Confederation

I am from Canada, and an historian, but I’m afraid that my knowledge of Canadian history is not what it ought to be. I was pleased, therefore, to be able to visit the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and to see their exhibit and film on the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. This event was the first formal step towards the union (“confederation”) of four British North American colonies into a new polity, which was granted home rule (“dominion”) status within the British Empire on July 1, 1867.* This “Dominion of Canada,” like the American union to the south, was expandable, eventually stretching “From Sea to Sea,” and all the way to the North Pole for good measure. It achieved legal equality with the UK in 1931 and full constitutional independence in 1982, and is today a first-world liberal democracy, a member of the G7, NATO, NAFTA, and “Five Eyes,” with a 1.8 trillion dollar GDP, a “very high” human development index, and an international reputation for inoffensive blandness.

But we can certainly be very proud of ourselves.

From 1859, the UK Parliament was under the control of the Liberals, who favoured both dominion status and confederation: they wanted to offload the expense of running the colonies onto the colonies themselves, and were prepared to allow them greater control over their domestic affairs as the price of doing so; they also wanted to strengthen “British North America” against the United States, engaged as it was in a bloody Civil War, which might turn north at some point. Thus the Charlottetown Conference, which was held September 1-9, 1864. It was originally called to discuss the possibility of the union of the three British maritime colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, and it was held in PEI because that colony was the most initially recalcitrant: it was the smallest, and feared that it would be swamped in any proposed union; it also was doing quite well economically and saw only a downside to joining up with others. But politicians from the United Province of Canada heard about the conference and asked to join, and they ended up dominating it, with John A. Macdonald and George Brown presenting a suave and ultimately convincing case for a union that included Canada (i.e., Ontario and Quebec), in between lots of eating, drinking, and socializing. Canada was itself a victim of frequent constitutional deadlock, and was presumably hoping for a new arrangement that might break this unfortunate situation. 

The film (which I wish I could find on YouTube) makes apparent that this gathering was a men’s club; no women formally participated, and no Native people either. All the same, the Conference was a success, leading to the Quebec Conference the next month, at which the 72 Resolutions were adopted, outlining the framework for a proposed union that potentially included Newfoundland, British Columbia, Vancouver Island (at the time a separate colony), and the Northwest Territory as well. The central issue was whether the union would be a unitary state or a decentralized country on the model of Switzerland; the result was a compromise between these two poles, with an elected lower house and an appointed senate. 

Two years of debate followed before the London Conference of 1866, which hammered out the British North America Act for the three colonies still interested: Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The BNA Act received royal assent on March 29, 1867, and passed into law on July 1 of that year. Prince Edward Island ultimately decided that it was not interested, and even the other maritime provinces had misgivings: in New Brunswick, the Anti-Confederation Party won the 1865 election, but was defeated the following year; in Nova Scotia, Anti-Confederates won 36 out of 38 seats in the provincial legislature in 1867, unfortunately (for them) too late to prevent Confederation from happening. The Anti-Confederates thought that the Maritimes would be overwhelmed in the new country. Their opponents claimed  that the Maritimes were powerless anyway, and union with Canada was their only hope of influence, a view that ultimately prevailed.

This is the facade of Province House in Charlottetown, where the PEI Legislature sits and where the Charlottetown Conference was held. As you can see, it is currently under restoration, so this is the only view of it I can provide.

In the Confederation Centre for the Arts, however, one can see a replica conference table for delegates…

…and (for now) a statue of an important participant and first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald. 

Prince Edward Island, as it happens, did join Confederation in 1873. In just a few years it went from prosperity to near bankruptcy, largely as the result of that archetypical nineteenth-century prestige project: a railway. The story was that the builders were paid by the mile, and that every small town on the island demanded railway access, so the railway took a meandering path across the island, raising its cost significantly. Canada agreed to take on these debts and to finish the project, and to provide a permanent link with the mainland; thus did PEI become a province, and Charlottetown can now boast that it is the cradle of Confederation. 

This was not the case in Newfoundland, which joined Confederation only in 1949. Newfoundlanders had heard of the Charlottetown Conference, but too late to attend it; they had come to the Quebec Conference, but only as observers. The Newfoundland election of 1869 was fought largely on the issue of Confederation, with the anti-confederates winning 21-9, and putting the issue to rest for the time being. It resurfaced in 1895 after the failure of Newfoundland’s Union and Commercial Banks, but no agreement with Canada could be reached, and Newfoundland retained its independence and weathered the financial storm. In 1907, as the result of the Imperial Conference that year, Newfoundland received dominion status within the British Empire – but this was largely a formality, as the colony had enjoyed responsible government since 1855. 

