Canadian Confederation was a marriage of convenience performed under the shotgun of the U.S. Civil War. The country created by Macdonald and Cartier existed on paper but was one dominated by English imperialists often hostile to a suspicious French-speaking minority, themselves more dominated by a local Catholic clergy than their English neighbours. Ten years after Confederation, Wilfrid Laurier, prime minister from 1886 to 1911, took the first towards a national identity. Perhaps of necessity these steps could only be taken by Canada’s first French-speaking prime minister.
In its early years, Confederation was tested by the integration of the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Relationships between French Catholics and English protestants were a constant source of unease. The inevitability of closer relations with the United States strained strong loyalties to the British Empire. Crises came thick and fast. Louis Riel’s defence of the Métis in Manitoba; separate French schools in Ontario and the new provinces; the settlement of the Klondike in British Columbia; disputes over the border of Alaska and free trade with the US; the Boer and First World Wars all tested Canadians’ commitment to their new country. Famous for his “sunny ways” and patient compromise, Laurier, attempted to guide Canada through these crises to distinct vision of itself able to deal with Washington, London, and the Vatican on its own terms as a single, united nation.
Surprising then that on the great question of Confederation itself Laurier was vehemently against the plan of Macdonald and Cartier. He might have made declarations about the human family on Canadian soil, as he did in his speech as valedictorian at McGill saying that “the race hatreds [between the English and French] are finished on Canadian soil” and that “[i]t matters not the language people speak or the altars at which they kneel”, but this human family did not go so far as having a single federal government. Rather there were two neighbouring Canadas, each protected from the United States, not by a Pax Canadiana, but a Pax Britannia.
As editor of the Le Défricheur, Laurier saw no advantage to Confederation and predicted that it would be “the tomb of the French and the ruin of Lower Canada”.
Union is strength, yes, but only when the elements united are homogenous. It will be vain for you to throw together incongruous elements; there will be no strength, there will not be union … In this strange nation every contrary element will meet face to face; the Catholic element and the Protestant element, the English element and the French element. From this moment there will be strife, war, anarchy; the weakest element, that is to say the French and Catholic element will be dragged up and swallowed by the strongest.
Confederation, Laurier predicted, would bind French Canadians “hand and foot to the English colonies’. Written during the near collapse of the federation of the United States, Macdonald’s federal government pulled power to the centre. For Laurier, and many other French Canadians this was insupportable. “All important questions are within the sphere of the federal Government, that is to say, the Government of the English Colonies, and all the acts of our little local Parliament can be modified, corrected, cut, enlarged, annulled by the same Government.”
But Laurier was also a pragmatist, and when in Confederation became a reality in 1867, he along with many other French-speaking Liberals accepted it as a fait accompli. In many respects his predictions were right and during his premiership of “this strange nation”, the contrary elements would dog him at every turn. That was to be expected; the task he had taken upon himself was to make the elements to work together. But on the important questions, he was wrong: there was no war, there was no anarchy, and without undoing a constitution on which the ink was still wet, he defended the power of the provinces and French identity within Canada even if that meant being called a traitor by his French-speaking friends and English-speaking imperialists.