The Fathers of Confederation - A Chronicle of the Birth of the Dominion
by A. H. U. Colquhoun
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[Frontispiece: The Fathers of Confederation. After a painting by Robert Harris.]


A Chronicle of the Birth of the Dominion






Copyright in all Countries subscribing to the Berne Convention







I. THE DAWN OF THE MOVEMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 II. OBSTACLES TO UNION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 III. THE EVE OF CONFEDERATION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 IV. THE HOUR AND THE MEN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30 V. THE CHARLOTTETOWN CONFERENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 VI. THE QUEBEC CONFERENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56 VII. THE RESULTS OF THE CONFERENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65 VIII. THE DEBATES OF 1865 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84 IX. ROCKS IN THE CHANNEL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97 X. 'THE BATTLE OF UNION' . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 108 XI. THE FRAMING OF THE BILL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119 XII. THE FIRST DOMINION MINISTRY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137 XIII. FROM SEA TO SEA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158 XIV. THE WORK OF THE FATHERS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 188 BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 191 INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 193



THE FATHERS OF CONFEDERATION . . . . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece After the painting by Robert Harris.

WILLIAM SMITH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . facing page 4 From a portrait in the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa.

SIR ALEXANDER T. GALT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 16 From a photograph by Topley.

GEORGE BROWN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 32 From a photograph in the possession of Mrs Freeland Barbour, Edinburgh.

SIR GEORGE CARTIER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 42 From a painting in the Chateau de Ramezay.

SIR JOHN A. MACDONALD . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 80 From the painting by A. Dickson Patterson.

SIR CHARLES TUPPER, BART. . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 116 From a photograph by Elliott and Fry, London.

ALEXANDRE ANTONIN TACHE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 166 From a photograph lent by Rev. L. Messier, St Boniface.

AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN—GEORGE BROWN ADDRESSING AN AUDIENCE OF FARMERS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . " " 180 From a colour drawing by C. W. Jefferys.




The sources of the Canadian Dominion must be sought in the period immediately following the American Revolution. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris granted independence to the Thirteen Colonies. Their vast territories, rich resources, and hardy population were lost to the British crown. From the ruins of the Empire, so it seemed for the moment, the young Republic rose. The issue of the struggle gave no indication that British power in America could ever be revived; and King George mournfully hoped that posterity would not lay at his door 'the downfall of this once respectable empire.'

But, disastrous as the war had proved, there still remained the fragments of the once mighty domain. If the treaty of peace had shorn the Empire of the Thirteen Colonies and the great region south of the Lakes, it had left unimpaired the provinces to the east and {2} north—Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Canada—while still farther north and west an unexplored continent in itself, stretching to the Pacific Ocean, was either held in the tight grip of the Hudson's Bay Company or was shortly to be won by its intrepid rival, the North-West Company of Montreal. There were not lacking men of prescience and courage who looked beyond the misfortunes of the hour, and who saw in the dominions still vested in the crown an opportunity to repair the shattered empire and restore it to a modified splendour. A general union of the colonies had been mooted before the Revolution. The idea naturally cropped up again as a means of consolidating what was left. Those who on the king's side had borne a leading part in the conflict took to heart the lesson it conveyed. Foremost among these were Lord Dorchester, whom Canada had long known as Guy Carleton, and William Smith, the Loyalist refugee from New York, who was appointed chief justice of Lower Canada. Each had special claims to be consulted on the future government of the country. During the war Dorchester's military services in preserving Canada from the invaders had been of supreme value; and his occupation {3} of New York after the peace, while he guided and protected the Loyalist emigration, had furnished a signal proof of his vigour and sagacity. William Smith belonged to a family of distinction in the old colony of New York. He possessed learning and probity. His devotion to the crown had cost him his fortune. It appears that it was with him, rather than with Dorchester, that the plan originated of uniting the British provinces under a central government. The two were close friends and had gone to England together. They came out to Quebec in company, the one as governor-general, the other as chief justice. The period of confusion, when constructive measures were on foot, suggested to them the need of some general authority which would ensure unity of administration.

And so, in October 1789, when Grenville, the secretary of state, sent to Dorchester the draft of the measure passed in 1791 to divide Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada, and invited such observations as 'experience and local knowledge may suggest,' Dorchester wrote:

I have to submit to the wisdom of His Majesty's councils, whether it may not be {4} advisable to establish a general government for His Majesty's dominions upon this continent, as well as a governor-general, whereby the united exertions of His Majesty's North American Provinces may more effectually be directed to the general interest and to the preservation of the unity of the Empire. I inclose a copy of a letter from the Chief Justice, with some additional clauses upon this subject prepared by him at my request.

The letter referred to made a plea for a comprehensive plan bringing all the provinces together, rather than a scheme to perpetuate local divisions. It reflected the hopes of the Loyalists then and of their descendants at a later day. In William Smith's view it was an imperfect system of government, not the policy of the mother country, that had brought on the Revolution. There are few historical documents relating to Canada which possess as much human interest as the reminiscent letter of the old chief justice, with its melancholy recital of former mistakes, its reminder that Britons going beyond the seas would inevitably carry with them their instinct for liberal government, and its striking prophecy {5} that 'the new nation' about to be created would prove a source of strength to Great Britain. Many a year was to elapse before the prophecy should come true. This was due less to the indifference of statesmen than to the inherent difficulties of devising a workable plan. William Smith's idea of confederation was a central legislative body, in addition to the provincial legislatures, this legislative body to consist of a council nominated by the crown and of a general assembly. The members of the assembly were to be chosen by the elective branches of the provincial legislatures. No law should be effective until it passed in the assembly 'by such and so many voices as will make it the Act of the majority of the Provinces.' The central body must meet at least once every two years, and could sit for seven years unless sooner dissolved. There were provisions for maintaining the authority of the crown and the Imperial parliament over all legislation. The bill, however, made no attempt to limit the powers of the local legislatures and to reserve certain subjects to the general assembly. It would have brought forth, as drafted, but a crude instrument of government. The outline of the measure revealed the honest {6} enthusiasm of the Loyalists for unity, but as a constitution for half a continent, remote and unsettled, it was too slight in texture and would have certainly broken down. Grenville replied at length to Dorchester's other suggestions, but of the proposed general parliament he wrote this only: 'The formation of a general legislative government for all the King's provinces in America is a point which has been under consideration, but I think it liable to considerable objection.'

Thus briefly was the first definite proposal set aside. The idea, however, had taken root and never ceased to show signs of life. As time wore on, the provincial constitutions proved unsatisfactory. At each outbreak of political agitation and discontent, in one quarter or another, some one was sure to come forward with a fresh plea for intercolonial union. Nor did the entreaty always emanate from men of pronounced Loyalist convictions; it sometimes came from root-and-branch Reformers like Robert Gourlay and William Lyon Mackenzie.

The War of 1812 furnished another startling proof of the isolated and defenceless position of the provinces. The relations between Upper Canada and Lower Canada, never cordial, {7} became worse. In 1814, at the close of the war, Chief Justice Sewell of Quebec, in a correspondence with the Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria's father), disclosed a plan for a small central parliament of thirty members with subordinate legislatures.[1] Sewell was a son-in-law of Chief Justice Smith and shared his views. The duke suggested that these legislatures need be only two in number, because the Canadas should be reunited and the three Atlantic colonies placed under one government. No one heeded the suggestion. A few years intervened, and an effort was made to patch up a satisfactory arrangement between Lower Canada and Upper Canada. The two provinces quarrelled over the division of the customs revenue. When the dispute had reached a critical stage a bill was introduced in the Imperial parliament to unite them. This was in 1822. But the proposal to force two disputing neighbours to dwell together in the same house as a remedy for disagreements failed to evoke enthusiasm from either. The friends of federation then drew together, and Sewell joined hands with Bishop Strachan {8} and John Beverley Robinson of Upper Canada in reviving the plea for a wider union and in placing the arguments in its favour before the Imperial government. Brenton Halliburton, judge of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia (afterwards chief justice), wrote a pamphlet to help on the cause. The Canada union bill fell through, the revenue dispute being settled on another basis, but the discussion of federation proceeded.

To this period belongs the support given to the project by William Lyon Mackenzie. Writing in 1824 to Mr Canning, he believed that

a union of all the colonies, with a government suitably poised and modelled, so as to have under its eye the resources of our whole territory and having the means in its power to administer impartial justice in all its bounds, to no one part at the expense of another, would require few boons from Britain, and would advance her interests much more in a few years than the bare right of possession of a barren, uncultivated wilderness of lake and forest, with some three or four inhabitants to the square mile, can do in centuries.

{9} Here we have the whole picture drawn in a few strokes. Mackenzie had vision and brilliancy. If he had given himself wholly to this task, posterity would have passed a verdict upon his career different from that now accepted. As late as in 1833 he declared: 'I have long desired to see a conference assembled at Quebec, consisting of delegates freely elected by the people of the six northern colonies, to express to England the opinion of the whole body on matters of great general interest.' But instead of pursuing this idea he threw himself into the mad project of armed rebellion, and the fruits of that folly were unfavourable for a long time to the dreams of federation. Lord Durham came. He found 'the leading minds of the various colonies strongly and generally inclined to a scheme that would elevate their countries into something like a national existence.' Such a scheme, he rightly argued, would not weaken the connection with the Empire, and the closing passages of his Report are memorable for the insight and statesmanship with which the solid advantages of union are discussed. If Lord Durham erred, it was in advocating the immediate union of the two Canadas as the first necessary step, and in announcing as one of his objects {10} the assimilation to the prevailing British type in Canada of the French-Canadian race, a thing which, as events proved, was neither possible nor necessary.

