Christo­pher Moore

How did the world re­act to Con­fed­er­a­tion?

Canada's History - - CONTENTS -

How did the world view Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867?

Ahun­dred and fifty years ago, Ge­orge Brown, Toronto’s fiery pub­lisher and politi­cian, had no doubt that the events of Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion had been truly his­toric. “Great they are, and his­tory will tell the tale,” he pre­dicted. “A hun­dred years hence peo­ple will fancy the men of their days were giants in imag­i­na­tion.”

But would only Cana­di­ans salute Con­fed­er­a­tion? Or would Canada’s achieve­ment catch the in­ter­est of the world?

Last year, when schol­ars met at Toronto’s York Univer­sity to dis­cuss Con­fed­er­a­tion, the Cana­di­ans mostly trod fa­mil­iar ground, of­ten em­pha­siz­ing that the men who made Con­fed­er­a­tion were pa­tri­ar­chal, colo­nial­minded, and white. It was the for­eign schol­ars at the con­fer­ence who star­tled and sur- prised with their ev­i­dence of how in 1867 ob­servers in many places around the world had drawn inspiration from Canada’s con­sti­tu­tional achieve­ment.

A South Amer­i­can scholar re­ported on the Rio de Janeiro jour­nal­ist of 1867 who was ex­cited to see Canada as­sum­ing “the char­ac­ter of a great in­de­pen­dent state” — just what he hoped for in Brazil. A stu­dent of Ital­ian his­tory de­scribed Vat­i­can diplo­mats ea­gerly dis­cussing how Canada’s af­fir­ma­tion of the in­ter­ests of Catholics in the new province of Que­bec might be­come a beacon for Catholics in coun­tries where they were in the mi­nor­ity. One Span­ish scholar de­scribed how the pro­gres­sive forces in 1860s Spain who ad­vo­cated pro­vin­cial au­ton­omy for Cat­alo­nia and other re­gions were nick- named “Cana­di­ans.” An­other aca­demic ex­am­ined the Cuban jour­nal­ists and in­tel­lec­tu­als who found inspiration in Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion for their own cam­paign for self-gov­ern­ment within Spain’s em­pire.

One scholar con­sid­ered the lessons that Canada’s French-English ac­com­mo­da­tion could of­fer to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, then strug­gling to rec­on­cile its Ger­manspeak­ing and Mag­yar-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties, as well as its restive Slavic mi­nori­ties. And his­to­ri­ans of Aus­tralia and New Zealand quoted 1860s news­pa­pers that noted Canada as a model their own so­ci­eties should soon fol­low. Even in Bri­tain, some states­men dreamed of Cana­dian-style ini­tia­tives that might pro­duce a fu­ture Ire­land that was free and peace­ful and loyal to the Bri­tish Crown.

At the con­fer­ence, all these schol­ars — whose work will soon be pub­lished in a book to be called Glob­al­iz­ing Con­fed­er­a­tion: Canada and the World in 1867 — em­pha­sized that in 1867 Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion was far from be­ing head­line news in their coun­tries. In­deed, dra­matic sto­ries about the Fe­nian raids of­ten got more space in the world’s news­pa­pers than Canada’s quiet con­sti­tu­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions. And the for­eign states­men and jour­nal­ists who did take note of the Cana­dian achieve­ment tended to cherry-pick what­ever lessons seemed best-suited to their local con­di­tions, of­ten with­out much knowl­edge about the events in Canada.

Still, Ge­orge Brown should have been proud. In 1867 ob­servers in many coun­tries were see­ing sign­posts to a bet­ter world in Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Brown cer­tainly wanted it known that the Con­fed­er­a­tion mak­ers of 1867 — him­self prom­i­nent among them — were do­ing some­thing the world could learn from. “We are at­tempt­ing to ad­just har­mo­niously greater dif­fi­cul­ties than have plunged other coun­tries into all the hor­rors of war,” he said proudly, point­ing to Europe, where the strug­gle to forge one new na­tion had re­cently “del­uged in blood the sunny plains of Italy.”

For Brown, the great les­son of Con­fed­er­a­tion was the march from colo­nial sta­tus to self-gov­ern­ment. Brown be­lieved Canada had shown the world how a for­mer colony could peace­fully achieve its own na­tional ex­is­tence with­out a civil war or a war of lib­er­a­tion against its im­pe­rial masters. “Canada is set­ting the ex­am­ple of a new and bet­ter state of things,” he proudly de­clared. “There is no in­stance on record of a colony peace­fully re­mod­elling its own con­sti­tu­tion, such changes hav­ing been al­ways the work of the par­ent state and not of the colonists them­selves.”

