Looking at 1867 from 1967 and 2017

This is the first of two posts responding to “Debating the Confederation Debates of 1865” a two-week series we ran in partnership with Canada Watch.

By Christopher Moore

During the constitutional wrangles of the 1980s that became known as “Meech Lake,” one of the premiers supposedly remarked that the fathers of confederation were fine men for their time but didn’t know much about telecommunications or the environment. Whatever expertise the first ministers of the 1980s may have had about telco and enviro policy, however, they eventually proved themselves far less successful than the original confederation-makers in the more significant skill of actually drafting and getting ratified a constitution that might last a century and a half.

I have known and admired for years several of the authors whose essays I have been asked to comment on for this collection. All the authors have made valuable contributions to historical knowledge of Canada. But when I read these essays, I heard again that premier. Continue reading

The Robert Harris group portrait

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

By Ged Martin

The founding, in 1880, of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts no doubt represented a landmark in recognition and encouragement of the visual arts in the Dominion. Unfortunately, it was not easy to advance its cultural agenda, especially the central aim of creating a National Gallery. A cramped room on Ottawa’s Bank Street was designated as the Gallery’s first home in May 1882, and it may be that the idea of acquiring a large picture of national import was attractive as a means of forcing the issue of a permanent location. In April 1883, the Academy’s president, Lucius R. O’Brien, submitted a wordy memorandum to the government calling for artistic commemoration of “the meeting of the Conference at which the foundation was laid for the Confederation of the Provinces constituting the Dominion of Canada.” O’Brien did not specify which conference he had in mind, and the project began as a tribute to the meeting in Charlottetown. However, wherever it happened, O’Brien argued that it was “an event of such importance in the annals of the country” that a monumental canvas was required to keep alive the memory of the participants. O’Brien added two further points. One was a hurry-up reminder that the delegates were already dying off. The other was that Robert Harris, “a Canadian artist of ability,” had recently returned from Europe and was “fully competent to paint such a picture.”[1]

Sir John A. Macdonald’s Cabinet was apparently uncertain about how to respond to O’Brien’s plea. Continue reading

Using history to justify Confederation

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

By Marlene Shore

History was frequently invoked in the Confederation debates by both pro-confederates and anti-confederates to justify their positions. All parties realized that they were at a pivotal juncture, when a new set of constitutional arrangements would alter the destinies of the new country’s inhabitants, even though it was politically expedient for some to downplay the prospect of change. Speakers recognized that the American Civil War and the processes of state formation in Italy and Germany constituted part of the context, but in placing the Confederation process within a larger historical narrative, most politicians did not delve very far into the past. There might have been allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible, but members generally focused on how recent concerns — the clergy reserves or political deadlock — provided a justification for Confederation. Apart from George Brown, who articulated the Confederation pact as a key historic moment, the legislative debates reflect an attitude that Confederation would come about in a sequential process responsive to circumstances.

History As Progress

Members of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly held a typically 19th-century view of history as the unfolding of progress. Continue reading

Confederation comes at a cost: Indigenous peoples and the ongoing reality of colonialism in Canada

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

By Gabrielle Slowey

In 2015 Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, declared: “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.”[1] Why did he point this out? The reality remains that Canada and Canadians are not respectful of our relations with Indigenous peoples. As such, the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples (termed “Indians” in 1865 — but a relationship that would also extend to and include Inuit and Métis) at present remains “unreconciled.”

A Land of Many Sovereign Nations

Today Canadians are on a journey to reconciliation because in the 1860s the Fathers of Confederation had no regard for the rights or interests of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (what most of us call Canada). What is most striking, though not surprising, is the absence of Indigenous peoples (and perspectives) from the debates in the Canadian Parliament in 1865. At that time, Indigenous people comprised many sovereign nations, all of which had very different political, economic, and social structures. They were self-governing, with sophisticated land and resource management regimes. There were multiple Indigenous nations spread across the country, some having already negotiated “peace and friendship treaties.” In the 1860s, the Indigenous peoples in the Prairies, much of British Columbia, and the North still dominated the local economies, and maintained their access to buffalo, fish, and fur-bearing animals. This access would diminish after Confederation. Continue reading

Gender and the Confederation debates

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

By Kathryn McPherson

The participants in the 1865 Confederation debates were divided by ethnicity, region, political opinion, and religion, but they shared class privilege, a racial identity we would now call “white,” and gender. They were all men.

