Canada – Confederation

IN spite of apparent progress, there was an underlying feeling of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, and the union of Upper and Lower Canada could at the best be regarded as no more than a temporary expedient. It was but a joint, and a weak one at that : there was no actual fusion between the two sections of the people.

Upper Canada had grown out of all knowledge : the population, unlike that of Lower Canada, was increasing by leaps and bounds, and the politicians of the day were not slow in raising the cry ” Rep. by pop.,” and ” Representation according to numbers ” became a popular cry in Upper Canada, and, as might be expected, was fiercely resisted by the French Canadians, who saw in it an attempt to cut away their security, which had been guaranteed by the Act. This attitude caused in turn the greatest irritation in Upper Canada, and since by the Act of 1841 Upper and Lower Canada sent an equal number of members to the House, the Assembly was equally divided, and it became almost impossible to carry on the public business.

There were other causes of controversy. The grievances of the British commercial population were considerable, and arose largely from the Imperial Free Trade Act of 1846, whereby the advantages which had accrued from Lord Stanley’s Act of 1843 were lost. By the earlier statute Canadian wheat and flour were admitted into British ports at a nominal duty. This made it profitable for Canadians to import from the United States grain which was then ground into flour in Canada and shipped to the English market. For this trade large mills and storehouses had been built in Canada, and a very considerable trade had grown up. It was an advantage also to the provinces, since western produce gravitated to the St. Lawrence, with a corresponding increase in canal dues. At one stroke all these artificial advantages were cut away : many commercial men were ruined ; the capital sunk in the mills was threatened, and the merchandise resumed its natural channel.

That portion of the United States trade hitherto diverted to Canada, the Canadian merchant realised could not be retained by the Canadian merchant without some artificial aid. It was generally said by these that the Mother country had treated them shabbily. A severe depression ensued. Property in the towns fell 50 % in value, and most of the business men were insolvent. A strong feeling grew up in the towns in favour of annexation to the United States. There was only one feasible way of averting this, which was, as Lord Elgin saw, ” to put the colonists in as good a position commercially as the citizens of the United States, in order to do which free navigation and reciprocal trade with the States were indispensable.”

This critical condition of affairs lasted for some six years, until in 1854 the Reciprocity Treaty, negotiated by Lord Elgin was concluded at Washington, by which the protective duties which had hitherto impeded commerce with the States were lowered, and trade flowed in and out free and unfettered. This Treaty was to last for twelve years—years of memorable prosperity for Canada—and could be renewed at the wish of both parties.

It is almost impossible to express the extent to which the Reciprocity Treaty contributed to the commercial advancement of the Dominion ; the more so because the United States became during its continuance Canada’s chief market. So great a rush of prosperity followed that it turned the heads of the people, with the usual deplorable results.

Fierce controversies swept the country from time to time. The Clergy Reserves was a burning question, and the Rebellion Losses Bill, which was to indemnify sufferers from the rebellion, aroused the bitterest passions, which culminated in an assault by the mob on the Governor-General, Lord Elgin, as he was leaving Parliament House. For weeks the country seethed with dissatisfaction, and local demonstrations were organised in many parts of the provinces.

In 1849 legislation was put in hand, guaranteeing interest on loans raised by any railway company chartered by legislature for the construction of a line not less than seventy-five miles in length.

So, as the years swept on and the buoyant hopes raised by the union of 1841 were still unfulfilled, a feeling of gloom, even of despair, settled down on the much troubled provinces. The credit of the country was at its lowest ebb, so low indeed, that Canadian 5 %’s were selling in London at 75. The government, too, was involved in the breakdown, for the time being, of the Grand Trunk Railway, which was in a desperate condition, and apparently on the verge of absolute failure. Another point of importance to be remembered was the state of almost complete isolation in which were the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, both as regards England and as regards one another. In 1858, it is true, the Atlantic cable had been laid between Europe and America, but communication was interrupted almost immediately, and it was some years before the countries were linked up. Thus the only means of communication with England was by letter, and this meant a delay of several weeks, or it might be months, in any important negotiations which might be in progress.

Communications with the maritime provinces were equally difficult, and in winter were practically at a standstill. British Columbia was sufficient unto itself, and the way to it lay across the Isthmus of Central America and up the northeast of the United States, through trackless plains, forests, swamps, and impassable mountains.

