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

In the 1850’s and 1860’s there were a number of factors 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.

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. There was an unwritten rule in the Assembly that 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, 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.

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB

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 Institute Canadien in Montreal. These moderate Rouges sought to advance the liberal cause through politics. Led by Antoine-Aimé Dorion, the Rouge party were the main opponents to the Catholic Church-supported Bleus in the 1850’s and 1860’s. 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.

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

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.

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB

Economic Factors

There were a number of other factors that led to Confederation as well. Economic factors, like the end of the reciprocity treaty between the United States and the British North American colonies which included New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, that was in effect from 1854-1866 helped push the colonies towards Confederation. This trade agreement, which eliminated the import tariff of Canadian raw materials and agricultural products to the United States benefited Canada as exports increased. In exchange, the Americans received access to Canadian fisheries. 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 railway link between Halifax and Montreal. Supporters of Confederation wanted the transcolonial railway to bring about economic benefits by having manufactured and agricultural goods to be shipped from the Province of Canada to the port of Halifax in Nova Scotia which did not freeze over in the winter.

Text by Matt Russell, WQSB

Security Factors

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 their 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 1860’s 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

This page is under construction.

We are working on activity suggestions and adding other texts and introductory resources.

For now, you can also browse our larger curated document collection, strategies, and other resources below

1840-1896 (#6) Causes of Confederation

Teachers, our larger curation of documents, which may include some teaching suggestions, is available here ➦.