National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - TRISTIN HOPPER

The first time Bri­tish leg­is­la­tors were in­tro­duced to the bill that would cre­ate Canada, they were of­fered an apol­ogy.

“I must un­af­fect­edly ask for the for­bear­ance of the House,” Colo­nial Sec­re­tary Henry Her­bert, the Earl of Carnar­von, told the House of Lords as he in­tro­duced what would be­come the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act.

Af­ter call­ing it “my lot” to have to quar­ter­back the Canada bill, the colo­nial sec­re­tary promised to hurry up and “not de­tain your lord­ships” too long.

It was 150 years ago this month and an un­in­ter­ested Bri­tish Parliament was vot­ing on Canada’s found­ing doc­u­ment. Nearby — pos­si­bly even loom­ing over­head in the strangers gallery — sat the in­creas­ingly hor­ri­fied Fa­thers of Con­fed­er­a­tion.

They in­cluded John A. Mac­don­ald, Ge­orge-Eti­enne Cartier and Charles Tup­per, men who would be im­mor­tal­ized in bronze and see their names at­tached to streets, civic build­ings and moun­tains across an en­tire con­ti­nent.

For years, this as­sem­blage of po­lit­i­cal ri­vals had ral­lied the masses to the Con­fed­er­a­tion cause with sweep­ing vi­sions of a vast, wealthy coun­try un­like any the world had ever seen.

They might have ex­pected some ku­dos from Mother Bri­tain, but they were quickly learn­ing that the Brits didn’t share the same en­thu­si­asm — and couldn’t seem to re­mem­ber their names (John A. Mac­don­ald, for one, wasn’t men­tioned once in the de­bates).

“Some peo­ple in this coun­try were of opin­ion that Eng­land de­rived no ben­e­fit from these colonies, that they were rather a source of bur­den and ex­pense,” said the Mar­quess of Nor­manby.

The cre­ation of Canada was treated like a “pri­vate bill unit­ing two or three English parishes,” Mac­don­ald would say later.

In one let­ter home from Lon­don, del­e­ga­tion mem­ber Alexan­der Galt was more blunt: “I can­not shut my eyes to the fact that they want to get rid of us.”

The Cana­di­ans ar­rived to a smoke-black­ened Lon­don still re­cov­er­ing from a cholera epi­demic. Some­where in the city, Karl Marx was fin­ish­ing the first vol­ume of Das Kap­i­tal. Some­where else, an aging Charles Dick­ens was planning his last speak­ing tour.

Bri­tish par­lia­men­tar­i­ans were well aware of the awe­some size of the Cana­dian un­der­tak­ing.

This was to be the first in­de­pen­dent state within the em­pire; a coun­try of four mil­lion liv­ing on lands four times the size of Scot­land and Eng­land. What’s more, the lords in West­min­ster knew they were cre­at­ing a na­tion well-poised to be­come sec­ond only to Rus­sia in terms of land mass, and one whose power and wealth could one day ri­val that of Bri­tain it­self.

And yet, they still couldn’t bring them­selves to care.

“This mea­sure has not ex­cited much in­ter­est in the House or in the coun­try,” said Lib­eral MP John Bright.

The BNA Act shared the or­der pa­per with such for­got­ten mea­sures as a pro­posed sugar tax and the Crim­i­nal Lu­natics Bill.

Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly som­no­lent read­ing of the Canada bill, the House of Com­mons sud­denly came alive as MPs flooded in to de­bate a pro­posed dog tax. “I see no rea­son why the duty payable for a grey­hound should be re­duced 75 per cent, nor why the tax upon poo­dles and pug dogs should be re­duced,” thun­dered one man.

To be fair, the U.K. did have more press­ing af­fairs than a bunch of Cana­di­ans ask­ing po­litely for semi-in­de­pen­dence.

Just as the Canada bill was hit­ting the House of Com­mons, re­ports came in of a vi­o­lent up­ris­ing in Ire­land. The rul­ing Con­ser­va­tive Party, mean­while, was fever­ishly work­ing on a his­tory-mak­ing elec­toral re­form bill that would dou­ble the size of the elec­torate.

Re­peat­edly, politi­cians were told not to mess with the BNA Act. The ten­u­ous coali­tion of pro-Con­fed­er­a­tion Cana­di­ans had al­ready nit­picked ev­ery word of the bill to death, and any sud­den changes to what es­sen­tially was an im­per­fect “com­pro­mise” threat­ened to bring down the union.

Plus, any sec­ond-guess­ing would “in­con­ve­nience” all the Cana­di­ans pa­tiently wait­ing in Lon­don for their coun­try to be cre­ated.

“I there­fore greatly ob­ject to Parliament now, with­out any real or valid rea­son … de­tain­ing these gen­tle­men for a fort­night or a month longer,” said the Earl of Carnar­von.

But that still didn’t stop the Brits from snip­ing. “I do not say that this mea­sure is a per­fect one … there are de­fects in it, no doubt,” said Carnar­von.

For one thing, provin­cial leg­is­la­tures in­stead of con­trol­ling every­thing from Ot­tawa seemed like a waste.

There was a sur­pris­ing amount of de­bate about Nova Sco­tia. The Mar­itime province was one of the most luke­warm to Con­fed­er­a­tion, and par­lia­men­tar­i­ans feared that if Canada rail­roaded it into a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic union, it would cause a “sore” that would one day threaten to split the coun­try. They were right, they just picked the wrong province.

The ap­pointed Se­nate was also deemed a dumb idea. In the ab­sence of a Bri­tish-style aris­toc­racy, West­min­ster fig­ured the place would just end up jammed with lightweights and cronies.

In the end, Bri­tish leg­is­la­tors made only one change to the BNA Act. The bill spec­i­fied that in a par­tic­u­lar re­gion of north­ern On­tario, vot­ing would be open to “ev­ery Bri­tish Sub­ject.” Wor­ried that Cana­dian women might get ideas, the Brits changed it to read “ev­ery Male Bri­tish Sub­ject.”

The bill passed on March 12, 1867, but it wouldn’t be un­til March 29 that Queen Vic­to­ria would get around to grant­ing fi­nal as­sent — and is­su­ing a procla­ma­tion declar­ing that the new coun­try would start on July 1.

But the his­toric event didn’t seem to merit a men­tion in the first Queen of Canada’s diary that night.

“Had rather a headache, which be­came worse when I came home, & I had to re­main quiet in my room,” she wrote on March 29.

“But late in the af­ter­noon I felt bet­ter, & went to the mau­soleum.”


In­stead of send­ing Canada the orig­i­nals of the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act, fac­sim­i­les were re­pro­duced.

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