Again, as regards the rest of the provinces, convenience for the administration of local affairs helped in some degree to keep them apart. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were separated, and as a result of the Ashburton Treaty a great wedge of foreign territory had been driven up between Canada and New Brunswick. Cape Breton was a government by itself, and Newfoundland was a post-captain’s command. Each province had its own government, its own laws, its own parliamentary system, and each in its way was developing along lines of policy dictated by purely local considerations. Last, and most important, each had a tariff wall built up to a height which would keep out its neighbour’s produce, and it treated and taxed produce of a neighbouring Canadian province exactly as it taxed the imports from a foreign country.

Consider, also, the attitude of England. Short-sighted politicians regarded the rebellion of thirteen states as a warning. It was said that the confederation of the United States had come as a disruptive force in the Empire, and from this it was deduced that if England could keep her small colonies apart, so long as these could develop along their own lines in contentment and at peace with their neighbours, they were the more likely to look to the Motherland for that maternal care which England is always ready to bestow upon weak nations or weak states.

England, by her Free Trade policy, by the repeal of the Corn Laws and the preferential duties, had suddenly swept away the supports which had sustained the Canadian exporter, and was accepting tenders for supplies from the whole world on an equal basis. No one doubts that this was well within her competence, but she would have been well advised in exhibiting a greater solicitude, at this juncture, for her Canadian fellow-subjects. One is glad to think that a more considerate spirit prevails today.

As in 1791, so in 1862, there was a party at home which did not believe in Canada, and was prepared to see Canada absorbed into the United States ; and these views were held by English statesmen on both sides of politics, who would have been quite content had Canada asked for independence.

Side by side with this, the progress of public opinion in the Canadian provinces was tending towards a greater measure of self-government and independence from the harassing methods of the English colonial administrators, as well as from her own embarrassments.

On the borders of Canada the great American Civil War was in progress, and it was only by the exercise of the most astute diplomacy that Canada avoided being drawn into the maelstrom. The danger of invasion was said to be a serious one common to the Canadian colonies.

Such was the position of Canada in the years 1860-63 ; disorganised, rent by internal dissensions, the ugly scars of which still remain. She was both poor and isolated, and as a climax there came a hopeless Parliamentary deadlock. Her best statesmen despaired ; there seemed nothing for it but absolute dissolution of the Union, or annexation by the United States. Yet there was working a leaven which, within the next five years, was to change the whole face of the situation. That leaven was the idea of Confederation.

This was no new idea : Lord Durham had recommended it in his great Report, and it had occurred to writers even before that. The politicians hoped by it to modify the antagonisms between British and French—the underlying cause of most of the trouble. During the clamour over the Rebellion Losses Bill we find that an organisation called the British American League had among its propaganda the idea of a union of all the provinces of Canada. The railway legislation, again, of 1851 was another strong force tending towards the consolidation of the colonies. It is true that the complications which arose as to the apportionment of the expense retarded the movement considerably ; but by the years 1862-3 the negotiations had proceeded so far that an agreement was come to as to the relative amount which the provinces were prepared to bear, and laws were passed by the legislature of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia confirming the arrangement.

The construction of the American railways was proceeding rapidly, and tending more and more to divert, not only the carrying trade of the western states, but even that of Canada, and it was felt that unless the whole of Canada could combine in some fashion in the construction of a railroad, that her dependence on the United States would grow.

In 1858 Mr. Galt, an independent member, made a telling speech advocating the union of all the provinces, and he entered the Cartier-Macdonald government only on the understanding that it was a plank of their political platform. It was in this year that a tariff bill was introduced which imposed rates of 20 and 25 % on certain commodities, and a general rate of 15% on articles not specially enumerated. The tariff of 1859, generally spoken of as the beginnings of protection, merely amplified this tariff of 1858.

To revert for a moment to the political situation, it must be said that on account of the even voting between Upper and Lower Canada the government of the day was dependent absolutely upon the vote of every supporter, and a small clique of faddists could change the policy of a ministry, or, if their demands were not complied with, wreck it.

There was the peculiar, and indeed, unique situation then existent of a dual premiership ; that is to say, that no man from Upper or Lower Canada could be found acceptable to a ministry composed of representatives of the two provinces ; and for years it was necessary to have a combined ministry, which was known, not by the name of a premier, but by the name of two premiers as witness, the Cartier-Macdonald Government, the Brown-Dorrien Government, the Macdonald-Sicotte Government, and so forth.

Another important condition besides that of dual premiership was that of a capital alternating between Toronto and Quebec, so causing great expense in many ways and great inconvenience to those whose business it was to deal with members of parliament.

Added to all this inconvenience was the fact that in practice the life of a ministry was hardly more than six months. The Cartier-Macdonald ministry, for example, lived six months after its election in 1862 ; as did the Sandfield-Macdonald-Sicotte ministry. The deadlock was complete, and the longer it lasted the more difficult became the situation. With each successive ministry and its inevitable defeat the irritation of both parties grew.

