Time to retire Canada's Fathers of Confederation?

TIME TO RETIRE AN OUTDATED CONCEPT?

Ged Martin, December 2015

An Outsider Intrudes

The categorisation of 36 nineteenth-century politicians as Canada’s ‘Fathers of Confederation’ no longer serves any worthwhile purpose, and should be abandoned, certainly by historians.

In making this claim, I have to add one huge disclaimer: I am neither a citizen nor a resident of Canada. Strictly speaking, how Canadians decide to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, which falls in 2017, is none of my business. I can claim only to be an observer – I hope a friendly one – of Canadian events over several decades, and a student of Canada’s history. In that latter capacity, I can and do suggest that the notion of the ‘Fathers of Confederation’ may have served a purpose a century ago, but that it has come to raise more issues than it solves in modern times.

Defining the Fathers of Confederation           

Officially, the Fathers are defined as the thirty six politicians who attended one of the three conferences which designed the British North America Act of 1867 – at Charlottetown and Quebec City in 1864, and in London, England during the winter of 1866-67. It is generally stated that they were so recognised during the Diamond Jubilee of 1927, but the process or the authority by which they were designated does not seem clear, a point that is further discussed below.

It would be easy to assume that the concept of Fathers of Confederation evolved in parallel, and as an implicit response, to adulation of the Founding Fathers in the United States. Americans adopted a much looser attitude, avoiding any official categorisation of their national heroes. Generally, the term applied to signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and to those who took part in the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. There seems no evidence that Canadians were aware of Jefferson’s overheated description of the latter as ‘an assembly of demigods’, and no evidence of any concerted emulation north of the border. Rather, the Canadian equivalent emerged slowly, and to some extent by accident.

Emergence of the term

The earliest use of the phrase in the Parliament of Canada seems to have been by Halifax Liberal MP Alfred Gilpin Jones, on 30 March 1871.[1] Jones seems an unlikely progenitor of the phrase, since he had fervently opposed Nova Scotia’s adherence to Confederation and was hardly likely to admire those who had designed its structure: perhaps his usage was sarcastic. Equally mysterious is the reported statement from March 1875 by Stewart Campbell, who ‘appealed to the Fathers of Confederation to protect the coal interests of Nova Scotia.’ Since most of the architects of the Dominion were in opposition at the time, mis-reporting must be suspected. Far from being a central Canadian (or arrogant Ontario) cry, the phrase seems to have made its rare appearances from opposite ends of the country: Arthur Bunster, a British Columbia MP, called Langevin ‘one of the Fathers of Confederation’ in 1880. To put the matter mildly, Bunster was not highly regarded in the House of Commons. His challenge to a Quebec member to engage in a fist fight in 1878 had been bad enough, but his decision to arm himself with a knife for the encounter had been somewhat worse.[2] If Bunster adopted a tag, there was no high probability that it would catch on.

It is also possible that the phrase made its way, slowly, in to English-Canadian discourse from the more ebullient language of Quebec, where ‘père de la confédération’ would probably have had a more acceptable ring. J-A. Mousseau applied the term to Macdonald in 1879, and it was used by Philippe Landry in 1880, by F-X-A. Trudel in 1882 and by Guillaume Amyot in 1884, and again in 1895. The official debate record does not always make clear whether Quebec MPs were speaking in French: most were fluent in English but obviously influenced by the cadences and phraseology of their mother tongue.[3]  However, one of the rare instances of an Anglophone MP using the phrase in those early years came from James Cockburn in 1879: although a former Speaker, Cockburn notoriously spoke no French.

One other piece of contemporary evidence indicates that Canadian public discourse had some way to go in the 1870s before a collective identity might embrace all the framers of the Dominion constitution. In September 1876, the satirical magazine Grip published a cartoon showing Confederation as a wandering toddler, surrounded by four politicians, each of them claiming paternity: George Brown insisted he was the child’s ‘genewine poppy’, John A. Macdonald proclaimed himself its ‘real daddy’ and William McDougall astonished that ‘The Much-Fathered Youngster’ did not recognise him. Macdonald, discredited by the Pacific Scandal and hammered at the polls in 1874, had been asserting his guardianship of the Confederation settlement in default of any more positive claim upon the support of the Canadian people. The most unlikely of the four is Francis Hincks, who has a bubble saying ‘I’m the Father of Confederation’. This was a piece of sarcasm by Grip’s proprietor, J.W. Bengough. Hincks had been out of Canada from 1856 until 1869, serving as a British colonial governor in the West Indies, but he had recently talked of the need for a Caribbean federation, and spoken of his own role in encouraging it.[4] It was a clever caricature, not least because in an era of large families and sometimes remote fatherhood, no doubt many a small child found was uncertain about its own paternity among a group of adults. But the cartoon suggests that there was no sense of shared achievement, at least among the chief protagonists, regarding the creation of Confederation, nor was there any general public attribution of shared endeavour.

Throughout five years of office between 1873 and 1878, and despite frequent ministerial changes, Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal cabinet did not contain a single participant in any of the three Confederation conferences. Although George Brown was influential behind the scenes, a government of opponents of John A. Macdonald was likely mainly to comprise men who had initially opposed Confederation, even if they were reluctantly acquiescent by 1873. Macdonald’s return to office in 1878 might have seemed a step forward in the canonisation of the Dominion’s founders, four of whom – Campbell, Langevin, Tilley and Tupper – served in prominent posts. However, there was a complication. Appointed to the Great Coalition as one of Brown’s associates, Oliver Mowat had apparently displayed little enthusiasm for the political revolution that it espoused, and had accepted appointment as a judge before the end of 1864. But Mowat had attended the Quebec Conference and so had an incontrovertible claim to constitutional parenthood. In 1872, he had stepped down from the bench to become premier of Ontario. Macdonald’s return to office six years later heralded a decade of legal warfare between Ottawa and its largest province, argued out before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England.  The substantive outcome of that campaign was that Mowat rolled back Macdonald’s centralised Dominion, establishing Ontario (and, by implication, the other provinces) as supreme within their legislative spheres. It would not become widely known until Joseph Pope published his documentary collection on Confederation in 1895, but Mowat had proposed two important resolutions as the Quebec blueprint was assembled, one defining the sphere of authority of the provinces, and the other authorising a number of central powers, including that of disallowing provincial legislation. Mowat’s role in the conference was thus larger than his prompt withdrawal to a judgeship might have suggested. In turn, this would have made Macdonald and his allies less likely to welcome to the cult of veneration implied in the term ‘Fathers of Confederation’, with its assumption of collective and constructive wisdom. If the premier who was fighting for Ontario’s autonomy was the same politician who had proposed the original raft of provincial powers, and if that person had also been almost immediately recognised as one of Upper Canada’s leading lawyers, then the campaign to roll back Ottawa’s authority would obviously seem to possess historical legitimacy. In 1887, Mowat countered the objection that he had also endorsed the disallowance of local legislation by the new general government by arguing, plausibly enough, that the delegates at Quebec had assumed that they were transferring an imperial power to the Dominion, on the same basis that had been exercised for many years from London – that is to say, very rarely.[5] If Confederation had been the work of founding fathers, then one of the most semi-divine of that assembly of demigods must have been the premier of Ontario.

