Canada as a country was born on July 1st 1867 when five formerly independent provinces joined together into one nation. Canada was born not only out of a need for defense against aggressive American Manifest Destiny, but also out of a vision of a free and democratic country that would be a beacon of hope for people around the world. Canada was born as an experiment in human governance, mixing the best parts of the British parliamentary system with the best parts of American liberty. Canada was born with a purpose from the dream of one willful man, Sir John A. MacDonald, and that purpose was that Canada would be a land free from oppression and war, genocides and religious persecution, hunger and poverty. Canada was created, from the outset, to be a land for people.
On that day in 1867, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia officially signed the Articles of Confederation in Charlottetown, PEI. Queen Victoria gave her Royal Assent and the Federal Dominion of Canada was created.
For years before Confederation, the five provinces had each been separate semi-autonomous dominions of the British Empire. Each had its own tariffs and taxes, each printed its own money and each had its own culture and, in the case of Quebec, language. Trade between the provinces was a complicated matter, with duties and tariffs and taxes differing from border to border. Each province raised its own police and militias and each was dependent on the Crown government, far away in London, for protection and guidance.
As the industrial revolution geared up, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia became bigger bases of economic activity. Their goods, however, had to travel through a myriad of provincial regulations and taxes in order to go from the factory to the marketplace. Banks faced equally difficult obstacles in trying to do business across the region. For instance, if a merchant from Montreal wanted to bring new products from a Halifax factory to markets in Toronto, he would need to secure financing from a bank in Halifax AND a bank in Toronto so that the bank in Halifax would be satisfied their loan was guaranteed. However, the loans from Halifax fell under different tax and regulations than the loan in Toronto would, creating a near impossible situation for the Montreal merchant. As a result, while trade in the United States boomed, trade in the dominion provinces of Canada stagnated.
Another problem facing the separate dominions was the constant threat of American invasion. For Canada in the 19th Century America was the real bogeyman of the world. America had tried to invade twice before, the first time during the Revolution when George Washington was defeated at the gates of Quebec, and the second time in 1812 when American armies burned Toronto to the ground and besieged Quebec for a second time. During the Irish potato famine, as waves of Irish immigrants flooded into America, US-backed Irish “Fenians” constantly raided across the border in all of the provinces, burning farms and looting townships and causing havoc. Canadian militias were engaged in constant skirmishes with these Fenians for nearly twenty years.
By the time of the American Civil War, tensions between the Canadian provinces and the United States government were at an all-time high.
In addition to US aggression were tales of brutality in the southern states coming up with escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. The US massacre of the Indians horrified moderate Canadians. Indeed, hostilities between the Americans and the Canadians were present from the very founding of America, when waves of Empire Loyalists, refugees who had been beaten and robbed and murdered at the hands of mobs in their American cities, settled in Upper Canada and vowed to keep their new home free from such brutality.
While the need for trade and the need for defense from an aggressive neighbour were vital elements in the push for confederation, it took the vision and hard work of one man, Sir John A. MacDonald, to see the deal complete. Sir John A had a vision of an economically strong and politically united nation. After the experience with escaped slaves and the destruction of the US Civil War, he also had a vision of a land where people could truly be free and live in peace. He was one of those rare educated visionaries who arrived on the scene at the right time and in the right place, and his education allowed him to assess where both the British and American systems had failed, and where they were strongest.
Sir John A realized that the British parliamentary system was more democratic than the US congressional system, in that the Prime-Minister was more accountable to the electorate than the President was. However, he saw great value in the US separation of powers and particularly in the Bill of Rights. By cherry-picking the best of both systems and trying to discard the worst, Sir John A. was able to draft a unique plan that he could use to negotiate and convince the provincial leaders of his vision of confederation.
A union of the provinces had been sought out before. In 1859 a delegation of provincial leaders had travelled to London to press for a union in the wake of escalating tensions between the US states. The idea, and the provincial delegates, were met with indifference by the British. They returned home and watched with horror the slaughter that ensued in the United States.
