Revisiting the 1865 Canadian debates on Confederation: Rights and the Constitution

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

By David R. Cameron, Jacqueline D. Krikorian, and Robert C. Vipond

On February 3, 1865, the legislators of the Parliament of Canada began discussing the merits of the proposed union of the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. These debates were both framed and informed by 72 resolutions adopted at a colonial conference held in Quebec City four months earlier. Combined, the resolutions provided the basis for the proposed colonial government and effectively laid the foundation of what was to become the new nation’s first written constitution, the British North America Act, 1867.[2] The debates about the resolutions are important because they give us an insight into the nature and expectations of the proposed new government, as well as a sense of how some key colonial politicians understood the meaning of the words they were putting down on paper.

Despite Lord Sankey’s famous dictum that the Constitution was like a living tree “capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits,”[3] those drafting it in 1865 were not thinking a great deal about its future evolution. Its proposed provisions were meant to address a number of contemporary problems and challenges, and designed to provide a fixed set of rules to govern the new nation. While many of the measures that were adopted proved to be enduring and “capable of growth” over the decades, others were less fecund and less able to rise to the historic occasion. This is particularly true with rights issues. Even the judiciary’s liberal interpretations of the imperial statute have proven to be unable to address these deficiencies over time. Continue reading

Confederation as an intra-Christian pact

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

By David Koffman

From the vantage point of 2016, the Confederation debates in the Province of Canada show remarkable clarity about and commitment to the ideal of religious accommodation and liberty. At the same time, the debaters’ vision of pluralism and their policy for enshrining it was tightly narrow, and all but blind to the lengths and measures that would eventually ensure the religious pluralism Canadians now take for granted.

The debaters certainly shared a genuine interest in protecting the rights of the two dominant religious minorities, the Protestant minority in Catholic Lower Canada, and the Roman Catholic minority in Protestant Upper Canada. The debaters safeguarded these minorities constitutionally, setting the stage, in a limited fashion, for the myriad religious groupings to come. Though some statesmen voiced suspicion about how their traditions might be harmed by the pact, it was a relatively effortless achievement. Overall, the debaters viewed the compromise with a pride they felt was well earned, for they had overcome long-standing intra-Christian rivalries and achieved the mutually assured survival of Christianities. Continue reading

An example for the world? Confederation and French Canadians

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

By Marcel Martel

While debating the merits of the new constitutional agreement in 1865, supporters in the Canadian Legislative Assembly focused on the difficult challenges involved in creating the larger federation and the various benefits that the new Dominion of Canada supposedly offered to all Canadians. George Brown, who was known for his hostility toward Catholics and minority rights in general, but who was also a strong proponent of Confederation, identified clearly what was at stake and why the Fathers of Confederation ought to be congratulated for resolving their differences through dialogue and negotiations:

Here is a people composed of two distinct races, speaking different languages, with religious and social and municipal and educational institutions totally different, with sectional hostilities of such a character as to render government for many years well-nigh impossible, with a Constitution so unjust in the view of one section as to justify any resort to enforce a remedy. (36)

Although the risks were great, Brown was not modest in assessing the accomplishments of the Fathers of Confederation, as he went out of his way to point out that the final agreement came about through peaceful means while similar tasks in other parts of the world often led to violence and armed conflict:

We are striving to do peacefully and satisfactorily what Holland and Belgium after years of strife were unable to accomplish. We are seeking by calm discussion to settle questions that Austria and Hungary, that Denmark and Germany, that Russia and Poland, could only crush by the iron heel of armed force. We are seeking to do without foreign intervention that which deluged in blood the sunny plains of Italy. We are striving to settle forever issues hardly less momentous than those that have rent the neighboring republic and are now exposing it to all the horrors of civil war. (36)

By referring to other countries that had to reconcile minority and majority rights and create political structures that were respectful of various national communities, Brown and others who were inspired by him raised the bar high enough to make it difficult for opponents to ridicule what the Fathers of Confederation accomplished. At the same time, this rhetorical argument took place in the context of parliamentary debates in which proponents had to “sell” the merits of their proposal, highlight its qualities, and minimize the appeal of counterarguments. Although the audience consisted primarily of elected officials in the House, the people of Canada also had to be reassured through the press that the creation of the Dominion of Canada was the best course of action available to them at the time.