The Robert Harris group portrait

In 1883, the Fathers of Confederation took a step closer to becoming a collective national icon, but the process was accidental and the accolade slow to crystallise. The founding, in 1880, of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts had no doubt represented a landmark in recognition and encouragement of the visual arts in the Dominion. Unfortunately, it was not easy to advance its cultural agenda, especially the central aim of creating a National Gallery. A cramped room in Ottawa’s Bank Street was designated as the Gallery’s first home in May 1882, and it may be that the idea of acquiring a large picture of national import was attractive as a means of forcing the issue of a permanent location. In April 1883, the Academy’s President, Lucius R. O’Brien, submitted a wordy memorandum to the government calling for artistic commemoration of ‘the meeting of the Conference at which the foundation was laid for the Confederation of the Provinces constituting the Dominion of Canada’. O’Brien did not specify which conference he had in mind, and the project began as a tribute to the meeting in Charlottetown. However, wherever it happened, O’Brien argued that it was ‘an event of such importance in the annals of the country’ that a monumental canvas was required to keep alive the memory of the participants. O’Brien added two further points. One was a hurry-up reminder that the delegates were already dying off. The other was that Robert Harris, ‘a Canadian artist of ability’, had recently returned from Europe and was ‘fully competent to paint such a picture.’[6]

Macdonald’s cabinet was apparently uncertain about how to respond to O’Brien’s plea.  To refuse to support a Canadian artist in the commemoration of a Canadian national landmark would seem narrow and philistine. But to endorse a proposal that would necessarily feature current members of the government would equally appear self-serving. They were rescued from their dilemma by Liberal front-bencher Wilfrid Laurier, who raised the matter in the Commons on 14 May 1883. Laurier no doubt believed in what he was doing, but it is likely that embracing the issue was also convenient to him. First, it gave him the opportunity for a frank avowal that he had opposed Confederation at the time, while making a characteristically eloquent avowal of his subsequent conversion. Second, it enabled him to adopt the mantle of a supporter of Canadian culture, his words of praise for Harris being deftly mingled with a tribute to the work of Quebec sculptor Louis Hébert. His comments suggest that he envisaged a work of art that would contribute to the portraiture in the hoped-for National Gallery. Perhaps above all, the implicit message of Laurier’s intervention was that his sunny ways could get things done: the project, he estimated, would cost only $3,000 to $4,000.

Laurier was seconded by a prominent Conservative, the Ottawa Valley entrepreneur Alonzo Wright, who saw himself as a gentlemanly figure in politics. In grandiose terms, Wright specifically had the 1864 Quebec Conference in mind, praising its participants as ‘animated by a lofty patriotism and a far-seeing statesmanship’ in their design of the new nation. His wide-ranging tributes were slightly undermined by his accidental omission of Liberal hero George Brown, and both oratorical efforts were hampered by the notoriously poor acoustics of the House of Commons. New Brunswick’s Peter Mitchell, who would appear in the memorial canvas, complained that he could not hear whatever was under discussion, and that members generally should ‘speak a little louder’; Laurier apologised that he was ‘suffering just now from an affection of the throat’.  Sir John A. Macdonald wound up the discussion, in full statesman mode, calling the exchanges ‘really one of those occasions in which the asperities of politics are forgotten’: he even praised the contribution to the achievement of his long-time enemy George Brown, who was conveniently dead, and ‘the present premier of Ontario’, who was inconveniently alive and not necessary to name. The prime minister deflected the potential objection that he would himself necessarily feature in the proposed picture: a jocular allusion to the cartoons of Bengough enabled him to insist that ‘I can have no objection to have another artist try his hand upon myself.’ Harris had won his commission.

The debate, although relatively brief, had rung the changes of praise for (to quote O’Brien) ‘the distinguished statesmen who took part in the deliberations.’ ‘There were giants in those days,’ said Wright, while Laurier referred to ‘the event which gave birth to Confederation’. But nobody mentioned the Fathers of Confederation. The phrase did not arise in connection with the Harris picture until April 1884, when former Liberal finance minister Richard Cartwright spotted the item in the estimates, and was apparently troubled by the thought that the politicians involved could be depicted for as little as  $100 a head. Cartwright, who had been out of the House the previous year, asked: ‘Who is to commemorate the Fathers of Confederation, and are they being done cheap?’ Sir Leonard Tilley assured him that Harris had the work in hand, and that no money had yet paid out.[7]

It is only fair to acknowledge that Harris’s picture was a remarkable achievement. He had to construct an essentially imaginary scene, dominated by carefully contoured heads. Images of some of the faces were difficult to track down. When Bernini was commissioned to produce a bust of Charles I, with the subject unseen, Van Dyck supplied three portraits of the king, full face, in profile and at an angle. Photographers like William Notman, who assisted Harris, snapped their sitters head-on, and the artist evidently had to work with the available material. Thus Adams G. Archibald, surely the only Canadian to have served as lieutenant-governor of two provinces, appears to cold-shoulder his immediate neighbour, John A. Macdonald, as he stares directly at the viewer: no doubt, a solemn full-face photograph was the only source available. Harris set his scene in a lofty chamber in the old Quebec parliament buildings – which burned in 1883. This enabled him to use three high windows as the background light source: Harris enlarged the centre window, presumably to emphasise the background panorama of the St Lawrence. ‘The sight was one to stir the dullest imagination and warm the coldest heart,’ wrote W.M. Whitelaw. The Canadians, Whitelaw suggested, would have felt the essential unity of their two provinces, while the Maritimers ‘must have been stirred ... watching the tide come in from the gulf.’[8] In reality, Canada’s coalition cabinet needed no such reminder, while the Prince Edward Islanders and Newfoundlanders, whose provinces most closely felt the Gulf currents, would become the least enthusiastic participants in the project. These comments by Whitelaw, generally an objective as well as a careful scholar, illustrate how the Harris portrait became back-projected into the story of the Quebec Conference, until it would become difficult to disentangle the actual hard bargaining from the subsequent sentimentality. The more practical aspect of the Harris design was that the huge windows provided light sources which made it possible to silhouette those secondary figures who were still active two decades after the event. Although the picture was 3.58 metres long by 1.55 metres high, the delegates occupied only the lower half of the canvas, giving the throng the appearance of a crowded corridor rather than a constitutional convention. Ostensibly, the participants were grouped around a long table, but there was not enough room to seat them all. To ensure that the visibility of the major players on the far side of the table, only seven of the 34 figures, all of them in profile, occupy the side nearest the viewer.  Necessarily, the lesser participants had to stand around the fringes of the scene.

Harris himself called the commission ‘the government picture’, and there can be no doubt that his was a representation of 1864 seen through the political priorities of 1883. Although Harris did attempt to replicate the general seating plan of the meeting, so far as it was reported the time, his canvas was in every sense a central Canadian picture. Around the middle section of the table, where the real decisions are being made, not one single delegate from the Atlantic region can be seen.[9] The standing figure of Macdonald dominates the scene, as he expounds from a charter-like scroll. Leaning towards him is his French-Canadian ally, George Étienne Cartier, in the body language of nation-building partnership. Slightly further away is Étienne-Pascal Taché, premier of the Great Coalition and hence president of the Conference, who had died in 1865: the imperatives of 1864 meant that he had to be depicted, the priorities of 1883 ensured that he need not be emphatically central. In the foreground, the only figure permitted to mask Macdonald, is Hector-Louis Langevin, who had taken over Cartier’s role as Quebec lieutenant, and was one of the possible candidates to succeed Macdonald if the Old Man ever decided to step down. George Brown and Oliver Mowat are close by, in the vanguard if perhaps not entirely on the team. Alexander Galt merits his near-central location, both as the wizard behind the 1867 financial settlement and for his continuing prominence in public life. But the location of Alexander Campbell close to the heart of events reflected the fact that he had led the Conservative party in the Senate since 1867. He played only a minor role at Quebec, largely because his skills as a Tory lawyer replicated Macdonald’s own qualifications.

