Canada An American Nation

The Influences That Made Confederation

The second great contribution by the United States to the making of the Canadian nation had to do with the creation of the Canadian Federation. It would not be correct to say that the inspiration for federal union came from the desire of the colonies to follow the example of the United States; but it can be said that confederation could not have been brought about at the time it was affected had it not been for conditions which were the Canadian reaction to American events. One might also say that if confederation had not been brought about at that time, it might have been found impossible later to accomplish it. In quieter times, with political feelings less in control of human wills, the economic resistance to a union of the colonies might have proved all-powerful. We have a {55} conventional account of the making of confederation which takes little note of the forces that operated behind the façade, which misplaces the sequences of cause and effect, and misjudges the significance of events.

From the beginning of the second Empire there had been, at intervals, suggestions of a union of the British colonies in North America under a common direction; but confederation was not the culmination of leisurely academic discussion. The project, which was launched in 1858 and proceeded rapidly to completion, had its origins in the realities and necessities of the times. One of its roots was the attitude of indifference or fatalism following the conceding of responsible government by leading British public men. They accepted the view that in striving for self-government the people of the colonies were taking the first steps toward an inevitable separation; this found expression, sometimes in official documents, in the highest quarters.[8] Disraeli thinks that these wretched colonies, soon to be independent, are in the meantime “millstones around our neck.” Earl Grey can see no British interest served by retaining them. Lord John Russell, speaking as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, looks forward philosophically to their independence. This feeling continued {56} throughout the fifties: and was strengthened by the realization, following the outbreak of the American Civil War, that the North American colonies were dangerous liabilities—they were referred to by the permanent head of the Colonial Office “as a sort of damnosa hereditas.” Tennyson lashed out in anger at this mood:

And that true north of which we lately heard
A strain to shame us, loose the bonds and go.

My own reading of those times is that the movement for confederation, which began in the province of Canada in the late fifties, was the reply of leading colonials to this British attitude, of which they were aware, and which they resented. The colonies, divided and weak, did not want independence. The people knew that to independence there was an inevitable sequel: absorption by the United States. There may have been a desire in the thirties of the nineteenth century for annexation to the United States, but with the granting of self-government it vanished. The Canadian public man who first realized the situation was Alexander Galt, a son of John Galt, the Scotch novelist; and he set himself resolutely to deal with it. He is the real father of confederation. Reading and collating his speeches from his first advocacy of the project to his post-confederation comments upon it, one can see what was in his mind. If the colonies were united they would have some chance of surviving even {57} if they were told to “loose the bonds and go”; perhaps as a confederation Great Britain would be glad to retain them as a coördinate or subordinate nation. In 1858 he journeyed to England to acquaint the government with his plans and enlist its sympathy. His representations to Bulwer Lytton, Secretary for the Colonies, that as things were shaping in British North America, there must be a choice between the confederation of the provinces and their absorption by the United States, left that gentleman and his colleagues quite unimpressed. Returning from England empty-handed, he was unable further to interest his colleagues in the project.

But events were moving. D’Arcy McGee, newly arrived in Canada from Ireland, via the United States, where he sojourned some years, allied himself with Galt; and as his occupation was that of a lecturer, he familiarized audiences in all the British provinces with the idea that it was necessary for their existence that the colonies should come together. The outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, followed by difficulties between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, made the colonists conscious of the dangers of their position. It suggested possibilities to which they had to give attention—the possibility of war between the United States and Great Britain; the possibility of the northern states, in the event of losing the South, finding compensation in overrunning the colonies, which they could easily do with their {58} mighty armies.[9] The southern confederacy had open and powerful sympathizers in Canada, some of them highly placed; the relations between the British countries and the United States were in a dangerously strained condition; the newspapers of the northern states were filled with threats, to be carried out in the future, against Canada.[10] To understand the situation, it is necessary only to read the speeches by public men, in which confederation was recommended to the people. McGee in a public address warned Canadians of their danger:

That shot fired at Fort Sumter was the signal gun of a new epoch for North America which told the people of Canada, more plainly than human speech can ever express it, to sleep no more, except on their arms—unless in their sleep they desire to be overtaken and subjugated…. I do not believe that it is our destiny to be engulfed into a Republican union, renovated and inflamed with {59} the wine of victory, of which she now drinks so deeply—it seems to me that we have theatre enough under our feet to act another and a worthier part; we can hardly join the Americans on our own terms, and we never ought to join them on theirs.[11]