However, Newfoundland lost this status in 1934, and reverted to being a crown colony, the only dominion ever to do so. No longer did Newfoundland enjoy even responsible government – instead, it was run by an unelected seven-man Commission of Government, civil servants directly answerable to the British Parliament. The Great Depression had hit Newfoundland hard, and rather than default on its debt payments, it agreed to a suspension of its parliament until such time as it could become self-sustaining. But this never came to pass. According to Greg Malone in Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders (2012), a secret deal was struck between Canada and the United Kingdom during World War II which would deliver Newfoundland into Confederation, in return for Canada forgiving certain wartime loans it had made to the UK. With Newfoundland a province, Canada’s strategic position could be improved – it would have the Gander and Goose Bay airfields, at the time essential refueling stations for transatlantic flights, and the risk of Newfoundland joining the United States and becoming a sort of eastern Alaska would be obviated. Disputes over the fishery would be minimized, and Canada would get its hands on the potential mineral and hydroelectric resources of Labrador. 

Malone claims that Confederation may have been inevitable, but he insists that Newfoundland should have had responsible government reinstated first, as had been promised. Then the place would have been in a much better bargaining position with Canada. As it stands, the British essentially negotiated with Canada on behalf of Newfoundland, not particularly caring for the details so long as it was no longer their problem. A referendum on the arrangements was still seen as politically necessary, however, and three choices appeared on the ballot in 1948 – continuation of the Commission of Government, a return of responsible government, or confederation with Canada. In the first round responsible government won, but it did not receive an absolute majority, so a runoff was held the next month, which Confederation won with 52.3% of the votes cast. The option of union with the United States was kept off the ballot, and the Confederates, led by the charismatic Joey Smallwood and secretly funded by Canada, enjoyed an immense tactical advantage. 

Referendum propaganda on display in The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Provincial Museum and Art Gallery. “Canada’s social programs” formed a great deal of the appeal of Confederation to poor Newfoundlanders, who tended to see responsible government as control of Newfoundland by a clique centered on St. John’s. 

But whatever the details, the Newfoundlanders voted for it, right? Ultimately, there’s no arguing against the results of a referendum. The really shocking claim of Malone’s book, though, is that the vote was rigged; that responsible government really won the second referendum of 1948, and that dirty tricks, of the sort allegedly played in Illinois during the presidential election of 1960, ensured a surplus of about 7000 votes in favor of the correct outcome. Thus did Canada get control of Newfoundland’s fishery, which it has mismanaged, and of the development of the iron mines of Labrador, which employ many locals but whose profits flow elsewhere. The Churchill Falls Generating Station, a joint project between Newfoundland and Quebec, ended up being a terrible deal for Newfoundland, but according to Malone Ottawa forced them to ratify the agreement for the sake of bribing Quebec not to secede. 

The Confederation Building, St. John’s, Joey Smallwood’s monument to himself. Opened in 1960, it replaced the Colonial Building as the meeting place for Newfoundland’s legislature. It also houses several governmental departments. 

It was eye-opening for me to visit a part of Canada that has such genuine and persistent grievances against the federal government. This is very seldom an issue in my home province of Ontario. And yet, if the ubiquitous appearance of the maple leaf flag indicates anything, Atlantic Canadians are not hoping to secede any time soon. 

Many Newfoundland homes feature a cross-shaped “nautical” pole from which multiple flags fly; the flags of Newfoundland and Canada are both very popular. 

* It seems to me that the word “Confederation” has survived much better than “Dominion” has in the Canadian vernacular. “Dominion” now connotes a colonial junior-partnership, and was never really translatable into French. “Confederation” suffers neither of these drawbacks, and lives on in the names of such things as the Confederation Centre, Confederation Bridge, Confederation Square, etc. In my youth there existed a supermarket chain named Dominion which has gone the way of all corporate mergers, and I believe that at one point there was person known as the Dominion Geographer in Ottawa. Otherwise, I can think of no other everyday appearances of this word. Good thing Canada is a “Confederation,” though, not a “Confederacy.”

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