The True Fathers of Confederation
Today, Sir John A. Macdonald is the only member of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that is featured on the Canadian currency. Most Canadians adore him as the heroic founder of the nation, the flawless first Prime Minister, and most importantly the man who singlehandedly worked Confederation into fruition. Although such adulation is well deserved, there are two other men that form the great triumvirate that ultimately propelled Confederation into reality: Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Lord Charles Stanley Monck. Together, these three men shaped the bedrock of Confederation, with each playing a pivotal role in their respective domains: Macdonald wooed the Maritimes, established legitimacy in the west, and snatched a huge victory for Canada at the Washington Conference of 1871; Cartier brought the French Catholics to the table, fought off American interests in the railway system, and recognized indigenous rights by reconciling with Louis Riel’s Manitoba; and Lord Monck led Canada through the volatile Trent Affair, pushed George Brown to join the alleged “Great Coalition”, and maintained pressure on the Maritime colonies. These three men were the sine qua non of Confederation and indubitably are the true fathers of Canada.
To begin with, Sir John A. Macdonald was instrumental in kick-starting the movement for Confederation; his unrivaled craft and skill as a politician allowed him to navigate the hostile political terrain of the 1860s to gain the support of various key factions. For instance, in the face of the turbulent polarization of Upper and Lower Canada, he formed a strong coalition with Cartier’s Parti Bleu to maintain a grip on the legislature and government. After ousting Allan MacNab to assume control of Upper Canada as the premier, Macdonald endeavored to not only retain power in his own section of the province, but also to prevent any legislative gridlocks that have plagued the political system for years before. Although Macdonald was defeated in an 1862 confidence bill and subsequently became the leader of the opposition, he played a major role in the next few coalition governments that all eventually faltered. Subsequently, he joined a constitutional committee of the legislature, chaired by George Brown, that recommended reform towards a federal system of government. Despite Macdonald’s initial resistance to a federal system, citing the failures of the US and its ongoing civil war, he finally reversed his stance when he realized that the united provinces would allow a stronger, more harmonious union that could pose a threat to even the United States. With his mind now set to Confederation, Macdonald acted swiftly to form a Canadian delegation to attend the Charlottetown Conference, initially planned for the discussion of a legislative union between only Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. Having planted the seeds of Confederation in Charlottetown, Macdonald followed up in the Quebec Conference of 1864 by crafting the Quebec Resolution, a framework for a potential Canadian constitution. Finally, in a third conference held in London, Macdonald acted as chairman and passed the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada. Macdonald’s leadership throughout the tedious process of Confederation makes him one of the most significant fathers of today’s Canada.
Furthermore, Macdonald’s vision of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) allowed the Canadian government to extend its legitimacy into the furthest reaches of the frigid north. Established in 1874, the NWMP brought law and sovereignty to the territories west of civilized Canada. Since then, the force has brought unprecedented benefits and protections to Canadian sovereignty. For example, it quelled the dissent of American whisky traders and forged good relations with First Nations people of the plains, such as the Sioux. Moreover, during the turn of the century, the NWMP played a crucial role in protecting the borders of Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush, in which thousands of Americans flocked to the Yukon in search for gold. The NWMP established criminal law and collected customs duties, preventing any American expansionist movements from destabilizing the area. The impact of Macdonald’s NWMP can still be seen today, as a predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Also, as the first Prime Minister of Canada, Macdonald navigated the hostile Washington Conference of 1871 to prevent the British from ceding Canada to the United States as part of a desperately needed settlement for grievances between the two superpowers. Being technically a representative of the British government, Macdonald had to delicately balance the needs of Canada and Britain without exacerbating the already tense situation. During the negotiations, Macdonald acquiesced to the British offer of allowing Americans to fish in Canadian inshore fisheries. Although this later received widespread condemnation back in Canada, Macdonald revealed secret negotiations that turned this lopsided deal in his favour. As part of the deal, the United States would have to pay Canada for the use of its fishing grounds, and Britain would loan Canada $4 million for the construction of its railway. Through careful diplomacy and assertiveness, Macdonald won over support both internationally and domestically, enabling the treaty to be ratified by the Canadian Parliament. All in all, Macdonald’s exceptional foresight and political craft sets himself apart from other politicians of his era; because of his endless contributions, he is rightfully a key member of the trio of founding fathers.
On the other hand, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, the workhorse of the triumvirate, covered aspects of Confederation that the English-speaking Macdonald and Lord Monck would not have anticipated. He not only had to deal with the often militant demands of the Catholics of Lower Canada and First Nations, but also guided efforts in building the trans-continental railway and pulled both British Columbia and Manitoba into Confederation. As the leader of the Parti Bleu in Lower Canada, he advocated for a federal system that would placate Lower Canada’s and the Maritimes’ desire for individual representation and the preservation of their unique rights. Part of his urgency for Confederation came from his realization of the expansionist tendencies of Canada’s southern neighbours. In 1865, Cartier declared, “We must either have a Confederation of British North America or else be absorbed by the American Confederation.” Despite strong resistance from Lower Canada against Confederation, and even support for joining the United States, Cartier remained strong and ultimately persuaded his side of the province of Canada to endorse Confederation.
