Chapter 77: Crossing the Gulf
Chapter 77: Crossing the Gulf
“For twenty long years I have been dragging myself through the dreary waste of Colonial politics. I thought then there was no end, nothing worthy of ambition, but, now I see something which is well worthy of all I have suffered in the cause of my little country. This question has now assumed a position that demands and commands the attention of all the Colonies of British America. There may be obstructions, local difficulties may arise, disputes may occur, local jealousies may intervene, but it matters not – the wheel is now revolving, and we are only the fly on the wheel, we cannot delay it – the union of the colonies of British America, under one sovereign, is a fixed fact.” - John A. Macdonald, a speech to the Colonial delegates at Halifax, October 15th 1863
“By late 1863, the various colonies which made up British North America were being hit hard by the war. In the United Province of Canada, despite some prosperity, the economy was depressed. While military spending, the presence of soldiers, and not inconsiderable investment from foreign sources drove financial engines in Canada East, Canada West was the opposite. Still occupied beyond Toronto, the country was deprived of many men, either serving in the armies, prisoners, or dead. Families had to sustain themselves on what they could, and despite some permission to sell in the United States, deflated food prices in that country meant that Canadian farmers often faced destitution. In those areas where Union control was lax, some trade could be carried out with British authorities, while in many places farmers and tradesmen had to accept almost worthless greenbacks, or nothing at all.
This economic trouble spread to the Canadian provincial government in Quebec. While many could afford finer goods, food prices had doubled from their pre-1862 costs, and in many cases what could be had was being sent to sustain the Army of Canada. As a consequence, civilians suffered from want of many hitherto easily obtainable goods. Coffee, tea, and salt could be had for reasonable prices, but bread and pork could not. It was a conundrum which would lead to much grumbling in places as diverse as Kingston and Montreal.
Similarly, the area occupied by the Union armies had paid almost two thirds of the pre-1862 taxes to the Canadian government, and its loss gutted the Canadian revenue stream. As a result, some higher taxes were levied, and the Canadian government had to beg financing from London to keep men in the field. While many in London would begrudge the expense, they did manage to rationalize the payments to Canada by writing them into the overall war spending…” – Blood and Daring: The War of 1862 and how Canada forged a Nation, Raymond Green, University of Toronto Press, 2002
“…the economic costs in 1863, for such a young nation, were staggering. Millions in tax revenues had been lost, and a provincial legislature which was accruing significant debts could little afford the costs of maintaining a not inconsiderable field force by itself.
Though the costs were largely folded into war spending by the Imperial Government, London did expect that the provinces would adjust to the war with financial sacrifices of their own. The Maritimes and Quebec in particular were drawn heavily upon. The Maritimes did receive some relief as in 1862 – 1863 the number of immigrants ballooned by a factor of four, some 40,000 arriving directly in Halifax, St. Johns, and St. Andrews. Many were drawn by work, especially the work on the roads and the expensive proposition of expanding the railroads north to Tobique and beyond. However, an influx of workers greatly deflated wages, and there were notable grievances in the provincial papers.
Similar economic patterns were noted in Canada East, where 60,000 people landed between 1862 and 1863, with over 200,000 coming through Quebec and Montreal between 1864 and 1871. These earlier years were more chaotic however, as work was not scarce, but wages again fell steadily. Though some of these immigrants did indeed volunteer to take the Queen’s shilling, it was apparent that neither purely patriotic rallying nor the enticement of bounties could bring all manner of people to the ranks.
It was these concerns which helped to drive the Maritime colonies to begin to discuss pooling their resources in August of 1863. From the great port of Halifax to tiny Charlottetown, the Maritimes had been largely spared the brunt of the war, and only those who had volunteered to serve alongside the regulars in New England had truly seen action from Portland to Augusta. Only the New Brunswick militia could claim to be seriously committed, policing the large expanse of territory seized from Maine to free up British regulars in the early months of the war.
It was, like all the ventures, costly however. Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick saw the wisdom in combining their assets to ease the burden of economic hardship and financial competition. Prince Edward Island too hoped to join as even its very small militia contingent was an expense, and the Lt. Governors of each colony believed that together they might accomplish more than they could individually.
