History: Birth of a Nation

By David Hyatt

On July 1st, Canadians will be celebrating a date in history, which was as important to Canada’s development as the discovery of America so long ago.

As we admire the fireworks, go out with friends, or watch the special Canada Day programming on television, it is important for all Canadians to look back on what happened in 1867. We spend so much time debating our present and fretting about our future, that we seldom take the time to look at our past and appreciate the commitment and effort that led to Canada’s birth.

British North America in the 1860s was a little group of five colonies with a population of almost four million people, mostly of British, French or Irish origin. The economy in the colonies was strong, because Great Britain encouraged trade within its empire and also because of a free trade agreement (the Reciprocity Treaty) with the United States. Politically, the colonies had no connection with each other except through their relationship to Great Britain.

Although the old colonial system had worked well in the past, it was becoming outdated and full of problems. As the world changed, British North American economic and political ideas needed to change also.

In the Province of Canada, which at that time was a union of both Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec), there was a single legislative assembly, which gave the same number of seats to both. Of course, both regions had very different needs and goals, and this created a situation where no party in the House of Commons could get a majority to form a government.

The end of the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States was coming quickly, and the Maritime colonies were worried about what this would do to their economy.

There was also the issue of the American civil war, which had been raging at this point for more than three years. People were frightened that after the war ended, the American government would turn their massive armies northwards, as they had done in the past (the War of 1812-14).

Great Britain was getting tired of paying the bills for her large empire, and the British were sending signals to the colonists that they should soon think of new arrangements with the “mother country”.
The colonial leaders of British North America knew that solutions to all these problems were needed.

On June 24, 1864, George Brown, a Member of Parliament from Upper Canada, agreed to cross the floor of the House of Commons to join his enemies, John A. Macdonald and the Conservative Party. This allowed the Conservatives to take power. Brown did this because of three promises made to him. One of those promises was that the new government would talk to the Maritime colonies in order to create a “confederation”, or union, of the British colonies in North America.

As promised, the new government arranged an invitation to a trade conference the following September in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Although this conference was planned just for the Maritime provinces, John A. MacDonald and his group of Canadians were permitted to observe. However, as they observed, they tried to interest the Maritimers in the Canadian idea of Confederation.

With the help of French champagne and Canadian charm, the Maritimers were persuaded to travel to Canada and attend another conference to talk about uniting the British North American colonies. Just one month later, in October, they all met again in Quebec City, where they were able to agree on 72 resolutions, which would be the key to forming the new nation.

However, in what was even then a democratic society, it was not certain whether voters would accept this new direction. In every colony, confederation soon became a controversial election issue. From 1864 to 1866, the debate raged throughout British North America as the colonists worked to solve the difficulties they were facing. It was not an easy process and at times it was a hard sell.

However, in 1866, a year after the American civil war had ended, an international organization of Irishmen called the Fenian Brotherhood organized several small attacks on southern Ontario and Quebec from the United States. Their attacks were stopped (in Ontario by a group of cadets from Upper Canada College). However, the threat of a future American invasion was too much for many colonists to ignore. A union of the colonies seemed necessary so that together they could defend themselves better if it happened again. The colonial mood shifted and the North American colonies were ready to negotiate with London.

Arriving in the Imperial capital in December of 1866, John A. MacDonald and his colleagues spent that winter discussing with the British the legal framework which needed to be prepared. By the spring of 1867, they had written up a Bill and passed it by majority vote in the British parliament, and on March 29, Queen Victoria signed the document, giving her royal assent and making the independence of her North American dominion a reality.

On July 1, 1867, with great excitement and celebrations in Ottawa and across the country, the British North America Act became law and the Dominion of Canada was born. Although this did not mean full independence for the new nation, it was the beginning of a new future for all Canadians. And on July 1st , as we celebrate our prosperity and our pride in being Canadian, we also celebrate the vision and hard work of our forefathers who fought for an idea, receiving both the approval of a people and the signature of a Queen.

CNM