I had a merry Xmas alone in my own room and my dinner of tea & toasts & drank all your healths.

John A. Macdonald, in a letter to Louisa

The last of the three Confederation conferences began on December 4, 1866, at London’s Westminster Palace Hotel, in an elongated ground-floor room used most of the time for lectures and con- certs. The delegates’ first order of busi- ness was to elect Macdonald as chairman. It was his performance here that prompted Sir Frederic Rogers, the senior Colonial Office mandarin, to describe him as ”œthe ruling genius.” Hector-Louis Langevin, the senior Canadien after Cartier, sketched out a similar judgment in a letter to his brother: ”œMacdonald is a sharp fox. He is a very well informed man, ingratiat- ing, clever and very popular. He is the man of the conference.”

The conference’s second item of business was to keep anti-Confederate critics in a state of sullen ignorance by making sure that everything done inside the room stayed there. At Macdonald’s urging, the delegates agreed that ”œno minutes of the various discussions should be taken, and no record, therefore, exists of them.” Macdonald also urged the new colonial secretary, Lord Carnarvon, to ”œavoid any publicity being given to the resolu- tions,” since this might ”œtend to pre- mature discussion on imperfect information of the subject both in this country and America.” A key reason for this manoeuvring was that Joseph Howe had come over to London and was telling everyone he could persuade to meet him that the project should be halted and that Macdonald was a help- less drunkard. Howe himself, though, was now a forlorn figure. The Halifax Morning Chronicle dismissed him as ”œvanity struck,” and he even described himself as ”œlonely, weary and vexed.” He was simply being shunted aside. Until the conference began, Macdonald used his time to get briefed on the latest twists and turns in British politics caused by the looming crisis over the Reform Bill and to catch up on news at the Colonial Office. He also got to know the colonial secretary. Despite the gap in their ages, they shared a mutual enthusiasm for the Empire and, from this point on, remained lifelong friends. Carnarvon, while fully briefed about Macdonald’s ”œnotorious vice,” and angered that Macdonald was ”œoccasionally so drunk as to be inca- pable of official business for days alto- gether,” yet judged him ”œthe ablest politician in Upper Canada” and reck- oned that, without him, the entire Coalition would collapse.

In fact, Macdonald succumbed spectacularly to his ”œvice” on at least one occasion in London. On December 27 he reported to Louisa that ”œfor fear that an alarming story may reach you, I may as well tell you what occurred.” He had come back from a weekend at Lord Carnarvon’s country house, took the newspapers to his bed to read, fell asleep and awoke to discover his ”œbed, bed clothes & cur- tains all on fire.” Macdonald tore down the curtains, dousing them with water, then tore the ”œblazing” sheets and blankets from the bed and stomped out the flames. With Cartier’s help, he made certain that the flames were entirely out. Only then did Macdonald realize that his ”œhair, fore- head & hands [were] scorched.” But for wearing a thick flannel shirt under his nightshirt, ”œI would have been burned to death.” A bad wound on Macdonald’s shoulder caused the doc- tor to order him to bed for three days, and he had to stay on in the hotel for an extra eight days. He ended his note jauntily: ”œI had a merry Xmas alone in my own room and my din- ner of tea & toasts & drank all your healths.”

From the start of the conference, Macdonald’s objectives were clear. He wanted the work done as quickly as possible to minimize the risk that a defeat of Lord Derby’s government on the Reform Bill would force an election and so delay Confederation’s passage beyond the May deadline, when Nova Scotia had to go to the polls. If that happened, there was a distinct possi- bility that Tupper would be defeated, bringing down with him the entire Confederation project. Indeed, to delay the constitution’s passage until after May was the specific reason for Howe’s presence in London. No less urgently, Macdonald wanted as few changes as possible to the already agreed upon Quebec Resolutions: each change could lead to others being demanded, and to the potential unravelling of the entire package.

