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An enduring compromise: 150 years since the British North America Act, 1867 became law

Canada 150

An enduring compromise

The idea for a union of the British North American colonies began in 1864. It wasn't until March 29, 1867, that British legislation, enacted by the Imperial Parliament in London, established the Dominion of Canada

Painting of ‘The Fathers of Confederation’ on display in the Railway Committee Room on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 29, 2011.

On March 29, 1867 – 150 years ago today – the British North America Act, 1867 became law. Alongside the Metropolitan Poor Act, 1867 and the Dog Licenses Act, 1867, the bill was granted royal assent in the House of Lords. The British legislation, enacted by the Imperial Parliament in London, established the Dominion of Canada.

The idea for a union of the British North American colonies began in June, 1864. John A. Macdonald, accompanied by George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown, among others, went to Charlottetown that fall to convince the leaders of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to join them in a new confederation. The Maritime provinces had already been considering a union among themselves.

After several days of meetings that fall, an agreement in principle was reached. A new government would be established, bringing together all of the British North American colonies. It would facilitate trade and improve their economies, create a new national railroad and improve their security and defences.

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Cartier (Canada East) emphasized that the new government would be "beneficial to all," and Dr. Charles Tupper (Nova Scotia) explained it would "consolidate their influence and advance their interests." John M. Johnson (New Brunswick) discussed the qualities of the British constitution and its "superiority over that of the United States." And Macdonald (Canada West) argued that "a Federation of all of the British North American Provinces would tend very materially to enhance their individual and collective prosperity, politically, commercially, and socially."

Macdonald argued for a strong central government, explaining that the United States – which had just endured a bloody civil war – had made an error at its formation. There, "each state reserved to itself all sovereign rights," whereas for him, the union of British North American colonies would remedy this defect and confer "on the Provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes." Not everyone agreed with this perspective. Some looked at the proposed new arrangements and envisioned a federal state that embodied strong, autonomous provincial governments.

Sir John A. Macdonald (date unknown).

By the summer of 1866, the Americans were watching as the colonies of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia debated the merits of uniting as one country under the British flag. The state of Maine was concerned about invasions from an emboldened British North America. Maine had long-standing disputes with its northern neighbours over fisheries, trade and the boundary with New Brunswick. Franco-Americans opposed the proposed new government, too. They wanted the British colonies to join the United States and, in the process, bolster the French population of America. And Fenian marauders invaded the British North American colonies on a handful of occasions, causing more fear than actual harm. Their goal, of course, was to disrupt British policy toward Ireland.

Pockets of opposition existed in the U.S. House of Representatives as well. The member from New York, Henry Raymond, viewed the proposed confederation as a threat to Americans, arguing that "a powerful monarchy, under the protection and with the support of a foreign nation, cannot be regarded as otherwise than hostile to the peace and menacing to the safety of the Republic." Nathaniel Banks (Massachusetts), chair of the foreign affairs committee, also wanted to ensure that all of the territory of North America fell under the Stars and Stripes. To this end, he introduced a bill into the House in July, 1866, to annex the British colonies – all of their land and resources – and in exchange provide them with approximately $86-million. The bill also proposed merging Nova Scotia with Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland with Quebec.

That Banks did not ask the British colonists if they wanted to be annexed was a minor detail for the American statesman. To him it seemed a good proposal, and surely the colonists would eventually see it that way, too. Pennsylvania's Journal endorsed his viewpoint. The newspaper could not understand why, "as a matter of choice, sensible Canadians should prefer remaining under the control of a distant and neglectful government." And others talked of a military option. General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War hero who developed the idea of "total warfare," said: "We don't want Canada, but if we should, a campaign of five days would bring it."

For Toronto's The Daily Globe, the annexation initiative was a "ridiculous scheme." The paper's editorial staff said the American proposal was laughable: "We might have felt insulted, had he actually offered us material advantage as an inducement to surrender our allegiance" rather than the "superlatively foolish bit of political romancing." They suggested that perhaps annexing the moon would be a more viable alternative for the United States. The Yorkville Enquirer (Columbia, S.C.) effectively agreed, calling it just "another scheme for trouble" by the Radical Congress in Washington. And the Charleston Daily News reported that Ottawa was looking into presenting a bill to Parliament "providing for the annexation to the British Provinces of Minnesota, Michigan, and other border States," adding that "the success of this plan is as probable as an other."