Many of the advocates of union, never blessed with much confidence in their cause, were made timid by this point of Durham's reasoning. His arguments, which were intended to urge the advantages of a complete reform in the system and machinery of government, produced for a time a contrary effect. Governments might propose and parliaments might discuss resolutions of an academic kind, while eloquent men with voice and pen sought to rouse the imaginations of the people. But for twenty years after the union of the Canadas in 1841 federation remained little more than a noble aspiration. The statesmen who wielded power looked over the field and sighed that the time had not yet come.

[1] It has been said that Attorney-General Uniacke of Nova Scotia submitted, in 1809, a measure for a general union, but of this there does not appear to be any authentic record.




The prospect was indeed one to dismay the most ardent patriot. After the passage of the Constitutional Act of 1791 the trend of events had set steadily in the direction of separation. Nature had placed physical obstacles in the road to union, and man did his best to render the task of overcoming them as hopeless as possible. The land communication between the Maritime Provinces and Canada, such as it was, precluded effective intercourse. In winter there could be no access by the St Lawrence, so that Canada's winter port was in the United States. As late as 1850 it took ten days, often longer, for a letter to go from Halifax to Toronto. Previous to 1867 there were but two telegraph lines connecting Halifax with Canada. Messages by wire were a luxury, the rate between Quebec and Toronto being seventy-five cents for ten words and eight cents for each additional word. Neither commerce nor friendship could {12} be much developed by telegraph in those days, and, as the rates were based on the distance, a telegram sent from Upper Canada to Nova Scotia was a costly affair. To reach the Red River Settlement, the nucleus of Manitoba, the Canadian travelled through the United States. With the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia the East had practically no dealings. Down to 1863, as Sir Richard Cartwright once said,[1] there existed for the average Canadian no North-West. A great lone land there was, and a few men in parliament looked forward to its ultimate acquisition, but popular opinion regarded it vaguely as something dim and distant. In course of time railways came, but they were not interprovincial and they did nothing to bind the East to the West. The railway service of early days is not to be confounded with the rapid trains of to-day, when a traveller leaves Montreal after ten in the morning and finds himself in Toronto before six o'clock in the afternoon. Said Cartwright, in the address already cited:

Even in our own territory, and it was a matter not to be disregarded, the state {13} of communication was exceedingly slow and imperfect. Practically the city of Quebec was almost as far from Toronto in those days, during a great part of the year, as Ottawa is from Vancouver to-day. I can remember, myself, on one occasion being on a train which took four days to make its way from Prescott to Ottawa.

Each province had its own constitution, its tariff, postage laws, and currency. It promoted its own interests, regardless of the existence of its British neighbours. Differences arose, says one writer, between their codes of law, their public institutions, and their commercial regulations.[2] Provincial misunderstandings, that should have been avoided, seriously retarded the building of the Inter-colonial Railway. 'The very currencies differ,' said Lord Carnarvon in the House of Lords. 'In Canada the pound or the dollar are legal tender. In Nova Scotia, the Peruvian, Mexican, Columbian dollars are all legal; in New Brunswick, British and American coins are recognized by law, though I believe that the shilling is taken at twenty-four cents, which is less than its value; in Newfoundland, {14} Peruvian, Mexican, Columbian, old Spanish dollars, are all equally legal; whilst in Prince Edward's Island the complexity of currencies and of their relative value is even greater.' When the Reciprocity Treaty was negotiated at Washington in 1854, Nova Scotia felt, with some reason, that she had not been adequately consulted in the granting to foreign fishermen of her inshore fisheries. In a word, the chief political forces were centrifugal, not centripetal. All the jealousy, the factious spirit, and the prejudice, which petty local sovereignties are bound to engender, flourished apace; and the general effect was to develop what European statesmen of a certain period termed Particularism. The marvel is not that federation lagged, but that men with vision and courage, forced to view these depressing conditions at close range, were able to keep the idea alive.

There was some advance in public opinion between 1850 and 1860, but, on the whole, adverse influences prevailed and little was achieved. The effects of separate political development and of divided interest were deeply rooted. Leaders of opinion in the various provinces, and even men of the same province, refused to join hands for any great national purpose. Party conflict absorbed {15} their best energies. To this period, however, belongs the spadework which laid the foundations of the future structure. The British American League held its various meetings and adopted its resolutions. But the League was mainly a party counterblast to the Annexation Manifesto of 1849 and soon disappeared. To this period, too, belong the writings of able advocates of union like P. S. Hamilton of Halifax and J. C. Tache of Quebec, whose treatises possess even to-day more than historical value. Another notable contribution to the subject was the lecture by Alexander Morris entitled Nova Britannia, first delivered at Montreal in 1858 and afterwards published. Yet such propaganda aroused no perceptible enthusiasm. In Great Britain the whole question of colonial relations was in process of evolution, while her statesmen were doubtful, as ours were, of what the ultimate end would be. That a full conception of colonial self-government had not yet dawned is shown by these words, written in 1852 by Earl Grey to Lord John Russell: 'It is obvious that if the colonies are not to become independent states, some kind of authority must be exercised by the Government at home.'

This decade, however, witnessed some {16} definite political action. In 1854 Johnston, the Conservative Opposition leader in the Nova Scotia legislature, presented a motion in these terms: 'Resolved, That the union or confederation of the British Provinces on just principles, while calculated to perpetuate their connection with the parent state, will promote their advancement, increase their strength and influence, and elevate their position.' This resolution, academic in form, but supported in a well-balanced and powerful speech by the mover, drew from Joseph Howe, then leader of the government, his preference for representation in the British House of Commons. The attitude of Howe, then and afterwards, should be examined with impartiality, because he and other British Americans, as well as some English statesmen, were the victims of the honest doubts which command respect but block the way to action. Johnston, as prime minister in 1857, pressed his policy upon the Imperial government, but met with no response. When Howe returned to power, he carried a motion which declared for a conference to promote either the union of the Maritime Provinces or a general federation, but expressing no preference for either. Howe never was pledged to federation as his fixed {17} policy, as so many persons have asserted. He made various declarations which betokened uncertainty. So little had the efforts put forth down to 1861 impressed the official mind that Lord Mulgrave, the governor of Nova Scotia, in forwarding Howe's motion to the Colonial Office, wrote: 'As an abstract question the union of the North American colonies has long received the support of many persons of weight and ability, but so far as I am aware, no political mode of carrying out this union has ever been proposed.'

The most encouraging step taken at this time, and the most far-reaching in its consequences, was the action of Alexander Galt in Canada. Galt possessed a strong and independent mind. The youngest son of John Galt, the Scottish novelist, he had come across the ocean in the service of the British American Land Company, and had settled at Sherbrooke in the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada. Though personally influential and respected, he wielded no general political authority, for he lacked the aptitude for compromise demanded in the game of party. He was the outspoken champion of Protestant interests in the Catholic part of Canada, and had boldly declared for the annexation of Canada to the {18} United States in the agitation of 1849. His views on clericalism he never greatly modified, but annexation to the United States he abandoned, with characteristic candour, for federation. In 1858 he advocated a federal union of all the provinces in a telling speech in parliament, which revealed a thorough knowledge of the material resources of the country, afterwards issued in book form in his Canada: 1849 to 1859. During the ministerial crisis of August 1858 Sir Edmund Head asked Galt to form a government. He declined, and indicated George Cartier as a fit and proper person to do so. The former Conservative Cabinet, with some changes, then resumed office, and Galt himself, exacting a pledge that Confederation should form part of the government's policy, assumed the portfolio of Finance. The pledge was kept in the speech of the governor-general closing the session, and in October of that year Cartier, with two of his colleagues, Galt and Ross, visited London to secure approval for a meeting of provincial delegates on union. Galt's course had forced the question out of the sphere of speculation. A careful student of the period[3] argues with point {19} that to Galt we owe the introduction of the policy into practical politics. In the light of after events this view cannot be lightly set aside. But the effort bore no fruit for the moment. The colonial secretary, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, declined to authorize the conference without first consulting the other provinces, and the government did not feel itself bound because of this to resign or consult the constituencies. In other words, the question did not involve the fate of the Cabinet. But Galt had gained a great advantage. He had enlisted the support of Cartier, whose influence in Lower Canada was henceforth exerted with fidelity to win over the French to a policy which they had long resisted. The cause attained additional strength in 1860 by the action of two other statesmen, George Brown and John A. Macdonald, who between them commanded the confidence of Upper Canada, the one as Liberal, the other as Conservative leader. Brown brought before parliament resolutions embodying the decisions of the Reform Convention of 1859 in favour of a federation confined to the Canadas, and Macdonald declared unequivocally for federative union as a principle, arguing that a strong central government should be the chief aim. {20} Brown's resolutions were rejected, and the movement so auspiciously begun once more exhibited an ominous tendency to subside. The varying fortunes which attended the cause during these years resembled its previous vicissitudes. It appeared as if all were for a party and none were for the state. If those who witnessed the events of 1860 had been asked for their opinion, they would probably have declared that the problem was as far from solution as ever. Yet they would have been mistaken, as the near future was to show. A great war was close at hand, and, as war so often does, it stimulated movements and policies which otherwise might have lain dormant. The situation which arose out of the Civil War in the United States neither created nor carried Confederation, but it resulted, through a sense of common danger, in bringing the British provinces together and in giving full play to all the forces that were making for their union.

