Newfoundland would wait until 1949!)

Yet as local newspapers of the day make clear, there was one big world historical event going on right next door in the first half of the 1860s. And it was bound to unsettle all parts of the second British North America.

The Civil War and the Northern Confederation

The American Civil War broke out with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, April 12–13, 1861. It ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, April 9, 1865.

The “War Between the States” (as some later said) is often called “The First Modern War” or “First Great War of the Industrial age.” It showed the vast potential for bloody destruction in various new military and industrial technologies — from railroads to the Gatling gun.

As many as 700,000 soldiers or more are now thought to have died in the conflict (though some more circumspectly still just report “more than 600,000”).  Perhaps as many as 40,000 British North Americans fought in the war, mostly on the Union or Northern side. (They included Lieutenant Calixa Lavallé, who would go on to write the music for “O Canada” in 1880.)

The road to Civil War also aided and abetted the growing confederation talk of the later 1850s and earlier 1860s in the far north. It raised the prospect that the political organization of the larger North America envisioned in the 1787–89 Constitution of the United States might not last forever, or even very long.

The 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie had survived his 12-year exile in the United States partly by working for the newspaper publisher Horace Greeley in New York.

After he returned to Toronto in 1850, in the age of responsible government (and amnesty for rebellion refugees), Mackenzie kept in touch with Greeley. As early as the summer of 1855 Greeley was writing to Mackenzie: “The time is coming when those states that persist in deifying slavery will secede from the Union and I am for letting them go peacefully … Then I would like to form a union with Canada and have a Great Free Republic, the strongest and truest in the world.”

In the end Horace Greeley proved a false prophet. Abraham Lincoln and the Union defeated the rebel southern Confederacy, and the United States of the 1787–89 Constitution remained intact. But there were threats of military action spilling northwards as well as southwards between April 1861 and April 1865.

The US secretary of state William H. Seward advocated “instigating a war with Britain by capturing Canada. British and Canadian officials took his threat seriously. Thousands of British soldiers were stationed along the border, and the royal navy was redeployed. Canadian militia were trained and armed. Fortifications were enhanced and artillery stood ready.” Some anti-British Irish Fenian supporters of the northern Union actually did try to invade Canada when the war ended.

Banding together for defence against present and future violence from the turbulent American republic no doubt made more sense to at least some in the British Maritime Provinces than worries about political deadlock in the United Province of Canada. It also impressed the managers of the increasingly self-possessed global British empire, already scrambling to deal with the “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 in the South Asian jewel in the crown (more recently known as “the great rebellion of 1857-58”).

John Boyko, who published Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation in 2013, has argued that “Canadians who are not immersed in history will be absolutely shocked by what an enormous role the Civil War played in forming Canada.” As Canadians are beginning to see more clearly in the early 21st century, the American Civil War defeated one confederacy in the deep south, but helped give birth to another confederation in the far north.

* * * *

The Civil War may not have been just about African American slavery. But the beginning of the end of slavery is certainly the war’s highest moral consequence — as well as a great assertion of the ultimate primacy of democracy in America.

Canada and the wider British North America played some role in the North American debate about slavery. As reported in Part I of this book, Mathieu Da Costa, a so-called “Portuguese African,” had been present at the beginnings of Acadia in 1604. The young African slave Olivier Le Jeune accompanied the Kirke brothers when they invaded Quebec City in 1629, and remained when they left.

A few Black African slaves from the French West Indies and elsewhere had subsequently appeared in the lower St. Lawrence valley as domestic servants. Some “Black Voyageurs” worked in the multiracial Canadian fur trade, west of Montreal. (And ultimately the mixed African-European James Douglas joined the North West Company, and went on to become Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.)

After the American War of Independence some African American slaves (and a few “freemen”) moved north with the United Empire Loyalists into Nova Scotia, and what would become the new British North American Province of Upper Canada in 1791.

In 1793 the Upper Canada legislature passed an act for the gradual abolition of slavery, similar to legislation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in several northern states of the Union. The slave trade was abolished in the British empire in 1807. Then, as long urged by William Wilberforce and his fellow British abolitionists, slavery itself was abolished throughout the empire in 1833 (three decades before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 in the United States).

