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Post-Confederation Canada (1867–1914)

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Title: Post-Confederation Canada (1867–1914)  
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Collection: Post-Confederation Canada (1867–1914)
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Post-Confederation Canada (1867–1914)

Post-Confederation Canada (1867–1914) refers to the period in Canada immediately following Canadian Confederation in 1867, up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.


  • Confederation 1
  • The Red River Rebellion 2
  • Expansion 3
  • Macdonald's "National Policy" 4
  • Ontario's quest for provincial rights 5
  • The North-West Rebellion 6
  • The Manitoba Schools Question 7
  • Population of the West 8
    • Klondike Gold Rush 8.1
  • Laurier and Canada's Role in the Empire 9
  • Alaska Boundary Dispute 10
  • Rising Anti-Asian sentiment in British Columbia 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13
  • External links 14


In the 1860s, the British were concerned with the possibility of an American assault on Great Coalition". This was an important step towards Confederation.

"Fathers of Confederation" meet in Quebec City

Meanwhile, the colonies further east, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, were also discussing a political union with each other. Representatives from the Province of Canada joined them at the Charlottetown Conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1864 to discuss a union of all the colonies, and these discussions were extended into the Quebec Conference of 1864. While there was opposition in each of the colonies, only Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland decided to remain outside of the planned Confederation. In 1867, representatives of the other colonies travelled to Britain to finalize the union, which was granted by the British North America Act on July 1, 1867.

Early drafts of the BNA Act (British North America Act) showed that Macdonald and the other Fathers of Confederation had viewed the new nation as a kingdom, calling for the official name of the country to be the "Kingdom of Canada". Though it is still considered that Canada became a "kingdom in her own right" in 1867, it was felt by the Colonial Office in the UK at the time that a name such as Kingdom of Canada was too "premature" and "pretentious."[1] Instead the term "Dominion" was adopted. In 1879, July 1 was formally established as Dominion Day to celebrate Confederation.

While the BNA Act gave Canada a high degree of autonomy within the British Empire, this autonomy extended only to internal affairs. External affairs, such as border negotiations with the United States, were still controlled from Britain.

The Red River Rebellion

The Métis Red River Provisional Government

The new country was led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Under Macdonald, Canada bought Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869, and westward settlement was encouraged. However, the people who already lived there, natives and Métis, descendants of the children of natives and French Canadian fur traders, were opposed to waves of English-speaking settlers buying their lands. The Métis of the Red River settlement (near present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba), led by Louis Riel, formed a provisional government to negotiate with the Canadian government, although these negotiations quickly fell apart. Riel led the Red River Rebellion in 1869 and 1870, during which he executed an Orangeman, causing an uproar among Protestant English Canadians. Macdonald sent a militia to put down the rebellion, which they quickly did, and Riel fled to the United States.

The Rebellion led to the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870, with laws protecting the rights of the natives, Métis, French-speakers and English-speakers, Catholics and Protestants.


The last, last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Craigellachie, British Columbia, November 7, 1885

In 1866, the colonies of British Columbia (formerly New Caledonia) and Vancouver's Island were united. British Columbia had been important for British control of the Pacific Ocean, and was a centre of the fur trade between Britain, the United States, Russia, Spain, and China. It did not participate in the original Confederation conferences, but agreed to join Canada in 1871 when Macdonald promised to build a transcontinental railroad across the continent through the North-West Territories (formerly Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory), which at this time still extended to the U.S. border. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Dominion Land Survey were started soon after.

Canadian provinces, 1881-1886

In 1873, Prince Edward Island, the Maritime colony that had opted not to join Confederation in 1867, was admitted into the country. That same year, Macdonald created the North-West Mounted Police to help police the North-West Territories and assert Canadian independence over possible American encroachments into the sparsely populated land. The "Mounties" became legendary for keeping law and order in the West.

However, also in 1873, Macdonald and the Conservative government faced a major political crisis, when it was revealed that the Canadian Pacific Railway Company had helped fund Macdonald's election campaign in 1872. A new election was called in 1874, and Alexander Mackenzie became prime minister. Under Mackenzie, the Canadian Pacific Railway continued to expand to the west, but the public's suspicion of Macdonald was erased by 1878, when Macdonald and the Conservatives were reelected.

Macdonald's "National Policy"

After being restored as Prime Minister, Macdonald introduced the National Policy, a system of protective tariffs meant to strengthen the Canadian economy. Part of the policy was the completion of the railroad, which would allow products to be transferred more easily across the country. It was also a response to the United States, which had a much stronger economy that threatened to overwhelm Canada; the United States had a trade reciprocity treaty with the United Province of Canada from 1854 to 1866, but abrogated the treaty before Confederation. Many people believed this policy was only beneficial to Ontario, as the Maritimes especially depended on trade with the United States. While it was somewhat beneficial for asserting Canadian independence, it was not very useful in the less industrial Maritimes and West.

