Canadian Confederation

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Canadian Confederation, or the Confederation of Canada, was the process, culminating on 1 July 1867, by which a union was formed among the provinces, colonies, and territories of British North America to form the Dominion of Canada, a dominion of the British Empire and federal nation state.


Colonial organization

Before 1867, British North America was a collection of six separate colonies: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Province of Canada (now Quebec and Ontario), Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia. Only the first three listed here entered into Confederation at first, but all did eventually, the last being Newfoundland in 1949. The remainder of modern-day Canada was made up of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory, which were owned by the Hudson's Bay Company and ceded to Canada in 1870, and the Arctic Islands, which were under direct British control and became part of Canada in 1880.

Early projects

Lord Durham
Lord Durham

The idea of a legislative union of all British colonies in America goes back to at least 1754, when the Albany Congress was held, preceding the Continental Congress of 1774. At least twelve other projects followed.

The idea was revived in 1839 by Lord Durham in his Report on the Affairs of British North America. A federation project was proposed to John A. Roebuck before Durham's mission to Canada.

In 1857, Joseph-Charles Taché proposed a federation in the Courrier du Canada.

In 1858, Alexander Tilloch Galt, George-Étienne Cartier and John Ross travelled to Great Britain to present the British Parliament with a project for federation of the British colonies. The proposal was received by the London authorities with polite indifference. By 1864, it was clear that continued governance of the Province of Canada under the terms of the 1840 Act of Union had become impracticable. Therefore, a Great Coalition of parties formed in order to reform the political system.

British North America Act, 1867

Confederation was accomplished when Queen Victoria gave royal assent to the British North America Act (BNA Act) on March 29, 1867. That act, which united the Province of Canada with the colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, came into effect on July 1 that year. The act dissolved the Act of Union (1840) which had previously established the union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Separate provinces were re-established under their current names of Ontario and Quebec. July 1 is now celebrated as Canada Day.

Prime Minister of United Canada John A. Macdonald and others encouraged Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to come to talks on creating self-government in the form of one united dominion. Some of the political leaders of the maritime colonies worried about being dominated by the population centres of Ontario and Quebec through the electoral system proposed for a central government.

The Fathers of Confederation elected to call the new country the Dominion of Canada, after rejecting "kingdom" and "confederation", among other options. The term "dominion" originates from Psalm 72:8 and was suggested by Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley.

The original "confederation" gathering was by delegates of the four Atlantic region colonies at Charlottetown in September 1864, with the agenda being a discussion of a Maritime Union (or Atlantic Union). On behalf of Canada, MacDonald asked that delegates from that colony be allowed to attend. During the conference, MacDonald suggested a union of all British colonies in North America.

At a second conference in Quebec City in October, further details were worked out. The Quebec Conference was originally used to show the Maritimers hospitality and to explain the idea of Confederation, and it worked. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia requested completion of a railway, the Intercolonial, to connect them with Quebec. At this point, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted to stay out of the proposed union. A further conference was held in London, England in December 1866. Queen Victoria proclaimed the new dominion on July 1, 1867, although without overseas telegraphy, the news took a few days to arrive in Canada. Dominion elections were held in August and September to elect the first Parliament, and the four new provinces' governments recommended the 72 individuals (24 each for Quebec and Ontario, 12 each for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) who would sit in the Senate.

While the BNA Act gave Canada more autonomy than it had before, it was far from full independence from the United Kingdom. Foreign policy remained in British hands, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remained Canada's highest court of appeal, and the constitution could only be amended in Britain. Gradually, Canada gained more autonomy, and in 1931, obtained almost full autonomy within the British Commonwealth with the Statute of Westminster. Because the provinces of Canada were unable to agree on a constitutional amendment formula for the BNA Act, the document remained in London. In 1982, the BNA Act was patriated when Queen Elizabeth II gave her royal assent to the Canada Act 1982. In Canada, the Canadian constitution is named the Constitution Act, 1982. It includes the BNA Act, which was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867.

Confederation as a political term of art

The term Confederation is now often used to describe Canada in an abstract way, "The Fathers of Confederation" itself being one such usage. Provinces and territories that became part of Canada after 1867 are also said to have joined Confederation (but not the Confederation). However, the term usually refers more concretely to the political process that united the colonies in the 1860s; it is also used to divide Canadian history into pre-Confederation and post-Confederation (post-Confederation being a living term that includes the present day).

There were several factors that influenced Confederation both causes from internal sources and pressures from external sources.

Internal causes that influenced Confederation:

  • political deadlock resulting from the current political structure
  • demographic pressure
  • economic nationalism and the promise of economic development

External pressures that influenced confederation:

  • the U.S. doctrine of Manifest destiny, the constant threat of intervention from the US
  • the creation of a new British colonial policy, Britain no longer wanted to maintain troops in its colonies.

