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GLIONNA, FRANCESCO – Volume XIV (1911-1920)

d. 9 Dec. 1918 in Toronto


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

Macdonald and Confederation
Original title:  The Road to Charlottetown: Responsible Government - Letter to editor - The Guardian

Source: Link


A New Union

Although his role as the driving force behind the British North America Act is often exaggerated, John A. MACDONALD did play a key role in its creation. Initially sceptical of confederation, Macdonald reversed his position around 1864 and the “Great Coalition” was formed [see The Great Coalition in the Province of Canada]. The shift demonstrated both his vision and his political flexibility:

“Federation would ‘prevent anarchy,’ ‘settle the great Constitutional question of Parliamentary Reform in Canada,’ and ‘restore the credit of the Province [of Canada] abroad.’ In other words, the united provinces would form a larger, stronger, more harmonious community and even a potential rival to the United States. More immediately the coalition allowed him to escape from serious political difficulties in his own section of Canada, where the Reform party appeared to be gaining unbeatable strength. ‘I then had the option,’ he wrote privately in 1866, ‘either of forming a Coalition Government or of handing over the administration of affairs to the Grit party for the next ten years.’”

George-Étienne CARTIER, Macdonald’s political partner, also saw confederation as a way out of the difficulties that had plagued the province for the previous few legislative sessions:

“Cartier became the advocate of a federation of the provinces of British North America because it appeared to him the best way of extrication from the political difficulties of the period, created especially by the question of representation by population. Lower Canada, which in 1840 had received representation equal to that of the less populous Upper Canada, now was favoured by the subsequent reversal in proportions. Cartier realized that Lower Canada could not hold out indefinitely against rep by pop, and that acceptance of it would not have as many disadvantages in a federative state: several areas important for French Canadians, such as education and justice, would be dependent on a local legislature. Cartier also feared annexation to the United States, and in 1865 he declared: ‘We must either have a Confederation of British North America or else be absorbed by the American Confederation.’ In order to consolidate the federation of the provinces, and ensure their expansion and economic development, Cartier strongly encouraged the building of the Intercolonial, which was to make Canada one country from east to west. His connections with the railway companies, and the fact that his legal office represented the Grand Trunk – which would gain from the extension of the line towards the Atlantic ports – had no doubt prompted him to favour such a programme, necessary, he felt, for the development of the south shore of the lower St Lawrence. Finally, it was natural that as a politician he should desire to play a role on a larger stage. From June 1864 to 1 July 1867, Cartier bent his energies and intelligence to the realization of the federative project.”

When it came to drafting the constitution, Macdonald’s legal background proved invaluable [see The Constitutional Project: The Quebec Resolutions]:

“Certainly much of the constitutional structure of the dominion was his creation. He could not say so publicly, but in private he claimed almost complete responsibility for the confederation scheme on the grounds that he alone had possessed the necessary background in constitutional theory and law. In the ‘preparation of our Constitution,’ he had told his close friend county court judge James Robert Gowan* in November 1864, ‘I must do it alone as there is not one person connected with the Government who has the slightest idea of the nature of the work.’ His colleague Thomas D’Arcy McGee said in public in 1866 that Macdonald was the author of 50 of the 72 resolutions agreed upon at Quebec.”

The Atlantic colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia strongly opposed confederation, Prince Edward Island did not join until 1873, and Newfoundland held out until 1949 [see Opposition to Confederation]. In New Brunswick the politician Albert James SMITH cautioned his fellow colonists against the plan, which he claimed had been “conjured up in the oily brains of Canadian politicians.” In Nova Scotia another politician, Joseph HOWE, lamented that “poor old Nova Scotia, God help her, [is] beset with marauders outside and enemies within.” His biography describes his opposition to the union:

“At one level there was the fear that implementation of union would deal a death-blow to [Howe’s] scheme for the organization of the empire. At another level his opposition was based on practical grounds: railroads, and social and economic intercourse, were needed first to make union a success; the Quebec resolutions, born of Canadian necessity, would lead to the loss of independence and the economic ruination of Nova Scotia. In providing specific evidence to demonstrate these points, Howe used too many arguments, some good, some bad, some indifferent. But his prediction that the tariff increases under the new order would be ruinous to Nova Scotia turned out to be all too correct, and his prophecy that it would take ‘the wisdom of Solomon and the energy and strategy of Frederick the Great’ to weld the disparate people of the proposed union into ‘a new nationality’ was not too far off the mark.”

Macdonald responded to such arguments with patience and persistence:

“The early sessions of the Canadian parliament showed Macdonald’s strong centralist views about the assimilation of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Hudson’s Bay Company territory…. In the face of continuing anti-confederate sentiment in Nova Scotia, customs minister S. L. Tilley had to warn him in July 1868 from Windsor, N.S., ‘There is no use in crying peace when there is no peace. We require wise and prudent action at this moment.’ Macdonald was a realist, but realism with him took the form of perceptions forced upon a sanguine temperament. This odd combination gave him the incentive, dodger that he was, to adapt, shift, make expedients. He would not bow down to difficulties: he would try to work his way out of them. In the case of Nova Scotia, the recklessness of its premier, Charles Tupper, in pressing the province to enter confederation and his own central Canadian perspective had got him into trouble; when he moved it was late, but he acted with skill, courage, and resourcefulness. He travelled to Halifax in August 1868 in order to meet Joseph Howe* to work out measures to ease the conflict between Nova Scotia and the dominion.”

For more information on Macdonald and confederation, please consult the following biographies.

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