John A. Macdonald, Confederation, and the Canadian West

by Donald Creighton

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 23, 1966-67 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Today, January 11, 1967, is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald; the centenary of Confederation is less than six months away; and in only three years from now the Province of Manitoba will be a hundred years old. It is appropriate for students of history to re-examine these major events of the past; and it is particularly important to do so at the present moment, for we are now confronted by a radically new interpretation of their meaning. Historians, of course, are always busy revising and modifying the accepted historical record; but I am not thinking of such minor changes in detail or emphasis.

The version of Confederation which has become current during the past few years is much more than this. It amounts, in fact, to a new theory of Canadian federalism, a theory which rests on the basic assumption that ethnic and cultural values are and ought to be recognized as fundamental in the life of the Canadian nation. The real essence of the Canadian federal union is thus the cultural duality of Canada. And Confederation becomes a compact between two cultures, two nations, English and French.

This interpretation, I have already suggested, is fairly new. The point deserves to be emphasized. In fact, the new version has been given expression mainly during the last six or, at most, the last ten years. Its increasing popularity among historians, writers, and journalists may, of course, be attributed in part to the interest in Canadian federalism which has been growing steadily as the centenary of Confederation approached. But though the centennial would naturally have revived an interest in Confederation, it would not necessarily have inspired a radical new interpretation of it. The real origins of the new theory are political; they lie in the rapid rise of French-Canadian nationalism which has come about since Jean Lesage in 1960 assumed power in Quebec. For the last half-dozen years a group of politicians, lawyers, historians and journalists, mainly French-Canadian but with some English-Canadian associates, have been disseminating a radically new view of Confederation and of French Canada's place in it. Their aims are varied and in some degree contradictory. On the one hand they have tried to improve the status and enlarge the rights of French Canadians in the nation as a whole; on the other, they have sought to emphasize the separateness and strengthen the autonomy of the Province of Quebec. At one and the same time they seem to believe in a bilingual, bicultural but united Canada, and a virtually independent Quebec, which, if it decides to remain in confederation at all, will have to be given a "special position" and may even become an "associate state".

Obviously, the realization of either or both these aims would mean a revolution in the present structure of Confederation. But Confederation, embodied in the law and custom of the constitution, is an inheritance from the past; and inevitably therefore, the French-Canadian nationalists and their English-Canadian associates have had to cope with the intractable problem of history. Like everybody who desires social and political change, or is merely interested in its possibility, they had to make up their minds about the past. Revolutionaries have realized this necessity long ago and they have evolved two different, and indeed quite contradictory methods of coming to terms with history. The "quiet revolutionaries" of Quebec appropriated both. The first method is to dismiss the past as irrelevant and meaningless for the present; the second is to identify the past with the revolutionary aims of the present. In other words, history can be rejected as a useless obstacle to the revolutionary programme; or it can be re-interpreted to provide a justification for it.

The case for the dismissal of the past is not our business tonight. But the historical re-interpretation of Confederation which the Quebec nationalists have been so persistently offering for the last six years is certainly worth examining. This is an historical society and I am an historian; and we are - or should be - interested in the use, or misuse, of history. Revolutionary re-interpretations of the past usually have a purpose. In this case, the object of the "quiet revolutionaries" was to back up a political programme with a new theory of federalism. The old view of confederation as a political union of several provinces must be broken down and discredited; and the conception of Canada as a cultural duality, as a partnership of two different cultures or "nations", must be established in its place. The fiction of duality was to be substituted for the fact of plurality. The true meaning of confederation, the French-Canadian nationalists argued, has been misunderstood and its essential spirit forgotten. Only on the surface can it be regarded as an agreement among several provinces; in reality it was a compact between the two cultures, the two nations, English and French, of Canada.

There is very little aid or comfort for the believers of this theory in what we know of the aims and intentions of the Fathers of Confederation. There is no support for it at all in the lean, spare phrases of the Quebec resolutions or the British North America Act. It is obvious that the last thing the Fathers of Confederation wanted to do was to perpetuate duality; they hoped, through confederation, to escape from it forever. They had seen enough, and more than enough, of duality in the old province of Canada. There it had paralyzed governments and prevented progress for a quarter of a century. The new Dominion of Canada was to be organized, as the arrangements for the Senate make quite clear, not as a duality but as a triumvirate of three divisions: Quebec, Ontario, and Atlantic provinces as a group. The distinctive cultural features of French Canada - its language, civil code, and educational system - were confirmed in those parts of Canada in which they had already become established by law or custom. But that was all. They were not extended in their application to Ontario or to the Maritime provinces. There was nothing in the Quebec Resolutions or the British North America Act which remotely approached a general declaration of principle that Canada was to be a bilingual or bicultural nation.