In flanking positions are Leonard Tilley of New Brunswick, comfortable and confident in his chair, and the characteristically imposing standing figure of Charles Tupper. Indeed, it is not wholly clear whether it is Tupper or Macdonald who addresses the meeting. To the left of Tilley, there is a rent-a-mob of miscellaneous Maritimers, with others straggling away to the right of Tupper. The two Newfoundland delegates, F.B.T. Carter and Ambrose Shea, stand awkwardly at the back, like two embarrassed tourists who have stumbled into an ethnic wedding. Two Maritimers still active in public life, Thomas Heath Haviland and Peter Mitchell – the New Brunswicker who had found it difficult to hear Laurier’s original proposal – are etched against windows, thus singling them out from the crowd. One of the oddest portrayals, at the extreme right of the canvas, is that of New Brunswick’s John Mercer Johnson, who leans forward attentively, in a manner that almost suggests he is gate-crashing the picture. His positioning understated his role in the eighteen-sixties. Attorney-General of his province, Johnson had attended all three conferences, forming part of a small sub-committee in London that had worked with the British to draft the British North America Act. But he had died in 1868 – Johnson’s lifestyle was not conducive to longevity – and did not merit a prominent place fifteen years later: perhaps, too, Harris had encountered difficulty in locating a likeness, and hence had been forced to relegate him to the sidelines.

There are other levels of symbolism in the canvas, for instance in those participants shown handling documentation. It is difficult to explain why Edward Palmer of Prince Edward Island is shown, apparently reading a newspaper. Perhaps his body language suggests detachment, for Palmer did declare against the Quebec scheme. As he was still alive in 1883 and living in Charlottetown – where Harris began work on the painting – it can hardly be the case that the artist was constrained by only having access to a pensive profile. But another Islander, journalist Edward Whelan, and John Hamilton Gray of New Brunswick, are both apparently taking notes: each would later publish a book about the movement for Confederation. D’Arcy McGee holds a pamphlet, perhaps one of his inspirational speeches (although it seems a very small pamphlet for a McGee oration). Otherwise, Macdonald and Tupper grasp resolutions, while Tilley has inserted his fingers in a reference book, marking points for citation.

If, overall, the Harris painting must be regarded as an achievement, it is hard to acclaim it – artistically – as a success. It lacks the spontaneity, warmth and wit of his other well-known group picture, The Meeting of the School Trustees, which followed in 1885.[10] His Quebec Conference painting did not necessarily copper-bottom the concept of the Fathers of Confederation, but rather formed part of its gradual percolation of public discourse. For instance, a Nova Scotian MP, J.A. Kirk referred in April 1884 to ‘those gentlemen, who are called today the fathers of Confederation.’ But when the canvas had its public exhibition, soon after in Montreal, it was simply called ‘Meeting of the Delegates of British North America’, with a subtext that spelled out the location and purpose. In 1891, J. Pennington Macpherson referred to the ‘noble picture ... of the “Fathers of Confederation” ... which now adorns the vestibule of the Houses of Parliament at Ottawa’[11] – for the politicians had been too smart to fall for any manoeuvre that might entrap them to erecting a purpose-built National Gallery. Unfortunately, the painting was destroyed in the 1916 Parliament fire. Harris sold the preliminary cartoon to the government, thus partly compensating him for an official decision to refuse him royalties on reproductions. Complaining about Mackenzie King’s unilateral redefinition of Canada’s relationship with Britain at the Imperial Conference of 1926, acting Conservative leader Hugh Guthrie pointed out that at Quebec, ‘all the great parties of Canada were represented. Look at that famous picture the Fathers of Confederation if you want reassurance on this point.’ Harris had become not simply an imaginative tribute but a documentary source.

Towards the Diamond Jubilee of 1927

Even so, the phrase ‘Fathers of Confederation’ made relatively slow headway in Canadian cultural and political discourse. Macpherson used it once in his workmanlike biography of Macdonald, Emerson B. Biggar twice in his popular Anecdotal Life of the first prime minister. But Sir John A’s official chronicler, Joseph Pope, avoided the phrase in his two-volume study of 1894. Nor had it been used a decade earlier, either by Alexander Mackenzie in his hagiography of George Brown, or by J.C. Dent in his monumental political history of the previous four decades. Biographers tended to be partisans for their subjects, and were perhaps reluctant to share the glory of nation-building. Yet the participants themselves may have been equally embarrassed by the tag. Oliver Mowat died in 1903: his headstone described him as ‘One of the Founders of the Confederation of the Provinces of the Dominion of Canada’, and a member of the government ‘Formed for the purpose of effecting the Political Union of British North America.’[12] The avoidance of a snappier phrase is revealing. However, Canada’s constitutional architects were dying off, and a sentimental designation that perhaps they themselves rejected came to seem acceptable by the generation that followed. By 1908, only Charles Tupper was left, and the old bruiser was becoming transformed into a national treasure, ‘Canada’s Grand Old Man’ as a biographical sketch put it. In that year, the governor-general, Earl Grey, hailed him as ‘one of the Fathers of Confederation’,[13] although his biographer, E.M. Saunders, avoided the term in his two-volume Life in 1916. That year saw the publication of A.U.H. Colquhoun’s volume in the Chronicles of Canada series, an overview history of nation building, entitled The Fathers of Confederation. This may have been a publisher’s marketing choice, for Colquhoun was remarkably sparing in his use of the term, using it just six times (twice in the shortened form of ‘Fathers’), in one of which he regretted their design of the Senate.

Given that the concept of the Fathers of Confederation as such emerged but slowly, it is not surprising that specific opinions and attitudes were rarely attributed to them. Quebec MP Guillaume Amyot was prepared in 1895 to accept a moral duty to observe the Sabbath, but ‘I do not think the fathers of confederation ever intended that this Parliament should enforce that obligation.’ G.E. Casey, Liberal MP for Elgin West in Ontario, seems to have been the first politician to speak of the ‘wisdom of the fathers of confederation’ in Parliament. The example is instructive. In 1864-7, the politicians who stitched together the new Canadian constitution decided not to tackle the issue of common franchise qualifications across the Dominion. It was left to Macdonald to impose a system in 1885 which opponents alleged was politically slanted in favour of the Conservatives. In 1898, the Liberals reverted to using provincial qualifications in national elections. Supporting the move, Casey appealed to the ‘wisdom’ of the founders, sagacity that happened to coincide with his own preferred solution. In a later example, Mackenzie King’s minister Brooke Claxton used the same phrase in 1949 to rebut demands that the nine existing provinces should be consulted (or, in plainer English, bribed) before Newfoundland was admitted as the tenth. It seemed that ‘wisdom of the fathers of confederation’ was perceived the more easily when their decisions happened to coincide with your preferences.

Had they really done such a marvellous job? ‘It is to the glory of the Fathers of Confederation that the constitution ... has lasted without substantial change for nearly half a century,’ proclaimed Colquhoun, in one of his few engagements with the title of his own book.[14] With due respect to the author, who was a distinguished Ontario civil servant, 49 years was not long for the survival of any system of government. In most polities, a natural inertia leads power-brokers to operate existing institutions, rather than seek to rip them up from the roots and start again. In the absence of national disasters such as defeat in war or major internal upheaval, it was hardly a matter for wonder, much less of celebration, that the 1867 rules still formed the basis of government in 1916. Second, the constitution had been amended, not only by Ottawa but also – because its architects omitted to endow their constitution with an amending formula – through legislation from Westminster, requested of course by Canadians but enacted to plug gaps in the original settlement. Thus the British North America Act of 1871 (34-35 Victoria, c. 28) resolved ‘doubts’ regarding the authority of the Dominion to carve out new provinces in the West. The 1875 Parliament of Canada Act (38-39 Victoria, c. 38) was also intended ‘to remove certain doubts with respect to the powers of the Parliament of Canada’ which had arisen out of controversy over the right of a parliamentary enquiry to take evidence under oath during the Pacific Scandal. A brief declaratory act was even required in 1895 to validate the appointment of a Deputy Speaker for the Senate.[15] In macro-engineering terms, the drafting process of 1864-67 had indeed achieved a remarkable structure, but there had been glitches and oversights which could not be ignored. Third, and perhaps the most important reservation of all, while Canada was still governed by the same basic charter after half a century, that document was interpreted in a very different spirit thanks to the provincial counter-offensive of the 1880s. It was to the credit of the Fathers that their document was flexible enough to accommodate an alternative philosophy of federalism, but it was less clear that they had all foreseen or would have welcomed such a development themselves.

