Causes of Confederation

Questions to ask yourself:

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

What you will be able to do:

Describe ministerial instability, including the actors and solutions proposed. (i.e. their point of view)

Indicate (and rank in order of importance) the causes of Confederation.

Causes of Confederation

"Political life under the Act of Union encountered many difficulties. Political instability undermined the colony's ability to govern itself effectively. London's adoption of free trade led to deep uncertainty as to the maintenance of Canadian independence from the powerful United States. Canada under the Union regime was ill-equipped to secure its future.

The political, economic and military problems experienced by the Province of Canada are also experienced by the other British colonies in North America. These common problems prompted the colonies to think about a solution which would take the form of a new common political structure."

Thus, there were a number of factors during the 1850s and 1860s that together help explain why Canadian politicians chose to form a federal union in 1867. This process and the union that resulted with the British North America Act is known as Confederation.

Texts by RECITUS, + additions by Russell/Rombough

Overview Video

Confederation? Constitution? How does it all work together? Trace the story of how Canada and its Parliament began. Click to view only (on available on Youtube)

Reformers Retire: Responsible Government with Difficulties and Divisions

Following the success of the Reformers in their quest for responsible government the political situation in the Province of Canada changed in the 1850’s. The retirement of Robert Baldwin and Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine from active politics and the lack of a common cause meant that the alliance of reformers faded away and new political parties emerged.

There were four main political parties during the period about 1854 to 1867, two each from Upper and Lower Canada. In Upper Canada the Tories were now the Liberal-Conservatives as some moderate Reformers joined with them, and the more radical Reformers were the Clear Grits, later known as the Liberals. In Lower Canada, the moderate Reformers and French Canadian Tories formed the Parti Bleu, while the more radical French Canadian Reformers became known as the Parti Rouge. With four parties vying for power in the Legislative Assembly it was difficult to have a stable government as elections were generally close and parties would have to work together in coalitions. This was known as the period of Ministerial Instability as there were many governments formed over a ten year period.

Along with the instability of the government, an unwritten convention or rule known as the double majority principle had taken hold. This held that legislation affecting both parts of the province needed to have a majority of votes from not only the entire assembly, but also from members from each of Upper and Lower Canada. The result was that new laws were difficult to pass.

Introductory text by Matt Russell for LEARN

Ministerial Instability

After responsible government was established in 1848, there were a number of different governments that lasted a very short period of time in the Province of Canada, because none of the parties could gain a majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. LaFontaine and Baldwin's earlier alliance was over. Both men retired from political life, and this is one of the reasons why new political groups emerged during this time period. With no alliance, instability followed. There was also now an unwritten rule in the Assembly. It said that for a law to be passed that would affect both Upper and Lower Canada, there would need to be a majority of votes from both the members of Upper and Lower Canada. This double majority rule made it difficult to have effective coalitions in the Assembly. This was due to the fact that there were four political groups.

The first of these were the Clear Grits who were from Upper Canada or Canada West. They were led by George Brown and one of the main policies that they wanted was called Rep by Pop or Representation by Population in the Legislative Assembly. At the time, each section of the Province of Canada had 42 seats so even though Canada West was growing through immigration from Great Britain it still had the same number of seats as Lower Canada. Instead, they proposed that the higher the population, the more representatives the area should have in the Legislative Assembly. They also wanted to promote public schools and they were suspicious of the Catholic Church. The Clear Grits backed farmers' rights and wanted the province of Canada to claim territory to the West, the territory in Rupert's land that was owned by the Hudson Bay Company.

The other major political group from Upper Canada were the Liberal-Conservatives. After 1857, they were led by John A. Macdonald, who would later become the first Prime Minister of Canada. They were strong supporters of business and railways. Generally, they supported the French Canadian position in Canada.

The two political groups from Lower Canada were the Parti Rouge and the Parti Bleu. The Parti Rouge was led by Antoine Aime Dorion. They were perhaps the smallest group in the Legislative Assembly, they were liberals and republicans. They were against the ultramontanists and had difficulty sometimes finding support from other parties. They were against Confederation because they believed that French Canadians would lose their culture and religion and be assimilated by English Canada.

The Parti Bleu was conservative and supported by the Catholic Church. They supported businesses and railways and usually allied with the Liberal-Conservatives. In the 1860s, they were led by George Etienne Cartier. While Cartier was fearful of assimilation like the Rouges, he saw the solution in a federal union, where the provinces would have control over schools, hospitals, and welfare, as a way of preserving French Canadian’s cultural identity. In the proposal, Lower Canada’s French schools and hospitals would continue to be run by the Catholic Church. Union with the Maritime provinces also had the potential to bring the Acadian French minority in those colonies into Canada, boosting the number of French Catholics in Canada.

Given all of the above, a double majority was virtually impossible. And so Canada had 10 changes of government in only 10 years, an unstable situation indeed! On top of that, since the country was either always in the midst of an election, or simply because governments did not stay in power for very long, basically nothing much happened.

