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Sir John A MacDonald
The Birth of the Dominion, 1865 to 1867


SO far the negotiations for Confederation had gone smoothly and satisfactorily; difficulties, doubts, and dangers were to fill the next two years. Nowhere, save perhaps in Ontario, was there any strong wave of popular enthusiasm for the new measure; it was promoted by thinkers and farseeing statesmen, amid the apathy, and in some sections even the sullenness, of the electorate. In Quebec, Dorion in Opposition appealed to habitants dread of being swamped by an English majority, and the appeal awakened a quick response. In the same province, the English minority, feared that their schools might be left to the tender mercies of the Roman Catholic majority, and claimed safeguards, delay in the guarantee of which led to the temporary resignation of Galt, their chief spokesman But the fearless optimism of Cartier triumphed. He was strong in the support of the Catholic clergy who saw in Confederation the only refuge from union, whether peaceful or forcible, with the American republic, and the consequent loss of the cherished rights and privileges guaranteed to them by their compact with the British nation. Thus, not for the first time, did the enlightened selfishness of that great body save Canada.

In Nova Scotia opposition was organized by a number of prominent bankers and merchants in Halifax, who saw that the proposed union would throw open the province, hitherto their preserve, to commercial and financial rivals from Montreal and Toronto; in the country districts the old prejudice against Canada was roused; memories of bickering over the Intercolonial Railway were revived; the intense local pride of the province was inflamed. Other local issues added their weight. In 1863 Dr. Tupper had succeeded in passing through the House a law establishing compulsory primary education; its expense bore heavily upon the thrifty Scottish settlers, who took this opportunity of showing their discontent. In the same measure the refusal of separate schools to the Roman Catholics had angered the Irish voters, and though their large-minded archbishop ardently supported Confederation, his flock showed ominous signs of revolt. The agitation found a leader in Joseph Howe, long the popular idol of his native province, the brilliant champion of responsible government, the eloquent prophet of national unity before that great dream had even come upon the horizon of English statesmanship. But mingled with his large qualities Howe had some of the weaknesses of lesser men. He had been absent from the province in 1864 as imperial fishery commissioner, and on his return his vanity was piqued to find the scheme launched without his aid by Dr. Tupper, his rival in provincial politics. There seems no other adequate explanation than this of the attitude which he now took towards a measure which was on the direct line of his previous utterances and of his well-known aspirations. He threw himself into the reactionary movement, and, playing upon the prejudices of a people whom no one understood so well as he, lashed his province into a fury of opposition.

Somewhat similar cries were raised in New Brunswick, and doubts especially were thrown upon the sincerity of the pledges given in regard to the proposed Intercolonial Railway. In March, 1865, the local government, which had accepted Confederation, appealed to the people, and was overwhelmingly defeated—in Macdonald's judgment because time had not been given for the education of public opinion. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island withdrew from the negotiations; in Nova Scotia, Dr. Tupper, influenced by these checks, postponed further action until he could feel sure of carrying the measure in the legislature. The situation was one of grave anxiety. Writing afterwards to Mr. Tilley, Macdonald said: "The failure in the Maritime Provinces caused Canada the greatest embarrassment. It periled the existence of the government, and what was of more consequence, it raised the hopes of the American or annexation party; it discouraged the Loyalists, and it shook the faith of the English people in the permanence of the connection with Great Britain."