But the U.S. government was less concerned about the comings and goings of America's northern neighbours. It took notice of the proposed confederation with mixed interest. For the most part, officials in Washington were too busy with their own problems to be very worried about what was happening in the British colonies. The Civil War had just ended, and on March 2, 1867, Congress enacted the first of the Reconstruction Acts, placing 10 Southern states under military governments.

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Almost three years after it had begun, the Charlottetown initiative was realized in the Palace of Westminster. On Feb. 12, 1867, the Earl of Carnarvon, secretary of state for the colonies, introduced A Bill for the Union of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the House of Lords. He explained that the legislation was "laying the foundation of a great State – perhaps one which at a future day may even overshadow this country." Lord Monck, who was to become the first governor-general of the Dominion of Canada, noted that the union would be conducive "to the good government of these Provinces" and it would enable them to "choose their future position in the world." And in the House of Commons, Charles B. Adderley, the undersecretary of state for the colonies, refuted any notion that Nova Scotia had been pressured into the confederation or that the measure was simply designed to resolve the constitutional problems of the province of Canada. As he explained, "those difficulties were no more the cause of the proposal for the union of the Provinces than the divorce of Henry VIII was the cause of the Reformation."

Legislation passed by UK Parliament - British North America Act, 1867.

There was considerable support for the measure among British parliamentarians on both the government and opposition benches. For sure, some concerns were aired. The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, "presented petitions from the Governors, Principal and Fellows of the McGill College, Montreal from the Provincial Association of Protestant Teachers, and others" regarding the application of education provisions in what was to become the province of Quebec. But it was widely accepted that the new arrangements would promote trade and commerce, reduce British defence expenses in North America and further serve to entrench the bonds of the Empire. Only six weeks after the bill was given first reading, the British North America Act, 1867 became law.

Indigenous peoples were not included in the discussions leading up to the British North America Act, 1867, nor were they part of the celebrations of its adoption. They were effectively invisible to the political leaders of British North America. In fact, in the 1865 debates in the province of Canada on the proposed confederation, the state of Indiana was mentioned as often as "Indians." And when Indigenous peoples were discussed, it was not out of concern for their interests or welfare.

The Dominion of Canada came into effect a few months later, on July 1, 1867, and celebrations took place in all the major cities. According to newspaper accounts, in Ottawa there was a 101-gun salute and a large bonfire; in Toronto, there was a concert at the Horticultural Gardens, followed by fireworks; and in Halifax there was a military procession. In Montreal, "the Mayor with an escort of trumpeters" proclaimed the new Dominion and "Maj. Stevenson's Battery fired a salute in Victoria Square."

At the same time, opposition to Confederation also was on display. In Halifax, there were flags lowered to half-mast, while in Saint John the Union Jack hung reversed on some flagstaffs – though the Saint John Globe said there was some question as to whether this was by design or ignorance.

Today we have an opportunity to reflect on the achievement. Confederation was, of course, the product of compromise among those who were powerful enough to be in the room. Not everyone who would be affected by Confederation had a chance to make a submission or otherwise shape the outcome. And over the years, Canada has clearly had moments when its future was very seriously in doubt. One hundred and 50 years later, however, the Confederation compromise of 1867 has proved to be an enduring one.

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This piece is based on a two-volume edited collection, Roads to Confederation, The Making of Canada, 1867. Edited by Jacqueline D. Krikorian, David R. Cameron, Marcel Martel, Andrew W. McDougall and Robert C. Vipond, with a foreword by Meric S. Gertler, president, University of Toronto; Rhonda L. Lenton, incoming president and vice-chancellor, York University; and Mamdouh Shoukri, president and vice-chancellor, York University. Forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press (English) and under consideration, Les Presses de l'Université Laval (French).

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