Socialist leader J.S. Woodsworth reacted impatiently to hero-worship of the country’s founders. ‘We are often told of the great achievements that were wrought by the Fathers of Confederation,’ he commented in January 1926, asking: ‘What about the grandchildren of confederation? Is confederation worthwhile?’  Woodsworth feared that the benefits of political unity were purchased at the expense of regional economic disparity. Henri Bourassa echoed his concern in March 1927: it had been ‘a great mistake on the part of the fathers of confederation’ to purchase the North West, treat the region as a colony of central Canada and so transmit second-class status to the prairie provinces. In the same debate, Woodsworth was prepared to make politely patriotic noises, but fundamentally he doubted whether the values of 1867 had much to say to the political agenda of six decades later. ‘The fathers of confederation could not have had any idea sixty years ago of the vast changes that were coming; they could not possibly have had the prescience that would enable them to visualize them.’

It was against the background of such attitudes that the Dominion celebrated its sixtieth birthday, on July first 1927. Overshadowing the event was the lost opportunity of ten years earlier: the more obvious calendar landmark, fifty years of Confederation, had been obscured by War and internal division. The tone of the period was caught by the grim warning of Quebec Conservative MP P-E. Lamarche, who noted that the fiftieth anniversary followed the 1916 destruction of the Ottawa parliament: he could only hope that the bicultural spirit of Confederation was not equally threatened. A commemorative stamp was issued in 1917, a truncated, Tilley to Tupper, extract from the now-destroyed Harris canvas. There were few other formal commemorations.

Ten years on, Canada needed to do better. Prime Minister Mackenzie King told parliament in April 1927 that the celebrations would honour ‘the achievements of the fathers of confederation’. However, the unanimously adopted Commons resolution looked to the future, stating that the commemoration was intended to encourage ‘a robust Canadian spirit, and in all things Canadian a profounder national unity.’ The term ‘Diamond Jubilee’ invoked memories of the celebration of Queen Victoria’s reign back in 1897, the high water mark of imperial unity and comfortable world power, implying that celebrating sixty years was better than fifty, not a delayed second-class substitute. Yet there were modernistic features of the celebration, too, that would not have been present a decade earlier – a coast-to-coast hook-up through the new medium of radio, plus the enhanced international status of membership of the League of Nations and an honoured role within the Commonwealth of Nations that Mackenzie King stressed in his July first address on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. ‘Thus has been realized, far beyond their dreams, the vision of the Fathers of Confederation.’[16] The oratory was uplifting, but it was also logically confused, a characteristic example of the mismatch between the values of the present and the aims of the past inherent in the celebration of any founding myth. The vision of the Fathers had been realised, but the Canada that had developed had not been imagined in their dreams. There is some contradiction here.

Canada’s founders were not only honoured: they were also re-defined. Three additional names were added to the list, apparently in deference to pressure from their families.[17] It is likely that the decision was ultimately made by Mackenzie King, who micromanaged the celebrations: ‘no detail escaped his attention.’[18] There is a Big-Tent inclusivity about the 1927 pantheon which is certainly redolent of King’s tendency to straddle opposites. Nine of the acclaimed Fathers came from provinces that did not join the original Dominion – one quarter of the total – including the two from Newfoundland, a jurisdiction that was still outside in 1927. Furthermore, even by the standards of Canada’s famed tolerance and inclusivity, it seems remarkable that three of the officially hailed founders of the nation had in fact opposed its creation.[19]

Rex Woods: repainting the past

The constructed nature of the ‘Fathers’ category was underlined in 1964 when an insurance company, Confederation Life, commissioned the artist Rex Woods to produce a tribute to Harris, which would replace the picture lost in 1916. Woods added the three 1927 Fathers of Confederation at the right hand side of the canvas, even though they had not been present at Quebec. Their addition subverted the balance of the original group, a disruption that Woods sought to disguise by placing a cameo from a Harris self-portrait on the wall behind them. (Aged fifteen at the time of the Quebec Conference, Harris was in fact living in Prince Edward Island while the Dominion was in gestation.) Despite its resemblance to a gigantic cigarette card, the Woods revival of the Harris icon no doubt succeeded as a nation-building symbol. The downside was some of the individual figures were now third-hand – copies of interpretations of photographs – and several of the individual figures, notably Étienne Taché and John Hamilton Gray of Prince Edward Island, appear as spiritless caricatures. Woods captured a moment of breathless destiny at the price of rendering a collection of mainly lifeless figures. One unfortunate inheritance from Harris was that the participants all have their backs to the giant windows, as if ignoring the inspirational panorama of seemingly endless river that symbolised the real Canada. Equally, the casual observer would have no idea that most of these black-coated figures were in fact men in their forties, not so much handing down a constitution to posterity as designing a stage on which they proposed to act themselves.[20]

The Fathers of Confederation: Regional and Ethnic Restrictions

Of course, there were notable limitations to the comprehensiveness of the 1927 list. It was the year that the Government of Canada formally asked the Supreme Court to adjudicate whether women were ‘persons’ within the meaning of the British North America Act, and hence  eligible for appointment to the Senate: ‘Fathers’ meant precisely what it said – an all-male cohort. Had the discrimination been complained about, the defence would obviously be that 1927 was faithful to 1864-66, both in its restriction by gender and in the fact that none of the conference participants had ever set foot west of the Great Lakes. In 1927, as in 2015, the concept of the Fathers of Confederation excluded the half of Canada that resides west of Ontario, and the half of Canada that happens to be female. A further complication was that the Fathers were mainly Anglophones and Protestant. Of the four French-Canadians, Taché did not live to see the passage of the British North America Act, while Cartier and Langevin are deeply embedded in the parliamentary world of Victorian Canada, in a manner that today resonates only to a handful of students of political history. (Indeed and alas, Langevin was in so deeply engaged that he was eventually forced to resign for complicity in corruption.) The fourth Quebecer, J-C. Chapais, enjoyed brief retrospective prominence in 1927 because his son happened to be serving in the Senate.[21] (Thomas Chapais doubled as a History professor at Laval, and later served in the Quebec cabinet under Duplessis. He accepted a knighthood when Bennett briefly revived imperial honours in 1935. If the son seems remote from modern Quebec, the father can only belong to an even more distant world.) Even in the late nineteenth century, French Canadians were looking to alternative parental figures, such as Champlain and Papineau.[22] Of the 32 anglophone Fathers, just three were Catholics – D’Arcy McGee from Canada, Newfoundland’s Ambrose Shea and Edward Whelan of Prince Edward Island. Only William Henry Steeves of New Brunswick could claim any ethnicity outside the prevailing Anglo-Celtic background of the English-speaking majority, on the basis of a great-grandfather, Heinrich Stieff, from Germany.