Debate itself could not be avoided. Unlike Canada’s Legislative Assembly, neither the Nova Scotia nor the New Brunswick legislatures had approved the Quebec Resolutions; their delegates’ mandate was to secure improvements, and only then to sanction Confederation’s go-ahead. To negotiate around those obstacles, adroitness was required. Tupper initi- ated a debate about just how binding were the Quebec Resolutions. Delegates argued both sides of the question. At the right moment, Macdonald pulled them together by declaring that both were right, but within definite limits:

”œWe are quite free to discuss points as if they were open,” he said, ”œalthough we may be bound to adhere to the Quebec scheme.” Macdonald thereby managed to quiet restive Maritimers while keeping any actual amendments to a minimum.

A number of changes were made. Immigration and agriculture were redesignated as joint responsibilities of both levels of government; coastal fisheries and penitentiaries were added to Ottawa’s list; and the solemnization of marriages was given to the care of the provinces.

There was a long debate about whether, and how, additional senators might be created to resolve a deadlock between Parliament’s two houses, the Senate and the Commons. (The British authorities insisted on adding a provi- sion authorizing the cabinet to appoint extra senators under excep- tional circumstances. This power was first used by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1990 to secure passage of the Goods and Services Tax Bill through a Liberal-dominated Senate.)

The Maritimes won for them- selves an increase in their subsidies from Ottawa, although Tupper, proba- bly from overconfidence, gained far less for Nova Scotia than the less showy Tilley did for New Brunswick. ”œConfederation” was agreed on as the official term rather than ”œfederation,” but confusingly the term used throughout the resulting act was ”œunion.” The names agreed on for the two Canadian provinces were Quebec and Toronto, the latter being changed later to Ontario. The single substan- tive change was to strengthen ”” a lit- tle ”” Ottawa’s role as defender of the educational rights of minorities across the country. This correction came about at the insistence of Galt on behalf of the English minority in Quebec, supported by Archbishop Con- nolly of Halifax, who lobbied on behalf of his separate schools.

The change was small: the federal government was granted the power to intervene in educational matters, but only on occasions when there was a need for ”œremedial laws.” Even this limited authority applied only to school systems already in place before Confederation. All this work was done in a couple of weeks; indeed, twenty-nine of the Quebec Resolutions were dealt with on the first day. Revised clauses were hurried over to the legal draftsmen at the Colonial Office. There, the chief draftsman, F.S. Reilly, complained at one time, ”œI can’t make bricks without clay, to say noth- ing of straw.” One change that might have greatly altered Canadian history never happened. A year earlier, when Confederation had seemed imminent, a legal draftsman at Westminster, Henry Thring, had drawn up draft leg- islation by which Canada could opt to become independent from Britain at any time by a two-thirds’ vote in both the Commons and Senate.

At around the same time, a British politician, Lord Bury, who had served in Canada as an aide to the governor general, proposed that an agreement be negotiated that would allow either Canada or Britain to terminate the colonial connection by its government giving a year’s notice. So far as can be determined, this possibility was never discussed at the London Conference. Macdonald would very likely have vetoed it, because of his own attach- ment to Britain and out of concern that it might provoke a backlash in Canada against Confederation. Indeed, Howe at this time was report- ing to Nova Scotia anti-Confederates his dismay at ”œthe almost universal feeling…that uniting the provinces was an easy mode of getting rid of them.” In fact, Canada’s status as a colony would not be ended ”” legally ”” until the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Had the constitution included from its start an agreed way to achieve independ- ence, it’s more likely that the leap to national maturity would have been taken a lot earlier.

The most significant change was one made to prevent another change from happening. All along, Macdonald had intended that the new nation should be called the Kingdom of Canada. In one speech dur- ing the 1865 Confederation Debates, he had gone further, suggesting that the Queen should be represented in the new nation by ”œone of her own family, a Royal prince, as a Viceroy to rule over us.” (The Queen, as it turned out, had been musing similarly about how ”œdearest Albert had often thought of the Colonies for our sons.” At the time, it was wide- ly assumed that the likeliest sibling to be sent to rule Canada as its King was the third son, Prince Arthur. He did in fact make it, although in a lesser role. In 1911, Prince Arthur, by then the Duke of Connaught, was appointed governor general, serving until 1916. He died in 1942, at the age of ninety-one.)

