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McVICAR, KATE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

Macdonald and Central Government

John A. MACDONALD believed firmly in a strong central government under a powerful executive body. For him, a clear division of power between the federal and provincial governments was crucial for the future of Canadian unity. His biographers write:

“The federal powers were … concerned with those areas of jurisdiction where Macdonald believed real power lay: national defence, finance, trade and commerce, taxation, currency, and banking. As well the federal government was given the power (exercised by the imperial government before 1848) to disallow provincial legislation.… The federal cabinet appointed its own provincial watch-dogs, the lieutenant governors, as well as the members of the Senate, the body designed by Macdonald to represent the well-to-do, propertied element of Canadian society, though the House of Commons would continue to be elected on a property franchise. Macdonald believed he had avoided the chief weaknesses of the American federation: universal suffrage and a weak executive. Canada would be run from the centre by people who had a genuine stake in the community.”

Albert James SMITH, New Brunswick politician and noted opponent of confederation, was among those who had objections to the proposed union [see Opposition to Confederation]. He made his views clear in November 1864:

“[The New Brunswick delegates at Charlottetown and Quebec City] had placed the interests of Canada ahead of those of New Brunswick. The dominant Canadians would impose prohibitive taxes on the colony to pay for their past extravagances such as canals and railways. There would also be the cost of two governments rather than one and representation by population would place New Brunswick permanently in a subordinate position.”

Macdonald’s private hopes for federal–provincial relations would have reinforced Smith’s fears:

“[Macdonald’s] agenda for the future of the new federation went much farther than the BNA Act revealed. It was not just that a provincial government was to be ‘a subordinate legislature.’ The provincial governments, he maintained, had been made fatally weak and were ultimately to cease to exist.”

Initially, Macdonald had preferred a legislative union; eventually, he viewed federalism as the only practical way forward. One of his dissenting colleagues was Matthew Crooks CAMERON, who became a prominent anti-confederate Conservative among the assemblymen of Canada West:

“Cameron was never convinced that confederation was the solution to the colonies’ problems. When the Quebec Resolutions were before the Canadian legislature in early 1865, he condemned confederation as an ‘extravagantly expensive arrangement’ as compared with a legislative union. Constitutional change he held to be unnecessary; material progress and provisions for defence could be achieved in the existing system if assemblymen would cease impeding the ‘wheels of government’ by their ‘factious conduct.’ He was not ‘dazzled’ by the prospect of a great nation: ‘We can never be so great in any way as we can by remaining a dependency of the British Crown.’ The resolutions, he claimed, ‘individualized’ the provinces, increasing the elements of contention as well as the possibility of dismemberment from the empire and drift ‘into the vortex of annexation’ to the United States which would be the ‘greatest injury’ that could happen.”

For more information on Macdonald’s early vision for Canada, please consult the following biographies.

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