5.3.2 Historical Perspectives of Canada's National Identity - 2

Should individuals and groups in Canada embrace a national identity?

Big Ideas:

  • Explore multiple perspectives on national identity in Canada.

  • Identify historical perspectives of Canada as a nation.

As you learned on the previous page, responsible government came about in Canada in response to a series of violent confrontations in 1838 between rival factions who could not agree on how the colonies should be governed. As a result of these clashes, the two separate colonies of Upper Canada (modern Ontario, coloured orange in the map below) and Lower Canada (modern Quebec, coloured green in the map below) were unified into one colony made up of two provinces with one assembly.

But, the question remained how to make the new unified assembly truly representative of both the English-speaking and French-speaking people of Canada, rather than the appointed British governor. Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, representing Canada East, and Robert Baldwin, representing Canada West, came together to press for a system of "responsible government" that would ensure Canadian interests would be respected.

LaFontaine and Baldwin formed a coalition of assembly members from both provinces of the colony to maintain the confidence of the majority of the assembly members. Both Baldwin and LaFontaine were able to convince their supporters that the governor general would have to accept their suggestions about governing Canada. This was an important precedent because it ensured future governor generals would accept the advice of leaders who were able to gain the confidence of the assembly that represented the view of the majority of citizens.

Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine

Robert Baldwin

As a part of the British Empire located in British North America, the colony of Canada was part of a group of separate colonies that made up part of Britain’s worldwide empire. These colonies had been established for various reasons, and as a result, they desired to ensure the maintenance of their own national interest. Consequently, they were reluctant to create common interests with their colonial neighbours. This reluctance seriously set back any movement toward a union with other colonies.

Gradually, external and internal conditions changed, threatening the survival of the colonies in their new environments. The result was greater motivation for the colonies located in British North America to consider a union. One of the biggest changes occurred as a result of new economic initiatives within Great Britain itself. British entrepreneurs wanted to expand their access to new markets throughout the world, and at the same time, the government no longer wished to use its funds to administer the colonies. Free trade was adopted by the British, which meant North American colonies were no longer in a position to trade exclusively; but they now had to compete with other non-empire competitors. Also, the imperial government began to press the colonies to take more control over their own affairs. Clearly, North American colonies would have to adopt better methods of getting goods to marketplaces in an atmosphere of competition. Another encouragement for a union stemmed from the events in the United States. The United States had just fought a terrible civil war. The Americans still had a very large army, and some expansionists in that country were urging their government to seize part, if not all, of British North America. The fear of invasion pushed many Canadians to consider a union to help deter American expansion. In addition, the colony of Canada was frozen in a political deadlock caused by the inability of any one leader to maintain the confidence of the assembly.

Confederation - 1867

Eventually, the colonies in British North America began to discuss the possibility of forming a confederation to help meet the demands of their changing world. A group of leaders from all the colonies, lead by John A. Macdonald and Georges Etienne Cartier of Canada, began to investigate the possibility of uniting. In a series of conferences, agreements were reached to convince the people in their colonies to accept a union with other North American colonies. Each colony voted whether to accept the plan for a union.

Changing face of Canada leading up to and after Confederation

If you look at the map above, you will see the changing landscape of Canada leading up to and after Confederation. Four colonies agreed to form a “confederation” of provinces. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island chose not to take part in the union. In 1867, the British North American colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Canada agreed to form a nation that would be a federal union. The Canadian provinces of Canada East and Canada West became Quebec and Ontario in the new country. Great Britain accepted the plan and formalized the agreement in the British North America Act, effective July 1, 1867. Members in this union retained some power over their own affairs and gave some power to a more powerful central government.

A New Vision After Confederation

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald began the process of establishing a national identity for Canada immediately after Confederation by creating a vision of a country that crossed the continent from sea to sea. His plan was known as The National Policy. In it, he called for a system of tariffs to help protect Canadian businesses development, build a national railroad to help bring its far-flung territories together as well as move goods and people around, and he sought to attract more people to settle in the new nation to help it grow. Thereafter, Canadian prime ministers endeavoured to help Canada grow and compete to maintain its national interest.

Gradually, Canada added new provinces and territories to its Confederation. Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada as its tenth province in 1949 and the new territory of Nunavut was created in 1999 to give Canada its present political divisions.