Leading the charge was the young and stubborn Lt. Governor of New Brunswick, Arthur Gordon. He had come to the colony in 1861, despite offerings of a far more comfortable and effective posting in Antigua. Arriving he had become enamored with the colony and its natural beauty, but had quickly found fault with its political apparatus. The ruling class were a mix of lumber merchants and parochial politicians who paid the Governor lip service and seemed inclined to ignore him altogether.
Lt. Governor Arthur Gordon of New Brunswick
This changed dramatically as war threatened and then came and the legislature had begun falling over itself to accommodate the Mother Country. Gordon had cheekily written to the Colonial Secretary in late 1862 “whereas the parochial men of power in this Colony had before the crisis ignored and paid me lip service, they now fall on their faces in supplication. True the lumbermen are avarice for the trade, but the business class as a whole seems inclined to speak with me in order to obtain that most sure means of succor, railroad bonds…”
Gordon had become increasingly convinced that the only way forward was unification. In this he had found a willing, if indifferent, ally in the Lt. Governor of Nova Scotia, the Earl of Mulgrave. While Mulgrave was, at best, ill concerned with the future of Nova Scotia, his return to England in the autumn of 1863 to replace his father in the House of Lords saw the rise of a figure with a vested interest taking command of Nova Scotia. Colonel Charles Hastings Doyle.
Doyle had played a part in bringing Nova Scotia, and effectively all the Maritimes, to readiness militarily in 1861 and 1862. As such, he had developed a prompt working relationship with Gordon. The two men had written often, and Doyle himself was often moving between Halifax and Fredericton inspecting his various commands and speaking with the legislatures and Lt. Governor Gordon. The two men had quickly come to agree that the Maritimes united would be more capable of defence than the Maritimes divided.
It was thus decided that the different leaders would meet in Halifax come October 1863…
With the Maritime initiative, it begs the question of how Macdonald was even invited to Halifax in the first place. It was, to some extent, dumb luck. The Lt. Governors of the Maritime provinces had happened to be in Quebec for a conference in September 1863 and Macdonald was speaking with Lord Monck when he discovered the proposed Maritime meeting.
In his fashion, Macdonald set out to “wine and dine” the various Lt. Governors until they felt they had no choice but to include beleaguered Canada in the discussions. Doyle, who also had interests in the railroad, felt obliged to invite those representing its Canadian terminus in Quebec to at least speak on the project's behalf. It was Gordon however, who had the most clout to deliver, and Macdonald spent much time conversing and joking with the man.
Macdonald wasted no time in choosing suitable men to accompany him.
Cartier would of course follow in his footsteps, with him would also be his military secretary Hewitt Bernard. He also brought Thomas D’Arcey McGee, Alexander Tilloch Galt, and Hector Louis Lavengin, Oliver Mowat, among other principle delegates. These men would form the backbone of the Province of Canada delegation. The absence of George Brown, who had stayed behind to help run provincial matters in the absence of the major figures, would lead to some acrimony in the aftermath.
Nova Scotia would place the stately Charles Tupper at the head of their delegation. He would be supported by William Alexander Henry and Adams G. Archibald, among others. Joseph Howe had hoped to take part in the deliberations, but at the time was in London dealing with the ever contentious Intercolonial Railroad to investors, hoping to sway some away from the ongoing St. Andrews Railroad project.
New Brunswick would be represented by Gordon, who simply could not stay away while his dream of a Maritime Union was on the line. In tow were his supporters Samuel Leonard Tilley, John Hamilton Gray, and William Henry Steeves among others, but through Tilley, all would defer to Gordon who, importantly, had London’s ear.
Prince Edward Island had sent a particularly distinguished delegation, with its Lt. Governor, Andrew A. Macdonald leading it, the premier John Hamilton Gray, former (and first premier) George Coles, the legal scholar and journalist William H. Pope, and notably, a man who adamantly opposed the unification Edward Palmer. Cartier would joke “With such a distinguished delegation, who shall govern the island in their absence?”
