Confederation: The Creation of Canada
Brian J. Young, McGill University



Confederation has played a large role in every history of Canada. Some have condemned it as a centralizing device that oppresses minorities, Native peoples and underdeveloped regions. Quebec, for example, has had a particularly contentious relationship with the central government. Issues such as the fate of French-language schools outside Quebec, conscription in the two world wars and the rise of Quebec nationalism in the latter third of the 20th century have all placed Confederation under the historian's microscope.

In the 1850s and 1860s, political crises paralyze Canada. Britain becomes increasingly adamant that the Canadian colony pay for its own administration and defence. The growth of the railways, the needs of the West and American expansionism serve as additional catalysts in the movement to form a Canadian union. Canada is politically unstable. Under the Act of Union, Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario) enjoy equal representation in a united assembly. Increasingly a majority in Canada, English-speaking Canadians generally ignore French Canada, looking instead to a Canada that will be expansionist, industrialized, western-looking, and, except for Quebec, English-speaking and dominated by Protestant and British values. French Canadians - Roman Catholic living mainly in Quebec - look to the Church and government to protect their religion, culture, institutions and society.

Not surprisingly, the shapers of Confederation, are male, mainly of British origin and mostly from the legal and business communities. Natives, women and minority groups - with the exception of French Canadians - are not to be seen among their ranks. By the 1850s, the Grand Trunk Railway with its network of links (via Montreal's Victoria Bridge) to the ice-free port of Portland, Maine and the developing metropolises of the American Midwest, the desire to protect the factories of cities like Sherbrooke, Montreal, and Toronto, and the American Civil War are giving impetus to talks concerning a Canadian federation.

The essential terms of a Canadian federation are sketched out at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, and at the Quebec Conference a few months later. A strong central government will control trade, finance and international relations, while provincial governments will handle local affairs. In Quebec, these include education and the province's civil law system. Confederation, which comes into effect on July 1, 1867, makes federalism the cornerstone of the Canadian state.