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Conferences of 1864

Province House National Historic Site, the location of the Charlottetown conference in September 1864.
© Parks Canada

In the fall of 1864, the political leaders of British North America attended meetings in Charlottetown and Québec during which they laid out the fundamental principles that led to the creation of the new country of Canada on July 1, 1867.

In the mid-1800s, British North America contained five provinces: Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada (Canada East and Canada West). Each had a separate legislature and governor and reported to the British Government with little interaction between the provinces. The Charlottetown Conference (September 1-9, 1864) was originally intended as a regional meeting for Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick representatives to discuss a Maritime union. However, Canada's representatives requested to be included and on the first day in Charlottetown convinced the others to consider a confederation of all British North America. The 23 delegates spent the next days focused on such weighty matters as government structure, division of power, and financial relations. The evenings were filled with banquets and balls, which provided the opportunity to discuss business in a more relaxed and friendly setting. At the end of the Charlottetown Conference, representatives had agreed that union should be pursued and decided to reconvene in a few weeks.

This second meeting, the Québec Conference (October 10-27), was attended by 33 delegates representing the original participating provinces plus two delegates from Newfoundland. As in Charlottetown, serious political debate was balanced by glamorous social events. The representatives expanded on the Charlottetown discussions, forming their conclusions into a series of resolutions known as The Québec Resolutions or the 72 Resolutions. These principles continue to define Canada today: a federal government system, an appointed upper chamber (Senate), an elected lower chamber, elected by proportional representation (House of Commons), and continuing ties to the British monarchy.

Deligates of the legislature, October 27 1864 Delegates of the legislature of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, October 27 1864.
© Public Domain, from the Library and Archives Canada / Jules I. Livernois.C-006350

The last resolution stated that delegates must receive support from their own governments before the unification process could continue. Politicians and citizens debated the resolutions, which were not welcomed equally across the colonies. Ultimately, only the legislatures of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada approved of union. Their representatives travelled to England in December 1866 for the final stage, the London Conference, where they finalized the details of confederation which included picking the country's new name: the "Dominion of Canada". All the work the delegates had done in Charlottetown and Québec was rewarded when, on 29 March 1867, Queen Victoria signed the British North America Act. The 36 men who attended any one of the three conferences are known today as the "Fathers of Confederation". Perhaps two of the most famous were the co-premiers of the Province of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier; Macdonald became Canada's first Prime Minister.

Québec Conference of 1864: Toward Confederation

From October 10 to 27, 1864, Québec—the capital city of United Canada (now Quebec and Ontario)—hosted a constitutional conference that marked a major turning point in the country's history. In the Old Parliament Building, located in what is now Montmorency Park National Historic Site in the heart of Old Québec, 33 delegates from United Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland met to devise a new federation.

More specifically, this second meeting was aimed at putting down in writing the federation project that came out of the first conference in Charlottetown on September 9, 1864. Held in Prince Edward Island's legislative building (Province House, now a national historic site), the first conference brought together 23 delegates from United Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The first two conferences were followed by a third, which was held in London from December 1866 to March 1867 and led to the adoption of the definitive version of the Quebec Resolutions and the creation of a new country through the adoption of a law of British Parliament. The British North America Act, approved by Queen Victoria on March 29, 1867, and creating the Dominion of Canada, would take effect on July 1 of the same year.

The idea of grouping together the British colonies in North America dates back to the 1760s, shortly after New France was ceded to Great Britain under the Treaty of Paris (1763). In the next century about a dozen projects—of varying ambition—emerged, but none came to fruition. In the mid-19th century, increasingly urgent political and economic factors brought this idea to the forefront. Economically, the United States was growing more protectionist and did not wish to renew the Reciprocity Treaty, a type of free trade agreement with British North America set to expire in 1864. Merchants, industrialists, and many politicians/businessmen in the British colonies were looking to create an east-west market by promoting trade between the provinces. Meanwhile, the reformists in Canada West (Ontario) wanted to annex the western territory of the Hudson's Bay Company (called "Rupert's Land") because all the good, affordable land in their province was already occupied. Ultimately, plans to build an intercolonial railway and the need to build up financial resources prompted many politicians to call for a new political federation.

On the political scene, a number of British parliamentarians believed that governing and defending the North American colonies was a heavy financial burden for their country. Colonial leaders and part of the population feared an American invasion in reprisal for English interference in the Confederate (Southern) States during the Civil War (1861-1865). They also hoped to thwart the "Fenians" at the borders. These Irish revolutionaries took advantage of the U.S. Civil War to build military strength on American soil and sought to seize Canada and demand Irish liberation in return.

The need to find a solution to the chronic instability of United Canada, where four governments followed in rapid succession between 1861 and 1864, also led provincial ministers to leverage all their political weight to make the federation a reality. One of them was George-Étienne Cartier, a lawyer, businessman, and politician as well as member for Montreal East and attorney general of Canada East (Quebec).