Distant Newfoundland sent only a single observer, Ambrose Shea. Deeply conservative, and primarily interested in railroad matters, he was there to represent his colony in the matter, but arrived not wholly convinced of the merits of uniting with all of Canada rather than simply the Maritimes.
The delegates for the initial conference gathered at Halifax on October 14. Meeting at Dalhousie College (now Dalhousie University) which was notably free of students, many of whom were instead enrolled in the defences of the colony instead. While many curious Haloginians did hang around, the Conference did little to attract the attention of most, as many were more interested in the war, and much gossip remained on the outcome of the Battle of Sandy Hook, as ships from that battle were still streaming into harbor alongside many wounded crew. For now, the delegates were able to discuss the issue in relative peace. The representatives from Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the Canadas all began to speak about the pressing issues of the day.
Dalhousie College, 1864
For the mainland colonies the most pressing issue was the war. In the Canadas and New Brunswick, the potential of another American invasion remained very real to the men leading the province, and the poor communications between Fredericton and the true might of any British army in North America at Quebec hung deeply on their minds. New Brunswickers were even then holding territory in Maine and giving their lives in skirmishes against Union troops. While there
Nova Scotia found itself in a comfortable position. The potential of a land invasion, so long as the Royal Navy ruled the seas, was remote in the extreme. From the position as a natural harbor on the Atlantic and having port facilities the navy could use, Halifax had grown in importance and population. In just over a year it had grown from barely 50,000 inhabitants to over 55,000. The coal mines of Truro were extremely important to the navy, and the timber and fish were vital in allowing Britain to keep her blockade. Tens of thousands of pounds sterling had been poured into the province, and many men had become rich. The only blight on Nova Scotia’s trajectory to importance was that, unlike the railroad being cobbled together in New Brunswick to reach Quebec, Nova Scotia could not easily send goods and military material overland. That, as much as anything else, was why Nova Scotia was hosting the conference; they could not allow themselves to be left out of any potential railroad negotiations. This was a fact Joseph Howe would later stress at Quebec...
Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland were also at little risk of invasion, and not even remotely connected to the mainland. PEI was concerned with communications, but so long as the Royal Navy reigned supreme, it too had little to worry from the United States. The greatest threat in most Islanders minds were the absentee landlords, the hated “Cunards” who owned, outright, much of the land on the island. Newfoundland was even more remote, and only a few of her sons had volunteered to fight in the war and so was detached from the conflict as a whole. Her greatest grievance was with American raiders occasionally burning fishing vessels of the Grand Banks. Other than that, the larger island was little interested in the affairs of the mainland…
As the conference opened, there was some discussion of what was to be done. Initially, the Maritime delegates floated their proposals of a Maritime Union including the Province of Canada. However, the proposal was poorly thought out and it was later castigated by Macdonald as a “poor man’s customs union” which would have only a single body to discuss internal trade, and one legislative assembly to discuss all other issues. Even in a time of war the Maritimers looked primarily to the Royal Navy for defence.
At the opening of the Conference on the 14th, speeches opened the Conference. It fell to Tupper of Nova Scotia to commence the opening address. In doing so he welcomed “our brothers in arms and loyal subjects of the Queen from Canada,” and lauded the work to be done. He spoke of the potential for ‘a unified nation’ in all of British North America, but was keen to speak of the bounty of the Atlantic, the proximity of the Mother Country, and the benefits of connecting Halifax with "that great bastion of England, Quebec.” He managed to soothe any irritation from the smaller Maritime provinces by speaking glowingly of the advantages to them, but in the main, he seemed more concerned with listing all Nova Scotia had to offer.
Gray spoke next, speaking on behalf of New Brunswickers. He spoke admiringly of the sacrifice of the people of the Canadas, and expressed hope for ‘the speedy unification of our lands by rail and in politics,’ which rankled the Nova Scotian delegates. Gray then spoke of the ‘unrivaled bounty’ to be made from unification, but whether this was from Canada or with Maine, none were entirely sure…
It fell then to Macdonald to make the opening speech on behalf of Canada. On the 15th he began with an impassioned speech, not about abstract notions, but about the need for national unity, and most importantly, the sovereignty of one power. He went to great lengths in his speech in pointing out one of the great evils of the American system to the south which had caused so many problems. Namely “we know that every individual state was an individual sovereignty – that each had its own army and navy and political organization – and when they formed themselves into a confederation they only gave the central authority certain specific powers, reserving to the individual states all the other rights appertaining to sovereign powers.”