Protecting French Canadian Rights

French Canadian politicians, led by George-Étienne Cartier, and their allies, such as John A. Macdonald and Alexander Tilloch Galt in the Assembly but also the Catholic Church in Quebec, insisted upon several key points during the debates over Confederation: the creation of political institutions that, under the new constitutional arrangement, would ensure the protection of French Canadians’ rights, most notably the exercise of their religion; language guarantees (albeit limited); and the preservation of their system of civil law. For Cartier and other members in the assembly, the political package was expected to address pressing issues among both French Canadians, especially those living in Canada East, and English Canadians. The presence of two national communities created tensions that interfered with colonial governance, since it made the formation of “stable” governments that enjoyed the confidence of the House almost impossible, particularly in the 1860s. Confederation also was in many respects a visionary project. French Canadian political and business elites were asked to take part in the creation of a dominion that would soon acquire the Northwest Territories, then under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and open the region up to immigrants and native-born settlers alike.

Opponents made their voices heard, despite the congratulatory tone adopted by those who favoured Confederation. Among the strongest opponents were the Rouges, who were defined as radical liberals because of their views on the relations between the state and the Catholic Church. Their leader, Antoine-Aimé Dorion, questioned the merits of the new constitutional package. He delivered his criticisms in English and justified his conduct by the fact that the majority of elected officials did not understand French. What was the nature of the proposed confederation? Was it truly a federal union? Dorion argued that it was not. The power of disallowance that the federal government could exercise over any provincial legislation meant that “laws passed by the local legislatures and demanded by a majority of the people of that locality” would be ignored by federal authorities (66). He reminded everyone that he had been a strong advocate of a true Confederation where “all local questions could be consigned to the deliberations of local legislatures” and the central government would be dealing with issues of “general interest” (61). Also, he warned the Chamber that the union of British colonies would pave the way toward a legislative union that would be detrimental to French Canadians. For his part, Joseph-Xavier Perrault categorically stated that Confederation was “a political organization which is eminently hostile” to French Canadians (97). These criticisms of the dangers that the British North America Act, 1867 posed for French Canadians re-emerged throughout the 20th century, especially when Quebec went through its Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. These attitudes have often fuelled a call for a reorganization of Canada’s constitutional structure.

A Limited Conception of Minority Rights

The debates in the Canadian Legislative Assembly suggest that the Fathers of Confederation had a limited conception of minority rights. Can we blame them? After all, most of these politicians were part of a legal culture based on the supremacy of Parliament that afforded courts very limited scope for reviewing governmental action. In addition, it must be noted that this was the age of empire building and national affirmation. In these circumstances, the idea that minority rights should enjoy some form of constitutional recognition and protection was often ignored.

Yet, despite their backgrounds and biases, the Fathers of Confederation did address the issue of minority rights to some extent. However, power relations between the main linguistic and religious groups in the colonies at the time often shaped their discussions. When the Fathers addressed minority rights, they debated the rights of two groups in particular: French Canadians and Catholics, who formed minority communities in every British colony except Quebec. At the time, there were about one million French-speaking people in the British colonies. The vast majority, more than 85 percent of them, lived in Canada East; about 90,000 Acadians lived in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. There were about 40,000 French Canadians living in Canada West (the future province of Ontario) and 6,000 French Métis in the Prairies. There was also another linguistic group whose rights preoccupied the Fathers of Confederation: English speakers in Quebec. While anglophones formed a majority outside Quebec, their minority status within that province led their representatives to seek a measure of protection in the new constitutional order. As for other minority groups, such as Jews, Indigenous peoples, and ethnicities other than British or French, they were ignored.

The issue of minority rights was divisive. George Brown, for one, rejected any form of constitutional protection for Catholics. We should not be surprised to learn, then, that the issue of minority rights for Catholics and French-speaking people in the British colonies (save Quebec) did not monopolize the attention of politicians. Except in the future province of Quebec, where Catholics formed a majority, they were minorities in the other colonies: about 18 percent in Canada West, 20 percent in New Brunswick, and 25 percent in Nova Scotia. In Prince Edward Island, Catholics comprised about half of the population.[1] The creation of a Senate and a House of Commons and the fiscal arrangements between the federal government and the provinces assumed much greater prominence in the debates than concerns about religious minorities.

