The Atlantic provinces and the Confederation debates of 1865

This is the second post in a two week series in partnership with Canada Watch on the Confederation Debates

By Philip Girard

The phrase “Atlantic Canada” is of relatively recent vintage, having been coined as a convenient way of referring to the four eastern provinces after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.[1] Before 1949 no one spoke of Atlantic Canada. In the debates of 1865 these colonies were referred to as the maritime provinces, the lower provinces, or the eastern provinces. After 1949, the Maritimes plus Newfoundland became “Atlantic Canada” in bureaucratic and eventually popular parlance. As purely geographic shorthand, the phrase cannot be objected to (though of course Quebec is an “Atlantic province” too). Nevertheless, insofar as it suggests a common identity, a common culture, the term must be approached with caution. There are certainly some unifying features. People from one of these provinces generally feel more at home in the others than they do in the rest of Canada. But in the 1860s and still today, the region contains geographic variety, disparate resource endowments and economies, and considerable ethno-cultural diversity: Acadians; African Canadians (Nova Scotia had the largest black community in Canada before the immigration boom of the 1960s); Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwiuk, Innu, and Inuit peoples; and the increasingly multicultural populations in the region’s larger cities.

Most Canadians who live west of New Brunswick are not obliged to think of the Atlantic provinces of Canada very often. Today, their political weight is fairly light. The Atlantic provinces hold approximately 6 percent of the Canadian population and their MPs fill 9 percent of the seats in the House of Commons.[2] The four provinces together represent only 32 seats out of the 338 in the newly enlarged House of Commons.

The situation was quite different in the 1860s, when both the population and the geography of the eastern colonies appealed to Upper and Lower Canadians as reasons for entering into a larger union with them. The combined populations of the eastern provinces were much more important relative to the Canadas than they are today, and both the size and the character of that population were attractive. The relative populations of the colonies were as follows according to the 1861 census, except for Newfoundland, where figures from the 1869 census have been used:

Quebec 1,100,000
Ontario 1,400,000
New Brunswick 250,000
Nova Scotia 330,000
Prince Edward Island 80,000
Newfoundland 150,000
Total 3,310,000
Total (minus PEI and NF) 3,080,000

During the debates of 1865, it was still possible that all four Atlantic colonies would join the new nation being discussed, though it was far less likely that Newfoundland would do so. The colonies possessed a population of 810,000, nearly three-quarters of the population of Quebec, and would have represented a quarter of the population of the new Canada. Even taking just Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which actually joined in 1867, their combined population amounted to 19 percent of the total population of the new dominion, about the same as the proportion of Canadians who live in the three prairie provinces today.

An Expanding Market

George Brown, leader of the Clear Grit (Liberal) Party, was thrilled at the prospect of this enlarged market. With the exaggeration characteristic of political debate, he asserted that “the addition of nearly a million of people to our home consumers [swept] aside all the petty objections that are averred against the scheme” (45). Other countries sought to enlarge themselves by war or purchase, but the new union represented an opportunity to do so in a peaceful manner and for free!

Brown faced an obstacle here. As he knew, there was relatively little trade between the Canadas and their prospective partners in the 1860s: only 5 percent of the Maritimes’ exports and imports involved the Canadas. The eastern colonies had thrived on oceanic trade with Britain, the West Indies, and the eastern United States.Nonetheless, Brown predicted, a customs union would free up the trade of all the players: the wares of the Canadas would be carried “unquestioned into every village of the Maritime Provinces,” while they “shall with equal freedom bring their fish, and their coal, and their West India produce to our three millions of inhabitants” (46). Indeed, some have argued that Nova Scotia coal was a key reason the Canadas were interested in a broader union. But it was not just as suppliers of raw materials that the eastern region was valuable. According to Brown, with the large numbers of ships constructed in the Atlantic provinces, the new nation would be the third-largest maritime nation in the world, after Britain and the United States (46).

Beyond their abstract identities as consumers and producers, the inhabitants of the eastern provinces were also prized by Canadian statesmen for their character, at least on the public record. (George Brown was less flattering about the delegates from the Maritimes in private.) Proponents of Confederation such as James Ferrier, a Montrealer and member of the Legislative Council of Canada, thought they were “an energetic, active, industrious people, quite equal to ourselves” (13). In Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s view, their delegates to the Quebec City talks were “as able and accomplished a body as … any new country in the world could produce, [while] some among them would compare not unfavorably in ability and information with some of the leading commoners [i.e., members of the House of Commons] of England” (57). Moreover, as John A. Macdonald reminded his audience, Canada West shared ties of language and the English common law with the lower provinces. Although the two regions had remained relatively unknown to one another, advocates of Confederation sought to portray the population of the Atlantic colonies as possessing shared values that would make them desirable partners in the new nation.

