FROM COLONIES TO CONFEDERATION © David W. Watts 2016
This phrase, or “Colony to Nation,” was taught as a descriptor of our shared history to generations of English-speaking Canadian students.
There was nothing wrong with it as far as it went, but it left out a lot. It was an accurate, though partial description of a handful of outposts established by European empires over 500 years in the northern half of North America.
When the parent corporations bartered them off, abandoned them or otherwise recognized that they no longer served as assets on their imperial balance sheets, these outposts-colonies banded together to become the Dominion of Canada. Macdonald and Cartier’s Canadian Confederation occurred in the same decade as two groups of smaller European states came together: Cavour’s Kingdom of Italy and Bismarck’s Second German Empire.
There were two major differences between the North American Confederation and its two European counterparts. The unification processes of both Italy and Germany involved war with adjoining states: Sardinia-Piedmont’s war on Austria to gain Northern Italy, and the Franco-Prussian War to win Alsace-Lorraine. These were milder copies of the American and French Revolutions a century earlier.
In Canada’s case, the Confederation of the four original provinces, and the later addition of Prince Edward Island, British Columbia and eventually Newfoundland and Labrador, was accomplished peaceably. There was political arm-twisting, spending and promising considerable amounts of money and the offer of railways accompanied by scandals and other skullduggery but there was no violence. In that way, Canada can be said to be the first modern state to be born without revolution or civil war.
(What happened in the Red River Valley and in Northern Saskatchewan is something else and important enough to be looked at in a separate paper.)
The second difference is equally important. The new European states of Italy and Germany were made up of peoples recognized as subjects of their respective monarchs. These people may have disagreed and fought in the unification process but once unified, they were considered equal. Being Sardinian or Prussian was less important than being Italian or German. Speaking High German might be a badge of snobbery but sharing a common language, or being children of the Fatherland, was what mattered most.
In Canada by contrast we were all subjects of the British monarch, whether Anglophone, francophone or aboriginal but we weren’t all in fact equal. Many Quebeckers could claim a 350 year pedigree, some with a seigneury thrown in, but their language did not carry equal weight in all of Canada. Aboriginal Canadians could not even vote, and many were confined to reserves that were only a few steps above South African townships. Those who’d been born in the British Isles, or had parents who had, often disdained to describe themselves as Canadian at all. And to add injury to this insult, many new immigrants considered the best they could do to better themselves was to cast off the heritage from which they’d come, speak English and immerse themselves in North American culture.
Our history was generally taught from 1497 with John Cabot. We learned his name in anglicized form, forgetting he was an Italian mariner, like Columbus, who hired himself out to Henry Tudor who regretted missing out to Spain in South America’s Gold Rush. We had 225 years of French colonial history from Jacques Cartier’s first voyage through to Montcalm’s defeat, followed by 78 years of Franco-Anglo tussling until Lord Durham recommended that French Canadian’s be assimilated and their successful resistance led first to responsible government, then Confederation with a Westminster-type parliament.
This was still primarily a European history. John A. Macdonald was born in Glasgow in Great Britain. Even though most of his fellow English-speaking Fathers of Confederation were not, their politics were those of New World colonies of the British Empire.
Their French speaking confrères were different. They represented a people who’d lived in the New World 250 years. Cut off from their roots by a war that changed the rulers of their homeland to British ones, then by the French Revolution that swept the kingdom that built them and its values away, their focus was not on joining others to build a new state. It was on staying together: surviving waves of English-speaking and other settlers streaming in from the United States to the south or from the east across the Atlantic.
Confederation for them was not about joining a union but of escaping from one: the Act of Union of 1840 that had been passed for the express purpose of assimilating them into an English speaking society. Giving them their own government back in the reconstituted Province of Québec was for some a restoration of their birthright, for others a first step to independence. “Colony to Nation” meant something very different to them. Many already saw themselves as a nation, a French-speaking one. “Colony to Confederation” offered a possibility of expressing their nationhood in a more affirming structure. If that possibility did not deliver the promise, there was then an opportunity of opting out entirely.
This view can be found in many French speaking editorials of the time. And the need for a possible way out of this arrangement can be found in some English language opinion that supported Confederation on the grounds it would keep the French problem inside Québec until, with expansion westward and new provinces, it would be marginalized.
If the aspirations of French Canadian for full partnership in Confederation were being explicitly bypassed, First Peoples’ standing was marginalized even more so. They were already nations and had crafted confederations of their own: the Five—or Six Nations of the Iroquois from the Saint Lawrence south, the Iron (Cree/Assiniboine) Confederation that spread from James Bay to the northern central plain, the Blackfoot Confederacy on the southern plains up to the Rocky Mountains, the Sioux Confederacy farther south and the Cordilleran (Kootenay, Chilcotin) and coastal (Haida, Tlingit, Coast Salish peoples).
