New Brunswick

Began ... In This Place? Confusion over province's Canada 150 slogan

This is the year that Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, but what’s that New Brunswick slogan all about?

Where did the Dominion truly begin?

Who will claim the title of Canada's birthplace? (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This is the year that Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, but what's that New Brunswick slogan all about?

The Gallant government announced in November that this province's Canada 150 slogan, aimed at luring visitors to New Brunswick for festivities here throughout 2017, is "Celebrate Where It All Began."


Everyone knows that Charlottetown was the birthplace of Confederation. It said so on Prince Edward Island's licence plates and on signs leading into the city. Sir John A. Macdonald is even depicted on one of the city's craft beers.

But New Brunswick has "a foothold" in the narrative too, according to two historians who've studied the period.

The enthusiasm of Gordon

The very first line of historian Donald Creighton's seminal 1964 book The Road to Confederation says: "It was the enthusiasm of Gordon of New Brunswick that gave the movement its real start."

That's a reference to Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, who became lieutenant governor of New Brunswick in 1861.

"I suspect someone in the New Brunswick government must have come upon that line in the book and said, 'Hey, there's a slogan for us,'" says historian Christopher Moore, author of 1867: How the Fathers Made A Deal.

The slogan is legit if you accept that Gordon's push for Maritime Union "started the wheels moving," Moore said. But it falls a bit flat if you recall that Maritime Union never happened and Gordon didn't actually want the larger merger of the colonies that took place in 1867.

Former lieutenant governor of New Brunswick Arthur Hamilton-Gordon was a proponent of a Maritime Union. (Library and Archives Canada)
Gordon's push for Maritime Union was driven by his own ambitions. He once wrote he had "an excessive desire to be eminent."

Edward MacDonald, chair of the history department at the University of Prince Edward Island, said Gordon wanted to merge the three colonies under his governorship to "add to the lustre of his name and reputation, because he did have something of an ego."

Gordon's effort was well-timed. The colonial office in London was looking for its North American colonies "to cost them less and look after themselves more," MacDonald says.

But he and his fellow lieutenant governors in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island couldn't agree on when and where to meet in 1863.

"I don’t agree with them, but I think it’s great, because they do have some claim to being part of this narrative,” said Edward MacDonald, chair of the history department at the University of Prince Edward Island, of New Brunswick's claim. (UPEI)
Word soon reached colonial leaders in Upper and Lower Canada of Gordon's effort. They got themselves invited to the meeting that was finally scheduled for Charlottetown in 1864 and lobbied successfully to be included in the new union. Gordon was sidelined.

In that sense, Charlottetown is where Confederation began, MacDonald says.

"This is where the conference was held, where there was agreement in principle to a confederation of the colonies. That is a significant event, so there's a pretty strong argument that can be made.

"But other arguments can be made, and have been made, and now we see New Brunswick trying to make another one. I don't agree with them, but I think it's great, because they do have some claim to being part of this narrative."

In a written statement, the New Brunswick government cited Gordon to justify the slogan, but also pointed out other milestones that support the "where it all began" slogan, including the first European settlement in Canada on St. Croix Island in 1604.

The island is part of the United States, however.

Birthplace as bargaining chip?

MacDonald and Moore agree "Canada" came into existence over a long period of time as part of an incremental process. "There's lots of room for everybody to claim how vital their particular share was," Moore said.

"You could argue it all started in the colonial office with a desire for us to cost them less," MacDonald says. "You could argue it all really starts in central Canada because if they hadn't asked to attend [the Charlottetown meeting], nothing [would've] happened."

In fact, MacDonald says, Prince Edward Island governments only began describing the province as the birthplace of Confederation a century ago, when they used it to pressure Ottawa for more funding to the island, including for a year-round ferry service.

After that, he says, island leaders "pushed avidly" to reinforce the designation, culminating in the creation of the Confederation Centre for the Arts in 1964, the centennial of the key conference. "We had won the battle of branding," MacDonald says.

"I don't think that New Brunswick is going to overturn that storyline, but I love to see them trying to get in on that storyline," he added.

"Is it enough to hang a tourism campaign on? Well, tourism campaigns have probably been hung on less."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.