[1] Address to Canadian Club, Ottawa, 1906.

[2] Union of the Colonies, by P. S. Hamilton, Halifax, 1864.

[3] See the chapter, 'Parties and Politics, 1840-1867,' by J. L. Morison, in Canada and its Provinces, vol. v.




A day of loftier ideas and greater issues in all the provinces was about to dawn. The ablest politicians had been prone to wrangle like washerwomen over a tub, colouring the parliamentary debates by personal rivalry and narrow aims, while measures of first-rate importance went unheeded. The change did not occur in the twinkling of an eye, for the cherished habits of two generations were not to be discarded so quickly. Goldwin Smith asserted[1] that, whoever laid claim to the parentage of Confederation, the real parent was Deadlock. But this was the critic, not the historian, who spoke. The causes lay far deeper than in the breakdown of party government in Canada. Events of profound significance were about to change an atmosphere overladen with partisanship and to strike the imaginations of men.


The first factor in the national awakening was the call of the great western domain. British Americans began to realize that they were the heirs of a rich and noble possession. The idea was not entirely new. The fur traders had indeed long tried to keep secret the truth as to the fertility of the plains; but men who had been born or had lived in the West were now settled in the East. They had stories to tell, and their testimony was emphatic. In 1856 the Imperial authorities had intimated to Canada that, as the licence of the Hudson's Bay Company to an exclusive trade in certain regions would expire in 1859, it was intended to appoint a select committee of the British House of Commons to investigate the existing situation in those territories and to report upon their future status; and Canada had sent Chief Justice Draper to London as her commissioner to watch the proceedings, to give evidence, and to submit to his government any proposals that might be made. Simultaneously a select committee of the Canadian Assembly sat to hear evidence and to report a basis for legislation. Canada boldly claimed that her western boundary was the Pacific ocean, and this prospect had long encouraged men like George Brown to look {23} forward to extension westward, and to advocate it, as one solution of Upper Canada's political grievances. It was a vision calculated to rouse the adventurous spirit of the British race in colonizing and in developing vast and unknown lands. Another wonderful page was about to open in the history of British expansion. And, hand in hand with romance, went the desire for dominion and commerce.

But if the call of the West drew men partly by its material attractions, another event, of a wholly different sort, appealed vividly to their sentiment. In 1860 the young Prince of Wales visited the provinces as the representative of his mother, the beloved Queen Victoria. His tour resembled a triumphal progress. It evoked feelings and revived memories which the young prince himself, pleasing though his personality was, could not have done. It was the first clear revelation of the intensity of that attachment to the traditions and institutions of the Empire which in our own day has so vitally affected the relations of the self-governing states to the mother country. In a letter from Ottawa[2] to Lord Palmerston, {24} the Duke of Newcastle, the prince's tutor, wrote:

I never saw in any part of England such extensive or beautiful outward demonstrations of respect and affection, either to the Queen or to any private object of local interest, as I have seen in every one of these colonies, and, what is more important, there have been circumstances attending all these displays which have marked their sincerity and proved that neither curiosity nor self-interest were the only or the ruling influences.

Of all the events, however, that startled the British provinces out of the self-absorbed contemplation of their own little affairs, the Civil War in the United States exerted the most immediate influence. It not only brought close the menace of a war between Great Britain and the Republic, with Canada as the battle-ground, but it forced a complete readjustment of our commercial relations. Not less important, the attitude of the Imperial government toward Confederation underwent a change. It was D'Arcy McGee who perceived, at the very outset, the probable {25} bearing of the Civil War upon the future of Canada. 'I said in the House during the session of 1861,' he subsequently declared, 'that the first gun fired at Fort Sumter had a message for us.' The situation became plainer when the Trent Affair embroiled Great Britain directly with the North, and the safety of Canada appeared to be threatened. While Lincoln was anxiously pondering the British demand that the Confederate agents, Mason and Slidell, removed by an American warship from the British steamer the Trent, should be given up, and Lord Lyons was labouring to preserve peace, the fate of Canada hung in the balance. The agents were released, but there followed ten years of unfriendly relations between Great Britain and the United States. There were murmurs that when the South was subdued the trained armies of the North would be turned against the British provinces. The termination of the Reciprocity Treaty, which provided for a large measure of free trade between the two countries, was seen to be reasonably sure. The treaty had existed through a period which favoured a large increase in the exports of the provinces. The Crimean War at first and the Civil War later had created an unparalleled demand for the food products {26} which Canada could supply; and although the records showed the enhanced trade to be mutually profitable, with a balance rather in favour of the United States, the anti-British feeling in the Republic was directed against the treaty. Thus military defence and the necessity of finding new markets became two pressing problems for Canada.

From the Imperial authorities there came now at last distinct encouragement. Hitherto they had hung back. The era of economic dogma in regard to free trade, to some minds more authoritative than Holy Writ, was at its height. Even Cobden was censured because, in the French treaty of 1861, he had departed from the free trade theory. The doctrine of laissez-faire, carried to extremes, meant that the colonies should be allowed to cut adrift. But the practical English mind saw the sense and statesmanship of a British American union, and the tone of the colonial secretary changed. In July 1862 the Duke of Newcastle, who then held that office and who did not share the indifference of so many of his predecessors[3] to the colonial connection, wrote sympathetically to Lord Mulgrave, the governor of Nova Scotia:


If a union, either partial or complete, should hereafter be proposed with the concurrence of all the Provinces to be united, I am sure that the matter would be weighed in this country both by the public, by Parliament, and by Her Majesty's Government, with no other feeling than an anxiety to discern and promote any course which might be the most conducive to the prosperity, the strength and the harmony of all the British communities in North America.

Nova Scotia, always to the front on the question, had declared for either a general union or a union of the Maritime Provinces, and this had drawn the dispatch of the Duke of Newcastle. A copy of this dispatch was sent to Lord Monck, the governor-general of Canada, for his information and guidance, so that the attitude of the Imperial authorities was generally known. It remained for the various provincial Cabinets to confer and to arrange a course of action. The omens pointed to union in the near future. But, as it happened, a new Canadian ministry, that of Sandfield Macdonald, had shortly before assumed office, and its members were in no wise pledged to the {28} union project. In fact, as was proved later, several of them, notably the prime minister himself, with Dorion, Holton, and Huntington, regarded federation with suspicion and were its consistent opponents until the final accomplishment.

The negotiations for the joint construction of an intercolonial railway had been proceeding for some time. These the ministry continued, but without enthusiasm. The building of this line had been ardently promoted for years. It was the necessary link to bind the provinces together. To secure Imperial financial aid in one form or another delegates had more than once gone to London. The Duke of Newcastle had announced in April 1862 that the nature and extent of the guarantee which Her Majesty's government would recommend to parliament depended upon the arrangements which the provinces themselves had to propose.[4] There was a conference in Quebec. From Nova Scotia came Howe and Annand, who two years later fought Confederation; from New Brunswick came Tilley and Peter Mitchell, who carried the cause to victory in their province. Delegates from the Quebec meeting {29} went to London, but the railway plan broke down, and the failure was due to Canada. The episode left a bad impression in the minds of the maritime statesmen, and during the whole of 1863 it seemed as if union were indefinitely postponed. Yet this was the very eve of Confederation, and forces already in motion made it inevitable.

[1] Canada and the Canadian Question, by Goldwin Smith, p. 143.

[2] Life of Henry Pelham, fifth Duke of Newcastle, by John Martineau, p. 292.

[3] Between 1852 and 1870 there were thirteen colonial secretaries.

[4] Dispatch of the colonial secretary to the lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick.




The acceptance of federation in the province of Canada came about with dramatic simplicity. Political deadlock was the occasion, rather than the cause, of this acceptance. Racial and religious differences had bred strife and disunion, but no principle of any substance divided the parties. The absence of large issues had encouraged a senseless rivalry between individuals. Surveying the scene not long after, Goldwin Smith, fresh from English conditions, cynically quoted the proverb: 'the smaller the pit, the fiercer the rats.' The upper and lower branches of parliament were elective, and in both bodies the ablest men in the country held seats. In those days commerce, manufacturing, or banking did not, as they do now, withhold men of marked talent from public affairs. But personal antipathies, magnified into feuds, embittered the relations of men who naturally held many views in {31} common, and distracted the politics of a province which needed nothing so much as peace and unity of action.