The west coastal nations had a most developed trading system at the time of first contact with Europeans but the Plains Cree quickly developed as middlemen to the Hudson’s Bay fur trade. But with arrival of the North West Mounted Police as precursors to the railway and to settlement, strong confederacies served initially as a means to reaching agreement on treaties, then become impediments to subsequent development by the newcomers.
This is mirrored in the attitude of Crowfoot, Grand Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy. As one who had earlier distinguished himself as a great warrior and then worked to soften enmity between the Blackfoot and Cree, Crowfoot at first welcomed the Mounted Police. In the years preceding their arrival, the decline of the buffalo combined with importation of spirits by unscrupulous traders across the border was decimating his people, and he saw the law and order the Mounties represented as putting an end to the destabilization.
His first doubts arose after signing Treaty Number Seven when the adjoining reserves he had believed were promised to different nations in the Confederacy turned out to be at some distance from each other. This was for the express purpose to precluding a general Blackfoot uprising, a strategic advantage both Crowfoot and Assistant Commissioner James Macleod recognized instinctively. Crowfoot had respected and trusted Macleod as a man with who he could deal honorably. Yet the strategy of treaty-and-divide, even if not as odious as divide-and-conquer, made it evident the dealings were not being conducted between the parties as nation-to-nation but as means to end of displacing one confederacy by another. This was but a milder form of the approach by which British colonialism had weakened China, and that British and French had both used their indigenous allies against each other on the east coast of North America.
In this light, speaking of Canada’s political evolution as “Colony to Nation” or “Colonies to Confederation” is fraudulent as well as flawed. In the one case of the sub-division of Blackfoot territories, “Confederacy to Colonies” would be a more accurate description. In this respect it must be emphasized that Crowfoot, though disappointed in his trust, cannot be said to have been duped. As a sagacious leader and strategist himself, he recognized full well what was being done the moment the post-Treaty signing administration began,
This contributed to the sadness of his last years. Had he then been single or younger, he might have responded differently to the betrayal. But in his adoptive role as father of his people, he recognized armed resistance would not only be futile; it would bring enormous suffering and disaster to those he was pledged to protect. Having taken earlier wounds in battle, he was ready to receive assaults on his reputation by younger braves who did not consider the implications of the more aggressive course of action they were proposing.
Canadians of non-indigenous origin can be grateful to the fact that Crowfoot spared our country a major Indian war in refusing to join the North West Rebellion of 1885. Yet we do him a greater insult than his younger braves in our facile characterization of him as a “good” Indian because he did not take up arms at that point. Like tragic heroes who fell upon their swords when they believed they could no longer wield them honorably, Crowfoot was prepared to “receive blows without returning them” (Gandhi). He stands as a great man, a second generation father—though unwilling—of Canadian Confederation as well as of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and as a wise, nurturing parent of humankind. We in Canada are fortunate and honoured to have had him in our land.
How then can we take to heart his legacy and that of the two confederacies: the one he fathered on the plains and the Canadian one he furthered, in our times 150 years later?
By looking with clear eyes at what it means to be a Confederation: a collaborative coming together that is neither top-down nor based on the lowest common denominator.
By listening with an open heart, as Crowfoot did, until we hear words that are more than words but shared truths that embrace us all.
In 1987 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, attempting to gain assent to the 1982 patriation of the Constitution rejected by a Parti Québécois government, initiated the Meech Lake Accord with his fellow first ministers. That attempt failed, in part because its Québec focus did not address the earlier omission of First Nations without whom neither Québec nor Canada would be here. At the same time, some Québécois described as “provocative,” First Nations’ claim to nationhood without realizing our own claims depend upon theirs.
A generation later, with a government pledged to deal nation-to-nation with our first peoples, we are trying again. In this we need not only apologies but awareness: attention to our use of language.
Let us start with Kanata the aboriginal word for village that became a name for this half continent that is becoming a global village representative of Earth’s peoples.
Let us recognize that even before there were colonies of Vikings, English, French or Spaniards on what is now Canadian soil, there were confederacies of different peoples who lived side by side as stewards of the land we now inhabit.
Let us remember the “con”—the “consensual” element of Confederation and confederacy in which negotiation is more than a rubber-stamp but rests upon a respect among equals.
Let us affirm the essential values we share as members of a human village and on them build structures that facilitate rather that constrict: a village that embodies these values.
Let us realize the task before us takes time in order for us to get it right, and not become trapped in arbitrary time frames: deadlines that become dead ends.
Let us honour the work and presence of our forebears, our elders and their examples, forgiving their failings as we identify and build on strengths that can still serve us well.
So let us engage in a re-Confederation where the strong are just, the weak secure and the land and planet preserved.
In this undertaking our rejuvenated Upper House may serve as a Council of Elders and our resident Commander as a Grand Chief, while we remember that it takes the whole Kanata village to raise this child. And that we will do.