Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

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Celebrating Canada’s 140th Birthday in 2007

Canada celebrates its 140th birthday on July 1st. But the birth of Confederation in 1867 was not a smooth and painless process. One province fought the BNA Act passage

Sir John Alexander Macdonald - Public Domain, Library and Archives Canada

Signed by Queen Victoria in 1867, the colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada (Upper and Lower Canada) were united under the British North America Act, allowing local self-government. The Dominion of Canada was born officially on July 1, 1867. But, the birth of the new country was not smooth and painless. One province fought against the process, thinking they were being bulldozed by the British government.

Local elections in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1865 signalled public displeasure at the idea of uniting. Confederation was a movement started at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 and pushed forward by the then-governing official Charles Tupper and the British Governor, Edward Cardwell.

Written in the British North America Act, Confederation was pushed through without election or consent of the colonies, a legal move permitted through the Constitution. Nova Scotia had enough power to defeat the motion, had they been given the opportunity. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland flatly refused to join at that time. It was generally thought that “the mainland colonies were the important ones and Confederation would go ahead,” thus the opinion that the islands were not given their proper due.

Before the Union was enacted, delegates from the colony of Nova Scotia sailed to England in 1866 inan attempt to block passage of the BNA Act. Though they gave their best efforts for almost a year, the attempt failed. Queen Victoria was pleased to sign the documents into law on March 29 of the next year. At noon on July 1, 1867, the Dominion of Canada was announced, composed of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec (previously the Province of Canada).

Heralded as the leading father of Confederation among 36 prominent others, John Alexander Macdonald was knighted by Queen Victoria for his efforts toward unity, and was honoured with the post of the first Prime Minister of the new country. But his new job was complicated by the continuing dissention of the island province. In provincial elections held later that same year, Nova Scotians showed their displeasure by voting for anti-confederate representatives, giving the House of Commons a large number of objecting voices. Making use of his political skill, Sir John A. Macdonald “sweetened up the terms of the union” to ease Nova Scotia’s pessimism.

While other provinces had their own share of dissenters, Confederation pushed ahead, gathering more provinces under the Dominion of Canada in decades to come.

Provinces and Territories joining after Confederation:

  • Northwest Territories, 1870
  • Manitoba, 1870
  • British Columbia, 1871
  • Prince Edward Island, 1873
  • Yukon Territory, 1898
  • Alberta, 1905
  • Saskatchewan, 1905
  • Newfoundland, 1949
  • Nunavut, 1999

Along with political success, 1867 was having a banner year in Macdonald’s home life, too. A widower for ten years after the death of his wife, Isabella, he married Susan Agnes Bernard, the sister of his secretary, Hewitt Bernard, on February 16th. She was known as Lady Agnes and a strong ally and supporter of her husband’s work. His payday as Prime Minister wasn’t too shabby, either – he earned $5000 in his first year.

The population of Canada at the time of Confederation was nearing 3.5 million. In 2007, the numbers are close to 33 million citizens.

Happy 140th birthday! Happy Canada Day!

The Illustrated History of Canada, Edited by Craig Brown, published in 2002 by Key Porter Books. Pp. 322-324.

Click here for further information about Canada’s Confederation.

This article first appeared on in 2007.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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