The central figures in this storm of controversy were George Brown and John A. Macdonald, easily the first personages in their respective parties. The two were antipathetic. Their dispositions were as wide asunder as the poles. Brown was serious, bold, and masterful. Macdonald concealed unrivalled powers in statecraft and in the leadership of men behind a droll humour and convivial habits. From the first they had been political antagonists. But the differences were more than political. Neither liked nor trusted the other. Brown bore a grudge for past attacks reflecting upon his integrity, while Macdonald, despite his experience in the warfare of party, must often have winced at the epithets of the Globe, Brown's newspaper. During ten years they were not on speaking terms. But when they joined to effect a great object, dear to both, a truce was declared. 'We acted together,' wrote Macdonald long after of Brown, 'dined in public places together, played euchre in crossing the Atlantic and went into society in England together. And yet on the day after he resigned we resumed our old positions {32} and ceased to speak.'[1] To imagine that of all men those two should combine to carry federation seemed the wildest and most improbable dream. Yet that is what actually happened.

In June 1864, during the session of parliament in Quebec, government by party collapsed. In the previous three years there had been two general elections, and four Cabinets had gone to pieces. And while the politicians wrangled, the popular mind, swayed by influences stronger than party interest, convinced itself that the remedy lay in the federal system. Brown felt that Upper Canada looked to him for relief; and as early as in 1862 he had conveyed private intimation to his Conservative opponents that if they would ensure Upper Canada's just preponderance in parliamentary representation, which at that date the Liberal ministry of Sandfield Macdonald refused to do, they would receive his countenance and approval. In 1864 he moved for a select committee of nineteen members to consider the prospects of federal union. It sat with closed doors. A few hours before the defeat of the Tache-Macdonald ministry in {33} June, he, the chairman of the committee, reported to the House that

a strong feeling was found to exist among the members of the committee in favour of changes in the direction of a federative system, applied either to Canada alone, or to the whole British North American provinces, and such progress has been made as to warrant the committee in recommending that the subject be referred to a committee at the next session of Parliament.

Three years later, on the first Dominion Day, the Globe,[2] in discussing this committee and its work, declared that 'a very free interchange of opinion took place. In the course of the discussions it appeared probable that a union of parties might be effected for the purpose of grappling with the constitutional difficulties.' Macdonald voted against the committee's report. Brown was thoroughly in earnest, and the desperate nature of the political situation gave him an opportunity to prove his sincerity and his unselfishness.


On the evening of Tuesday, June 14, 1864, immediately after the defeat of the ministry on an unimportant question, Brown spoke to two Conservative members and promised to co-operate with any government that would settle the constitutional difficulty. These members, Alexander Morris and John Henry Pope, were on friendly terms with him and became serviceable intermediaries. They were asked to communicate this promise to Macdonald and to Galt. The next day saw the reconciliation of the two leaders who had been estranged for ten years. They met 'standing in the centre of the Assembly Room' (the formal memorandum is meticulously exact in these and other particulars), that is, neither member crossing to that side of the House led by the other. Macdonald spoke first, mentioning the overtures made and asking if Brown had any 'objection' to meet Galt and himself. Brown replied, 'Certainly not.' Morris arranged an interview, and the following day Macdonald and Galt called upon Brown at the St Louis Hotel, Quebec. Negotiations, ending in the famous coalition, began.

The memorandum read to the House related in detail every step taken to bring about the coalition, from the opening conversation {35} which Brown had with Morris and Pope. It was proper that a full explanation should be given to the public of a political event so extraordinary and so unexpected. But the narrative of minute particulars indicates the complete lack of confidence existing between the parties to the agreement. The relationships of social life rest upon the belief that there is a code of honour, affecting words and actions, which is binding upon gentlemen. The memorandum appeared to assume that in political life these considerations did not exist, and that unless the whole of the proceedings were set forth in chronological order, and with amplitude of detail, some of the group would seek to repudiate the explanation on one point or another, while the general public would disbelieve them all. To such a pass had the extremes of partyism brought the leading men in parliament. If, however, the memorandum is a very human document, it is also historically most interesting and important. The leaders began by solemnly assuring each other that nothing but 'the extreme urgency of the present crisis' could justify their meeting together for common political action. The idea that the paramount interests of the nation, threatened by possible invasion and by {36} commercial disturbance, would be ground for such a junction of forces does not seem to have suggested itself. After the preliminary skirmishing upon matters of party concern the negotiators at last settled down to business.

Mr Brown asked what the Government proposed as a remedy for the injustice complained of by Upper Canada, and as a settlement of the sectional trouble. Mr Macdonald and Mr Galt replied that their remedy was a Federal Union of all the British North American Provinces; local matters being committed to local bodies, and matters common to all to a General Legislature.[3]

Mr Brown rejoined that this would not be acceptable to the people of Upper Canada as a remedy for existing evils. That he believed that federation of all the provinces ought to come, and would come about ere long, but it had not yet been thoroughly considered by the people; and even were this otherwise, there were {37} so many parties to be consulted that its adoption was uncertain and remote.

Mr Brown was then asked what his remedy was, when he stated that the measure acceptable to Upper Canada would be Parliamentary Reform, based on population, without regard to a separating line between Upper and Lower Canada. To this both Mr Macdonald and Mr Galt stated that it was impossible for them to accede, or for any Government to carry such a measure, and that, unless a basis could be found on the federation principle suggested by the report of Mr Brown's committee, it did not appear to them likely that anything could be settled.

At this stage, then, Brown thought federation should be limited to Canada, believing the larger scheme uncertain and remote, while the others preferred a federal union for all the provinces. At a later meeting Cartier joined the gathering and a confidential statement was drawn up (the disinclination to take one another's word being still a lively sentiment), so that Brown could consult his friends. The ministerial promise in its final terms was as follows:


The Government are prepared to pledge themselves to bring in a measure next session for the purpose of removing existing difficulties by introducing the federal principle into Canada, coupled with such provisions as will permit the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory to be incorporated into the same system of government. And the Government will seek, by sending representatives to the Lower Provinces and to England, to secure the assent of those interests which are beyond the control of our own legislation to such a measure as may enable all British North America to be united under a General Legislature based upon the federal principle.

This basis gave satisfaction all round, and the proceedings relapsed into the purely political diplomacy which forms the least pleasant phase of what was otherwise a highly patriotic episode, creditable in its results to all concerned. Brown fought hard for a representation of four Liberals in the Cabinet, preferring to remain out of it himself, and, when his inclusion was deemed indispensable, offering to join as a minister without portfolio or salary. {39} Finally Macdonald promised to confer with him upon the personnel of the Conservative element in the Cabinet, so that the incoming Liberals would meet colleagues with whom harmonious relations should be ensured. The fates ordained that, since Brown had been the first to propose the sacrifice of party to country, the arrangement arrived at was the least advantageous to his interests. He had the satisfaction of feeling that the Upper Canada Liberals in the House supported his action, but those from Lower Canada, both English and French, were entirely unsympathetic. The Lower Canada section of the ministry accordingly remained wholly Conservative.

It does not require much depth of political experience to realize the embarrassment of Brown's position. The terms were not easy for him. In a ministry of twelve members he and two colleagues would be the only Liberals. The leadership of Upper Canada, and in fact the real premiership, because Tache was frail and past his prime, would rest with Macdonald. The presidency of the Executive Council, which was offered him, unless joined to the office of prime minister, was of no real importance. Some party friends throughout the country {40} would misunderstand, and more would scoff. He had parted company with his loyal personal friends Dorion and Holton. If, as Disraeli said, England does not love coalitions, neither does Canada. For the time being, and, as events proved, for a considerable time, the Liberal party would be divided and helpless, because the pledge of Brown pledged also the fighting strength of the party. Although the union issue dwarfed all others, questions would arise, awkward questions like that of patronage, old questions with a new face, on which there had been vehement differences. For two of his new colleagues, Macdonald and Galt, Brown entertained feelings far from cordial. Cautious advisers like Alexander Mackenzie and Oliver Mowat counselled against a coalition, suggesting that the party should support the government, but should not take a share in it. All this had to be weighed and a decision reached quickly. But Brown had put his hand to the plough and would not turn back. With the dash and determination that distinguished him, he accepted the proposal, became president of the Executive Council, with Sir Etienne Tache as prime minister, and selected William McDougall and Oliver Mowat as his Liberal colleagues. Amazement and {41} consternation ran like wildfire throughout Upper Canada when the news arrived from Quebec that Brown and Macdonald were members of the same government. At the outset Brown had feared that 'the public mind would be shocked,' and he was not wrong. But the sober second thought of the country in both parties applauded the act, and the desire for union found free vent. Posterity has endorsed the course taken by Brown and justly honours his memory for having, at the critical hour and on terms that would have made the ordinary politician quail, rendered Confederation possible. There is evidence that the Conservative members of the coalition played the game fairly and redeemed their promise to put union in the forefront of their policy. On this issue complete concord reigned in the Cabinet. The natural divergences of opinion on minor points in the scheme were arranged without internal discord. This was fortunate, because grave obstacles were soon to be encountered.