In the late 1820s and early 1830s African Americans from Ohio had already established a settlement called Wilberforce in southwestern Upper Canada (after duly consulting Lieutenant Governor John Colborne). The 1833 abolition of slavery in the British empire gave British North America added attractions for fugitive slaves from the United States. This deepened again after the US Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made fleeing to northern states on the fabled Underground Railroad more difficult, for adventurous African Americans from the slave states of the south.

The Promised Land : History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond — a collection of articles by several hands, edited by Boulou Ebanda de B’beri at the University of Ottawa and published in 2014 — brings early 21st century perspectives to bear on this somewhat ambiguous historical experience.

Ebanda de B’beri’s collaborator, Afua Cooper from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, has stressed “the difficulties African Americans faced as they established families and communities in their new home. Segregated schooling was sanctioned by law, and Blacks faced a multitude of injustices. The Crown and Canada might have been anti-slavery at the official level, but they were also Negrophobic. The fight against slavery was not necessarily a fight for Black people’s equality.”

There was nonetheless some strong support for the fight against slavery in the most northern regions of North America. George Brown started the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada in February 1851. In September 1851 Toronto hosted the North American Convention of Colored Freemen. It was attended by prominent US and Canadian abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Mary Ann Shadd. Ms Shadd was “destined to become the first black newspaperwoman in North America.” She settled in what is now Windsor, Ontario, and “went on to publicize the successes of black persons living in Canada through the Provincial Freeman … According to City of Toronto records, about 1,500 black people lived in Toronto at that time” (about 3% of the total city population).

All told, “the Underground Railroad brought 30,000 to 40,000 fugitives to British North America … Between 1850 to 1860 about 15,000 to 20,000 escaped slaves reached Upper Canada” (by then more officially known as Canada West).

* * * *

South Carolina, with 57% of its population enslaved (highest of any state) “and 46% of its [non-enslaved] families owning at least one slave,” became the first state to formally secede from the Union on December 20, 1860.

As the new year 1861 began, George Brown’s Globe (“$6 per annum strictly in advance,” and delivered via the new railways to the “rural population, the reading population” in much of Canada West) illustrated a new mood of continental drift.

It reprinted an article from the Joliet Signal in Illinois, entitled “A Western Republic” — and posing yet another never realized American political project involving the 13 more westerly states (north and south) of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. It also published a report from Charleston on “The South Carolina Convention,” and reprinted an article from the Halifax Chronicle on “Colonial Union.”

Three years and eight months later Brown, Cartier, Macdonald, and five others from the United Province of Canada “Great Coalition” cabinet descended upon a conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, originally called to discuss colonial union strictly among the British Maritime Provinces. And a much more practical and serious debate began, about a new northern confederation in the second British North America (and old French and Indian Canada — and Acadia), that had emerged from the three great North American wars of the mid to late 18th century.

More than 130 years later, in 1997 in the immediate wake of some fresh uncertainty about the continuing future of the resulting “French and English” confederation of the far north, the historian Christopher Moore published 1867 : How the Fathers Made a Deal. Half a dozen years later again, in 2003, the political scientist Frederick Vaughan brought out The Canadian Federalist Experiment : From Defiant Monarchy to Reluctant Republic, retelling “the story of … the ‘Fathers of Confederation’” as “one of moral as well as political defiance.”

Both these still comparatively recent volumes offer accounts of the establishment (and later fortunes) of the 1867 confederation, from the standpoint of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And at least in the early 21st century western world it no doubt remains defiantly (and obsoletely?) patriarchal to talk about political “fathers” in quite this way.

It would at the same time be quite wrong to pretend that any women were directly involved in drawing up the deal finally put together by, in Vaughan’s words, the “principal constitutional framers (as we shall call them) — John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown, Alexander Galt, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Charles Tupper, Leonard Tilley, Christopher Dunkin, and others.”

