Canada’s First Sep­a­ratist

Joseph Howe was de­ter­mined to keep his beloved province of Nova Sco­tia from be­ing forced into Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Dean Jobb

Joseph Howe was de­ter­mined to keep his beloved Nova Sco­tia from be­ing forced into Con­fed­er­a­tion.


A Lon­don as cold and bit­ter as Joseph Howe’s reception in some quar­ters of the Bri­tish cap­i­tal. Nova Sco­tia’s lead­ing states­man had been in Eng­land for months, lob­by­ing politi­cians, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, jour­nal­ists, and any­one else who would lis­ten as he railed against the im­mi­nent merger of Bri­tain’s North Amer­i­can colonies.

Howe “was furious at the plan of union” and “in­dig­nant at the risk of [Nova Sco­tia’s] ab­sorp­tion” into a new coun­try, re­called Ox­ford pro­fes­sor Thorold Rogers, who was among those who were but­ton­holed by Howe. Howe mocked Con­fed­er­a­tion as the “both­er­a­tion” scheme, a “crazy con­fed­er­acy” foisted on his province with­out a man­date from its ci­ti­zens.

He was laid low with a chest cold over the hol­i­days but re­bounded in the new year. His boom­ing voice, he as­sured his wife, Susan Ann, in a let­ter home to Hal­i­fax, was once again “as clear as a trum­pet.” As 1867 dawned he was ready to re­sume his strug­gle to keep Nova Sco­tia out of Con­fed­er­a­tion.

But Howe faced over­whelm­ing odds. An ar­ray of pow­er­ful forces — po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, mil­i­tary — was solidly be­hind the plan to cre­ate the Do­min­ion of Canada. In 1864, del­e­gates to a con­fer­ence in Que­bec City pro­duced a blue­print for a self-gov­ern­ing fed­eral state. The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment was on­side and ea­ger to be free of the cost of de­fend­ing its sprawl­ing north­ern pos­ses­sions against a pos­si­ble Amer­i­can in­va­sion.

Howe had never backed down from a fight. He had bat­tled for press free­dom and to es­tab­lish a more demo­cratic form of colo­nial gov­ern­ment — and he had won. He had been a muck­rak­ing jour­nal­ist, a po­lit­i­cal re­former, a cham­pion of Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism. And he was a pa­triot to the core. Nova Sco­tia was his coun­try, and he was de­ter­mined to pre­vent it from be­com­ing an out­post of a vast con­ti­nen­tal na­tion, sub­servient to law­mak­ers in the dis­tant cap­i­tal of Ot­tawa.

As Cana­di­ans mark the 150th an­niver­sary of Con­fed­er­a­tion, many are un­aware that this coun­try faced the threat of dis­in­te­gra­tion at the mo­ment of its birth. Separatism is not only a twen­ti­eth-cen­tury phe­nom­e­non — it be­gan in the be­gin­ning, with Howe’s stub­born op­po­si­tion to union. It grew into the pow­er­ful anti-Con­fed­er­a­tion move­ment he led even after Canada was of­fi­cially es­tab­lished on July 1, 1867.

Howe was the René Lévesque of his time, a rene­gade on a mis­sion to tear the coun­try apart. Prime Min­is­ter John A. Macdon­ald would have to muster all of his for­mi­da­ble po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic skills to head off Canada’s first sep­a­ratist move­ment and bring Nova Sco­tia — and Joe Howe — into the Cana­dian fold.

Even as a young man, Howe dis­played a rest­less, con­trar­ian spirit. He would never be, as he put it, “con­tent to go along qui­etly and peace­ably like my neigh­bours and at the end of some fifty or sixty years tum­ble into my grave and be dust.”

Born in Hal­i­fax in 1804, he in­her­ited a rev­er­ence for all things Bri­tish from his fa­ther, the Loyalist refugee John Howe. He was largely self-taught, de­vour­ing books by fire­light. His fa­ther was the King’s printer, the pub­lisher of the colony’s of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment news­pa­per, the Nova Sco­tia Royal Gazette. Joseph Howe be­gan work­ing in his fa­ther’s print shop while in his teens.

The in­de­pen­dently minded Howe chafed at the need to toe the line in print. “As we are un­der gov­ern­ment,” he com­plained to a friend, “we can­not en­joy here the free ex­pres­sion of our sen­ti­ments and are not in­fre­quently sub­ject to the caprice of men in of­fice.”

