How did the world react to Confederation?
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
OBSERVERS AROUND THE WORLD DREW INSPIRATION FROM CANADA’S CONSTITUTIONAL ACHIEVEMENT.
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.