BNA Act (1)
Conferences & Debates

Questions to ask yourself:

Is historical change caused more by individuals or the conditions of society at the time?

How should history remember John A. Macdonald?

What you will be able to do:

Describe the purpose and outcome of the Charlottetown Conference.

Describe the purpose and outcome of the Quebec Conference.

Evaluate the positions both for and against Confederation.

Conferences as the first steps towards a united British North America.

While coalitions were being created to solve the political problems in Canada East and West, and fears of American dominance were justifying the need for a larger union between the two central colonies, in the eastern Maritime provinces similar opinions were also developing. Many also saw the need for a larger union, and called for separation from Britain.  A first conference, organized in Charlottetown and including the leaders of the various colonies, proved to be an event that "set Confederation in motion."  Later, these same politicians met in Quebec to further draft resolutions which later formed the basis of Confederation and of Canada’s Constitution, the British North America Act, the document that essentially created Canada. 

Image source: Charlottetown Conference (Prince Edward Island),  George P. Roberts / Library and Archives Canada / C-000733. Restrictions on use: None Copyright: Expired

Charlottetown:  A Maritime Union Conference gets crashed by the Canadians!

Like most colonies in the Maritimes, Prince Edward Island had its own problems with distant British rule.  In P.E.I., for over a hundred years absentee land owners in Britain controlled the land, and though mostly solved by 1860, a complete solution demanded a more formal colonial union.  As premier, John Hamilton Gray hosted a conference in Charlottetown in September 1864, originally convened to discuss a union between Prince Edward Island with its Maritime neighbours, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. However, politicians from the Province of Canada "changed the focus to a Confederation of all of British North America’s colonies.”

Essentially, the Canadians (East and West) invited themselves to the meeting!  Here they intended to  "made a strong case for the union of all the British North American provinces. [...] The conviviality continued throughout the Charlottetown conference, and contributed to an atmosphere of camaraderie in which new friendships were established."

The delegates from Canada ... "all brought their wives and some champagne and for a week they worked on both the social interaction and political arguments that were required to bring the Maritimers around to the idea of Confederation. John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier presented the general terms of the Canadian proposal, Alexander Galt discussed financial matters and George Brown dealt with constitutional issues.  The conference adjourned on September 7 with the Maritime delegates warm to the idea of a larger federal union. The delegates who favoured the idea saw it as an opportunity for improved commercial relations with the rest of Canada and a way to finance an intercolonial railway. Remember that most of the promoters of the idea of Confederation were friends or associates of the new industrialists who wanted these improvements in commerce and transportation."

Sources:  Canadian Encyclopedia and and the Canada History Project.  See complete documents in main collection here.

John Hamilton Gray. By Flickr user Government of Prince Edward Island at under by-nc-nd/2.0/  

SS Queen Victoria by Rex Woods/  Library and Archives Canada/PA-164727. Restrictions on use: Nil. Copyright: expired.  Via “While there are no official records of the closed proceedings, the Halifax Morning Chronicle of September 10, 1864 gives an account of what was said, in an article attributed to Jonathan McCully.

 “While there are no official records of the closed proceedings, the Halifax Morning Chronicle of September 10, 1864 gives an account of what was said, in an article attributed to Jonathan McCully.  View article at Google News Archives.

Confederation Project proposed... a federal system, with ties to Britain

Now that the Confederation project was on the agenda, it was up to the delegates to convince their maritimer counterparts to help them found a larger, new country. The Canadian delegation had proposed the following: 

Source: Québec Conference October 10 - 27, 1864Archived now at   

*Note that a bicameral system would mean that the federal legislature would have two “houses” or “chambers”:  i.e. an upper house, the Senate, and a lower house, the House of Commons.

An "Overview of the Canadian Parliamentary System" is available at 

Charlottetown:  Where, Who and What went on!

Review the British colonies involved and mark them on a map.  Mark Charlottetown on your map too!

Survey available documents and research further about the Charlottetown Conference. Who was present, what were their goals, and what do we know about what happened.

Sketch your ideas onto your map using visual note taking strategies.   Summarize what you know about the Charlottetown Conference and share your ideas and your sketchnotes with your classmates.

The Quebec Conference!

Discussions had begun in Charlottetown the previous month, but now it was time to iron out the details of Confederation.  From the 10th to the 27th of October 1864, "politicians from the five British North American colonies gathered in Quebec City to continue discussing their unification into a single country.”  By the end of their secret meetings, they had adopted 72 resolutions that elaborated on those already taken at Charlottetown. These resolutions dealt with the powers and responsibilities of the provinces and the federal government.  Now, the delegates had to return to their respective colonies to have the 72 resolutions approved by their own legislatures.

