BNA Act (2)

New Provinces, and Division of Powers

Questions to ask yourself:

How should history remember John A. Macdonald?
How does the BNA Act impact on our lives today!?

What you will be able to do:

Situate the provinces and the years of Confederation on maps and timelines.

Describe the division of powers in the British North America (BNA) Act.

Explain tensions between the Federal and Provincial Governments, in terms of powers, issues and actors involved.

Initial Impetus for the Canadian Confederation

“Canada became a country, the Dominion of Canada, in 1867. Before that, British North America was made up of a few provinces, the vast area of Rupert’s Land (privately owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company), and the North-Western Territory. By 1864, many leaders felt that it would be good to join into one country. Known as the Fathers of Confederation, these leaders met and wrote a constitution for the new country, which had to be passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Once passed, it became known as the British North America Act, or the BNA Act. This Act brought together the three provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada (which became the provinces of Ontario and Quebec). The BNA Act described the structure and main laws of the new country, as well as the division of powers between the new provinces and the federal government.”

Source: Our Country, Our Parliament at https://lop.parl.ca/


“The Dominion of Canada was formed by the United Kingdom from three provinces of British North America:

The capital was established at Ottawa.

Source: Territorial evolution of Canada https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territorial_evolution_of_Canada

1864 Map of North America. Alvin Jewett Johnson. Public Domain via wikimedia.org/

Other Provinces start to join up only three years after!

While Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland decided to wait a little (and a lot!) longer to join the Canadian Confederation, as time went by the country expanded to include them to also claim, negotiate, delineate and sometimes just take a much larger territory than the original project envisioned. Each territory's situation was unique, as did the ways their borders grew over time.

Below are a few very brief summaries, which are based on documents and online resources available in our main document collection here.

For additional maps and information, see the updated: Atlas of Canada - Territorial Evolution from 1867 to 2017

Animated map showing changes to the borders of Canadian provinces and territories over time via https://commons.wikimedia.org/ License: by-sa

The United Kingdom transferred its remaining land in North America to Canada, with territories in the north becoming the Northwest Territories. The Hudson's Bay Company, who controlled Rupert's Land, and who had for two hundred years distregarded Indigenous

In March 1870, Louis Riel, who previously mounted a local provisional government to defend Métis rights, now went to Ottawa to promote their cause. He argued that the Manitoba be admitted to the Confederation, not as a territory but as a province.

For sources and various other resources on Manitoba here in our main document collection.

Manitoba, an Indigenous First

View this GeoMinute video to learn why Canada’s fifth province, Manitoba, was Indigenous first. Who lived there? Whose traditional territories does it cover now?!

1871: Vancouver Island and British Columbia

Philip’s Map of British Columbia and Vancouver Island https://www.oldmapsonline.org/map/britishlibrary/4950843

“In the years leading up to 1858, there were between 40,000 and 50,000 people, nearly all of these [part of various Indigenous nations], living in what is now British Columbia. The first Europeans had come to the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, it was not until 1849 that Britain formally established the colony of Vancouver Island in order to maintain sovereignty in the West. There were but a few hundred British settlers at that time, most of them living at Fort Victoria as employees of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).

The character of the region changed drastically with the Fraser River gold rush of 1858. [...] The colony on Vancouver Island was ruled by a governor, with the help of an appointed council and an elected assembly. After British Columbia was established, the two colonies shared a governor. However, the mainland was ruled by decree, rather than with the help of a council. The mainland colony received some measure of representative government in 1864, when a partially elected assembly was created by order of the British authorities.”

Source: British Columbia (1871) bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/

Archived at https://web.archive.org/


For sources and various other resources on Manitoba here in our main document collection.

British Columbia. Ottawa offers Railway. Indigenous not consulted.

View this GeoMinute video to learn more about the situation when British Columbia joins Confederation. Why would B.C. folk want a railway anyway!? How do you think Indigenous people would have responded if asked about the railway and joining Canada?

1873: PEI becomes the 7th province!

Map of Prince Edward Island in 1775. Surveyed by Capt. Holland. 1775. Public Domain via https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Prince Edward Island before Confederation was a rural setting, and the home of around 87,000 people. Most of these were Irish, Scottish, English, and some were also Acadians. There were also small Black and Mi'kmaq communities. [...] After rejecting Confederation in 1866, Prince Edward Island focused its efforts on securing its economic future. [...]

"Although Prince Edward Island did not implement an independent trade deal with the Americans, the possibility of stronger ties between Prince Edward Island and the United States concerned Canada. In 1869, the new country decided to try again to convince the Island to join Confederation with a deal known as 'Better Terms'. [...]