Amid the blasts of this unexpected storm of opposition, Macdonald stood firm. On February 3rd, 1865, he introduced into parliament the resolutions adopted at the Quebec conference. The debates which ensued were worthy of the greatness of the subject. Macdonald, Brown, Cartier, Galt, D'Arcy McGee and others eloquently defended the proposals, which were opposed by Holton, Dorion, Dunkin and Sandfield Macdonald. A high level of statesmanlike grasp and of insight was reached, and in face of so grave a problem personal recriminations were abandoned. Only one or two characteristic sentences, illustrating his attitude of mind in dealing with the question, can here be given from Macdonald's speech in moving the resolution. "It seemed" he said, "to all the statesmen assembled [at Quebec] .. .. . it was clear to them all, that the best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America would be promoted by a federal union under the Crown of Great Britain. And it seems to me as to them, and I think it will so appear to the people of this country, that, if we wish to be a great people, if we wish to form—using the expression which was sneered at the other evening—a great nationality, commanding the respect of the world, able to hold our own against all opponents, and to defend those institutions we prize; if we wish to have one system of government, and to establish a commercial union with unrestricted free trade between the people of the five provinces, belonging, as they do, to the same nation, obeying the same sovereign, owing the same allegiance, and being, for the most part, of the same blood and lineage; if we wish to be able to afford each other the means of mutual defence and support against aggression and attack, this can only be obtained by a union of some kind between the scattered and weak colonies composing the British North American provinces."

And again in conclusion: "I would again implore the House not to let this opportunity pass. It is an opportunity which may never recur. If we do not take advantage of the time; if we show ourselves unequal to the occasion, it may never return, and we shall hereafter bitterly and unavailingly regret having failed to embrace the happy opportunity now afforded of founding a great nation under the fostering care of Great Britain, and our Sovereign Lady, Queen Victoria."

There was force in the objection raised by Sand-field Macdonald that so vital a change should not be passed without being submitted to the people either at a general election or by plebiscite. But so far as the Canadas were concerned, Macdonald was probably right in the view he expressed to a correspondent early in February, 1865: "The Confederation has now been before the country for some time, and it seems to meet with general, if not universal, favour. I hear of no meetings against it, and as yet there have been no petitions transmitted adverse to the policy. Under the circumstances the government have a right to assume, as well as the legislature, that the scheme in principle meets with the approbation of the country."

At any rate, in the interests of the great scheme, Macdonald could not afford delay, and on the eleventh of March the resolutions were passed in the House of Assembly by a vote of ninety-one to thirty-three. Further analysis of the vote shows that the Upper Canadian representatives were fifty-four to eight, those of Lower Canada thirty-seven to twenty-five. Earlier in the session the legislative council had carried a similar motion by forty-five to fifteen. A mission, consisting of Macdonald, Brown, Cartier and Galt, was immediately sent to England to confer with Her Majesty's government upon the following subjects:-

1. Upon the proposed Confederation of the British North American provinces, and the means whereby it can be most speedily effected.

2. Upon the arrangements necessary for the defence of Canada in the event of war arising with the United States, and the extent to which the same should be shared between Great Britain and Canada.

3. Upon the steps to be taken with reference to the reciprocity treaty, and the rights conferred by it upon the United States.

4. Upon the arrangements necessary for the settlement of the North-West Territory and Hudson's Bay Company's claims.

5. And generally upon the existing critical state of affairs by which Canada is most seriously affected.

The home government, which was growing weary of protecting a scattered fringe of colonies along the American frontier, was eager for Confederation. "Our scheme has given prodigious satisfaction here" wrote Brown. "The ministry, the Conservatives, and the Manchester men are all delighted with it, and everything Canadian has gone up in public estimation immensely." Indeed the measure might never have been carried but for the pressure exerted by the home authorities. To Lord Monck was largely due the entrance of George Brown into the coalition ministry. "The means used and the influence exerted were such only as he was justified in exerting in a great crisis," writes Mr. Brown's biographer and confidant. In New Brunswick the lieutenant-governor, Mr. Arthur Hamilton Gordon (now Lord Stan-more) had been at first opposed to Confederation, and is believed to have encouraged its opponents in the election of 1865. A visit to England and communications with Mr. Cardwell, the colonial secretary, altered his opinion, and in 1866 he exerted himself with such effect that as the result of some rather arbitrary conduct he was enabled to form a pro-Confederation ministry, which on appealing to the people was sustained by a large majority.

In Nova Scotia, Sir Fenwick Williams, though less active, heartily cooperated with Dr. Tupper, and early in 1866 the administration, while compelled to throw overboard the Quebec resolutions, passed a motion authorizing the appointment of delegates "to arrange with the imperial government a scheme of union which will effectively ensure just provision for the rights and interests of the province."