(Although George Brown’s letters to his wife Anne Nelson are a useful surviving window on the confederation debates in Charlottetown and, later, Quebec City in 1864. And these debates received their ultimate expression in ordinary legislation of the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster called the British North America Act, 1867 — nowadays more simply known in Canada as the Constitution Act, 1867.)

In the early 21st century it seems no less than an observable fact that there is no longer any broad consensus about what the not exactly legendary road to the British North America Act, 1867 means for the Canadian future today. (Even if there may have been some reasonable facsimile of such a thing in some parts of the country from the 1860s to the early 1960s, or even the second Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995.)

Christopher Moore cites two intriguing cases of present-day learned opinion. The first is from the venerable Canadian political scientist Peter H. Russell, author of Constitutional Odyssey : Can Canadians Become a Sovereign People? (1992, with a third edition in 2004). As Moore explains, “Professor Russell backhands” the discussion that led to the old BNA Act, 1867 “as ‘a practical, though not philosophical accord.’”

Moore’s second case is George Woodcock, the late Canadian anarchist writer and literary pioneer, born in Winnipeg in 1912 but raised in England, where he became a good friend of George Orwell, before moving back to the country of his birth, in Vancouver this time, in 1949.

In a contribution to a 1983 volume by various hands called And No One Cheered : Federalism, Democracy and the Constitution Act, Woodcock out and out (in Moore’s words) “sneers at” the old BNA Act as “a makeshift document cobbled together by colonial politicians.”

The 36 Elected Colonial Politicians Who Made the Deal

A few things about the British North America Act, 1867 and the process leading up to it still do seem clear enough in the early 21st century.

To start with, John A. Macdonald will never qualify as a Canadian George Washington, to say nothing of a 19th century Samuel de Champlain. The 1867 Act is based on 72 resolutions agreed to at Quebec City, October 10–27, 1864, by 12 delegates from the United Province of Canada, seven from New Brunswick, seven from Prince Edward Island, and five from Nova Scotia. (Newfoundland just sent two observers.)

There had been 23 delegates from the United Province and the three Maritime Provinces at the Charlottetown Conference, September 1–9, 1864. There would be 16 delegates from the United Province and the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick at the London Conference that finally turned the 72 resolutions into the British North America Act, from December 1866 to March 1867 in the imperial capital.

All told 36 “Fathers of Confederation” attended one or more of the three conferences that struck the confederation deal. And they were accountable to legislatures elected by early incomplete incarnations of what we now call the people (or peoples) of the participating provinces.

What finally gave Frederick Vaughan’s constitutional framers their moral and ultimate political authority was their status as elected politicians. John A. Macdonald was just one of them.

The combined electorates of what finally became the four participating provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec could even reasonably enough be viewed as an initial proxy of the Canadian “Sovereign People,” whose real existence Peter Russell was still wondering about (rightly enough) in his book of 1992, more than 130 years later.

* * * *

All this having been duly allowed for, John A. Macdonald does qualify as a kind of presiding intelligence and director of the confederation process. And this had some immediate if not exactly deep consequences.

Macdonald’s most unique talent may have been his ability to persuade the disparate constitutional framers (“many interests and prejudices” in his own words) to agree on what finally became the British North America Act. The challenges of this assignment may also have something to do with some vigorous consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Perhaps recalling Lord Elgin’s negotiation of the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty in Washington, the United Province delegates “showed up” at Charlottetown on September 1, 1864 “with $13,000 worth of champagne. … getting to know each other socially became a vital part of the … process.”

There are many further stories. At the London Conference, for example, a few weeks before Christmas 1866 a genial John A. Macdonald, well fortified with strong drink and apparently reading by candle light, set his hotel bed on fire, and had to be rescued by George-Étienne Cartier.

Macdonald’s close and even intimate professional friendship with Cartier, frequent leader of the very much surviving French-speaking Catholic majority in Canada East, was another of his crucial advantages.

