Done Deal

A fresh look at the crucial meeting that made Canada.

When the men who came to be known as the Fathers of Confederation met in Quebec City to try to hammer out an arrangement for the union of their respective colonies, it was not clear whether the tide was turning toward or away from large polities. In Europe, the progress of Italian and German unification seemed to bode well for larger units. But the Ottoman Empire was tottering and Russia’s weaknesses were starkly revealed in the Crimean War that had ended less than a decade earlier. In North America, large nations were definitely in trouble. Atlanta had just fallen to Union forces in September, but the United States Civil War would not end until the spring of 1865. (Indeed, a raid on St. Alban’s, Vermont, conducted by some Confederate trouble makers hiding out in the Eastern Townships, took place in the middle of the Quebec conference.) Mexico was also engaged in a civil war, this one between republicans and monarchists, triggered by an invasion of the French in 1862 and their subsequent installation of Maximilian I as emperor.

The six colonies present at the Quebec conference were already part of the world’s largest polity—the British Empire, widely regarded at the time as a successful example of the concept, although opinions have varied subsequently. Britain itself was now urging its North American colonies to think about closer ties with one another, partly to spare the imperial defence budget and partly to provide a more secure guarantee for British capital investment. The component parts of the United Province of Canada actually wanted less to do with one another, however, imprisoned as they were in the perpetually unstable condominium-style government imposed on them in 1840. Canada West (Ontario) in particular could see the advantages of autonomy within a larger federal structure—a position similar to that of the Scottish Nationalists today, who want a divorce from England but continued membership in the European Union.

Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting That Made Canada is a something of a prequel to Christopher Moore’s earlier 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. In that book, the Quebec conference plays an important role, but here it is the sole focus. Moore provides us with a day-by-day account of the conference from its commencement on Monday, October 10, to its conclusion on Thursday, October 27. The conference was held in camera and the notes of the debates taken by its secretary are sketchy in places, so the source material that historians have to work with is less than ideal. But the extra-curricular activities of the delegates—the dinners, balls, touristic excursions—are well documented. The newspapers, after all, had little else to report on until the end of the conference; diaries and letters are also mined to document the social side of the conference. George Brown wrote frequently to his wife, Anne. Twenty-six-year-old Mercy Coles, daughter of a Prince Edward Island delegate, kept a diary, and snooty Frances (“Feo”) Monck, sister-in-law of Governor General Viscount Monck, poured out her disdain of the colonials in letters home. “A retired butcher and oh, so vulgar,” she lamented after being obliged to dance with Mercy Coles’s father, the man who brought free public education to Prince Edward Island.

The received opinion in academic circles about Confederation is not very positive. Many voices were excluded. The Fathers of Confederation were elitists who insisted on an unelected senate and remained suspicious of democracy. On this score, Moore retains the revisionism he displayed in 1867. While he is rightly critical of the way Native peoples were ignored, he points out that women were enfranchised nowhere else in the world and that British North America’s franchise was one of the world’s broadest at the time.

As for the Senate, which occupied much of the delegates’ time and almost caused its break-up, Moore maintains that it was never meant to be a powerful institution. The delegates insisted on its being an appointed body precisely in order to ensure that it could not rival the elected House of Commons, which would remain the real centre of Canadian political life. It is for this reason that our constitution provides no mechanisms for dealing with deadlock between the Senate and the House of Commons—as, for example, the Australian constitution does. The Senate was expected to have the good sense to defer to the elected body on important issues of principle—as it (mostly) does. Moore must have taken some satisfaction at the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the recent Senate Reference, which, though without citing him, essentially agreed with his position.

With regard to democracy, the Fathers espoused parliamentary democracy, not direct democracy. In this regard, they practised what they preached: all delegations included members of the opposition parties as well as those of the government. With the rise of executive federalism in the 20th century, we arguably became less democratic than our ancestors. There were no opposition members present at the meetings that led to the constitutional accord of 1982. And Brian Mulroney might well have regretted not following the Quebec model in arriving at the Meech Lake Accord.

The Fathers’ type of democracy centred on legislatures rather than voters themselves. “They looked skeptically at referendums and plebiscites, certain that it was in legislative debate, not in mass votes on yes/no questions, that the needs of the people could best be determined.” This has remained one of the features that most distinguishes Canadian political life from that of its southern neighbour. While plebiscites on municipal issues are fairly common in Canada, provincial ones are not (the two Quebec referendums being highly exceptional), and federal referendums are almost non-existent. When the 1982 amendments to the constitution were being mooted, editorial opinion across the country was almost unanimous in rejecting their validation via a referendum.

The Fathers of Confederation were representative of the major divisions of their time: Catholic and Protestant, French and English, Reform and Conservative, land-based versus maritime economies. Judged from a later perspective, they were not inclusive enough. And they committed a major error in putting off a decision on an amending formula. But unlike all previous Canadian constitutional arrangements (1763, 1774, 1791, 1840), the one they outlined in 1864 has endured. In the run-up to Canada 150 in 2017, that is something worth noting even if it would be un-Canadian to celebrate it. Christopher Moore has provided a sparkling, succinct and thought-provoking account of those three rainy weeks in La Vieille Capitale, and in so doing provides a handy refresher on our constitution’s basic principles.