Saturday, May 26, 2012

Understanding why Confederation happened

It is actually amazing how few people understand the reason why confederation happened at all in Canada.   While there were many very good reasons for the idea of confederation such as the threat of American manifest destiny, economic nationalism, the need for larger infrastructure such as railways and a larger economic union, these are not the primary reason confederation happened.  Confederation was a solution to the Anglo-French problems in what was the united province of Canada.

In 1841 Upper and Lower Canada were united as one colony of Canada.   It was a bad idea of the start because you had two halves that had no natural reason to united.  One half was French and Catholic and the other half English and Protestant.   Even though it was a single united colony, effectively it remained two when it came to politics.   The elections to the legislature were conducted effectively separately with 42 MPs from each.    The rules of the legislature also meant you needed a majority in the Canada West and Canada East to pass anything.

Till 1848 the divide in Canada did not matter because there was still no responsible government.   For Canada to have functioned at all it would have to been ruled more or less directly by the Viceroy.  

From 1848 to 1867 Canada had 10 different governments lead by 9 different men.   The shortest government was for four days in 1858.  From 1841 to 1848 there were 7 governments with 5 different men as premier.  Not only were there all these governments and premiers, there had to a joint premier from the other half of Canada.   From 1841 to 1863 there 8 elections in 22 years.

The effect of all of this was that the province of Canada as a united colony suffered from total legislative deadlock.   By the 1858 it was clear that the colony was ungovernable in the form that it had.   A simple decision like choosing where the legislature would meet could not be made.


From 1841 to 1867 the capital of the Province of Canada moved seven times with it in Canada East three, Canada West three times and for one year in Ottawa in the new Federal parliament in the run up to confederation in 1867.

  • Kingston 1841–1843
  • Montreal 1843–1849
  • Toronto 1849–1852
  • Quebec City 1852–1856
  • Toronto 1856–1858
  • Quebec City 1859–1866
  • Ottawa 1866–1867

John A. Macdonald realized something needed to change in the 1850s.   When the four Atlantic colonies decided to hold a conference in 1864 to discuss the idea of a Maritime Union Macdonald asked if Canada could come it it as well.   The Charlottetown Conference in 1864 gave Canada the chance to find a soluition to their legislative deadlock.   Things went so well that the Quebec Conference was held one month later and in a matter of only a couple of months the confederation went from nothing to the plan for British North America.

Confederation allowed there to be two levels of government and thereby it was possible to have separate provincial governments along with a Federal one.   The awkward Anglo-French co-habitation of the Province of Canada could end.   Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were the window dressing to make federal system of government an option.

Confederation has really been a tool from the start to balance the interests of Ontario and Quebec in Canada.
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