While qualification for the parenthood of Confederation remains participation at one of the three founding conferences, it is not easy to see how these problems can be overcome. The case of Robert Duncan Wilmot illustrates this. Wilmot had long believed in British North American union, but he objected to the Quebec scheme because, in his opinion, it did not go far enough towards centralisation. He joined the 1865 New Brunswick cabinet – it was initially known as the Smith-Wilmot ministry -- which temporarily derailed the process of Confederation.  Wilmot quickly found himself at odds with his colleagues, and became first a fifth-column and soon a declared opponent of the Antis. He travelled to the London conference in 1866, but left no amending mark upon the draft constitution. By contrast, Nova Scotia’s Joseph Howe – perhaps the most enduringly popular and certainly best remembered public figure his province has ever produced – made peace with the new dispensation in 1868-9 – extracting ‘better terms’ that represented at least a dent in the Confederation settlement. Unlike Wilmot, Howe changed sides too late to qualify for national parenthood. Then came the creation of Manitoba in 1870, the fulcrum of a profound argument by W.L. Morton that the constitution was fundamentally changed by the creation of an intended second French-majority province.[23]

However, no mechanism exists to designate post-1867 Fathers of Confederation. Given that the overall category probably no longer serves much purpose, that may not seem to be a problem. But there are two downsides to the closure of the elite. One is that it continues to confine a nation symbol by region, gender and ethnicity. The other is that unofficial bids are made on behalf of attractive individuals who are taken from their context and elevated into popular icons. One individual located in an ambiguous category is Louis Riel, who was recognised by the House of Commons in 1992, for his ‘unique and historic role’ both in the founding of Manitoba and ‘his contribution in the development of confederation’, despite being hanged for treason in 1885.[24] Some undoubtedly regard him as a Father of Confederation, even though he has never been so recognised.[25]

When it comes to geographical distribution, it seems unreasonable that Canada’s third largest province by population, British Columbia, has no representative among the country’s acclaimed creators. A modern-day Government of Canada website quotes a tenth-grade student in Greater Vancouver who argues that Amor De Cosmos should be regarded as British Columbia’s Father of Confederation.[26] The problem with both these popular ascriptions is that they focus upon one colourful personality to the exclusion of many other potential candidates. If formal participation in negotiations for provincial status is the touchstone for Confederation fatherhood, then neither Riel nor De Cosmos would qualify. The three British Columbians who journeyed to Ottawa in 1870 were R.W.W. Carrall, J.S. Helmcken and J.W. Trutch. They are not names that trip from the tongue of memory. And the problem of over-emphasis upon larger-than-life figures is accentuated where the legendary personality was himself the origin of the claim to inclusion, as in the case of Newfoundland’s J.R. Smallwood, who projected himself as the only living Father of Confederation. And such self-promotion undoubtedly has its effect. Most politically aware Canadians would probably have a vague notion that Smallwood was the vital force behind Newfoundland’s accession as the tenth province. Few would recall that F. Gordon Bradley was at least the formal leader of the campaign. Some would argue that his role was more than merely nominal, and that, without the ‘cover’ of the more prominent and respectable Bradley, Smallwood might well have failed.[27]

Of course, there are no Aboriginal Fathers of Confederation. It would be insulting to imply that signatories to the Numbered Treaties between 1871 and 1921 were free agents helping to shape Canada, let alone that they embraced any vision behind the agreements. Arguably, it was not until the creation of Nunavut in 1999 and the Nisga’a Treaty the following year that Aboriginal people negotiated participatory status with any element of equality. In any case, First Nations emphasise decision-making through group consensus rather than by individual leadership, so the singling out of individuals, even as symbolic of their communities, would run counter to their cultures.

Mothers of Confederation?

The major shortcoming of the Fathers of Confederation remains their uniform masculinity. Here there is an obvious mismatch between the realities of the past, when political activity was restricted to men, and the culture of the present, which finds itself uneasy with any tradition that so obviously excludes women. In recent times, Moira Dann, a writer based in Victoria BC, has brought alive the women, wives, daughters and sweethearts, who enlivened the social side of the first two Confederation conferences. (London in 1866-67 was less festive, although some of the Maritime delegates were accompanied by spouses, George Cartier brought his partner and John A. Macdonald found time to get engaged.)[28] Dann’s Mothers of Confederation certainly offer a lively corrective to the masculine story, but it is still hard to see them as equivalents in terms of policy-making. In 2015, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne endorsed a similar approach.[29] R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith are perhaps the first academic historians to recognise the collective designation, although this prolific team of textbook authors has come late to its acceptance.[30] The Canadian Encyclopedia includes six women in a section on ‘Mothers of Confederation’, the component articles dating in their present form to 2015. Unfortunately, only two of six were on the fringes of any of the Confederation conferences, one of whom, Mercy Anne Coles, daughter of a Prince Edward Island politician, unfortunately caught diphtheria at Quebec. Two of the Canadian Encyclopedia six were not even in Canada in 1864: one, Lady Dufferin, arrived in 1872; the other, Queen Victoria herself (discussed below), never made the journey. (When John Ross, a Canadian delegate to London in 1858, invited her to visit, she ‘laughed very heartily, saying she was afraid of the sea’.)[31] Collectively, these are refreshing attempts to redress the gender bias in the parenthood of Canadian Confederation, but they do stretch the factual underpinnings to present a matching female team.

Anne Nelson Brown: Get Me Out Of Here

The first one political wife from that era to be the subject of a scholarly attempt to label her as the ‘Mother of Confederation’ was Anne Brown. The year was 1960, and the proposer was Maurice Careless, charming and scholarly biographer of Anne’s husband, George Brown, the dark and driven proprietor of the Toronto Globe and masterful voice of the Upper Canada Reform movement. Careless was influenced by the ethos of the University of Toronto’s History school. Its members tended to perceive great underlying forces which sought to determine the course of events and the creation of nations. However, those forces required to be first recognised and then harnessed by gifted and blessed individuals in order to be brought to fruition. Character and circumstance, Donald Creighton called the approach, and its greatest monument would be his two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald, who soared above some very human weaknesses to embrace the potential of the St Lawrence system and so create a transcontinental Canada. However, perhaps the most noteworthy example of the intersection between personality and destiny in Macdonald’s career resulted not so much in his own landmark resolve, but in the decision of his rival, George Brown, to join him in a coalition ministry in June 1864 which aimed to restructure British North America and did indeed create modern Canada three years later. The feud between Brown and Macdonald was legendary, with the upright and inflexible Reform leader insisting upon an unconditional apology for an earlier attack on his integrity. Why did he modify his position – for he still insisted on personal redress, even though he was prepared to defer the retraction, thus enabling the devious Macdonald to postpone and evade the commitment? It was tempting to attribute Brown’s new-found moderation to a seismic change in his private life. Concentrating on his business and political careers, Brown had remained single until the age of 43. On a visit to his Scottish homeland in 1862 he had met and successfully wooed Anne Nelson, returning to unaccustomed domesticity and (at an appropriate interval) parenthood in Toronto. He also re-entered politics, which dragged him down to parliament in Quebec City, but he now adopted an aloof and independent attitude, concentrating on the constitutional issue of relations between English- and French-speaking Canadians. This, in turn, led to his reluctant agreement in June 1864 to work for structural change within a coalition cabinet. Was his new-found moderation a by-product of his belated marriage? In a bright throwaway remark in 1927, Frank Underhill, gadfly of the Toronto History Department, had suggested: ‘Perhaps the real Father of Confederation was Mrs Brown.’[32]

In nominating Anne Brown as the ‘Mother of Confederation’ at a conference of the Canadian Historical Association, Careless impishly pleaded that he was ‘merely altering the characterization to restore Mrs. Brown to her rightful sex.’ Indeed, he half admitted that his title was ‘devised to trap an audience’. He disavowed any intention ‘to prove that Brown’s activities in the conceptual year of Confederation [i.e. 1864] were directed by a feminine hand.’ Rather, he sought to demonstrate that George Brown’s public activities were conducted within a context of concern for his family life, so that ‘the former cannot be properly described without reference to the latter.’ As Brown himself put it in one of his letters home, ‘we must think of wallpaper and carpets, whatever comes of the constitution.’ As Careless happily accepted, this was almost certainly true of most politicians. The advantage in this case was the survival of an exceptionally rich seam of private correspondence from husband to wife. Unfortunately, Anne Brown’s replies mostly do not survive but, unless he was a thunderingly insensitive bore, the contents of George’s letters imply that Anne took an informed interest in public affairs. (The same may be said of Amy Galt, whose husband Alexander Tilloch Galt similarly kept her closely informed of the inner world of politics.[33])

Given the one-sided nature of the surviving correspondence, it is difficult to infer the nature and extent of Anne Brown’s influence. So far as her opinions can be reconstructed, it seems that she did indeed encourage her husband to take a prominent role in politics. George himself was understandably reluctant. His bid to form a government in 1858 had come apart after just two days, while the attempt to combine politics and business had caused a breakdown in his health in 1861. In February 1864, he mused over the idea of ‘going in’, taking cabinet office if the opportunity arose. His preferred strategy was to secure his financial position, concentrate on rearing their small daughter -- ‘and then perhaps think of such work. But now – it would be arrant folly. ... But you are so ambitious!’ The comment is interesting, since it inverts what might seem to be more conventional gender roles, in which women are cautious and men competitive. It also contradicts Brown’s report to his mother-in-law a few months earlier that Anne had told him ‘not to run again’ (adding, facetiously, ‘I always do as she tells me’). A likely interpretation would suggest that Anne reinforced her husband’s shifting moods, in effect saying – as spouses and partners so often say – do what you think is right, and I shall support you. ‘How I do wish you were here to advise me,’ Brown wrote from Quebec City as he took the unpalatable step of entering coalition. ‘You cannot tell how much I wish you had been.’ There is a considerable difference between sharing a difficult decision and submitting to wifely dictation.

