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Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
February 2005

John A. Macdonald, Confederation

and Canadian Federalism


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Canadian politician, statesman and Father of Confederation (1815-1891). Elected to the House of Assembly of the United Province of Canada 1844-1867; Minister in several governments (1847-1848, 1854-1858, 1858-1862, 1864-1867). Elected to the House of Commons in 1867 and reelected until his death in 1891. Prime Minister of Canada (1867-1873, 1878-1891).

Macdonald is considered to be one of the chief architects of Confederation. As leader of the Conservatives of Canada West he agreed to join the Great Coalition of 1864 whose aim was to achieve Confederation. His role in the several conferences prior to Confederation was vital and he emerged easily as the political leader of the scattered colonies of British North America. Hence, he was chosen to be the first Prime Minister of the new Dominion.

John A. Macdonald at age 68

Macdonald was never a warm supporter of federalism (in June of 1864 - as the province was about to reach a deadlock - he voted against the recommendation of a House Committee for a federation of all the British North American colonies) and this political stance was to colour greatly his actions in the first thirty years of Confederation. During the Confederation debates, he stated his position as follows: "Now as regards the comparative advantages of a Legislative and a Federal union, I have never hesitated to state my own opinions. I have again and again stated in the House, that, if practicable, I thought a Legislative union would be preferable... But, on looking at the subject in the Conference, and discussing the matter as we did, most unreservedly, and with a desire to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, we found that such a system was impracticable. In the first place, it would not meet the assent of the people of Lower Canada, because they felt in their peculiar position - being in the minority, with a different language, nationality and religion from the majority - in case of a junction with the other provinces, their institutions and their laws might be assailed, and their ancestral associations, on which they prided themselves, attacked and prejudiced; it was found that any propositions which involved the absorption of the individuality of Lower Canada - if I may use the expression - would not be received with favour by her people... Therefore, we were forced to the conclusion that we must either abandon the idea of Union altogether, or devise a system of union in which the separate provincial organizations would be in some degree preserved."

Being forced to accept federalism because of the insistence of Quebec, Macdonald was, nevertheless, determined to avoid what he called the excesses of the American federal constitution. The experiences of our neighbors, entwined in the throes of the Civil War at the time, had led him to believe that Canada needed a system with a strong and preponderant federal government. He made his views clear, on the issue, during the Confederation debates: "The United States began at the wrong end. They declared by their Constitution that each state was a sovereignty in itself, and that all the powers incident to sovereignty belonged to each state, except those which by the Constitution were conferred upon the General Government and Congress. Here we have adopted a different system. We have strengthened the General Government. We have given the general Legislature all the great subjects of legislation. We have conferred upon them not only specifically and in detail all the powers which are incident to sovereignty, but we have expressly declared that all subjects of general interest not distinctly and exclusively conferred upon the local government and local legislatures, shall be conferred upon the General Government and Legislature."

To a large extent, Macdonald achieved the type of centralized federalism (quasi-federalism) that he desired. He was not, however, fully satisfied with some of the concessions that he had had to make to the strong federalists. Upon assuming the Prime Ministership of Canada in 1867, he determined to shape the new Constitution in the way that he desired. He explained clearly his position in a letter to a friend in 1868: "I fully concur with you as to the apprehension that a conflict may, ere long, arise between the-Dominion and the 'States Rights' people. We must meet it, however, as best we may. By a firm patient course, I think the Dominion must win in the long run. The powers of the General Government are so much greater than those of the United States, that the central power must win in the long run. My own opinion is that the General Government or Parliament should pay no more regard to the status or position of the Local Governments than they would to the prospects of the ruling party in the corporation of Quebec or Montreal."

The history of the first 25 years of Confederation under Macdonald is but one long attempt to implement his program of strengthening the federal government at the expense of local autonomy. The result was a mixed bag of successes and failures. Among what he considered to be his successes were the opening of the West, the creation of a Dominion from "Sea to sea," the transcontinental railway and the National Policy.

However, Macdonald's excesses of centralization led inevitably to the creation of a powerful provincial autonomy school that championed a more classical form of federalism. Ultimately, Macdonald's centralization (and that of later governments) came close to producing what George Brown predicted in 1870: "The danger most to be feared is that men who really don't believe in Confederation (he meant the federal system) at all should so seek to extend and consolidate the Federal legislative and executive power that the local Governments and Legislatures shall be in danger of becoming mere shadows and shams, and that the recoil from such a danger may lead to the opposite extreme of ignoring national unity, and in zeal for mere local interests and specialists, the breaking up of Confederation altogether."

For further information, consult the entry under John A. Macdonald in the Encyclopedia section of the site.


© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College