Canada History Since Confederation

The new state of 1867 – 4 provinces on the Atlantic and along the Laurentian Basin – expanded extraordinarily in less than a decade to stretch from sea to sea. Rupert’s Land, from Ontario to the Rockies and north to the Arctic, was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay company in 1869-70. From it was carved Manitoba and the North-West Territories in 1870. A year later, British Columbia on the Pacific entered the confederation on the promise of a transcontinental railway. Prince Edward Island was added in 1873. In 1905, after mass immigration at the turn of the century began to fill the vast PRAIRIE WEST, Alberta and Saskatchewan won provincial status.

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Under the leadership of the first federal prime minister, Sir John A. MACDONALD, and his chief Québec colleague, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, the conservative party – almost permanently in office until 1896 – committed itself to the expansionist national policy. It showered the Canadian Pacific Railway with cash and land grants, achieving its completion in 1885. The government erected a high, protective customs tariff wall to shield developing Canadian industrialism from foreign, especially American, competition.

The third objective, mass settlement of the West, largely eluded them, but success came under their LIBERAL successors after 1896. Throughout this period there were detractors who resented the CPR’s monopoly or felt, as did many westerners, that the high tariff principally benefited central Canada. Yet the tariff had strong support in some parts of the Maritimes.

The earliest post-Confederation years saw the flowering of 2 significant movements of intense emotional nationalism. In English Canada, the very majesty of the great land, the ambitions and idealism of the educated young, and an understanding that absorption by the US threatened a too-timid Canada, spurred the growth of the Anglo-Protestant Canada First movement in literature and politics.

Existing political parties, however, were quick to strangle potential competition, and the materialistic ethos of the age largely overrode idealistic reformism. There was also an incompleteness about the Canada Firsters’ confusing, nationalist-imperialist vision of grandeur for their country: their vision did not admit of the distinctiveness of the French, Roman Catholic culture that was a part of the nation’s makeup.


Québec is the largest province in Canada by area and borders Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland (Labrador was attributed to Newfoundland in 1927 by the British Privy Council). The territory of Québec represents 15.5% of the surface area of Canada and totals 1.5 million km2. This is equal to the size of France, Germany, and Spain combined. The province also neighbors 4 American states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.

The French North American empire before 1763 was a vast territory including the St Lawrence River valley, the Great Lakes region, and territories around the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from the Ohio River valley to the Gulf of Mexico. The James Bay region and the northern part of Québec were officially British territories after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, half a century before the Conquest of 1760. The word Canada (meaning “village” in Iroquoian), not Québec, was used by the French to refer to the territory of New France that lay along the St Lawrence River.

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There was a strong sense among the French population of belonging to North America. The inclusion of the vast interior of the continent, reinforced by the fur trade and French exploration, has never completely disappeared from the complex sense of identity of francophone Quebeckers.

The name Québec referred, until 1763 and the Royal Proclamation, to the city of Québec only. The name was inspired by an Algonquian word meaning “where the river narrows.” It was the British, not the French, who first used the word Québec in a broader sense.

Quebec and the Confederation

Confederation was never enthusiastically embraced in Quebec as it was done in Ontario. The old Union of 1840-1841 had been transformed from an instrument of assimilation and oppression into a partnership where Quebec and Ontario shared equal power on the principle of duality. Since, by Confederation, Quebec only had about 40% of the population of the United Province of Canada, to be able to share equally in the government put it in an advantageous position; this was so much so that it was Upper Canada that now complained about the Union and its most important political leader of the time, George Brown, could claim that the province had become ‘French dominated’.

While Brown’s comment disclosed an intolerant attitude, to most Upper Canadians it contained a good deal of truth and they wished something to be done about it. Their great solution to this problem was to propose Representation according to Population. This would likely have the effect of making it possible to form a government with only political support from Upper Canada and, consequently, put George Brown in power.

Such a prospect could not be accepted in Quebec as it would endanger all the cultural gains it had made in the union since 1848. Simply put, to have accepted Rep. by Pop. would have put the cultural survival of Quebec on the line, and ever since the 1840s, cultural survival was the central question, the existential question, in Quebec.

However, while there were deep problems in the Union, and no agreement as to the solutions that should be applied, one should not forget that Quebecers felt culturally secure, shared equal power, and, thus, wielded a good deal of influence in the old Union. On the surface, Confederation would seem to have the effect of making Quebec’s position weaker as the province would now become one partner out of four (instead of one out of two), would constitute only 30% of the new country (instead of 40%), there would be no requirement for dual prime ministership (governments such as Lafontaine-Baldwin or Macdonald-Cartier) and Quebec would have to concede Representation according to Population to Ontario as this province demanded it as a condition for support of Confederation.

It is the realization of all of these possible losses that made many Quebecers hesitate about Confederation and generated quite a bit of apprehension and opposition. When the vote was taken in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada on the Confederation project, about 40% of the members from Quebec voted against it. Nearly half of the newspapers of the province were opposed to Confederation. This not only reflects the great reluctance of Quebecers for Confederation but also supports the idea that the majority rallied behind Confederation, albeit without enthusiasm.