The Railway and Confederation, 1871-73: Following the rejection of the latest union offer, Prince Edward Island embarked on a period of railway construction. James Pope [P.E.I premier in 1870] believed that a railway network would generate employment, and provide an efficient means of transporting goods throughout the Island. As well, he believed it would benefit tourism. With wide public support, construction began in 1871. However, concerns soon arose over the mounting cost of the project. A provincial election in 1872 failed to resolve the economic problems; within the year, the government realized that the province faced imminent financial collapse unless help was found. In November, the Island approached the Canadians about joining Confederation; it found the Canadians receptive and willing to discuss terms."

Source: ARCHIVED - Canadian Confederation, Provinces and Territories: Prince Edward Island: 1873. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/ (Now only at Archive.org)

Follow these links for some information on Black and Mi'kmaq communities in P.E.I.

For sources and various other resources on P.E.I. visit here in our main document collection.

1898: Yukon Territory created

1898 Map of the Alaska and Yukon Gold Fields via https://alaskaweb.org/mining/map_ak&yukonfields.html

The Yukon territory is the traditional home of many Indigenous nations (see below). However, it was "bitter rivalries inherent in the rapid expansion of the European fur trade on the North Pacific coast during the late 18th and early 19th century [that led to...] An agreement between Russia and Great Britain in 1825, a year after the first Hudson's Bay explorer/trader set foot in the Yukon." The 141st meridian became the boundary between their territories to the north of the 60th parallel.

During and just after Confederation, the area was just another of a few unnamed districts of the North-west Territories, but eventually in response to the administrative needs of The Gold Rush, the Yukon Judicial District was created.

"Then, in June 1898, at the peak of the Klondike gold rush (from the perspective of population) the Yukon achieved recognition as a separate territory, and a government structure was established, although all members of the government were appointed by the federal government, not elected by Yukoners.”
Source: The 1898 Yukon Act Introduction by Murray Lundberg at www.explorenorth.com/yukon/yukon_act-1898.html

Yukon Act: On 13 June 1898, the Yukon Territory Act created Yukon as a separate Canadian territory and placed its capital at Dawson City. The territorial government consisted of a federally appointed commissioner and an appointed council of no more than six members. It grew into a fully elected council of 10 members in 1908.

The gold rush quickly faded in the early 1900s and many of the new settlers left Yukon. Dawson City’s busy commercial life collapsed, leaving a much-reduced near-ghost town. In 1953, the capital was moved to Whitehorse.

Source: Tattrie, J. (2015). Yukon and Confederation. In The Canadian Encyclopedia.

"The boomtown of Dawson City August 1900 during a visit by the Governor General." (Glenbow Archives NA-4412-24) via "Canada History: May 6, 1898: Protecting Canada’s Yukon from Americans" https://www.rcinet.ca/

Map of Yukon First Nations traditional territory. Photo: Government of Canada

Note that First Nations’ traditional territories cover almost all the land in Yukon. Of the 14 First Nations in Yukon, 11 signed modern treaties between 1993 and 2005.
Source: Find out about Yukon First Nations

Province/Territory sections under construction

1898 and 1912: Québec grows, into Cree and Inuit Territories

Composite: Canada. John Bartholomew & Son, Ltd. "The Times" atlas. 1922. David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries under by-nc-sa

“The Quebec Boundary Extension Act of 1898 was an Act of the Parliament of Canada that expanded the territory of the province of Quebec. The province's northern boundary was set along the eastern shore of James Bay to the mouth of the Eastmain River, north along the river, then due east to the Hamilton River and down the river to the western boundary of Labrador.” In 1912, "the "District of Ungava becomes part of the Province of Quebec." Note though the "Quebec's 2,500 km-long northern border, set in 1912, ends at the shoreline along the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay." In other words, the islands off-shore remained and still remain part of the federal territories. (NWT and now Nunavut)

Sources: Quebec Boundary Extension Act, 1898 - Wikipedia and The Atlas of Canada - Territorial Evolution from 1867 to 2017 and Quebec calls for 'urgent' extension of northern border | CBC News

“In October 1995, the Crees released a study, [... that] notes that portions of Quebec annexed to the province in 1898 and 1912 constitute in large part the traditional territories of the James Bay Cree and other aboriginal peoples, which were added to the province without their consent.”