At one stage during the London Conference, Macdonald tried out alternative titles, writing in the margin of a handwritten draft of the bill: ”œProvince, Dependency, Colony, Dominion, Vice-Royalty, Kingdom.” This last title was used in all the drafts of the constitution sent by the dele- gates to the Colonial Office until early February. Feo Monck, in her diary about the 1864 Quebec Confer- ence, recalled Macdonald telling her teasingly that the new nation might be called ”œCanadin” and, as might well have actually happened, that ”œin some speeches he had said that, to please the Nova Scotians, it should be called ”˜Acadia.’” She concluded, ”œJohn A. is very agreeable.”

Quite different, though, was the first draft of the British North America Bill as sent from the Colonial Office to the delegates at the Westminster Palace Hotel. To the fury of the Canadians, this version used the word ”œcolony” throughout, declaring that the provinces were to be ”œunited into one colony.” The offending word was struck out and never used again. Just before the bill’s final ver- sion ”” there were seven drafts in all ”” the nation’s title was changed to the Dominion of Canada. It was done by Prime Minister Lord Derby on the advice of Carnarvon, who feared that Americans would inter- pret monarchical nomenclature as a deliberate provocation. There were, in fact, grounds for this worry: the British minister at Washington reported that newspaper specula- tion that Canada might become a kingdom had provoked ”œmuch com- ment of an unfriendly character.”

Macdonald never forgot or forgave this dismissal of his dream. In 1889 he wrote to the then colonial secre- tary, Lord Knutsford, recounting that he had once described to Disraeli what had happened, and that Disraeli’s response had been, ”œIt is so like Derby ”” a very good fellow but who lives in a region of perpetual funk.”

The well-known story about ”œdominion” is that its author was Leonard Tilley, who informed the con- ference delegates that he had come upon in the Bible, in Psalm 72, verse 8, the evocative phrase, ”œAnd he shall have dominion also from sea to sea.” This account is certainly correct. The full story may have been a bit more complicated. The use of the term ”œdomin- ion” for such a purpose was A problem with the chosen title, ”œDominion,” overlooked by the London Conference dele- gates, was that no ready trans- lation for the term exists in French. The one most often used, ”œLa Puissance,” is hardly satisfactory.

All these details were mar- ginalia. The central fact was that Confederation had been agreed to by all the con- stituent provinces. The later ”œcompact” theory, that Confederation constituted a treaty negotiated by the provinces, was pure myth; none of them, as colonies, had the power to sign treaties. Lord Carnarvon, on behalf of the enabling power, Britain, explained in his parlia- mentary speech that the new domin- ion ”œderives its political existence from an external authority” ”” namely, the Imperial government.

The constitution itself, as Macdonald had wanted from the start, amounted to a prescription for a highly centralized confederation, very likely the most centralized con- federation ever conceived (not least because it granted to the central government the power to disallow provincial legislation). Indeed, as the historian Peter Waite has written, ”œOne might almost say that Canada has become a federal state in spite of its constitution.” It was indeed plausi- ble, as Macdonald kept saying in pri- vate letters, that the provinces might wither away to municipalities. The fact was, though, the provinces did exist. They were accountable to their voters through political mechanisms ”” of organized parties, elections and parliamentary debates ”” identical to those of the ”œsenior” government. They were also, as was inherent in so vast a country, incomparably closer to their people. As Macdonald had schemed for all along, the federal gov- ernment was accorded not just exten- sive powers but all the unassigned powers, and as well a national over- ride power. Yet although the newcom- ers, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, lost some of their existing powers on joining Confederation, they still wielded considerable ones. The two reborn ”œinternal” members, Quebec and Ontario, gained powers greater than their institutional ancestors had ever possessed (if only because, back then, all power resided with the gov- ernors general).

