Canadian Confederation

The "Fathers of Confederation" meet at the Charlottetown Conference
The "Fathers of Confederation" meet at the Charlottetown Conference

Prior to 1867 North American Canada was better described as a collection of Canadas. The Atlantic Maritime provinces focused on fishing, lumbering, and shipping. Lower Canada was home to New France habitants pushed unwillingly into the British Empire when the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War ended in 1763.

Upper Canada (Ontario) was the hub of British colonial power and wealth. North and west of the Great Lakes, a mixed population of Indians, fur traders, Hudson’s Bay Company agents, and prospectors, many Canadian, others Americans, generally evaded supervision by either of their governments.

As early as 1790 in the wake of an American Revolution that fractured British power in North America, proposals emerged for a stronger union among Britain’s remaining colonies. Not until the 1850s, however, did political and opinion leaders become serious about creating a real Canadian nationhood for the country’s 4 million inhabitants.

Among the issues at stake were continued fear of U.S. encroachment and economic power and controversial plans to assert control over western lands for the purpose of building a transcontinental railroad.

This simmering crisis over Canada’s future came to a head when the United States erupted in Civil War in 1861. As Great Britain’s government considered recognizing the seceding Southern Confederacy, Canada became a handy target for outraged Union supporters who often also harbored designs on Canadian lands.

Irish-American nationalists, called Fenians, used Union resentment against Britain to send their own anti-British message by attacking Canadian towns. More devastating to Canada was America’s cancellation, as the Civil War was ending, of a 12-year-old United States/ Canada trade reciprocity agreement vital to most Canadian provinces.

Against this backdrop, Canadian politicians began in 1864 to rough out a new plan for union. Although Britain’s parliament would have the final say, the process of creating a new dominion of Canada was very much propelled by local leaders.

Influential Toronto newspaper editor George Brown proposed a federal Canada, combining the constitutional model of U.S. federalism with Britain’s parliamentary system, but with improvements to both. Powerful politician John A. Macdonald, later first prime minister of a federated Canada, insisted that all of Canada’s provinces would be included.

Québec leader George-Étienne Cartier won support among French-Canadians by assuring them that new provincial powers were strong enough to protect French culture and language. As Fenian attacks across the U.S.Canada border crested in 1866, dominion backers used this threat to attract crucial political support to their plan.

On July 1, 1867, after Parliament ratified the British North America Act, the Dominion of Canada was born. The new Canada, although still closely tied to Britain, had moved from colonial dependency to a status much closer to sovereign nationhood.

Dominion, of course, did not solve all of Canada’s problems and, indeed, created some new ones. The Maritimes, especially Nova Scotia, had little interest in sending their tax money to develop the west.

Talk of secession was eased by financial and political concessions. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined Québec and Ontario in the Dominion in 1869. Prince Edward Island held out until 1873; Newfoundland did not formally join Canada until 1949.

Unlike their southern neighbors, Canadians had never adopted Manifest Destiny, the idea that Canadians must dominate their continent from sea to sea. But the possibility of expanding Canada westward was crucial to the success of the dominion plan, and with dominion came the powers necessary to open new territories to immigration, trade, and development.

One problem was the role of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a quasi-private fur and sundries trading company founded in 1670 under a royal charter granted by England’s king Charles II. For practical purposes, company officers were the overseers, if not the actual governors, of the prairie lands west of Canada proper.

The people of this huge territory, many of them members of Indian tribes or of mixed Indian and English or French heritage, were justifiably alarmed by the new central government’s looming buy-out of “Bay” holdings.

In 1869 Canadian surveyors appeared in the Red River region, north of the United States’s North Dakota/Minnesota border. They imposed new rectangular boundaries that ignored long-established farms and properties. Residents, many of them French, or French-Indian (also known as Métis) threatened violence.

Resistance to faraway Canada became better organized under the leadership of Louis Riel, a well-educated Red River native of Métis descent. Seizing the settlement of Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), Riel and his followers demanded negotiations.

The Red River Rising of 1869–70 began without bloodshed. But efforts to solve competing claims of territory and authority reawakened ancient hostilities between French, English, and Native Canadians.

In March 1870 Riel and his men captured and executed a particularly insolent English opponent. Nonetheless, peace was uneasily maintained. In May 1870 the Red River region formally became part of the new Canadian province of Manitoba.

The vast remaining unorganized territories between Manitoba and British Columbia, a Pacific coast province since 1858, became Canada’s Northwest Territories. Even when these lands gained provincial status, Ottawa maintained far more control over their affairs than it did in “Old Canada.”

By 1885 a private consortium, aided by huge government subsidies and land grants, completed the Canadian Pacific Railway, connecting Canada’s new west to the rest of the much-enlarged nation.

The same year, the Northwest Rebellion in the new province of Saskatchewan revealed that Canadian federation had not resolved all the racial and sectional grievances of Métis, Native tribes, and other western settlers. Led once again by Riel, by then declining into mental illness, this uprising ended in Riel’s execution, setting off outrage among French-Canadians.

Canada in 1885 was a far larger and considerably more independent and developed nation than it had been on July 1, 1867. But it still faced the challenge of truly melding its disparate Canadas into a harmonious whole.