In an era when free­dom of the press meant own­ing one, Howe struck out on his own. In 1827 the twenty-three-year-old be­came the pro­pri­etor of the No­vas­co­tian and trans­formed it into the most in­flu­en­tial pa­per in the province. He used its col­umns to pro­mote Nova Sco­tia’s eco­nomic and in­tel­lec­tual devel­op­ment and to de­mand po­lit­i­cal re­form. In 1835 his dra­matic ac­quit­tal on a charge of li­belling cor­rupt of­fi­cials in Hal­i­fax cat­a­pulted him into politics.

Heavy-set, his high fore­head ringed with un­ruly tufts of dark hair, Howe was a spell­bind­ing or­a­tor on the cam­paign trail and in the leg­is­la­ture. His­to­rian Keith Thomas de­scribed him as “a master of fac­tual de­tail and its skil­ful pre­sen­ta­tion,” a rhyth­mic smooth talker who could win over a “range and va­ri­ety of au­di­ences” like no other politi­cian in Bri­tish North Amer­ica.

Elected to the pro­vin­cial House of Assem­bly in 1836, he quickly be­came the point man in the drive to force the colo­nial gov­ern­ment — a governor backed by an ap­pointed coun­cil of well-con­nected cronies — to share power with the elected assem­bly. His de­mands for demo­cratic re­form so out­raged mem­bers of the local Fam­ily Com­pact that, in 1840, the son of the chief jus­tice chal­lenged him to a duel in Hal­i­fax’s Point Pleasant Park. When his op­po­nent shot first and missed, Howe mag­nan­i­mously fired his own pis­tol into the air to end the af­fair with­out blood­shed.

In 1848, largely through Howe’s ef­forts, Nova Sco­tia be­came the first of Bri­tain’s North Amer­i­can colonies where a premier and cab­i­net gov­erned with the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of the mem­bers of the assem­bly — a mod­ern-style “re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment.” It was a po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, he boasted, won with­out “a blow struck or a pane of glass bro­ken.”

Once in power, Howe over­saw the build­ing of Nova Sco­tia’s first rail­way and urged Bri­tain to al­low colo­nial politi­cians to play a role in managing the Em­pire. He served as premier in the early 1860s but lost the 1863 elec­tion to the Con­ser­va­tive Party of Charles Tup­per, a physi­cian with mut­ton-chop side­burns who would be­come a staunch pro­po­nent of Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Howe took on a new role: The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment ap­pointed him to a com­mis­sion set up to re­solve a fish­eries dis­pute with the United States. But an­other chal­lenge was loom­ing. Re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment may have been a peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion, but for Howe the fight against colo­nial union would mean all-out war.

The idea of union had been in the wind for years; as early as the 1820s muck­raker-turned-rebel Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie was tout­ing the ad­van­tages of an “en­light­ened and united gen­eral Gov­ern­ment” for the colonies. In 1856 the Mon­treal Gazette en­dorsed the idea of “found­ing here, apart from the United States, a North­ern na­tion­al­ity for our­selves.” The Amer­i­can Civil War brought the is­sue to the fore; tense diplo­matic dis­putes be­tween Bri­tain and the ad­min­is­tra­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lincoln raised the spec­tre of an Amer­i­can in­va­sion.

Con­crete pro­pos­als emerged in the late sum­mer of 1864, when colo­nial del­e­gates gath­ered in Char­lot­te­town, Prince Ed­ward Is­land. A fol­low-up con­fer­ence in Que­bec City that fall ham­mered out most of the de­tails of a fed­eral con­sti­tu­tion for a new na­tion. Prov­inces join­ing the union would retain con­trol of local af­fairs such as nat­u­ral re­sources and ed­u­ca­tion, but a pow­er­ful cen­tral gov­ern­ment would take prece­dence. John A. Macdon­ald and other pro­po­nents of Con­fed­er­a­tion were de­ter­mined to pre­vent the dis­unity and re­gional di­vi­sions that had put Amer­ica on a path to its dis­as­trous civil war.

Unit­ing the far-flung colonies, how­ever, would mean over­com­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion and stub­born re­gional dif­fer­ences. “We don’t know each other,” Hal­i­fax’s Aca­dian Recorder news­pa­per warned in July 1866. “We have no trade with each other. We have no fa­cil­i­ties, no re­sources, or in­cen­tives to min­gle with each other. We are shut off from each other by a wilder­ness ge­o­graph­i­cally, com­mer­cially, po­lit­i­cally, and so­cially.”

