John A.- Pre Confederation

John A. Macdonald has no equal. His vision and guiding hand moulded this nation. He led the party that founded Canada and he steered the country through a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles over most of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

His beginnings were modest. John Alexander Macdonald was one of four children, born to Hugh and Helen Macdonald in Glasgow, Scotland, on either January 10 or 11, 1815. John was five years old when his family emigrated to Canada. His father was a shopkeeper, and later ran a milling business. John attended boarding school in Kingston, but his family could not afford to send him to university. He entered the workforce at age fifteen in the prestigious commercial law practice of George Mackenzie.

The hard working and ambitious Macdonald had opened his own law office on Quarry Street in Kingston by the age of twenty and was admitted to the bar a year later. By coincidence, his first articling student was Oliver Mowat, a man who would later become premier of Ontario and a political foe over much of Macdonald’s career. Macdonald was successful in criminal law, then switched to a more lucrative commercial practice. His major client was the Commercial Bank of the Midland district, where he was also a member of its board of directors.

Macdonald entered the workforce at a time of political tension and uncertainty. Fuelled by a weak economy and a desire for democratic reform, matters flared up on December 6, 1837 when a group of Reform radicals led by William Lyon Mackenzie gathered with 1,000 men at the Montgomery Inn in Toronto in an attempt to seize control of the government. Although Macdonald was not sympathetic to Mackenzie’s cause, he legally defended eight of his supporters who had protested, with weapons in hand, on the streets of Kingston and secured an acquittal on technical grounds.

Macdonald was not a reformer: he was committed to British institutions. The primary cause for this loyalty is debatable: his high regard for British institutions, perhaps? His conservative nature that resisted change to established order? Or his fear that Canada would not survive annexation to the United States without the might of the British military by its side? Macdonald’s ties to Great Britain included membership in the Celtic Society, for which he served as recording secretary. The Society had similarities to the Orange Order, an organization with anti-Catholic and anti-French views. Macdonald rejected these views but joined the Society to expand his business contacts. Though not much of a military man, like every able-bodied male at the time, Macdonald served in the sedentary militia, a minimal commitment involving one day of annual training that coincided with the birthday of George III.

At the age of twenty-eight Macdonald entered the realm of politics. Like the Celtic Society, politics provided Macdonald with an opportunity to expand his community profile and fortify his law practice. He ran for Kingston town council without any grand vision: “[I ran] to fill a gap. There seemed to be no one else available, so I pitched in.” But he remembered names and faces and made people laugh and feel good about themselves, developing the reputation for being something of a charmer. The local Chronicle and Gazette declared: “We are not aware that a more eligible person could offer. His experience in public business, his well-known talents and high character, render him peculiarly fit for the office, and we sincerely hope, for the sake of the town, that he will be elected.” Financial gain may have inspired him to enter the political arena, but as his skills developed, Macdonald discovered a higher purpose: nation-building. Later in his career he remarked, “I don’t care for office for the sake of money, but for the sake of power: for the sake of carrying out my own view of what’s best for the country.”

With an exuberant campaign that included print advertising, Macdonald won by a margin of 156 to 43. That same year, 1843, he married his cousin, Isabella Clark, six years his senior. It would be a sorrowful marriage, burdened by Isabella’s poor health and the death of their first child at the age of one. The cause of death remains uncertain. Some biographers suggest it was the result of a fall; others that it was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). On March 13, 1850, another child, Hugh John, was born.

Isabella died when Hugh was seven. Thereafter, he was mostly raised by Margaret Williamson, Macdonald’s sister. Macdonald, like most men of his stock and generation, was a hearty drinker, and it was during this time that he began to drink heavily, sometimes in binges. Following Isabella’s death, and the decade after, Macdonald’s drinking became most troublesome. Drinking helped him escape both the burden of responsibility and the heartache of personal tragedy. Henry Northcotte, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, noted in his diary, “People do not attribute his drinking to vice, but to a state of physical exhaustion which renders him obliged sometimes to have recourse to a stimulant, and which gives the stimulant a very powerful effect. When he once begins to drink, he becomes almost mad and there is no restraining him till the fit is over.” Macdonald wanted to limit his drinking, and was, for a year, a member of the Sons of Temperance in Kingston.

John A. Macdonald was a man of vision and progress, not details and ideology. A moderate, he was more interested in accomplishment than in debate. He refused to be drawn into argument where a positive outcome was not possible, writing in 1844: “In a young country like Canada, I am of the opinion that it is of more consequence to endeavor to develop its resources and improve its physical advantages, than to waste the time of the legislature and the money of the people in fruitless discussions on abstract and theoretical questions of government.”

More than 200 residents signed the petition that drafted Macdonald as a Conservative into the 1844 election for the Assembly of the Province of Canada. Accepting the nomination, Macdonald outlined the cornerstone of a vision that would endure throughout his political career: “I . . . scarcely need state my belief that the prosperity of Canada depends upon its permanent connection with the Mother country and that I shall resist to the utmost any attempt which may tend to weaken that union.” Macdonald won the election by a margin of 275 votes to 42.

