The House

The Road to Confederation

On a special Canada Day edition of The House, we go back in time to look at how politics created Canada and how, a century and a half later, the decisions of that time continue to shape our political debates and institutions.
Charlottetown was the first of three conferences held to establish the terms of Confederation. Originally meant to be a meeting between the Maritime colonies to discuss a regional union, John A. Macdonald asked if the Province of Canada could also join in. (George P. Roberts/Library and Archives Canada)

It took the Fathers of Confederation years of work, negotiations and compromise to give rise to the country that's now celebrating its 150th birthday.

Canada is a country not born out of violence and war like our southern neighbours, but one built through months of meetings, correspondence, politicking and a few hangovers along the way.

"Many of the nations of the world are founded at the point of a sword and here we are a nation established at a tip of a pen, and I think that was better thing to live through. And it's something to be proud of," as University of Prince Edward Island historian Ed MacDonald puts it.

On a special Canada Day edition of The House, we look at the politics that created Canada and how a century and a half later the decisions of that time continue to shape our political debates and institutions.


Charlottetown Conference: September 1864

Things started to take off during one of the most famous party crashings in history.

In the fall of 1864, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were gathering to discuss a Maritime union, even though they weren't thrilled to do so.

"They were meeting because the colonial office in Britain wanted them to meet. They were meeting because the British wanted their colonies to cost them less," explained MacDonald, a self-described, "apostle of Island history."

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

But John A. Macdonald, George Brown and George-Étienne Cartier sailed in from what was then known as the Province of Canada with another goal.

"They said let's enlarge the playing field. Let's try and pitch a bigger idea, a larger union, a confederation," MacDonald explained.

"And for the next week they conferenced on the idea of a confederation. They met in the mornings, and in the early afternoons they had lunch, and in the evenings they socialized. There was a dinner or a banquet every evening and it ended with a grand ball. People like to say that we conceived our country in a haze of intoxication and that's not really true, although perhaps with a hangover. The heavy lifting was done in the mornings," he said.

"[Confederation] went from an idle idea to a prospect with real legs. So this is as we like to say the birthplace of Confederation, or the cradle of Confederation. It's where the idea received, you know, liftoff."

Historian Edward MacDonald explains what happened in 1864 on Prince Edward Island. 11:25

The fighting fathers

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

The men who made that liftoff possible would become known as the Fathers of Confederation, but at the time they were politicians from different backgrounds, religion and with different ideas about what a united country should look like.

Brown and Macdonald entered a political alliance in the spring before the Charlottetown Confederation, but were fierce foes.

Brown, founder of what is now known as the Globe and Mail newspaper, openly attacked French-language speakers.

Working with Brown would have been a hard pill for George-Étienne Cartier of Quebec to swallow, but as historian and author Christopher Moore says, their eventual compromise turned the idea of unity into a reality.

"They had been foes for a decade banging away at each other for a decade," said Moore, author of Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting That Made Canada.

"These are men who had hated each other and had blocked each other for a decade or more and at the last minute had decided that they could work together on this project. And they did it without liking it each other. One historian once said they took each other not by the hand, but by the throat when they went into Confederation."

Author Christopher Moore talks about the events and actors that made Confederation possible. 18:42

Quebec Conference: October 1864

The delegates of the provinces at the Quebec Confederation Conference in October 1864. The fathers of Confederation drafted 72 resolutions during a miserable, snowy three weeks in Quebec City that became the founding block for the British North American Act. (The Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada)

If the Charlottetown Conference was the meet and greet, the conference a month later in Quebec City was the policy convention. A boozy one, admittedly, with grand soirees at night.

Over the span of three weeks, during a miserable spat of weather, the 33 delegates hammered out a plan comprising of 72 resolutions that created the foundation for Confederation.

"Most of them, with minor modifications, were translated three years later into the British North America Act...This is still the Constitution that rules us, that rules Canada in 2017," said Guy Laforest, professor of political science at Université Laval and president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Science.

The idea of federalism and distinct separation of powers between Ottawa and the provincial assemblies also came out of the Quebec Conference in 1864, said Laforest.

"When you compare it to more recent constitutional operations, either in Canada or in other parts of the world, it is massively impressive in the sense that I don't think there ever was a moment during the conference where they believed they were close to tragic failure," he said.

"They had thought about this, particularly in United Canada, they had thought about the project of a federation for over a decade."

Moore says a noticeable difference between the Quebec Conference and the constitutional talks in the 1980s and 1990s, was who was invited to the table.

"At Meech we had the infamous 11 white men in a room, the 10 premiers and the prime minister striking a deal. In all the Confederation debates in 1864 and afterwards up  to 1867 they always tried to get a bipartisan delegation, to get in effect a legislative delegation," he said.

"They feared that if just the premier of each colony was in favour of this deal the leader of the Opposition would say, 'Well it's not a good deal. I could have gotten more, I would have given up less.' And you would have had a nasty partisan squabble. The thing would have collapsed."