Quebec-Only Minority Rights

The debates over Confederation also suggest that the rights of French-speaking people, especially those who lived in the future province of Ontario, did not capture the attention of most MPs. How can we explain this lack of concern for them? According to historian Arthur Silver, the rights of French Canadians were not expected to go beyond the boundaries of the future province of Quebec.[2] French Canadian Fathers of Confederation were unwilling to sacrifice the autonomy and control that the future province of Quebec would have over its “local affairs” in exchange for stronger constitutional guarantees for minority groups. When Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation, was in London in 1866 to oversee the adoption of the British North America Act by the British parliament, he rejected a proposal to give control over education to the federal government in order to protect the rights of Catholics in the new dominion. For him, this was a dangerous proposal that could jeopardize French Canadians’ rights in the future province of Quebec.

In dealing with language and education, proponents of Confederation, especially French-speaking MPs, demonstrated that they understood what this new constitutional package meant, even though their understanding of minority rights was limited. Indeed, the constitutional guarantees apply to language and religion. In the British North America Act, section 133 recognizes French and English as official languages only in Quebec and federal institutions. When Acadians took part in the New Brunswick elections in 1865 and 1866, they noticed that the language provision that the Fathers of Confederation had agreed upon excluded them.[3] With regard to education, section 93 protects public and separate schools and grants minorities the right to appeal to the governor general in council if a provincial legislature restricted access to these schools or abolished them. In the case of anglophones in Quebec, they received additional protections besides language and education. Quebec’s provincial parliament initially included both a Legislative Assembly and a Legislative Council, the latter eventually abolished in 1968, and in 12 ridings, dominated by anglophones, the “boundaries could not be changed without the additional approval of a majority of their own MPPs.”[4] When the Dominion of Canada emerged in 1867, the rights granted to minorities reflected the balance of power and influence between the dominant political groups of the time: Catholics and Protestants, but also French Canadians and English Canadians.

The Limits of Constitutional Guarantees

Catholics but mostly French Canadians would discover shortly that this balance of power and influence was not favourable to those living outside Quebec. In 1871, the province of New Brunswick decided to fund only non-denominational schools. Despite protests by Acadians and Catholics, the federal government agreed not to intervene. A few years later, the government of Manitoba abolished French as an official language in the province, and cut funding to separate schools in 1890. Despite favourable court decisions, the provincial government ignored them, and the federal government, led by Wilfrid Laurier, agreed to compromise on the issue of separate schools by negotiating an agreement with the Manitoba government, which allowed religious instruction for an hour a day. Finally, in 1912, the government of Ontario limited the use of French as a language of instruction in schools. Although French Canadians in Ontario believed that section 93 protected French as a language of instruction, the courts stated otherwise. These school crises demonstrated the limitations of constitutional guarantees to minority groups and greatly influenced the discussions, started in the 1960s, that led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. While George Brown stated that the Fathers of Confederation dealt with delicate issues in 1864 at the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences and the constitutional package should be inspirational, the guarantees to minority groups failed miserably, when tested. However, for French Canadians in Quebec, the substantial powers over key institutions such as education, health, and welfare served to solidify the power and autonomy of French Canadians in Canada, and therefore largely fulfilled Cartier’s dream of protecting French Canadians in his home province.

Marcel Martel teaches Canadian history at York University and is the holder of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History.      


P.B. Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867: Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), at 117, 179, 193, and 229.

[2] Arthur I. Silver, The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation, 1864-1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).

[3] Gaétan Migneault, “Le Canada français et la Confédération : Les Acadiens du Nouveau Brunswick,” in Jean-François Caron and Marcel Martel, eds., Le Canada français et la Confédération : fondements et bilan critique (Quebéc : Presses de l’Université Laval, 2016).

[4] Silver, The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation, at 56.

