The Fathers of Confederation at the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864, where they gathered to consider the union of the British North American Colonies. Sir John A. Macdonald is seated in the foreground, and standing on his right is Sir George-Étienne Cartier. (Public domain)
Rightly or wrongly, for better or worse, the essence of Canadian nationhood has always centred around the single-minded conviction that we are not American.
Descendants of British Empire Loyalists, French Canadians, northern indigenous peoples, and subsequent waves of immigrants regarded Canadian Confederation as an historic rescue operation from annexation by the revolutionary American republic.
For Canadians, Confederation was the single most important episode in the history of the nation. Our traditional celebration of “Dominion Day” on July 1 was Canada’s equivalent to American Independence Day on July 4 or France’s July 14 Bastille Day. Each in its own way invoked affectionate memories of the birth of a modern democracy.
Canada’s Uncertain Path
Canada’s uncertain path to Confederation can be traced back to the British acquisition of New France in 1763. The ensuing troubles between adversarial English, French, and indigenous tribes were destined to become an irreconcilable morass for British colonial administrators.
In 1776, 13 of Britain’s North American colonies declared independence and moved on to establish the United States of America, one of the most powerful and prosperous federal republics in human history.
Over a decade later in 1789, revolution in France deracinated French Canadians from the longstanding Bourbon Catholic traditions that had informed their culture since the founding of Quebec in 1608.
After the American Revolution, English, Scots, and Irish who remained loyal to the Crown found themselves strung out in some of the least temperate possessions of the British Empire. At the same time, the traditional way of life of Canada’s indigenous peoples was becoming increasingly unsustainable.
During the British-American War of 1812–1814, British troops, colonial militias, and indigenous allies were called upon to defend Canadian territory against several American incursions.
In 1837 and 1838, domestic rebellions against the British political establishment created a troubling atmosphere of division and distrust in Upper and Lower Canada.
The 1841 Act of Union joining Upper Canada (predominately English) with Lower Canada (predominantly French), and the subsequent granting of responsible government, only served to increase ethnic and political tensions in the colony.
As British politician Lord Durham said in his famous post-rebellion report to London: Canada was “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” In the ensuing years, the colonial political structures put together by the Crown became more dysfunctional, bankrupt, and unequal to the challenges of the era.
The Promise of New Leadership
Such was the discord in British North America in the late 1850s when a promising young politician from Kingston, John A. Macdonald, took on the joint leadership of the Canadian Province with his French Canadian political ally and friend, George-Étienne Cartier.
Macdonald was neither a passionate sectarian nor an ideologue. He was a realist who played the cards he was dealt. He rolled up his sleeves, formed the centrist Liberal-Conservative Party, and began the work of cobbling together a workable compact between the two Canadas and Britain’s Maritime Provinces.
During three consecutive constitutional conferences at Charlottetown in P.E.I, Quebec City, and London, England, between 1864 and 1867, Macdonald found ways to make peace with former political opponents, shore up old alliances, and charm new supporters for a Canadian union.
John A. and the Fathers of Confederation produced 72 resolutions promoting a new Federal Union of Provinces under the Crown of Great Britain. Fifty of the resolutions were crafted by Macdonald himself.
Macdonald’s initiative came none too soon for the people of Canada. British politicians were becoming influenced by those calling for an end to military and financial support for the troublesome and expensive British North American colonies.
In the fall of 1864, as the American Civil War raged south of our borders, agents of the Confederacy were known to be operating out of Montreal and Toronto. Northern U.S. politicians and military leaders were calling for the invasion of Canada and the fulfillment of America’s presumed destiny to govern the entire continent.
The efforts of Macdonald and the Fathers of Confederation moved history in a different direction. On July 1, 1867, Canadians celebrated the passage of the British North America Act. The Dominion of Canada came into being without the firing of a single hostile shot, a unique accomplishment in the history of 19th-century nation building.
The Forgotten Legacy
The 1867 BNA Act and the emergence of a sovereign, parliamentary democracy north of the American border has generally been regarded by Canadians as a self-affirming historical development.
Macdonald biographers, from Donald Creighton to Richard Gwyn, have had minor disagreements about the evolution of John A’s vision for Canada, but almost all agree that our founding prime minister’s relentless commitment to the Confederation project was the driving force behind seeing it through.
Despite Marxists’ dismissals of so-called “outdated great man theories,” most of Canada’s prominent historians agree that Sir John A. Macdonald played an indispensable role in the achievement of Confederation.
The memory of John A. and the Fathers of Confederation once produced a similar level of popular affection in Canada as the memory of George Washington and the signers of the Declaration of Independence did in the United States.
Present-day educators appear to have forgotten the contribution of Canada’s founders and have little appreciation for the historical circumstances in which the Canadian nation was conceived and born. It is particularly sad for ordinary Canadians to accept that some among our nation’s schoolteachers now regard the cancellation of Macdonald’s legacy to be a “no-brainer.”
William Brooks is a Senior Fellow at Frontier Centre For Public Policy. This essay was first published here.