|The opponents of the political unification of the British colonies of North America wanted an economic development based along the North-South axis rather than along the East-West axis.|
The people never consulted, Quebec representatives divided
150 years ago, on March 10, 1865, an important vote was held at the Parliament of United Canada. The 124 members of parliament voted on a motion giving support to the Quebec Resolutions. Written at the Quebec Conference in the fall of 1864, they requested that the imperial capital proceed with the political unification of the colonies of British North America.
The vote resulted in 91 MPs voting in favor and 33 voting against. In Ontario, 54 MPs voted in favor, while only 8 voted against. In Quebec, 37 MPs voted favorably and 25 voted against. Of these opponents in Quebec, there were Reds, Violets (moderate liberals) and Blues. Ten Reds voted against; eleven of the seventeen Violet members also; and four of the thirty-five Blue MPs.
Across all colors, the opponents represented ridings connected to US commercial trading routes. They came mainly from the Greater Montreal, Montérégie, Eastern Townships, Bois-Francs and Beauce regions. Many of them came from towns or villages on or near the border. Their constituents wanted an economic development based on north-south rather than east-west trade.
Basically, we can say that the vast majority of MPs from the ridings north of Yamachiche voted for Confederation in 1865. On this national issue, French Quebec was torn in two: Upper Quebec, Northern Yamachiche, was conservative; Lower Quebec was republican.
Opposition movements were organized in three of the founding provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Yet the founding fathers refused to consult the people. "At the bottom of the abyss stands democracy" declared George-Étienne Cartier, while for John A. Macdonald, "an election is a civil disorder."
Canadian historiography is little more respectful of the views of the opponents. It sees them as troublemakers, traitors and paranoid. Yet their arguments were sensible. The Quebec opponents made three types of arguments. Politically, they noted a decline in the quality of democracy. Several resolutions were criticized: the abolition of the elective principle for the Upper House; the monarchical character of the regime; weak provincial governments; the right of disavowal granted to the Crown.
Culturally, English and French opponents were divided about the guarantees promised by the resolutions. The English were worried that the new provincial government might interfere with the rights of the Anglo-Protestant minority; the French feared that the federal union might bring about the decline of the French-Canadian nationality. Beyond this disagreement, they agreed on this: the constitutional guarantees were vague. Domestic quarrels, far from fading, would be exacerbated with the birth of the new regime.
Economically, the opponents challenged the need to raise a standing army and build an Inter-colonial Railway, since the military threat was bogus. These public expenditures would create an endless spiral of public debt. And this astronomical public debt would require large increases in taxes and thus impoverish the working classes.
The Grand Trunk
Incidentally, the very birth of the Great Coalition occurred in suspicious circumstances. If George Brown's wife was the "mother of Confederation" as the historian J.M.S. Careless wrote, in the eyes of the opponents of Confederation in Quebec there was also a "Godfather" in the Mafia sense. And it was the Grand Trunk railroad. Thanks to its resources, this Godfather was able to constantly widen the circle of the family, by buying off the most recalcitrant.
This interpretation proposed by opponents is not far-fetched, although it was associated with a "paranoid style of thinking" by historians. The impetus for the Great Coalition had indeed come from London's financial community. They became very nervous, in 1862, with the coming to power of a government led by the Reformer John Sandfield Macdonald and the Violet Louis-Victor Sicotte who wanted to free United Canada from the tutelage of British financiers, advocating an "economic decolonization", i.e. stop stuffing the coffers of the Grand Trunk; reduce borrowing from London; control the public debt and balance the budget.
This strategy alarmed the financiers of London. In response to this political and financial uncertainty, they created a lobby group, the British North America Association (BNAA), which actively supported the political unification of British North America and the construction of a railway between Halifax and Quebec.
Before the coming to power of the Macdonald-Sicotte government, the Colonial Office was indifferent and sometimes hostile to the political unification of the colonies. A shift in colonial policy came after the British North America Association had called for a unification of the colonies. With the return to power of the Conservatives in 1864, the conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec were held.
When the contents of the Quebec Resolutions were known in London, the big British financiers reacted positively. The reaction of the City was crucial for the continuation of the project. If the financiers had been hostile, it would have been abandoned, as its implementation depended on financial guarantees.
The British financiers hoped that the unification project would appease the democratic tensions expressed in the colonial parliaments. They advocated the adoption of more stringent criteria to qualify to vote but the founding fathers adopted another way by proposing a highly centralized federal union, important decisions would be pushed to a more remote level of government, the federal level.
The City had initially expressed disappointment on learning of the proposed continuation of the provincial parliaments. But it was reassured upon learning of the division of powers proposed by the Quebec resolutions. It was now clear that the provinces would be little more than vainglorious municipalities, subject to the will of a powerful central government.
By Stéphane Kelly, Sociologist, professor at the Saint-Jerome CEGEP