Source: ABORIGINAL PEOPLES AND THE 1995 QUEBEC REFERENDUM: A SURVEY OF THE ISSUES. Jill Wherrett. 1996. http://publications.gc.ca/. Large Bark Canoe on North West Side, Lake Mistassini https://en.wikipedia.org/ under license allowing modificatinos by-sa Quebec map overlayed on original file.

See also the video on the Eeyouch (Cree) of Eeyou Istchee at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_OGA6S68mo

1905: Alberta and Saskatchewan borders are drawn

Sappers building a boundary mound at the 49th parallel. 1873. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/

“Alberta was first occupied by several First Nations, including the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikuni (Peigan) and Gros Ventre. Other groups, including the Kootenay and the Crow, made expeditions into the land to hunt bison and go to war. [..] Many of the First Nations traded with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company beginning in the mid-1700s, when European explorers began establishing fur-trading posts. [...]” However, in the 1850s and 1860s, the fur trade declined, then [...] In 1867, the Dominion of Canada was created. Worried that an expansionist United States would try to annex the West, the Canadian government in Ottawa decided to solidify its hold on the territory. In 1870, Canada purchased Rupert's Land and the North-West from the HBC, and labelled the entire western and Arctic region the Northwest Territories. “ [...]

Early negotions attempted to create one very large western province out of several territories of the region, but for administration purposes it was agreed to delineat two large provinces instead. "Canada adopted the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act on 1 September 1905, and the new provinces — Canada's 8th and 9th — entered Confederation."

At first, "Ottawa kept control of crown lands and natural resources, arguing that unlike earlier provinces, Alberta had never owned the lands. Alberta politicians fought to change that rule and finally took control of the crown lands and resources in 1930.”

Source: Tattrie, J. (2015). Alberta and Confederation. In The Canadian Encyclopedia

1905 map. Library and Archives Canada. Maps: 1667-1999 Maps. Now archived at https://web.archive.org/

GeoMinute: The negotiating of Treaties 1 through 11: After Confederation in 1867, treaties numbered one through 11 are negotiated between the Crown and First Nations., in particular in territories that become Alberta and Sasketchewan.

1949: Newfoundland joins as full province

Image original source unknown. Found in Tweet by Seamus O'Regan Jr.

“Canada "from sea to sea" became a reality in 1949 when Newfoundland joined Confederation. Although it was our newest province, its capital, St. John's, is the oldest city in Canada. European fishermen have been coming to the shores of the Grand Banks for hundreds of years. Our tenth province had held out a long time. It declined Confederation in the 1860s, feeling, quite logically, that its outlook was to the Atlantic and to England.”

“After the Second World War the debate began again. Most people wanted to change their current colonial status which included government by appointed officials from England. But some wanted responsible government with economic links to the United States. Others wanted to join Canada. The leading Confederationist was a feisty broadcaster and labour leader, Joey Smallwood. After two plebiscites, Confederation won by a narrow margin.”

Source and video presentation at Newfoundland Joins Canada http://canadahistoryproject.ca/1949/index.html#movie

View video presentation at Newfoundland Joins Canada

Note that in 1927, Quebec had lost Labrador territory to NFLD. Image source: The Begbie Contest Society www.begbiecontestsociety.org/quebec.htm

Section 2: Division of Powers in the BNA Act.

"The BNA Act laid out the structure of the government of Canada and listed the division of powers between the federal government and the provincial governments."

Source and more information: BNA Act 1867. Canadahistoryproject.ca.

"Distribution of powers refers to the division of legislative powers and responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments. The areas of distribution were first outlined at the Quebec Conference in 1864 [see page on Conferences & Debates] and are enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1867. They have been a source of debate and tension between the provinces and the federal government for generations. [...] However, this part of the Constitution has remained remarkably unchanged since Confederation.

Source and more information: Beaudoin, G. (2020). Distribution of Powers. In The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Views on the Structure of Canadian Federalism

The structure of Canadian federalism was chosen after discussions among conference delegates and with politicians from the different colonies.

Some were for decentralization [i.e. that most powers remained in provinces]

  • Some politicians are in favour of the decentralization of powers: they want to give few areas of jurisdiction to the federal government and maintain the majority of powers in the provincial governments.

  • In the Province of Canada, George-Étienne Cartier, leader of the Blue Party and the main French-Canadian politician, insisted that the provinces obtain as much power as possible.

Some were against decentralization [i.e. for a stronger central government]

  • Other politicians prefer a centralized federal union, that is to say, they want the greatest number of fields of competence to be granted to the federal government.

  • For his part, the leader of the Conservative Party, John A. Macdonald, anxious to avoid the mistakes that led to the civil war in the United States, is more in favor of a strong federal government.