  The Parliament Buildings, Quebec, the official residence of the Prince of Wales during his stay in Quebec 1860
© By T.H.W. In "The Illustrated London News". Aug. 25, 1860, p. 183 mikan 2934622

The Lion of Quebec

In addition to taking part in each conference, Cartier was the most influential French-speaking politician in the United Canadian parliament. He was part of the coalition government (or "Great Coalition") formed in June 1864 at the initiative of George Brown. This reformist member for Toronto and his party demanded representation proportional to the population, something they hoped to achieve with the new federation.

While he played a lesser role than John A. Macdonald, who was one of the most influential delegates during the Québec Conference, Cartier opposed Macdonald's idea of grouping the provinces into a legislative union (with a single assembly) that would centralize almost all powers. Like the Maritimes delegates, he defended the interests and distinct features of the provinces, particularly those of Canada East. An anglophile, monarchist, and political conservative, Cartier—who took part in the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837—feared annexation to the United States, whose republican ideas he rejected. Cartier was later recognized as a "Father of the Confederation" together with other participants in the constitutional conferences, and historians believe that he did more than any other francophone delegate to gain French Canada's support for Confederation.

Social aspects of the Conference

Arriving in Québec on the steamer Queen Victoria,speciallydispatched by the Government of United Canada, or via the Grand Trunk Railway, the Maritimes delegates stayed at Hôtel Saint-Louis (on Rue Saint-Louis), one of the city's most luxurious accommodations. As in Charlottetown, the Québec Conference gave rise to a series of banquets, receptions, and balls to which members of the city's elite were invited. Sir Charles Stanley Monck, Governor General of United Canada, welcomed delegates to an official ceremony (a "levee") at the Parliament Building the evening of October 11. He also entertained guests at Spencerwood, his official residence in Bois-de-Coulonge park. Edward B. Chandler and John M. Johnson, of New Brunswick, joined the governor's table in the company of other guests, including two British journalists covering the conference.

On October 13, the Canadian ministers hosted the delegates from the Maritime provinces at Club Stadacona, a private club on Rue d'Auteuil. The evening of October 15, the Québec Board of Trade served a sumptuous banquet at Hôtel Russell on Côte du Palais. The most grandiose event was undoubtedly the ball hosted by the Executive Council in the halls of the Parliament Building and attended by almost 850 members of the Canadian elite, plus the delegates and their wives. A week later the "bachelors" ball was held at the same venue for delegates and their wives and eligible daughters, as well as some 500 other guests.

During their stay in Québec, the delegates visited a number of tourist attractions in their free time (Montmorency Falls, the fortifications, memorials, etc.) and enjoyed guided tours of historic sites and major institutions like the citadel, the Seminary chapel, the Catholic cathedral, the Sisters of Charity convent, and Université Laval.

Spencer Wood, near Quebec, residence of the Governor General.
© No MIKAN 3574580

Delegate work sessions

Despite a busy social program, the delegates toiled every day, taking breaks only on Sundays. Étienne-Paschal Taché, joint premier of United Canada with J.A. Macdonald, chaired the work sessions. They took place in the Parliament Building, in the legislative council library on the ground floor. Sitting at the centre of a long table as at a "French-style dinner", Taché was surrounded by Canadian ministers, with Alexander T. Galt and Cartier to his left and Macdonald, Alexander Campbell, and Thomas d'Arcy McGee to his right. George Brown sat directly across from Taché and was flanked by the other Canadian cabinet members: William McDougall and James Cockburn on one side and Oliver Mowat, Hector Langevin, and Jean-Charles Chapais on the other. New Brunswick premier Samuel L. Tilley sat at one end of the table, with Prince Edward Island premier John H. Gray at the other. The other delegates from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia sat on either side of Tilley. Ambrose Shea and F.B.T. Carter—the two observers from Newfoundland—and the Prince Edward Island delegates were seated near Gray.

Official work sessions initially ran from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and were later extended from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. followed by another session from 7:30 p.m. to midnight. The delegates took 15 minutes for breakfast in a small adjoining room. They used the afternoon break to negotiate amongst each other, work in committees, and draw up the initial drafts of the resolutions.

Historic significance of the Conference

In addition to the social activities and anecdotal details that punctuated the delegates' stay that cold and rainy autumn, the Québec Conference is historically significant in that it was there that the Fathers of the Confederation drafted the first constitution of Canada. Continuing their discussions in Montreal on October 28 and 29 after the Québec Conference was officially adjourned, they put the finishing touches on the 72 Resolutions (also called "the Québec Resolutions"). These dealt in particular with the distribution of powers between a new federal government and the provinces. One resolution divided United Canada into two provinces (Quebec and Ontario), and another designated Québec and Toronto as their respective capitals. The resolutions also established the financial structure of the new government and required the new federation to build an intercolonial railway. While the Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island representatives withdrew from the project, those from the three other colonies agreed to submit the resolutions to their assemblies for approval.

To a large extent, the resolutions drawn up in Québec 150 years ago continue to define Canada today with its federal and provincial governments, upper house (Senate) whose members are appointed, and lower house (House of Commons) whose members are elected by proportional representation. One of these resolutions also maintains the tie between Canada and the British monarchy.