Fun facts about Canada's founding fathers

Canada’s founders were a not-so-motley crew of mostly lawyers and businessmen, with the odd doctor, journalist and pharmacist thrown in for good measure. Who were these Fathers of Confederation?

From a prohibitionist pharmacist to an infidel editor, meet some of Canada's Fathers of Confederation

The conference at Charlottetown was the first of three held to establish the terms of Confederation. (George P. Roberts/Library and Archives Canada)

Canada's 36 Fathers of Confederation were a not-so-motley crew of mostly lawyers and businessmen, with the odd doctor, journalist and pharmacist thrown in for good measure.

They met in Charlottetown, Quebec and London between 1864 and 1867 to discuss uniting New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada, which was composed of Canada East and Canada West (which would later become Quebec and Ontario).

The Fathers represented British North America colonies that had previously formed New France, until they were handed over to England at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763.

During the 100 years between that handover and the Confederation talks, American and European aggressions had put those colonies on alert. Economic, political and military concerns also contributed to talk of unification, as did a need for a national railway to facilitate trade. The American Civil War (1861-1865) stoked fears of possible annexation.

Union, for many Fathers of Confederation, was the best way to avoid getting scooped up into the United States.

And so the Dominion of Canada was born on July 1, 1867. But who were these men, these Fathers of Confederation?  

Leonard Tilley: Pro-union, anti-booze

Pharmacist and noted prohibitionist Samuel Leonard Tilley. (Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada)

Originally a pharmacist hailing from New Brunswick (he first apprenticed at 13), Samuel Leonard Tilley sold his successful drugstore to become a politician. He was a proponent of responsible government and of prohibition — neither of which were popular in New Brunswick at the time — and a member of several pro-temperance groups. Tilley served as premier of New Brunswick before joining Canada's first federal cabinet in 1867.

Tilley, along with fellow Maritime premiers Charles Tupper (Nova Scotia) and John Hamilton Gray (P.E.I.), had started discussing a union prior to 1864, but hadn't settled on a date to hold a conference on the subject. "It was not until the Province of Canada asked for an invitation that a meeting was hurriedly organized for September 1 at Charlottetown," explains the Government of Canada's website.

Charles Tupper: 69 days in office

Charles Tupper served as Nova Scotia's premier before moving to federal politics. He pushed for Confederation after becoming convinced a small colony such as Nova Scotia would never gain much attention from England. (Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada)

Tupper worked as a doctor prior to becoming a politician, and occasionally performed medical work after joining the government; he was known for keeping a medical bag under his seat in the House of Commons. He was the Canadian Medical Association's first president, and he also served as Canada's sixth prime minister — for exactly 69 days — in 1896. He is the current record holder for shortest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.

Despite his political and medical successes, Tupper wasn't well-liked: "Throughout his career Tupper was variously described as 'the Boodle Knight,' the 'Great Stretcher' (of the truth), 'the old tramp,' the 'Arch-Corruptionist' and 'the old wretch.' All of these epithets contain a grain of truth and much of the abuse Tupper brought upon himself by his combativeness, his partisanship and his pomposity," summarizes the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

By the numbers

Provinces/territories that joined the Dominion of Canada after Confederation:

  • Manitoba and Northwest Territories: 1870
  • British Columbia: 1871
  • Prince Edward Island: 1873
  • Yukon: 1898
  • Saskatchewan and Alberta: 1905
  • Newfoundland: 1949
  • Nunavut: 1999

Oliver Mowat: Trouble for John A. Macdonald

Oliver Mowat fought his fellow Fathers of Confederation on provincial rights, making the case that provinces should have greater authority. (Notman & Fraser/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada)

Oliver Mowat, among other things,  is the reason every province has its own liquor commission.

Mowat — the third premier of Ontario, a former justice minister and the great-great uncle of Farley Mowat — fought at 1864's Quebec conference to decentralize certain government powers, making a constitutional case for provincial rights. This was much to the chagrin of John A. Macdonald, a fierce supporter of centralization.

Mowat and Macdonald's antagonistic relationship began long before Confederation. They first met when Mowat articled in the 21-year-old Macdonald's law office in Kingston, starting at the age of 15 (there was no formal legal education in Ontario at the time). He was a recurring thorn in Macdonald's side until the latter died in 1891.

Jean-Charles Chapais: The farmer among the fathers

Farmer and businessman Jean-Charles Chapais of Kamouraska, Que. (William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada)

Farmer and businessman Jean-Charles Chapais of Kamouraska, Que., may not be among the best-known Fathers of Confederation, but his contributions — namely the abolition of seigneurial tenure (a feudal land-distribution system) and the development of laws to help support farming — are still reflected in the Canada of today.

William Henry Pope: The infidel editor

William Henry Pope: an infidel with a very strong judicial track record. (Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada)

William Henry Pope, a lawyer and land agent by training, was also an editor of PEI's The Islander newspaper. Pope was a renowned "infidel"  — a term used at the time to describe atheists or agnostics — which sparked great controversy. In a series of letters addressed to P.E.I.'s Protestants, he mocked Catholicism and its "God made of a little flour and water."  

