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Canada 150 and Confederation

1867: The Road to Confederation - Marking Canada 150

On July 1, 2017 Canada will be marking 150 years since Canadian Confederation in 1867.

With Confederation, on July 1, 1867, the Province of Canada (formerly Upper Canada and Lower Canada, later divided into today’s provinces Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick unified to become the Dominion of Canada. Leading up to Confederation there were a series of political conferences aimed at bringing about union of the separate provinces and interests: the Charlottetown Conference (September 1864), the Quebec Conference (October 1864), and the London Conference (December 1866). The conferences culminated in our first constitution.

The British North America Acts (BNA Act) came into effect on July 1, 1867, legally creating the Dominion of Canada. The acts divided Federal and Provincial authority and set the framework for the new country.

The other provinces and territories that make up Canada today joined Confederation in the years following: Manitoba (1870), Northwest Territories (1870), British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), Yukon Territory (1898), Alberta (1905), Saskatchewan (1905), Newfoundland (1949) and Nunavut (1999).

The Dominion of Canada was not born out of revolution or an outburst of nationalism. Rather, Canada came to be through a series of conferences and orderly negotiations.

Leading Up to 1867

What led to Canada’s Confederation of 1867 was not a violent revolution or a radical break from colonial control, but rather a series of conferences and negotiations amongst the colonies and provinces that made up British North America at the time. By the latter half of the 19th century, the concept of a union between Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), and the maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had been spreading across the colonies and gaining momentum. Two factors that played a key role in giving the Confederation movement momentum were the American Civil War and the perceived lack of concern by the British Crown for affairs in British North America. The American Civil War created uncertainty and a fear of American aggression in British North America. The Trent Affair and the apparent hesitation of the British Crown to involve itself in the affairs of North America only inflamed tensions north of the border. By 1864 the idea of Confederation has transformed from a conversational idea to an effective solution to an overwhelming security issue that was brewing in the south.

The Great Coalition

One of the key champions for Confederation was Alexander Galt, a key Conservative at the time. Initially opposing the idea of a Union, or Confederation, was the Clear Grit (Reformer) George Brown. The Reformers were not keen on such radical change to the political makeup of British North America and proposed a more moderate federation of the provinces of Canada. Throughout the early 1860s, the Reformers actively campaigned against the Conservatives, who were led by John A. Macdonald and George Etienne Cartier, and at times seemed to be winning the push against Confederation. Macdonald knew the powers that the Reformers held in Canada West, which compelled him to renegotiate the terms of Canadian federation to suit the demands of the Reformers. In time a coalition emerged with Brown, Cartier and Macdonald. The American Civil War (1861-65) and the Fenian Raids of 1866 brought the issue of security to the forefront of the two parties’ bickering, and creating common ground between the Conservatives and Reformers.

September 1-9, 1864: The Charlottetown Conference

Immediately after the Great Coalition had been cemented, Macdonald and his new Reformer partners began to look towards the Maritimes as the next step in the political agenda for unity. In order for Confederation to succeed, the Province of Canada (Canada East and Canada West) must gain the allegiance of the Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In August of 1864, delegates from the Province of Canada travelled to Charlottetown to participate in a conference that was initially held to discuss the union of the Maritimes. Long before the ideas of Confederation came into being, the Maritime colonies have pondered the idea of uniting Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island into a single province. In 1864, the idea of the Maritime Union was rekindled and proposed by Arthur Hamilton Gordon. In light of the political turmoil in Canada West, Gordon felt an increasing need to consolidate and strengthen the Maritime colonies. However a series of negotiations leading up to 1864 had failed largely due to the fact that none of the three Maritime colonies wanted to give up their individual legislative powers and the emergence of an anti-Confederation political party. Maritime newspapers also began to flood the public with fearful propaganda that a union with the Province of Canada would swallow up the coastal provinces. The Province of Canada sent its foremost key players to Charlottetown on September 1, 1864  –which included John A. Macdonald, George Brown, Alexander Galt, William McDougall and Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Initially the discussion between the Canadians and Maritimers did not seem to progress well, largely due to the Maritimes who felt their needs would be neglected in the new federation. Caught between political stalemate and financial decline, the Maritime colonies eventually voted in favor of a federal union as it was determined that Confederation would allow the Maritimes to retain their independent legislative control, and guaranteed the completion of the Intercolonial Railway. The Charlottetown Conference marked the first and most significant step in the journey toward Confederation.