The evidence against the two-nation theory of Confederation is so overwhelming that some of its advocates have been driven back upon a secondary line of defence. The bicultural compact, they admit, was only a "tacit" or "implicit" agreement, or a "moral" commitment, when the British North America Act was framed. But later, when Canada expanded westward and the Hudson's Bay Company territories were taken over, the Fathers of Confederation honoured the moral commitments and took care to provide that the new western domain should become the joint possession, on equal terms, of both English and French-speaking Canadians. The first Conservative government after confederation established Separate Schools and gave legal status to the French language in Manitoba. The first Liberal government after confederation did exactly the same for the North-West Territories. It was a basic national policy, deliberately adopted, carefully carried out, concurred in by both parties.

This, in short, is the theory of confederation as a bicultural compact applied to Manitoba and the North-West Territories. What is its truth when tested by the actual events of the time? This is the problem which I should like to examine with you tonight.

John A. Macdonald was above everything else a nation builder. The union of the original British North American colonies was the first of his two greatest achievements; the expansion and integration of the new Dominion on a continental scale was the second. He was an expansionist; but he was also a realist. His purpose was to ensure that Canada would not be despoiled of her great territorial inheritance on the North American continent; he was absolutely determined that, as he himself put it, "the United States should not get behind us by right or by force and intercept the route to the Pacific". In his mind there was no doubt about Canada's ultimate destiny; but at the same time he was equally convinced that Canada should assume its great heritage slowly and prudently, a step at a time, by one firm stage after another. Even as late as March, 1865 he would have preferred to see Rupert's Land and the North-West Territories remain a crown colony under imperial control. He soon realized, however, that the march of events could not be so deliberate as he had hoped. Great Britain's urge to withdraw from her North American commitments, the British government's desire that Canada should take over its responsibilities in the northwest, and the threat of American northward expansion all helped to convince him that there could be no more delay. In the spring of 1869 the bargain with the Hudson's Bay Company was finally concluded and Canada prepared to assume the assets and liabilities of its new western Dominion.

At this point it should be emphasized that Macdonald was still trying to hold fast, as far as he was able, to his original policy respecting the North-West. He had been compelled, far earlier than he had wanted to, to assume responsibility for Rupert's Land and the Territories; but he knew very well that the problem of their government and future development was a difficult one and he had no intention of risking a hasty solution to it. The bill which he introduced in the Canadian House of Commons late in May, 1869 was characteristically entitled "For the Temporary Government of Rupert's Land". It deserves far more attention than it has yet received. It is the only document that embodies the Conservative cabinet's original policy respecting the north-west; it expresses Macdonald's original intentions, his first tentative provisional plans. And it is obvious from its few brief clauses that he was trying to keep as closely as possible to the idea of a Crown colony, the idea which he had proposed as little as four years before. The NorthWest was to be governed, not as a province but as a territory, by a lieutenant-governor and a small nominated council. The existing laws were to continue until altered; the public officers were to retain their posts until it was ordered otherwise. Nothing was to be changed in a hurry. Nothing new was to be introduced at once. There was no mention of either schools or languages.

Now it is usually assumed that this whole provincial plan of government was invalidated by the Red River Rising of 1869-70. It is also usually taken for granted - even less justifiably, it seems to me - that the Manitoba Act of 1870 was the only natural result, the logical and inevitable constitutional consequence of the rising. Both those assumptions, I am convinced, badly need a critical examination; and the examination ought to begin by making a clear distinction between the Red River community on the one hand and the military dictatorship of Louis Riel on the other. There is no doubt whatever about the kind of government which the Red River community would have liked to see established in the north-west. Their wishes were democratically determined in the debates of the Convention which met at Fort Garry in mid-winter 1870; and the results were embodied in the resolutions of the second "List of Rights". If this second list - the one document in which the constitutional preferences of the whole Red River community are faithfully recorded - had formed the basis of the negotiations at Ottawa, the Manitoba Act of 1870 would have been a very different statute. The Convention, against the opposition and to the intense indignation of Riel, decided against provincial status, at least for the time being. It requested equality for the English and French languages in the legislature and the courts; but it made no mention of separate or confessional schools. If the wishes of the Convention and the terms of the second "List of Rights" had been followed in drafting the Manitoba Act, there would have been no very serious departure from Macdonald's Act for the Temporary Government of Rupert's Land of the previous year.