Clearly then there was only one answer. He argued “the dangers that have risen from this system we will avoid if we can agree upon forming a strong central government – a great central Legislature – a constitution for a Union which will have all the rights of sovereignty except those that are given to the local governments. Then we shall have taken a great step in advance of the American Republic.”
On the 16th he gave a rousing endorsements of those duties of local governments, however, he was slow to name exactly what those duties were, an issue which would come to haunt him…
He did however, lay out exactly what the issues a Union government would attend to. Chief among them were defence, the posts, and the railroad. Of those three, defence and railroad were the most pressing. He freely admitted that knitting the colonies together by railroad would unite them more firmly than even their ties to the British Crown. In his speeches he addressed the pressing need for a unified defence against the potential future encroachment of the American Republic. Indeed, the two were naturally complimentary, he stressed, and he painted a picture of the government which would do it.
Macdonald inherently distrusted any system with a weak central government. He felt sure that a strong central government was what Canada needed. He laid out a plan which, whether he intended it or not, drew as much influence from the United States as it did Great Britain. There would be two houses, an elected lower house and an appointed upper house. In 1863 he breezed past the nature of the upper house, but drove home his plan for an elected ‘united legislature’ which he wished to establish with a unified representation. Twenty delegates for Canada West, twenty for Canada East, and five for each of the Maritime colonies, whether independent or united. He dazzled them with, if not equal, then proportional representation altogether.
Concluding his whirlwind remarks on the 17th he said “If we can only obtain that object – a vigorous general government – we shall not be New Brunswickers, nor Nova Scotians, nor Canadians, but British Americans, under the sway of the British Sovereign. In discussing the question of colonial union, we must consider what is desirable and practicable; we must consult local prejudices and aspirations. It is our desire to do so. I hope that we will be enabled to work out a constitution that will have a strong central Government, able to offer a powerful resistance to any foe whatever, and at the same time will preserve for each Province its own identity.”
The major matters concluded, the delegates would break on the 18th, and from there a charm offensive led by Cartier would be taken up. It was here the complimentary nature of Macdonald and Cartier would shine, as Macdonald dazzled the delegates with visions of the United British North America, Cartier worked behind the scenes with his smooth words and high energy. Any delegate who appeared to be flagging in support found themselves with a smooth word or a joke to brighten them in their spirits. He would use his ‘rebel’ past as a way to disarm and charm his fellow delegates, and promise them they would not be swamped by the ‘monolith’ of the United Province of Canada.
When the delegates again assembled on the 19th, it was Galt’s turn to go on the offensive. Galt would use his financial acumen to paint a clear picture of a financially sustainable union, one which could afford not only a railroad, but to pay for a ‘well appointed militia to protect hearth and home from the Muskokas to the Bay of Fundy’ which rung well in the ears of both Nova Scotians and New Brunswickers…
By the 21st, the delegation had begun to break up. In the wholesale meeting most had come away convinced of the need for the unity of all the British North American colonies. Gordon himself would realize he needed much to do if he was to make New Brunswick a key player in these negotiations. The delegates from Prince Edward Island came away feeling that they would soon own their lands outright, while the Nova Scotians felt that they had something to gain. Even the aloof Shea came away convinced of this dream of all Britain’s colonies in North America united.
It was decided that the delegates would meet again in six months time at Quebec in April. The time between, it was agreed, would be spent in consultation and correspondence regarding the various needs and concerns of the colonies. Macdonald expected that he would be able to corral and cajole any reluctant members, and he felt that he would be in for an easy ride to a strong central government, and a unified British North America.
What he did not count on was George Brown and Joseph Howe…” - The Road to Confederation, 1863 – 1869 the Formative Years, Queens University Press, Donald Simmonds