‘THIS MEASURE HAS NOT EXCITED MUCH INTEREST IN THE HOUSE’: THE BRITS WHO CREATED CANADA
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.