But this moderate and sensible constitutional settlement was not to be. Riel was determined to prevent it. An adroit and ruthless dictator, he had no intention of permitting democracy to have its own way at Red River. His terms for the union with Canada had been openly and emphatically rejected by the Convention; but at the same time, as a final reluctant concession in the interest of political conciliation in the Settlement, the Convention had confirmed the provisional government and elected Riel as its president. At once and with purposeful energy he took over control of the negotiations with Canada. He quickly nominated Ritchot and Alfred Scott, who, he felt confident, would support his own private plans for the future of the north-west; and he persuaded the reluctant Convention to accept them as two of the three emissaries to the Canadian government. He then proceeded to make short work of the Convention's "List of Rights". The wishes of the Red River community, where they differed from his claims for his own people, the Métis, meant nothing whatever to him. In two quite new and increasingly detailed "Lists of Rights", drawn up in private by Riel and his lay and clerical advisers, the delegates sent to Ottawa were instructed to insist that the North-West should enter Confederation, not as a Territory, but as a Province. It must have, they demanded, an elaborate provincial constitution with an absurdly top-heavy bi-cameral legislature, including a little senate on the model of Quebec. It must also have a system of sectarian or confessional schools, again on the Quebec model. This, if you like, was a demand that biculturalism should prevail on the prairies and that French and English institutions should be combined in the government of the north-west; but it was neither a demand that was made by the community at Red River nor a plan proposed by the government of Ottawa. It was a claim exacted by Riel's dictatorship.

Why did Macdonald accept it? Why did he consent to impose such an elaborate constitution upon such an immature colony? How was he persuaded to settle all the basic institutions of a community which had not yet had time to develop its real and permanent character? The answers to these questions can never be absolutely certain, for the conclusive evidence is lacking; but the probabilities at all events are very clear. The pressures in favour of a quick settlement in the northwest were inescapable and compelling. Macdonald's foremost aim was to ensure, at almost any cost, Canada's continental destiny, her unobstructed expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. His greatest fear was that the United States, by deliberate policy or tragic accident, might prevent the achievement of these natural limits. He knew only too well that the acrimonious disputes which had arisen between Great Britain and the United States during the American Civil War had not yet been settled. There was evidence that both President Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish were annexationists, prepared to use any method short of war to acquire all or part of British America. And finally it was clear from the beginning, that the American expansionists at St. Paul, Minnesota - the "Yankee Wirepullers", Macdonald called them - were eager to exploit the rising at Red River, and that American citizens in the settlement were deep in Riel's councils. So long as the provisional government continued, so long as the future of the British American north-west remained uncertain and confederation was still incomplete, the threat of American intervention hung over Canada's future.

A quick settlement was urgently necessary. And its character by this time was fixed and virtually unalterable. Appeasement on any terms meant in fact appeasement on the terms demanded by the fanatical emissaries from Red River, backed up by Cartier and his French Canadian "Bleu" followers, and supported by Sir Clinton Murdoch of the British Colonial Office. It is true, of course, that the Canadian government refused to yield to Riel's vainglorious and incredible demand that the entire North-West enter Confederation as a single province; and it is also true that the request for provincial control of public lands was likewise rejected. Macdonald could limit boundaries and withhold lands, but within the restricted area of the new Province of Manitoba he had to accept a bilingual and bicultural system of rights and institutions. "The French", Sir Stafford North cote observed, "are earnestly bent upon the establishment of a French and Catholic power in the North-West to counteract the great preponderance of Ontario". Their purpose was to fix the character and institutions of the new province at a time when French-speaking Roman Catholics formed a large part of its population, and therefore at the most favourable moment for preparing defences against the approaching influx of Protestant, English-speaking settlers.

The Manitoba Act did not represent the carrying-out of a solemn commitment to biculturalism which had been made at Confederation. It was not drafted in fulfilment of an ideal conception of what Canada should be; it was, to a very large extent, imposed simply by the force of circumstance. In 1869-70 a particular set of circumstances, including some very frightening external circumstances, had practically dictated a hasty policy of appeasement. But these circumstances were exceptional and transitory; they did not reappear in quite the same powerful constitution; and as a result the main argument in favour of biculturalism lost most of its force. This would not have mattered, of course, if the Fathers of Confederation had really felt morally committed to the ideal of a bilingual and bicultural Canada, to the conception of two nations in the Canadian national state. But the simple truth is that they did not. The French language and French-Canadian institutions had not been given legal status in any province of the original union outside Quebec; and no attempt had been made to establish the equality of the two cultures in any of the provinces that entered Confederation after Manitoba. The Manitoba Act did not lay down a national bicultural pattern which was solemnly confirmed and carefully followed thereafter. When British Columbia and Prince Edward Island joined the union, nobody so much as mentioned the great moral commitment to biculturalism.