If George Brown of Upper Canada was the hero of the hour, George Cartier of Lower Canada played a role equally courageous and honourable. The hostile forces to be encountered by the French-Canadian leader were {42} formidable. Able men of his own race, like Dorion, Letellier, and Fournier, prepared to fight tooth and nail. The Rouges, as the Liberals there were termed, opposed him to a man. The idea of British American union had in the past been almost invariably put forward as a means of destroying the influence of the French. Influential representatives, too, of the English minority in Lower Canada, like Dunkin, Holton, and Huntington, opposed it. Joly de Lotbiniere, the French Protestant, warned the Catholics and the French that federation would endanger their rights. The Rouge resistance was not a passive parliamentary resistance only, because, later on, the earnest protests of the dissentients were carried to the foot of the throne. But all these influences the intrepid Cartier faced undismayed; and Brown, in announcing his intention to enter the coalition, paid a warm tribute to Cartier for his frank and manly attitude. This was the burial of another hatchet, and the amusing incident related by Cartwright illustrates how it was received.

In that memorable afternoon when Mr Brown, not without emotion, made his {43} statement to a hushed and expectant House, and declared that he was about to ally himself with Sir George Cartier and his friends, for the purpose of carrying out Confederation, I saw an excitable, elderly little French member rush across the floor, climb up on Mr Brown, who, as you remember, was of a stature approaching the gigantic, fling his arms about his neck, and hang several seconds there suspended, to the visible consternation of Mr Brown and to the infinite joy of all beholders, pit, box, and gallery included.

At last statesmanship had taken the place of party bickering, and, as James Ferrier of Montreal, a member of the Legislative Council, remarked in the debates of 1865, the legislators 'all thought, in fact, that a political millennium had arrived.'

[1] Memoirs of Sir John Macdonald, by Sir Joseph Pope, vol. i, p. 265.

[2] This portion of the lengthy survey of the new Dominion in the Globe of July 1, 1867, is said to have been written by George Brown himself.

[3] Sir Joseph Pope states that in the printed copy of this memorandum which Sir John Macdonald preserved there appears, immediately following the word 'Legislature' at the end of this paragraph, in the handwriting of Mr Brown, these words: 'Constituted on the well-understood principles of federal gov.'




Not an instant too soon had unity come in Canada. The coalition ministry, having adjourned parliament, found itself faced with a situation in the Maritime Provinces which called for speedy action.

Nova Scotia, the ancient province by the sea, discouraged by the vacillation of Canada in relation to federation and the construction of the Intercolonial Railway, was bent upon joining forces with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The proposal was in the nature of a reunion, for, when constitutional government had been first set up in Nova Scotia in 1758, the British possessions along the Atlantic coast, save Newfoundland, were all governed as one province from Halifax. But the policy in early days of splitting up the colonies into smaller areas, for convenience of administration, was here faithfully carried out. In 1770 a separate government was conferred {45} upon Prince Edward Island. In 1784 New Brunswick was formed. In the same year the island of Cape Breton was given a governor and council of its own. Cape Breton was reunited to the parent colony of Nova Scotia in 1820, but three separate provinces remained, each developing apart from the others, thus complicating and making more difficult the whole problem of union when men with foresight and boldness essayed to solve it. Nova Scotia had kept alive the tradition of leadership. The province which has supplied three prime ministers to the Canadian Dominion never lacked statesmen with the imagination to perceive the advantages which would flow from the consolidation of British power in America.

In 1864, a few weeks before George Brown in the Canadian House had moved for his select committee on federal union, Dr Charles Tupper proposed, in the legislature of Nova Scotia, a legislative union of the Maritime Provinces. The seal of Imperial authority had been set upon this movement by the dispatch, already quoted, from the Duke of Newcastle to Lord Mulgrave in 1862.

A word concerning the services of Charles Tupper to the cause of union will be in order here. None of the Fathers of Confederation {46} fought a more strenuous battle. None faced political obstacles of so overwhelming a character. None evinced a more unselfish patriotism. The overturn of Tilley in New Brunswick, of which we shall hear presently, was a misfortune quickly repaired. The junction of Brown, Cartier, and Macdonald in Canada ensured for them comparatively plain sailing. But the Nova Scotian leader was pitted against a redoubtable foe in Joseph Howe; for five years he faced an angry and rebellious province; he gallantly gave up his place in the first Dominion ministry in order that another might have it; and at every turn he displayed those qualities of pluck, endurance, and dexterity which compel admiration. The Tuppers were of Puritan stock.[1] The future prime minister, a practising physician, had scored his first political victory at the age of thirty-four by defeating Howe in Cumberland county. Throughout his long and notable career, a superabundance of energy, and a characteristic which may be defined in a favourable sense as audacity, never failed him.


When the motion was presented to appoint delegates to a conference at Charlottetown, to consider a legislative union for the three maritime provinces, the skies were serene. The idea met with a general, if rather languid, approval. There was not even a flavour of partisanship about the proceedings, and the delegates were impartially selected from both sides. The great Howe regarded the project with a benignant eye. At this time he was the Imperial fishery commissioner, and it was his duty to inspect the deep-sea fishing grounds each summer in a vessel of the Imperial Navy. He was invited to go to Charlottetown as a delegate, and declined in the following terms:

I am sorry for many reasons to be compelled to decline participation in the conference at Charlottetown. The season is so far advanced that I find my summer's work would be so seriously deranged by the visit to Prince Edward Island that, without permission from the Foreign Office, I would scarcely be justified in consulting my own feelings at the expense of the public service. I shall be home in October, and will be very happy to co-operate in {48} carrying out any measure upon which the conference shall agree.

A more striking evidence of his mood at this juncture is afforded by a speech which he delivered at Halifax in August, when a party of visitors from Canada were being entertained at dinner.

I am not one of those who thank God that I am a Nova Scotian merely, for I am a Canadian as well. I have never thought I was a Nova Scotian, but I have looked across the broad continent as the great territory which the Almighty has given us for an inheritance, and studied the mode by which it could be consolidated, the mode by which it could be united, the mode by which it could be made strong and vigorous while the old flag still floats over the soil.[2]

In the time close at hand Howe was to find these words quoted against him. Meanwhile they were a sure warrant for peace and harmony.

In addressing the Assembly Tupper stated that his visit to Canada during the previous {49} year had convinced him that for some time the larger union was impracticable. He had found in Upper Canada a disinclination to unite with the Maritime Provinces because, from their identity of interest and geographical position, they would strengthen Lower Canada. Lower Canada was equally averse from union through fear that it would increase the English influence in a common legislature. Tupper favoured the larger scheme, and looked forward to its future realization, which would be helped, not hindered, by the union of the Maritime Provinces as a first step. Other speakers openly declared for a general union, and consented to the Charlottetown gathering as a convenient preliminary. The resolution passed without a division; and, though the members expressed a variety of opinion on details, there was no hint of a coming storm.

The conference opened at Charlottetown on September 1, the following delegates being present: from Nova Scotia, Charles Tupper, William A. Henry, Robert B. Dickey, Jonathan McCully, Adams G. Archibald; from New Brunswick, S. L. Tilley, John M. Johnston, John Hamilton Gray, Edward B. Chandler, W. H. Steeves; from Prince Edward Island, J. H. Gray, Edward Palmer, W. H. Pope, {50} George Coles, A. A. Macdonald. Newfoundland, having no part in the movement, sent no representatives. Meanwhile Lord Monck, at the request of his ministers, had communicated with the lieutenant-governors asking that a delegation of the Canadian Cabinet might attend the meeting and lay their own plans before it. This was readily accorded. The visitors from Canada arrived from Quebec by steamer. They were George Brown, John A. Macdonald, Alexander T. Galt, George E. Cartier, Hector L. Langevin, William McDougall, D'Arcy McGee, and Alexander Campbell. No official report of the proceedings ever appeared. It is improbable that any exists, but we know from many subsequent references nearly everything of importance that took place. On the arrival of the Canadians they were invited to address the convention at once. The delegates from the Maritime Provinces took the ground that their own plan might, if adopted, be a bar to the larger proposal, and accordingly suggested that the visitors should be heard first. The Canadians, however, saw no reason to fear the smaller union. They believed that Confederation would gain if the three provinces by the sea could be treated as a single unit. {51} But, being requested to state their case, they naturally had no hesitation in doing so. During the previous two months the members of the coalition must have applied themselves diligently to all the chief points in the project. It may be supposed that Galt, Brown, and Macdonald made a strong impression at Charlottetown. They spoke respectively on the finance, the general parliament, and the constitutional structure of the proposed federation. These subjects contained the germs of nearly all the difficulties. When the delegates reassembled a month later at Quebec, it is clear, from the allusions made in the scanty reports that have come down to us, that the leading phases of the question had already been frankly debated.

Having heard the proposals of Canada, the delegates of the Maritime Provinces met separately to debate the question that had brought them together. Obstacles at once arose. Only Nova Scotia was found to be in favour of the smaller union. New Brunswick was doubtful, and Prince Edward Island positively refused to give up her own legislature and executive. The federation project involved no such sacrifice; and, as Aaron's rod swallowed up all the others, the dazzling prospects held out by Canada eclipsed the other proposal, since they {52} provided a strong central government without destroying the identity of the component parts. The conference decided to adjourn to Halifax, where, at the public dinner given to the visitors, Macdonald made the formal announcement that the delegates were unanimous in thinking that a federal union could be effected. The members, however, kept the secrets of the convention with some skill. The speeches at Halifax, and later on at St John, whither the party repaired, abounded in glowing passages descriptive of future expansion, but were sparing of intimate detail. A passage in Brown's speech at Halifax created favourable comment on both sides of the ocean.