John A. Macdonald of “The Province of Canada” favoured a legislative union - that is, all important decisions should be made by a single, central government and legislature.”  Military concerns around the recent American Civil War helped support his case.  There the state governments had had too much power, and an insufficiently-powerful central government could not prevent that country’s rupture and violence.  Furthermore, “the Canadian political class became aware that the United States had become a militarized giant capable of mobilizing a considerable armed force.”  Fears of annexation, and memories of the War of 1812 were fuelled by politicians in the northern United States considering the forced annexation of Canada if the southern states were lost.

However, supporters of Confederation had to deal with certain objections.  The Maritime delegates opposed a high degree of centralisation.  And those from Canada East (Lower Canada/now Québec) insisted, of course, on control over language, religion and civil law. 

Texts by P. Rombough from various sources: Heritage NFLD, Canadian Encyclopedia  + RECITUS     (See also curated documents and visit sources here.)

Source: James Ashfield, Conference at Quebec, 1864, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3629937. Licence: public domain. 

Macdonald proposes legaslative union

John A. Macdonald favoured a legislative union, where important decisions should be made by a single, central government, but obviously the other colonies were involvedWhat was proposed was a federalist model of government.

At the Québec Conference, "The key concept of federalism - the idea that the central government would be granted certain powers while the provinces retained others - was molded into shape. However one man, almost single-handedly ensured that the balance of power would lean toward the federal government. John A. Macdonald played a large role in shaping the Québec Resolutions. The Upper Canadian politician was the only one at the conference with a background in constitutional law. Macdonald drafted 50 of the 72 resolutions and his desire for a strong central government was reflected in the document."  

Source:  Canada - People's History: Quebec Resolutions

John A. Macdonald, politician, Montreal, QC, 1863 ArtistWilliam Notman (1826-1891). Public Domain. @ 

The 72 resolutions adopted at the Québec Conference

The 72 resolutions outlined a federal parliament composed of two chambers: a House of Commons and a Senate to manage matters common to the whole country (e.g. defence of the country). The parliaments of each of the colonies became provincial parliaments to deal with local matters (e.g. education): 

"The representatives expanded on the Charlottetown discussions, forming their conclusions into a series of resolutions known as The Québec Resolutions or the 72 Resolutions. These principles continue to define Canada today: a federal government system, an appointed upper chamber (Senate), an elected lower chamber, elected by proportional representation (House of Commons), and continuing ties to the British monarchy.”

The resolutions also helped the delegates agree on major financial issues. Canadian federation was only possible with the construction of a railway between Quebec and the Maritimes. The delegates from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia made this a condition of their membership in the Canadian federation, with the Canadian delegates in agreement. 

"While the Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island representatives withdrew from the project, those from the three other colonies agreed to submit the resolutions to their assemblies for approval.”

Texts and translations by P. Rombough + RECITUS.  Quotes from Parks Canada    (See also curated documents and visit sources here.)

Report of Resolutions adopted at a Conference of Delegates from the Provinces of Canadas [etc.]  Public Domain via

Macdonald on the Conference and the Québec Resolutions

"We have given the [federal] general Legislature all the great subjects of legislation. We thereby strengthen the [federal] general parliament and make the confederation one people and one government."

George Brown to his wife

"Conference through at six o'clock this evening - constitution adopted - a most creditable document... a complete reform of all the abuses and injustice we have complained of!! Is it not wonderful? The old French domination is entirely extinguished ... Some will say our constitution is dreadfully Tory - and so it is - but we have the power in our hands (if it passes), to change it as we like. Hurrah!" at 1:16:20 

Montreal delegate Thomas D'Arcy McGee

"Our principle, distinct from the American, is founded on an equal union of authority and liberty... Our safety lies in the growth of a national sentiment that we are a people amongst the great people of the world." at 1:15:40 

George-Étienne Cartier sounding hopeful

"This union we have made in Quebec is the most just and equitable that could have been adopted in the circumstances. Yes, it will protect all our rights and interests, and will insure the prosperity of all the provinces." at 1:17:02 

Above quotes taken from the Canada, A People's History episode summary.

Note that the full video, entitled The Great Enterprise, is available at Curio when logged in with your Québec School Board information.  Click here.

Québec and Charletown Conferences:  What makes for important news?

Write a short radio report of an event ...that demonstrates point of view of actors/public. 

Choose one of the conferences, and write and record a radio segment about that conference.

Write about it from the point of view of a reporter visiting the conference, who is also writing for a specific audience, and who must address that audience's specific concerns and likely questions. 

Some examples of reporters and audiences:  A reporter from the Maritimes, another reporter from Upper Canada, a reporter from the Six Nations Reserve!, etc.

The positions both for and against Confederation

Note: Various more-complete documents and links to these and other sources are available in our larger document collection in the final section on positions located here.

In the Canadas:  Advantages and Warnings as the Debates begin.