“Events stronger than advocacy, stronger than man, have come in at last,” said McGee, speaking in the Canadian Parliament in support of confederation.[12] It was in this speech that McGee spoke of the three warnings that Canada had been given: The warning from England that Canada must look after her own defense; the warning from the United States—the notice to abrogate the reciprocity treaty, the threat to arm the lakes, the enormous expansion of the American Army and Navy; the breakdown of parliamentary government in the colony. If this be discounted as the rhodomontade of a professional orator, we can turn to the speech of George Brown, in the same debate, for a still apter quotation: “The civil war in the neighboring republic; the possibility of war between Great Britain and the United States; the threatened repeal of the reciprocity treaty; the threatened abolition of the American bonding system; the unsettled position of the Hudson’s Bay company, and the {60} changed feeling of England as to the relations of great colonies to the parent state; all combine at this moment to arrest earnest attention to the gravity of the situation and unite us all in one vigorous effort to meet the emergency like men.”[13]

These reasons for union by the provinces were as potent in Great Britain as in Canada, for though official and political opinion there still tended to the acceptance of the belief that the colonies would ultimately become independent, there was deep apprehension over the possibility that they might be absorbed forcibly by the American republic. Speaking in the Commons in 1862 the Secretary of State for War, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, expressed this opinion quite bluntly: “I for one can only say that I look forward without apprehension, and I may add, without regret, to the time when Canada might become an independent state, [hear, hear,] but I think it behooves England not to cast Canada loose or send her adrift before she has acquired sufficient strength to assert her own independence.”

To avert this fate of absorption by the United States, believed to be impending, the British government began to back the movement for confederation with all the influence it could command. That the scheme did not crash because of opposition in the {61} Maritimes was plainly due to the open and somewhat unblushing intervention of British authority. With all difficulties surmounted, the Dominion of Canada came into being July 1, 1867.

The Dominion of Canada thus constituted included only the provinces between Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean; but within four years its area was multiplied seven times by the transfer to it by the British government of its North American territories, and the inclusion in the federation of the province of British Columbia. Again the reason for this rapid and, in an economic sense, rash expansion was political; and again the impulse to political action came from the United States. In the years following the Civil War “manifest destiny” was a bright alluring star to many American statesmen.[14] In Washington Senators Sumner and Chandler and Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State, were fascinated with the prospect of taking over Canada in part payment of the bill against Great Britain, on the score of the “Alabama” and other activities, which Senator Sumner worked out at two and a half billion dollars—a proposition upon which the British minister was actually sounded. Americans of the northwestern states thought the hour had struck for taking into the Union the vast wilderness of Rupert’s Land. A Minnesota senator proposed in the Senate a resolution favoring a treaty which would {62} transfer to the American Union all British territory west of 90 degrees’ longitude. In the isolated, helpless pioneer province of British Columbia, far out on the Pacific Coast, there was an open and active agitation for union with the United States, drawing support and encouragement from the other side of the boundary. The purchase of Alaska meant to Seward that the whole Pacific coast was to become part of the United States.[15]

With these warning signals flying, the Canadian government and the British government in coöperation moved swiftly to checkmate the plans of the Washington expansionists. The northwestern territory and Rupert’s Land within three years were added to Canada, carrying the Dominion’s boundaries west to the Rocky Mountains and north to the Pole. British Columbia, with a legislature to deal with in which the policy of annexation commanded strong support, was a more difficult problem; but steady pressure from the British government and a pledge, impossible of fulfillment, from Canada that within ten years a transcontinental railway would be built, finally proved effective; and in 1871 the motto of Canada “from sea to sea” was made good. Thus within thirteen years, from the launching by Galt of his drive for federal {63} union, the whole of British North America, with the exception of two islands (one of which came in two years later) was brought under a common national authority. The pressure that drove the statesmen forward in a race, as they believed against time, was the fear, real or imagined, that unless they succeeded in their plans the American dream of “manifest destiny” would be achieved.