In these colonies as heretofore governed [he said] we have enjoyed great advantages under the protecting shield of the mother country. We have had no army or navy to sustain, no foreign diplomacy to sustain,—our whole resources have gone to our internal improvement,—and notwithstanding our occasional strifes with the Colonial Office, we have enjoyed a degree of self-government and generous consideration such as no colonies in ancient or modern history ever enjoyed at the hands of a {53} parent state. Is it any wonder that thoughtful men should hesitate to countenance a step that might change the happy and advantageous relations we have occupied towards the mother country? I am persuaded there never was a moment in the history of these colonies when the hearts of our people were so firmly attached to the parent state by the ties of gratitude and affection as at this moment, and for one I hesitate not to say that did this movement for colonial union endanger the connection that has so long and so happily existed, it would have my firm opposition.

These and other utterances, equally forceful and appealing directly to the pride and ambition of the country, were not without effect in moulding public opinion. The tour was a campaign of education. By avoiding the constitutional issues the delegates gave little information which could afford carping critics an opportunity to assail the movement prematurely. It is true, some sarcastic comments were made upon the manner in which the Canadians had walked into the convention and taken possession. At the Halifax dinner the governor of Nova Scotia, Sir Richard Graves {54} Macdonnell, dropped an ironical remark on the 'disinterested' course of Canada, which plainly betrayed his own attitude. But the gathering was, in the main, highly successful and augured well for the movement.

The Charlottetown Conference was therefore an essential part of the proceedings which culminated at Quebec. The ground had been broken. The leaders in the various provinces had formed ties of intimacy and friendship and favourably impressed each other. At this time were laid the foundations of the alliance between Macdonald and Tilley, the Liberal leader in New Brunswick, which made it possible to construct the first federal ministry on a non-party basis and which enlisted in the national service a devoted and trustworthy public man. Tilley's career had few blemishes from its beginning to its end. He was a direct descendant of John Tilley, one of the English emigrants to Massachusetts in the Mayflower, and a great-grandson of Samuel Tilley, one of the Loyalists who removed to New Brunswick after the War of Independence. He had been drawn into politics against his wishes by the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens. A nominating convention at which he was not present had selected him for {55} the legislature, and his first election had taken place during his absence from the country. Yet he had risen to be prime minister of his province; and his was the guiding hand which brought New Brunswick into the union. His defeat at first and the speedy reversal of the verdict against Confederation form one of the most diverting episodes in the history of the movement.

The ominous feature of the Charlottetown Conference was the absence of Joseph Howe, the most popular leader in Nova Scotia. This was one of the accidents which so often disturb the calculations of statesmen. When the delegates resumed their labours at Quebec he was in Newfoundland, and he returned home to find that a plan had been agreed upon without his aid. From him, as well as from the governors of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the cause of federation was to receive its next serious check.

[1] See Recollections of Sixty Years in Canada, p. 2. The original Tupper in America came out from England in 1635. Sir Charles Tupper's great-grandfather migrated from Connecticut to Nova Scotia in 1763.

[2] The Speeches and Public Letters of Joseph Howe, edited by J. A. Chisholm, vol. ii, p. 433. Halifax, 1909.




The Quebec Conference began its sessions on the 10th of October 1864. It was now the task of the delegates to challenge and overcome the separatist tendencies that had dominated British America since the dismemberment of the Empire eighty years before. They were to prove that a new nationality could be created, which should retain intact the connection with the mother country. For an event of such historic importance no better setting could have been chosen than the Ancient Capital, with its striking situation and its hallowed memories of bygone days. The delegates were practical and experienced men of affairs, but they lacked neither poetic and imaginative sense nor knowledge of the past; and it may well be that their labours were inspired and their deliberations influenced by the historic associations of the place.

The gathering was remarkable for the varied {57} talents and forceful character of its principal members. And here it may be noted that the constitution was not chiefly the product of legal minds. Brown, Tilley, Galt, Tupper, and others who shared largely in the work of construction were not lawyers. The conference represented fairly the different interests and occupations of a young country. It is to be recorded, too, that the conclusions reached were criticized as the product of men in a hurry. Edward Goff Penny, editor of the Montreal Herald, a keen critic, and afterwards a senator, complained that the actual working period of the conference was limited to fourteen days. Joseph Howe poured scorn upon Ottawa as the capital, stating that he preferred London, the seat of empire, where there were preserved 'the archives of a nationality not created in a fortnight.' Still more vigorous were the protests against the secrecy of the discussions. A number of distinguished journalists, including several English correspondents who had come across the ocean to write about the Civil War, were in Quebec, and they were disposed to find fault with the precautions taken to guard against publicity. The following memorial was presented to the delegates:


The undersigned, representatives of English and Canadian newspapers, find that it would be impossible for them satisfactorily to discharge their duties if an injunction of secrecy be imposed on the conference and stringently carried into effect. They, therefore, beg leave to suggest whether, while the remarks of individual members of your body are kept secret, the propositions made and the treatment they meet with, might not advantageously be made public, and whether such a course would not best accord with the real interests committed to the conference. Such a kind of compromise between absolute secrecy and unlimited publicity is usually, we believe, observed in cases where an European congress holds the peace of the world and the fate of nations in its hands. And we have thought that the British American Conference might perhaps consider the precedent not inapplicable to the present case. Such a course would have the further advantage of preventing ill-founded and mischievous rumours regarding the proceedings from obtaining currency.[1]

{59} This ingenious appeal was signed by S. Phillips Day, of the London Morning Herald, by Charles Lindsey of the Toronto Leader, and by Brown Chamberlain of the Montreal Gazette. Among the other writers of distinction in attendance were George Augustus Sala of the London Daily Telegraph, Charles Mackay of The Times, Livesy of Punch, and George Brega of the New York Herald. But the conference stood firm, and the impatient correspondents were denied even the mournful satisfaction of brief daily protocols. They were forced to be content with overhearing the burst of cheering from the delegates when Macdonald's motion proposing federation was unanimously adopted. The reasons for maintaining strict secrecy were thus stated by John Hamilton Gray,[2] a delegate from New Brunswick, who afterwards became the historian of the Confederation movement:

After much consideration it was determined, as in Prince Edward Island, that the convention should hold its {60} deliberations with closed doors. In addition to the reasons which had governed the convention at Charlottetown, it was further urged, that the views of individual members, after a first expression, might be changed by the discussion of new points, differing essentially from the ordinary current of subjects that came under their consideration in the more limited range of the Provincial Legislatures; and it was held that no man ought to be prejudiced, or be liable to the charge in public that he had on some other occasion advocated this or that doctrine, or this or that principle, inconsistent with the one that might then be deemed best, in view of the future union to be adopted.... Liberals and Conservatives had there met to determine what was best for the future guidance of half a continent, not to fight old party battles, or stand by old party cries, and candour was sought for more than mere personal triumph. The conclusion arrived at, it is thought, was judicious. It ensured the utmost freedom of debate; the more so, inasmuch as the result would be in no way binding upon those whose interests were to be affected until and unless adopted after the {61} greatest publicity and the fullest public discussions.

That the conference decided wisely admits of no doubt. The provincial secretaries of the several provinces were appointed joint secretaries, and Hewitt Bernard, chief clerk of the department of the attorney-general for Upper Canada, was named executive secretary. In his longhand notes, found among the papers of Sir John Macdonald, and made public thirty years later by Sir Joseph Pope, we have the only official record of the resolutions and debates of the conference. Posterity has reason to be grateful for even this limited revelation of the proceedings from day to day. It enables us to form an idea of the difficulties overcome and of the currents of opinion which combined to give the measure its final shape. No student of Canadian constitutional history will leave unread a single note thus fortunately preserved. The various draft motions, we are told by Sir Joseph Pope, are nearly all in the handwriting of those who moved them, and it was evidently the intention to prepare a complete record. The conference was, however, much hurried at the close. When it began, Sir Etienne Tache, prime minister of Canada, was {62} unanimously elected chairman.[3] Each province was given one vote, except that Canada, as consisting of two divisions, was allowed two votes. After the vote on any motion was put, the delegates of a province might retire for consultation among themselves. The conference sat as if in committee of the whole, so as to permit of free discussion and suggestion. The resolutions, having been passed in committee of the whole, were to be reconsidered and carried as if parliament were sitting with the speaker in the chair.