In 1864 three maritime leaders, Samuel Tilley of New Brunswick, Charles Tupper of Nova Scotia and John Hamilton Gray of Prince Edward Island met to discuss joining all three provinces into a Maritime Union. They were surprised when the premier of Upper Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald, arrived at the conference and began to press his vision of a completely united Canada. The three Maritimers agreed in principle with the caveat that the people of Quebec also support the idea. A date for a conference was set in Charlottetown, the capital of PEI.
The Charlottetown Conference began in late 1864 with delegates from all four provinces (Quebec and Ontario were united into one ungainly province at that time, an experiment by British authorities that didn’t last more than five years) represented. Sir John A. had spent most of the summer gaining support in Quebec, so that by the time the conference began there was a large contingent of interested Quebecois present. This satisfied the other three premiers.
Sir John A was able to use the Charlottetown Conference to present his vision of a united Canada under a democratic parliament secured in a written constitution with rights for everybody. He pressed the need for security and his vision of a land of peace and prosperity that would become a beacon of light in a dark world. Some of the key demands made by delegates were that the new central government assume all the provincial debts, that each province retain its own legislature, that Quebec be a separate province again, and that the new nation retain ties to the Crown as a Dominion of the Empire. After several weeks of negotiations the provinces, and Sir John A, had hammered out a proposal to present to the British authorities.
There remained one last thing to do for John A and the delegates. Without the assent of their British masters in London, there would be no Confederation. Sir John A asked the provinces to hold general elections for delegates, and in 1865 24 people were chosen, from across the five provinces, by the people, to head to England to press their case.
In 1866 they set out, led by John A MacDonald, and met with senior members of the British cabinet. The British politicians, however, brushed them off with the same cold politeness that earlier delegates had met. Not to be outdone, Sir John A called on his distant relatives, nobility in the British caste system, and through constant lobbying he managed to get himself a meeting with Queen Victoria. There he pressed his case for Confederation, highlighting the reasons and his vision and stressing that the new country would remain a loyal Dominion of the Empire. Queen Victoria loved the idea and pressed Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime-Minister, to hear out the delegates.
Finally, in early 1867, the British Parliament welcomed the Canadian delegates and heard their case. After several months of debate, and intense lobbying to the Queen herself by Sir John A, Parliament voted to enact the Articles of Confederation. On July 1st, 1867, Queen Victoria herself signed the Articles into law and the Canada we know today was born!
With the five provinces now united under one flag, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa, in eastern Ontario, to be its capital city. A Parliament was built and the first general elections held in 1868. Sir John A. MacDonald, that tireless visionary, was elected Canada’s first Prime-Minister.
The rest of modern-day Canada soon followed. Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870. British Columbia, a far-away outpost of British civilization in the north-west Pacific, joined Confederation in 1871. In 1883, following the Northwest Rebellion, Saskatchewan was created and joined Confederation in 1901. In 1905 Alberta joined. It wasn’t until 1949 that Newfoundland joined Confederation amidst much contraversy, an act that many Newfoundlanders still resent today.
Today Canada’s 10 provinces and 3 territories are still held together by the Articles of Confederation. Challenges to the union have arisen at times, namely in Quebec, but a strong central government in Ottawa and powerful Provincial governments with their own jurisdictions keep the system alive.
Since the days of Sir John A. MacDonald, his vision has become realized. Canada did indeed become a prosperous land rich in resources, with a free and democratic society ruled by law. Canada has become a beacon of light in the world, accepting millions of immigrants and refugees who have thrived here over the years. In dark days in the world, Canada has sent her sons and daughters to fight and die for the liberty of others on faraway shores, and has asked nothing in return. Canada has built great cities and modern industries and futuristic technologies, supported by top-notch Universities. Canadians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world and one of the highest average income rates of any country in the G20. Four of Canada’s cities are rated as the best cities in the world to live, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary. Sir John A. MacDonald would be proud today.
Since those paranoid days of the mid 19th Century Canada and the United States have grown closely together. Relations during the 20th Century were at all-time highs and the two countries are now best of friends. Canada and the US have stood by each other in many wars and many challenges, and today they enjoy the largest economic partnership in the world. In a complete change from the threats of those early days, today Canada and the USA have joint-defense treaties.
This is the legacy of Confederation.