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For an American, there is an ironic clue to the history of our neighbor to the north; she became a nation because her people did not wish to be swallowed up by the United States Quant aux Canadiens français, ils ne voulaient pas seulement éviter être absorbés par les États-Unis; ils ne voulaient pas davantage être absorbés parleurs compatriotes “anglais”
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
There were now, of course, new economic motives in favor of union. Railways and canals were being built, and it was clear that as soon as a railway linked Montreal with the empty plains of the West, a tide of settlement would follow. Only a strong central government could preside over this development. There was also British Columbia (which became a province in 1858), divided from the East by the Laurentian Shield, the prairies, and the Rocky Mountains. Unless there were a modern communication link between British Columbia and eastern Canada, she would probably be lost to the United States. But internal American developments were the decisive factors leading to the great decision. As the “irrepressible conflict” approached during the eighteen fifties, fear of the United States created a sense of urgency in British North America. That this Canadian anxiety was not exaggerated was shortly to be proved by Secretary of State Seward, whose first proposal to the newly elected President Lincoln was that he declare war on Great Britain as the best means of preserving the Union.
In Britain at that time the political climate was favorable to some degree of Canadian independence, also because of fear of the United States. For Bismarck’s Prussia was then both militant and powerful. The British knew they could not face Prussia and the United States simultaneously. As their leaders had small hope of retaining Canada indefinitely, they welcomed the prospect of disengaging British forces—and prestige—from the defense of what they thought was an indefensible outpost.
So, during the eighteen sixties, the work toward (^J Confederation went rapidly forward. In Ontario it was led by John A. Macdonald, in Quebec by George Etienne Cartier, in New Brunswick by Leonard Tilley, in Nova Scotia by Charles Tupper. After a series of conferences, the conditions of a new nation were established, and principally they were as follows:
Canada was to become a federal state with powers divided between the capital and the provinces, each one of which was to have its legislature with authority in prescribed areas of government. The government was to be parliamentary, with an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate. The banking system was to be subject to federal legislation. The British common law was to be in force in the English provinces, the French Civil Code was to be retained in Quebec. The highest court of appeal was to be Her Majesty’s Privy Council, in Britain. Public education, the maintenance of roads, care of public health, and charitable services were to come under provincial jurisdiction. The titular head of state was to be the British sovereign, represented in Canada by a governor-general. Each province was to have its own lieutenant-governor, though he was to possess no executive power.
In view of the present centrifugal forces in Canadian society, in many ways akin to those that operated in the United States before the Civil War, it should be remembered that the Fathers of Confederation created Canada shortly after the Civil War had nearly destroyed the United States. Before their eyes was the danger inherent in an excess of “states’ rights.” Therefore they sought to give the federal structure greater power than the framers of the American Constitution had given the central government in Washington. It has been against this extremely powerful federal concentration that Quebec (and some other provinces, too) have fretted ever since.
On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act established Confederation, and Canada became a new kind of nation under the sun, the first federal union of a group of ex-colonies achieved without war, revolution, or the severing of ties with the motherland. Canada was independent in all things save foreign policy, and even here she was partially so. If she remained in the British Commonwealth it was because her people wanted her to.
July 1, 1867, is therefore a turning point in the history of the English-speaking peoples. It was the beginning of the transition from colony to nation, from Empire to Commonwealth. Canada’s example was followed subsequently by Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, and in our day by most of the colonies in Africa and Asia. (Though Newfoundland became a Canadian province in 1949, she had previously been a self-governing dominion under the Crown.) Even the word “dominion” came out of the Canadian Confederation: it was attributed to Sir Leonard Tilley, who got the word from a phrase in the Psalms—“He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.”
In 1867 only Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario united, but they were soon followed by others. The federal government purchased the land that became the Northwest Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869, and the next year Manitoba joined the Union. British Columbia followed in 1871, Prince Edward Island in 1873, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905, and Newfoundland in 1949. At present the western Canadian arctic and subarctic land, the Yukon, and what remains of the Northwest Territories, are administered directly from Ottawa. Ottawa itself, it should be added, was selected as capital by reason of its location between Toronto and Montreal, on the border of Ontario and Quebec.