The first motion, which was offered by Macdonald and seconded by Tilley, read: That the {63} best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America will be promoted by a federal union under the crown of Great Britain, provided such union can be effected on principles just to the several provinces. This motion, general in its terms, asserted the principle which the conference had met to decide. It passed unanimously amid much enthusiasm. To support it, one may think, involved no serious responsibility, since any province could at a later stage raise objections to any methods proposed in carrying out the principle. But to secure the hearty and unanimous acceptance of a federal union, as the basis on which the provinces were ready to coalesce, was really to submit the whole issue to the crucial test. {64} Macdonald's motion reflects, in its careful and comprehensive phrasing, the skill in parliamentary tactics of which he had, during many years, displayed so complete a mastery. To commit the conference at the outset to endorsement of the general principle was to render subsequent objection on some detail, however important, extremely difficult for earnest and broad-minded patriots. The two small provinces might withdraw from the scheme, as they subsequently did, but the larger provinces, led by men of the calibre of Tupper and Tilley, would feel that any subsequent obstacle must be of gigantic proportions if it could not be overcome by statesmanship. After cheerfully taking this momentous step, which irresistibly drove them on to the next, the conference proceeded to discuss Brown's motion proposing the form the federation was to assume. There was to be a general government dealing with matters common to all, and in each province a local government having control of local matters. The second motion was likewise unanimously concurred in. Having, as it were, planted two feet firmly on the ground, the conference was now in a good position to stand firmly against divergences of view, provincial rivalries, and extreme demands.

[1] Pope's Confederation Documents.

[2] There were two delegates named John Hamilton Gray, one whose views are quoted here, the other the prime minister of Prince Edward Island. Only one volume of Gray's work on Confederation ever appeared, the second volume, it is said, being unfinished when the author died in British Columbia.

[3] A list of the delegates, who are now styled the Fathers of Confederation, follows:

From Canada, twelve delegates—SIR ETIENNE P. TACHE, receiver-general and minister of Militia; JOHN A. MACDONALD, attorney-general for Upper Canada; GEORGE E. CARTIER, attorney-general for Lower Canada; GEORGE BROWN, president of the Executive Council; OLIVER MOWAT, postmaster-general; ALEXANDER T. GALT, minister of Finance; WILLIAM McDOUGALL, provincial secretary; T. D'ARCY McGEE, minister of Agriculture; ALEXANDER CAMPBELL, commissioner of Crown Lands; J. C. CHAPAIS, commissioner of Public Works; HECTOR L. LANGEVIN, solicitor-general for Lower Canada; JAMES COCKBURN, solicitor-general for Upper Canada.

From Nova Scotia, five delegates—CHARLES TUPPER, provincial secretary; WILLIAM A. HENRY, attorney-general; R. B. DICKEY, member of the Legislative Council; JONATHAN McCULLY, member of the Legislative Council; ADAMS G. ARCHIBALD, member of the Legislative Assembly.

From New Brunswick, seven delegates—SAMUEL LEONARD TILLEY, provincial secretary; WILLIAM H. STEEVES, minister without portfolio; J. M. JOHNSTON, attorney-general; PETER MITCHELL, minister without portfolio; E. B. CHANDLER, member of the Legislative Council; JOHN HAMILTON GRAY, member of the Legislative Assembly; CHARLES FISHER, member of the Legislative Assembly.

From Prince Edward Island, seven delegates—COLONEL JOHN HAMILTON GRAY, president of the Council; EDWARD PALMER, attorney-general; WILLIAM H. POPE, colonial secretary; A. A. MACDONALD, member of the Legislative Council; GEORGE COLES, member of the Legislative Assembly; T. HEATH HAVILAND, member of the Legislative Assembly; EDWARD WHELAN, member of the Legislative Assembly.

From Newfoundland, two delegates—F. B. T. CARTER, speaker of the Legislative Assembly; AMBROSE SHEA.




The constitution which the founders of the Dominion devised was the first of its kind on a great scale within the Empire. No English precedents therefore existed. Yet their chief aim was to preserve the connection with Great Britain, and to perpetuate in North America the institutions and principles which the mother of parliaments, during her splendid history, had bequeathed to the world. The Fathers could look to Switzerland, to New Zealand, to the American Republic, and to those experiments and proposals in ancient or modern times which seemed to present features to imitate or examples to avoid.[1] But they were guided, perforce, by the special conditions with which they had to deal. If they had been free to make a perfect contribution to the science of government, the constitution might have been {66} different. It is, of course, true of all existing federations that they were determined largely by the relations and circumstances of the combining states. This is illustrated by comparing the Canadian constitution with those of the two most notable unions which followed. Unlike Canada, Australia preferred to leave the residue of powers to the individual states, while South Africa adopted a legislative instead of a federal union. For Canada, a legislative union was impracticable. This was due partly to the racial solidarity of the French, but even more largely to the fully developed individualism of each province. It is to the glory of the Fathers of Confederation that the constitution, mainly constructed by themselves as the product of their own experience and reflection, has lasted without substantial change for nearly half a century. They were forced to deal with conditions which they had not created, yet could not ignore—conditions which had long perplexed both Imperial and colonial statesmen, and had rendered government ineffective if not impossible. They found the remedy; and the result is seen in the powerful and thriving nationality which their labours evolved.

To set up a strong central government was {67} the desire of many of the delegates. Macdonald, as has been recorded already, had contended for this in 1861. He argued to the same effect at the conference. The Civil War in the United States, just concluded, had revealed in startling fashion the dangers arising from an exaggerated state sovereignty. 'We must,' he said, 'reverse this process by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.' When Chandler of New Brunswick perceived with acuteness that in effect this would mean legislative union, Macdonald, as we gather from the fragmentary notes of his speech, made an impassioned appeal for a carefully defined central authority.

I think [he declared] the whole affair would fail and the system be a failure if we adopted Mr Chandler's views. We should concentrate the power in the federal government and not adopt the decentralization of the United States. Mr Chandler would give sovereign power to the local legislatures, just where the United States failed. Canada would be infinitely stronger as she is than under such a system {68} as proposed by Mr Chandler. It is said that the tariff is one of the causes of difficulty in the United States. So it would be with us. Looking at the agricultural interests of Upper Canada, manufacturing of Lower Canada, and maritime interests of the lower provinces, in respect to a tariff, a federal government would be a mediator. No general feeling of patriotism exists in the United States. In occasions of difficulty each man sticks to his individual state. Mr Stephens, the present vice-president [of the Confederacy], was a strong union man, yet, when the time came, he went with his state. Similarly we should stick to our province and not be British Americans. It would be introducing a source of radical weakness. It would ruin us in the eyes of the civilized world. All writers point out the errors of the United States. All the feelings prognosticated by Tocqueville are shown to be fulfilled.

These and other arguments prevailed. Several of the most influential delegates were in theory in favour of legislative union, and these were anxious to create, as the best alternative, a general parliament wielding {69} paramount authority. This object was attained by means of three important clauses in the new constitution: one enumerating the powers of the federal and provincial bodies respectively and assigning the undefined residue to the federal parliament; another conferring upon the federal ministry the right to dismiss for cause the lieutenant-governors; and another declaring that any provincial law might, within one year, be disallowed by the central body. Instead of a loosely knit federation, therefore, which might have fallen to pieces at the first serious strain, it was resolved to bring the central legislature into close contact at many points with the individual citizen, and thus raise the new state to the dignity of a nation.

How the designs of the Fathers have been modified by the course of events is well known. The federal power has been restrained from undue encroachment on provincial rights by the decisions, on various issues, of the highest court, the judicial committee of the Imperial Privy Council. The power to dismiss lieutenant-governors was found to be fraught with danger and has been rarely exercised. The dismissal of Letellier, a strong Liberal, from the lieutenant-governorship of Quebec by the {70} Conservative ministry at Ottawa in 1879, gave rise to some uneasiness and criticism. The reason assigned was that his 'usefulness was gone,' since both houses of parliament had passed resolutions calling for his removal. He was accused of partisanship towards his ministers. The federal prime minister, Sir John Macdonald, assented reluctantly, it is said, to the dismissal. But some of the facts are still obscure. The status of the office and the causes that would warrant removal were thus given by Macdonald at Quebec, according to the imperfect report which has come down to us:

The office must necessarily be during pleasure. The person may break down, misbehave, etc.... The lieutenant-governor will be a very high officer. He should be independent of the federal government, except as to removal for cause, and it is necessary that he should not be removable by any new political party. It would destroy his independence. He should only be removable upon an address from the legislature.

The power of disallowance, the third expedient for curbing the provinces, was exercised with {71} some freedom down to 1888. In that year a Quebec measure, the Jesuits' Estates Act, with a highly controversial preamble calculated to provoke a war of creeds, was not disallowed, although protests were carried past parliament to the governor-general personally. The incident directed attention to the previous practice at Ottawa under both parties and a new era of non-intervention was inaugurated. Disallowance is now rare, except where Imperial interests are affected, and never occurs on the ground of the policy or impolicy of the measure. The provinces, as a matter of practice, are free within their limits to legislate as they please. But the Dominion as a self-governing state has long passed the stage where the clashing of provincial and federal jurisdictions could shake the constitution.