Meanwhile, in Upper Canada, the death of Sir E. P. Taché, in July, 1865, had momentarily imperilled the coalition. Lord Monck called on Macdonald, as senior member of the cabinet, to form a ministry. This he endeavoured to do, but while George Brown had consented to be on an equality with his rival under the mild control of Taché, he had no mind to serve under him, and threatened to withdraw from the ministry. Rather than imperil their union, Macdonald waived his personal feelings, and suggested Cartier. To him also Brown objected, and a compromise was finally made by the formation of a government in which Brown and Macdonald sat as equals under the nominal presidency of Sir Narcisse Belleau, a prominent member of the legislative council. But even- under Tache,- Macdonald's ability had made him the real head and under Sir Narcisse Belleau the friction was even more transparent. Brown found his position unendurable, and early in December resigned from the cabinet. His ostensible motive was a difference with his colleagues on the question of reciprocity with the United States; but while this difference really existed, and was something more than a mere cloak for his action, his chief reason was undoubtedly a sense of the falsity of his position. While resuming in private life and in the columns of the Globe an attitude of hostility to Macdonald, he continued to give a loyal support to the project of Confederation.

By the end of .Tune, 1866, the changed aspect of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick rendered further progress possible. The Canadian parliament, in which action had been delayed from fear of arousing the suspicions of the Maritime Provinces, was summoned, and passed resolutions providing for the local legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada. This necessary delay offended the Irish impetuosity of Lord Monck. "I have come to the deliberate conviction," he wrote to Macdonald, "that if from any cause this session of parliament shall be allowed to pass without the completion of our portion of the union scheme, a crisis in my career will have been reached, and that my sense of duty to the people of Canada and to myself leave me no alternative except to apply for my immediate recall." It is noteworthy that this letter was sent, not to the premier, but to Macdonald. His answer, at once courteous and firm, is too long to quote in full, but two paragraphs may be given.

"With respect to the best mode of guiding the measure through the House, I think I must ask your Excellency to leave something to my Canadian parliamentary experience. As leader of the House I am responsible for the successful conduct of government measures, and I can assure you that I have the best means of knowing that it is important that the principle (at all events) of the financial measures of the government should be submitted to parliament, and receive its sanction before there is any serious debate on the local constitutions.

"As to the personal portion of your note, all I can say, as a sincere friend of your Excellency, is that you must take no such step as you indicate. To you belongs, as having initiated, encouraged, and I may now almost say completed, the great scheme of union, all the kudos and all the position, (not lightly to be thrown away) which must result from being the founder of a nation."

This reply relieved the anxiety of His Excellency, and in due time the local constitutions were successfully guided through the House. Meanwhile a change of ministry in England, and the adjournment of the imperial parliament caused further delay, but in November the various delegates met in London, and on the fourth of December began the conference which was to evolve the British North America Act.. It must be remembered that the Canadas alone had approved of the Quebec resolutions. Nova Scotia had merely passed the short general statement already quoted, and its example had been followed by New Brunswick. But Macdonald resolved at all costs to hold to the results of the conference which he had so largely inspired, and he was willing to take all risks. Behind the smiling good-humour and readiness to compromise on non-essentials was concealed a dogged determination to gain the great object he had in view. A letter to Mr. Tilley, in which he opposes the wish of the delegates from Nova Scotia to begin deliberations in October, brings out this fact in the characteristic way.

"It appears to us to be important that the bill should not be finally settled until just before the meeting of the British parliament. The measure must be carried per saltum and no echo of it must reverberate through the British provinces until it becomes law. If the delegation had been complete in England, and they had prepared the measure in August last, it would have been impossible to keep its provisions secret until next January. There will be few important clauses in the measure that will not offend some interest or individual, and its publication would excite a new and fierce agitation on this side of the Atlantic. Even Canada, which has hitherto been nearly a unit on the subject of Confederation, would be stirred to its depths if any material alteration were made. The Act once passed and beyond remedy, the people would soon learn to be reconciled to it."

