Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective


The American Revolution had supplied Canada with an English-speaking population, the Tories who fled northward as rebellion spread. The American invasion of 1812 had united the two Canadian races and given them their first sense of nationality. The American Civil War completed the process. The new Canadian federal state was built at a conference in Quebec, mainly through Macdonald’s queer genius; but the United States was unconsciously its joint builder.

So began the nation that, by its mere presence, its rich natural resources, and its very weakness, must always deeply affect both the domestic and foreign policies of the United States, for better or worse.

The Canadian national experiment looked questionable at best. It included only the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, because Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland refused to join. From the Great Lakes to the Rockies stretched the lonely plains, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, inhabited by Indians and a half-breed race of buffalo hunters called the Metis. Beyond, on the Pacific, lay British Columbia, a royal colony formed in 1858—largely as a move to counter the ambitions of American annexationists.

As against its frightening physical, financial, and racial liabilities, the new Canada had three assets, usually underestimated: the military power of Britain to defend it, if necessary; the antagonism to the United States that had united it in the first place; and a positive will to make a community neither British nor American but solely Canadian—a poor thing, perhaps, but its own.

It was this last element that Americans were slowest to understand; and no wonder, when Canadians could never articulate it. Yet the secret dream of independence burned as brightly behind the ribald public figure of Macdonald, its first Prime Minister, and in the hearts of the backwoodsmen who called themselves Canadians, as it had ever burned in the Continental Congress. Canada lacked a Washington to symbolize its purpose, a Franklin to codify it, a Jefferson to put it into prose, and a Lincoln to redeem it by his martyrdom; but the dream burned all the same and still burns on the nation’s hundredth birthday, unquenched by its temporarily disordered politics.

With all these liabilities and assets, Macdonald risked everything on a gambler’s reckless throw. He guaranteed to build a railway from the St. Lawrence to the Pacific if the British Columbian colonists would enter the new Confederation. Some four million Canadians in the eastern provinces proposed to span a continent with steel. No people of their numbers had ever attempted such a project.

British Columbia eagerly accepted Macdonald’s terms and entered the Dominion in 1871. The Canadian Pacific Railway was a mad scheme nevertheless, as Macdonald’s enemies warned him. Yet if he could succeed, if the United States would let him succeed, the natural economic currents of North America, running north and south, would be cut by a new flow, east and west. A continent evidently suited to contain either one big nation or a congeries of quarrelling little nations, like Europe, would be unnaturally bisected and, north of the Rio Grande, would contain only two.

The United States was no longer openly seeking foreign territory, but it intended to harvest fish off Canada’s east coast and to use Canadian canals on the St. Lawrence. When its negotiators met British delegates at Washington in 1871, to tidy up the trans-atlantic debris left by the Civil War, Macdonald attended as the humble representative of a state whose foreign affairs were governed from London.

He had long been worried by what he called “the pacific hostility of the United States, a judicious alternation of bullying and coaxing,” and now, as he foresaw, Britain sold out Canada’s interests at a cheap price. The fisheries and canals were opened to Americans—but the United States would not revive the former reciprocal free-trade agreement. Macdonald, who wanted reciprocity, had no resort but to vigorous tariff protection. His “National Policy” has lasted, with marginal changes, into our time.

Canada’s reaction to the Washington deal was predictable, as was another result, which, however, surprised Washington and London. Macdonald, the Canadian monarchist from Scotland, had been betrayed, as he thought, by Britain; for all his love of British institutions, he became an implacable Canadian nationalist. So did most of his people. But by 1873 he was a nationalist out of office—and apparently ruined by a mean little campaign-fund scandal. His Liberal successors, facing a prolonged business depression, refused to complete his railway on schedule. British Columbia threatened to leave the Confederation. The Canadian state, without contact between east and west, seemed likely to die in infancy.

That ill-nourished child was sturdier than it looked. When Macdonald returned to power in 1878 he pushed the railway across the Rockies at breakneck speed, almost to the point of national bankruptcy. In 1885 the last ceremonial spike was driven. The trans-continental state had a steel skeleton but not much flesh.