Friday, July 06, 2012

Dubious History Watch: Marsh on Confederation

James Marsh, longtime editor and moving spirit of The Canadian Encyclopedia, periodically contributes erudite and beautifully-turned pieces for the TCE Online blog.  His recent musings for July first are no exception, full of fresh thoughts and quotations I'd never come across before.  But even James nods sometimes:
"After all, confederation had been strictly a political process that took place in the backrooms of Quebec City and Charlottetown, with the colonial politicians being urged on by their distant masters in London."
Those backrooms, someone should say, were filled by large numbers of delegated representatives of the elected provincial legislatures of what was then British North America. The delegates, representing government and opposition parties, met and deliberated for weeks on end from 1864 into 1867. And the results of their key deliberations were taken back to their provincial legislatures, where the elected representatives of the people thereupon debated them once again at great length. The legislatures of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia chose to reject temporarily the project brought to them, and the elected legislatures of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland rejected it for eight and eighty-five years respectively.  Strictly backroom?  Come on.  And as a political process, it offers much to admire. What gives the hackneyed images in the quotation above their staying power?

And: "their distant masters in London"? Again, why does this notion live?  Ged Martin wrote a book called Britain and the Origin of Canadian Confederation to demonstrate in great detail how tenuous and insubstantial the thing called "British influence" actually was. The most constant reality of the confederation process was British governments saying endlessly and again to the Canadian politicians: You make a deal and get it properly endorsed by your legislatures and we will see it passed.  D'Arcy McGee was capable of being swept away by his own oratorical powers, but he was essentially right when he described confederation as a scheme "not suggested by others, or imposed on us, but one the work of ourselves, and of our own free, unbiased, and untrammelled will." 

One small place where some British influence lingered comes up in another part of James's account.  He repeats the story that Canada could not be called "the Kingdom of Canada" because the Americans objected and the Brits gave in to them.  Is there any evidence of such an American complaint being made? I've seen none. A British politician claimed the Americans would be annoyed, but it seems pretty clear it was the British themselves who really disliked the idea of a Canadian kingdom. Many British politicians assumed that confederation meant Canadian independence, and many of them welcomed the prospect.  Why, they thought, should their exalted title of "Kingdom," their uniquely British tradition, be tagged on to the new nation that was launching its own national existence?  

Good thinking, I would say, and wisely taken up by the Canadian delegates, who came up with another designation, which at the time seemed fresh, original, and ambitious.  "Dominion" did not work out so well in the long run, but imagine if we had been stuck with "Kingdom."
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