Anne Brown may be useful in filling the perceived character-and-circumstance need for the vital human influence that tipped the fulcrum of destiny, but there is not the slightest evidence that she contributed to the shaping of Confederation. In entering government, Brown had refused to accept any departmental responsibility, taking the non-portfolio post of President of the Council. Although he was pleasantly surprised at how easy it proved to work with former opponents, there was one cabinet spat in late August, when John A. Macdonald tried to railroad through a suspect payment, which Brown blocked by threatening resignation. ‘Do you know you were very near being stripped yesterday of your honours of Presidentess of the Council?’, he wrote to Anne. ‘Would that not have been a sad affair?’ His ironic and affectionate tone reflected that the fact that Anne was most certainly not Presidentess of anything, nor did she wish to be. At home in Toronto with the baby, she was not even acting as her husband’s official hostess in Quebec City: indeed, few wives accompanied politicians to parliamentary sessions.

The most that can be said about Anne Brown’s significance in the formation of the Great Coalition is that marriage had sufficiently mellowed her husband to make him accept an alliance that he would earlier have rejected out of hand – as, indeed, he had done in spurning feelers on behalf of John A. Macdonald two years earlier. (Of course, it might also have been the case that his new-found, mid-life domesticity would have weighed against spending any more time at the seat of government than was absolutely necessary.) But in focusing upon the personal and sentimental, character-and-circumstance missed other, underlying elements in the pact of 1864. First, the Great Coalition was primarily an alliance between Brown’s Upper Canada Reformers and Cartier’s francophone Bleus. Given Brown’s track record of minimal tolerance towards either Catholics or French Canadians, his decision to strike a deal with a party that had both strikes against it might indeed seem to call for the location of some extraneous personality modifier. However, there was an even deeper imperative driving a deal, in that Brown could only secure reconstruction of the province of Canada by working with the predominant political grouping in Lower Canada. Since Cartier would not abandon his marginalised Upper Canada Conservative allies, making terms with Macdonald was a collateral and essentially secondary consideration. Moreover, within the factional politics of the upper province, Brown and John A. Macdonald had a shared interest in blocking the rival Reform leader, Sandfield Macdonald, whose ‘double majority’ shibboleth threatened to preserve the existing province in its stumbling stalemate. For a brief moment in 1864, both the reality of political power in Lower Canada and the triangular fluidity of Upper Canada pointed to a Brown-John A. Macdonald deal. But, as I have pointed out in other contexts, they grasped one another not by the hand but by the throat. The alliance of convenience broke down, with Brown’s resignation from the ministry in 1865 – an episode not mentioned by Careless in his Anne Brown paper, which stopped at Christmas 1864. Far from having undergone a permanent personality transformation thanks to his marriage, George celebrated his departure from the Great Coalition with an exultant message to his wife: ‘I am a free man once more!’[34]

This review of a conference address delivered half a century ago may seem an unduly detailed response to a jeu d’esprit that no doubt enlivened a solemn gathering. However, the Maurice Careless paper has become the cornerstone of more recent attempts to fashion an entire category of Mothers of Confederation, all of which include Anne Brown, usually citing her unveiling in 1960 as its ultimate validation. Two further points seem appropriate to wrap up the case. The first is that there is surely a mismatch between the social attitudes of 1960 and the culture of gender equality that prevails today, making it incongruous for the latter to base an analysis upon a piece of work shaped by the former. This is no criticism of Careless: both as a historian and as a (male) citizen, he was remarkably progressive in the context of 1960 to suggest that a woman had played any kind of public role. (Women’s history and women’s studies were concepts that lay in the future: Wikipedia tells me that Cornell led the way in 1969.) Ellen Fairclough had become the first woman appointed to the Canadian cabinet in 1957, just three years before Anne Brown's retrospective elevation to national parenthood. Indeed, when Fairclough had first entered parliament, winning a by-election in 1950, she found herself the only female MP at Ottawa. It was not until 1979 that the number of women in the House of Commons broke the double figures barrier (just – there were ten of them).  Nineteen years earlier, the suggestion that a woman influenced the shaping of a major political endeavour was refreshing, even provocative. But what was path-breaking half a century ago is surely embarrassing now. Anne Brown’s contribution to the purported moderation of her husband lay in the excellence with which she performed very traditional roles – wife, mother, and matrimonial counsellor, ‘perfectly loveable and loving’, as her absent and pining husband put it.  No doubt Canada should honour the past and present role in the life of the nation played by its womenfolk as homemakers. But nowadays it is patriarchal and patronising to claim that Anne Brown contributed to a constitutional revolution because she so effectively stood by her man. Finally, there was one awkward complication that can fatally undermines Anne Nelson Brown’s claim to be considered a founder of the Canadian nation. She did not like the country. In a rare surviving letter, written in February 1865, you told her husband flatly, ‘you must never speak of settling down here for life.’ Homesick for Scotland, she clung to the hope of eventually ‘going home and settling among friends there. ... The idea of being buried here is dreadful to me.’[35] It seems bizarre to hail Anne Brown as one of the founders of a country which she detested.

Queen Victoria Makes a Late Run

In the early twenty-first century, as the monarchy receded from Canadian present and faced an uncertain role in the country’s future, a second and even more unlikely female figure began to be acclaimed in the Confederation pantheon. If Anne Brown was a reluctant exile, Queen Victoria managed never to set foot in her chief colony at all. Yet, in 2013, Canadian monarchist Arthur Bousfield stated that the empire’s sovereign ‘has rightly been called the “Mother of Confederation”.’[36] This usage appears to be entirely modern, with no example of the phrase traceable either at the time of Confederation, or during the mid twentieth-century decades when the mythology of the ‘Fathers’ was at its height. Nonetheless, it is by no means implausible to claim that Victoria played some role in the emergence of modern Canada. She was a much shrewder political observer than she is often given credit for. Moreover, her father (whom she never knew) had commanded the garrison in Halifax, and had been an early advocate of a centralised authority in British North America.[37] In February 1865, the Queen recorded her opinion that the danger of war with the United States over Canada was so great that ‘far the best would be to let it go as an independent kingdom under an English prince’.[38]  That same year, she received at a general audience the delegates sent over to negotiate with the British to save the Confederation project (temporarily derailed by R.D. Wilmot and his ‘Anti’ colleagues in New Brunswick). To the surprise of courtiers, instructions were given to suspend protocol and present the Canadians ahead of the titled aristocracy, who normally had precedence. The Queen obviously acquiesced in this gesture, which was formally authorised by royal command, but it was also certainly a dual political signal inspired by ministers: it emphasised British support for the union of the provinces, while implicitly warning the Canadians that they were being treated as ‘a quasi-independent state’ which should ultimately look to its own defence. The Queen’s only personal intervention seems to have been her insistence in February 1867 on receiving an assurance that the Maritimers had indeed accepted ‘Canada’ as the name for the new Dominion — perhaps suggestive of some residual and filial identification with Nova Scotia.[39] At another audience, following the passage of the British North America Act in February 1867, Charles Tupper ventured to thank the monarch for her ‘deep interest’ in the union of the provinces. ‘I take the deepest interest in it because I believe it will make them great and prosperous,’ the Queen reportedly replied.[40] In May of that year, on his return to Canada, John A. Macdonald assured his Kingston constituents that their sovereign had personally endorsed Confederation, a sentiment that of course went down well in a Loyalist riding.[41] It seems fair to argue that Queen Victoria played an appropriate supporting role in the process of Confederation. So did her namesake, the government steamship, Queen Victoria, that carried the Canadian delegates to Charlottetown in 1864. It seems difficult to argue that either contribution equated to a maternal role in the birth of the Dominion.

