Let’s consider one decade: 1863-1873. At the start, there were seven colonies in British North America (one of them a combination of two very large colonies), and a massive commercial district in the West and North. At the end, there were two colonies: Canada and Newfoundland. This represented a very significant administrative reorganization. In roughly the same period, the population of the colonies rose from about 3.17 million to just short of 3.7 million.
The fur trade across BNA was shrinking by the 1860s, but it was in crisis in the 1870s. Aboriginal peoples on the Prairies were at war with one another and with the American cavalry in the 1860s, trying to decide who had control over the remnants of the bison herds; by the 1870s they were facing famine. There were false starts in other resource-extraction sectors, such as the gold rush in British Columbia’s Cariboo district, which peaked around 1863, and then slipped into an irrevocable decline. The beginnings of a continent-wide environmental transformation were also visible: pristine landscapes and watersheds — in Cape Breton, on Vancouver Island, on the Cariboo Plateau, around Lake Superior, and throughout northeastern New Brunswick — were being denuded of trees and subjected to the leeching of soils and heavy metals.
In the 1870s the Industrial Revolution in British North America got underway in earnest. The people of BNA, for whom Confederation was meant to create a particular kind of polity, were themselves being changed by new economic and social relations. Confederation came along at a time when so many other elements of life in the colonies were quickly changing. While it is tempting to think of 1 July 1867 as a turning point, the constitutional changes that took place in the Victorian years (1837-1901) were less consequential than the social and economic changes that began earlier, and were to continue into the post-Confederation years.
Act of Union: The third Canadian constitution since the Conquest in 1763. The Act of Union contained measures for the management of French-Canadians, built on the premise (from Lord Durham’s 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America) that assimilation of French-Canadians was essential to the future of the larger colony.
Clear Grits: Reformers in Canada West (Ontario) before Confederation. Anti-Catholic and largely anti-French, the Grits opposed John A. Macdonald’s Tories and advocated the annexation of Rupert’s Land. In the post-Confederation period they became one section of the Liberal Party.
Executive: Also called the Cabinet. The highest offices — either elected or appointed — in Canadian politics: before the 1840s, a mostly appointed Executive Council led by the Governor General; after 1867, an elected body comprised of members of the current House of Commons and supported by a majority of votes in the House of Commons.
family reconstitution: In demographic studies, the consolidation of population information from censuses, church records, and civic documents to enable a complete history of a family, street, or community in terms of births, marriages, deaths, divorces, movement, and other demographic behaviours.
Father of Confederation: Term used to describe anyone involved in the Charlottetown or Quebec Conferences leading to Confederation; sometimes extended to the first premiers of the new Dominion as well; term sometimes used to describe Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood from 1949.
federation: An assemblage of states or provinces with roughly comparable rights in which all the constituent parts relinquish some of their authority to a separate, central government.
Fenian: Irish-Americans, bound together as an anti-British army; mounted and/or threatened invasions of British North America in the 1860s and ’70s.
founder population: A population deriving from a small initial influx of immigrants.
Great Coalition: In 1864, an alliance between the Bleu-Conservatives and the Clear Grits in the Province of Canada. The Great Coalition launched a renewed effort to revise the Canadian constitution, a campaign that culminated in Confederation.
Legislative Assembly: Until 1968 all Canadian provinces had a Legislative Assembly, either as their only house of elected representatives or as a lower house — in either instance equating to the federal and British House of Commons. In 1968 the Quebec Assembly was renamed the National Assembly of Quebec. Sitting members are described in most provinces as Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and in Ontario as Members of the Provincial Parliament (MPPs). In Quebec they are Members of the National Assembly (MNAs).
manifest destiny: American notion that it could control, and was destined to control, the whole of North America; literally, it was the will of God (destined) and it was apparent (manifest) in the incremental territorial expansions of the United States.
Maritime Union: A proposal to create one colony out of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island; the original impetus for the Charlottetown Conference; abandoned in favour of Confederation.
Mason-Dixon Line: Boundary between the American colonies, then states, of Maryland and Pennsylvania; also used to define the American South from the American North, and slave and non-slave states.
natural increase: The growth of population from more births than deaths; that is, not by immigration and not factoring in emigration.
Reciprocity Treaty (ch 1): 1854 agreement between the British North American colonies and the United States; enabled freer trade; was cancelled by the Americans at the end of the Civil War.
responsible government: Government in which the Executive level (or Cabinet) is responsible to — and can be dismissed from office by — the majority of votes in the Assembly. In contrast to pre-Confederation systems in which the Executive was appointed by and was responsible to the Crown or its representative.
rep-by-pop: Representation by population; the higher the population of a province, the higher the number of seats allocated for that province in the House of Commons.
sex ratio: The ratio of men to women. A sex ratio of 2:1 indicates that there are two men for every one woman.
Thirteen Colonies of Britain: The Atlantic Coast colonies established in the 17th and 18th centuries; rebelled against British rule in 1775-83 and became the core elements of the United States.
Westminster: Refers to the seat of British parliamentary government in Westminster, London.
Short Answer Exercises
- What were the main engines of population growth in the 19th century?
- How had the population of Canada (or British North America and Newfoundland) changed between the pre-Confederation period and the early 20th century?
- What was the context of Canadian nation-building and federation?
- What external and economic factors catalyzed the conversation about a union of British North American colonies?
- Why federalism? What questions did such a structure answer?
Ajzenstat, Janet. “Human Rights in 1867.” In Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, 49-66. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.
Dunae, Patrick A. “Sex, Charades, and Census Records: Locating Female Sex Trade Workers in a Victorian City,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 42, no. 84 (Novembre-November 2009): 267-297.
Macdonald, Heidi. “Who Counts?: Nuns, Work, and the Census of Canada,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 43, no. 86, (Novembre-November 2010): 369-391.
Smith, Andrew. “Toryism, Classical Liberalism, and Capitalism: The Politics of Taxation and the Struggle for Canadian Confederation.” Canadian Historical Review 89, no. 1 (March 2008): 1-25.
- Statistics Canada, "Estimated population of Canada, 1605 to present," accessed 22 April 2015, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/98-187-x/4151287-eng.htm#table1. ↵