Historian Guy Laforest discusses the significance of the Quebec City Conference of 1864. 22:12

 Sir George-Étienne Cartier, 'bold as a lion'

Perhaps no one personifies the idea of Canadian federalism more than Sir. John A. Macdonald's right-hand man during the Confederation project, George-Étienne Cartier.

Their friendship is arguably one of the most significant in Canadian history.

Where Macdonald had passion and vision, Cartier had the political brawn to get things done behind the scene.

Charlotte Gray devoted the first chapter of her book, The Promise of Canada: 150 Years, People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country, to the dapper rebel-turned-politician from a small town along the Richelieu River.

"He was absolutely [Macdonald's] equal in terms of constitution writing and more particularly it was Cartier, the French speaking Lower Canadian, who had brought up the idea -- and forced into the discussion -- the idea that the new country, the British North American colonies was going to become, would be a federation and that is the founding principle of this country. It's still our political system, two levels of government, the federal and provincial. But it represents something more than that it also represents compromise," Gray said.

Carteir pushed for a country fortified by a railroad, or as Gray calls it, the steel spine of the country and he also envisioned a Canada tolerant of culture and language,

"What that secured was one national identity for the new country, but it was always going to be political not cultural. So in fact, when he went back to Quebec City after Confederation, after the first Dominion Day on July 1, what he spoke about was a we had we still have our nationality and he meant French Canadian nationality. He didn't mean Canadian nationality. And of course even now we are very ambivalent today about that word nation. We do consider that we all share Canadian nationality, but how often do you ever hear about people talking about the Canadian nation? We have First Nations, we have the Quebec nation," she said.

"Nation in this country has always had a very different meaning than most other countries."

Macdonald, who once described called Cartier "bold as a lion," was so moved by his death he reportedly broke down in tears in reading the telegram announcing his death in the House of Commons in 18763.

The award-winning author and historian talks about the work that was accomplished in the lead-up to Confederation. 12:27

An unhappy birthday for some

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited a teepee on Parliament Hill that was erected as a symbol of the unresolved grievances many Indigenous people have as the country is set to celebrate its 150th anniversary. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

The statues that surround Parliament Hill are cast in bronze, but they all depict white men and women who built the political scaffolding of this country.

Noticeably missing are statues recognizing the role of indigenous people

This week a group of indigenous people and supporters tried to erect a teepee on Parliament Hill, calling it a reoccupation of unceeded Algonquin land.

At first they were restricted to a site near East Block, but on Friday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the group for almost 40 minutes.

Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaw lawyer, author, professor and political pundit, from New Brunswick, is seen in Dartmouth, N.S. on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Pam Palmater, a lawyer from and chair of of the Indigenous Governance program at Ryerson University, says one of the biggest points some Indigenous people want to get across this Canada Day is the atrocities committed against their communities haven't stopped.

"We still have missing and murdered women. We have increasing numbers of our people being over incarcerated, increasing numbers in foster care, we have increasing poverty rates, ill health rates. We don't even have access to clean water and basic health care, like many other Canadians. That is not something to celebrate," she said.

"While it is a celebration for people who have enjoyed all the benefits of Canada, it has in fact been the worst 150 years in the lives of Indigenous peoples who have been on this continent since time and memorial."

Pam Palmater, the chair of of the Indigenous Governance program at Ryerson University, talks about what Canada 150 means for the country's First Nations. 6:26

The next 150 years of the Constitution 

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow all had front row seats to the ongoing constitutional conversation in this country. (CBC)

The constitutional debate didn't end in 1867.

In many ways, it just got started.

Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former Quebec premier Jean Charest all had front row seats to the ongoing constitutional conversation in this country.

"One interesting reality of Canada today is that we are one of the most decentralized federations in the world, and provinces today have powers that are very close to those of sovereign nations," said Charest.

"I think on identity, Canada has a head start on a lot of other countries in the world, because it was very much part of that debate in 1867. How could Quebecers preserve what was at the time their Catholic — which was synonymous to French and Catholic identity -- and at the same time be part of a bigger whole? George-Étienne Cartier has a very compelling quote where he says, we're creating one nation, where there is, essentially, these multiple identities, which is what our life is about."

Romanow said there's unfinished business with the Constitution, including Quebec and Indigenous peoples role in it.

"This is a job not done. Canada is a work in progress," he said.

"Which makes the current initiative [from Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard] interesting and important in a federal structure that is keeping us from, I think, meeting very serious challenges."

Rae said the Constitution is never completely done and added the recurring problem of inequality, especially with Canada's Indigenous population, will be a blight for the next 150 years if not dealt with.

"It's an issue that I think haunts us as a country because of the past and because of the present. And it's one we're going to have to continue to devote a lot of time and effort and resources to making change happen," said the former interim Liberal Party leader.

"When you get off the subway in London, England, there's an announcement that comes off that says: mind the gap, and it tells everybody to what your step as you get off the subway. And I've always thought  that mind the gap is a pretty good to be worried about all the time."

The three former politicians reflect on the road to Confederation and the future of the constitutional debate in Canada. 23:26

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