Confederation? When Was That?

Two years ago a Dominion Institute study showed that only one in four Canadians aged eighteen to twenty-four could identify the date of Confederation. Should we care?

Maybe not. According to the Institute’s co-founder Rudyard Griffiths, Confederation isn’t the most notable event in Canadian history. It isn’t what Griffiths calls “a great imagining.” In his recent book, Who We Are, A Citizen’s Manifesto, he argues that Canada had two “great imaginings.” Confederation isn’t one of them.

The first “occurred in the decade that followed the failed rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.” The second dates from “the mid-mark of the twentieth century,” when the giants of the Liberal Party came on the scene: Pearson and Trudeau.

O.K. I’m second to none in my enthusiasm for the overthrow of the colonial oligarchies in the wake of the 1837-38 rebellions. I’m less impressed by the development of the regulatory state in the 1960s, though I’m sure a lot of “imagining” was involved.

I’m not prepared to accept the downgrading of Confederation. No.

Before embarking on the study of  Confederation that I undertook in 1995 with William D. Gairdner, Paul Romney and Ian Gentles, I talked to Robert Vipond (University of Toronto). His very good book is Liberty and Community, Canadian Federalism and the Failure of the Constitution (1991).  In Rob’s opinion, the interesting events of the nineteenth century occurred just before and  just after Confederation. Before, there was the achievement of responsible government. After, came the quarrels in the courts about the division of legislative powers. What happened in between, the union of the colonies and the making of the Parliament of Canada was not perhaps, – we’re talking to an academic, you remember – not perhaps as interesting.

It’s a point of view.

After talking to Professor Vipond, I consulted Kenneth McRae. McRae is the author of the chapter on Canada in Louis Hartz’s The Founding of New Societies (1964). I said I was looking into the Province of Canada debates on colonial union. I didn’t know then about the debates in the parliaments of the other British North American provinces. And – note! I don’t think McRae knew either.

He said the debates weren’t useful. I can hear his voice. “It’s very low grade ore, Janet.” “Very low grade ore.” Kenneth McRae! So astute on the subject of the Loyalist immigration into the wilds of Western Quebec. On the Confederation documents: wrong. Most political scientists have ignored the documents. In Constitutional Odyssey Peter Russell holds forth on the opinions of the Fathers of Confederation on the basis of a single letter from Upper Canadian Tories to the Colonial Office, excerpted from a biogaphy of Galt. The letter is part of a series, but Russell doesn’t tell us that. I don’t think he knew. The thesis of his book, from start to finish, derives from an inadequate study of primary materials. The Confederation documents: great texts were blowing in the wind with no one to read them.

In 1999, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, William D. Gairdner and I published excerpts from the debates in the legislatures and parliaments of the seven British North American colonies. Canada’s Founding Debates is a best seller in English and French, popular with the general public, legislators, and think-tankers.


3 Responses to “Confederation? When Was That?”

  1. 1 chris May 21, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I wonder why so few academics read the Founding Debates and why people like Russell, Vipond, and McRae were so disinterested… Americans (and many Canadians for that matter!) love their Federalist papers, but Cdns and their Founding debates, yawn!

  2. 2 John May 21, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    I’m interested as well in why academics lack interest in the study of the founding.

    Could it be that foundings are perhaps the quintessentially practical activity (more so than regular political activity that takes place within the parameters of law), and theoretically minded academics can’t get their head around that?

    Or is it that in raising the subject of founding, they’d also have to confront the question of greatness (e.g., in the Founders’ capacity to act in a nonpartisan way)? Greatness of the past poses a problem for partisans of the “Tory Touch” thesis, according to which it is the Canadian socialist future that will be great.

    Or, are the reasons more mundane?

  3. 3 Alastair Sweeny May 28, 2009 at 5:34 am


    Canadians are such idiots.


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