While Conservatives held the majority in the legislature, with almost exclusively English-speaking members, they were divided in state. The caucus could not reconcile the old-line rightwing Tories with the more moderate liberal–conservative group that Macdonald followed. Though Macdonald was a Tory, he was not kin to the Big Business establishment

Tories from Toronto. Instead, he admired William Henry Draper, the moderate Conservative leader who sought to strengthen the party by reaching out to elements of French Canada. It was Draper who established that the proceedings of Parliament be printed in French and English.

In Parliament, Macdonald fought extreme elements from both sides of the aisle. Opposing annexation by the United States, or countering Tory elements that sought to assimilate the French, Macdonald stood for tradition. He distinguished himself among his Conservative colleagues. Before Macdonald travelled to England in the summer of 1850, the Governor, Lord Elgin, sup plied Macdonald with a letter of introduction to Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary: “He is a respectable man, intolerably moderate in his views ...who belongs to the section of the Conservatives who are becoming reasonable.”

In1847, Macdonald accepted the invitation to serve in Cabinet as Receiver General. Given Macdonald’s general disregard for his personal finances, the appointment was an odd choice and the press panned it. The Montréal Gazette claimed, “The intrusion of a young lawyer into the situation of Receiver General appears to our eyes, and if we are not very much mistaken, will appear also to those of the public, a blunder of the most stupid kind.” If establishing low expectations, then exceeding them, is a mark of good politics, Macdonald was off to a great start.

By the age of thirty-seven, Macdonald was sitting in his third Parliament. His legal career was a distraction while a promising political future beckoned. Macdonald was seen as heir apparent to Draper to lead the Conservatives.

Macdonald was leadership material, not because he had great oratorical skills or passion, but because of his inclusive and amicable approach to issues and people on all sides of the legislature. A conversationalist with an endearing capacity for flattery, he was an entertaining storyteller who often used wit to extract himself from a tough spot. To one supporter’s demand for a specific patronage appointment, Macdonald countered, “Why on earth would a man like you want a paltry job like that? It’s not good enough for you. Just you wait awhile, and we’ll find you something much better.” Another man pursued Macdonald at the funeral for a deceased senator, declaring, “Sir John, I would like to take that man’s place.” Macdonald replied, “I’m afraid it’s too late. The coffin is nailed shut.”

Macdonald saw his role as a centrist coalition builder. A leading political commentator of the day described Macdonald’s unique skill: he could herd cats. Macdonald himself often used the term “catching loose fish,” by which he meant bringing to his side members with no commitment to any particular party. Macdonald understood that to achieve power and accomplish what he wanted, he needed to be in government and used his various talents to that end. He was clever and mischievous, taking every opportunity imaginable to encourage divisions in the opposition parties.

Tolerant, and opposed to the rigid separation of church and state, Macdonald believed that government must recognize and respect religious diversity and the cultural divisions between English and French-speaking Canada.

Though a man with grand designs, Macdonald opposed tinkering with the Constitution. He opposed the Representation Bill of 1853, which increased the number of members of each section of the province to 65. “If there is one thing to be avoided,” Macdonald warned, “it is meddling with the Constitution of the country, which should not be altered till it is evident that people are suffering from the effects of that Constitution as it actually exists.” It is a warning that most subsequent prime ministers refused to heed, particularly Trudeau, who spent decades wrangling with the Constitution before enacting changes that were vehemently opposed by the government of Québec.

In 1853, Canada East and Canada West had an equal number of seats in Parliament. When the British Parliament passed the Act enabling the Union in 1840, the population of Canada East was larger, but the 1851 census revealed that Canada West now had the greater number. George Brown, Reform politician, publisher of the Toronto Globe, and a frequent nemesis of Macdonald, advocated representation by population. He opposed any connection between church and state and was anti-Catholic and anti-French. Macdonald felt that representation by population would divide Canada and abrogate the deal that had been struck to form the Union in 1841. Maintaining that union, including its bilingual provisions and its connection with Great Britain, was essential to Macdonald.

Macdonald hoped to fashion a new coalition of Conservatives, combining moderate Reform elements with French-Canadian support. George Brown sought a Conservative coalition of his own that, in part, stood for the end of French-Canadian supremacy in the legislature. Macdonald was clear that his goal was to unite all the peoples of Canada, regardless of language or religion. In a letter to a colleague, he wrote: “Our aim should be to enlarge the bounds of our party so as to embrace every person desirous of being counted as a progressive Conservative, and who will join in a series of measures to put an end to the corruption which has ruined the present government and debauched all of its followers.”

After failing to unite Conservative forces and win power in the election of 1854, Macdonald despondently told a colleague: “Party is nowhere—damned everlasting. I will go down and get the bank bill passed and retire. I am resolved upon it.” There would be many such utterances by Macdonald over his career when faced with defeat or frustration. But he always came back.

Macdonald learned that the political landscape could quickly change. Not long after the 1854 election, a new coalition formed, with Macdonald as Attorney General of Canada West. Not an authoritarian by nature, Macdonald compassionately commuted the death sentences of eight railway workers who had plotted to kill their foreman; and reduced from life to five years the sentence of a man convicted of stealing $20. But he was not soft on criminals, noting, “The primary object of the penitentiary is punishment, and the incidental one, reformation.”