New­found­land and P.E.I. opted out of the pro­posed union. If Howe’s province joined New Brunswick and the Province of Canada (present-day On­tario and Que­bec), its pop­u­la­tion would ac­count for barely ten per cent of the new na­tion. A province with a long and proud his­tory would be rel­e­gated to the sta­tus of a ju­nior part­ner in Con­fed­er­a­tion. And there was a strong busi­ness case against union: Ship­build­ing, fish­ing, and overseas trade formed the back­bone of Nova Sco­tia’s econ­omy, while Canada’s fu­ture pros­per­ity would be based on de­vel­op­ing the con­ti­nent’s resource-rich in­te­rior.

Op­po­nents of union, Howe noted in 1864, in­cluded most of Nova Sco­tia’s “lead­ing bankers and mer­chants, the wealth­i­est farm­ers, and the most in­de­pen­dent Gen­tle­men in the Province.” Like him, they were com­fort­able with Nova Sco­tia’s role as a ma­jor mil­i­tary and sea­far­ing arm of the Bri­tish Em­pire and wary of new tar­iffs that could sti­fle trade.

As mo­men­tum for Con­fed­er­a­tion was build­ing, Howe was on the side­lines. He turned down Tup­per’s in­vi­ta­tion to join the Nova


Sco­tia del­e­ga­tion to the Char­lot­te­town con­fer­ence, cit­ing a po­ten­tial con­flict with his ap­point­ment as an im­pe­rial fish­eries com­mis­sioner. Pri­vately, it was said, he bris­tled at the thought of hav­ing to “play sec­ond fid­dle to that damn’d Tup­per.” The best he could do was to de­nounce the pro­posed union anony­mously, in a se­ries of “Both­er­a­tion Let­ters” pub­lished in the Hal­i­fax Morn­ing Chron­i­cle in early 1865.

De­spite the wide­spread op­po­si­tion within Nova Sco­tia, Tup­per and his gov­ern­ment were com­mit­ted to Con­fed­er­a­tion. In 1866 a sud­den threat of for­eign in­va­sion won over hos­tile politi­cians and sealed the deal. Ir­ish-Amer­i­can ex­trem­ists known as Fe­ni­ans — many of them Civil War veter­ans — pre­pared for at­tacks on Canada in a bid to force Bri­tain to grant independence to Ire­land.

When Fe­ni­ans gath­ered in large num­bers on the Maine coast that spring, Nova Sco­tia mo­bi­lized its mili­tia, and Royal Navy war­ships sailed from Hal­i­fax in a show of force. Tup­per seized the mo­ment and rammed a res­o­lu­tion sup­port­ing Con­fed­er­a­tion through the leg­is­la­ture. Politi­cians op­posed to union pan­icked. At the height of the scare, and just hours after the un­nerv­ing spec­ta­cle of Bri­tish red­coats marching through Hal­i­fax’s streets on their way to the bor­der, Nova Sco­tia’s law­mak­ers voted thirty-one to nine­teen to sup­port Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Tup­per’s gam­bit out­raged Howe. The peo­ple of Nova Sco­tia — not a hand­ful of politi­cians — should de­cide the province’s fu­ture, he fumed. Con­fed­er­a­tion had been foisted on “an un­will­ing peo­ple … with­out their re­vi­sion and passed with­out their con­sent.” He knew, as Tup­per knew, that Con­fed­er­a­tion would be soundly re­jected in a ref­er­en­dum or elec­tion.

When his im­pe­rial du­ties ended in 1866, Howe was free to lead what would soon be known as the anti-con­fed­er­ate cause. He barn­stormed the province to speak out against union, then headed for Lon­don. His plan was to raise doubts in the minds of enough Bri­tish power bro­kers to de­lay pas­sage of the leg­is­la­tion rat­i­fy­ing Con­fed­er­a­tion. Tup­per’s man­date was run­ning out, and he had to go to the polls by the mid­dle of 1867. His un­pop­u­lar gov­ern­ment was cer­tain to be de­feated, and the Con­fed­er­a­tion pro­posal might go down with him.

Howe did not need to de­feat the “Both­er­a­tion” scheme. If he could buy some time, even a few months, it might de­feat it­self.