A compromise was adopted, with a tendency towards centralization, but the distribution of powers between the federal government and the provinces remained at the heart of Canadian political concerns.

Source: RECITUS

Overview of the structure of government

View the video at left or here on Youtube. It will help you to understand the different levels of our government(s) in Canada.

Note that it also details what powers each level of government has. Why do you think they are different? Can you remember any specific examples?

And what about residual powers not specifically assigned to a government? Can you think of something we have or do today that would fall under Federal jurisdication, because it was not listed in these powers then, or because it is for the good of the whole country and of “National Concern”?

British North America Act - Legally defines powers, in order to avoid conflicts

“The British North America Act, 1867 (BNA Act, 1867) was passed by the British Parliament in 1867. It is the law that created the Canadian Confederation. Many other Acts called British North America Act were later passed, amending the 1867 Act, or adding to it.

A federation usually consists of at least two main levels of government - local states or provinces, and a federal government. Canada is no different. However, these levels can't share the same powers, as that would lead to direct competition and chaos.

The BNA Act was passed to set the legal ground rules for Canada, and [divide] up the powers between the provinces and the federal government.

Section 91 of the BNA Act lists the powers the federal Parliament can exercise. Section 92 lists the powers of the Provincial Legislatures. Unless the parties agree otherwise, the federal government must not make laws dealing with matters of provincial jurisdiction, and vice versa. If one party does pass a law that intrudes on the jurisdiction of the other, the courts will strike it down.

Source: A Three-Minute Guide to the BNA Act, 1867 A Three-Minute Guide to the BNA Act, 1867. Archived at https://web.archive.org/

For more information: BNA Act 1867. Canadahistoryproject.ca

Source of graphic: Service national du RÉCIT, domaine de l’univers social. Licence : (BY-NC-SA).

Provincial Powers

Under Canada's federal system, the powers of government are shared between the federal government and 10 provincial governments. The provinces are responsible for public schooling, health and social services, highways, the administration of justice, and local government. However, overlapping and conflicting interests have stretched provincial concerns across virtually every area of Canadian life. Provinces are free to determine their own levels of public services, and each province has been true to its economic and cultural interests in its own fashion.”

Source: Ruff, Norman J.. "Provincial Government". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 13 December 2017, Historica Canada.


92. In each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say,

  • 1. Repealed. [Old allowance to amend is moved to other section in 1982]

  • 2. Direct Taxation within the Province in order to the raising of a Revenue for Provincial Purposes.

  • 3. The borrowing of Money on the sole Credit of the Province.

  • 4. The Establishment and Tenure of Provincial Offices and the Appointment and Payment of Provincial Officers.

  • 5. The Management and Sale of the Public Lands belonging to the Province and of the Timber and Wood thereon.

    And so on to include provincial prisons, hospitals, alcohol, etc…. I.e.:

  • “16. Generally all Matters of a merely local or private Nature in the Province.”


Source: Exclusive Powers of Provincial Legislatures at "Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982" https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/

The Rise of Provincial Power

“The Fathers of Confederation envisaged a federal union tilted toward a strong central government.” [...] “However, [...] “By the 1880s the momentum behind nation building had slowed and was soon overtaken by the rise of provincially-based political and economic needs and desires.” [...]

Read more about Honoré Mercier and other here in our main collection of curated resources.

Federal Government provides:
Peace, Order and Good Government of Canada (P.O.G.G.):

Residuary/Residual Powers [i.e. undefined/new/national] fell to the Central/Federal Government

“The Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, s. 91, confer on the Federal Parliament the power ‘to make Laws for the Peace, Order and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces’. This power is ‘residuary’ in the sense that any matter that does not come within the power of provincial legislatures comes within the power of the federal Parliament. This residuary power ensures that every area of legislation comes under one or both of Canada's two orders of government.”

Source: The constitutional distribution of legislative powers - Canada.ca

Related today: The “National Concern” Doctrine

Note that what developed later was the notion of “national concern” in order to “govern the federal government’s use of its residual power to regulate for the “Peace, Order and Good Government of Canada.”

The National Concern Doctrine allows the federal government to act if a matter in need of regulation has a “singleness, distinctiveness, and indivisibility” that clearly distinguishes it from a matter that is in provincial jurisdiction. Another way to determine if a matter is one of “national concern” is to consider whether the failure of one province to act, such as by regulating an activity, would have an adverse effect on interests beyond the province, in other words, if the non-participation of one province in a scheme that relied on interprovincial coordination would lead to the failure of the scheme.”