This latter shared identity would not come as a surprise to feminist historians. The political revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries may have eradicated (or eroded) the patriarchal authority of monarchs, but in turn invested political power in male heads of households — populist patriarchs who as fathers and sons united to exclude female participation from the body politic.[1] In the Canadas, Bettina Bradbury has shown, property-owning women struggled for and lost their voting rights in 1830s and 1840s Montreal.[2] Such processes helped consolidate the stark division between public and private that characterized 19th-century industrial societies. Elite women may have wielded considerable influence on the perspectives of husbands and sons — Gail Cuthbert Brandt argued such was the case in the 1864 Charlottetown negotiations leading up to Confederation — but influence in the social and personal realms did not translate into political power.[3] As the 1865 Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly debates reveal, deciding the political future of British North America was an all-male affair. Is, then, gender a useful category of analysis for understanding the political dialogue of 1865? Continue reading

A workingman watches

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

By Craig Heron

Tabernacle! Finally they’re gone. Pity the poor caretaker! I’ve had to wait for these windbags to finish their speeches almost every night for six weeks before I could close up the Parliament Building. So, night after night, I’ve sat waiting and listening. Grab that broom and give me a hand to clean up all their mess, and I’ll tell you about what’s been going on.

So many speeches, hour after hour. All about trying to pull together the colonies to make a new country, a “new nationality,” as some of them like to call it. I must admit that a few of them really know how to pitch an idea. That D’Arcy McGee can win a few hearts. But most of them didn’t make much impact on this workingman. It’s pretty clear that they don’t care about those of us who earn our bread by the sweat of our brow anyway. Not one of them talked about how working people would benefit from this new “Confederation.” Continue reading

The nature of Confederation

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

By Sean Kheraj

Nature mattered to Confederation.[1] In the minds of many of the legislators from the Province of Canada in 1865, the union of the colonies of British North America was providential and evident in the natural environment. The land, minerals, forests, waters, and animals of the territories of British North America served as evidence of a geographic logic to the movement for Confederation. While the legislators’ rhetoric was often exaggerated and overly deterministic, nature itself was one of the primary points of argument in the debates over Confederation in 1865, and it shaped the constitutional resolutions and vision for the future Dominion of Canada. Continue reading

“Canada was … just like a farmer”: Confederation from the perspective of agrarian society

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

By Colin M Coates

“Canada was, in fact, just like a farmer,” stated Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché, premier of the Province of Canada, in opening the debate on the Confederation agreement in the Legislative Council in 1865.(2) His simile underlined how access to ice-free ports in the Maritimes could link the products of central Canada to external markets, just as a farmer needed roads to transport goods to market. The homey character of the metaphor would have made sense to his audience. Christopher Dunkin, a critic of the proposed Confederation from Brome, Canada East, employed a similar agrarian metaphor in expressing his fear that “the provincial constituencies, legislatures and executives will all show a most calf-like appetite for the milking of this one most magnificent government cow.”(92)

Although Dunkin’s and Taché’s fellow members of the Assembly were primarily small-town lawyers and businessmen, they lived in an overwhelmingly agrarian world. The agrarian nature of Canada was latent in their discussions. They did not foresee its eventual decline in preponderance, nor did many of them feel the need to emphasize it. Still, in recognizing that the laws relating to property could not be standardized throughout the new country, John A. Macdonald articulated this fact: “the agricultural class … form the great body of the people.”(21) Continue reading

Canadian Confederation and democracy

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

By Dennis Pilon

In over a thousand pages of the original Confederation debates very little was said about democracy, and what did appear was almost entirely negative.[1] In 1865 politicians across the spectrum were united in their disdain for anything claiming to be “democratic,” with only a few Rouges in Canada East prepared to offer it some grudging and highly qualified consideration. What does emerge from the scant references to democracy in the debates is that the politicians themselves in this period did not have a clear idea just what democracy was or would amount to in concrete terms.

For some, democracy was what the United States had, and in their view it had led to chaos, “mob rule,” and civil war. For others the concern was that democracy would put the uneducated and the poor in charge, resulting in larceny (i.e., a redistribution of wealth) and disorder. Still others spoke of democracy as if it were just one element in a larger governing system rather than the defining characteristic of political rule. Thus speakers would refer to the “democratic element” of the British constitution that provided electors with representation, even if such representation could not be said to have had decisive influence on what governments did. Perhaps not surprisingly, John A. Macdonald offered some of the clearest insight on democracy and why it was anathema to the Fathers of Confederation: it was seen as a threat to those with property. Continue reading

Confederation and taxation

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

By Elsbeth Heaman

Historian P.B. Waite, the authority on Confederation for a whole generation of Canadians, saw two Confederation debates rather than one. There was the maritime perspective, mentioned only glancingly by him here, which was interested in taxation; and then there was the debate in the Canadas, which was more concerned with difficulties around nationality (xli). As a consequence, Waite wrote concern for taxes out of the Canadian Confederation debates. But that’s misleading. Continue reading