1864: why should we care?

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Inside Province House

By Edward MacDonald (guest opinion)

I have been delighted to read the recent op ed pieces about the 2014 celebrations. It’s good to talk. After all, history isn’t about carbon-dating long-ago events; it’s an ongoing dialogue between the present and the past.

As for the sense of outrage in recent protestations that Charlottetown is not the Cradle of Confederation, its sounds a little like someone discovering they’re not really their child’s parent. Is Charlottetown the Cradle of Confederation, then, or is that just some tourist gimmick? Well, the label is a commodity — almost everything is these days — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false.

I like to joke in my lectures that Confederation really wasn’t born in Charlottetown, it was conceived here, which was certainly much more fun. And a friend blithely denies that Confederation was conceived in a haze of intoxication. “No,” he grins, “we were just hungover at the time.” But “Conception Place of Confederation” doesn’t really roll trippingly off the tongue, does it? Besides, “Cradle of Confederation” is both alliterative and nurturing.

It gives Canada’s smallest and most condescended-to province its own little piece of national history. Does it matter if it’s inaccurate? (By the way, while we’re on the subject of catchphrases, we aren’t a “Million Acre Farm,” and “Abegweit” doesn’t actually translate as “Cradled on the Waves.” And we don’t have the warmest water north of Florida. And, . . . well, you get the picture.)

So, what happened at Charlottetown? Was it a cradle at all? Ah, that depends on what we mean when we say “Confederation." If Confederation means an act of political union, then it was born with the British North America Act, which was legislated by the British Parliament in March 1867 and went into effect on 1 July of that year.

If Confederation means the actual terms of that union, then they were essentially hammered out in a couple of fractious weeks at a conference in Quebec in October 1864, and then tinkered with in London in December 1866.

If Confederation means the concept of union, then the idea had been kicking around like an empty whisky bottle for years before 1864.

But if Confederation is seen as a constitutional process that culminated in London in March 1867, then it truly began in Charlottetown in September 1864. The Charlottetown Conference took an idle notion and turned it into a serious prospect. At Charlottetown, the delegates agreed in principle to the broad principles of a Confederation — if suitable terms could be arranged.

That was a big “if,” certainly, yet Charlottetown represented a momentous step towards taking the idea of Confederation and making it a reality. It set Canadian history on an entirely new course. Everything else flowed from that. It is ironic that Prince Edward Island initially rejected Confederation and has had cause to regret it, but that doesn’t change the fact that Confederation essentially began here, nor that, for better and worse, Confederation has driven much of Island history since then.

But then, I don’t really think of Confederation in that way either. As the Confederation Centre’s Symons Lecture is meant to remind us each year, Confederation is not some static event, but a dynamic, evolving, often fractious relationship. Just as a marriage isn’t the wedding (except in fairy tales), Confederation isn’t the BNA Act or even the courtship that brought us to it. Confederation is the story of a relationship. And that relationship was born here. What better place, then, to celebrate or lament it, to critique it, and to argue about it?


Edward MacDonald is associate Professor of History, UPEI

Organizations: British Parliament, Confederation Centre

Geographic location: Charlottetown, London, Canada Florida North America Quebec Prince Edward Island

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