It is an understandable and entirely positive development that modern Canada should seek to assemble a team of female nation-builders alongside its male progenitors. The impossibility of identifying a matching team of constitutional Mothers only underlines the point that the time has passed when a distinct category of national heroes should be hailed as Canada’s Fathers of Confederation.

Architects and Guardians?

What, then, should be done about this redundant concept? The question deserves to be answered both from the point of view of historians, and from that of Canada’s citizens: professionally, I can contribute to the first; as a non-Canadian I can only float an outsider’s suggestions for the second.

To argue that historians should cease to speak of the Fathers of Confederation is hardly a major proposition. Few academics have employed the term as a serious analytical tool: almost every Canadian history textbook alludes to the influence and composition of Upper Canada’s legendary ‘Family Compact’, but few trouble even to include an index reference to the Fathers. Grouping disparate conference delegates into a single category is unhelpful. As Christopher Moore has vividly put it, ‘the men whom we call the fathers of confederation blur together, a single stultifying mass of white-haired patriarchy.’[42] In fact, only two of the participants at Quebec seem to have gone grey: Robert D. Dickey of Nova Scotia was heading for 54 during the conference, while Taché, at 69 an elder statesman who had fought in the War of 1812, was entitled to a distinguished appearance. Most, as already noted, were in early middle age – few of them had even marched far down the road of baldness. It is not so much white hair as black broadcloth and stovepipe hats that create the false impression of unimaginative sameness. By remarkable coincidence, two of the Fathers were even identically named, although apparently unrelated: both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island produced a John Hamilton Gray.[43] I contribute an example of my own lack of discernment here. Through forty years as a consumer and sometimes a practitioner of Canadian history, I thought of Alexander Campbell, if I thought about him at all, as a stuffed-shirt and an offsider of John A. Macdonald. Eventually, digging a little deeper and following what should have been obvious clues, I discovered that this Father of Confederation had struggled against the disability of severe lameness and, in later decades at least, also suffered from epilepsy. It is no wonder that he appears in the group photograph of the Charlottetown delegates, taken in front of Government House, sitting on the steps, his walking stick to hand. There are indications, too, that his marriage began to go wrong in the middle years of the 1860s, as he became more deeply involved in both nation-building and ministerial office: perhaps Frederica Sandwith Campbell should be hailed as the Casualty of Confederation.[44] Notwithstanding their theoretical veneration, it is far from being the case that historians know everything about the politicians who shaped Canada. Samuel Leonard Tilley, who would undoubtedly qualify for membership of the inner core of the Fathers, is the subject of an illuminating essay by C.M. Wallace,[45] but the lack of a major modern scholarly biography represents a gap in the literature, leaving obscure Tilley’s reasons for embracing Confederation before the event, and how he operated as New Brunswick’s voice at Ottawa in the decades that followed. Perhaps worse still, lumping the country’s founders into Moore’s ‘stultifying mass’ risks not only attributing identical opinions, but also – as Bruce W. Hodgins pointed out in 1967 –  ‘viewpoints which they in fact never possessed.’  Hodgins noted that the Centennial year celebrations tended to laud the Fathers for their belief in democracy, a form of government that they had regarded with attitudes varying from profound reserve to outright hostility. The Upper Canadian conference participants of 1864-67, Hodgins concluded, were ‘worthy Fathers of Confederation’ but ‘not Fathers of Canadian democracy.’[46] Half a century later, it can be argued that in identifying an ideological inconsistency, Hodgins was equally pointing to a fundamental mismatch: it seems contradictory to laud a group of men as founders of a nation when they collectively rejected the political philosophy that has come to underlie its existence.

It will not be difficult for historians to stop talking about the Fathers of Confederations, since few have ever made extensive use of the collective category: even A.H.U. Colquhoun and Christopher Moore, who have alluded to it in book titles, have been remarkably sparing of its use in their texts. In the wider public domain, retiring the terminology may prove a greater challenge. In 2015, the Canadian government decided to erect heritage plaques across Ottawa, marking the residences of fifteen of the Fathers of Confederation, those who made some subsequent contribution to Dominion politics. That seems an unexceptional project, and there is much to be said for the comment of Ryerson University professor Patrice Dutil that commemorations of this kind remind people that there is ‘a Canadian past and we don’t do enough of it.’[47] In recent decades, Canada’s academic historians have concentrated on themes related to class, ethnicity, gender and region, and much important work has been produced. But because Canada is essentially a constitutional construct, the themes that illuminate and shape the human experience are ultimately expressed and mediated and shaped through electoral, parliamentary and bureaucratic processes. Emphasising research into social rather than political history too often means that path-breaking findings are related to sometimes simplistic views of policy formation, characterised by such superficialities as the widespread belief that John A. Macdonald was permanently drunk and that Mackenzie King ran the country from a Ouija board. How, then, would it be possible to steer between idolatry and ignorance?

Two suggestions are offered, with the humility of an external observer. The first is that it would be helpful to think of Canada’s creators not as Fathers but as architects. This would have several advantages. It would broaden the category away from the restrictive definition that limits recognition to those who took part in the drafting conferences. As the 1999 publication of Canada’s Founding Debates amply illustrated, there were thoughtful discussions about the future shape of government right across the continent, at a level of engagement and a breadth of reference that bore favourable comparison with the controversies twelve decades later as a far larger and better educated population argued over Meech Lake.[48] Equally important would be the scope for recognition that Canada is a continuing project, one that should recognise contributions made by the Riels and the Smallwoods of subsequent decades. Above all, the abandonment of gender-specific honorifics would make possible the recognition of women – Nellie McClung, Agnes MacPhail, Thérèse Casgrain, Flora MacDonald, Kim Campbell ...the list is easily extendable.

More generally, perhaps there is a need to move away from parenthood and towards guardianship, for Canadians to define the qualities they perceive to be inherent in their country’s existence – starting with those familiar buzzwords of democracy, human rights and multiculturalism, but broadening to include courage, endeavour, family life and international responsibility. Any list propounded by a friendly observer can only be indicative, not prescriptive: identifying their nation’s positive qualities would be a means for Canadians to redefine themselves, and an appropriate exercise in stocktaking to be carried out around  the 150th anniversary of Confederation. If it is the case, as I strongly suspect, that Canadians respect Terry Fox more than John A. Macdonald, that more have heard of Wilfred Grenfell than Wilfrid Laurier, then arguably the country needs an institutional honour system to express and project its collective sense of values. At a practical level, recognition of an individual as a national guardian would take much the same form as the honouring of the Fathers of Confederation today, through heritage plaques, the naming of buildings and institutions. Of course, such an initiative would have its detractors, those who would liken it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, or the Latter Day Saints’ practice of baptising ancestors – for the designation of national icons would be made less controversial if the process included a twenty-year moratorium on any form of recognition after death. There would inevitably be conflict between the values of the present and the past: Emily Murphy, Canada’s first female magistrate, spearheaded the fight to have women to serve in the Senate. She also energised the country to the menace of drugs, but unfortunately also luridly warned against what she saw as the menace of alien races whom she blamed for trafficking.[49] An observer can only point out that, in the Order of Canada, the country operates a widely respected system of honouring achievement among the living, and can surely manage a parallel system for nominating role models among the dead. The principle of conferring retrospective accolades is not new, as shown by the 1992 Commons resolution acclaiming Louis Riel, or the 2009 Senate decision to extend posthumous honorary membership of the Red Chamber to the Famous Five who carried the Persons’ case.