Source: Briefing: COVID-19 and the Challenge of Intergovernmental Coordination in Responding to a Crisis. by Ian Peach

Image source: W. Bengough, Grip, Toronto, 11 February 1882, via http://www.begbiecontestsociety.

Activity to Check your knowledge

For each of the following statements, ask a partner to decide which level of government is responsible for managing it. Does the jurisdication lie with the "federal government" or "provincial government"?

  1. The village of Saint-Joachim wishes to build a new primary school. (Prov.)
  2. Newly founded, the village of Saint-Félix-d'Otis wishes to have a post office. (Fed.)
  3. In 1870, a law decreed that the mayors of towns would be elected by the municipal council and not directly by the population. (Prov.)
  4. In 1872, a certain Frank Ross acquired more than 100 km2 of forest land around Lac Saint-Jean. (Prov.)
  5. In 1884, the government banned Indigenous people from celebrating the potlatch, a giving ceremony in which wealth was redistributed among members of the nation. (Fed.)
  6. In 1885, a major smallpox epidemic raged in Montreal. The officials of the Ministry of Health are trying to enforce the rules of vaccination and isolation of patients. (Prov.)

Source: RECITUS

Tensions continued between the Federal and Provincial Governments

Lieutenant-Governors of provinces could refuse bills. Ask Feds to decide.

After Confederation in 1867 the federal and the various provincial governments set upon governing the new dominion. Under the British North America Act’s section 90, Lieutenant-Governors of provinces may refuse bills (proposed laws) passed by provincial assemblies, or can reserve them for a decision to the federal government. In the first three decades of the Canadian Dominion, both of these powers were often used. Between 1867 and 1896, 68 bills were disallowed and 57 were reserved for decision by the federal government. Of these, eleven were from Quebec and 10 from Ontario.

The Provinces were upset by what they considered interference by the federal government in their affairs. Under the federal system of government in Canada, provinces are guaranteed exclusive power to the areas under their jurisdiction. John A. Macdonald, one of the principal architects of the British North America Act wanted; however, to ensure that the Federal government always had the final say. It should be unsurprising therefore, that under his terms in office these powers were used the most often.

Statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Ontario Provincial Parliament, Queens Park, Toronto by CP Hoffman https://www.flickr.com under by-sa/2.0/

Source : Auteur inconnu, Conférence interprovinciale à Québec (1887), Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, MIKAN 3362744. Licence : domaine public. via histoire.recitus.qc.ca/

Interprovincial Conference: Mercier and Mowat vs. John A.

“As tensions between the provinces and the federal government grew, the premiers decided to meet, this would be the first Interprovincial Conference and was hosted by the Quebec premier Honoré Mercier in October of 1887. The other main antagonist at the conference was the Ontario premier, Oliver Mowat. Both Mercier and Mowat were Liberals (although Mercier’s party was called the Parti National it was effectively the Liberal Party in Quebec) and fierce rivals of the Conservative Prime Minister John A Macdonald. The conference was also attended by the Liberal premiers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the Conservative Premier of Manitoba who gave the meeting a non-partisan air. While the federal government was invited to the meeting, John A Macondald replied to Mercier that, “...it appears to us that it would answer no good purpose to send representatives to the Conference.”

The provincial governments wished to assert their autonomy against what they saw as increasing federal interference in their affairs. Mercier crafted the agenda. Amongst the issues that were discussed the provinces were very concerned about the disallowal of laws by the federal government and how revenues from taxation should be shared. It should not be surprising that the provinces in attendance came to unanimous approval of a number of resolutions including an increase in the payments of subsidies to the provinces and an end to the disallowance of provincial laws. At the conclusion of the Conference, Mercier said, “I am happy to state that the autonomy of the Provinces has been most positively asserted as the real basis of our form of Government, and the only guarantee of its maintenance.”

It was up to Mowat to bring the resolutions to the federal government. On his return to Ontario, he stopped in Ottawa to present the resolutions to Macdonald. The reception was icy. Macdonald was unwilling to contemplate the demands of the provinces that would weaken his hand, and the constitution that he himself had crafted. Although the provincial premiers did not have their demands met, the interprovincial conference of 1887 set the stage for more provincial meetings that eventually did include the federal government. These meetings would propose new ideas on social reform and national unity and continue to this day.”

Text by Matt Russell for LEARN, 2022

Note: Some page sections and activity suggestions may be added later.

For now, browse our main document collection of curated resources below, or here is a separate window.

1840-1896 (#7b) British North America Act 2 -- Situating new provinces, and division of powers

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