Text originally by Matt Russell, WQSB with additions by Caroline Clarke, LBPSB

Review instability of parliament after Act of Union

Editable drawing of leaders of the two conflicting parties pre-Confederation.

Click to view or Click to copy


“With electors casting their votes orally, intimidation and bullying were not uncommon. Dealing with election violence (which claimed at least 20 lives before Confederation) often required the services of the army or police, as in this scene near the Montréal courthouse in February 1860."

Image and text source William Notman, Library and Archives Canada, PA-165422 Source:
Chapitre 1 – L'histoire du vote au Canada.

Parti Rouge

The main opponents to the Catholic Church in Lower Canada were the anti-clerical liberals, who formed the political group known as the Rouges. As a political group the Rouges were liberals, but their ideology was not uniform with some members being more moderate and others more radical.

The radical members of the Rouges were the most anti-clerical. Centred on the Institut Canadien, these men, like Louis-Antoine Dessaulles, were fervently against the Catholic Church and called for the separation of Church and state. They were republicans and admired the United States so much that some even called for the annexation of Canada into the American union!

The Rouge movement in Lower Canada was split in 1858, when 138 members left the Institut Canadien in Montreal. These moderate Rouges sought to advance the liberal cause through politics. Led by Antoine-Aimé Dorion, the Rouge party was the main opponent to the Bleus, which were supported by the Catholic Church, in the 1850s and 1860s. Dorion’s political success in Montreal was due to his moderation and promotion of economic liberalism, which attracted support from the city’s English community. However, the Bleus were a political force in the countryside and the Church actively encouraged people to vote for them, reminding people that “Heaven is blue and hell is red”.

The Dorion-led party found themselves as a minority in the Legislative Assembly. Despite being liberals, they often could not find common cause with the liberals from Upper Canada - the Clear Grit party led by George Brown (except for a short-lived government of 3 days in 1858!). These anglophone liberals advocated “Rep-by-Pop” or Representation by Population, where the number of seats in the assembly would be determined by the number of people who lived in an area. With the growing number of immigrants arriving in Upper Canada from Britain, Dorion felt that French Canada’s political situation would worsen if the Clear Grits got their way. If Rep by Pop were to be granted, the French would then be in the minority, and Dorion and his Rouge party feared that would cause the loss of the French language and culture in Canada.

In 1864, Dorion refused to join the Great Coalition of the Bleus, Clear Grits and Liberal-Conservatives and their plan for a federal union. As politicians like George Brown, John A. Macdonald, and George-Étienne Cartier moved forward, Dorion opposed their project, arguing against Confederation in the assembly and through speeches and articles. Instead, Dorion advocated for a renewal of the union of Upper and Lower Canada that would give more power to the local authorities. In the end, the Confederation project was approved by the Assembly of the Province of Lower Canada. After Confederation in 1867, the Rouges merged with the Clear Grits to form the Liberal Party.

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB.

The Great Coalition

Members of the coalition, according to many sites like Le projet de fédération canadienne (1864-1873) | Alloprof though it may have been taken before. Original at Collections Canada MIKAN 3623445 (1 item)

John A. MacDonald and George Brown came together to form the great Coalition in 1864. The three main political groups were tired of the constant, short-lived governments that the Province of Canada was plagued with. The Clear Grits, Liberal-Conservatives and Bleus joined together to propose a federal union - that is a system of government with a division of power between the national government and provinces. This was seen as the solution to the problem of ministerial instability.

"The political situation had been untenable. In 1864 three leaders managed to put aside their differences and formed a coalition government. John A Macdonald of the Conservatives, George Etienne Cartier of the Bleus and George Brown of the Liberals formed a new government for the purpose of reforming the political system under a federation, with the number of members the assembly determined by representation by population or ‘rep by pop’.

A federation is a system of government where there is a central government, but local governments have their own areas of responsibility. In getting the agreement to try to attempt a federation Brown literally locked his fellow politicians in a room and refused to let them out without reaching a compromise. While they agreed to create the Great Coalition and work together, there were still significant disagreements between the leaders. Brown favored a federation of just Upper and Lower Canada where his Liberals could control the local government of Upper Canada, while Macdonald envisioned a federation involving other British North American colonies like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island."

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB

Economic Factors

There were a number of other economic factors that led to Confederation as well. Previously the Reciprocity Treaty had allowed free trade from 1854-1866 between the United States and the British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Its end helped pushed the colonies towards Confederation. That trade agreement, which eliminated the import tariff of Canadian raw materials and agricultural products to the United States, had benefited Canada whose exports increased. In exchange, the Americans received access to Canadian fisheries. However, the treaty was ended in 1866 by the United States, due to ill feelings over British support for the South in the American Civil War. Farmers from the Province of Canada thus had to look for a new market for their goods.