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 Continue reading

Reconsidering the debates over Canadian confederation

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

By Colin Coates and Philip Girard

CW-Spring2016-01-CoatesGirard-map-webWith the 150th anniversary of Confederation approaching, it is an appropriate time to review the processes and historical contexts that framed the formation of Canada in 1867. The Canada that took shape on July 1, 1867 looked very different from the Canada that we know today. Comprising only southern Ontario and southern Quebec and the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, this new dominion accounted for less than 10 percent of the current land mass of the country. But as the essays in series show, many politicians believed fervently in the expansion of the country. They may have embraced too readily a northern version of the “manifest destiny,” however, when they assumed that the creation of a northern country from sea to sea to sea was preordained in the 1860s. Considerable opposition to the constitutional arrangement of 1867 (enshrined in the British North America Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1866) existed: at the conclusion of the debates in the Canadian legislature that this collection of essays considers, politicians voted 91 to 33 in favour of Confederation in 1865. The other British colonies negotiated their entry later (British Columbia in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, and Newfoundland and Labrador eventually in 1949), while title to other large tracts (the western prairies and the Arctic) was transferred with no consultation of the inhabitants. Some of the Métis inhabitants in the Red River region of current-day Manitoba objected to the process, and under the leadership of Louis Riel they staged a resistance that led to the entry of a small portion of southern Manitoba into Canada in 1870.

Beyond its geographical boundaries, Canada differed in many other ways from the country in 2016: it was less ethnically diverse, even though the politicians dedicated substantial efforts to bridge the chasm that was perceived to exist in the Western world at the time between Protestants and Catholics, and between English and French. The country was largely agrarian. Few Canadians lived in cities then, while the vast majority do so today. Women had a constrained political role, labour interests had little effective voice, and Indigenous peoples were defined outside of the polity, all with consequences that still require substantive attention today. Concepts and practices of democracy differed as well: to take one example from the 1867 general election, only slightly more than 5,000 voters participated in the election that returned Thomas D’Arcy McGee in the constituency of Montreal West in Canada’s largest city, and the men would have voted in public for their candidate in conditions that we would fail to recognize today as democratic. In contrast, in the 2015 election, the smallest constituency in population was Nunavut, with over 18,000 voters.

Revisiting the Debates of 1865

As one part of York University’s desire to recognize the 150th anniversary of Confederation, we convened a group of scholars to examine the same published source, the debates in the legislature of the United Canadas in 1865, and explore a series of important issues that arise from reading that document. As a result, the debates serve as a prism for examining some of the suppositions and the differences of opinion between the politicians. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Opening doors, gathering communities: Making archives active through events

By Jay Young and Krista McCracken

This post comes out of a workshop on “Active Archives” at the New Directions in Active History conference in October 2015 in London, Ontario. 

Danielle Manning, Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario, shows visitors the Archives’ exhibit area at Doors Open Toronto 2016

Danielle Manning, Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario, shows visitors the Archives of Ontario exhibit area at Doors Open Toronto 2016

Archives, as places of knowledge, sometimes have the reputation of being intimidating for the uninitiated. Outreach activities—from social media engagement to student workshops—help overcome this stereotype, and show that archives are exciting, integral repositories of collective memory.

Events are an important aspect of outreach at archives. Although the Archives of Ontario and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre have different institutional histories and collections scopes, both archives show that events can be a great way to connect with the general public or specific communities.

* * * * *

The Archives of Ontario, the provincial archive of Ontario, was established in 1903. The second largest archive in Canada, its mission is to collect, preserve, promote and facilitate access to Ontario’s documentary memory. The Archives’ modern public facility is located on the campus of York University in Toronto.

Doors Open Toronto is a key annual event in the Archives’ outreach calendar. Over the past six years, hundreds of visitors—many of whom are experiencing the Archives for the very first time—come through the doors to see why the Archives is a dynamic and important place. Continue reading

History Slam Episode Eighty-Seven: Enron

By Sean Graham

enronA couple of years ago, the National Arts Centre produced Enron, a show that documented one of the most infamous corporate bankruptcies in recent memory. While I don’t remember much of the plot, I do remember that it was about 45 minutes too long and that there was some really weird symbolism with actors wearing dinosaur heads. Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of the production, but some in the crowd gave it a standing ovation – a reaction I attributed to the show being a rather scathing indictment of Enron and its leadership.

Like all dramatizations, though, Enron certainly took some creative liberties (I’m fairly confident there weren’t any dinosaurs at the actual company) and the real story is much more nuanced. What started as an energy company slowly expanded to include derivatives and other complex financial products. Of course, there was some actual fraud going on, but there were also some ideas that, at the time, seemed innovative and unique. Through the 1990s, Enron’s model was taught in a lot of business schools as a pinnacle of modern business practices. That was until the fall of 2001, when everything came crashing down.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with Gavin Benke of Boston University about his research on Enron. We chat about the company’s origins, how an energy company got involved in complex financial management, and Enron’s relationship with 1990s culture. We also talk about how 9/11 influenced public perception of the company and George W. Bush’s place in the story.

