Today, we present the sordid tale of the compromises required to bring about the unification that we would eventually see in 1867.
In 1840, Upper and Lower Canada had been joined through the English Parliament's Act of Union1. The next year, the new entity was named the “Province of Canada”. It's creation and stability was a feat in and of itself, as it required the cooperation of English and French speaking entities. Unsurprisingly, the aforementioned stability was mostly due to a deadlock in the provincial parliament. In order for anything to be passed, there was a “double majority” required, meaning that two delegations, from the western and eastern parts of the province, needed to come to some sort of agreement. As the westerners were English and the easterners were French, such agreements were rare. As a result, not very much was actually accomplished and the provincial parliament was largely ineffective.
The leader of the Province of Canada, John A. MacDonald, during his brief moments of sobriety (more on this next week), decided that he needed allies. This led to him joining forces with two other party leaders in order to win enough support from both factions within the provincial parliament to actually pass legislation2. MacDonald realized that this was a temporary solution to a continuing problem, so he did what any self-respecting lawyer would do in such a situation. He crashed a party.
Imagine a situation in which three mild-mannered roommates gather in the basement suite that they share to play a friendly game of poker, and their upstairs neigbour invites himself over to join them. The roommates agree, as the neighbour has a really nice set of poker chips. They soon find out that he is also rather overbearing and has started to change their friendly game into a situation where he is making all of the rules, and they don't really have all that much input into the game.
If you can picture this, you might well be able to imagine what it was like to be a fly on the wall during the Charlottetown Conference in 1864. Originally, the Atlantic Provinces of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick had decided to meet in order to discuss their unification3. John A. MacDonald (more on him next week), leading the Province of Canada at the time, basically crashed the party and started running the show.
The end result was that an entity unifying the Atlantic Provinces with the Province of Canada was struck. Conditions included, representation by population, which gave a large amount of power to the Province of Canada. It also gave more power to MacDonald, as the addition of the English-speaking Atlantic Provinces meant that deadlock was no longer an issue when dealing with the French4.
One might wonder how MacDonald was able to sell this idea to the Atlantic representatives. The answer was outright bribery, which the unified country would eventually find out to be another bad habit of MacDonald’s. He agreed to build a railway5, to assume provincial debt, and to dole out revenues of the new entity based on population6.
While we might like to imagine that “asking nicely” was all that was required for the Dominion of Canada to be formed, and while this is mostly true when considering Great Britain itself, it is important to recognize the negotiation, compromise, and even bribery required to bring everyone to the table on this side of the pond. Unfortunately, no minutes of the Charlottetown Conference are known to have survived, so much of what we are left with are accounts of some of the delegates and the results themselves.
13 & 4 Victoria c 35.
2Peter B Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864–1867, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) at 42 [Waite].
3Ibid at 56.
4JMS Careless, Canada: A Story of Challenge. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) at 233.
5Richard Gwyn, John A: The Man Who Made Us, (Random House Digital Inc, 2008) at 307.
6Waite, supra note 2 at 81.