Macdonald, moreover, failed to anticipate the consequence to his cen- tralized scheme of the absence from federal jurisdiction of one vital power. Post-Confederation, just as before, Canada was still only a colony; responsibility for foreign affairs remained in London. Ottawa, unlike Washington, could not summon up national support on the grounds that it was responsible for Canadians’ doings and reputation in the wider world. In the absence of any shared sense of national identity across the country (really, until the 1960s), the vacuum was bound to be filled by provincial identities. This flaw in Macdonald’s concept of the new nation was recognized by Goldwin Smith in an almost eerily perceptive article for Macmillan’s Magazine in March 1865. There he wrote that while ”œthe sentiment of provincial independence among the several provinces of British North America is at this moment merged in the desire of combining against the common danger [the United States]…[w]hen the danger is overpast, divergent inter- ests may reappear and the sentiment of independence may revive…espe- cially in the French and Catholic province.” It was because national identity was pallid for so long that provincial identities commanded so much support.

In no sense was the British North America Act a constitution made for the people. There was nowhere in it any ringing ”œWe, the people” procla- mation. It was, instead, a constitu- tion made for governments. Over the decades, the balance between central- ization and decentralization of gov- ernmental powers has settled down into pretty much what most Canadians want. Pragmatism has tri- umphed over principle, and mud- dling through over theory. Macdonald would disagree with the the illumination it provides about national differences, that matter.

Except that most of this is untrue. More exactly, it is true symboli- cally, but untrue substantively. The phrase actually contained in the doc- uments laid before the delegates at the Quebec Conference of 1864 (from which came the greatest part of the BNA Act), and at the start of the Confederation Debates in the Canadian Parliament in 1865 and at the London Conference, was ”œPeace, Welfare and good Government.” The second, unfamiliar, term, ”œWelfare,” was used here in the sense of well- being. It was only at the last moment before the constitution was intro- duced into the Parliament at Westminster that ”œWelfare” was replaced by ”œOrder.” (Not until January 23, 1867, does the familiar ”œPeace, Order and good Government” triad appear in a draft. This version reappears in the later drafts of January 30 and February 2 and then in the actual BNA Act.) The actual change was most probably made by the British legal draftsman Francis Reilly; and no evidence exists that Reilly ever discussed his choice of words with Macdonald or with any Canadian.

To get to the heart of the matter, no evidence exists that at any time throughout any of the three Confeder- ation conferences, or during the long debate in the Canadian legislature, anyone paid the least attention to the phrase itself. The more than one thou- sand double-columned pages of the published Confederation Debates con- tain only a handful of references to ”œPeace, Welfare and good Government” (as it then was); moreover, it was raised almost always in discussions about the narrow issue of marriages and divorces. One of the very few sub- stantial references during the entire Confederation process to the phrase ”œPeace, Order and good Government” was made not by any Father of Con- federation but by its godfather, Colo- nial Secretary Lord Carnarvon. In his speech in the Lords introducing the British North America Bill, he said that the powers of the federal government ”œextend to all laws made for the ”˜peace, order and good government’ of Confederation” ”” a term he described as having ”œan ample measure of leg- islative authority.”

The reason why no one paid any attention to the phrase was straightfor- ward: it actually meant very little. It amounted to a kind of legal boilerplate that was inserted routinely into all kinds of British colonial constitutions ”” from Newfoundland to New Zealand to New South Wales, from Ceylon to the Cape Colony (of South Africa), from Sierra Leone to St. Helena.