In the Cartier-Macdonald governments of the United Province Cartier had usually been the senior partner. He typically commanded more Canada East seats in the Legislative Assembly than Macdonald commanded in Canada West (where George Brown and the Grit Reformers tended to dominate). Confederation was impossible without serious assent if not great enthusiasm from French Canada — and from the first people who called themselves Canadians, a term that still had a quite strong French accent in 1867. Cartier was the political leader who did most to win at least enough support in the lower St. Lawrence valley.

Macdonald’s final key talent was intellectual, if not at all philosophical. He had the clearest understanding of the governmental mechanics of the new confederation. Almost alone among his peers, he had some serious idea of how all the parts fit together in the new ship of state.

By 1864 he was a lawyer with a small library on constitutions in the United Kingdom and the United States, and considerable experience in the complex government of the United Province of Canada. By 1866 officials and others associated with the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London had apparently concluded that the father of confederation with the strongest (and most acceptable?) grasp of how the new British North American federal system would work was John A. Macdonald. And this appears to have been largely accepted by Macdonald’s fellow fathers as well.

John A. Macdonald’s leadership in the confederation process had two main results that have echoed into the present, without quite enjoying the long-term success he may have hoped for.

The first is captured in one of Liberal Reformer George Brown’s letters to his wife Anne, from the Quebec Conference late in October 1864: “You will say our constitution is dreadfully Tory — and so it is — but we have the power in our hands (if it passes), to change it as we like. Hurrah!”

As a wise practical politician Macdonald was in the “Liberal Conservative” party, because there was no Canadian majority for a more rigorous Tory political philosophy. But he was a Loyalist Tory in principle, and the British North America Act now known as Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 retains a colonial conservative sheen today. (Even though it was the French and English successors of George Brown’s Liberals who became the “natural governing party” of the confederation in the 20th century.)

The second result of Macdonald’s dominance is that Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 even today at least reads like the (incomplete) fundamental law of a quite centralized federation, with a notably strong central or general or federal government, and weak provincial governments. Even though the present real-world Canada is a rather decentralized federation, with quite strong provincial governments. John A. Macdonald himself wrote to the Hamilton merchant Issac Buchanan during the Quebec Conference in 1864 : “My great aim is to strengthen the general legislature and government as much as possible.” (That, he thought, was one great lesson of the American Civil War.)

* * * *

One sign that Macdonald’s strongly centralized federation in the British North America Act did not seriously describe the new Canadian federal experiment down on the ground was the persistent use of the term “confederation,” to characterize what officially began on July 1, 1867.

Unlike the United Kingdom or France, the new government of the (already) geographically sprawling second British North America had to be a federal system of the sort best illustrated by the United States next door — with two constitutional levels of government, each having its own assigned powers. But the “Articles of Confederation” had been the original US constitution, from 1781 to 1789. And the Articles were replaced by the present-day US Constitution of 1787–89 because they gave too much power to the constituent state governments, and not enough to the central, federal, or general government that finally landed in Washington.

To keep talking about what began in British North America in 1867 as “confederation” (as we still do in “fathers of confederation” and so forth) implied that, regardless of the language John A. Macdonald managed to work into the British North America Act, the constituent provinces in the northern federal experiment of 1867 would retain strong provincial governments.

In fact, this especially made sense for the new Province of Quebec with its unique French-speaking majority and old Roman civil law tradition, preserved in the British Quebec Act of 1774. It also made another kind of sense for the electorates of the Maritime Provinces on the Atlantic coast — concerned about being buried in the central government by the large populations of Ontario and Quebec.

The formal division of powers between the central and provincial governments, in sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act, 1867, added another major nuance.

From the standpoint of the main functions of government in the middle of the 19th century, this division favoured John A. Macdonald’s strong central or federal government. With what increasingly came to be the main functions of government a century later, in the new age of the service state, there was a tilt to the provinces that would no doubt have taken Macdonald by surprise. (Midway in this evolution there would also be a pro-provincial-government interpretation of the division of powers by the imperial high court of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom — a story to be continued a little further down the road.)

* * * *

It was another part of the “dreadfully Tory” side of the Macdonald (and Cartier) view of the BNA Act, 1867 to see the new first self-governing British “Dominion of Canada” as what Frederick Vaughan has called a Defiant Monarchy.

