“Canada,” Pierre Elliott Trudeau is supposed to have said, “is a country built against any common, geographic or historical sense”. Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979 and again from 1980 to 1984, Trudeau was a smart man: he did not to say that it made no political sense. He also had the good sense not say that the modern, multicultural, bilingual Canada for which he is so much responsible, Charter Rights and all, was built on internal division, fear, and, bribery.
Created in the aftermath of the Rebellions of 1836, the unified Province of Canada was fracturing by the 1850s and was had run its course by the 1860s. With Canada East, modern Quebec, and Canada West, modern Ontario, equally represented in the parliament, the more populous western half resented the “French-Canadian dominance” of its eastern neighbour. This power enforced on the largely English speaking and Protestant westerners, a guarantee of French and Catholic values, particularly in education. In Toronto, George Brown, leader of the Reform Party and editor of the Globe, forerunner to the Globe and Mail, neatly defined the problem:
We have two countries, two languages, two religions, two habits of thought and action, and the question is can you possibly carry on the government of both with one Legislature and one executive.
For some the only answer was separation. For the more moderate but no less fiery Brown, the solution was representation by population and the separation of church and state. For a rapid succession of governments the internal divisions were forgotten in a series of scandals, including the location of the capital in Ottawa. Still, the problem could not be ignored for long: French speakers were unlikely to give up their political advantage, but the westerners had an undeniable point.
Separation was an absurdity, and John A. Macdonald, leader of the Conservatives in Canada West and George-Etienne Cartier, their leader in Canada East, both saw the necessity of each part to the other. Trade would still pass have to along the St Lawrence, but without Canada East, the westerners would be denied direct access to the Port of Montreal and the Atlantic. Equally, self-government and prosperity had changed Canada East and the appetite for separation had diminished. In 1836 Cartier had fought with Papineau against the British; by 1858, he was in London presenting an early version of Confederation to Queen Victoria. So comfortable was he in the British Empire that he stated that the Lower Canadian was an Englishman who spoke French.
Beyond the divisions between the two Canadas stood the United States. Thomas Jefferson’s glib claim that removing the British from north America was simply a matter of marching had been proved wrong in 1812, but the memory and the fear of annexation lingered long. If separation looked illogical from the perspective of Canadian self-interest, to their imperial masters in London it looked like an administrative and military nightmare. The Canadians would have to sort it out themselves.
When Brown, Cartier and Macdonald came together their solution was an audacious dodge. Rather than confront the internal divisions, they would simply build on top of them and persuade the other colonies of British North America to confederate in one self-determining territory. London would not only endorse the undertaking, but bless it with political powers whose scope would be matched by the grant of the enormous tracts owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Clearly such an implausible scheme met with resistance. The Atlantic colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island saw no advantage in helping Canada solve its political problems and, thanks to abundant fish and timber, were doing just fine by themselves. So strong was this feeling that Newfoundland saw no attraction in joining Canada until 1949. London too saw little advantage in this confederacy, which could only export the problems of a difficult and expensive colony to other quieter ones.
In 1861 all this changed. The war in the United States over the abolition of slavery might have been a Civil War, but it was a reminder of the violence of the War of 1812 and the American belief in Manifest Destiny. At the time Yankee newspapers in New York and Chicago declared “Just wait till this war is over, and then we’ll fix you.” In 1867, the year of Confederation and the American purchase of Alaska, US Secretary of State W. H. Seward declared that the whole North American continent “shall be, sooner or later, in the magic circle of the American Union”. Fear of a violent and expansionary US meant that if Canada was to survive and Britain to avoid another war in North America, some form of political union was needed between the Britain’s colonies. With war raging to the south the arguments for Confederation became overwhelming: “Look around you,” said Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “in this age of earthquake to the valleys of Virginia, the mountains of Georgia, and you will find reasons as thick as blackberries.”
