Connecting Canada: Conferences, Confederation and the Dominion of Canada

In 1867, British North America comprising of the British Empire’s colonial territories formally became the Dominion of Canada through Confederation. The first provinces of the new Dominion were Canada West (Ontario), Canada East (Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Previously Canada had just been a province on the North American continent and heavily relied on Britain to sustain itself. Canada’s protection up to that point in time was from Britain who was beginning to see its colonies as an economic burden. The British were keen on having its colonies self-govern and become more independent.


With Britain pulling out of British North America, the colonies would be left to struggle with high debt and the task of defending themselves, leaving them vulnerable to potential invaders. Many arguments were made in that fear of the United States and the results of the American Civil War led to the eventual confederation of Canada. While partial credit can be given to these certain events, the failing economy, the military, and the storm of politics should be factored in when considering the topic of Canadian Confederation. The process was one that had been in development for decades beforehand.

Canadian Red Ensign

On the topic of conferences, leading up to confederation there were talks concerning matters involving representation, Native affairs. Another topic of concern was how the federal and provincial legislatures would work. Such issues included the powers each form of government would hold, and what abilities they had. While many on the in on confederation were anxious, those in the Maritime colonies refused to join. A total of seventy-two resolutions were drafted in the Maritimes, however many remain skeptical and were unwilling to join in union.


A major reason the Maritime colonies refused confederation was because of the fact that they were in a period of prosperity. While most other colonies were suffering economically the Maritimes profited heavily in their ports with shipping and shipbuilding. Nova Scotia’s economy benefited greatly from its ports and saw themselves as having a closer relationship with Britain than Canada. New Brunswick was of the same view as Nova Scotia. Even though both were heavily against confederation, they would eventually agree to join Canada. While they were prosperous, nothing lasts forever, and their economies began to fail. A major factor in their agreeance was the prospect of the railroad. As a powerful play for confederation, the railway for the maritime colonies would allow for better economic development with steamboats on the rise. Their shipbuilding industry was beginning to falter with new technology, and confederation would have Canada taking the brunt of paying for and building the railway. The introduction of rail tying the east and west coast together would not only benefit the economy but would be an effective method of transportation for moving troops across Canada for defence.


While Britain wanted union for British North America, the pacing of negotiations began to ramp in the 1860s. The American Civil War was a major inspiration towards confederation because of fears of annexation by the United States. The violence and chaos during the civil war had a large impact in British North America, as many believed the civil war occurred because of a lack of a unified or rather central government. Because of Britain’s pressure for the colonies to become independent, many began to have ideas of creating a strong central government. With the American Civil War over, the United States was left with a large and powerful army. The aggressiveness of the United States played a large role in the development of Canada. Pressure from the Americans was very real with American politicians desiring to take control of the whole continent of North America. Furthermore the St. Albans Raid played a significant role with a series of bank robberies. The robberies were planned out by Lieutenant Bennet H. Young to gain money for the Confederate Army and draw the attention of the Union Army towards the northern border. The raiders had escaped to Canada East provoking the Northern Army to pursue them deep into Canadian territory, violating British neutrality. Moreover, in Canada, ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was the belief that settlers were destined to expand across North America was a cause of fear in many Canadians.


However, to get back to politics, Canada was facing a major problem in its provinces. Canada West being largely protestant anglophone was at odds with Canada East who were catholic francophones. The two sides were set in a political deadlock as representation was equal within the Legislative Assembly. There was little change due to this, and by 1864, a coalition government known as the Great Coalition was formed with Confederation being its main priority. The Reciprocity agreement which had allowed free trade on many commodities between the US and BNA was cancelled as Britain had supported the American south. This act provided an opportunity for confederation, as the colonies would be able to create a new market for free trade. This common goal was essentially the propeller towards union as Canada West and Canada East would seek out more land for farming and settlement. Meaning that Canada had to move quickly to secure land away from the Americans who were actively discussing the annexation of Rupert’s Land and more territory up north. This project was one where supporters of Confederation believed that a new political entity would help for future prosperity.

Charlottetown Conference

The Charlottetown Conference of in early September of 1864 set into motion discussions of Confederation. The meetings were organized by delegates from the Atlantic colonies to discuss possible union for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Here, they were persuaded by the Province of Canada into working towards the union of all British colonies located in British North America. The Great Coalition was a major turning point in Canadian politics as it saw the disputes within government to take a back seat to confederation. Another major conference would later be held in Quebec just a month later. The second meeting between the parties was in Quebec, where delegates would go on to pass 72 Resolutions. These were the fundamentals of what was previously discussed in the Charlottetown Conferences and would lay out the framework for the formation of a new country. They outlined federalism and how the powers and responsibilities would be divided between provincial and federal governments. This was largely focused on a balanced government to avoid any mistakes that could lead to a civil war like the American Civil War. The new government would have an elected House of Commons based on representation by population and being appointed to the Senate. The seats would be equally split between Canada West, Canada East and the Atlantic Colonies. The biggest factor and perhaps the largest financial commitment required by the new government was the construction of an Intercontinental railway. The Railway was a powerful card for Canada during Confederation negotiations and would further be used when negotiating with other colonies over their futures in the new Dominion of Canada.

Quebec Conference

There were many factors that lead to Canadian Confederation. For Canada, the 19th century saw political battles between Upper and Lower Canada. The creation of the Province of Canada to settle matters over representation by population equally split between Canada West, Canada East, and the Atlantic colonies saw each region have a voice in parliament. The American Civil and Britain’s desire to pull out of North America was a fear for the young colonies. The prospect of relying on themselves was a major push towards the formation of the Dominion of Canada.  Moreover, the previously prosperous economies of many colonies were beginning to fail as their materials began to lose value with new technology. At that point, Confederation was one of the few solutions to counteract the deficit. Confederation was an onerous task and took place through many conferences with Britain and its colonies. The British North America Act was passed by the British parliament on July 1, 1867.

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