On another issue of the day, the legislature and the population found itself strongly divided over reparations from the Clergy Reserves. Established in 1791, the Clergy Reserves originally made up one-seventh of the public lands of Upper and Lower Canada, and supported the maintenance of a “Protestant clergy.” The Church of England began to sell the land in 1819, but this led to disputes over the sharing of proceeds among other Protestant churches. By the early 1850s, secularization of the reserves was widely demanded, along with provisions to pay life stipends to clerical incumbents. Many in the legislature opposed the Clergy Reserves Bill on principle. Macdonald took a more practical approach: “I believe it is a great mistake in politics and private life to resist when resistance is hopeless . . . there is no maxim which experience teaches more clearly than this, that you must yield to the times. Resistance may be protracted until it produces revolution. Resistance was protracted in this country until it produced rebellion.”

When George Brown attacked the notion of religious schools, Macdonald defended the historical rights of French-Canadian Roman Catholics: “[H]e should be sorry if a legislature, the majority of whose members were Protestants professing to recognize the great Protestant principle of the right of private judgment, should yet seek to deprive Roman Catholics of the power to educate their children according to their own principles.”

When the Separate School Bill passed in 1855, George Brown called it French-Canadian tyranny, and reaffirmed his commitment to representation by population. His goal was to diminish the influence of French-speaking legislators. However, it was not just the church and the language that Brown sought to control. He also wanted to make French culture extinct, just as Lord Durham had proposed in his 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America, when he described “two nations warring at the bosom of a single state . . . a struggle not of principles, but of races.”

Writing to a reporter for the Montréal Gazette, Macdonald lambasted the Anglophone attitude towards the French in Lower Canada: “The truth is that you British Lower Canadians never can forget that you were once supreme—that Jean Baptiste was your hewer of wood and drawer of water. You struggle, like the Protestant Irish in Ireland, like the Norman Invaders in England, not for equality, but ascendancy—the difference between you and those interesting and amiable people being that you have not the honesty to admit it.”

Macdonald believed that any attempt to assimilate or dominate the French was pointless and ignored reality: “No man in his senses can suppose that this country can, for a century to come, be governed by a totally un-frenchified government. If a Lower Canadian Britisher desires to conquer he must ‘stoop to conquer.’”

Macdonald’s moderate and respectful views enabled him to build bridges with French Canadians. He understood that for the French these battles were a matter of survival. Far ahead of his time, he was perhaps the first English politician to recognize the French people of Québec as a nation: “(We) must make friends with the French, without sacrificing the status of his race or religion or language (we) must respect their nationality. Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do—generously. Call them a faction and they become factious.”

Presciently, Macdonald foretold how French Canadians would react when threatened: “Supposing the numerical preponderance of British in Canada becomes much greater than it is, I think the French would give more trouble than they are said now to do. At present they divide as we do, they are split up into several sections, and they are governed by more or less defined principles of action. As they become smaller and feebler, so they will be more united; from a sense of self-preservation, they will act as one man and hold the balance of power . . . So long as the French have twenty votes they will be a power, and must be conciliated. I doubt very much however if the French will lose their numerical majority in Lower Canada in a hurry. . . . I am inclined to think they will hold their own for many a day yet.”

These views were instinctive to Macdonald. His impulse was to look to the French to build a stronger coalition in the Union. He understood that whoever could forge and sustain a partnership with francophones would govern. The “representation by population” forces were motivated, not by pure democratic principles, but by a desire to diminish the French fact and French influence. By standing up to these forces, Macdonald solidified his coalition with the Bleue Canadien members. “Do not put yourself in opposition to the French,” Macdonald told a colleague. “The French are your sheet anchor.”   To Brown and his ilk, Macdonald had sold his soul for the sake of power. Macdonald countered that his interest was not power, but simple fairness. His responsibility was to govern “for the good of the whole country and the equal interests of all.”

In the century that followed Macdonald’s death, some Conservative leaders treated Québec as a political wasteland and failed to embrace Macdonald’s inclusive national views. Not until 1984 would Conservatives have a leader from Québec on the ballot, Brian Mulroney, who would put forward constitutional packages that recognized Québec as a distinct society. In 2006, Stephen Harper would place before Parliament a resolution recognizing the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada. In these instances, Mulroney and Harper followed Macdonald’s pre-Confederation instincts. For all three, the consequence was a decline in support for Québec separation and a rise in the fortunes of the Conservative party.

Macdonald was one of the few English-speaking politicians to gain the respect of his French-speaking colleagues in the legislature. While leading his party in Canada West, Macdonald served as deputy to Étienne-Paschal Taché, the leader in Canada East and premier of the United Province of Canada. This partnership lasted eighteen months. In November of 1857, Macdonald became premier, with poet, corporate lawyer, and prominent French Canadian Georges-Étienne Cartier serving as his deputy from Canada East. Cartier was atypical: a French-speaking monarchist who had named one of his daughters Reine-Victoria and who called the French Revolution an episode of “misery and shame.” The alliance between Macdonald and the bleue Canadien politicians loyal to Cartier was the foundation of Tory governments pre and post-Confederation. Few if any Canadian political partnerships have been as close or productive as that of Macdonald and Cartier.