In 1864, Cartier went to London again. This time the Colonial Office fell on the plan and Cartier returned with a mandate for “peace, order and good government,” the most sweeping powers ever granted by the Empire. Witnessing the carnage to the south, Macdonald saw that the new union needed a federal government stronger than Washington. He assured the elites of Quebec and Ontrario that he would use them more invasively than London ever had.
While London was eager to divest itself of responsibility of the its colonies, the Maritimes remained unconvinced. The War of 1812 had been less fiercely fought in the coastal regions, with trade only moderately disrupted. With the Civil War in the US concluded in 1865 Maritime fears about invasion receded still further and with them the reasons for confederating with the two divided Canadas. Confederation became a question of what the Canadas could offer the coastal populations. The answer was railways and money.
Sparsely populated and covering huge distances, without railways Canada would be impossible to govern. The promise of easy rail connection with the inland economic centres were used by Macdonald to cajole and bribe the Maritimes in to Confederation. The Intercolonial Railway from Halifax to Quebec City was written into the British North America Act of 1867. A railway lawyer and representative of Alexander Galt’s Grand Trunk Railway which the Intercolonial would extend, Cartier was more than happy with this constitutional obligation. The railways ensured the economic prosperity of both Canada and Cartier, and in 1867 the four provinces of Qntario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia confederated.
For tiny Prince Edward Island a railway could hardly suffice and so its parliament negotiated, demanded and received from Macdonald a ferry and a debt allowance double that of all of the other provinces. When the first Governor-General of Canada visited in Charlottetown in 1873 it seemed that it was the Island that had annexed Canada.
Cartier understood that the railways were essential to the success of a country uniting Britain’s colonies in North America. Newfoundland might be a hold out but there was still British Columbia on the Pacific coast. And for this there were two obstacles: money and the vast lands owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company which separated Ontario on the Great Lakes from the British Columbia beyond the Rocky Mountains.
The one problem would solve the other, and in 1869 Cartier left once again for London discuss the largest property deal in British and Canadian history. The obvious question was the price. In 1867 the Americans had paid $7.2 million for remote Alaska. Prince Rupert’s land was considerably bigger, in large parts fertile, and had a border with the United States. One suggestion was $40 million. In the end Cartier bought the lot of $1.5 million and gave a twentieth of the fertile land back to the HBC.
With a border between British Columbia and Canada there was a point to talking about confederation of the Pacific colony. Cartier’s methods were the same as with the maritimes; when, they arrived in Ottawa, after taking a ferry to San Francisco and the railway through the United State, the delegation from B.C. asked for a wagon road. Cartier offered them a railway, and with the right to parcel up and sell Prince Rupert’s Land – from which would be carved Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta – he had means to pay for it.
When that railway, the Canadian Pacific, was completed in 1885 and the final spike driven into the ground at Craigellachie, B.C. it was possible to travel from Halifax in Nova Scotia to Vancouver in five days. The exceptional speed and expense which the construction of a continental railway system required defied any economic sense; the 11,000 settlers in British Columbia were as well connected as the half million in California, and at 3.7 million, the population of Canada was less than a tenth of the United States. But the railway was never really about economic sense, and as the dollars blew down the tracks so they blew though Ottawa and Montreal too.
In the years immediately following Confederation political scandals involving railways and politicians abounded. Cartier was far from immune. Land sales could not happen fast enough and in a final irony, the Canadian Pacific Railway was funded by money from the United States, specifically from the American financiers of the rival Northern Pacific Railroad. Of this money, $350,000 ended up in the coffers of Macdonald and Cartier’s Conservative Party. Cartier himself received $85,000. Obviously the government had to resign, but by then the railway held down a single unified nation, Canada. And if Canada ran from sea to sea while standing determinedly outside the magic circle of the American Union, this was in part because the railway had been built with American money.
Consulted for this post
Peter Waite. “Between Three Oceans: Challenges of a Continental Destiny”. The Illustrated History of Canada. Ed. Craig Brown. (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2002) pp. 277-376.
Berton, Pierre. The National Dream: the Great Railway, 1871-1881. (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 1970)