What John A. Macdonald at first even wanted to call the “Kingdom of Canada” was right next door to the renewed and renovated Democracy in America that arose after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865. And it is part of the defiant-monarchy view of the new northern confederation of 1867 that (as explained by A source-book of Canadian history [1959, 1964], edited by J.H. Stewart Reid, Kenneth McNaught, and Harry S. Crowe) “most of the conservative leaders of the federal movement were definitely suspicious of the very word ‘democracy’.”

This also implies a conservative political philosophy that such fathers of confederation as George Brown, William McDougall, Oliver Mowat, and Edward Whelan did not share — to say nothing of the provincial voters who had chosen the fathers for office in the first place. And in the 19th century agrarian democratic society of the North American family farm, British property qualifications of the day for voters came closer to a modern democratic franchise than they did in the still more aristocratic imperial homeland of the United Kingdom.

According to the historian George Emery’s pioneering investigation of 2012, Elections in Oxford County, 1837–1875 : A Case Study of Democracy in Canada West and Early Ontario, “electors’ lists for the 1861 general elections” in two typical ridings in what is now called  Southwestern Ontario equaled “65 per cent of the county’s census-enumerated adult male population.” (And this proportion was as high as 72%, 83%, and even 88% in the smaller urban centres that served the owners and others who worked on the family farms.)

The Reid-McNaught-and-Crowe history source-book of the late 1950s and mid 1960s also notes that some may be “inclined to portray the methods whereby Confederation was brought about as essentially undemocratic.” There was “no popularly elected constitutional convention.” The 72 Quebec resolutions “were never directly ratified by the provincial electorates.” And “strong imperial pressure was brought to bear upon the Maritime Provinces to overcome their clearly expressed reluctance.”

Yet Reid, McNaught, and Crowe equally explain that the Canadian federal experiment of 1867 entrenched “the evolutionary idea of liberal democracy” in the first self-governing dominion of the British empire. The BNA Act, with its brief preamble about “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” enshrined “all the traditional guarantees of individual and parliamentary liberty” — for an agrarian democratic electoral demography more like the United States.

In the distinctively northern North American parliamentary democracy that subsequently evolved (the three wise men of the late 1950s and mid 1960s explain as well), “Canadians have continued to believe that the essence of democracy” is “the right to choose the government.” And on George Emery’s numbers it was a majority of the adult male population in the ultimately participating provinces that elected those who should nowadays, perhaps, slightly more properly be called the parents of confederation in Canada, in the age of the bloody American Civil War.

What the Act of 1867 Left Out …

Even if the parents of confederation had been elected by angels in heaven, George Woodcock’s 1983 characterization of the British North America Act, 1867 as “a makeshift document cobbled together by colonial politicians” would remain another plain historical truth. (And to test this proposition, just try reading Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 today.)

Similarly, as George Brown would later stress in the Globe, the new Canada created by the BNA Act, 1867 was “not a nation.” And despite some later attempts to pretend otherwise, the Act of 1867 was not a serious foundational document for some new independent nation-state — of the sort that the “free and democratic” Canada of the early 21st century (and the Constitution Act, 1982) has certainly evolved into.

Just to start with, too many important things about any such modern nation-state in northern North America were left out.

For the Maritime Provinces, joining a new political organization that the London Conference finally decided to call the Dominion of Canada was not unlike being taken over by an old political organization called the United Province of Canada.

Joseph Howe, a leader of the fight for responsible government in Nova Scotia, at first opposed confederation. And even after the Westminster parliament passed the BNA Act, a Nova Scotian repeal movement haunted the early Canadian federal experiment, until Howe finally joined the cabinet in Ottawa in 1869. Prince Edward Island, the smallest province, delayed joining the new confederation until 1873. Newfoundland would wait another three-quarters of a century, until 1949. (And it was not until the early 21st century, some might say, that Atlantic Canada began to embrace its Canadian destiny with serious enthusiasm.)

There were parallel reservations among the French-speaking majority in the new province of Quebec. The old French Canada had acquired a taste for the old United Province of Canada after 1848, where the franco-majority Canada East and the anglo-majority Canada West had 42 seats each in the ultimately supreme elected Legislative Assembly.

