Confederation - a False Sense of Unity?
Confederation geographically united the colonies of a fledgling Canada - Confederation - a False Sense of Unity? introduction. The union defined borders, created governments and brought the various peoples of Canada together under a single dominion. However, the imposition of geographic union on the people did not immediately bring union amongst the people themselves. Political, cultural, economic, and, at times, regional divisions were present and even perpetuated by groups in power. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the peoples of Canada would struggle to find acceptance within their own country.
The signing of the British North America Act in 1867 ushered in a new brand of government in Canada. This act created a strong federal government. The residual powers that remained were relegated to the provincial governments. Tension arose as federal and provincial government jockeyed over jurisdictional issues. In most cases, the federal government, with its sweeping powers, overruled the provincial authorities. A.R.M. Lower wrote:
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“What happened in 1867 was that the Crown, in the fullness of its wisdom, decided to rearrange its administrative areas in British North America…All were cast into the crucible of Imperial omnicompetence and came out remelted, shining, new, and fused.”
Lower’s interpretation compares the Crown with the newly formed Canadian government. The power given to the new federal government resembled that of the Crown. Provincial rights advocates began campaigning to the British government to intervene in order to grant more power to the provinces. These advocates struggled to accept governance of issues formerly handled by the quasi-independent colonies that were now being administered by a federal government. This political division fueled a lack of unity amongst the peoples of Canada.
In 1868 it became apparent to five members of the Toronto elite that there was a lack of national spirit surrounding Confederation. They created the Canada First Movement that represented a very distinct brand of Anglo-Saxon nationalism. The Movement sought to assimilate all immigrants, French Canadians and First Nations peoples into the British Anglo-Saxon way of life. The Canada Firsters would see the French Canadians as a ‘bar to progress, and to the extension of a great Anglo-Saxon Dominion across the Continent.’ Their ideals were not inclusive, nor were they unifying; they were solely concerned with the assimilation of any group or individual who did not fit their Anglo-Saxon mould.
The French Canadians themselves were not innocent when it came to social or religious persecution. During the same time as the Canada First Movement, a French Canadian movement known as ultramontanism was beginning to emerge. ‘Ultramontanism is a Catholic philosophy that gave precedence and authority to the Pope and Vatican in Rome, even over secular political leaders.’ Although the rest of the country had effectively separated church from state, the ultramontanes of Quebec campaigned for the subordination of state to the church. The church endorsed politicians whose beliefs were in line with that of the church and, at times, it instructed its members how to vote. This political activism by the church led to discontent, particularly amongst Protestants and Catholics who had already accepted the separation of church and state. These individuals disliked that the ultramontanist movement essentially excluded any religious group that was not Roman Catholic and they came to view ultramontanism as preventing the modernization of provincial government.
The ideals of both the Canada First Movement and ultramontism were contrary to what George Cartier, one of the Fathers of Confederation, had envisioned for Canada,
“Now, when we are united together, if union were attained, we would form a political nationality with which neither the national origin, nor the religion of any individual, would interfere.”
The nationalism that emerged in Ontario and Quebec shortly after Confederation showed the depth of disunity amongst ethnic and religious groups that plagued early Canada. To foster a truly national character, there was a distinct need for the new country to find an identity beyond a common ethnicity, religion or language.
As much as the peoples of Canada struggled to accept their own fellow ‘Canadians’, many struggled more with immigrants and immigration during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Men such as Clifford Sifton, a Manitoba politician, contributed to the racism and discrimination that was rampant during these times. Sifton and his immigration agents were known to target ‘young, white, British and American males’ to settle in the Canadian West. Visible minorities were not welcome and were placed at the bottom of the immigration hierarchy. This is not to say that no visible minorities settled in the Canadian West, but those that did faced discrimination in finding housing and jobs. Most minorities would settle around each other to create social unity in a Canada unwilling to accept them as equals.
John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, would plunge the country into further turmoil with the introduction of his ‘National Policy’. The basis of the policy rests on three essentials: a high protective tariff, the completion of a transcontinental railway and settlement of the West through immigration. In the late 1870s, Macdonald and his Conservatives were primarily concerned with the tariff issue. He argued that trade should flow east-west as opposed to north-south with the United States. Macdonald would further argue that the tariff would provide Canadians with their own national market, reducing their dependency on the Unites States. The Liberal party pointed out that the National Policy was regional in interest, serving the needs of Central Canadians alone. Historian David Bercuson noted,
“The ill effects abound: high prices for the manufactured products of Central Canada and the loss to East and West of significant commercial intercourse with New England and the United States.”
Economist John Dales also contended that the National Policy was a failure. He noted that the railway building was far too expensive for the Canadian government, immigration and settlement in the West did not happen until well after the Policy was in place and that the high tariff pitted region against region as the Liberals at the time had argued. The result would be the growth of industrialization in Central Canada at the expense of other regions. The perceived view of a regional policy incited anger and further division between the so-called hinterlands and Central Canada itself.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the Dominion of Canada grow at an exponential rate. The newly created federal government with its immense power, through the signing of the British North America Act, focused mainly on the physical expansion of the country. Confederation was used as a tool to unite the various colonies geographically, but did little to unite the people of those colonies. Political, cultural, economic and regional divisions remained and were rarely, if at all, addressed by the governments in power at the time.
Francis, R.D., Jones, R., Smith, D.B. and Wardaugh, R., Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation. 7th Ed. Toronto, Thomson, Nelson, 2012