Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
February 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Quebec Conference [1864]


Quebec Conference, a constitutional convention called on the initiative of the Canadian government to meet at Quebec city on October 10, 1864 , to discuss a plan for a federal union of the British North American provinces. It was attended by thirty-three delegates, later known as the "Fathers of Confederation," representing Canada, the three Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and the colony of Newfoundland. Although each delegation consisted of both Conservatives and Reformers, the complexion of the whole was decidedly Conservative. Canada was represented by its entire coalition cabinet. Each of the Maritime provinces sent a majority of government supporters, including their prime ministers, and a minority from the opposition. Political exigencies made it impossible for Newfoundland to send any member of its executive council.


The negotiations, culminating in this conference had two sources. In the Maritime provinces a desire to improve local economic conditions by the elimination of separate provincial governments had resulted in the convocation at Charlottetown in September, 1864, of a Maritime union conference. In Canada, on the other hand, the necessity of loosening the ties between Upper and Lower Canada resulted in June of that year in the formation of a coalition government whose avowed objective was constitutional reform. The proposed Maritime union conference provided the Canadian government with its cue. At Charlottetown a Canadian deputation so persuasively presented a plan for a general federal union that all three Maritime delegations agreed to post­pone any further consideration of their local union until an attempt should be made to concert a plan for the larger union. Every delegate who attended the conference at Charlottetown in September also attended the Quebec Conference in October. The preliminary provisional understandings reached at the former materially facilitated the work of the latter.


The conference at Quebec was notable for its brevity. On the eighteenth and final day, in an adjourned session at Montreal, seventy-two resolutions, commonly referred to as the Quebec Reso­lutions, were adopted, and later became the substantial basis for the British North America Act. Several things helped to expedite the work of the "Fathers" at Quebec. The peculiar difficulties inherent in French-Canadian particularism could be resolved in the secret preliminary meetings of the Canadian cabinet. This was the easier because in constitutional and judicial matters Canada had already taken on many of the features of a federation, and Maritime delegates could feel that within the Canadian cabinet stout supporters of provincial rights were guarding their interests. It was understood also that the resolutions would subsequently be subjected to the scrutiny of both provincial legislatures and the British parliament. There were in fact only two subjects on which the conference encountered difficulties. It might perhaps have been better had it encountered more.


After the formal presentation of credentials, Sir E. P. Taché, nominal head of the Canadian government, was selected chairman, and Major Hewitt Bernard was appointed executive secretary. After Edward Palmer (q.v.) of Prince Edward Island had made an unsuccessful attempt to submerge Canadian influence at the conference by providing that each province should have but one vote, the real work of the conference began with a discussion of representation in the proposed federal upper house. Although it was known that the Canadians would later insist on representation by population in the federal lower house, no attempt appears to have been made to have upper house representation based on provincial equality. As finally constituted, both houses gave to Canada a decided predominance over all the other provinces together. Prince Edward Island, on the other hand, was to have such an inconsequential representation in both that the Island delegation could only be induced to sign the Quebec Resolutions as authenticating them.


The second critical discussion was on the subject of federal subsidies to provinces. Here too the Maritime provinces were acutely concerned, for they had hitherto relied almost wholly on indirect taxation, which now, it was agreed, must be given to the federal government. On the basis of a computation by Tupper of Nova Scotia, it was decided that the federal government should give to each of the provinces annually a sum equal to eighty cents per head of the population. Even in the conference, however, New Brunswick was successful in securing "better terms", and attempted raids on the federal treasury were to be a feature of subsequent Dominion history.


Little difficulty was encountered in dividing the powers of federal and provincial governments, or in erecting a federal judicial system. Provincial constitutions were conveniently left for each province to arrange for itself. It was unanimously agreed that the new Dominion should build an intercolonial railway; but it was only with difficulty that, in the closing hours of the conference, the Maritime delegates agreed to a resolution looking to the eventual construction of communications from the Great lakes westward. Also reluctantly did they agree to the new Dominion assuming all costs of Canadian defence construction incurred prior to the union. It was an indication of the feeling of urgency in matters of defence, as the American Civil War was drawing to a close.


The Quebec Resolutions received the immediate and energetic support of the Colonial Office. The Canadian legislature passed them by a large majority, Lower Canadian Reformers, who had not been brought into the coalition, being the only opposing group. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick considerable persistent pressure was needed to secure legislative approval. The legislatures of the two island colonies voted against the confederation scheme. Prince Edward Island did not join the new Dominion until 1873. Newfoundland continued to stand aloof.


See Sir J. Pope (ed.), Confederation: Being a series of hitherto unpublished documents bearing on the British North America Act (Toronto, 1895); A. G. Doughty (ed.), Notes on the Quebec Conference, 1864 (Can. Kist. rev., 1920); Parliamentary debates on the subject of the Confederation (Quebec, 1865); L. Whelan (ed.), The union of the British provinces (Charlottetown, 1865; new ed. by D. C. Harvey, Gardenvale, 1927); J. H. Gray, Confederation (Toronto, 1872); R. G. Trotter, Canadian federation (Toronto, 1924); and W. M. Whitelaw, The Maritimes and Canada before Confederation (Toronto, 1934).

Consult the text on the Quebec Conference in the Constitutional section of the site.

Source : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. V, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 401p., pp. 205-207.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College