As 1866 came to a close, Lon­don be­came the tem­po­rary head­quar­ters of Canada’s na­tion builders. Del­e­gates from Nova Sco­tia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada gath­ered at a ho­tel over­look­ing the Houses of Par­lia­ment to fi­nal­ize the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act, the leg­is­la­tion unit­ing their colonies. Macdon­ald, a master of forg­ing al­liances and con­sen­sus, chaired the ses­sions and be­came, in the es­ti­ma­tion of one Bri­tish of­fi­cial, “the rul­ing ge­nius” of the con­fer­ence.

Howe had been in Lon­don since the sum­mer but was barred from the closed-door ses­sions. As he feared, the prov­inces would be rel­e­gated to sec­ond-place sta­tus; the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was granted wide pow­ers and the right to pass laws to en­sure “the peace, wel­fare, and good gov­ern­ment” of the new coun­try.

Prov­inces also ceded their pow­ers to levy cus­toms and ex­cise taxes. For Nova Sco­tia, with its brisk trade, that meant giv­ing up sev­en­ty­five per cent of its pro­vin­cial rev­enue. As com­pen­sa­tion, the prov­inces were to re­ceive an­nual fed­eral sub­si­dies, in­clud­ing fixed amounts paid an­nu­ally and a yearly grant worth eighty cents per res­i­dent.

The Nova Sco­tia and New Brunswick ne­go­tia­tors won a com­mit­ment to build an 1,100-kilo­me­tre rail­way con­nect­ing Hal­i­fax to cen­tral Canada’s rail sys­tem. By Christ­mas Eve the del­e­gates had signed off on a sixty-nine-point res­o­lu­tion that formed the struc­ture of the new fed­er­a­tion.

While most Bri­tish leg­is­la­tors sup­ported union as a way to re­duce the cost of gov­ern­ing and de­fend­ing the colonies, do­mes­tic tur­moil threatened to de­lay, and per­haps even scut­tle, the Cana­di­ans’ grand plan. Bri­tain was in tur­moil over de­mands to ex­tend the fran­chise to its in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful and vo­cal work­ing class. Par­lia­ment re­jected elec­toral re­forms in the sum­mer of 1866, forc­ing the gov­ern­ment to re­sign and spark­ing ri­ots in Lon­don’s Hyde Park. Lord Derby, the prime min­is­ter, formed a new ad­min­is­tra­tion, but his Con­ser­va­tive Party was un­der pres­sure to en­act the re­forms. When Par­lia­ment re­con­vened in early 1867, the Con­fed­er­a­tion pro­pos­als would be dumped into this po­lit­i­cal firestorm.

Howe, mean­while, de­nounced Con­fed­er­a­tion in a pam­phlet cir­cu­lated to Bri­tish MPs and jour­nal­ists. He de­rided the union­ists’ “pre­ma­ture as­pi­ra­tions” to state­hood and warned that Nova Sco­tians would not sup­port “a dom­i­na­tion which they re­pu­di­ate” or “a na­tion­al­ity they de­spise.” A strong and united Bri­tish

Em­pire, not Con­fed­er­a­tion, he ar­gued, was the best de­fence against Amer­i­can aggression.

In pri­vate, Howe spread alarm­ing tales about Macdon­ald’s weak­ness for the bot­tle. Lord Carnar­von, the colo­nial sec­re­tary, was among those lis­ten­ing and warned his prime min­is­ter, Derby, that Macdon­ald was “oc­ca­sion­ally so drunk as to be in­ca­pable of all of­fi­cial busi­ness for days al­to­gether.” But John A.’s stel­lar per­for­mance — and rel­a­tive so­bri­ety — as chair of the Lon­don con­fer­ence was enough to over­come Howe’s trash talk. “In spite of this no­to­ri­ous vice,” Carnar­von as­sured Derby, he re­mained “the ablest politi­cian in Up­per Canada.” Macdon­ald once joked that vot­ers pre­ferred him drunk to one of his ri­vals sober; the Bri­tish, des­per­ate to see their north­ern colonies fend for them­selves, agreed that he was the best bet for Canada’s fu­ture.

More than char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion was needed to de­feat Con­fed­er­a­tion. An anti-union pe­ti­tion bear­ing thirty thou­sand names — the sig­na­tures of one out of thir­teen Nova Sco­tians — was pre­sented and ig­nored. Howe’s last-ditch ap­peal to Carnar­von failed, and the BNA Act was rushed through Par­lia­ment with lit­tle de­bate in Fe­bru­ary 1867.