What improvement could there be in a new Dominion of Canada that included the British North American Maritime provinces, and a guaranteed anglo majority?

George-Étienne Cartier and Hector-Louis Langevin could persuade les Canadiens to go along to get along. Real commitment to the British empire would always be elusive. The new Canada inaugurated the quasi-colonial sub-species of a self-governing British dominion. (And even in the ultimately free and democratic and independent Canada finally bequeathed by Wilfrid Laurier, Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien, and then Pierre Trudeau’s son Justin Trudeau, substantial numbers among Quebec’s still surviving — and even thriving? — francophone majority remain sceptical about the Canadian federal experiment, at best!)

* * * *

The only parts of the new Dominion of Canada that were actually enthusiastic about the confederation of 1867, it is sometimes said, were the new most populous Province of Ontario and the English-speaking community in Montreal. Confederation from this angle was in its own right an imperial project of English-speaking central Canada from the start — with special reference to the already rising notorious urban triangle of Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.

Montreal, however, would remain the largest Canadian city and the new dominion’s unchallenged economic metropolis until the middle of the 20th century. The lumbering centre of Ottawa — with its elegant new parliament buildings just completed in 1866 — had apparently been chosen by Queen Victoria as the capital of the old United Province of Canada. The new Dominion of Canada, as it were, just inherited its capital city and parliament buildings from the new Ontario and Quebec.

Toronto until the middle of the 20th century would be more like Calgary or Vancouver in the early 21st century. As Christopher Moore has memorably explained, in the 1860s “western alienation began at Yonge Street” in Toronto. And some fears of the Maritime opponents of confederation would seem clearly enough realized by the early 20th century, when the old Merchants’ Bank of Halifax became the new Royal Bank of Canada, headquartered in Montreal.

Unlike the Constitution Act, 1982, the British North America Act, 1867 also altogether left out “aboriginal, treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal peoples of Canada including … any … that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763.”

Section 91, article 24 of what is now the Constitution Act, 1867 does assign “Indians, and lands reserved for Indians” to the federal government. But there is no further mention of the first Canadians in the old BNA Act. And on July 1, 1867 it would be more than 60 years before Harold Innis wrote : “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.” It would be more than 50 years again before Part II of the Constitution Act, 1982 finally addressed the “Rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.”

Big Bear trading at Fort Pitt in what is now Saskatchewan, 1880s.

As the Constitution Act, 1982 would further specify : “In this Act, ‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” And John A. Macdonald had no sooner begun his first term as prime minister of the new Dominion of Canada when the Red River or first Riel Rebellion of 1869—70 (in what Macdonald would soon turn into the “postage-stamp province” of Manitoba) introduced a number of further themes of the Canadian future left out of the BNA Act, 1867.

What about the future of the mixed-race Métis peoples created by the modern history of the fur trade in Canada, who have sometimes claimed to be the most authentic modern Canadians?

And then what about the French language in the new North West Territory purchased by the Dominion of Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869? What about the French language beyond the Province of Quebec generally, and the hardy survivors of old Acadia in the Loyalist Province of New Brunswick? (And beyond the federal Parliament in Ottawa too : Section 133 of the BNA Act, 1867 does spell out that :”Either the English or the French Language may be used by any Person in the Debates of the Houses of the Parliament of Canada and of the Houses of the Legislature of Quebec …”)

The mystical Métis leader Louis Riel would return to haunt John A. Macdonald in the North West or second Riel Rebellion of 1885, in what is now Saskatchewan. A century later, he became a sometimes ironic historical hero for a more diffuse and general sense of “western alienation,” all the way from the Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean.

As a poignant further sign of the various deeper truths of the age of the American Civil War, from coast to coast to coast, when the Colony of British Columbia completed the beginnings of modern Western Canada by joining confederation in 1871, various aboriginal peoples, Indian and Métis alike, still accounted for the majority of the new province’s population.

* * * *

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006—2015), who reinvented the Conservative Party of Canada in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, aptly called one of the old 1867 BNA Act’s least impressive legacies “a relic of the 19th century.”