October 10-27, 1864: The Quebec Conference

At the end of the Charlottetown Conference, the delegates agreed to meet again within the year to further discuss the terms of Confederation. This led to the Quebec Conference that took place later in the fall of 1864. Unlike the Charlottetown Conference, the delegates who gathered in Quebec focused on discussing the political outcomes of Confederation. The central topics of the conference were national security, railways, foreign relations, and expansion into the Northwest. While the media was largely banned from the event, later reports of members involved stated that the atmosphere was shockingly nationalistic. George Brown proposed the basic outline for the new government: a federal legislature with representatives from each province, and the number of delegates would be based on the population they represented. The Maritimes took issue with this offer and stated that each province should get equal representation, or else the less populated Maritime Provinces would not be able to protect their interest in the new federation. Indeed, the Maritimes had little to gain from Confederation compared to the other provinces, but nevertheless supported the movement for economic purposes. At the end of the Quebec Conference, little was accomplished. This was mainly due to certain disagreements amongst the major parties attending. However, historians and scholars consider this event as one of the most important steps towards Confederation because of the spirit of nationalism it invoked. It is undeniable that delegates of the conference were confident in strongly in favor of Confederation, and although nothing was signed or decided on the aftermath of the union, all the provinces worked ambitiously towards a common goal.

December 4, 1866 – March 27, 1867: The London Conference

The London Conference began in the start of December in 1866. The Fenian Raids of 1866 and the fear of further American aggression brought together the various parties for a third conference to see if a decision could be reached for unification. Delegates from Canada went to England in December of 1866 in an attempt to finalize their new constitution with the British Crown. Key political figures such as John. A Macdonald, Alexander Galt, William McDougall and William Pearce Howland attended this lengthy conference.

The first task for the delegates upon arriving in Westminster were to review the 72 Quebec Resolutions (sometimes referred to as the Quebec Scheme) that would later become the framework of the Canadian constitution. However, the conference was not all smooth sailing as two main issues quickly surfaced: the first issue arose when Prince Edward Island decided against joining the federal union, as they felt a lack of gain from Confederation – a discontent that has been felt since the Charlottetown Conference; the second major issue centered on the Maritime Catholics who demanded separate schools for Roman Catholic children in the new federation. This demand was strongly resisted by Maritime delegates, and what ultimately came out of negotiations was the creation of separate school systems in Canada, with the exception of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The back-and-forth amongst the delegates themselves and with the Colonial Office took weeks to reach a conclusion. Finally, on February 11, 1867 the delegates completed their final draft of the British North America Act (later renamed the Constitution Act, 1867) and sent it to Queen Victoria for Royal Assent. Delegates such as John A. Macdonald desired for greater separation from Britain, even going as far as proposing to name Canada as the ‘Kingdom of Canada’. However, this idea was unanimously rejected due to a strong sense of loyalty.

The BNA received Royal Assent on March 22, 1867 and culminated in Royal Proclamation on March 29, 1867. July 1, 1867 was the selected date that Confederation would be enacted. Before returning home, the delegates attended an extra special event on February 16: the marriage of John A. Macdonald and Agnes, the daughter of a Colonial Office servant.

Confederation itself was a monumental National and political moment in Canada’s history that had a tremendous impact on all communities throughout Canada. Despite the little amount of information was found in regards to Toronto Township’s specific connections to Confederation, there is no doubt that the residents of historic Mississauga were politically active during the time, and even though Confederation happened on a federal level, residents throughout the smaller communities of Canada were most certainly aware of its occurrence.

Confederation Timeline:

1867: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia
1870: Manitoba & Northwest Territories
1871: British Columbia
1873: Prince Edward Island
1898: Yukon Territory
1905: Alberta & Saskatchewan
1949: Newfoundland & Labrador
1999: Nunavut


Canada and Confederation Timeline

Symbols of Canada and Ontario

Howland - Our Father of Confederation

Please see the film John A: Birth of a Country, from the CBC:


© Mississauga Heritage 2009