Likewise, Cartier played a huge role in the incorporation of the new province of Manitoba. Following the annexation of the vast Northwest by Canada, the government began to face resistance and dissent from various First Nations groups in the new territories. As an example, the Métis, led by the infamous Louis Riel, unilaterally formed a provisional government in the vicinity of modern-day Manitoba and defied Canadian rule. Looking to avoid open conflict, the pragmatic Cartier spearheaded peaceful negotiations with the Métis that at length culminated in the creation of the province of Manitoba, in which the rights, religions, and customs of the Métis were respected and guaranteed. Had Cartier not handled the precarious situation with outstanding tact and diplomacy, the Métis resistance could have easily escalated into a full scale civil war. Instead, Cartier placated a restless group and incorporated a new province into the young country.
In addition, Cartier’s contributions to the development of the West is second-to-none. He not only singlehandedly handled the purchase of Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory, but also cajoled adamant BC leaders like John Helmcken into joining Confederation. One year after Confederation, Cartier and his colleague, William McDougall, formed a delegation to London to discuss the purchase of Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory. However, McDougall fell gravely ill and Cartier was forced to endure the burden of negotiating this huge purchase alone. After spending over half a year in London, Cartier finally triumphed and agreed to a proposal that would hand over the territories to Canada for a low price of £300,000 ($1.5 million). To put this bargain into context, the United States purchased Alaska for $7.2 million; the value of the lands acquired by Cartier was estimated to be around $40 million. Having pulled off what seemed like a heist, Cartier returned to Canada and began the organization and administration of these newly obtained lands. In 1871, Cartier ushered British Columbia into Confederation by guaranteeing a trans-continental railway stretching across the continent. With the promise of such a lucrative railway, American railroad magnates began to eye the opportunity to benefit from the monumental project. Despite heavy American investment into Cartier’s political rivals and the manufacturing of incidents like the Pacific Scandal, Cartier and his government remained resilient and ultimately fended off the hostile American railroad interests. Finally, in 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway was incorporated. Cartier is the unequivocal pioneer of Canada’s westward expansion; he carried negotiations in London to initially acquire Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory, and piloted the incorporations of both Manitoba and British Columbia. Without him, territories west of the Rocky Mountains may have fallen to American expansionism, and Canada’s grip on the prairies would have been a much weaker and more fragile one. Without Cartier, there would be no Western Canada.
Lastly, Lord Monck, the last Governor-General of the Province of Canada and the first Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada, played an essential, yet underappreciated role in pushing Canada towards Confederation. During the height of the US Civil War in 1861, the Trent Affair broke out when a Union frigate intercepted the British RMS Trent in neutral waters and seized two Confederate diplomats as prisoners of war. Although the British government subsequently demanded a public apology and release of the prisoners, the United States ignored those calls. As a result, Britain dramatically increased its military presence in both Canada and the Atlantic, anticipating a potential war. Throughout this crisis, considerable unrest grew among Canadian citizens in that Canada might be a battleground between the British and the Americans; nonetheless, Lord Monck remained calm and used his diplomatic craft to prevent any violent conflict. Also, Lord Monck’s copious connections and relationships allowed him to wield considerable influence on the crisis. For instance, because of his strong bonds with military commanders of British North America, he was able to push for rapid military fortification of Canada in the face of a potential US invasion. Similarly, Monck’s friendship with Lord Lyons, the British Minister at Washington D.C. enabled him to mitigate and soothe any raging tempers on both the American and British sides. In sum, Lord Monck’s leadership during this highly volatile period allowed Canada to survive unscathed and become more determined to unite for Confederation.
In 1864, after being forced to dissolve yet another legislature due to an irreconcilable gridlock between various factions of a highly divided Canadian province, Lord Monck pressed George Brown and his reformers to join the “Great Coalition”, consisting of Cartier and Brown’s arch rival, Macdonald. Leading up to the pivotal Charlottetown Conference, originally intended only for Maritime colonies, Lord Monck utilized his close relationships with the Lieutenant Governors of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to allow a Canadian delegation, led by Macdonald, to attend. Without Lord Monck’s adroit political moves, perhaps Macdonald would never have been able to hijack the Charlottetown Conference and plant the seed of Confederation. In 1867, as a newly appointed member of the British House of Lords, Lord Monck joined the debate on the British North America Act that would later pass to allow the formation of the Dominion of Canada. Although Lord Monck is often overlooked as a fundamental father of Confederation, his contributions were unequivocally vital. As Governor-General, he not only prevented a war that would be fought within the borders of Canada, but also worked tirelessly in the background to allow Confederation to gain momentum. Even though most Canadians credit Macdonald for his genius at the Charlottetown Conference, Lord Monck was the true pioneer by fighting for a Canadian delegation in the first place. With his contributions, Lord Monck truly warrants selection as one of the founding fathers of Canada.
All in all, Confederation was no simple task that could be completed by one man. It took the lifetime work of three genius politicians, Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, and Lord Charles Stanley Monck, to bring the dream of a united Canada into fruition. Together, these three venerable men form a great triumvirate, a trio of heroic founding fathers. From a tiny embryo to now a fully grown federation, the three true fathers of Confederation have nurtured Canada into a world power, stretching a mari usque ad mare.
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