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Confederation
 

Introduction

Canada is one of the oldest nations among the 193 members of the United Nations in 2017. When the architects of Canadian confederation shaped a new nation in the 1860s, they were acutely aware of the failed experiments of the United States of America and Simón Bolívar’s united Spanish America. They also understood the power of nationalism that was creating the newly united states of Germany and Italy. The promoters of confederation had visions of a similarly new Canadian nationality, expressed poetically by Thomas D’Arcy McGeepolitically by Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier, and musically by Henry Herbert Godfrey. Canada came together in that decade and, despite serious challenges, it has survived and grown in the 150 years that have followed confederation. In international terms, Canada’s achievement is remarkable because of the country’s endurance and increasingly democratic principles.

The biographies in this collection shed light on Canada’s successes and its failures. They also show that many Canadians have not fully shared the triumphs and benefits of Canadian residency and citizenship. The politician D’Alton McCarthy expressed the arrogance of the majority when he declared in 1887 that “it is not religion which is at the bottom of this matter but … a race feeling…. Don’t we find the French today more French than when they were conquered by [James Wolfe*] on the Plains of Abraham? Do they mix with us, assimilate…. No, everything with them is conducted on the French model; … I say that they are the great danger to the Confederacy.” McCarthy’s angry bigotry did not prevail, but anglophone journalists, religious leaders, and politicians often echoed his sentiments. Not surprisingly, British Canadian nationalism fuelled French Canadian nationalism and challenged the political bargain made at confederation.

National unity is appropriately the first topic considered in this collection. Several times in Canadian history this unity has been strained or shattered. In the first decades of confederation, francophones and Roman Catholics fought to preserve their rights as Canada expanded to the Pacific. On the journey westward, explorers and pioneers encountered, absorbed, and clashed with those who were already there. As anglophones arrived in large numbers in what would become the prairie provinces, tensions grew between the newcomers and French and Métis traders. Simultaneously, indigenous peoples found their own traditions fractured and their numbers greatly reduced as settlers’ guns and diseases and the policies of the provincial and Canadian governments took a heavy toll. The Métis leader Louis Riel represented the fears and protests of not only the indigenous peoples but also of the francophone minority. Echoes of the struggles of the 1880s have persisted throughout Canadian history, and many of the biographies presented in this collection articulate the enduring grievances.

The country’s economic development, which was epitomized by the broadening web of railways constructed before the First World War, caused many social problems but also provided the basis for their solution and the high standard of living that most Canadians have enjoyed. Canada benefited from its extraordinary wealth of natural resources and its proximity to the dynamic economy of the United States. The biographies in this collection demonstrate the remarkable ingenuity and initiative of entrepreneurs such as Sir Adam Beck, individuals who contributed greatly to creating in Canada one of the world’s most prosperous economies. Such prosperity attracted millions of immigrants who became producers and consumers and increased the wealth of their adopted land.

As immigrants arrived, empires collapsed, and the country changed, Canada’s sense of nationality was altered. The British Canadian nationalism of the 19th century weakened in the first half of the 20th century, when two world wars deeply affected Canadians’ view of what they were. In the last half of the 20th century, changes in immigration policy caused the end of the British Protestant dominance of political and economic affairs.

Canada did not celebrate the 50th anniversary of confederation in 1917: its large army was fighting in Europe while Canadians of British and French origin were quarrelling bitterly at home. Although commemoration and celebration marked the centennial in 1967, Canada was struggling with the threat of Quebec separation, and Prime Minister Lester Bowles Pearson believed that the country was facing the greatest crisis of its history. In 2017 that threat has waned, and a different Canada has begun to express a vibrant sense of a new nationality. Its shape only the future knows. 

 

Provinces and Territories in Confederation 

Date

Province or Territory

1 July 1867

New Brunswick

Nova Scotia

Ontario

Quebec

15 July 1870

Manitoba

North-West Territories

(The name was changed to Northwest Territories in 1912) 

20 July 1871

British Columbia

1 July 1873

Prince Edward Island

13 June 1898

Yukon

1 September 1905

Alberta

Saskatchewan

31 March 1949

Newfoundland

1 April 1999

Nunavut

 

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