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Chapter 2. Confederation in Conflict

2.1 Introduction

There are, today, approximately 35 million Canadians. Coincidentally, that is almost exactly the number of people who were living in the United States in 1867. At the time of Confederation, there were 3.4 million people in all of Canada (that is, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), and today there are more people than that in metro Montreal. In other words, in 1867, Canada contained fewer people than exist today in the country’s second largest city and yet the Dominion’s original government had the temerity to think they could capture the whole northern half of a continent and thus foil the expansionist interests of an incredibly well-armed country to the south, whose population outnumbered the Canadians 10-to-1. It seems improbable.

It is perhaps even more improbable that the original 1867 version of Canada would eventually claim enough territory to become the second largest country in terms of area on Earth. At the time of Confederation, Canada was hardly more than the core elements of New France. Its boundaries did not include much beyond Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley, along with what had once been Wendake (or Huronia), and the lands of a clutch of other Iroquoian confederacies, most of which were allied to New France in the 17th century.

Exponential Expansion

In 1869-70, Canada’s tumultuous annexation of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory gave the new Dominion access to the whole of the West and the North. What lay beyond the Rockies joined the federation in 1871. Two years later, Prince Edward Island assented as well. In 1880, the British Arctic Territories were transferred to Canada. New administrative territories were carved out of the North: Keewatin in 1876; Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Athabasca, and Alberta in 1882; Franklin, Mackenzie, and Ungava in 1895; and the Yukon Territory in 1898.

Although Manitoba negotiated its way into the Dominion, both Alberta and Saskatchewan were created (in 1905) by bureaucrats in Ottawa wielding straight-edged rulers with willful disregard for historic and topographic boundaries. In 1912, Manitoba would benefit from this exercise as well, when Ottawa transferred much of the District of Keewatin to the original western province. At the same time, Ontario and Quebec would each engorge enough of the lands of the Lowland/Swampy Cree and Innu as to double in size. The Sverdrup Islands in the Arctic were ceded to Canada by Norway in 1930. In 1949, 82 years after the Charlottetown Conference that first introduced the idea of a colonial union, the Dominion of Newfoundland (with Labrador, the mainland annex assigned to it by Britain in 1927) joined the federation. Since then, the only significant additional adjustment of the map has been to establish the District of Nunavut in 1999 out of portions of the Districts of Franklin, Mackenzie, and all of what remained of Keewatin.

What this litany of administrative and boundary changes indicates is that the question of how to govern lands and peoples that are remote from one another has been at the forefront of the Canadian project from the outset.

Confederation and Cultures

Culture has also played a critical and central role in the history of Canada over the last 150 years. This is a country that began with a duality at centre stage. In 1867, there was rough parity between the anglophone population of Ontario and the francophone peoples of Quebec. That model of dichotomy the idea that the two provinces are culturally the yin to the other’s yang has never been true. There were always francophones in what emerged as Ontario. Likewise, an anglophone and Protestant elite, centred in Montreal, dominated Quebec society and economy while the majority descended from the colonists of New France inevitably took on many British values and habits.

Indeed, no province then or since has been without cultural complexities. Provinces and colonies that present as “mainstream” anglophone contain many different tributaries. The former Acadian lands in the Maritimes have always contained strong Franco-Catholic communities; likewise, Manitoba was erected on a (quickly challenged) principle of duality, one that was led by the Métis. Francophones comprised a considerable portion of the population across the Prairies in the early 20th century. A little over a century ago, the Port au Port Shore (or “French Shore”) on the west coast of Newfoundland was a slice of French commercial and settlement activity that survived from the 18th century and was populated by Breton and Norman fishing households. Francophone nodes could be found, as well, in pre-1914 British Columbia, although what stood out more were the resilient settlements of Chinese, Japanese, and Indians. Anglophone-Protestant dominance was often challenged by Anglo- and Irish-Catholicism too – not to mention by Canadian Protestantism, which splintered into Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, and other sects.

The strength of a Canadian’s national identity was thus counterbalanced by their identification with language, creed, and increasingly ethnicity. Regional identity was another obstacle to erecting a national sensibility in the years immediately after Confederation. Maritimers may have had common interests but they also had a century of intercolonial competition and rivalry under their belts. British Columbians referred to “Canadians” contemptuously and regarded the BNA colonies on the other side of the continent as at least as foreign as Americans. Regional and provincial accents were strong, even among the English-speaking populations.

This chapter examines the new federal union’s growth in the years from 1867 to about 1900. During these years, it became clear that there was no singular vision of “Canada” to which everyone could subscribe. The conflicts that arose between several of these competing views were very often vocal and sometimes lethal. Keeping in mind that the previous Canadian constitution the Act of Union of 1841 lasted a mere 26 years before being tossed out, one can understand how the three decades after Confederation were understood to be pivotal.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the territorial growth of Canada from 1867 to circa 1914.
  • Account for Canada’s struggle to attract certain colonies into the fold.
  • Explain the rise of secessionist movements in the 19th century.
  • Outline the relationship between Canada and First Nations during this period.
  • Detail the institutions that were created and utilized for the purpose of expanding the Dominion of Canada.

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2.1 Introduction by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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