How to balance collective economic prosperity with the protection of distinct values, cultures and languages? This was the key challenge faced by the politicians who laid the groundwork for today’s Canada in 1867.
When North America became British with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the Treaty of Paris in 1763, London established separate governments in the six different colonies, each developing over the years at different rates. The fragmented nature of these colonies acted as a barrier to efficient resource development, especially with the emergence of new, faster and more efficient modes of transportation—railroads and steamships—and the growing need to make use of their new potential. Rapid industrialization added to the pressure to form some sort of union.
But there was more: civil war had been raging in the United States since 1861, and rumours were circulating that the American forces, once victorious, could turn their focus northward and capture Canada. They had already tried it in 1775, and again in 1812-1814, but without success.
In 1864, politicians in Ontario, the most populous colony, favoured a legislative union with a single parliament based on London’s Westminster model.
The other colonies strongly opposed it. Quebec, with its francophone, Catholic majority, which had always maintained its French civil law, was afraid of being subsumed by a unilingual English, Protestant majority. The “maritime” colonies, largely dominated by farming and fishing, found themselves marginalized, with priority given to the centre of the country and the benefits resulting from the new union.
These cultural, religious and economic disparities were ultimately reconciled in a bilingual “confederate” union under the British Crown to form a new Canadian nationality based on these many identities. This vision, set out in the Constitution of 1867, has continued for 150 years despite numerous setbacks and challenges.
Serge Joyal, PC, is a senator representing Kennebec, Quebec. He is deputy chair of the Senate committee on Senate modernization and a member of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
This article appeared in the June 1st, 2017 edition of L’Express.