The author has been able to find only one early use of ”œpeace and order” in its contemporary descriptive sense. The anti-Confederate Howe once described phrase can be dated all the way back to 1689. It appeared in every Canadian constitution before Confederation, from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to the 1841 Act of Union, which conjoined Upper and Lower Canada. The phrase that Canadians now embrace as distinctively their own was thus employed in the service of just about any entity in the Empire for which a constitution was needed. Perhaps the most insightful comment ever made about the ways by which national communities acquire their particular character was from British-born international scholar Benedict Anderson. According to him, almost all of them amount to ”œimagined communities.” Few citizens in any of these societies know many other citi- zens personally, ”œyet in the minds of each,” wrote Anderson, ”œlives this image of communion.” People, that is to say, become what they are by the way that they think they are. Not long  after the Second World War, Canadians took cognizance of the fact that the British Empire was vanishing from the map and that its role as global hegemon had been taken over by the United States. Canada was threatened by being absorbed into this new imperium, of being reduced to a kind of virtual colony. Cross-border differences therefore became central to national existence itself, because if no differences existed, survival became pointless. In 1961 the historian W.L. Morton published The Canadian Identity, a book composed of four major lectures that he had given. In this work, Morton expressed the notion of a radical differ- ence between Canada and the United States from their very beginnings. ”œNot life, liberty and the pursuit of happi- ness,” wrote Morton, ”œbut peace, order and good government, are what the national government of Canada guaran- tees.” So far as this author has been able to determine, Morton was the first per- son to present the concept that the ”œPeace, Order and good Government” of Macdonald’s constitution is Canada, in the same way that Jefferson’s ”œLife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the United States. Not long afterwards, ”œPeace, Order and good Government” ”” known to Ottawa insiders as POGG ”” was elevated into a defining national invocation. It has gone on to become the one item of our original constitution that almost every Canadian can recite ”” and holds to fiercely.

It’s as though, when Canadians learned of the phrase ”œPeace, Order and good Government” for the first time in the sixties, they, in the mysterious way by which the collective will can exert itself, said more or less simultaneously, ”œThat’s us.” The constitution’s real patriation can thus be dated from the early 1960s rather than from its formal enactment in 1982. It was during those years that the people of Canada made the constitution ”” at the very least one vital part of it ”” their constitution. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s karma, but Macdonald, as a conservative, could not have defined the pur- pose of a constitution better than as ”œPeace, Order and good Government.”

At the time, Macdonald won just about everything he wanted. All the last-minute changes made in Lon- don strengthened the power of the central government. The federation would indeed be as close to a ”œlegisla- tive union” as was politically practical. These, though, were tactical accom- plishments. In themselves, Confedera- tion and the constitution that necessarily accompanied it amounted to not much more than a political fix of a political problem ”” ”œdeadlock” ”” that the politicians, Macdonald included, had created themselves. That purpose could have been achieved as easily, almost certainly more so, by a ”œminifederation” encompassing just the United Province of Canada.

Such a nation, though, would have been a rump of a nation. What was being created instead was, at least potentially, a continental nation ”” one that would be, or could be, a real nation, marked at its birth by the extravagant ambition both of its geo- graphical reach and of its commitment to British law and British political insti- tutions. As such, it made a commitment to be and to remain that most improb- able of all political communities ”” an un-American nation within North America. First, Macdonald had imag- ined a Canadian community of this kind; then, in London, he realized it.

All that remained now were details. Howe took his arguments for delay to as many people as he could secure introductions to in Britain. Lord Carnarvon heard him out politely, but without response; almost all the others showed the same indifference. All that remained between Macdonald and his final triumph was a thin red line of British MPs ”” few of them interested in the colonies at the best of times, and all of them now totally absorbed by the crisis over the Reform Bill and the prospect of an imminent election.

In Macdonald’s circumstances ”” he knew by now he would soon be invited formally to become the first prime minister of the new nation ”” many would have gloated or at least have celebrated. Instead, Macdonald stayed close to Carnarvon, fussing and worrying over the last details. His one celebratory gesture was to slip over to France for a few days’ holiday when things had quieted down.

Once the delegates had finished their last fixes, Francis Reilly, the legal draftsman, worked overtime through the first week of February to render it into proper parliamentary form. The bill was set in type under conditions of strict confidentiality through the nights of February 6 and 7. On February 12 it was introduced into the House of Lords ”” there, rather than the Commons, because that’s where Carnarvon had his seat. The debate was scheduled for February 19, 1867.


Excerpted from John A: The Man who Made Us, published by Random House Canada, 2007. By permission of the author and publisher.

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