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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
November 2004

Quebec and the Confederation project (1864-1867)

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

The extent of support in Quebec for the Confederation project is a matter of conjecture and debate. What is certain is that the drive toward Confederation did not primarily come from Quebec. If Confederation was done, it was because there was great dissatisfaction in Ontario with the way the Union, created in 1840, functioned by the 1860's. As well, there was a great deal of sectional discontent from a variety of issues and it appeared difficult, if not impossible, to bring about appropriate solutions within the legal framework created by the Union Act. By and large, what Quebec attempted to do in the Confederation period was to salvage the best situation possible in a process the province did not initiate or control.

Confederation was never as enthusiastically embraced in Quebec as it evidently was in Ontario. The old Union of 1840-1841 had been transformed from an instrument of assimilation and oppression of French Canadians into a partnership where Quebec and Ontario shared equally power on the principle of duality. Since, by Confederation, Quebec only had about 40% of the population of the United Province of Canada, to share equally in the government put it in an advantageous position. This was so much so that it was Upper Canada that now complained about the Union and its most important political leader of the time, George Brown, claimed that the province had become ‘French dominated’. While Brown’s comment disclose an intolerant attitude,  to most Upper Canadians it contained a good deal of truth and they wished something to be done about it. Their great solution to this problem was to propose Representation according to Population. Had this proposal been implemented, it would have made it possible to form a government with only political support from Upper Canada and, consequently, put George Brown in power. Such a prospect could not be accepted in Quebec as it would endanger all the cultural gains its people had made in the union since 1848. Simply put, to have accepted Rep. by Pop. would have put the cultural survival of Quebec on the line and, ever since the 1840's, cultural survival was the central question, the existential question, in Quebec.

However, while there were deep problems in the Union, and no agreement as to the solutions that should be applied, one should not forget that Quebecers felt culturally secure, shared equally power and, thus, wielded a good deal of influence in the old Union. On the surface, Confederation would seem to have the effect of making Quebec’s position weaker as the province would now become one partner out of four (instead of one out of two), would constitute only 30% of the population of the new country (instead of 40%), there would be no requirement for dual prime ministership (governments such as Lafontaine-Baldwin or Macdonald-Cartier) and Quebec would have to concede Representation according to Population to Ontario as this province demanded it as a condition for support of Confederation.

It is the realization of all of these possible losses that made many Quebecers hesitate about Confederation and generated quite a bit of apprehension and opposition. When the vote was taken in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada on the Confederation project, about 40% of the members from Quebec voted against it. Nearly half of the newspapers of the province were opposed to Confederation. This not only reflects the great reluctance of Quebecers for Confederation but also supports the idea that the majority rallied behind Confederation, albeit without enthusiasm.

What brought Quebec to support Confederation?

Five main reasons explain why the majority in Quebec eventually supported Confederation:

