Columns

Birth of a Nation

Daniel Francis

One reason people so often accuse Canadian history of being dull is that the country is an administrative achievement, not a revolutionary one. No great burst of independence for us, no war or insurrection. Just a slow, incremental slog toward nationhood; accommodations made at meetings held in conference rooms involving lots of talk and not much action. In the absence of an actual “birth of a nation” event, a variety of symbolic ones have been proposed over the years. The completion of the transnational railway is an old favourite. The driving of the Last Spike at Craigellachie, BC, on November 7, 1885, has been held up as the most important single event in Canadian history. Without the railway to bind us together, it is said, there would have been no Canada. Other countries treasure dramatic images of citizens storming the barricades to seize their freedom; Canadians have photographs of bearded men in top hats banging on a nail.

Alternatively, it is argued that Canada found its way to nationhood on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. The Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, where almost 3,6 Canadian soldiers died, enjoys a special place in our national mythology. “I witnessed the birth of a nation,” declared one senior officer who was there. The giant monument that overlooks the battlefield is the country’s most famous memorial. According to this version of our history, Vimy, and World War I generally, transformed Canada from a dependent colony to an independent nation. The success of its soldiers, at great cost, gave Canada the right to be taken seriously on the world stage, by itself and by others.

But no matter how determined have been the attempts to locate a dramatic origin story, it is well to remember, as the 15th anniversary of Confederation approaches in 217, that Canada was a nation eighteen years before Sir Donald Smith drove the Last Spike and fifty years before our soldiers stormed the ridge at Vimy. These events, and others, may have strengthened our self-confidence but they did not create the country. Old-fashioned politics did that.

Christopher Moore reminds us of this simple history lesson in his new book, Three Weeks in Quebec: The Meeting that Made Canada (Allen Lane). In October 1864, thirty-three men—women were not welcome at the table—convened in Quebec City for three weeks of meetings. Delegates to this get-together, known to posterity as the Quebec Conference, were a collection of politicians from the five colonial legislatures that comprised British North America: the United Canadas (Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Some of them had met at Charlottetown the previous month and discovered, somewhat to their own surprise, that a federation of the colonies was possible. But, writes Moore, “the nuts and bolts of a formal union remained to be placed and tightened down.” That was the purpose of the Quebec City gathering.

Moore has written about these events before in 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (McClelland & Stewart), his 1997 study of Canadian nation-making. In this new book his focus narrows to the meetings in Quebec, where solutions to so many of the contentious issues were debated. The creation of an upper house, how its members should be selected and how much power it should have; how to share responsibilities between the provinces and the central government; whether the new country should be a federation or a legislative union; what would be the relationship with the Mother Country. Many of these constitutional questions are still with us. They all received their first, tentative solutions at Quebec in 1864 and they all receive a thorough airing in Moore’s book.

Interestingly, the question of Aboriginal people was not on the table at all. “The delegates talked ambitiously of expanding their confederation across to British Columbia,” Moore tells us, “and opening the lands of the northwestern plains for the sons and daughters of Ontario’s crowded farming counties, but their plans took no account of the people who actually lived there.” Nonetheless the conference took one decision that involved the First Nations: one of the resolutions placed responsibility for “the Indians” with the national government, not the provincial ones. No other group or community received the same specific mention, says Moore, and it implied a unique constitutional status for the First Nations, even if most of the delegates believed that they were rapidly dying out and would not long be around to pose any constitutional responsibility anyway.

As Moore points out, there was nothing inevitable about a united Canada. The idea had been knocked around for fifty years and never been accepted. By the mid-186s, however, events had aligned to favour a federation, no matter what differences each colony’s delegates brought to the table. The threat from an armed and bellicose United States made union urgent, the rapid development of railways made it practicable, the desire of local politicians to obtain a wider stage for their ambitions made it seductive, and the political stalemate in the Province of Canada made it expedient. Suddenly there were several good reasons why the individual colonies believed that their security and prosperity lay in a united front.

(Of course, as Moore reveals, the conference wasn’t all nose to the grindstone. At night the delegates were entertained at a series of balls and banquets that showed off the crème de la crème of local society. One diarist claims that John A. Macdonald was “always drunk,” though Moore doubts that this was true. More reliably, the prominent Irish-Canadian orator D’Arcy McGee, another legendary boozehound, got so plastered at a dinner party he was forced to leave the table. One wonders how some delegates found the stomach to resume work in the morning.)

Moore addresses the question of how democratic was the agreement at Quebec City that led to Confederation. Not very, it would seem by modern standards. The deliberations themselves were top secret, closed to the press and therefore the public. Delegates were elected representatives, but elected by the few since the franchise was limited to male property owners. Once they hammered out a deal—known as the 72 Resolutions—it had to be taken back to the colonial assemblies for ratification, and only the Province of Canada voted to endorse. Newfoundland and PEI both decided to opt out of the union, at least for the time being. In Nova Scotia, opposition to what Joseph Howe called “the Botheration Scheme” was so strong that a decision had to be put off. New Brunswick was the only province where the voters got a chance to cast ballots on the issue, and they delivered a resounding No. In Quebec many Francophones believed that union was a plot to destroy French/Catholic civilization in North America. In other words, Confederation was not the people’s choice. In the end it went ahead because of pressure from Great Britain, fear of American expansionism and the manoeuvring of the political elites.

Which is not to say it wasn’t a good idea; experience suggests that it was. Certainly Moore is unimpressed by the charge that the Confederation makers were not democrats. They “put less emphasis on how many voted than on who was accountable to whom,” he writes. “They were determined that the governments of their new federation should be accountable, not just to occasional elections but constantly, held accountable by lively independent legislatures that they believed to be representative of the people. They were parliamentary democrats…”

Democratic or not, the political horse-trading that led up to Canada’s creation is hard to fashion into a suitably dramatic birth of a nation, one that conforms to a flag-waving, drums-and-trumpets view of nation-building. Which may be why, as the sesquicentennial of Confederation (and the anniversary of Vimy Ridge) approaches, we hear so much about World War I being the crucible of the nation. In Three Weeks in Quebec City, Christopher Moore delivers a timely reminder that as important as the war was, Canada was a political creation, not a military one, born around a conference table, not on the battlefield. That may not be as sensational as a revolution or a war, but it is who we are.

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Daniel Francis is a writer and historian who lives in North Vancouver. He is the author of two dozen books, including Selling Canada: Three Propaganda Campaigns That Shaped the Nation (Stanton Atkins & Dosil). Read more of his work at geist.com and danielfrancis.ca.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at danielfrancis.ca.

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