Fathers of Confederation

Meeting at Quebec City
Meeting at Quebec City

Confederation was first agreed upon at the Charlottetown Conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1864, although Prince Edward Island did not actually join Confederation until 1873. The specifics were then mostly determined at the Quebec Conference in Quebec City later in 1864, and at a final London Conference in 1866. The following lists the participants in the conferences and their attendance at each stage. They are known as the Fathers of Confederation.

There were 36 original Fathers of Confederation. Harry Bernard, who was the Recording Secretary at the Charlottetown conference, is considered by some to be a Father of Confederation. The later "Fathers" who brought the other provinces into Confederation after 1867 (such as Joey Smallwood) are also referred to as "Fathers of Confederation." In this way, Amor de Cosmos who was both instrumental in bringing democracy to British Columbia, and bringing his province into Confederation, is considered by many to be a Father of Confederation.

There is also a modern trend, by no means universally supported, to regard Louis Riel as a Father of Confederation for his role in bringing Manitoba into confederation following the Red River Rebellion of 18691870, despite his having been executed for treason following the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

Table of participation

Participant Province Charlottetown Quebec London
Sir Adams George Archibald Nova Scotia Yes Yes Yes
George Brown Ontario Yes Yes No
Sir Alexander Campbell Ontario Yes Yes No
Sir Frederick Bowker T. Carter Newfoundland No Yes No
Sir George-Étienne Cartier Quebec Yes Yes Yes
Edward Barron Chandler New Brunswick Yes Yes No
Jean-Charles Chapais Quebec No Yes No
James Cockburn Ontario No Yes No
George Coles Prince Edward Island Yes Yes No
Robert B. Dickey Nova Scotia Yes Yes No
Charles Fisher New Brunswick No Yes Yes
Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt Quebec Yes Yes Yes
John Hamilton Gray Prince Edward Island Yes Yes No
John Hamilton Gray New Brunswick Yes Yes No
Thomas Heath Haviland Prince Edward Island No Yes No
William Alexander Henry Nova Scotia Yes Yes Yes
Sir William Pearce Howland Ontario No No Yes
John Mercer Johnson New Brunswick Yes Yes No
Sir Hector-Louis Langevin Quebec Yes Yes Yes
Andrew Archibald Macdonald Prince Edward Island Yes Yes No
Sir John A. Macdonald Ontario Yes Yes Yes
Jonathan McCully Nova Scotia Yes Yes Yes
William McDougall Ontario Yes Yes Yes
Thomas D'Arcy McGee Quebec Yes Yes No
Peter Mitchell New Brunswick No Yes Yes
Sir Oliver Mowat Ontario No Yes No
Edward Palmer Prince Edward Island Yes Yes No
William Henry Pope Prince Edward Island Yes Yes No
John William Ritchie Quebec No No Yes
Sir Ambrose Shea Newfoundland No Yes No
William H. Steeves New Brunswick Yes Yes No
Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché Quebec No Yes No
Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley New Brunswick Yes Yes Yes
Sir Charles Tupper Nova Scotia Yes Yes Yes
Edward Whelan Prince Edward Island No Yes No
Robert Duncan Wilmot New Brunswick No No Yes

Joining Confederation

See also: History of Canada

Manitoba was established July 15, 1870, by act of Parliament, originally as a very small area not even the width of current day Manitoba. British Columbia joined Canada July 20, 1871, by act of Parliament (and encouraged to join by Sir John A. MacDonald's promise of a railway within 10 years). Prince Edward Island joined July 1, 1873 (and, as part of the terms of union, was guaranteed a ferry link, a term which was deleted upon completion of the Confederation Bridge in 1997). Alberta and Saskatchewan were established September 1, 1905, by acts of Parliament. Newfoundland joined on March 31, 1949, also with a ferry link guaranteed.

Canada acquired Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company and the British-claimed Northwestern Territory in 1869, and took ownership in May 1870, merging them and naming them the Northwest Territories. In 1880, the British assigned all North American Arctic islands to Canada, right up to Ellesmere Island. From this vast swath of territory were created three provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta) and two territories (Yukon and Nunavut), and two extensions each to Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

Here is a list of the order in which the provinces and territories entered Canada. (Territories are italicized.) At formal events, representatives of the provinces and territories take precedence according to this list (except that provinces always come before territories). For provinces that entered on the same date, the order of precedence is based on the province's population at the time it entered Confederation.

Order Date Name
1 1867 Ontario
Nova Scotia
New Brunswick
5 1870 Manitoba*
Northwest Territories
7 1871 British Columbia
8 1873 Prince Edward Island
9 1898 Yukon*
10 1905 Saskatchewan*
12 1949 Newfoundland and Labrador
13 1999 Nunavut*


*In 1870 the Hudson's Bay Company–controlled Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory were transferred to the Dominion of Canada. Most of these lands were established as the Northwest Territories, but the region around Fort Garry was simultaneously established as the province of Manitoba by the Manitoba Act of 1870. The Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nunavut were created out of the Northwest Territories; the remaining provinces joined Canada as separate and previously independent colonies.

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