BOLSTERED by generous federal funding, the 150th anniversary of Confederation will be celebrated on July 1, 2017 with the great hoopla the birth of this country deserves.
Yet the hard work, political compromises, backroom negotiations and constitutional debates that made Confederation — a more remarkable development than we appreciate today — possible occurred during a five-month period from June to October in 1864.
In short, Canada’s true sesquicentennial is happening right now.
The two most notable events of 1864 were conferences in Charlottetown, in early September, followed by a more extensive one held in Quebec City for much of October. At the gathering in Charlottetown, delegates from the Province of Canada — divided into two regions, Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec) — led by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, respectively, convinced politicians from the Maritimes a federation of all of British North America made sense. The fundamentals of this new constitutional entity were then hammered out in Quebec City, producing a comprehensive plan for a new country outlined in the 72 Resolutions, which became the basis for the British North America Act proclaimed on July 1, 1867.
Apart from Macdonald and Cartier, the other key political personality in Charlottetown and Quebec City involved in making Confederation a reality was George Brown, the publisher of the Toronto Globe. Born in Scotland, Brown had arrived in Toronto via New York City at the age of 24 in 1843 and a year later established the Globe. A large man, he was over six feet tall and powerfully built. Brown was hard and dogmatic, but also an energetic and passionate man with strong convictions about free speech, civil liberties and the separation of church and state.
Brown became a leader of the Reform movement in Canada West and rallied around him left-leaning Reformers in Toronto and western farmers he dubbed "Clear Grits" (this faction only wanted men of true grit). He was eventually elected to the Province of Canada assembly in 1851, the beginning of a journey that would culminate with his role as a leading Father of Confederation and a founder of the Liberal party.
Brown, however, was far from perfect. He opposed slavery, but refused to hire black employees. He also had a particular resentment for the Catholic Church and what he perceived to be its evil machinations. Virulently anti-Catholic editorials appeared frequently in the Globe. His wife, Anne, who he married in 1862, helped soften his disposition (Brown’s letters to Anne provide the most intimate details and background to the Confederation story).
As early as 1859, Brown, long before Macdonald accepted the idea, concluded the Province of Canada, which required joint leadership in its government between the French-dominated East and the Protestant West, was unworkable and unfair since Canada West’s population had increased more than that of Canada East. Thereafter, he promoted "Rep by Pop," or representation by population, in the Globe. As well, he and his followers looked west to Hudson’s Bay Company territory as an area for possible Canadian expansion.
By 1864, with the threat of a possible American invasion once the Civil War ended, and with the Province of Canada assembly constantly deadlocked, Brown became the leading proponent of a larger Confederation scheme. On June 22, 1864, following several days of heated discussions, Brown stunned his colleagues by announcing he was joining Macdonald, his bitter and detested rival, and Cartier in the Great Coalition to work toward a federal union of Canada East and Canada West, or a broader confederation with the colonies in the Maritimes.
Three years later, John A. Macdonald became the Dominion of Canada’s first prime minister and was knighted for his service. Cartier, a member of Macdonald’s cabinet, who had ensured French Canadian support for Confederation, was made a baronet in 1868, which meant he could also use the title "Sir."
Lord Monk, Canada’s first governor general, who was responsible for conferring these honours, felt more than a little guilty that Brown had been overlooked.
"I will confess to you," Monk wrote to Brown in mid-November 1868, "that I was mortified and disappointed that circumstances had rendered it impossible for me to recommend for a share in those distinctions the man whose conduct in 1864 had rendered the project of union feasible."
Brown, who later was appointed a senator, was never able to compete with John A.’s political shrewdness or flair for the dramatic. Hence Macdonald’s famous retort to a heckler that Canadians preferred, "John A. drunk to George Brown sober."
Outside of Toronto, he is barely remembered today. The odds are there will be no commission to honour his 200th birthday in 2018 like the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission that "seeks to inspire a greater appreciation of the life and achievements of Sir John A. Macdonald of Kingston, Canada’s Father of Confederation."
And yet, had Brown not set aside his partisan and personal differences in June 1864 to enter the Great Coalition with Macdonald and Cartier, Confederation might never have happened — as Lord Monk suggested to him.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.