He was referring to what a classic academic study of the 1920s called The Unreformed Senate of Canada. And what remains the unreformed Canadian Senate of the early 21st century is yet another “dreadfully Tory” artifact that John A. Macdonald managed to work into what we now call the Constitution Act, 1867.

To start with, there were three Senate sections : Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario. (A fourth would be added for Western Canada in the early 20th century.) Each was represented by 24 senators, effectively appointed for life by the prime minister of the day. The resulting legislative body, said to provide a chamber of “sober second thought,” had more in common with the House of Lords in the United Kingdom than it did with the Senate in the United States.

Even US senators would not be popularly elected until 1913. (Before then they were indirectly elected by state legislatures.) But one irony of the movement for an elected Canadian Senate in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that the United Province of Canada began electing the members of its upper house (the so-called Legislative Council, with 24 members each for Canada East and Canada West) as early as 1856.

Some less conservative parents of confederation (William McDougall and Oliver Mowat, eg) wanted to carry on with the practice of electing senators in the new Dominion of Canada. But on this issue the Liberal Reformer George Brown agreed with the dreadfully Tory John A. Macdonald that senators should merely be appointed.

Brown’s arguably democratic claim was that an elected Senate based on equal sectional representation would only thwart an elected Canadian House of Commons based on representation by population. (Macdonald’s own argument for merely appointing Senators was different: “We must protect the rights of minorities,” he told the Quebec Conference, “and the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.”)

* * * *

Meanwhile, further rumblings from the victorious Union in the American Civil War gave the far northern confederation movement a final push. On March 17, 1866 the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty for free trade in resource products between the United States and British North America ceased to operate. The US Congress had abrogated the agreement, finally exercising an option to do so after an initial 10-year trial.

At this point none of the 11 rebellious states of the failed southern confederacy had yet been readmitted to the Union. (The first would be Tennessee, on July 24, 1866. The last was Georgia on July 15, 1870.) The votes of southern members of Congress had been crucial in approving the 1854 treaty. With these votes missing immediately after the end of the Civil War, the surviving northern legislators cancelled the deal.

On one somewhat too simple view, the north wanted all of British North America to just join the Union, as Horace Greeley’s mid 1850s letter to William Lyon Mackenzie had urged. Free trade in resource products was seen as a way of postponing this version of manifest destiny. (It had already given away the main economic advantages of joining the Union.)

The south, however, did not want more northern free states from British North America to join the Union. So it supported the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty. A dozen years later the victorious northern Union also had objections to various British imperial policies and actions during the Civil War. And when the US Congress still without any southern members, immediately after the war, had the contractual opportunity to abrogate the 1854 free trade treaty with British North America, it seized the chance.

Inadvertently or otherwise, this sent the message that the British North American provinces to the north of the Union had two main options in the wake of the American Civil War.

They could join a reinvigorated United States, in a new gilded age that the American literary historian Vernon Parrington would later christen the “Great Barbecue.”

Or they could join together to expand their own markets, on the model of the transcontinental fur trade. They could take up the torch of the second British North America and old French and Indian Canada (and Acadia) that had emerged from the three great North American wars of the mid to late 18th century. (Which had emerged in turn from a multiracial wilderness romance stretching back to the 16th century, in the early modern age of the world economy.)

* * * *

Meanwhile again, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the managers of an increasingly organized global empire were concerned not to make the same mistakes with the second British North America that had been made with what became the new United States more than 80 years before.

The new Canada was merely the first self-governing dominion of the British empire, and not (as yet) some new nation. But it was at least haphazardly set up to ultimately liberate itself from the mother country across the sea — as the British empire at large finally disappeared into a new Commonwealth of Nations in the second half of the 20th century.

Back in 1839 the London Quarterly Review, in discussing Lord Durham’s proposal for a new United Province of Canada, had urged that “if we wished to establish a Canadian Republic, we should recommend this very scheme in preference to all others.” Though John A. Macdonald would not welcome the thought, a similar critique could be advanced of the scheme for a highly centralized and strong new Canadian federal government he managed to work into the British North America Act, 1867.

