Canada’s First Separatist
Joseph Howe was determined to keep his beloved province of Nova Scotia from being forced into Confederation.
Joseph Howe was determined to keep his beloved Nova Scotia from being forced into Confederation.
RARE BLIZZARD DURING THE CHRISTMAS SEASON OF 1866 LEFT
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
A STRONG AND UNITED BRITISH EMPIRE, NOT CONFEDERATION, HOWED ARGUED, WAS THE BEST DEFENCE AGAINST AMERICN AGGRESSION.
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.