Costs and Benefits of Geography

Geography also seemed to point the way to the new union. No nation could be great, asserted Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché, if it “had not seaports of its own open at all times of the year” (2). The St. Lawrence might carry trade to the heart of the continent, but it could do so only seven months of the year. The American Civil War revealed the need for rail access to the sea within British North America, when it became more difficult for central Canadian produce to reach the Atlantic via the US rail route to Portland, Maine. With the Americans poised to abrogate the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866, which had freed up trade between them and the British colonies for a dozen years, the arguments of those favouring union seemed even more convincing.

But geography could be a double-edged sword. With the question of defence on everyone’s mind in light of the Civil War, the creation of a national military force produced by the union of four or more colonies could seem attractive. As Joseph Rymal of South Wentworth pointed out, however, the additional population would come with a huge amount of extra real estate to defend; the strength of the new union, he warned, would be “the kind of strength which a fishing rod would obtain by fastening to it some additional joints” (120). Relative to its defence needs, even the enlarged population of the new nation would be far less than what was required. Atlantic Canada offered opportunities to the Canadas, but these came with costs.

In order to counter these doubts, John A. Macdonald raised the “what-if” question: what if a union with the seaboard colonies did not transpire? In that case, he thought, they would “revive the original proposition for a union of the Maritime Provinces. … [T]hey will not remain as they are now, powerless, scattered, helpless communities, they will form themselves into a power, which, though not so strong as if united with Canada, will, nevertheless, be a powerful and considerable community” (22). Macdonald did not necessarily believe his own prediction: his veiled threat of maritime independence was made primarily to draw his listeners into the pro-Confederation camp. Still, it poses an interesting counterfactual. Without the Canadas, might some or all of the four Atlantic colonies have had their own confederation? If they did, would it have survived? Might we be marking “twin” confederations in 2017?

Alternative Options Limited

Some thought the Atlantic colonies in the 1860s had no need of a union with the Canadas. With the “age of sail” at its height, the seaboard colonies had profited by building wooden ships in the hundreds of small coves in the region perfectly suited to this activity, and carrying produce in them all over the globe. Those most involved in this trade had the least interest in a larger union. However, others could see that with the constant movement of population westward, rail transport would become the pre-eminent mode of North American transport, a shift that would undermine the seaward-facing economy of the Atlantic provinces. If they rejected a union with the Canadas now, they might be obliged to join later on, on less advantageous terms, or might turn to the United States, where their proportional influence would be even less than in a new British North American union.

In spite of the Charlottetown meeting of 1864 at which maritime union was to be explored, the prospects of the Atlantic colonies joining each other were never very bright. Prince Edward Island’s interest in the Confederation project waned in 1864-65 when it was clear that the Canadas were not prepared at that time to put money up front to buy out the island’s large landlords. It is unlikely that the other Atlantic provinces would have been able or willing to float the $800,000 loan that the young nation of Canada was able to offer the island in 1873 to end landlordism and cement its entry into Confederation. Newfoundland’s decisive rejection of Confederation in the election of 1869 suggests that it was committed to its autonomy and would not have embraced a union with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Without the two island provinces, why would the two latter provinces have joined in a federal union with each other? A customs union, short of a political union, was possible. Their principal customers were not each other, however, but clients outside the region, making such a union of limited value.

The rhetoric of the Canadians might also have given pause to some in the Atlantic provinces. George Brown’s discussion of the union sometimes sounded as if it entailed an “acquisition” of the Maritimes by the Canadas, as the United States had acquired Louisiana from France, instead of the launching of a free and equal union of four autonomous entities. In some respects, this is an accurate portrayal of the events of 1864-1867: to many in the east, Confederation seemed more like a quasi-hostile takeover than a consensual merger, though of course we do not hear these voices in the debates in the legislature of the Canadas. The Canadas were the dominant partner, and believed they had much to gain and little to lose from the union, while the Maritimers were more dubious but had few realistic options.

Newfoundland’s decision to go it alone ultimately had disastrous consequences. It essentially went bankrupt during the Depression and had to surrender self-government in 1934 to an appointed commission of three British and three Newfoundland officials, a situation that would last until Confederation in 1949. Would the Maritimes have suffered a similar fate had they remained outside Confederation? Their economies were somewhat more diversified than Newfoundland’s, and their populations better educated. Still, it is doubtful whether maintaining their autonomy, singly or together, could have impeded significantly the strong economic forces drawing people out of the region for employment elsewhere, or stimulating the centralization of capital and industry in central Canada. In the three decades after Confederation, 40 percent of the population of the maritime provinces left the region, most headed to New England’s thriving industrial towns. (Of course, rural Quebec too experienced strong out-migration.) Confederation ultimately had both benefits and drawbacks for the maritime provinces and Newfoundland, but their relatively small populations and internal divisions left them without a lot of bargaining power in the negotiations leading up to 1867.

Philip Girard is professor of law at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. He has published extensively on the history of law in Canada, his best-known work being Bora Laskin: Bringing Law to Life (2005; reissued in paperback, 2013).


[1] Newfoundland was officially renamed Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001.

[2]Manitoba and Saskatchewan are also slightly overrepresented in the House of Commons relative to their populations, as are the three territories.

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