The location of the capital of the United Province of Canada was a source of ongoing and acrimonious debate. After a brief time in Kingston, the capital was moved to Montréal where it stayed from 1843 to 1849. Following an outbreak of violence at the legislative buildings in Montréal the capital was moved again and alternated between Toronto and Québec city. In 1856, Québec City was given permanent status, but the assembly could not decide on funds for the construction of the legislature. Elected members were divided strictly on lines of geography and could reach no clever compromise or consensus. Macdonald decided to take the issue out of the hands of parochial politicians and asked Queen Victoria to choose. Though a politically wise stratagem, this action nevertheless acknowledged that the elected assembly, which was hoping to be granted responsible government, was not yet mature enough to make its own decisions. In their wisdom, in 1857, the Colonial Office and the Queen, on advice if not direction from Macdonald, recommended the boisterous lumber town of Ottawa as capital of the Province of Canada (the union of Canada East and Canada West). It was the choice Macdonald had had in mind all along.

Given the difficulty the legislature had in choosing a capital, it must have seemed ridiculous to think its members could agree on expanding the boundaries of the Union. However, Alexander Tilloch Galt boldly proposed the idea of establishing a federation of British North American colonies to form one great nation. Macdonald was interested, but cautious. Confederation, as it would be called, may have seemed daunting to a man who was frustrated and fatigued: “We are having a hard fight in the house and shall beat them in the votes,” Macdonald wrote to his sister in 1858. “But it will, I think, end in my retiring as soon as I can with honor. I find the work and annoyance too much for me.”

Macdonald overcame his lethargy and showed examples of feistiness. He challenged Colonel Arthur Rankin to a duel after offensive remarks were made in the legislature. Rankin wisely retracted his remarks and the duel was averted. Macdonald eventually found the work of defining a nation intoxicating. Varying visions were debated. Some thought the problems of the Province of Canada made expanding the boundaries of the nation impracticable. Some thought contraction—dissolving the Union of Canada and restoring Canada East and Canada West as separate colonies—was a better option. Others proposed representation by population.

With Macdonald and Cartier in power just over eight months, Reform party leader George Brown seized upon what he thought an opportunity to divide the Tory caucus and defeat the government. It was over the pesky issue of relocating the capital. Macdonald placed the Queen’s recommendation before the House with the resolution that, “Ottawa ought to be the permanent seat of government of this province.” Brown joined with Conservatives from Canada East who did not want to lose the Quebec city as part-time capital and they defeated the motion on July 28, 1858, by a vote of 64 to 50. Anticipating the rocky road that lay ahead, Macdonald dutifully submitted the resignation of his government to Governor Head the following day.

After consulting with the governor, George Brown set about the task of establishing a government. At the time, any member entering Cabinet was legally required to resign his seat and face his constituents in a by-election. This was often, but not always, a formality because newly-minted Cabinet ministers typically ran unopposed. However, when Brown’s Cabinet ministers resigned, the strength of his Reform caucus was reduced to minority status. Brown desperately needed the legislature to be dissolved to allow time for by-elections to be held so that his numbers could be restored. But the House had only recently been formed and several measures, including financial matters, needed attention. Governor Head declined to adjourn the House, a decision he forewarned to Brown both verbally and in writing.

Macdonald anticipated what would happen to Brown’s government, and teased Brown in the House for his eagerness and inexperience in claiming power: “Some fish require to be toyed with. A prudent fish will play around with the bait sometime before he takes it, but in this instance the fish scarcely waited till the bait was let down. He jumped out of the water to catch it.”

On August 2, the Brown-Dorion government was sworn into office and was immediately put to a test of no-confidence in the legislature. With his Cabinet ministers unable to vote, the government was defeated. Brown appealed to Governor Head to dissolve Parliament and call an election. The Governor refused. Brown’s became the shortest government in Canadian his tory, lasting all of four days.

With Brown out, Governor Head invited Alexander Galt to form a government, but Galt declined. Next, Cartier was summoned and he accepted the invitation with Macdonald as his deputy premier. Cartier and Macdonald faced the same problem as Brown had: appointing ministers would weaken their numbers in the House. But Macdonald was familiar with the fine print of the seventh clause of the Independence of Parliament Act, which provided that an officeholder who accepted a different portfolio within a one-month period was not obligated to resign his seat. The provision was originally designed to allow a change in ministry within the same government, but it now proved useful to Macdonald for a different purpose. So on August 6, the ex-ministers from the last Macdonald-Cartier administration were brought back into the Cabinet, but in a different ministry from the one they previously held. Within hours the ministers resigned their new portfolios and took up the ones they had held in the previous administration. The reinstated government retained its strength with sufficient numbers to lead Parliament. In less than a week, the Macdonald-Cartier government had been defeated, replaced, and then returned to power. This episode was famously called the “double shuffle.”

