Confederation, the union of the British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada (Canada being an earlier 1841 union of Lower Canada and Upper Canada), was achieved 1 July 1867 under the new name, Dominion of Canada. It was soon expanded with the addition of Manitoba and the North-West Territory (15 July 1870), British Columbia (20 July 1871), Prince Edward Island (1 July 1873), and ultimately Newfoundland (31 March 1949). The Confederation movement followed Newton's first law of motion: all bodies continue in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless compelled by some force to change their state.
In the 1860s political union of BRITISH NORTH AMERICA was an idea, the subject of occasional dinner speeches when wine raised a man's sights, softened political asperities, and broadened his horizons. But only in 1864 did it become a serious question in the PROVINCE OF CANADA, and in the Atlantic colonies a great deal of pressure would be necessary to convert romantic ideas of a nation a mari usque ad mare into political reality.
A series of fortuitous events helped. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had some interest in reuniting the 2 colonies separated since 1784; they were helped by the British COLONIAL OFFICE, which felt that a political union of all 3 Maritime colonies was desirable, including Prince Edward Island. Maritime union would abolish 3 colonial legislatures and governments and replace them with one.
In the spring of 1864 all 3 legislatures passed pious resolutions declaring a certain lukewarm interest in having a conference on the subject. But nothing was done; it was only when the Province of Canada positively announced its interest in being asked to attend such a conference that the Maritime governments woke up. If the Province of Canada was going to attend, then there had to be a conference for them to come to. The governor of Nova Scotia got busy; Charlottetown was appointed as the place - Prince Edward Island would not attend otherwise - and 1 September 1864 the time.
As the Province of Canada grew larger and more prosperous and developed politically, socially and industrially, so grew its internal rivalries and difficulties. Whereas the Conservative party believed the 1841 constitution had by no means outlived its usefulness, the Reform party insisted that change was essential. Canada West [Ontario], wanting divorce more than Canada East [Québec], could make difficult all ministries that did not conform to its belief in "representation by population." In 1864, after 4 short-lived ministries had fought to stay in power, a coalition was formed, promising Confederation.
The province's problems were to be solved by division of its 2 sections and the union of all BNA. With support from 3 of the province's 4 major political groups, the coalition gave Confederation a driving force that it never lost. Canada West's 2 major political groups were united on the issue; their leaders, John A. MACDONALD and George BROWN, were peculiar partners, but their alliance meant that Confederation proceeded with support from British North America's most populous province.
In Canada East, although Confederation was opposed by A.A. DORION's PARTI ROUGE, it was supported by the dominant political group, the Conservatives under George-Étienne CARTIER, Hector LANGEVIN and Alexander T.GALT. By 1867 they had the necessary support of the Catholic Church. Confederation was justified by the arguments that French Canadians would get back their provincial identity - the capital of their province would once more be Québec; the anglophone domination of Ottawa feared by French Canadians would be mitigated by the presence of strong French Canadian representation in the federal Cabinet; and Confederation was the least undesirable of the changes proposed.
So the "Canadians" sailed from Québec City on 29 August 1864, aboard the Canadian government steamerQueen Victoria for the CHARLOTTETOWN CONFERENCE. They were soon invited to join the conference, and open up their proposals, Maritime union not making very much headway. The "Canadian" ideas for a federal union of all the British North American provinces swept the board, and the glittering idea of a union a mari usque ad maretook over. The QUÉBEC CONFERENCE, called a month later, made explicit, in the form of 72 Resolutions, fundamental decisions already taken at Charlottetown.
The colonies were also joined in Québec by Newfoundland. The Atlantic colonies of Newfoundland, PEI, NS and NB each had aspirations, but none was as dissatisfied with the status quo as was Canada West. With the exception of Newfoundland, they felt comfortable as they were, and the bulk of the population, especially in NS and PEI, saw no reason to change their constitution just because Canada was finding it had outgrown its own.
Even Newfoundland, after economic difficulties in the 1860s had made it susceptible to mainland blandishments, postponed decision in 1865, and in the 1869 Newfoundland general election decisively rejected Confederation. The more prosperous PEI resisted almost from the start. A small, dedicated group of Confederationists made little headway until, early in the 1870s, the railway adventures of successive Island governments forced PEI to have its railway, and its debt, taken over by the new Dominion. NS was more complicated.
Along the axis of the railway that already ran from Halifax to Truro and was to continue to Québec, there was real support for Confederation. The manufacturing and coal-producing areas, Pictou County and to some extent Cape Breton, were also interested. But along the south shore and in the Annapolis Valley - the prosperous world of shipping, shipbuilding, potatoes and apples - Confederation appeared unattractive or even dangerous.
Conservative Premier Charles TUPPER, ambitious, aggressive and confident, went ahead with Confederation, convinced that in the long run it would be best for NS, and perhaps also for himself. Fortunately for Confederation, Tupper did not test his electorate: elected in 1863, his government did not need to go to the polls until 1867, after Confederation. Then, too late, it was clear that 65% of Nova Scotians opposed Confederation (see REPEAL MOVEMENT).
NB supported Confederation only slightly more than any other Atlantic province. In February 1865 the anti-Confederate government of A.J. SMITH was elected. Confederation could go nowhere until the Smith government collapsed, as it did in 1866 and a new pro-Confederate government was brought in, helped by the FENIANinvasions of April and June 1866, which badly weakened anti-Confederate positions.
External forces such as the American Civil War and the truculence of American foreign policy (symbolized in the 1866 abrogation of the RECIPROCITY Treaty and 1867 Alaska purchase) made the separate colonies of BNA uneasy about their future. Duty would compel Britain to respond to any military aggression against BNA, as theTRENT AFFAIR showed; but Britain had no taste for it. The best British defence against the US was a BNA federation. Confederation thus had powerful support from London, especially from Colonial Secretary Edward Cardwell.
Cardwell instructed his BNA governors, in the strongest language possible, to support Confederation. They did. The LONDON CONFERENCE, December 1866 to February 1867, was the final stage of translating the 72 Resolutions of 1864 into legislation. The result was the British North America Act of 1867 (now calledCONSTITUTION ACT, 1867) which passed through Parliament, the British House of Commons and House of Lords, and was signed by the Queen on 29 March 1867. It was proclaimed into law 1 July 1867.