This was the les­son that fired en­thu­si­asm in Cubans, Aus­tralians, Brazil­ians, and oth­ers. They saw hap­pen­ing in Canada the very thing they as­pired to do them­selves: progress peace­fully to­ward self-gov­ern­ment and to­ward an ac­knowl­edged place among the nations of the world. Even when their knowl­edge of Canada was scant, our coun­try pro­vided a kind of wish ful­fill­ment for their na­tional as­pi­ra­tions. Brown, who said he was “a Cana­dian, which I al­ways ex­pect and wish to be,” would have un­der­stood.

Some­thing slightly dif­fer­ent about Canada’s achieve­ment was what re­ally mat­tered to Brown’s fel­low Con­fed­er­a­tion states­man and Que­bec City lawyer Hec­tor Langevin. “French Cana­di­ans are a sep­a­rate peo­ple,” Langevin had said proudly dur­ing the de­bates over Con­fed­er­a­tion. He was con­vinced that Con­fed­er­a­tion would not lead to the as­sim­i­la­tion of his peo­ple; in­deed, it would en­sure the thriv­ing of Que­bec’s lan­guage, its in­sti­tu­tions, and its culture. Langevin hailed Con­fed­er­a­tion for en­abling com­mu­ni­ties like his French-Cana­dian com­pa­tri­ots to share in a di­verse fed­eral state while also run­ning their own local af­fairs and pre­serv­ing their own lan­guage and culture.

This was the “Cana­dian” idea that was seized on by a sym­pa­thetic jour­nal­ist in France who pre­dicted that “one hun­dred years from now a French na­tional com­mu­nity [in Que­bec] could play a con­sid­er­able role in the civ­i­liza­tion of the new world.” The imag­i­na­tive nov­el­ist Jules Verne even put a Cana­dian into Twenty Thou­sand Leagues Un­der the Sea, pub­lished in 1869–70, call­ing him a “hy­brid” equally at home in French and English.

Con­fed­er­a­tion also caught on in, of all places, Vat­i­can City, where Langevin per­son­ally ad­vo­cated for it in 1866. In the 1860s the Ro­man Catholic Church was los­ing the once spa­cious ter­ri­to­ries of the Pa­pal States of cen­tral Italy; the pope was be­com­ing a “pris­oner of the Vat­i­can.” Newly forced to co­ex­ist with a sec­u­lar state, Pope Pius IX and his car­di­nals gained a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the dif­fi­cult po­si­tion of Catholics in coun­tries like France, Great Bri­tain, and the United States, where gov­ern­ments were ei­ther sec­u­lar or ac­tively anti-Catholic.

Pius IX de­nounced progress, lib­er­al­ism, and moder­nity wher­ever he saw it, but he de­cided to look be­nignly on Con­fed­er­a­tion if it was good for the Catholics. Per­haps its ex­am­ple would spread to Eng­land, to the United States, and even to Italy it­self. This very con­ser­va­tive pope, oddly enough, be­came one of the first states­men to ap­pre­ci­ate that Canada was set­ting an ex­am­ple of re­spect for mi­nor­ity rights and for dis­tinct cul­tures within a sin­gle na­tion. Al­ready, in 1867, di­verse cul­tures liv­ing har­mo­niously to­gether had be­come Canada’s im­age in the world.

But not all the ways overseas ob­servers


seized upon Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion as sup­port for their own as­pi­ra­tions were as flat­ter­ing to such Cana­dian val­ues as self­gov­ern­ment, na­tional stature, and re­spect for mi­nori­ties.

At the age of just thirty-five, the Earl of Carnar­von — known as “Twit­ters” to his friends, for his ner­vous en­ergy — was colo­nial min­is­ter in the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment early in 1867. He knew well that Con­fed­er­a­tion was re­ally a Cana­dian ini­tia­tive, not a Bri­tish one, and he in­sisted that the Bri­tish North Amer­i­can del­e­gates must ap­prove ev­ery step of the process as the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment passed the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act of 1867. Still, it was Carnar­von who in­tro­duced and urged pas­sage of the act in a pow­er­ful speech in the Bri­tish House of Lords.

