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Confederation, Developing the Plan of Union
Quebec Conference, British Commonwealth of Nations, monarch of Britain, Canadian legislation, Bleus
Serious discussion of a union of all the British North American colonies began in 1864 with a proposal to unite the three Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Delegates from the legislatures of the three colonies agreed to discuss union at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. At the last minute, delegates from the province of Canada joined them.
The Canadian decision to attend resulted from a political crisis over representation in Canada’s assembly. Canada West’s Reform Party, led by journalist George Brown, objected to Canada West’s having no more legislative seats than Canada East had. Canada West had grown much larger than Canada East, and the Grits demanded representation by population. Canada East, fearing the power of an English-speaking majority, refused to accept this. Thwarted, Brown proposed federalism: Canada East and West would become separate provinces, either in a loose union between them or in a federation of all of British North America. In June 1864 Brown’s Grits joined the Tories, led by Macdonald, and the Bleus, led by Cartier, in a three-way coalition pledged to explore those options. The Charlottetown meeting in September gave the coalition the chance to propose a British North American union to the Maritime colonies.
The plan, which came to be called Confederation, fired the imaginations of the delegates at Charlottetown. The potential for a transcontinental nation and a national destiny inspired enthusiasm. The delegates agreed to meet again at a larger, longer meeting in Quebec in October 1864. At this Quebec Conference, delegates of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland approved the Seventy-two Resolutions, which were a draft constitution for Confederation. The Quebec Conference proposed a centralized federation, with most powers granted to a central government responsible to a parliament. However, there would be provincial governments with specified powers over property, language, education, religion, and generally all matters of local concern. Special protection for religious and linguistic minorities reassured the French Canadian leaders in Canada East. The status of the monarch of Britain as the head of state and the ceremonial status of the governor-general were preserved unchanged.
Confederation did not confer full national independence, for Canadian opinion still favored a link to Britain as a guarantee against American domination. Britain retained control of foreign affairs and could theoretically veto Canadian legislation. Nevertheless Canada’s status as a dominion—a locally autonomous state within the British Empire—became the model for the future evolution of the British Commonwealth of Nations as a partnership of equals.
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