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
“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