Ontario's quest for provincial rights

While Macdonald may have hoped that the BNA Act would provide the central government in Ottawa with a strong hand, some of the provinces, particularly Ontario under the leadership of its premier Oliver Mowat, pushed for interpretations of the constitution that favoured provincial rather than Dominion interests. Mowat, premier from 1872 until 1896, became the "implacable enemy" of Prime Minister Macdonald[2] as a result of a series of court decisions regarding provincial jurisdiction over liquor licenses, use of streams, mineral rights and even the boundary between Ontario and its western neighbour, Manitoba. The northwest boundary between Ontario and Manitoba became a hotly contested matter, with the federal government attempting to extend Manitoba's jurisdiction eastward to the Great Lakes, into the areas that the government of Queen's Park in Toronto felt ought to belong to Ontario. In 1882 Premier Mowat threatened to pull Ontario from Confederation over the issue. Mowat sent police and government officials into the disputed territory to assert Ontario's claims, while Manitoba (at the behest of the national government) did the same.[3] The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which served as Canada's highest appeal court until 1949, repeatedly issued rulings taking the side of provincial rights. These decisions would to some extent neutralize the power of the central government, creating a decentralized federation quite different from what Sir John A. Macdonald had envisioned.[4]

The North-West Rebellion

Métis and First Nation prisoners following the rebellion, August 1885.

After the Red River Rebellion, many Métis moved west to what is now Saskatchewan. However, with the expansion of the railway, as well as increased European immigration to western Canada, they felt their way of life was once again being attacked. In 1884, Louis Riel returned from exile, and in the spring of 1885, he led the Métis and other natives against the North-West Mounted Police starting the North-West Rebellion. The Mounties surrounded the Métis settlement at Batoche, and by May reinforcements of Canadian militia had arrived on the new railway. The Métis and natives were decisively defeated, and this time Riel was not to escape. In November, he was found guilty of treason and hanged, causing an uproar among French Canadians who felt English-speaking Canada was unfairly prejudiced against him. This incident caused a deeper rift between the two populations, leading to a renewed sense of French Canadian nationalism that is still felt today. However, the crisis allowed the Canadian Pacific Railway company to show its worth by quickly transporting troops west which encouraged enough political support for further funding to complete the line, thus realizing Macdonald's dream of a transcontinental railway to help strengthen the nation building.

The Manitoba Schools Question

After the Red River Rebellion and the entrance of Manitoba into Confederation, settlers from English Canada arrived in the new province in greater numbers. In 1890, the provincial government passed the Manitoba Schools Act, abolishing government funding for Catholic schools and abolishing French as an official language - contrary to the Manitoba Act that created the province. This led to another federal political crisis, and by 1896, Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell was forced to resign. Wilfrid Laurier, a Catholic from Quebec, became prime minister. Laurier developed a compromise stating that French would be used in schools when there were a significant number of French-speaking students; this compromise was denounced by both sides, but was recognized as the only possible solution. However, along with the execution of Louis Riel, the Manitoba Schools Question led to an increase of French Canadian nationalism.

Population of the West

While the National Policy, CPR and Dominion Lands Act had been in place for several decades, the population of Canada's prairie regions only got underway around 1896. Why it began then is a matter of debate among historians. John Dales argued that it was a combination of rising wheat prices, cheaper ocean transport costs, technological change, new varieties of wheat, and the scarcity of land in the United States. Norry does not view any of these developments as being important, and instead argues that new methods of dry farming lead to the breakthrough. Recently, Ward had argued that technological change was the most important factor, with a number of different inventions becoming cheap and reliable enough to be widely used around this period. The period of western settlement was one of the most prosperous in Canadian history. From 1896 to 1911, Canada had the world's fastest growing economy. Immigration from Eastern Europe and the eastern parts of the former Austro-Hungarian empire brought many old world farmers to settle the west and despite their lack of knowledge of the English language many adapted quickly to the farming environment which was somewhat similar to their original homelands.

Klondike Gold Rush

Miner's camp at the head of the Yukon River

In August 1896, a party led by Skookum Jim Mason discovered gold on a tributary of the Klondike River. After the discovery was publicised in 1897, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people braved numerous hardships to reach the Klondike gold fields in the winter and spring of 1897-98. With the influx of American stampeders, the government decided to relieve the North-West Territories' administration from the task of controlling the sudden boom of population, economic activity and influx of non-Canadians. On June 13, 1898, the Yukon became a separate territory. In 1901, after many had gone back, the Census put the population of the territory at 27,219, a figure that was not reached again until 1991. The influx of people greatly stimulated mineral exploration in other parts of the Yukon and led to two subsidiary gold rushes in Atlin, British Columbia and Nome, Alaska as well as a number of mini-rushes. Transportation needs to the gold fields led to the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route.