Bri­tish politi­cians, Howe noted with dis­gust, had scant in­ter­est in Cana­dian af­fairs, let alone Nova Sco­tia’s op­po­si­tion to union, and were “over anx­ious to get rid of us.”

Howe re­turned to Hal­i­fax in May 1867, primed to con­tinue the fight. At public meet­ings he vowed to “pun­ish the scamps” who had dragged Nova Sco­tia into Con­fed­er­a­tion. At one point he ap­peared to ad­vo­cate armed re­bel­lion. “I would take ev­ery son I have and die on the fron­tier” with Canada, he de­clared, “be­fore I would sub­mit to this out­rage.”

The first fed­eral elec­tion in Septem­ber co­in­cided with Nova Sco­tia’s pro­vin­cial elec­tion. Both cam­paigns be­came a ref­er­en­dum on Con­fed­er­a­tion, and there was no doubt where the province stood. Anti-con­fed­er­ates swept thirty-six of the thirty-eight seats in the Nova Sco­tia leg­is­la­ture and eigh­teen of the nine­teen new fed­eral rid­ings. Tup­per won his fed­eral seat by less than a hun­dred votes, and four anti-con­fed­er­ate MPs won by ac­cla­ma­tion. Howe, elected to Par­lia­ment for Hants County, led a bloc of MPs com­mit­ted to pulling one of the four found­ing prov­inces out of the union. In Lunen­burg, Con­fed­er­a­tion sup­porter Adol­phus Gaetz dis­missed the land­slide as the prod­uct of “ly­ing, bribery, cor­rup­tion, and in­tim­i­da­tion.”

John A. Macdon­ald, elected prime min­is­ter with a com­fort­able twenty-one-seat ma­jor­ity, was con­fi­dent he could defuse the an­ti­con­fed­er­ate up­ris­ing. De­spite Howe’s bel­liger­ence, the wily Macdon­ald sensed he was deal­ing with a man who would be amenable to per­sua­sion and com­pro­mise. “By and by,” he told a col­league, Howe would be “open to rea­son” and could be en­ticed with an of­fer of a fed­eral po­si­tion — “tick­led,” as Macdon­ald put it, “by some­thing worth ac­cep­tance.”

When Par­lia­ment opened in Ot­tawa that Novem­ber, Howe was one of the first to speak. “The peo­ple of my province were tricked into this scheme,” he com­plained. “They feel they have been leg­is­lated out of the Em­pire by be­ing leg­is­lated into this Do­min­ion.” Canada might be “your coun­try,” he told his fel­low par­lia­men­tar­i­ans point­edly, but “his coun­try” was still Nova Sco­tia.

The ve­he­mence of the at­tack sur­prised Macdon­ald. Howe “talked a great deal of non­sense,” in his opin­ion, “and some trea­son.” But his pres­ence alone was a mi­nor vic­tory for Macdon­ald — there had been fears the anti-con­fed­er­ates would refuse to take their seats, mak­ing any ef­fort at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion more dif­fi­cult.

In early 1868 Howe took the fight back to Lon­don, lead­ing a del­e­ga­tion that urged the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and its new prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, to re­peal Nova Sco­tia’s en­try into Con­fed­er­a­tion. Nova Sco­tia, he com­plained, had been “swin­dled out of our independence.” Be­hind the scenes, Macdon­ald urged the Bri­tish to stand firm; oth­er­wise, he said, “pro­fes­sional ag­i­ta­tors” such as Howe “will keep up the ag­i­ta­tion.”

Howe re­turned from Bri­tain with noth­ing more than prom­ises to urge Ot­tawa to re­view the im­pact of its tar­iffs and other po­lices on Nova Sco­tia’s in­dus­tries. His faith in Bri­tain’s com­mit­ment to jus­tice and fair play was shat­tered. In Jan­uary 1869 he negotiated a bet­ter fi­nan­cial deal for Nova Sco­tia and en­tered Macdon­ald’s cab­i­net.

The anti-con­fed­er­ate move­ment never re­cov­ered from the loss of its charis­matic leader. Macdon­ald was elated. It was “glo­ri­ous,” he told Tup­per, to have “Nova Sco­tia paci­fied.”