Brown and his Grit supporters were humiliated. They accused Macdonald of fraud and his Cabinet ministers of perjury. Brown claimed the one-day ministries were a sham and offensive to parliamentary tradition. Macdonald replied just as vigorously: “It is a charge that I am a dishonorable man. . . . I say it is false as hell.”

In executing the double shuffle, Macdonald showed himself to be a master of political strategy. Like a chess player, he anticipated many moves ahead to put himself in the best possible position. He was once accused in a campaign of being “the biggest liar in all of Canada.” Macdonald replied, “I dare say it’s true enough.” What mattered was not how he played the game, but that, in the end, he won the game. While Brown bore the brunt of defeat within his party, subsequent Liberal leaders took note. Perhaps the best contemporary parallel is the defeat of Joe Clark’s Tory government in 1979 mere months after an election that left the Conservatives a few seats shy of a majority. Clark naively assumed the Liberals would not defeat his government to reclaim the power they had held for the previous seventeen years. Like Macdonald, however, Trudeau, who had resigned his post, was wily and nervy. Clark was ousted while, brazenly, Trudeau was returned to office.

Had the mischievous Double Shuffle not played out as it did, Confederation might never have happened. With renewed confidence, the Cartier-Macdonald government made the most of its political victory. On August 7, 1858, Cartier boldly spoke in Parliament of a new arrangement for Canada that would unite the provinces of British North America.

A delegation not including Macdonald—consisting of Cartier, John Ross, and Alexander Galt—travelled to England to explore the case for a Canadian federation. The five colonies included in Canada’s proposal were Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Canada. At the time, the Maritime provinces were considering a union among themselves and were opposed to joining with the Canadian provinces. The colonial office supported Confederation but it was looking for some indication that the venture would succeed before endorsing it.

Brown continued to articulate an alternate vision. He liked the design of the United States of America: representation by population, a written constitution, the separation of executive from the legislature, and restraints on federal powers. But above all, Brown wanted a rebalancing of the Union Parliament. He was inspired by the 1861 census that revealed that the population of Canada West had outstripped that of Canada East by approximately 285,000.

If the American model had any credibility, it vanished on April 12, 1861 when cannons were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, starting the Civil War. The American design, with its weak central government, now looked flawed. Macdonald, in fact, thought it so unstable that it would eventually divide America in two. With talk of a federal union of British colonies in North America, Macdonald feared that powerful provinces in a federated state of British colonies could also lead to conflict and war.

Unlike Brown, Macdonald wanted the federal government to have all the key powers of sovereignty. He wanted Canada to speak with one clear voice to avoid the risk of interprovincial conflict. He envisioned, “an immense Confederation of free men, the greatest confederacy of civilized and intelligent men that ever had an existence on the face of the globe.”

In the election campaign of 1861, Macdonald argued for his design of Confederation. Macdonald’s remarks in that campaign indicate that, even 150 years ago, Canada learned from America’s weaknesses. “We must take advantage of the faults and defects in their constitution [and] not run the risk in this country, which we see on the other side of the frontier, of one part of the country destroying the other part.”

Macdonald used the American Civil War not only to argue for a strong central government but to make the case that Confederation itself would counter an American takeover. The American threat was evident from many sources. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, believed Canada was “ripe fruit” that would naturally fall into the hands of post–Civil War America.

J.R. Potter, American consul general in Montréal, told a group of international businessmen that problems over trade and duties could easily be solved by the United States annexing Canada. Macdonald thought otherwise.

Not long before the critical debates on Confederation were held, the Macdonald-Cartier government resigned after a group of French-Canadian supporters sided with the opposition to defeat a bill to appropriate $500,000 for the militia in May 1862.The bill called for a military of 50,000 men, in large measure to protect Canada against an invasion from America (then in the middle of a civil war). The defeat met with annoyance in Great Britain as an editorial in the London Spectator noted in July 1862: “It is, perhaps, our duty to defend the empire at all hazards; it is not part of it to defend men who will not defend themselves.”

Macdonald wrote to his sister to express, not disappointment, but relief, sensing he was free of the burden of politics. “You will have seen that I am out of office. I am at last free, thank God . . . and can now feel as a free man. I have longed for this hour and only a sense of honour has kept me chained to my post ...I have now fulfilled my duty to my party and begin to think of myself.”

Yet even in defeat, Macdonald was strategic and patient and his sense of relief was less than sincere. To Macdonald, there was a time to be in power and a time to consolidate a coalition, a political astuteness that led to his nickname of “Old Tomorrow.” “We can put a Ministry out whenever we like, but the pear is not yet ripe . . .We have shown that we did not wish to cling to office for its own sake and we wish to show that we prefer the good of the country to mere party triumph. . . .”

His was right. The Liberal government of John Sandfield Macdonald was defeated, leaving John A. Macdonald and Étienne-Paschal Taché to form an administration under the banner of the Liberal-Conservative party on May 30, 1864. Macdonald appealed to his caucus to follow only one maxim: “Let there be no splits.”