The exception to this consistent record is, of course, the North-West Territories. And it is a very dubious exception which effectively proves the rule. It was not until the session of 1875, nearly five years after this passage of the Manitoba Act, that the Parliament of Canada finally got around to setting up a system of organized government in the western territory beyond the new province of Manitoba. The main feature of the North-West Territories bill, which the new Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie introduced in the Commons, was a rather complicated set of clauses providing for the gradual introduction of elected members in the North-West Council as the population of the region increased. The bill contained no reference to separate or confessional schools, and no provision for the French language. If this silence could have been made to appear as a betrayal of a recognized bicultural compact, it is obvious that the Conservative opposition, in which several of the Fathers of Confederation were sitting, would have been quick to grasp the opportunity of so doing. But the Conservative member sat silent. And it was left to Edward Blake, who was not a Father of Confederation and knew nothing whatever at first hand of its purposes or principles, to move, in amendment, that separate or confessional schools should be established in the territories.

Why did Blake take up the cause of what he called "religious instruction" in the north-west? On the record, there was no reason to expect him to show any particular sympathy for the Roman Catholic Metis of the prairies; on the contrary, he was thought to share the critical views of Canada First and its representatives at Red River, Mair and Schultz. In 1871, when he had been leader of the opposition in the Ontario legislature, Blake had moved a resolution demanding that the "murderer" Riel should be brought to justice; and in the following year, after he had formed the first Liberal government in Ontario, he introduced a similar resolution offering a five thousand dollar reward for the arrest and conviction of the "murderers" of Thomas Scott. Undoubtedly he had gained a good deal of political capital from these astute moves; and political capital may well have been what he was after in the session of 1875. He was not a member of Mackenzie's government; he had been angling deviously for Mackenzie's post as Prime Minister; he was critical of Mackenzie's policies and determined to block his railway bill; and he was embarrassing him at every turn.

It was in this curious way, and with this unexpected sponsorship, that separate schools found their way into the North-West Territories Act of 1875. The grant of legal status to the French language, which was made when the statute was amended in 1877, came about in an even stranger and more accidental fashion. It was not a government amendment at all; it was proposed by a private member in the Senate. And the speech with which David Mills, the Minister of the Interior, greeted this amendment when it was brought down to the Commons effectively destroys the odd notion that the promotion of biculturalism on the prairies was the settled policy of Liberal as well as Conservative governments. Mills reminded the members that the dominant language of the region was Cree; he thought the North-West council was the only body that could properly settle the question of official languages. He regretted the Senate amendment; and he reluctantly accepted it because otherwise it would be impossible to get the revised statute through Parliament before the end of the session.

We are now in a position, it seems to me, to come to certain conclusions. The bicultural compact theory of Confederation as applied to Manitoba and the North-West Territories cannot be sustained. The idea of a solemn commitment to biculturalism, accepted in principle and deliberately implemented by both parties, is simply not borne out by the facts. The west did not get its institutions in accordance with the provisions of some long-range plan; on the contrary, the process was characterized throughout by accident and improvisation. The pressure of circumstances, the influence of certain powerful political interests, and the ambition of a few key personalities, all combined to force a series of hasty and ill-considered decisions; and the result was the abandonment of Macdonald's plan for the gradual development of government in the North-West and the premature establishment of an elaborate and cumbrous constitution. This attempt to fix the political institutions of the west before immigration and the growth of population had determined its true and permanent character was a mistake for which the whole of Canada paid dearly. By 1890 - only twenty years after the Manitoba Act and fifteen years after the North-West Territories Act - the west had outgrown the inappropriate constitution that had been imposed upon it. It began suddenly and uncompromisingly to change the status of the French language and the character of its schools. The violent controversy that followed lasted for more than a quarter of a century; and it ended in the virtual extinction of biculturalism in the Canadian west.

This is an episode in our history which should not be forgotten. We should all remember it when we come to read the forthcoming report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission may possibly recommend constitutional changes designed to improve the position of the French language and of French-Canadian culture throughout the nation, including the west. These proposals should be judged critically in the light of history; and with the aid of the same clear light, westerners should examine the historical theory by which these proposals will probably be justified. The idea of a bicultural compact, of the two-nation state, has got much of its currency and its vogue during a period of profound revolution in Quebec; and this very fact ought to make it suspect. New historical interpretations which make their appearance in revolutionary times are usually the result, not of the search for truth, but of the need for historical justification. They are invented - or partly invented - to supply historical authority for a program of radical changes. Canadians on the whole are badly equipped to protect themselves against this kind of propaganda. For they are not as historically minded as the English, and, unlike the Americans, they have not been brought up in a thorough knowledge of their own history. They cling to old myths, and are easily sold new and spurious inventions. It would be a tragedy if, at this most critical period of their history, they were led to damage their future irretrievably through a serious misunderstanding of their past.

Page revised: 22 May 2010