When the Dominion of Canada was officially proclaimed on July 1, 1867, The Times of London in the imperial metropolis, struck a more immediately realistic note : “political faith overreaches itself in a conception so vast and so loose, in frontiers so extensive, and in conditions so infinitely varied … But that fears are as often disappointed as hopes … we should scarcely venture to estimate the destiny of this Confederation. However, there it is … The freer and less binding relations sometimes last the longest.”

Macdonald’s vision of a strong Canadian federal government would nonetheless find a major new apostle (of sorts) in the later 20th century — in the Pierre Trudeau who arguably bears a relationship to the Constitution Act, 1982 similar to the one John A. Macdonald bears to the Constitution Act, 1867. A former executive assistant to Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1957–1963) once suggested to Pierre Trudeau that he was in fact “a Conservative at heart” himself. And the first Liberal prime minister with that surname apparently replied: “I am. A John A. Macdonald Conservative!”

Pierre Trudeau’s short story on Canadian history — in the Foreword to his canoeing friend Eric Morse’s 1969 guidebook, Fur Trade Canoe Routs of Canada : Then and Now (already raised in the prologue to this book) — also sheds its own light on the confederation of 1867 :

In the past the teaching of history in our schools has been dominated by traditions inherited from Europe. On that continent history has been filled with battles, and the lives of national heroes. In Canada we have had few decisive battles and not many dominant leaders. Much more important to our history has been the struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment. This struggle has produced its share of adventure and heroism … But perhaps this lesson is best learned outside the classroom. Anyone who wishes to get a feeling for the unique history and geography of this country can do no better than follow Eric Morse’s example” (and paddle the fur trade canoe routes of Canada, then and now, from coast to coast to coast).

* * * *

A very final (and only half-whimsically romantic) note on economic geography and destiny may make the most suitable conclusion to the story of how the parents of confederation made a deal in 1867.

In some respects the present-day Canadian hockey historian D’Arcy Jenish’s excellent 2003 biography, Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West, echoes Harold Innis on the great multiracial and transcontinental paddling enterprise of the North West Company (1779–1821), as a “forerunner of the present confederation.”

Jenish stresses how David Thompson’s legendary early 19th century “Map of the North-West Territory of the Province of Canada” (or what we now call Western Canada), commissioned by the North West Company, was “more than mere representation. There was an idea embedded in the map … in the title … Thompson’s vision of a Canada stretching from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the shores of the Pacific was half a century ahead of its time … but a similar dream resided at the heart of Confederation” in 1867.

(And something similar could no doubt be said about David Thompson’s Métis wife, Charlotte Small — the Woman of the paddle song in a book by Elizabeth Clutton-Brock, first published in 1972. They had married “according to the customs of the Cree” in June 1799 at Île-la-Crosse in what is now the province of Saskatchewan. At the end of 1812 he brought her back east from his seminal western fur-trade and map-making adventures, unlike many of his colleagues with similar tender ties. She became Mrs. Thompson according to the laws of Lower Canada. All told they had 13 children, out west and then back east. But she was the only company he seemed to really want during his later years. The “two would often stay out most of the night observing the stars.” He died in Longueuil, just across the river from Montreal, on February 10, 1857, at the age of 87. She followed only a few months later on May 4.)


Children of the Global Village
Democracy in Canada Since 1497

Randall White
eastendbooks 2024

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


British North America and the American Civil War … African American slavery in the far north … Road to confederation in the 1860s … The 36 “Fathers of Confederation” … Leadership of John A. Macdonald … The real-world confederation of strong provinces … The defiant monarchy in an early parliamentary democracy … Instantaneous regionalism in the Maritimes and Quebec … Ontario, anglo Montreal, and the missing old French and Indian wilderness … Origins of the Unreformed Senate of Canada … US abrogation of 1854 Reciprocity Treaty in 1866 … Sending off the new Dominion of Canada in 1867 … David Thompson’s early 19th century map and the “similar dream at the heart of Confederation”

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