As a re­sult, Carnar­von gained a rep­u­ta­tion, in Bri­tish of­fi­cial cir­cles at least, as the man who had con­fed­er­ated Canada. For the rest of his ca­reer in Bri­tish politics, and long after, Carnar­von’s name would be as­so­ci­ated with plans for fed­eral so­lu­tions to colo­nial prob­lems. After all, had not Carnar­von’s Con­fed­er­a­tion brought Canada peace and or­der, and kept it loyal to the Em­pire, too? Were Catholics and Protes­tants fight­ing in Ire­land? What about a Cana­dian-style fed­er­a­tion? Bo­ers and Bri­tish in con­flict in South Africa? Fed­er­ate them in a South African union. Un­rest in In­dia? Pro­pose a fed­er­a­tion that would give In­di­ans some local au­thor­ity while the Bri­tish controlled what was im­por­tant.

In many of the places where the Colo­nial Of­fice pro­posed these fed­er­a­tions, the plans had more to do with pre­serv­ing Bri­tish rule than with fos­ter­ing au­ton­omy or tol­er­ance for mi­nori­ties. Top-down plans in which colo­nial of­fi­cials spoke of a con­fed­er­a­tion “like Canada’s” mostly as a di­vide-and-rule tac­tic may ac­tu­ally have eroded the ap­peal of the Cana­dian ex­am­ple among those seek­ing na­tional au­ton­omy and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion among di­verse com­mu­ni­ties. No one would call Gandhi and Nehru and other lead­ers of the In­dian na­tional move­ment “Cana­di­ans.”

For twen­ti­eth-cen­tury In­di­ans, Africans, and West In­di­ans, Canada’s Con­fed­er­a­tion might have been more in­spi­ra­tional if men like Brown and Langevin had ex­tended the ben­e­fits of self-gov­ern­ment and tol­er­ance of di­ver­sity to the First Nations of Canada. Brown ea­gerly ad­vo­cated open- ing up a new em­pire for Canada in the prairie West, with­out much con­cern for the Indige­nous peo­ples whose home­land it was, and Langevin was an early ad­vo­cate for the as­sim­i­la­tion­ist pos­si­bil­i­ties of In­dian res­i­den­tial schools. They were un­able to imag­ine ex­tend­ing self-gov­ern­ment and tol­er­ance be­yond their own com­mu­ni­ties to the Indige­nous peo­ples of North Amer­ica. As a re­sult, the Cana­dian ex­am­ple of self-gov­ern­ment and ac­com­mo­da­tion of mi­nori­ties seemed mostly to in­spire Euro­pean set­tlers and Euro­pean mi­nori­ties — in Mel­bourne, Rio, Ha­vana, Paris, or Vienna, per­haps, but less so among the col­o­nized peo­ples of In­dia or Africa.

In 1867, how­ever, Canada and its Con­fed­er­a­tion did gen­uinely rep­re­sent some­thing new in the world.

Cana­di­ans had demon­strated that a for­mer colony could move for­ward to in­de­pen­dent na­tional sta­tus by peace­ful and demo­cratic means. Canada had be­come one of the first places to demon­strate that par­lia­men­tary gov­ern­ment — of­ten linked to con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy — was not just a quirk of Bri­tish his­tory but a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that could and would be adopted in nations all over the world, in­clud­ing many with­out Bri­tish roots. And, at a time when many ro­man­tic na­tion­al­ists in­sisted that the only “real” nations were those with a sin­gle lan­guage, a shared her­itage, and a com­mon an­ces­try, Canada from the start in­cluded more than one lan­guage, dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and di­verse ori­gins.

In 1867 Canada was a small coun­try lit­tle known in a big world. Out­side its bor­ders, Con­fed­er­a­tion did not pro­duce many head­lines. But here and there — in colo­nial so­ci­eties and across a Euro­pean con­ti­nent strug­gling with na­tional ri­val­ries and de­mands for self-gov­ern­ment and for the rights of cul­tural and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties — diplo­mats, in­tel­lec­tu­als, and jour­nal­ists did take note of the Cana­dian achieve­ment and found inspiration there.

So young Cana­di­ans trav­el­ling the world with the Maple Leaf flag em­bla­zoned on their back­packs are part of a long tra­di­tion. There is a Cana­dian ex­am­ple to the world that goes back 150 years. Canada’s His­tory columnist Christo­pher Moore is the au­thor of two works on Con­fed­er­a­tion: Three Weeks in Que­bec City: The Meet­ing that Made Canada, and 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal.

News items from July 1917, left, and July 1867, right, of­fer Amer­i­can per­spec­tives on Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Procla­ma­tion of Con­fed­er­a­tion, by Jack Martin. From a 1946 is­sue of Time mag­a­zine.

The Birth and Tor­ment of Miss Canada and Johnny Canuck, Or the Be­gin­nings of the Fed­er­a­tion, anony­mous, 1870.

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