The Fathers of Confederation have made their contributions to Canada, to its structure of government in the 1860s, to its national art from the 1880s, to its sense of emerging nationhood in the 1920s. As individuals, their careers still merit examination, all the more so because the cloudy aura that surrounds them means that we know deplorably little about far too many of them. It is my firm belief that the deeper we dig into the politics of nineteenth-century Canada, the more we shall appreciate the commitment and the ambition of its practitioners, and the less we shall be tempted to caricature them, stove-pipe hats or not. But times change, values evolve. A Canadian who lives somewhere between Toronto and St John’s, who is male and of British, French or Irish stock – such a person can find Fathers of Confederation with whom he can identify, if he so chooses.  For the remainder, probably three-quarters of the country’s population, the Fathers hardly resonate. If the Fathers of Confederation provided a prism through which we could illuminate Canada’s past, they might still merit recognition and collective acclaim. As it is, their sepia-tinted masculinity devalues the very challenges that they combined to resolve, and obscures the remarkable achievement that they collectively created.



[1]The debates of the Parliament of Canada are available on line via http://parl.canadiana.ca/, which is easily searched. Specific reference is given only for the 1883 discussion below. Unless otherwise referenced, biographical information is taken from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, searchable via www.biographi.ca.  Websites were consulted at various dates in November and December 2015.

[2]P.B. Waite, ‘Sir Oliver Mowat’s Canada: Reflections on an Un-Victorian Society’, in D. Swainson, ed., Oliver Mowat’s Ontario (Toronto, 1972), 12-32.

[3] French premier Georges Clemenceau was hailed in 1918 as ‘Père la Victoire’ (or ‘père de la victoire’). Detractors alleged (it would seem, unfairly) that he failed to safeguard France in the 1919 Versailles peace settlement, and changed the title to ‘Perd la Victoire’.

[4] Bengough’s cartoon, ‘Confederation: the much fathered youngster’ is at: http://collection.mccord.mcgill.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M994X.5.273.150?Lang=1&accessnumber=M994X.5.273.150. For the date, see J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics ... (Toronto, 1886 /ed. D. Fetherling, 1974), 166-7. 

[5]J. Pope, ed., Confederation ... (Toronto, 1895),  27-32. Mowat’s role at Quebec in 1864 is discussed by P. Romney, Getting It Wrong ... (Toronto, 1999).

[6]O’Brien’s memorandum was quoted by Wilfrid Laurier when he raised the matter in the House of Commons in May 1883: House of Commons Debates, 14  May 1883, 1171-4: http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0501_02/433?r=0&s=1. The following section draws upon this debate.

[7]: House of Commons Debates, 3 April 1884, 1309-10, via:  http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0502_02/515?r=0&s=1

[8]W.M. Whitelaw, ‘Reconstructing the Quebec Conference’, Canadian Historical Review, xix (1938).

[9]I have used the key to the portrait in Quick Canadian Facts (Toronto, 1967), 13. This small book has followed me around  the world, and I always knew it would come in useful some day. As of November 2015, there seems to be no key to the portrait on the Internet, but sitters can be identified by ‘hovering’ in: http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/House/collections/fine_arts/historical/609-e.htm.

[11]J.P. Macpherson, Life of the Right Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald  (2 vols, Saint John, 1891), ii, 288.

[12]C.R.W. Biggar, Sir Oliver Mowat ... (2 vols, Toronto, 1905), ii, 695.

[13]Charles Tupper, Recollections of Sixty Years in Canada (London, 1914), 8, 12.

[14]This quotation comes from the 1920 edition of Colquhoun’s Fathers of Confederation, 66.

[15]British North America Acts 1867-1907 (Ottawa, 1913), 85-6, 95-6, 117.

[17]They were William Howland of Upper Canada, J.W. Ritchie of Nova Scotia and R.D. Wilmot of New Brunswick, each of whom attended the London conference of 1866-67. Boy Scouts placed flowers on Howland’s grave on Dominion Day: Globe (Toronto), 29 June, 2 July 1927, so the designation had agreed  in advance. Wilmot is discussed below.

[18] H.B. Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King: the Lonely Heights 1924-1932 (Toronto, 1963), 228. King’s diaries, available on-line through Library and Archives Canada, show his awareness of the Fathers of Confederation, but do not record any specific decision about membership.

[19]They were the Prince Edward Islanders John Hamilton Gray, A.A. Macdonald and Edward Palmer.

[21]The only other son of a Father of Confederation active in politics was L.P.D. Tilley, a minister in New Brunswick. 

[22]R. Rudin, Founding Fathers: The Celebration of Champlain and Laval ... 1878-1908 (Toronto, 2003).

[23]W.L. Morton, ‘Confederation, 1870-1896...’, in B. Hodgins and R. Page, eds., Canadian History Since Confederation ... (2nd ed., Georgetown, Ont., 1979, first published in Journal of Canadian Studies, 1966).

[24] T. Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (2nd ed., Toronto, 2000), 175.

[27]J.K. Hiller, ‘The Career of F. Gordon Bradley,’ Newfoundland Studies,  iv (1988), 163-80.

[30]R.D. Francis, R. Jones and D.B. Smith, Journeys: A History of Canada (2nd ed., Toronto, 2009), 240.

[31] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/exhibit/mothers-of-confederation/;  O.D. Skelton (ed. G. MacLean), Life and Times of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt (Toronto, 1966 ed.), 101.

[32]Underhill’s witticism was quoted by Careless in ‘George Brown and the Mother of Confederation, 1864’,  delivered to the Canadian Historical Association in 1960, and cited here from Careless at Work (Toronto, 1990), 77-97.  Quotations in the following paragraphs from this source.

[33]See, e.g., letters in Skelton, ed. MacLean, Life and Times of ... Galt, 189-207.

[34]J.M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe: ii, The Statesman of Confederation 1860-1880 (Toronto, 1963), 218. Anne Nelson Brown returned to Scotland after her husband's death in 1880.

[35]Careless, Brown of the Globe: ii, 188.

[37]‘Queen Victoria and Canada’, American Review of Canadian Studies, xii (1983), 215-34.

[38]G.E. Buckle, ed., Queen Victoria’s Letters: second series (London, 1926),  i, 275.

[39]Ged Martin, Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation 1837-67 (Vancouver, 1995), 264-5, 282.

[40] E.M. Saunders, ed., The Life and Letters of the Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Tupper ... (2 vols, London, 1916), i, 143

[41]Ged Martin, Favourite Son? John A. Macdonald and the Voters of Kingston 1841-1891 (Kingston, 2010),  87.

[42]C. Moore, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (Toronto, 1997), 3.

[43]An engaging statue on Charlottetown’s Great George Street, by sculptor Nathan Scott, shows the two namesakes in earnest discussion of Confederation. Images of this splendid piece of street furniture are easily traced on the Internet.

[44] ‘Alexander Campbell (1822-1892): The Travails of a Father of Confederation’, Ontario History, cv (2013), 1-18. I acknowledge with appreciation the work of Dr Michael Poplyansky  of the University of Regina in increasing my understanding of Campbell.

[46]B.W. Hodgins, ‘Democracy and the Ontario Fathers’, in E.G. Firth, ed., Profiles of a Province (Toronto, 1967), 83-91.

[48]J. Ajzenstat, P. Romney, I. Gentles and W.D. Gairdner, eds, Canada’s Founding Debates (Toronto, 1999).

Copyright © 2017 Ged Martin. All Rights Reserved.
Joomla! is Free Software released under the GNU General Public License.