In 1864, the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland planned to meet in Charlottetown to investigate a union among the British Maritime colonies. John A Macdonald and other representatives from Upper and Lower Canada invited themselves to the meeting and arrived by steamship. They proposed a wider union which would include Upper and Lower Canada. The group met again in Quebec City in October 1864 and agreed to proceed. Then in February 1865, the legislature of Upper and Lower Canada met to decide whether to ratify the proposal. Macdonald’s was the first of many speeches in the long debate in Quebec City.
“If we wish to be a great people … this can only be obtained by a union of some kind”
Preparing for Confederation
This subject, which now absorbs the attention of the people of Canada, and of the whole of British North America, is not a new one. For years, it has more or less attracted the attention of every statesman and politician in these provinces, and has been looked upon by many far-seeing politicians as being eventually the means of deciding and settling very many of the vexed questions which have retarded the prosperity of the colonies as a whole, and particularly the prosperity of Canada . . .
The result was that when we met here on the 10th of October, on the first day on which we assembled after the full and free discussions which had taken place at Charlottetown, the first resolution now before this House was passed unanimously, being received with acclamation as, in the opinion of everyone who heard it, a proposition which ought to receive, and would receive, the sanction of each government and each people. The resolution is: “That the best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America will be promoted by a federal union under the Crown of Great Britain, provided such union can be effected on principles just to the several provinces.”
In our best interest
It seemed to all the statesmen assembled—and there are great statesmen in the lower provinces, men who would do honour to any government and to any legislature of any free country enjoying representative institutions—it was clear to them all that the best interests and present and future prosperity of British North America would be promoted by a federal union under the Crown of Great Britain. And it seems to me, as to them, and I think it will so appear to the people of this country that, if we wish to be a great people; if we wish to form . . . a great nationality, commanding the respect of the world, able to hold our own against all opponents, and to defend those institutions we prize; if we wish to have one system of government, and to establish a commercial union with unrestricted free trade between people of the five provinces, belonging, as they do, to the same nation, obeying the same sovereign, owning the same allegiance, and being, for the most part, of the same blood and lineage; if we wish to be able to afford to each other the means of mutual defence and support against aggression and attack, this can only be obtained by a union of some kind between the scattered and weak boundaries composing the British North American provinces . . .
Legislative or federal union
Now, as regards the comparative advantages of a legislative or a federal union, I have never hesitated to state my own opinions. I have again and again stated in the House that, if practicable, I thought a legislative union would be preferable. I have always contended that if we could agree to have one government and one Parliament legislating for the whole of these peoples, it would be the best, the cheapest, the most vigorous, and the strongest system of government we could adopt. But, on looking at the subject in the conference, and discussing the matter as we did, most unreservedly, and with a desire to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, we found that such a system was impracticable. In the first place, it would not meet the assent of the people of Lower Canada, because they felt that in their peculiar position—being in a minority, with a different language, nationality, and religion from the majority—in case of a junction with the provinces, their institutions and their laws might be assailed, and their ancestral associations, on which they prided themselves, attacked and prejudiced; it was found that any proposition which involved the absorption of the individuality of Lower Canada, if I may use the expression, would not be received with favour by her people. We found too, that though their people speak the same language and enjoy the same system of law as the people of Upper Canada, a system founded on the common law of England, there was as great a disinclination on the part of the various Maritime provinces to lose their individuality, as separate political organizations, as we observed in the case of Lower Canada herself. Therefore, we were forced to the conclusion that we must either abandon the idea of union altogether, or devise a system of union in which the separate provincial organizations would be in some degree preserved. So that those who were, like myself, in favour of a legislative union, were obliged to modify their views and accept the project of a federal union as the only scheme practicable, even for the Maritime provinces . . .
Do not tinker
I trust the scheme will be assented to as a whole. I am sure this House will not seek to alter it in its unimportant details; and, if altered in any important provisions, the result must be that the whole will be set aside, and we must begin de novo. If any important changes are made, every one of the colonies will feel itself absolved from the implied obligation to deal with it as a treaty, each province will feel itself at liberty to amend it ad libitum so as to suit its own views and interests; in fact, the whole of our labours will have been for naught, and we will have to renew our negotiations with all the colonies for the purpose of establishing some new scheme. I hope the House will not adopt any such a course as will postpone, perhaps forever, or at all events for a long period, all chances of union. All the statesmen and public men who have written or spoken on the subject admit the advantages of a union, if it were practicable, and now when it is proved to be practicable, if we do not embrace this opportunity the present favourable time will pass away, and we may never have it again . . .
Fear of US invasion
If we are not blind to our present position, we must see the hazardous situation in which all the great interests of Canada stand in respect to the United States. I am no alarmist. I do not believe in the prospect of immediate war. I believe that the common sense of the two nations will prevent a war; still we cannot trust to probabilities. The government and legislature would be wanting in their duty to the people if they ran any risk. We know that the United States at this moment are engaged in a war of enormous dimensions, that the occasion of a war with Great Britain has again and again arisen, and may at any time in the future again arise. We cannot foresee what may be the result; we cannot say but that the two nations may drift into a war as other nations have done before. It would then be too late when war had commenced to think of measures for strengthening ourselves, or to begin negotiations for a union with the sister provinces . . .
The conference having come to the conclusion that a legislative union, pure and simple, was impracticable, our next attempt was to form a government upon federal principles, which would give to the general government the strength of a legislative and administrative union, while at the same time it preserved that liberty of action for the different sections which is allowed by a federal union. And I am strong in the belief that we have hit upon the happy medium in those resolutions, and that we have formed a scheme of government which unites the advantages of both, giving us the strength of a legislative union and the sectional freedom of a federal union, with protection to local interests . . .
Seize the day
In conclusion, I would again implore the House not to let this opportunity to pass. It is an opportunity that may never recur. At the risk of repeating myself, I would say, it was only by a happy concurrence of circumstances that we were enabled to bring this great question to its present position. If we do not take advantage of the time, if we show ourselves unequal to the occasion, it may never return, and we shall hereafter bitterly and unavailingly regret having failed to embrace the happy opportunity now offered of founding a great nation under the fostering care of Great Britain, and our sovereign lady, Queen Victoria.
Macdonald’s speech is found in The Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd Session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1951), 25–45. This is a photographic reproduction of the original from 1865.
Note: This speech by Macdonald is treated in depth in my new book Speeches That Changed Canada.
K. Johnson and P. B., “Macdonald, Sir John Alexander,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12 (University of Toronto/Université Laval), 2003: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_john_alexander_12E.html
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons