On a cool September afternoon a group of Canadians aboard a luxury ship arrived at the picturesque Charlottetown harbour. They dressed in their best finery and awaited a grand welcome. It didn’t come. Instead, a lone man appeared in a row boat far below and shouted up an invitation to dinner. It was an unexpected beginning to a week that for many would have an unexpected end. Within nine days, most of it spent dining, drinking, and dancing, a new country would be born.
The men assembled embarked on an audacious experiment that remains underway. In the shadow of a brutal war and the demands of an unforgiving clock they attempted to improve on what the British had bequeathed and the Americans seemed intent on burning. We can better understand today by considering what they created then.
Wily politician and political survivor John A. Macdonald led the Canadian delegation. At that moment – September 1, 1864, 150 years ago – Canada was a dysfunctional amalgam of what are now the southern bits of Ontario and Quebec. They were crashing a previously arranged meeting of delegates from New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia who were gathering to discuss a possible Maritime union.
Author with Sir John A. and George Brown (OK, not really)
Confederation had been discussed and dismissed for years. But changes in the United States and Britain meant that to save itself Canada had to create itself. America had fallen into Civil War. It left cities burned and families destroyed. If we extrapolated the population then for now it would claim the equivalent of over six million lives.
Canada and the Maritimes were officially neutral but most newspapers were pro-South, Halifax and Saint John ports sold goods to both sides, factories ran weapons to the South, an anti-Lincoln political party operated from Windsor, and a Confederate spy ring organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. American newspapers and generals threatened and Lincoln hinted that when the war ended, the Northern army would turn north.
Britain had dispatched 11,000 troops to the border but a powerful group of British politicians were questioning the cost of that defence and of imperialism itself. They wanted the expensive and troublesome British North American colonies to find their own way.
Canada resembled a teenager whose parents were kicking her out of the house. She wouldn’t move in with the neighbours because their house was on fire. She needed to build a new house. The architects met in Charlottetown. They were government and opposition members who had pledged to surrender partisanship for the greater good.
The United States was the world’s first and most successful manifestation of John Locke’s 18th century Enlightenment ideas. But the men (and they were all men) in Charlottetown believed that while the sentiments were noble, the Civil War was demonstrating that America’s attempt to create an enlightened republic was a blazing failure. They channelled Irish nationalist and British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. He believed that governments should not be based upon temporary popularity which he equated to shouts from a mob, but on tested and respected tradition. Facts and the circumstances of the day should dictate reasonable solutions; decisions should never be based on blind adherence to an ideology. With admiration for Burke and Britain and America as their negative example they envisioned Canada.
Power, they said, should not rest with the executive – they derided the American president as a four-year dictator – but with parliament. Through free elections, they argued, the people should not pick a prime minister or even a government. Rather, voters should create a House and the House would choose the government according to which group could earn support. Members of parliament must not be delegates merely echoing the views of their constituents but thoughtful free thinkers unencumbered by the often un- or ill-informed electorate or partisan newspapers. The Senate must be appointed to keep it illegitimate so that real power remained where it belonged – in the House. The struggle for State’s rights had led to the Civil War so they insisted that the federal government alone speak for Canada. They saw provinces as municipal in nature and restricted their power to areas on a short, proscriptive list. The British monarch should oversee it all as Head of State.
Anniversaries, and a 150th is one of significance, are invitations to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Canada was born of fear, vision and tradition. What of the old fear? The Americans may not be ready to bomb us anymore but have they bought us? What of the old vision? A democratic state locates power to best serve the nation but are we happy with where power has been relocated? What of the old tradition? Should we pursue our sovereignty by eschewing the sovereign? What would Sir John say? More importantly, on our collective anniversary, what do you say?
An edited version of this article appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun. To discover more about Canada’s birth in the shadow of the American Civil War and about Canada’s involvement in that war please see “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”.