July 1, 2017, Canada celebrated it’s 150th birthday! Hurray! Or, Huzzah, as the same cheer of exuberance might have been shouted in 1867. Yes folks, this is a history lesson or as close as a non-historian can come to providing a history lesson.
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island claims to be the birthplace of Canadian Confederation and they do have a legitimate claim in my opinion. But Charlottetown in 1864 was not the place where all issues were resolved and accord was reached. In fact, when colony by colony votes and legislative decisions were made, PEI decided not to join confederation at all because their main concern about being too small and unimportant to the other colonies was borne out in initial negotiations. The other colonies failed to address PEI’s main concerns at all. What was actually achieved in Charlottetown was that friendships were made, trusts were formed and the representatives from all the colonies agreed to meet later in Quebec to begin the real negotiations.
The reason they did this at all, was primarily due to needing to protect themselves from a muscular and violence-prone United States, which in 1864 was embroiled in arguably the worst war in its history and had a big, well-tested, standing army and navy. Several U.S. representatives had already espoused a certain entitlement to all of North America too.
Getting together for the small, non-U.S. colonies of North America was not so much a matter of cementing similarities (they were very different sub-cultures). It was a matter of what they commonly didn’t want. They didn’t want to be blithely rolled over by the emerging giant to their south.
An amusing side story to the whole ‘Charlottetown as birthplace of Canadian Confederation’ is instructive. Representatives from the province of Canada, the newly united (1840 – Act of Union) former provinces of Quebec and Upper Canada (Ontario) were known to be coming to Charlottetown to have important talks with representatives from the Maritime colonies. The Canada reps arrived in a steamship loaded with pleasantries like ample stocks of cigars, wines, spirits and champagne. But when they arrived and anchored in Charlottetown harbour, there were no cannons fired in greeting, no fireworks set off to celebrate their arrival. No one even came to meet them! When a somewhat embarrassed man finally rowed out to greet them, he explained that there was a circus in town that had drawn everyone’s attention. You know, Canadians arriving with champagne was one thing, a circus in town was another thing! They had their priorities.
So, (too many Canadians believe this) Canada became a nation on July 1, 1867. But that would be wrong. No! Sorry to burst your bubble. Canada became a unified Dominion known as Canada on July 1, 1867 by proclamation of Queen Victoria. What’s the diff? Plenty.
It can be argued that Canada didn’t become a nation until 1982, when the British Parliament agreed to let Canada henceforth amend its own constitution without getting British Parliamentary approval. Until then, Canada could not unilaterally change its own constitution. That act was seemingly the last hurdle to be cleared in a long process of slowly developing independence from Britain. This long path is made evident by the 21 separate amendments to the British North America Act enacted by the British Parliament during the period 1774 – 1982.
It is instructive, for example to realize that in World War I, when Britain declared war on Germany and Austria, Canada was “automatically” at war too! Why? Because of the seemingly small technicality of Canada still being a colony of Britain. Canada had no choice in the matter. But Canadian military folks acquitted themselves well during the war and Canada was even granted a separate place at the table among other nations to determine the peace settlements to be made. That act was an indicator of things to come.
Another political milestone along the long path to independence was the conditional granting of ‘nation status’ to Canada by the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference in 1926 and thereafter formalized by the British Parliament’s Statute of Westminster in 1931. The difference in “nation status” and “nation” being that Canada’s final authority was still conferred by the British North America Act, an act of the British Parliament, a document that could only be amended by the British Parliament.
In what I believe was a small but slightly curt nod to its own independence, when Britain once again declared war on Germany on September 1, 1939, Canada waited a scant but significant nine days before declaring war on Germany, Sept. 10, 1939, in alliance with Mother Britannia.
1967 rolled around and Canada celebrated 100 years of its existence as the united political entity known as Canada. But Canada was still in its older adolescence in 1967. Yes, it could act independently from Britain, but Britain still controlled that British North America Act and if Canada had wanted to change it, Canada had to ask Britain for permission and help.
It wasn’t until 1982, when the British Parliament passed the only piece of legislation in its long history to be written in both English and French that Canada was granted full, unfettered independence and absolute authority over its own destiny.
It wasn’t until 1982, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, that what is oddly called “Re-patriation,” that Britain finally signed off on having any further need to direct Canada’s affairs. So, persnickety folks concerned with petty details might still wish Canada a Happy Birthday, but it will be Canada, as a nation, at age 35, not 150. Hurray!
In celebration, the contrarian within me offers the superior second verse of O Canada to all the Canadians who never even knew there was a second verse:
Where pines and maples grow,
Great prairies spread,
And lordly rivers flow.
How dear to us, thy broad domain,
From east to western sea,
The land of hope, for all who toil,
The true north strong and free!
God keep our land,
Glorious and free,
O Canada we stand on guard for thee!
O Canada we stand on guard for thee!
Now go celebrate with a glass or two of “Frisky Beaver” wine!