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, William Henry Pope's "tastes were quite extravagant, and despite his shrewdness, he was a poor manager of his personal finances."

Despite these alleged failings, Pope was appointed as a judge to the Prince County court; only two of his decisions were ever appealed.

D'Arcy McGee: Rebel with a cause

Once a pro-annexation Irish nationalist, McGee moved to Montreal in 1857 on the invitation of the city’s Irish community. (William Notman/Library and Archives Canada)
Irishman D'Arcy McGee had spent some time as a journalist, writing for the Irish newspaper the Nation. Around the same time, McGee became a pro-independence agitator in 1848's failed Irish rebellion.

McGee left Ireland in the aftermath, settling first in New York and then in Boston, and founding an informal counterpart to the publication he'd worked for in Ireland, also called the Nation.

"When McGee's projects failed to gain support, he moved to Montreal in 1857, at the invitation of the local Irish community," says the Government of Canada's website — at which point he also changed his mind about the U.S. annexation of Canada, which he had previously supported.

McGee was shot and killed in Ottawa in 1868, after a late night at the House of Commons; his death was believed to have been the result of an Irish republican (Fenian) assassination plot. About 80,000 people attended his Montreal funeral procession — an astonishing figure, given the city had approximately 105,000 residents at the time.

More than 80,000 people attended D’Arcy McGee’s funeral procession in Montreal on April 13, 1868. At the time, there were approximately 105,000 people living in the city. (James Inglis/Library and Archives Canada)

McGee was not, however, the only Father of Confederation to die from a gunshot wound. Fellow journalist George Brown, the founder of the Toronto Globe (which would later become the Globe and Mail), was shot in the leg in his office by a disgruntled former engine-room employee. The wound wasn't fatal, but the ensuing infection was. He died in 1880.

By the numbers

Canada was founded by:

  • 19 lawyers: Adams George Archibald, Alexander Campbell, George-Étienne Cartier, Edward Barron Chandler, James Cockburn, Robert Barry Dickey, Charles Fisher, John Hamilton Gray, Thomas Heath Haviland, William Alexander Henry, Hector-Louis Langevin, John A. Macdonald, Jonathan McCully, Peter Mitchell, Oliver Mowat, Edward Palmer, William Henry Pope, John William Ritchie, Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter.
  • 9 businessmen: Jean-Charles Chapais, George Coles, Alexander Tilloch Galt, William Pearce Howland, John Mercer Johnson, Andrew Archibald Macdonald, Ambrose Shea, William Henry Steeves, Robert Duncan Wilmot.
  • 4 journalists: George Brown, William McDougall, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Edward Whelan.
  • 2 doctors: Étienne-Paschal Taché, Charles Tupper.
  • 1 pharmacist: Samuel Leonard Tilley.
  • 1 military officer: John Hamilton Gray.

George-Étienne Cartier: Reaching out to the French

George-Étienne Cartier, a staunch pro-unification advocate, was heavily involved with the Société St-Jean-Baptiste, which is today dedicated to Quebec sovereignty. (George-Étienne Cartier)

Finally, the two major architects of Confederation: George-Étienne Cartier and John A. Macdonald.

Born in St-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Que., Cartier helped sway Quebec, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba and British Columbia to join the union. At home, he convinced French-speaking residents suspicious of unification that if they didn't consent to Confederation, Quebec could easily be annexed by the U.S.

Cartier later became embroiled in the Pacific Scandal, a cash-for-contracts scheme in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Cartier served as Macdonald's right-hand man, and occasional prime-ministerial fill-in, until his death from kidney disease in 1873. Macdonald burst into tears after announcing Cartier's death in the House of Commons, reports the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

John A. Macdonald: The architect

John A. Macdonald, circa 1861–1863, around the same time he served as a joint premier for the Province of Canada. (Notman & Son/Library and Archives Canada)

Macdonald, who was premier of Canada West (previously Upper Canada) portion of the Province of Canada at the time Confederation talks began, was the chief driver of a federal union. Of the 72 resolutions established to provide Canada with a template for unification, Thomas D'Arcy McGee said Macdonald had written 50 of them.

"Macdonald had always preferred a highly centralized, preferably unitary, form of government that would not be torn by jurisdictional disputes," writes the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, wanting to avert an American-style civil war.

Like many Canadian politicians who've come after him, Macdonald saw his share of controversies. The revelation of the Pacific Scandal in April 1873 was followed by the July publication of telegrams confirming Macdonald (as well as Cartier and Hector-Louis Langevin) had accepted cash from the main financial backer of the Canadian Pacific Railway while in the midst of negotiations. The news caused a slew of defections, and Macdonald and his government resigned in November.

And like many other Canadian politicians who've come after him, Macdonald made a spectacular comeback just five years later, regaining the title of prime minister — running for and winning a seat in a riding he'd never even visited (Victoria, B.C.) — and serving until his death following a stroke in 1891.