  • Political realism: Even the most reluctant Quebecer must have realized by 1864 that the United Province of Canada had become ungovernable. Sectionalism was a constant problem (what language to use? How much confessionalism should there be in schools? Should we resort to conscription to protect our territory against the threat of the United States? Where should the capital be? Does each section have a fair share of the civil service and of government expenditures?), the Province was embroiled in a hopeless political deadlock, it was impossible to establish a government that lasted any significant amount of time (we count thirteen governments in a period of eight years at some point), and Rep by Pop was unacceptable in the context of the Union. This state of affairs could not continue indefinitely and, if it remained unresolved by the lack of agreement between Upper and Lower Canada, it was feared that Britain would intervene to resolve the problems. If England intervened, as had been done in 1840-41, it was evident that the solution it would impose might not be favourable to Quebec. Political wisdom, common sense, dictated that Quebecers cooperate in making changes and attempt, in the process, to safeguard vital interests.
  • The support of powerful elites: Political realism was especially displayed by the power elites of the time (political, economical and clerical). They understood the problems outlined above and they wished to apply pragmatic solutions. The period of Confederation was not yet a particularly democratic time, as we would understand or apply democracy today, but one where elites considered issues and made the necessary accommodations. And when the elites agreed, and made the accommodations, the people were expected to follow; they were rarely consulted and their views mattered very little unless the elites disagreed. There is no doubt that Confederation was going to be good for business, that the political elites of French Canada (people like George Etienne Cartier) thought that Confederation would impact positively on the survival of French Canada and on their own career and, thus, should be supported. The Roman Catholic Church was always prepared to support the established authorities; in fact, by creating a province of Quebec it is likely that the power and the prestige of the Church would be enhanced. We should not be surprised that the people wished to follow (and their support was not absolutely required in any case!). The Rouges of Quebec (a radical, nationalist, anticlerical party that opposed Confederation) demanded that a referendum be held on the question of Confederation but, typically, the authorities refused to do so in part because they feared the result of such a move, but, mostly, because the idea of letting the ‘people’ decide was foreign to their conception of how public policy should be decided. That the people did not need to be involved certainly simplified the process.
  • The lack of viable alternatives: In any case, if Confederation was not done, what else could be done? In reality, while there appeared to be several other possibilities to resolve the problems of the Confederation period, alternatives were actually very limited. Quebec could have conceded Rep by Pop to Ontario in the Union, it could have annexed itself to the United States, it could have become independent and a different political system (legislative union or Confederation) could have been done. However, for one reason or another, none of these were viable alternatives. In the end, as the Courrier du Canada was to put it to its readers in 1864, Confederation should be supported because it was ‘la moins mauvaise des choses dans un monde fort mauvais’ (the least harmful of a set of poor solutions). While this opinion does not disclose a particularly positive view of the Confederation project, it does highlight that the choices were very narrow and that politics is frequently merely the art of the possible...
  • The nature of federalism: Yet, there is no denying that in the end very positive arguments could be made in favour of Confederation. Aside from enhancing the defence of the country against a possible takeover by the United States and creating conditions to generate greater prosperity by creating a sort of Canadian common market - arguments that were universally supported by the champions of Confederation everywhere in Canada - in Quebec the main argument in favour of Confederation concentrated on the nature of the federal system. Indeed, if a federal system was created, it was primarily because it was the only way to sell the idea of constitutional reform in Quebec. The federal system, by creating two levels of government each endowed with elements of sovereignty, permits different people to pool  in the central government such elements over which they have broad agreement, and potentially draw great benefits from such a union, at the same time as they continue to retain absolute control over all of the things (particularly social and cultural ones) that distinguish them and that they wish to continue to control through their provincial government. The federal system cannot be understood, and the support of Quebec for it at the time of Confederation cannot be grasped, unless one remembers that its net effect is to recognize and guarantee local interests and differences. Quebec, as the only French Catholic entity in North America, needed to protect its distinctiveness, especially at a time when tolerance had not, as yet, emerged as a cardinal virtue in Canada. Thus, in Quebec, in 1867, the massive pro-Confederation argument rested not so much on the idea of union with others, a prospect that highlighted the minority position of Quebec and potentially frightened its people, but, rather, that the federal system would recreate an autonomous province of Quebec, in the hands of French Canadians, and with a Legislature that would take care of  all of the subjects so important for the survival of the people of Quebec as a separate entity in North America. While the principle of union was the biggest selling point in Ontario, provincial autonomy was instead stressed in Quebec. It is nearly as if the project was presented to its people not as creating a single country but rather a new and rather independent Quebec. Under these conditions, Confederation seemed to make an important contribution to la survivance and the majority likely felt that it deserved support.
  • Special status for Quebec: Lastly, it was important for the Fathers of Confederation to safeguard in the constitution what the people considered to be the characteristics of Quebec that were essential to cultural survival. Most of these centered around the faith, the language and the legal institutions that defined the culture of the majority of the people of Quebec. Consequently, a number of clauses were written into the constitution to deal with the special character of Quebec. To the extent that these were satisfactory in dealing with important issues in the province, the people were prepared to support the new political system. For further development on this issue, consult the article on Quebec, the Constitution and Special Status.

Sources: A good deal of primary source material is available on the web to study the confederation discussions that took place in Quebec between 1864 and 1867. This literature reflects well the uncertainty surrounding the Confederation process in Quebec. Among the most useful sources are: Joseph CAUCHON, L'union des provinces de l'Amérique britannique du Nord, Québec, A. Côté, 1865, 153p. Joseph CAUCHON, Étude sur l'union projetée des provinces britanniques de l'Amérique du Nord, (extraits du Journal de Québec) Québec, Augustin Côté, 1858, 36p. Joseph CAUCHON, The Union of the Provinces of British North America, Quebec, Hunter & Rose, 1865, 159p. Discours sur la Confédération prononcés par C.S. Cherrier, Charles Laberge et G. E. Clerck, Montréal, Lanctot & Bouthillier & Thompson, 1865, 23p. (these three speakers were opposed to Confederation); Réponses aux censeurs de la Confédération, St. Hyacinthe, Imprimerie du Courrier de St. Hyacinthe, 1867, 100p. Antoine-Aimé DORION et Alphonse LUSIGNAN, La Confédération couronnement de dix années de mauvaise administration, Montréal, Presses du journal Le Pays, 1867, 50p. A. T. GALT, Speech on the Proposed Union of the British North American Provinces Delivered at Sherbrooke, (reprinted from the Montreal Gazette), Montreal, Longmore & Co., 1864, 24p. H. G. JOLY, Discours de Mr. H. G. Joly sur la Confédération (prononcé en Chambre le 20 février 1865), Québec, Darveau, 1865, 53p. Thomas D'Arcy McGEE, Two Speeches on the Union of the Provinces, Quebec, Hunter & Rose, 1865, 34p. Thomas D'Arcy McGEE, Speeches and Addresses Chiefly on the Subject of British American Union, London, Chapman and Hall, 1865, 148p. Part 2 of Speeches by McGee, 167p. Joseph-Alfred MOUSSEAU, Contre-poison. La Confédération, c'est le salut du Bas-Canada. Il faut se méfier des ennemis de la Confédération, Montréal, Senécal, 1867, 71p. Joseph-Charles TACHÉ, Des provinces de l'Amérique du Nord et d'une union fédérale, Québec, J. T. Brousseau, 1858, 237p.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College