When the conference, however, considered provincial powers it went to the root of a federal system. The maritime delegates as a whole displayed magnanimity and statesmanship. Brown, as the champion of Upper Canada, was concerned to see that the interests of his own province were amply secured. He held radical views. When he spoke, the calm surface of the conference, where a moderate and essentially conservative {72} constitutionalism sat entrenched, may have been ruffled. The following is from the summary which has been preserved of one of his speeches:[2]

As to local governments, we desire in Upper Canada that they should not be expensive, and should not take up political matters. We ought not to have two electoral bodies. Only one body, members to be elected once in every three years. Should have whole legislative power—subject to lieutenant-governor. I would have lieutenant-governors appointed by general government. It would thus bring these bodies into harmony with the general government. In Upper Canada executive officers would be attorney-general, treasurer, secretary, commissioner of crown lands and commissioner of public works. These would form the council of the lieutenant-governor. I would give lieutenant-governors veto without advice, but under certain vote he should be obliged to assent. During recess lieutenant-governor could have power to suspend executive officers. They might be elected for three years or {73} otherwise. You might safely allow county councils to appoint other officers than those they do now. One legislative chamber for three years, no power of dissolution, elected on one day in each third year. Departmental officers to be elected during pleasure or for three years. To be allowed to speak but not to vote.

A more suggestive extract than this cannot be found in the discussion. From the astonished Cartier the ejaculation came, 'I entirely differ with Mr Brown. It introduces in our local bodies republican institutions.' From the brevity of the report we cannot gather the whole of Brown's meaning. Apparently his aim was a strictly businesslike administration of provincial affairs, under complete popular control, but with the executive functions as far removed from party domination as erring human nature would permit. There may be seen here points of resemblance to an American state constitution, but Brown was no more a republican than was Napoleon. He was, like Macdonald, an Imperialist who favoured the widest national expansion for Canada. The idea of a republic, either in the abstract or the concrete, had no friends in the {74} conference. Galt believed independence the proper aim for a young state, but we find him stating later: 'We were and are willing to spend our last men and our last shilling for our mother country.'[3] Many years after Confederation Sir Oliver Mowat declared independence the remote goal to keep in view. These opinions were plainly speculative. Neither statesman took any step towards carrying them out, but benevolently left them as a legacy, unencumbered by conditions, to a distant posterity.

At the conference Mowat was active to strengthen the central authority, as also was Brown. But there was general agreement, despite Brown's plea for a change, that the local governments should take the form preferred by themselves and that ministerial responsibility on the British model should prevail throughout. Upon the question of assigning the same subjects, such as agriculture, to both federal and provincial legislatures, Mowat said:

The items of agriculture and immigration should be vested in both federal and local governments. Danger often arises where there is exclusive jurisdiction and not so {75} often in cases of concurrent jurisdiction. In municipal matters the county and township council often have concurrent jurisdiction.

In the famous contests for provincial rights which he was afterwards to wage before the courts, and always successfully, Mowat was not necessarily forgetful that he himself moved for the power of disallowance over provincial laws to be given to the federal authority. With the caution and clearness of mind that governed his political course, he naturally made sure of his ground before fighting, and could thus safely break a lance with the federal government. The provincial constitutions were, therefore, left to be determined by the provinces themselves, and this freedom to modify them continues, 'except as regards the office of lieutenant-governor.' No province has yet proposed any constitutional change which could be regarded as an infringement of the inviolacy of that office, and no circumstances have arisen to throw light upon the kind of measure which would be so regarded.[4]

One more point, touching upon provincial autonomy, deserves to be noticed. In the {76} resolutions of the conference, as well as in the British North America Act, the laws passed by the local legislatures are reviewable for one year by the governor-general, not by the governor-general in council. The colonial secretary drew attention in 1876 to this distinction in the expressions used, and suggested that it was intended to place the responsibility of deciding the validity of provincial laws upon the governor-general personally. The able and convincing memoranda in reply were composed by Edward Blake, the Canadian minister of Justice. He contended that under the letter and spirit of the constitution ministers must be responsible for the governor's action. His view prevailed, and thus within ten years after Confederation the principle that the crown's representative must act only through his advisers on all Canadian matters was maintained. There was nothing in the available records in 1876 to explain why the term 'governor-general' instead of 'governor-general in council' was employed.[5] It is, {77} however, an unassailable principle that the control of the crown over the Canadian provinces can be exercised only through the federal authorities.

When the conference had accepted the outline of the federal and provincial constitutions the danger points might reasonably have been considered past. But there remained to be discussed the representation in the federal parliament and the financial terms. These were the rocks on which the ship nearly split. Representation by population in the proposed House of Commons had been agreed upon at Charlottetown; but when the Prince Edward Island delegates saw that, with sixty-five members for Lower Canada as a fixed number, the proportion assigned to the Island would be five members only, they objected. They were dismayed by the prospect, and when the financial proposals also proved unsatisfactory, their discontent foreshadowed the ultimate withdrawal of the province from the scheme. The other provinces accepted without demur the basis of representation in the new House of Commons.

The composition of the Senate, however, brought on a crisis. 'We were very near broken up,' wrote Brown in a private letter on {78} October 17, 'on the question of the distribution of members in the upper chamber of the federal legislature, but fortunately we have this morning got the matter amicably compromised, after a loss of three days in discussing it.' The difficulty seems to have been to select the members of the first Senate with due regard to party complexion, so as not to operate in Upper Canada, as Brown felt, unfairly against the Liberals. Finally, an agreement was arranged on the basis that the senators should be drawn from both parties; and this was ultimately carried out.

A far more important point, whether the second chamber should be nominated or elected, caused less debate. Macdonald opened the discussion with his usual diplomacy:

With respect to the mode of appointments to the Upper House, some of us are in favour of the elective principle. More are in favour of appointment by the crown. I will keep my own mind open on that point as if it were a new question to me altogether. At present I am in favour of appointment by the crown. While I do not admit that the elective principle has been a failure in Canada, I think we had {79} better return to the original principle, and in the words of Governor Simcoe endeavour to make ours 'an image and transcript of the British constitution.'

Differing on other issues, Brown and Macdonald were at one on this. They were opposed to a second set of general elections, partly because it would draw too heavily on the organizations and funds of the parties. As an instance of the stability of Brown's views, it should be remembered that he never, at any period, approved of an elective second chamber. The other Liberal ministers from Upper Canada, Mowat and McDougall, stood by the elective system, but the conference voted it down. The Quebec correspondence of the Globe at this time throws some light on the reasons for the decision: 'Judging from the tone of conversation few delegates are in favour of election. The expense of contesting a division is enormous and yearly increases. The consequence is there is great difficulty in getting fit candidates, and the tendency is to seek corrupt aid from the administration of the day. There is also fear of a collision between two houses equally representing the people. It is less important to us than to the {80} French. Why should we not then let Lower Canada, which desires to place a barrier against aggression by the west, decide the question and make her defensive powers as strong as she likes? It would be no great stretch of liberality on our part to accord it to her.' During the debates on Confederation in the Canadian Assembly, in the following year, Macdonald derided the notion that a government would ever 'overrule the independent opinion of the Upper House by filling it with a number of its partisans and political supporters.' This, however, is precisely what has taken place. The Senate is one of the few unsatisfactory creations of the Fathers of Confederation.[6]

The question of the financial terms was surrounded with difficulties. The Maritime Provinces, unlike Upper Canada, were without the municipal organization which provides for local needs by direct taxation. With them {81} the provincial government was a nursing mother and paid for everything. Out of the general revenue came the money for bridges, roads, schools, wharves, piers, and other improvements, in addition to the cost of maintaining the fiscal, postal, and other charges of the province. The revenue was raised by customs duties, sales of crown lands, royalties, or export duties. The devotion to indirect taxation, which is not absent from provinces with municipal bodies, was to them an all-absorbing passion. The Canadian delegates were unsympathetic. John Hamilton Gray describes the scene:

Agreement seemed hopeless, and on or about the tenth morning, after the convention met, the conviction was general that it must break up without coming to any conclusion. The terms of mutual concession and demand had been drawn to their extremest tension and silence was all around. At last a proposition was made that the convention should adjourn for the day, and that in the meantime the finance ministers of the several provinces should meet, discuss the matter amongst themselves, and see if they could not agree upon something.[7]

{82} On this committee were Brown and Galt acting for Canada, while the others were Tupper, Tilley, Archibald, Pope, and Shea. The scheme set forth in the resolutions was the result. It need not be detailed, but the sixty-fourth resolution, on which was centred the keenest criticism, reads as follows:

In consideration of the transfer to the general parliament of the powers of taxation, an annual grant in aid of each province shall be made, equal to 80 cents per head of the population as established by the census of 1861, the population of Newfoundland being estimated at 130,000. Such aid shall be in full settlement of all future demands upon the general government for local purposes and shall be paid half-yearly in advance to each province.

The system of provincial subsidies has often been denounced. The delegates may have thought that they had shut the door to further claims, but the finality of the arrangement was soon tested, and in 1869 Nova Scotia received better terms. There were increases in the subsidies to the provinces on several subsequent occasions, and no one believes the end has yet been reached. The growing needs of the {83} provinces and the general aversion from direct taxation furnish strong temptations to make demands upon the federal treasury.

The conference, after adopting the seventy-two resolutions embodying the basis of the union, agreed that the several governments should submit them to the respective legislatures at the ensuing session. They were to be carried en bloc, lest any change should entail a fresh conference. The delegates made a tour of Canada, visiting Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, where receptions and congratulations awaited them. Their work had been done quickly. It had now to run the gauntlet of parliamentary discussion.

[1] D'Arcy McGee published a treatise in 1865 entitled Notes on Federal Government Past and Present, presenting a useful summary of the various constitutions.

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