Between February 3rd and March 13th 1865, “the Parliament of the Province of Canada debated the negotiated confederation of British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, aimed at creating a union from Newfoundland to Lake Superior. As a public information exercise, legislators decided to produce a near-verbatim account of their deliberations. [...] In The Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada, 1865, John A. Macdonald presses for the advantages of a strong central power; Alexander Galt puts forward the economic arguments for union; and critics of confederation, Christopher Dunkin and A.A. Dorion, express their misgivings with prophetic insight.”  Source: Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada, 1865, The | McGill-Queen’s University Press 

Parliamentary debates on the subject of the confederation of the British North American provinces, 3rd session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada.

In the Maritimes:  Not liking centralization.  Representation by Population is not ideal.

At both conferences Macdonald argued for a legislative union, however the Maritime representatives were opposed to that degree of centralization.

"The result was a compromise - a federal system, in which each province would have its own legislature, and powers were divided between the federal and provincial governments. There was also the problem of adequate representation for smaller provinces in the federal parliament. The House of Commons, with 194 members, was to be based on representation by population. This meant that Upper and Lower Canada would dominate the House, with 75 percent of the seats. Prince Edward Island was annoyed at only being allotted six MPs. Newfoundland did somewhat better with eight MPs. Theoretically, this imbalance was to be corrected by a regional basis of representation in the Senate. However, the delegates from the Atlantic colonies failed to push for equal provincial representation on the United States model, and accepted sectional equality instead. Upper and Lower Canada would each get 24 members, and the three Maritime provinces together 24 members, with an additional four Senate members for Newfoundland. This once again meant domination by central Canada."  

Source: Heritage NFLD & Labrador: The Quebec Conference, October 1864

Source:  A Game of See-Saw.Edward Jump (1832-1883). Public Domain. 

Image from Halifax Herald, via Begbie Contest Society - Confederation.

In the Maritimes:  Joseph Howe opposed to Nova Scotia becoming a second-class partner.

"Charles Tupper, as leader of the Nova Scotia delegation, was surprised to meet opposition to the Québec Resolutions when he and the other delegates returned home. [...] Nova Scotians felt no particular compulsion for constitutional reform; many others found the financial parts of the agreement completely unacceptable....

Chief among the protesters was Joseph Howe. At first, while acting as Imperial Fisheries Commissioner, he was obliged to denounce the resolutions anonymously in a series of newspaper articles called the 'Botheration Letters.' Later, when he no longer held any imperial responsibilities, he was more overt in his criticism."

"Joseph Howe opposed the idea of joining Confederation because he thought Nova Scotia would just become a second-class partner in the larger union and lose its special identity. He also thought the voters should be consulted before such a major step was taken. Howe had a lot of support for this view and the premier of the day, Charles Tupper, pushed to have Confederation passed before he had to face an election in 1867." 

Sources, respectively: Canadian Confederation: Provinces and Territories Nova Scotia Map: Canada, 1867 Source Entered Confederation: 1867 Archived at   And, Joseph Howe's Opposition 

Source:  The Dominion Counting-House. The New Partner Produces a Sample of His Stock-in-trade ArtistA. P. Inglis. Public Domain.

Québec reasons to hesitate, the vigourous opposition of the Parti rouge, the Catholics support les Bleus 

“Confederation was never as enthusiastically embraced in Quebec as it evidently was in Ontario. [...] On the surface, Confederation would seem to have the effect of making Québec’s position weaker, as the province would now become one partner out of four (instead of one out of two), would constitute only 30% of the population of the new country (instead of 40%), there would be no requirement for dual prime ministership (governments such as Lafontaine-Baldwin or Macdonald-Cartier) and Quebec would have to concede 'Representation according to Population' to Ontario," which now had more people than Québec!

Antoine-Aimé Dorion and the Parti rouge were completly against Confederation. “They argued that Quebec would have little autonomy in Confederation and that the Québec people should be consulted on a decision as momentous as Confederation. Other French Canadian leaders, like Dorion, saw federalism as a means by which English Canada would increase its hold on Quebec.” 

The "parti bleu" under George-Étienne Cartier retorted that the Confederation project drafted in Québec adequately recognized and protected the rights of Francophones as a distinct cultural and ethnic group, as well as the rights of Quebec as a province. Confederation was an object of debate in Quebec. But the well-oiled political machine of the "parti bleu", supported by the persuasive power of the Catholic clergy, assured that such debate did not impede the Confederation project." 

