On July 1, 2017, Canada will celebrate its 150th year of existence! This is quite an accomplishment considering our
odd, accidental, unwelcome, rejected, unwanted, unconventional birth.
Remember the American Revolution and the 13 Colonies kicking the shackles of tyranny to curb and emerging as the United States of America? That didn’t happen with us. Great Britain couldn’t afford and didn’t want us anymore, so basically on July 1, 1867, they had a vote in London and told us we were on our own. “Nice knowing you.” “See you later.” “Call us once in a while!”
Now obviously, there is more to this story and it’s not like we wanted to stay anyway, so how did all of those leftover British Colonies manage to grow up and become independent?
Basically, it all started with the American Civil War. By 1861, our neighbours to the South hated each other. The states in the South wanted to leave and form their own country so they could continue to use slavery as a means of keeping their large cotton and tobacco plantations profitable. The North didn’t want the South to leave and didn’t want or need slavery with its more industrial economy. In the end (1865), the North won and the United States remained the United States. Great Britain however (unlike the French in the American Revolution) had bet on the wrong horse and supported the South during the Civil War. They had even built a Confederate warship, the Alabama, in England. When the North finally won in 1865, the United States was justifiably angry with Great Britain. But why sail across the Atlantic to punish Great Britain? Why not take some revenge on those British Colonies to the North?
The United States did this by ending reciprocity agreements with the British Colonies. This meant no more free trade. Canada and the Maritime colonies had gotten used to freely selling lumber, fish and agricultural products to the large US market. With this free ride over, the British colonies had to look to each other as trading partners.
Railways also played a key role here. Railways in the 1800s were like the cell phones of today. They were they KEY communication device that everyone wanted in on. The problem for the British colonies was that railways were expensive to build. Getting together would help solve the cost issue and once built the railways would obviously accelerate trade and the spreading of new ideas.
The colony of Canada also had a huge problem at this time. The Act of Union in 1841 was so successful in creating equality between Canada East and Canada West that the colony had reached a total political stalemate. They couldn’t decide on anything and couldn’t move forward as a result. Canada had to look to get bigger in order to find alliances and get moving again. Canada had a breakthrough of sorts with what was referred to as the Great Coalition in 1864. George Brown and the Reformers actually joined with John A. Macdonald and the Conservatives. The modern day equivalent would be Justin Trudeau joining forces with whoever will lead the Conservative Party of Canada. The catch here was that this coalition’s purpose was to work towards a larger union of British North American colonies.
The coalition found their opportunity in September 1864 at the Charlottetown Conference. The Maritime colonies had gathered to discuss their own union; nothing to do with Canada at this point. The Canadian boys found out about the Conference, crashed the party and turned the Charlottetown Conference’s agenda into one that discussed a merger of all British Colonies in North America. They were persuasive. A month later the group met again in Quebec and hammered out the framework for the BNA Union. Among other items, they wanted the new country to be a federal system with two levels of government; a provincial government to administer things such as education and health and a federal government to handle such items as defence and currency. Any residual powers (anything they couldn’t think of at the time) would belong to the Federal government.
Proud of their accomplishment, the would be Fathers of Confederation took their idea of a unified Canada back to the colonies hoping for a stamp of approval. Instead, they were soundly rejected. Canada voted yes, but the French in Canada East were split. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island said “no thanks” outright. New Brunswick was split and Nova Scotia said “no” but their premier, Charles Tupper, rammed it through anyway. Canada was on hold, destined to expire in 1864.
Then along came the Fenians in 1866. The Fenians were Irish Americans in the Northern United States that out of nowhere started to raid British North American border towns. The reason: They wanted Great Britain out of Ireland. Their campaign had nothing to do with Canada or the United States but it couldn’t have happened at a better time for confederation. Supporters of a larger Canadian union basically said: “See the Americans are attacking us like we said they would.” The British Colonies basically replied: “You’re right, we’ll join together even though we don’t want to.”
That (the Fenian raids) was the catalyst that brought Canada together. The Confederation boys got together in London and dusted off their notes from the Quebec Conference. On March 29, 1867, by an Act of British Parliament, the Dominion of Canada was created. Great Britain essentially told us: “Okay get out of here, and have all your stuff out by July 1.” So on July 1, 1867, the British North America Act came into effect and Canada became a country with four provinces: Ontario (Canada West), Quebec (Canada East), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Here is a summary: