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Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
1 March 2001

The Quebec Conference


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

(October 12-29, 1864) Second of the three constitutional conferences that led to the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Quebec Conference was by far the most important. The Charlottetown Conference held some weeks earlier had demonstrated that there was enough agreement on questions of principle to justify the continuation of the conference in Quebec City. Hence the delegates from the United Province of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland met in Quebec City for 17 days in the fall of 1864 and hammered out a constitution. The delegations of all provinces, except that of the United Province of Canada, were made up of both governing and opposition parties. The U.P. of C. was represented by the Great Coalition government that did not include the Rouge Party (it is interesting to note that the Rouge will be the only party in the Province to oppose the scheme of Confederation).

It is remarkable to consider that a plan of union was adopted in view of the isolation and uniqueness of each of the colonies. By and large, the success must be attributed to a spirit of compromise that remained evident throughout the conference. The fear of the Americans and the obvious desire of the government of Great Britain to see its North American colonies united were also strong contributing factors. The greatest areas of difficulty at the conference were: 1) the division of powers between the two levels of government; 2) the representation of the provinces in the Parliament of Canada (considering that Upper Canada demanded Representation by Population, a proposition that frightened the smaller provinces); 3) the financing of the provincial governments.

The conference solved the first problem, in the words of Macdonald during the Confederation debates, by adopting a system that embodied all the advantages of a legislative union while, at the same time, providing all the essential guarantees of a federal system. The second problem was dealt with by creating equality of representation between regions in the Senate of Canada; the settlement of this issue consumed the greatest amount of time at the conference. The problem of the under financing of the provincial governments would be compensated by fixed federal subsidies to the provinces.

The conference adopted 72 resolutions that were to form the basis of the Constitution Act, 1867. The last one requested that the resolutions be submitted by the delegations to the legislature of each colony in view, presumably, of having them adopted. Only the Parliament of the United Province of Canada followed through with the 72nd resolution. The other colonies either rejected the plan (this was the case in Newfoundland and P.E.I.) or simply empowered delegates to continue negotiations to reach the most equitable terms of union (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). Despite calls for elections or referendum on the issue in all of the colonies, the plan of union was only submitted to the assessment of voters in New Brunswick where the pro-Confederation government was soundly defeated in 1865. Thus the Fathers of Confederation lost an opportunity to receive a wide consensus of support on the idea of a federal union. That the ordinary people of Canada were not consulted on this important issue tells much about the ideological framework in which the Fathers of Confederation functioned and perhaps explains a lot about the difficulties that Canadians have had to come to an understanding on what had been achieved during the period of 1864-1867.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College