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Good primer for federalists

1867: How The Fathers Made A Deal
By Christopher Moore
McClelland & Stewart; 297 pages; $29.99
Reviewed by David Kilgour

(Review published in the Citizen’s Weekly Books, January 25, 1998)

In a period when many Canadians still fear for our future as a single great nation, this penetrating book by an award-winning author offers a real basis for optimism, primarily by examining some key issues that allowed Canada to be created and have sustained it down to the present day.

Christopher Moore is a refreshingly unsentimental analyst. He doesn't embrace the partisanship of the late historian Donald Creighton and his many followers who encouraged a generation of Canadians to believe that John A. Macdonald brought us confederation virtually alone. This new work notes that Macdonald at first opposed his arch-rival George Brown's proposed federal union and reversed himself only when George-Etienne Cartier, formed a de facto coalition ministry in the Province of Canada.

The role of the alienated southern-Ontario patriot, George Brown, and his Canada West Reform party in the 1850s is featured prominently. Brown and his Globe newspaper had led the long struggle to end the dominant role of U.K.-appointed governors, answerable to the Colonial Office in London, in favour of responsible government, i.e., cabinets formed from and accountable to elected representatives; the separation of church and state; economic liberalism; and representation by population.

Given the realities of the past three decades, the preoccupations of Quebec delegates both at Charlottetown and later at Quebec City seem especially relevant today. Much of the author's analysis focuses on the nature of a federalism acceptable to most Quebeckers in the face of a U.S. model that had resulted in a civil war. For example, most reformers of the 1860s, including Quebec ones, rejected an elected Senate because they feared a democratically legitimate counterweight to the brand of domestic democracy they had only fairly recently achieved.

Between 1854 and 1864, as Moore stresses, Cartier and his Bleu members encouraged the union of the Canadas to preserve the rural, agricultural and religious nature of Quebec, while simultaneously building commerce, education and the middle class. They favoured a new federal country in the mid-1860s so that, in Cartier's words, Quebeckers could become part of a "great nation." Hector Langevin, a key Cartier ally, said a federal Canada promised the "best possible guarantee for our institutions, our language and all that we hold dearest." Federalists in the province believe this remains true today.

The analysis of the ambiguous early Maritime role in nation-creation is equally absorbing; it concentrates on Charles Tupper of Nova Scotia, Leonard Tilley of New Brunswick and Ned Whelan of Prince Edward Island. The author says Tupper was brilliant to insist on making the 1864 conference on proposed Maritime union an all-party affair – quite unlike the practice in the five constitutional meetings held since 1967.

In Charlottetown in the summer of 1864, 15 Maritime delegates met with eight ministers in the coalition cabinet of Macdonald, Cartier and Brown. Quickly, the goal of the larger union redirected both groups toward federalism even though virtually none of the participants had ever lived in a federal system. Most participants from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, regardless of party affiliation, were soon among federalism's strongest advocates.

The book's description of what transpired across the Maritimes after the Quebec resolutions were adopted is insightful. Premier Tilley called an election immediately, "Confederation or no Confederation," but was humiliated when New Brunswickers elected only 11 supporters of Confederation to their 41-member assembly. Next door, Premier Tupper initially declined to hold either a general election or a vote in the legislature, presumably because he knew he would lose both. Prince Edward Islanders chose to opt out of the first group of provinces to join.

In a second election held a year later, New Brunswick voters endorsed Confederation as decisively as they had rejected it earlier. Tupper managed after the passage of enough time to pass a Confederation bill through the Nova Scotia assembly, but in the first election held after Confederation he was the province's only supporter of it among 19 MPs sent to Ottawa. Whither Parliamentary Democracy?

A troubling sub-theme throughout 1867 is the author's view of what has happened to the role of MPs since Confederation. Both before and after 1867 (until about the turn of the century, as the late Eugene Forsey has pointed out) members saw themselves first and foremost as representatives of their respective constituents, ready to topple a government if voter interest required it on the merits of any particular issue. Today, says Moore, MPs have only a largely ceremonial voting function because party leaders can force them to do virtually anything.

At both our national and provincial levels, he thinks legislators today give essentially blind loyalty to leaders, quite unlike the case in more genuine parliamentary democracies such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. He concludes bluntly that "elected representatives across Canada have become the only individuals in the country without any political opinions of their own."

In short, 1867 is a fascinating book for all concerned with the nuances of our continuing national odyssey.

David Kilgour has represented southeast Edmonton in the House of Commons since 1979. His books include Uneasy Patriots: Western Canadians In Confederation (1988) and Inside Outer Canada (1992).

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