In the midst of all this chaos the suggestion of Con-federation was revived and was matured. It is difficult to understand even now how it ever became a concrete fact. This great movement, imposed by the circumstances of the day, was put into force by a number of great men, whose enthusiasm carried their cause over every prejudice and obstacle.

One of these was George Brown of Ontario, another, Cartier of Quebec. Both were typical as well as strong men ; their views on politics were diametrically opposed ; and they had fought bitterly but honestly in the political arena for years. Yet in one thing they joined hands : it was in their intense devotion to the interests of the country. Both feared and detested any sort of union with the United States whose policy they distrusted, and with some reason, for in 1866 the United States, which was then in the full career of her commercial boom, abrogated without warning the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854.

The discussion of motives which control the actions of individuals or of states is rarely politic or profitable. The loss of the Reciprocity Treaty was due to the resent-ment felt by the U.S.A. against Canada and England, or to put it more precisely, against a party in England which lost Canada her great market to the South, as to which Treaty the Canadian Government formally declared ” it would be impossible to express in figures the extent to which it had contributed to the wealth and prosperity of the country and the importance which the people of Canada attached to its continued enjoyment.”

This is one of those instances which goes to show that Canada’s connection with Great Britain does not always make for her material prosperity. There are, we know, counterbalancing items, but it may be well to indicate that there have been sacrifices on the part of the Daughter State as well as of the Mother Country.

Sir George Cartier, like all French Canadians, dreaded anything which would tend to merge the nationality of the French Canadians in that of another nation. Mr. George Brown, though his sympathies were all against the French Canadians, felt on the part of Upper Canada that the tie with Great Britain should be maintained at all costs. With these two men worked Sir Alexander Galt, whose name has already been mentioned as an advocate of federation. He threw himself heart and soul into the task of convincing the country, and it is largely to his influence that Sir George Cartier was persuaded to take part in the movement. Great efforts were necessary to win over the allegiance of Sir John Macdonald, but for a time without full success. A leading characteristic of Sir John’s political character was a conservatism and caution which dreaded any uncertain step into the unknown. This being so, Con-federation did not at the outset appeal to him as an immediately practical policy. It was slowly that he was persuaded to consent to the matter being forwarded, and, then, it is said, only under pressure from his supporters, who said openly that in the event of a dissolution they would not offer themselves again as candidates unless Confederation was to be included in his policy, and unless he consented to support some form of coalition govern-ment if it were necessary. Subsequently, however, he lent full and invaluable support in producing Confederation, and it must be said a large body of opinion in Canada regards him as ” The Father of Confederation.” His judgment of men was so remarkable and accurate as to amount to genius, and his unerring choice of instruments during the great work of unifying the colonies was essential not only to its attainment, but still more to the early life of the Dominion. The outstanding characteristic of this great leader lay in his profound knowledge of human nature.

Nor were the electors at all unanimous on the point ; indeed, had it not been for the indomitable perseverance of the three leaders it is quite likely that the matter would have been delayed indefinitely. What would then have been the future history of the Dominion it is not hard to imagine.

In the autumn of 1864 a representative meeting of men of all shades of political opinion was held to consider the carrying out of the measure. After deliberating for several weeks the delegates unanimously adopted a set of some seventy-two resolutions which embodied the terms and conditions on which the provinces would agree to a federal union.

These resolutions were laid before the various legislatures, and adopted in the shape of addresses to the Crown : for, of course, the formal consent of England was necessary. This was freely given, and the Colonial Office extended invaluable assistance with some of the reluctant sections.

In New Brunswick the legislature dissolved on the question, and came back with an adverse mandate from the electors. In the other provinces, however, the question was not put to the people at all, and the legislators voted upon it as they would upon an ordinary measure of minor importance.

When the parliament met in 1865 the Governor’s opening speech mentioned the subject of Confederation, and he spoke strongly in its favour. He announced that the home government approved of the project, and would introduce the necessary legislation into the Imperial Parliament as soon as the provincial legislators should have declared their adhesion. The matter was debated long and ardently, and eventually on the 10th of March, 1865, the motion was introduced by the Attorney-General, ” That a humble address be presented to Her Majesty praying that she might be graciously pleased to allow the said measure to be submitted to the Imperial Parliament, for the purpose of uniting the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island in one government, with provisions based on certain resolutions which were adopted at the conference of delegates i of the said colonies, held at the city of Quebec on the 10th of October, 1864.”