Continue reading

In Conversation: Teaching and Learning Canada’s First World War

By Sarah Glassford and Ruby Madigan


During the winter 2014 semester, we (the authors) experienced HIST 309A “Canada and the First World War” from opposite sides of the teaching-and-learning equation. Sarah was teaching the course, offered by the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) Department of History, while Ruby was a student taking the course as an elective.

We came at the course from very different angles: Sarah pursued a traditional “straight-through” path from high school through undergraduate and graduate education to the professoriate; Ruby followed a more circuitous route, returning to university as a mature student. Sarah was a single working woman; Ruby was a wife and mother of a young child, attending school full-time. Sarah was a Canadian citizen teaching Canadian history she had learned within Canada; Ruby was an American citizen, now encountering the Canadian version of the First World War for the first time.

We talked outside of class about many things, including the fact that we were uniquely positioned to think together about what it means to teach and learn the history of Canada’s First World War in the early twenty-first century. This post is the product of several conversations and a more formal Q&A email exchange over the two years since the class ended. We draw no broad conclusions, but hope to spark further conversations about what and how we teach, and how that teaching is received and experienced by students.

Continue reading

Slow Scholarship as Political Action: The Culture of Speed and the Challenge of Inclusion within the Academy

By Beth A. Robertson

It is June, when it might be presumed that the business of academic life is winding down as students, faculty and staff ready themselves for summer vacation. This is simply not the case, however. I write this piece in between meetings, grant applications, research, writing commitments, and numerous looming deadlines. And I am by no means the only one, if only judging from my twitter feed.

"Busy Academics" Twitter Feed (June 2016)

“Busy Academics” Twitter Feed (June 2016)

Although this could all be chalked up to the nature of scholarly life, the speed within which many historians and other academics work may not be so innocuous. By recognizing this, I am by no means articulating a new idea.

In late May, Sean Graham interviewed one of the people who are helping raise concerns about this trend towards speed during episode 85 of ActiveHistory’s History Slam Podcast. Alison Mountz is one of a growing number of academics who are beginning to argue for “slow scholarship”. In a 2015 article, Mountz and eleven other co-authors discuss the “acceleration of time in which we are expected to do more and more.”[1] Whether it be publishing, teaching, grant writing, administration or simply the pressure “to stay on constant alert through demands of social media,” academic life is increasingly being shaped by a mounting number of tasks through which we are deemed productive, or not. This, the authors argue is “part of the ongoing restructuring of the neoliberal university,” that includes “reduced state funding, increased contingent labour and the elimination of programs,” – a phenomena which others have also written of both within and beyond academia.[2] Continue reading

The (im)possibility of raceless equality: blacks as workers and thieves in the Big Hole experience

510rTYM-RuL._UY250_By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the third post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]

South Africa and its universities have been working for over two decades to eliminate racism from their midst and become metaphoric rainbows of inclusion and equality. This project faces serious challenges from various quarters, some unexpected.

Briefly imagine, if you will, growing up in a conservative Afrikaner family and community. Though apartheid had ended a dozen years before, you encounter few black South Africans in your daily existence. There are no black students or teachers at the Afrikaans school you attend, just as there are no black congregants or priests in the Dutch Reformed Church which has such an important impact on how you see the world. You have no black neighbours in the gated, suburban community you live in. Those blacks who do appear in your life have peripheral, and subordinate, roles—they clean your house and tend your mother’s garden. Outside the home, they perform similar functions. You have never been explicitly told blacks are inferior or can and should only have a secondary place in society, but nor have you ever been told blacks are equal.

Now imagine entering university, even a traditionally conservative and Afrikaner one like the University of Pretoria (UP), and suddenly being confronted with the reality that blacks are, in fact, your equals. Indeed, they might even be in positions of power over you and be able to control your future. The experience, according to then Dean of Education at UP, Jonathan Jansen, is jarring, to say the least. In his auto-biographical work, Knowledge in the blood: Confronting race and the apartheid past, Jansen credits this kind of culture shock, and the normalization of blacks as subordinate that lies behind it, as being at the root of South Africa’s and South African universities’ difficult journey toward “transformation,” a journey punctuated by physically and non-physically violent incidents of racial (i.e., anti-black) hatred. Continue reading