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Chapter 2. Confederation in Conflict

2.2 Nova Scotia’s Second Thoughts

Nova Scotia was, of course, one of the original parties to the federal union. From the outset, however, there were political and economic leaders in the colony who had qualms. Nova Scotia would have been the leading third in the proposed Maritime Union with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Halifax was easily the largest city and one of the most industrially advanced. Even if it didn’t become the political capital of the “United Maritimes,” it would emerge almost certainly as the economic capital of this new configuration. The 1864 Maritime Union plan was put aside to make way for Confederation, and many Nova Scotians continued to think that was a mistake.

Buyer’s Remorse

The most prominent and highly appealing opponent of Confederation was Joseph Howe. A journalist and writer, his political speeches and editorials were of an exceptional calibre. His initial opposition to Confederation stemmed from a belief in a broader British imperial federation that might include the West Indian islands with which Nova Scotia had deep and vital links. Unable to stop the union between Nova Scotia and the other British North Americans, he sought to reverse it as early as the autumn of 1867.

In elections that season, Nova Scotia’s pro-confederate candidates were routed provincially and federally. The anti-confederates (led by Howe) won 36 of 38 seats in Nova Scotia and 18 of 19 seats in Ottawa. Their winning rhetoric underscored the colony’s orientation toward the Atlantic and not toward the heart of North America. Repeatedly, the image was invoked of a once-proud colony being reduced to poverty by avaricious Canadians obsessed with over-ambitious railways and colonization of the West.

Howe led a repeal delegation to London to have the British North America Act overturned; the best he could obtain, however, was a commitment to have Ottawa re-examine proposed tariff and fisheries policies. This failure was compounded in 1868 when the new British government confirmed its commitment to the Dominion model. Howe, a strident loyalist, was deeply disappointed by Westminster, and his sentiments were probably shared by many others in the province. Certainly there were elements among the anti-confederates who considered annexation to the United States a preferable option, and still others who preferred outright independence. Howe was speaking for that last position when he said that, were it not for his continued loyalty to Britain, “I would take every son I have and die on the frontier before I would submit to this outrage” – meaning Confederation.[1]

Be that as it may, Howe and his followers acquiesced. He was able to negotiate better terms for Nova Scotia and agreed to give the federation his backing by standing for a federal seat. He won, but it cost him his health and much of his reputation for integrity in Nova Scotia. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of early post-Confederation history that Howe, in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Provinces, was instrumental in persuading the Manitobans that federal union was a deal worth pursuing.

Many Nova Scotians used to carry a portrait of Joseph Howe in their wallets. It looked like this.

Figure 2.1 Many Nova Scotians used to carry a portrait of Joseph Howe in their wallets — it looked like this.

Howe’s vision of an imperial federation would find an echo in the last decades before the Great War (World War I). “Imperialists” in English-Canada would articulate an ambition and a model that was first brought to public attention by Howe (see Section 4.5). Before then, the Nova Scotian Repeal Movement would take a last stab at secession.

The Repeal Movement

The Dominion of Canada was not two decades old when Nova Scotians would again reconsider their place in Canada. The Maritime economy had slowed and a structural decline was underway. Ship construction had plummeted from a high point in 1864 of 73,000 tons to 21,000 in 1886, and 14,000 tons in 1887. Population growth slowed severely to only 2% in the 1880s. Natural increases (more births than deaths) were offset by out-migration mostly to the western reaches of the new Dominion and to New England. Rural Nova Scotia was changing at a particularly rapid rate, as the industrializing centres of Cape Breton’s collieries (coal mines), Halifax, Lunenburg, and a half-dozen other port towns attracted young women and men from the countryside. Lobster exports from Halifax to American ports fell by 75% in 1885 alone, and other trade with the United States was similarly affected. In this context, the pre-Confederation era of Reciprocity with the Americans, robust population growth (of around 15%), powerful shipyard industries in the major ports, and thriving rural communities including their proud churches, energetic civic organizations, and densely networked families seemed like a golden age in Nova Scotia’s recent history.[2]  What had changed? Confederation.

Party politics in Nova Scotia increasingly coalesced around Conservative and Liberal parties. If the former was in power federally, the latter stood a better chance of holding power provincially. This was certainly the case in 1886 when William S. Fielding (1848-1929) a self-described anti-confederate led the Liberal Party to victory with a simultaneous call for secession and better subsidies from Ottawa. The two options reflected divisions between unionists and secessionists within the Liberal Party. If the subsidies were not forthcoming, Fielding insisted that Nova Scotia’s legislature would vote for a repeal of the BNA Act. He was also inclined to take Nova Scotia, with New Brunswick and PEI, out of Confederation and into a revived version of Maritime Union. This was a project in which neither of the other two colonies showed much interest.

In the end it was a combination of internal disagreement within the provincial Liberal Party and the federal election of 1887 that defeated the movement. Insofar as the campaign against Canada could be personalized, it was an attack on the policies and practices of the Conservative Party’s John A. Macdonald, effectively the face of federal rule. When Fielding’s Liberals took to the polls in 1887’s federal election, they found it difficult-to-impossible to campaign for the federal Liberal Party and against remaining in Confederation. Conservative candidates held 14 of the 21 federal seats and showed special strength in areas where industrialization was speeding ahead. In those areas, the National Policy (see Section 3.3) appeared to be working.[3] As a measure of popular support for secession, the federal election results were the exact opposite of what was suggested in the provincial elections a year earlier. This would not be the last election in which specific issues (like separation) would become confused with voter decisions about who might constitute the better government. Nor would it prove to be the last time the country looked likely to come undone.

Key Points

  • The anti-Confederation movement in Nova Scotia was a significant political force from the 1860s-1880s.
  • Britain’s support for Confederation was critical in undermining the anti-Confederation movement under Joseph Howe.
  • Support for repeal and secession reflected substantial and rapid social and economic change in Nova Scotia.

Attributions

Figure 2.1
881 $5 Bill Bank of Nova Scotia by Hantsheroes is in the public domain.


  1. Quoted in J. Murray Beck, “HOWE, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003), accessed 30 April 2015, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howe_joseph_10E.html.
  2. Colin D. Howell, “W.S. Fielding and the Repeal Elections of 1886 and 1887 in Nova Scotia,” Acadiensis [online], VIII, No.2 (Spring 1979), 28-30, accessed 24 August 2015, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/Acadiensis/article/view/11499/12249
  3. Ibid., 43-4.

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2.2 Nova Scotia's Second Thoughts by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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