Laurier and Canada's Role in the Empire

Laurier hoped to unite French and English Canada in a unique sense of Canadian nationalism, rather than remain unquestionably loyal to Britain. Along with some Americans, he also hoped for a shift of focus towards North America, a policy often known as "continentalism." However, in 1899, the British immediately assumed Canada would send military support to the Boer War in South Africa, and there was indeed enormous support for military action from English Canada. French Canada was strongly opposed to military support for Britain's imperialist wars. The opposition was led by Henri Bourassa, who, like Laurier, preferred a united, independent Canada. Bourassa denounced Laurier when Laurier eventually decided to allow a volunteer force to fight in the war, even though the other option would have been calling up an official army.

As Prime Minister, Laurier successfully brought Saskatchewan and Alberta into Confederation in 1905, carving those provinces out of the Northwest Territories. He felt Canada was on the verge of becoming a world power, and declared that the 20th century would "belong to Canada". However, he faced even more criticism when he introduced the Naval Service Bill in 1910. It was meant to make Canada less dependent on Britain and British imperialism, but Bourassa believed the British would now call on the Canadian navy whenever it was needed, just as they did with the Canadian army. Pro-British imperialists were also opposed to the attempt to remove Canada from the Empire. The Naval Service Bill led to Laurier's downfall in the election of 1911. Conservatives led by Robert Laird Borden attacked reciprocity with the United States, warning that strong economic links would weaken the Empire and allow the neighbour to increasingly take over the economy.

Alaska Boundary Dispute

The Alaska Boundary Dispute became important when gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1898 but miners had to cross American Alaska to get there. Canada argued its historic boundary with Russian Alaska included the Lynn Canal and the port of Skagway, both occupied by the U.S. The dispute went to arbitration in 1903 but, to the anger of Canadians, the British delegate sided with the Americans. It was a matter of ensuring good relations between London and Washington, at the expense of Canada. The resentment contributed to the defeat of Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberal Party in the 1911 election as they proposed a reciprocal trade treaty with the U.S. that would lower tariff barriers.

Rising Anti-Asian sentiment in British Columbia

The resident European community, particularly in British Columbia, Canada's province on the Pacific, was growing increasingly fearful and angry about immigration from Asia that they perceived threatened their jobs and the culture of the largely British population. Problems such as opium smoking were of particular concern.[5] In 1886, a head tax was imposed on the Chinese,[6] which reached as much as $500 per person to enter Canada by 1904. Serious anti-Asian riots erupted in Vancouver in 1887 and 1907. In the 1907 riot a mob of English-Canadian rioters, attacked Chinese- and Japanese-Canadian businesses, but met stiff resistance from the Japanese community.[7] By 1923 the dominion government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which would prohibit all Chinese immigration until 1947. Sikhs had to face an amended Immigration Act in 1908 that required Sikhs to have $200 on arrival in Canada, and immigration would be allowed only if the passenger had arrived by continuous journey from India, which was impossible. Perhaps the most famous incident of anti-Sikh sentiment in British Columbia was in 1914 when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver harbour with 376 Sikhs aboard, only 24 of all of the passengers were admitted. The Komagata Maru spent two months in harbour while the Khalsa Society went through the courts to appeal their case.[8] The Khalsa Society also kept the passengers on the Komagata Maru alive during those two months. When the case was lost, HMCS Rainbow, a Canadian Navy cruiser, towed the Komagata Maru out to sea. Asian-Canadians would be denied the vote until 1947.

See also


  1. ^ Farthing, John; Freedom Wears a Crown; Toronto, 1957
  2. ^ John Ibbitson, Loyal No More: Ontario's Struggle for a Separate Destiny, Toronto, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2001, p. 40.
  3. ^ Ibbotson, p. 46
  4. ^ Ibbotson, p. 49 "By the eve of the First World War, Confederation had evolved into a creation beyond John A. Macdonald's worst nightmare. Powerful, independent provinces, sovereign within their own spheres, manipulated the rights of property, levied their own taxes—even income taxes, in a few cases—exploited their natural resources, and managed schools, hospitals, and relief for the poor, while a weak and ineffectual central government presided over not much of anything in the drab little capital on the banks of the Ottawa."
  5. ^ Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 156
  6. ^ Barman, p. 143
  7. ^ Barman, p. 156.
  8. ^ Barman, p. 157.

External links

  • (CYB) annual 1867-1967Canada Year Book
  • Events of National Historic Significance
  • National Historic Sites of Canada
  • Persons of National Historic Significance in Canada
  • Alaska and Western Canada Collection - at University of Washington Libraries: Images documenting Alaska and Western Canada, primarily the provinces of Yukon Territory and British Columbia depicting scenes of the Gold Rush of 1898, city street scenes, Eskimo and Native Americans of the region, hunting and fishing, and transportation
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