The Macdonald-Taché government did not take the lead on Confederation. It was Macdonald’s longtime nemesis, George Brown, who introduced a resolution in the legislature asking that a committee examine alternative forms of federation. Most likely because it was a Brown initiative, Macdonald, Cartier, and Galt voted against the resolution. Nonetheless, it passed. The committee reported on June 14 that, “A strong feeling was found to exist among members of the committee in favour of changes in the direction of a federative system, applied either to Canada alone or to the whole British North American provinces.” To Brown, a federation was a way to segregate Canada West and Canada East and achieve both representation by population and a diminished influence by the French over Canada West. It would provide a framework to consider the interests of both parts of the province and settle them. Including the Atlantic provinces in a federation was a possibility, but Brown would have been satisfied with a “mini-confederation” of Canada West and Canada East with some undefined political structure above them both. The fate of the English in Canada East was of no concern to him.

Macdonald disagreed with Brown’s intent to isolate the French, but he agreed with the design. For Macdonald, keeping the British colonies strong both affirmed Canada’s independence from America and assured its connection with Great Britain. As a result, his government was fully committed to a general federal union of British North America when, on August 29, 1864, he and some colleagues set sail aboard the Queen Victoria for Charlottetown, PEI, to drop in on a conference that was considering a possible union of the Maritime provinces. Unlike Brown, Macdonald was determined that the Atlantic provinces would join in Confederation.

Together with Galt and Cartier, Macdonald persuaded the Maritimes to set aside the idea of a Maritime-only union, not a difficult sell because the federated model would enable each Maritime province to retain its border (whereas the proposed Maritime union would have created a single entity). A second conference to consider the larger national union was scheduled for October at Québec City.

Cartier spoke there of the benefits for the French in Confederation: “Confederation is a tree whose branches extend in different directions, all of which are firmly attached to the trunk. We French Canadians are one of those branches. It is for us to understand this, and to work for the common good ...[T]olerance is indispensable is on that condition only that we can always conserve the rights acquired by our distinct nationality. We shall enjoy these rights as long as we remain worthy of them.”

The seventy-two resolutions passed at Québec City became the basis for the British North America Act. Canada would be a federal union, formed under its “mother country” Great Britain. There would be a general government charged with matters of common interest to the whole country and local governments charged with the control of local matters in their respective sections. (It is noteworthy that the term “general” was used rather than “federal”; “local” rather than “provincial.”)

The Maritime provinces, fearful that their interests would be subservient to the larger populations of Canada East and Canada West, wanted equal representation in the Senate. However, the Senate was designed with regional, not provincial, equality in mind. There were to be 24 members each for Canada East and Canada West; and 24 for the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia: 10, New Brunswick: 10, and Prince Edward Island: 4). Members of the Senate would be appointed by the Crown, after being nominated by local governments. Those nominated were to include those from opposition par ties in each province so that all political parties would be fairly represented. Macdonald believed an appointed Senate composed of men of substance was necessary. “The rights of the minority must be protected, and the rich are always fewer in number than the poor.”

With notable exceptions, the House of Commons was to be representation by population. The allocation at Confederation was: Canada West 82; Canada East 65; Nova Scotia 19; New Brunswick 15; Newfoundland 8 and PEI 5. Representation from each section was to be readjusted on the basis of population after every decennial census. One exception was that Canada East was permanently assigned sixty-five members; with each of the other sections entitled to representation on a proportionate basis. Another exception was that the numbers of federal representatives could not be reduced unless the population in a section decreased by five percent.

The general Parliament, which required elections at least every five years, had the power to make laws for peace, welfare, and good government in a broad range of categories. Critically, the Parliament would hold residual powers for all general matters that weren’t reserved for the local governments and legislatures. Parliament also enjoyed the power to appoint the lieutenant governor of the provinces, a position Macdonald considered the equivalent of a chief executive officer. This power of appointment gave the general government something of an oversight role over the local governments.

The local legislatures had more limited responsibilities including direct taxation; agriculture; immigration; education (except any rights and privileges which the Protestant or Catholic minority might possess for denominational schools); sea coast; inland fisheries; the establishment, maintenance and management of hospitals, asylums, charities, and charitable institutions; municipal institutions; licensing for shop, saloon, tavern and auctioneers; incorporation of private companies; and property and civil rights. The provinces also enjoyed residual rights. These were limited to private or local matters not assigned to the general Parliament. To ensure the authority of the general government, its laws were to be supreme in any area of shared jurisdiction. Macdonald hoped that the provinces would, in effect, ultimately become municipalities.

Both English and French were to be used in the general Parliament and in the local legislature of Canada East, and also in the federal Courts and the courts of Canada East.

The weighting of powers and jurisdiction was, as Macdonald had sought in the negotiations, precisely toward a strong federal Parliament. “We . . . make the Confederation one people in one government, instead of five peoples and five governments, one united province, with the local governments and legislatures subordinate to the general government and legislature.”

Macdonald’s centrist orientation produced a division of responsibilities that was appropriate at the time. However, he did not anticipate the dramatically increased presence that governments would have in the lives of Canadians in the generations that followed. Had Macdonald foreseen state-controlled health care he would probably have placed it in the hands of the federal government. Macdonald would be astonished that today the collective revenues of provincial governments exceed those of the federal government. In contrast to Macdonald, most Conservatives since Bob Stanfield have generally been advocates of provincial rights, as they are set out in the Constitution of 1867. Indeed, the 2006 Constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada states as a basic principle, “A belief in the federal system of government as the best expression of the diversity of our country, and in the desirability of strong provincial and territorial governments.” This principle would have troubled Macdonald.