Sources, respectively:
-Quebec and the Confederation project (1864-1867) - Readings
-Hon. Antoine-Aimé Dorion, Montreal, QC, 1863 Photography Studio William Notman Studio  (1863-1877) at Text now only in archived version at
-Canadian Confederation: Provinces and Territories Quebec Map: Canada, 1867 Source Entered Confederation: 1867
Archived at  

Source:  Image is a clip from A.A. Dorion’s much longer manifesto to his electors in La Minerve, November 10, 1864 via 

Source: La scie : [Vol. 2, no 2 (2 déc. 1864)] Québec : L.P. Normand, [1864] (Quick English translation by P.R. here) 

Mgr. L.-F. Laflèche, évêque des Trois-Rivières. Source: BANQ / 52327/2076077  via

Women with various opinions across Canada

Anne Nelson Brown, the wife of Father of Confederation George Brown, is credited with influencing her husband’s worldview and bringing out his softer side...

Mercy Coles, one of the daughters of George Coles, the first premier of Prince Edward Island, tried unsuccessfully to convince her father to join Confederation, despite the Land Question there being left off the 72 resolutions in Québec...

Luce Cuvillier was the daughter of an important Montréal merchant, and also known as the “mistress” of George-Étienne Cartier. For the times, she was an unconvential figure, a businesswomen in her own right, and someone who took a keen interest in politics. She has been described by historian Gérard Parizeau as Cartier’s muse, who guided and supported him throughout his political career...

Lady Agnes Macdonald was the second wife of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.  She was devoutly religious, dedicated to family and committed to various good works in the community.  She was also known to transmit messages to her husband in sign language and not to hold back when a debate in the house of commons did not go the way she wanted...

Details, full-sized images and more complete information at Mothers of Confederation. 
Source:(2015). Mothers of Confederation. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from   

Research even further at Archived at 

Source: Original illustrations by Gillian Goerz at 

Indigenous Peoples and Confederation?

Note:  "Indigenous peoples were not invited to or represented at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences. This despite the fact they had established what they believed to be bilateral (nation-to-nation) relationships and commitments with the Crown through historic treaties. [...]

From 1871 to 1921, the federal government signed a series of 11 treaties (the “numbered treaties”) with various Indigenous peoples. The government promised them money, certain rights to the land and other concessions. In exchange, the First Nations in all colonies except British Columbia ceded (surrendered) their traditional territories.

Most of the promises in these treaties went unfulfilled. The intentions expressed by the treaties, and the clarity with which they were communicated to and understood by the Indigenous people who signed them, has been the subject of considerable debate."

Source: Waite, P. (2019). Confederation.  In the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Retrieved from  

"Those opposed to Confederation in Eastern Canada found moderate, economic grounds for not joining Canada. But motivations were quite different in the West.

After Confederation, Canada extended its reach by purchasing the vast territory of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870. (See also North-West Territories.) In 1885, those ambitions were met with violent resistance in the form of the North-West Rebellion. The five-month revolt was led by the Métis, Cree, Siksika, Kinai, Piikani and Saulteaux. It began as Canadian expansion into their lands pushed the First Nations toward starvation. In 1880, Cree leader Big Bear and Blackfoot leader Crowfoot founded the Blackfoot Confederacy. In 1884, Louis Riel, a Métis leader of the earlier Red River Resistance, sought to unite the peoples of the North-West to stand against the Canadian government."

Source:  (2021). Confederation's Opponents.  In   The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Retrieved from 

View: Indigenous Peoples Are Not Seen as Equals in Confederation; It’s Time to Fix That. Speaker: Joshua Nichols

"Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear), Plains Cree chief (born near Fort Carlton, SK; died 17 January 1888 on the Little Pine Reserve, SK). Mistahimaskwa is best known for his refusal to sign Treaty 6 in 1876."  Library and Archives Canada/C-001873. LAC 

Task: For or against the Canadian Confederation Project?

Create a poster... that demonstrates the point of view of historial actors.

Arrange yourselves in a team of six and divide up the work. Each team member can analyse ONE of the sets of primary source texts (i.e. on one actor) available in the numbered documents near the end of this document.

For each actor/set of texts, answer the following questions:

After analyzing the texts assigned to him/her, each teammate must make a sign or poster and try to convince the other participants of his point of view. During the discussion, introduce the character you play and compare your arguments against others.  In this process you must evaluate the positions both for and against Confederation. 

Note: This activity is an adapted and expanded version of the original Pour ou contre le projet de Confédération canadienne? by the RECITUS at 

Main Teacher Guide/Document Collection 

The texts and other resources above were compiled using our main document collection available here
That collection is meant as a starting point for further research.  Please follow the source links for further context, and for more in-depth information.  Please report typos and errors on that page to 

1840-1896 (#7) British North America - Conferences & Debates

Shorter Task on only 4 Historical Actors 

Note that we adapted a shorter student task developed by the RECITUS at Debating the Canadian Federation- For or against the Confederation and used it in the above larger document collection, where it was expanded to include other historical actors.

HistQueCanSec4 - Debating the Canadian Federation (RECITUS version with only 4 people)

Thinking about Local History?

Enter your postal code to learn whether local leaders supported or opposed joining Confederation!