Iron­i­cally, Howe played a role in build­ing the coun­try he had strug­gled to de­stroy. As sec­re­tary of state for the prov­inces he over­saw Man­i­toba’s en­try into Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1870. But when he pub­licly crit­i­cized the Bri­tish for sac­ri­fic­ing Cana­dian in­ter­ests in treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions with the U.S., Macdon­ald con­cluded that Howe “had out­lived his use­ful­ness.” In May 1873 he was sent home to serve as Nova Sco­tia’s lieu­tenant-governor.

But Howe’s health was fail­ing; he was sixty-nine and had never fully re­cov­ered from the rigours of fight­ing a mid-win­ter by-elec­tion when he joined the fed­eral cab­i­net. On June 1, 1873, after less than three weeks in of­fice, he died at Gov­ern­ment House in Hal­i­fax.

Howe be­came a folk hero in Nova Sco­tia, where his statue stands next to the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture build­ing and schools, streets, and parks bear his name. In 2016 the province’s mid-win­ter Her­itage Day civic hol­i­day was ded­i­cated to his ac­com­plish­ments. An an­nual jour­nal­ism sym­po­sium at Hal­i­fax’s Univer­sity of King’s Col­lege cel­e­brates his legacy as a pioneer of press free­dom in Canada.

Out­side Nova Sco­tia, though, his piv­otal role in Cana­dian his­tory has been largely for­got­ten. His op­po­si­tion to Con­fed­er­a­tion made him a vil­lain in the heroic story of Canada’s march to na­tion­hood. His­to­ri­ans, most no­tably the elo­quent na­tion­al­ist Don­ald Creighton, have dis­missed him as a mis­guided ego­tist who was more in­ter­ested in pro­mot­ing his own po­lit­i­cal ca­reer than in de­fend­ing his na­tive province. Even some of Howe’s de­fend­ers con­sid­ered him an op­por­tunist and a traitor to Nova Sco­tia for his about-face on Con­fed­er­a­tion and his de­fec­tion to Macdon­ald’s gov­ern­ment.

But Howe de­serves to be re­mem­bered as more than a tragic fig­ure who wound up on the wrong side of his­tory. His anti-con­fed­er­ate move­ment fore­shad­owed the see-saw fed­eral-pro­vin­cial bat­tles that have been a fea­ture of our his­tory, as Canada’s re­gions strug­gle to keep their in­ter­ests and prob­lems on the na­tional agenda.

He cor­rectly fore­saw many of the risks Con­fed­er­a­tion posed for Nova Sco­tia. The province’s econ­omy, al­ready threatened as the era of wooden sail­ing ships waned, suf­fered un­der na­tional trade and tar­iff poli­cies. Canada’s west­ward ex­pan­sion, as Howe feared, left it on the mar­gins with lit­tle po­lit­i­cal clout. And he rightly de­manded that Nova Sco­tia should not be dragged into Con­fed­er­a­tion with­out the con­sent of the gov­erned.

Howe failed in large mea­sure be­cause he faced the same chal­lenge as any op­po­nent of change — the lack of a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to Con­fed­er­a­tion.

By the 1860s the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment was de­ter­mined to have its North Amer­i­can colonies stand on their own feet. Nova Sco­tia’s prospects if it had struck out on its own, as an in­de­pen­dent state with­out Bri­tish sup­port, would have been grim. An­other op­tion, an­nex­a­tion to the U.S., was anath­ema to most res­i­dents, Howe in­cluded.

Howe fought valiantly to re­verse Nova Sco­tia’s forced en­try into Con­fed­er­a­tion. Once it was clear that there was no go­ing back, he tried to make the best of the new po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity and to play a role in build­ing Canada.

Jour­nal­ist Ge­orge John­son, Howe’s friend and bi­og­ra­pher, in­sisted that a “pas­sion for the peo­ple’s rights was at the bot­tom of all Mr. Howe’s op­po­si­tion to the Union of the Prov­inces.” Canada’s first sep­a­ratist, the man who tried to break up Con­fed­er­a­tion at its birth, was a demo­crat at heart.

This il­lus­tra­tion by C.W. Jef­freys de­picts Joseph Howe be­ing car­ried aloft after mak­ing a rous­ing speech.

Sir Charles Tup­per, circa 1880s.

Joseph Howe , circa 1851.

Sir John A. Macdon­ald, circa 1880.

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