Canada Day: Charlottetown had 'vitally important' role

The Canadian Press
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Fathers of Confederation met in Charlottetown in 1864.

The early recipe for Confederation: one part fellowship, two parts Champagne

CHARLOTTETOWN — In the summer of 1864, less than three years before Canada became a country, a government steamship laden with politicians and Champagne set off from Quebec City on an unusual mission.

The destination was Charlottetown — a voyage that 150 years ago took four days.

Aboard the SS Queen Victoria was a contingent of cabinet ministers from the Province of Canada. The delegation was led by three men: Reform Leader George Brown, Liberal-Conservative Leader John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier, leader of the Parti Bleu.

Their goal was to persuade politicians from the self-governing colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to scrap a plan to form a Maritime union and instead join in the creation of a larger federation.


But the Canadians, who represented the united colonies that would later become Ontario and Quebec, faced big challenges.

When they arrived in Charlottetown harbour, few of the locals paid attention. For the first time in years, a circus had come to town and the city was shut down for the day.

As well, the Canadians had secured a last-minute invitation to the conference, which meant they were unofficial delegates to a meeting that was supposed to discuss something entirely different.

“It’s true that the Canadians had barged in on what had been a meeting on Maritime union, but they were certainly welcomed by the Maritimers,” says Christopher Moore, a Toronto-based historian and author of “1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal.”

At a recent funding announcement in Charlottetown, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid tribute to the pluck of Macdonald and his colleagues.

“In modern terms, you could say that he kind of crashed the conference,” Harper said before he committed to spend an additional $5 million on the 150th anniversary celebrations.

“Then he commandeered the agenda — some might say Ontario has been doing that ever since — to secure central Canada’s place in the new Confederation.”

On the first full day of the Charlottetown conference, Macdonald and Cartier offered a broad outline of the Canadian proposals, including plans for a future Senate. Alexander Galt talked about finances the next day and Brown handled the constitutional file.

However, the Canadians needed more than clear plan and glittering oratory to win the day.

More importantly, they needed to make allies out of strangers.

“Many of these politicians had never met each other before,” Moore says. “It was important that they learn to trust each other. ... They went for drives in the countryside, they went to dinner at country estates and they went out to the steamship that the Canadians had come down on.”

And they drank Champagne — a boatload of it.

Historian Peter Waite, an expert on the pre-Confederation era, says creating a sense of “good fellowship” among the newly acquainted delegates was key to securing an agreement in principle.

“The Canadians had a strong belief ... in the efficaciousness of good food and plenty of wine to make a party — or a conference — go,” Waite wrote in a 1970 essay.

Describing a raucous fete aboard Queen Victoria, Waite wrote: “Champagne flowed like water, and union talk with it. The occasion took hold of everyone. Champagne and union!”

On Sept. 7, 1864, six days after the conference started, the bleary Maritime delegates offered unanimous support for the idea of Confederation.

And then came the grand ball at the P.E.I. legislature the next night, during which the parliamentary library was used as a bar and the legislative chamber became a dance floor until 1 a.m.

In a letter to his wife, George Brown wrote that the ball was followed by a meal and almost three hours of self-congratulatory speeches, “the poor girls (at the ball) being condemned to listen to it all.”

“The fact that they socialized together and learned to get to know each other and develop some trust was a vitally important part of the Charlottetown meetings,” Moore says.

More meetings and soirees were held in Halifax, Fredericton and Saint John, N.B., before detailed discussions on 72 formal resolutions were held in October at a conference in Quebec City, followed by another conference in London in 1866.

The London resolutions were redrafted into the British North America Act and Queen Victoria approved a bill that created the Dominion of Canada when it came into force on July 1, 1867.

Organizations: Maritime union, Liberal-Conservative Leader John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier, Parti Bleu.Their National Film Board UNESCO Dominion House of Commons Canadian Space Agency Statistics Canada Canadian Press

Geographic location: Charlottetown, Canada, Quebec City Prince Edward Island Ontario New Brunswick Nova Scotia London Halifax Fredericton Saint John North America United States

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Recent comments

  • Kevin from Stratford
    July 02, 2014 - 11:57

    While I understand the facts of your disagreement with the tourist promoters in Charlottetown over the role and importance of Charlottetown, PEI did , in fact , reject Maritime Union and confederation with Canada in 1864 and 1867 respectively. It's been a real coup for bar and restaurant /hotel owners to get $86 million in Ottawa tax dollars to promote this summer tourism campaign all on the public purse !!!! To make matters worse, the provincial legislature and its maintenance and repairs are also paid for by the Ottawa ATM machine and the list jokes on and on….To be an accountant or lawyer in Charlottetown means in large part that one lives off the referrals for "legal advice" dispensed by the Ghiz regime …also other people's taxes from Ontario and Western Canada that pays for 70% of the cost of running the provincial government…including its 26 MLA's…as if this number is needed for 140 thousand citizens…perhaps in 1864 when people got around in horse and buggy or by sailing ship but not today….another example of living off the Ottawa ATM machine. But the biggest hoax is to celebrate an event that PEI rejected and to get Ottawa tax dollars to celebrate the rejection of Confederation in 1867….. if ever there was stupidity married to culpability of Federal officials this Charlottetown 150 tourist event beats all to date….the Ottawa ATM machine is up and flowing for bar owners and hotel operators in Charlottetown….may you all fill your pockets and celebrate until Alberta Ontario and BC say not one more welfare dollar…!!!!

  • ajax
    July 02, 2014 - 04:58

    I wish Canada would join the USA.

    • right
      July 02, 2014 - 15:23

      Because we would be so much better off with Obamacare?

    • to ajax
      July 02, 2014 - 15:27

      Nothing is stopping you.

  • How It is
    July 01, 2014 - 14:52

    Everyone makes mistakes after having too much to drink. I honestly think we would have been better off to stick with the original maritime union. We have more in common with NS and NB.

  • irony
    July 01, 2014 - 10:42

    As a native Islander, I'll categorically state the obvious: ''Charlottetown mattered not a whit.'' And did Islanders embrace the new country? No, they turned their back on it. Only when money was involved did they join. And ever since we have been a cancerous sponge on the backside of the great nation, prostituting for a few million here and a few million there whenever we get a chance. The irony is that we're spending Canada's (not PEI's) money today like drunken sailors promoting a conference whose objective we rejected, all to benefit the blue blood wannabes in the political and business establishment that prop up the oligarchy that has never really left.. The sooner this island is stripped of provincial status, the better, as far as I'm concerned. And ditch the Birthplace of Confederation BS once and for all.

    • Joni Elles
      July 01, 2014 - 19:01

      What a sad and bitter person you are.

  • The Observer from Stratford
    July 01, 2014 - 09:22

    Such an important role? Three years later PEI declined to join Confederation. This big celebration is going to be a lot of fun but historically it is a very questionable event to be commemorating. But enjoy it anyway. It's as good an excuse as any for a party.