1866: Not Yet a Nation

 by Mary Ducharme (June 2016)

2017 is the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the national fever of celebration has not been this high since Expo’67. An important message of 2017 is that we cannot take the Canada we know for granted. Not so long ago, its fate was dicey, its leaders factionalized and angry.

juin 2016 archives 2At the helm of Confederation was a man universally known as a genius, a brilliant politician, and “the most famous drunk in Canadian history.” As a tribute, a colleague of his said that he ‘preferred John A. Macdonald drunk than his enemies sober.” Macdonald was drunk at the conferences at Charlottetown, at Quebec City, and London. In London, just months before he became Canada’s first Prime Minister, he had passed out drunk while reading a newspaper in bed. A candle tipped over and he awoke to the smell of his own burning flesh, and his bed was on fire. He saved himself with the help of a British official, but suffered severe burns. His life journey had nearly ended in disaster, just as his nation could easily have ended before it was born. Despite everything, somehow, Macdonald pulled it off.

Living as we do, cheek-by-jowl to the international line, we can understand some of the issues that bedeviled Macdonald. The Village had a tiny population and many did not believe rural regions with small populations were well-represented in the House of Commons. Here, we were too close for comfort if Fenians crossed the border. These were radical Irishmen unemployed after their stint in the American Civil War which ended in 1865. The Irish list of grievances against the hated British was a long one, and they came up with the idea of liberating Canada from the English, and trading it for a free Ireland. From their headquarters in New York they launched a surprisingly effective attack at Ridgeway at Niagara Falls in June 1866, and another attack in Frelighsburg. There were raids in our region; civilian militias were formed, (including our 51st Rangers) and anti-American sentiment was ablaze. The fact that Andrew Johnson condemned the raids, ordering troops to seize Fenian arms did not cool the paranoia. (Among the stories well remembered here was the aborted attempt to capture Montreal during the War of 1812). More alarming, in March of 1866, Congress introduced a Bill proposing that Canada be annexed to the United States. While the Bill was never passed, Canadians were outraged, and the American concept of “Manifest Destiny” was a rallying point for confederation.

To make matters worse, Britain wanted to pass off responsibility for Canadian defence because of high costs of maintaining military forces. In fact, the British government encouraged confederation since Upper Canada, Lower Canada and the Martimes had proven unable to manage a host of knotty problems like public debt, taxation, currency, international trade, etc. The railroads were a particular bone of contention because the costs of the Grand Trunk were skyrocketing, and British financiers wanted stability. Locally, the Grand Trunk had a station on the Province Line branch in Hemmingford, and the farmers especially depended on it for the transport of goods.

Another concern was that 1866 was the end of the Canada-American Reciprocity Treaty. This treaty had guaranteed free trade in which Canadian products could be sold in the U.S. without tarifs and taxes. At this time, the rescinded treaty was a serious threat to Hemmingford agriculture, the five general stores, and the two hotels who catered to salesmen. The economic development of all of Canada was heavily dependent on American markets. In the national argument, with central authority and power, Canada would have a greater say in international trade negotiations.

In the earlier part of the 19th century, the population of Hemmingford was primarily from the British Isles, and there was a sense of loyalty to the “old countries,” a view that the growing French population here and in French districts elsewhere in the province did not share. One of the greatest fears of the French anti-confederation proponents was that their priorities would not be served, especially in regard to language, culture, and religion. This issue, remaining with us in the 21st Century, was among those heated debates which could have turned Confederation into a lost dream for decades to come.

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