Among the more controversial provisions incorporated into Canada’s governance at Confederation was the power of disallowance. In addition to the power of the Queen to disallow legislation of the general government, the governor general also had the right to disallow local government legislation within one year of its passing. The authority of the governor general to disallow generally fell upon the general government to exercise and was consistent with the strong general government that Macdonald wanted. But this power proved problematic for him. Whenever a province passed legislation that upset either minorities in that province or the sensibilities of another province, pressure was placed on the prime minister to intervene. Macdonald did not fully appreciate the dilemma until certain provinces sought to squelch the right of the French-speaking minority to educate their children in their native tongue.

At Confederation, the general government took ownership of the assets and liabilities of the local governments. Annual grants, based on population at 80 cents per head, were to be given as an offset for the loss in authority and taxing power. Positive adjustments were made for provinces that brought proportionally less debt into Confederation. As today, Canada was then a financial bargain box filled with transfers, equalization payments, and promises to build infrastructure.

The resolutions adopted at the Québec Conference had no authority until sanctioned by the imperial and colonial Parliaments. But for Macdonald, the man who had authored a majority of the resolutions, it was an impressive start. Only a month after inviting himself to Charlottetown, he was leading the ambitious design for a new nation. Because none of the participants had experience in drafting constitutions, it is no surprise that the ensuing documents contained flaws—the more serious of which were the failure to consider an amending formula, the terms under which dissolution might be caused, and the status of Aboriginal people.

The next stage of the journey was passage through provincial legislatures and the imperial Parliament in London. Because the conferences in Prince Edward Island and Québec took place behind closed doors, public opinion would now have to be brought onside. However, Macdonald did not see this as a matter that needed to be brought before the public for approval: “It would be unconstitutional and anti-British to have a plebiscite. If by petitions in public meetings Parliament is satisfied the country do not want the measure, they will refuse to adopt. If on the other hand Parliament sees that the country is in favour of the Federation, there is no use in an appeal to it. Submission of the complicated details to the country is an obvious absurdity.”

Whenever confederation was in political danger, Macdonald would raise the spectre of problems south of the border. He had faced problems of his own with the Americans when, on October 19, 1864, in the village of St. Albans, Vermont, 13 Confederate agents, dressed in civilian clothes, escaped to Canada after robbing three banks of $200,000. One American pursuer was killed. The raiders were arrested in Canada East but were later released on a technicality by a Montréal police magistrate. There was pressure on President Lincoln to invade Canada and capture the raiders, but he declined, fearing an international incident. Even though the raiders were recaptured and returned to America, other retaliatory measures were contemplated, including the abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty and an executive order requiring passports from all persons entering the United States from the provinces. (The next time Americans would invoke the passport provisions was in 2006 in response to fears that terrorists might enter the U.S. via Canada.)

Macdonald thought complaining about retaliation over the proposed passport measure would only strengthen American resolve and make Canada look weak. He was not prepared to give the Americans this satisfaction, since “it would give [U.S. Secretary of State] Mr. Seward an exaggerated idea of the inconvenience and the loss sustained by Canada and would be kept up as a means of punishment or for purposes of coercion. The sure way to succeed is for the Canadian government to assume an indifferent tone in the matter.”

Macdonald took the Québec resolutions to the legislature in the Province of Canada, where he made his belief in the principle of a monarch who was beyond the reach of politics in the House. His case for a strong central government and subordinate local governments, with lieutenant governors appointed by the general government, was central to this argument.

Meanwhile, all was not well in the Maritime provinces. Prince Edward Island did not make it into the first phase of Confederation. In Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe took up the struggle against the Québec plan and demanded a referendum or election on the issue. He believed that Confederation would weaken the bond with the British; that it would be used by the British to justify withdrawing its troops from Nova Scotia, and thus weaken commercial ties.

One particularly contentious element of the Québec plan was the construction of the intercolonial railway. This key commitment promised to build an intercolonial railway from Rivière-du-Loup through New Brunswick to Truro in Nova Scotia. When pressed, Macdonald would not say whether this provision represented a constitutional guarantee. This caused concern in New Brunswick. “Now I can assure you,” New Brunswick Premier Leonard Tilley wrote to Macdonald in 1865, “that no Delegate from this Province will consent to the Union unless we have this guarantee [of a railroad].” Macdonald, speaking without authorization, pledged that the guarantee would be inserted into an Imperial Act.

Both the Québec resolutions and Premier Tilley were defeated in the New Brunswick legislature. With an anti-confederation government in place in New Brunswick, expanding the union seemed doubtful. But, supported with ample secret donations arranged by Macdonald and railway supporters, Tilley was returned to power in short order and the Confederation resolution was adopted in 1866.