Another economic factor that led to Confederation was a proposal to create a better railway link between Halifax and Montreal. Supporters of Confederation wanted a transcolonial railway, which they argued would bring about economic benefits by allowing manufactured and agricultural goods to be more easily exported from the Province of Canada, since they could pass through the Port of Halifax in Nova Scotia, which did not freeze over in the winter. Also, though Upper and Lower Canada had a railway system that was linked together well, the railway system in the Maritimes was underdeveloped and not well linked. If a new and more internal market was to succeed, a transcolonial railway project was needed to provide better connections between the various railway systems.

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB

The Intercolonial Railway Policy. A-brydge-ment of a speech recently delivered at Halifax. McCord Museum. Public Domain

Image Source: Cropped version of Canada. Build Your Nest in Western Canada. Poster promoting Western Canada to immigrants. Flickr user BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives. Licence: /by/2.0/

Expansion to the west for land was required

Canadians in both the East (Québec) and West (Ontario) knew that they were running out of arable land. At some point, they knew more land would be required for new settlers from places like England, Scotland and Ireland. "Many newcomers cleared the forests, cut lumber and worked the rich farmland of the area until settlement was pushing up against the boundaries of the rocky Precambrian Shield. As the best farmland was claimed, ongoing population expansion and continuous demands for land forced people to look further west — to the young Red River colony, the Prairies and beyond."

Similarly, industrial development "industrial development came quickly. Railways were built between Montréal, Toronto and Sarnia, and south into the United States. Shipping canals were expanded." By the 1860s Canada West "generally prospered due to rising population, increasing transportation links and, as of 1854, Reciprocity (or free trade) with the US, which opened up huge, nearby markets for Canadian grain, lumber, fruit, textiles and machinery." Canada West was ready to grow, was in search of new markets, industrialists and workers in search of new opportunities.

Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were still available. The Canadas needed to act quickly though, as the threat of American expansion into these western lands was a pressing possibility!

Text by Paul R, and from source: Foot, Richard. "Canada West". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 26 September 2017, Historica Canada.

The International Situation: Economic and Political Concerns

The Province of Canada’s internal political difficulties were happening in the context of the American Civil War. The war pitted the Confederacy, the eleven southern states who separated in order to preserve the system of slavery and white supremacy, against the Union, or the twenty free states and five border slave-holding states that did not secede.

Canada was not directly involved, but as a part of the British Empire it was threatened by British actions taken against the Union. Britain was officially neutral, but British commercial interests saw them privately backing the South as they relied on the cheap cotton exports from slavery plantations for their textile factories and as a market for British weapons.

The Emancipation Proclamation that officially ended slavery in the United States forced Britain to formally take the side of the Union in 1863. However, the damage had been done. Southern sympathizers had used Canada as a base for spying and smuggling and the large Union army made many Canadians nervous.

The Americans ended the Reciprocity Treaty in 1864, which forced Canadians to consider a way to find new markets for their products.

And finally, the British were reconsidering their military commitments in Canada and began to believe that defending a number of separate, small colonies was too difficult and that a larger united British North America was required.

Text by Matt Russell for LEARN

Civil War Battle, 1861 or after. via Wikipedia. License: CC0 1.0 Public Domain

Image source: The hand of God in Freedom, Emancipation Proclamation. Library of Congress. No known restrictions.

Security and Military Factors

Battle of Ridgeway. Library and Archives Canada/C-18737. Alternative via Stories of Confederation at

There were also security factors that had to be taken into consideration. The British wanted their North American colonies to take more responsibility for their defence. The British no longer wished to pay for the protection of Canada and wanted to withdraw British troops from North America, because of their increased focus in other parts of the Empire. This would require the colonies to combine their military forces to ensure collective security.

In the 1860s there were also fears of American expansion. This was due to large American military forces after the Civil War. The American Congress even proposed to annex Canada and there was a bill that was put forward but was never voted on. Americans were angry that Canada, as a part of the British empire, supported the South during the Civil War. During the war, Confederate agents used Canada as a base to run spy rings and to raid across the border into some northern states like Vermont.

After the war, there were veterans of the Union Army that were Irish nationalists who were known as Fenians. They wanted an independent, Democratic Irish Republic and while some supported an uprising in Ireland others sought to achieve their goals by attacking Canada. The Fenian's who in 1866 even called themselves the Irish Republican Army attacked in New Brunswick and Upper Canada at Niagara which resulted in the Battle of Ridgeway. Although these attacks were repelled by the British Army and Canadian militia, they scared people and convinced many in New Brunswick to join Confederation. The Fenians also crossed the border in Lower Canada in the Eastern Townships area and there were further attacks in Quebec and Manitoba in 1870.

There was no one single cause that led to British Colonies joining Confederation in the mid-1860’s. Instead, there were a number of factors, all working together that helped convince enough people in the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick to join into the new Canadian federation.

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB, + RECITUS

1840-1896 (#6) Causes of Confederation

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