At this time when the governments of the Canadian Provinces are demanding money and power from the Federal Government, when the political right is demanding less centralized government in Ottawa and the pressure to merge Canada with the USA (currency, trade and politics) is at a zenith, it may be a good exercise to look back at the history of Canada to understand what we are potentially “giving up”.When we talk about the birth of Canada, what do you think of as the pivotal events? The Plains of Abraham? The British North America Act? What if I told you that the birth of Canada was the result of fear of invasion and/or annexation by the Americans?
For example, the first border between Canada and the US was negotiated as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. The Treaty of Versailles was the treaty which acknowledged the independence of the US from Britain. The boundary between the United States and British North America was to run, following various rivers, lakes and latitude 45°, west to the Lake of the Woods and then to the Mississippi.
In 1791 the Constitutional Act divided the province of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada. This was done because after the American Revolution many United Empire Loyalists left the United States and emigrated north. The division into Upper and Lower Canada gave the Loyalists who settled west of the Ottawa River the chance to organize and develop along their own lines.
In 1818 the line between Canada and the US stopped at the Ontario border. In order to protect its sovereignty the Treaty of 1818 extended the international border from the northwest corner of the Lake of the Woods due south to the 49th parallel and along it to the Rocky Mountains. This was done even though neither Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta were part of Canada.
Finally in a treaty of 1846 The 49th parallel was established as a border all the way to the Pacific.
In 1867 the British North America Act finally established the terms of Canada. The most common view of Confederation under this Act is a bunch of guys around a table waxing poetically on Canada as a nation. But was that the reason they met to do the deed?
For years the US had tried to talk the British and the Canadians into joining them. The Americans were convinced that Canada could not make it on their own. Since 1850, William Seward, the American Secretary of State during the Civil War, had been an annexationists who felt that British North America (Canada) was destined to become part of the United States. As it became obvious that the North would emerge victorious from the War, there was a fear that American expansionism would rear its head and turn its eyes to the north.
In Canada and the Maritime many thought that invading BNA would give the victorious Union army something to do. The possibility of annexation was even more real in the northwest of what is now Canada. In 1860 Seward praised the people of Rupert’s Land for conquering the wilderness and creating a great state for the American Union.
In the election of 1864 the Republican Party used annexation to gain support from Irish Americans and the land-hungry. A Bill to Annex Canada into the United States, introduced by General Banks, was passed in the United States House of Representatives in July of 1866. It intended that the United States acquire all of what is now Canada.
Whether based in reality or not, the fear of annexation played a definite role in the achievement of Canadian Confederation and in shaping its constitution. Seeing the horror of war that resulted from the divisiveness of American federalism, the Fathers of Confederation decided that Canada should have a stronger federal government. Stronger than the one south of the border in the United States. Sir Etienne-Paschal Tache, Premier of Lower Canada, said it best in 1866:
“If the opportunity [for Confederation] which now presented itself were allowed to pass by unimproved, whether we would or would not, we would be forced into the American Union by violence, and if not by violence, would be placed upon an inclined plane which would carry us there insensibly.”
In 1867 the British North America Act brought together the provinces of Canada, divided into Ontario and Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, to form the Dominion of Canada. In 1869, having acquired the rights from the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Dominion of Canada transformed the former Rupert’s Land and the area beyond the Rocky Mountains into the North West Territories. In 1870, the old Red River settlement joined the Dominion as the province of Manitoba. In 1871 British Columbia joined the union. In 1873 Prince Edward Island joined Confederation.
In 1905 Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. Finally in 1949 Newfoundland made up the last piece of the provincial puzzle.
You should now know how The Nation of Canada was born. In Part 2 of 4 on The History of the Canadian Political System we look at what it looked like politically in 1867.