The Nova Scotia legislature approved the union in 1866, but its approval expired in the spring of 1867. Unless Confederation was a reality by that date, a new bill would have to be introduced. A provincial election was likely before then, providing another opportunity to derail Confederation in Nova Scotia.

Enter the Fenians. Irish immigrants to America, the Fenian Brotherhood was a radical group that sought independence for their home country from Great Britain. The Fenians’ strategy was to take Canada hostage, then boldly negotiate Irish independence with England. In June 1866, the Fenians did defeat a small Canadian force along the Niagara frontier, but most Fenian attacks were haphazard and inconsequential. That same year, several hundred of the Brotherhood marched six miles into Canada to plant a green flag. They entered unopposed, then amused themselves by stealing food and liquor. Anticipating Canadian opposition, they bid a hasty retreat, only to have their guns confiscated upon reentering American territory. The incident was ludicrous, but Macdonald used it to his advantage. What better way to protect British North America from American invasion, he suggested, than to bind the colonies together, backed by the full might of British military force? To reinforce the seriousness of the threat, Parliament was called into an emergency session to provide increased support for its military.

Within Canada West and Canada East, the Confederation debate drew generally positive conclusions, but for different reasons. In Canada East, George Brown triumphantly declared, “. . . constitution adopted—a most credible document—a complete reform of all the abuses and injustices we have complained of. Is it not wonderful? French-Canadianism is entirely extinguished.” Brown’s newspaper, the Globe, elaborated: “We desire local self-government in order that the separate nationalities of which the population is composed may not quarrel. We desire at the same time a strong central authority. Is there anything incompatible in these two things?” In Canada East, Quebecers viewed Confederation as a framework that would allow them to control their own destiny. Editors at La Minerve, a newspaper closely aligned with the Tories, proclaimed, “As a distinct and separate nationality, we form a state within a state. We enjoy the full exercise of our rights, and the formal recognition of our national independence . . . In giving ourselves a complete government, we affirm our existence as a separate nationality.”

In Canada East, the threat of American domination came into play. Cartier observed, “The question is reduced to this: we must either have a British North America Federation or else be absorbed into the American Federation.” Indeed, just as Confederation was becoming a reality, American expansionist designs included the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for US $7.2 million. American Senator Charles Sumner boasted that the purchase was “the visible step to the occupation of the whole North American continent.” Perhaps Confederation had arrived in the nick of time.

The final battleground for Confederation was England, where the Imperial Parliament would be asked to pass the British North America Act. But first, the “London Conference” was convened on December 4, 1866 to hold hearings on the matter. Macdonald was chosen conference chair. Sir Frederick Rogers of the Colonial Office commented on Macdonald’s mastery at nation-building. “Macdonald was the ruling genius and spokesman and I was very greatly struck by his power of management and adroit ness. . . . the slightest divergence from the narrow line already agreed on in Canada was watched for—here by the French and there by the English—as eager dogs watch a rat hole; a snap on one side might have provoked a snap on the other; and put an end to the accord. He stated and argued the case with cool, ready fluency, while at the same time you saw that every word was measured, and that while he is making for a point ahead, he was never for a moment unconscious of any of the rocks among which he had to steer.” To secure agreement at the London Conference, a limited number of amendments to the Québec resolutions was required.  Specifically, the Senate design was altered, enabling the Queen to appoint three or six additional senators, representing the three divisions of Canada. The central government was also given responsibility to protect the rights of minorities in education by invoking “remedial” legislation if required.

The style given to Canada was also debated. While Macdonald preferred the prefix of “Kingdom,” British officials worried it would annoy American “Republican” sensibilities. The Colonial Office proposed the designation “Dominion”: “And he shall have dominion also from sea to sea” from Psalm 72, verse 8—which was readily accepted.

Despite Joseph Howe’s pleas to delay legislation until after the Nova Scotia election, the bill establishing Canada was first read in the British House of Lords on February 12, 1867 and passed four days later. Macdonald commented that the bill received the same consideration “as if it were a private Bill uniting two or three English parishes.”  Nonetheless, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, remarked, “We are laying the foundation of a great State, perhaps one which at a future date may overshadow this country.” In addition to being knighted, Macdonald was chosen by Queen Victoria, in advance of an election, to be Canada’s first prime minister. He was, of course, the logical choice. He had carried the day on matters of vision with abundant political skill. And his peers had chosen him to chair the London Conference. This latter choice was the test the Queen used to identify the man who possessed the confidence of a Parliament that did not yet exist. Being chosen prime minister before Canada’s first election gave Macdonald and his Liberal-Conservative colleagues an enormous advantage that they did not fail to exploit.

In pre-Confederation days, the Province of Canada had been governed by co-leaders, a premier from one part and a deputy from the other. In choosing Macdonald, however, Governor General Lord Monck set a different course: “In future, it shall be distinctly understood that the position of First Minister shall be held by one person, who shall be responsible to the Governor General for the appointment of other ministers, and that the system of dual first ministers, which has hitherto prevailed, shall be put an end to.”

When John A. Macdonald was sworn in as Canada’s first prime minister on July 1, 1867, a national holiday was declared. But the slow and sometimes painful work of nation-building was only just beginning.