In accordance with the resolution these addresses were prepared and presented to Lord Monck for transmission to the Crown, and in April a deputation of four members of the administration, Messieurs Cartier, Macdonald, Brown, and Galt, proceeded to England to confer with the Imperial Government to promote the scheme of federation.

In the maritime provinces the project was received with reserve amounting to hostility. The general election in New Brunswick resulted in the return of a majority hostile to union. Nova Scotia also was shy about coming in, and Prince Edward Island not only passed resolutions antagonistic to Confederation but even repudiated the action of their provincial delegates at the Quebec Conference. Nevertheless the administration steadily pushed forward their scheme. There was no question of coercing the maritime provinces, and it was recognised that they were free to come into the Union or not as they pleased.

The four delegates to England received full assurances of the goodwill of the home government towards their plans, and an Imperial guarantee of a loan for the construction of an inter-colonial line of railway was obtained. On their part the delegates were able to say that Canada would devote all her resources for the maintenance of her connection with the Mother Country.

The American War ended in the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, and the assassination of President Lincoln followed almost immediately. As was natural, a deep impression was created in Canada by these events, and faces turned with some anxiety towards the new President to see what his policy would be with regard to American-Canadian relations. The formal notice required for abrogating the Reciprocity Treaty had been already given by the States, and the existence of the Treaty would, in the ordinary course of events, end in the March of the following year.

The new President refused to entertain any proposition whatever for the renewal of the Treaty.

In compliance with a suggestion from the home government a confederate council to deal with commercial treaties had been formed at Quebec, consisting of representatives of each province of the proposed con-federation. These recommended that a deputation should be sent to Washington to make a final attempt at the renewal of the Treaty.

The government adopted the recommendation, and appointed delegates, but the terms which these delegates were allowed to negotiate were such that Mr. Brown, who had served his country so well in bringing about Confederation, made them the reasons for renouncing an always uncomfortable position in the Cabinet. He felt that the dignity of Canada should not have allowed her to send delegates to beg for a fresh Treaty, but that there should be a fair Treaty, and not one dictated by the American Government.

The delegates who were sent to Washington in the beginning of 1866 met with absolute failure, and no further attempt to reopen the question was made for several years.

Scenes of the most remarkable character occurred at this time on the Canadian railways, and the international ferries, and for several months before the Elgin Treaty expired waggons, ferries, and all forms of locomotion were crowded with outgoing cattle, horses, and farm produce purchased by Americans in Canada before the expiration of Reciprocity.

The money received for all these things was a welcome addition to the farmer’s store, but the effect of the repulse was felt throughout the country. It was seen that the old channels of commerce were unavailable and fresh ones must be sought, and a commission was appointed to seek fresh markets in South America and the West Indies, and generally to open up a new avenue of trade.

Canada reeled under the dislocation of trade, and a lesser people might have succumbed ; as it was the unneighbourly action of the U.S.A. ruffled her pride. The effect produced was the reverse of that expected, and Canadians adapted themselves to the seriously altered circumstances with energy and intelligence, and with such success that, as is well known, Canadian products are in several directions largely replacing in the United Kingdom supplies which formerly came from the Republic.

On the 8th June the last session of the provincial parliament met at Ottawa. The opening speech announced that the Governor-General expected that the measure of Confederation would shortly be carried into effect, and that the next assembly of Parliament would be attended not only by representatives of Canada but by those of all the colonies in British North America.

From this it will be seen that the Confederation project had considerably advanced in the maritime provinces. In New Brunswick there had been a fresh appeal to the people, and advocates of the change had won the day. In Nova Scotia, after a fierce fight, the scheme powerfully advocated by Sir Charles Tupper had been passed by a large majority. Prince Edward Island though hostile, was a small province, and Newfoundland did nothing at all in the matter.

It was therefore decided that Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick should proceed into Confederation, leaving British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland to follow if they wished.

In November, 1866, the Canadian deputation repaired to England to meet delegates from the other provinces, and a conference was organised at the Westminster Palace Hotel by the 4th of December, and sat until the 24th of December, by which time all the important details were finally settled. Modifications, concessions on both sides, as was natural, were made in the resolutions of the Quebec conference of 1864, but in all essential respects the project remained unchanged. On the 29th of March, the Bill, having passed through all the stages in both Houses, received the Royal assent, and with it an Act authorising the officials of the Treasury to guarantee interest on a loan of not more than 3,000,000 sterling for the construction of the Inter-colonial Railway.

With the passing of the British North America Act of 1867, Canada as a Dominion came into being.

Within the next three years the province of Manitoba was formed, and the then North West Territories acquired. Prince Edward Island and British Columbia also came into Confederation, and thus consolidated the Dominion.