From the 4th to the 24th of December the conference sat in London, at the Westminster Palace Hotel, and a series of sixty-nine resolutions were finally passed, based on those of the Quebec conference. It was an anxious time for Macdonald, and all his patience and resourcefulness were taxed. Sir F. Rogers (afterwards Lord Blachford), who was at the time permanent under-secretary for the colonies, has left a striking description of his wariness and skill. He says:-

"It was under Mr. Cardwell's rule that the project was matured ; but it was during Lord Carnarvon's secretaryship that the deputation arrived. They held many meetings at which I was always present, Lord Carnarvon was in the chair, and I was rather disappointed in his power of presidency. Macdonald was the ruling genius and spokesman, and I was greatly struck by his power of management and adroitness. The French delegates were keenly on the watch for anything that weakened their securities ; on the contrary, the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick delegates were very jealous of concession to the arrieree province; while one main stipulation in favour of the French was open to constitutional objections on the part of the home government. Macdonald had to argue the question with the home government on a point on which the slightest divergence from the narrow line already agreed on in Canada was watched for—here by the French, and there by the English—as eager dogs watch a rat hole ; a snap on one side might have provoked a snap on the other, and put an end to the concord. He stated and argued the case with cool, ready fluency, while at the same time you saw that every word was measured, and that while he was making for a point ahead, he was never for a moment unconscious of the rocks among which he had to steer."

Early in January the sittings of the conference were resumed, and a series of draft bills drawn up, which were revised by the imperial law officers. In February the completed bill was submitted to the House, and on March 29th received the royal assent, under the title of the "British North America Act, 1867." On the twenty-second of May a royal proclamation was issued at Windsor Castle, appointing the first of JuIy as the date upon which it should come into force, and this last date has ever since been regarded as the birthday of the Dominion of Canada.

Great as had been his success in the Confederation negotiations, a success which won for him the imperial title of Knight Commander of the Bath, Macdonald was not wholly satisfied. The cause of his discontent he has himself stated in a letter written in 1889 to Lord Knutsford.

"A great opportunity was lost in 1867, when the Dominion was formed out of the several provinces. This remarkable event in the history of the British empire passed almost without notice. The new Confederation had, at the time of the union, about the same population as the thirteen colonies when they rebelled and formed a nation imbued with the bitterest feelings of hostility towards England—feelings, which, by the way, exist in as offensive a form now as they did on the day of the declaration of independence. The declaration of all the British North American provinces, that they desired as one Dominion to remain a portion of the empire, showed what wise government and generous treatment would do, and should have marked an epoch in the history of England. This would probably have been the case had Lord Carnarvon, who as colonial minister had sat at the cradle of the new Dominion, remained in office. His ill-omened resignation was followed by the appointment of the late Duke of Buckingham, who had as his adviser the then governor-general, Lord Monck, both good men, certainly, but quite unable, from the constitution of their minds, to rise to the occasion. The union was treated by them much as if the British North America Act were a private bill unifying two or three English parishes. Had a different course been pursued—for instance, had United Canada been declared to be an auxiliary kingdom, as it was in the Canadian draft of the bill,—I feel sure (almost) that the Australian colonies would, ere this, have been applying to be placed in the same rank as 'The Kingdom of Canada.'" He adds in a postscript: "On reading the above over, I see that it will convey the impression that the change of title from Kingdom to Dominion was caused by the Duke of Buckingham. This is not so. It was made at the instance of Lord Derby, then foreign minister, who feared the name would wound the sensibilities of the Yankees."

On July 1st the new Dominion came into being. Ontario was jubilant, Quebec doubtful and expectant, New Brunswick sullen, Nova Scotia rebellious. Many of the newspapers in the Maritime Provinces came out that day with their columns draped in black. Confederation had been carried, but the problem remained of holding it together. All the ingenuity of Macdonald, all the firmness of the colonial office were to be sorely tried before the ship of state was steered safely out of reach of shoals and breakers.


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