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Four main reasons explain why Quebec eventually supported Confederation:

Political realism

Even the most reluctant Quebecer must have realized by 1864 that the United Province of Canada had become ungovernable; sectionalism was a constant problem (what language to use? How much confessionalism should there be in schools? Should we resort to conscription to protect our territory against the threat of the United States? Where should the capital be? Does each section have a fair share of the civil service and of government expenditures?), the Province was embroiled in a hopeless political deadlock, it was impossible to establish a government that lasted any significant amount of time (we count thirteen governments in a period of eight years at some point), and Rep by Pop was unacceptable in the context of the Union.

This state of affairs could not continue indefinitely and, if it remained unresolved by the lack of agreement between Upper and Lower Canada, it is likely that Britain would intervene to resolve the problems. If England intervened, as had been done in 1840-41, it was evident that the solution it would impose might not be favorable to Quebec. Political wisdom, common sense, dictated that Quebecers cooperate in making changes and attempt, in the process, to safeguard vital interests.

The support of powerful elites

Political realism was especially displayed by the power elites of the time (political, economic, and clerical). They understood the problems outlined above and they wished to apply pragmatic solutions. The period of Confederation was not yet a particularly democratic time, as we would understand or apply democracy today, but one where elites considered issues and made the necessary accommodations. And when the elites agreed and made the accommodations, the people were expected to follow; they were rarely consulted and their views mattered very little unless the elites disagreed.

There is no doubt that the Confederation was going to be good for business, that the political elites of French Canada (people like George Etienne Cartier) thought that the Confederation would impact positively on the survival of French Canada and on their own career and, thus, should be supported. The Roman Catholic Church was always prepared to support the established authorities; in fact, by creating a province of Quebec it is likely that the power and the prestige of the Church would be enhanced. We should not be surprised that the people wished to follow (and their support was not absolutely required in any case!).

The Rouges of Quebec (a radical, nationalist, anticlerical party in Quebec that opposed Confederation) demanded that a referendum be held on the question of Confederation but, typically, the authorities refused to do so in part, perhaps, because they feared the result of such a move but, mostly, because the idea of letting the ‘people’ decide was foreign to their conception of how public policy should be decided. That the people did not need to be involved certainly simplified the process.

The lack of viable alternatives

In any case, if Confederation was not done, what else could be done? In reality, while there appeared to be several other possibilities to resolve the problems of the Confederation period, alternatives were actually very limited. Quebec could have conceded Rep by Pop to Ontario in the Union, it could have annexed itself to the United States, it could have become independent and a different political system (legislative union or Confederation) could have been done.

However, for one reason or another, none of these were viable alternatives. In the end, as the Courrier du Canada was to put it to its readers in 1864, Confederation should be supported because it was ‘la moins mauvaise des choses dans un monde fort mauvais’. While this opinion does not disclose a particularly positive view of the Confederation project, it does highlight that the choices were very narrow and that politics is frequently merely the art of the possible…

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The nature of federalism

Yet, there is no denying that in the end very positive arguments could be made in favor of Confederation. Aside from enhancing the defense of the country against a possible takeover by the United States and creating conditions to generate greater prosperity by creating a sort of Canadian common market, arguments that were universally supported by the champions of Confederation everywhere in Canada, in Quebec the main argument in favor of Confederation concentrated on the nature of the federal system.

Indeed, if a federal system was created, it was primarily because it was the only way to sell the idea of union in Quebec. The federal system, by creating two levels of government each endowed with elements of sovereignty, permits different people to pool in the central government such elements over which they have a broad agreement, and draw great benefits from that, at the same time as they continue to retain absolute control over all of the things (particularly social and cultural ones) that distinguish them and which they wish to continue to control through their provincial government.

The federal system cannot be understood, and the support of Quebec for it at the time of Confederation cannot be grasped unless one remembers that its net effect is to recognize and guarantee local interests and differences. Quebec, as the only French Catholic entity in North America, needed to protect its distinctiveness, especially at a time when tolerance had not, as yet, emerged as a cardinal virtue in Canada.

Thus, in Quebec, in 1867, the massive pro-Confederation argument rested not so much on the idea of union with others, a prospect that highlighted the minority position of Quebec and potentially frightened its people, but, rather, that the federal system would recreate an autonomous province of Quebec, in the hands of French Canadians, and with a Legislature that would take care of all of the subjects so important for the survival of the people of Quebec as a separate entity in North America.

While the principle of union was the biggest selling point in Ontario, provincial autonomy was stressed instead in Quebec. It is near as if the project was presented to its people not as creating a single country but rather a new and rather independent Quebec. Under these conditions, Confederation seemed to make an important contribution to la survivance and the majority felt that it deserved support.

The issue of Quebec’s autonomy dominated Canadian politics for the last decades of the 20th century. Through various historical constitutional guarantees, Quebec, which is the sole Canadian province where citizens of French origin are in the majority, has developed a distinctive culture that differs in many respects from that of the rest of Canada—and, indeed, from the rest of North America.

Although many in Quebec support the confederation with the English-speaking provinces, many French Quebecers have endorsed separatism and secession from the rest of Canada as a means to ensure not only material prosperity and liberty but also ethnic survival. As a consequence, they have tended to act as a cohesive unit in national matters and to support those political parties most supportive of their claims. In 1976 Quebec’s voters elected the Parti Québécois, whose major policy platform was “sovereignty-association,” a form of separation from Canada but with close economic ties, to form its provincial government.

In 1980, however, three-fifths of Quebecers voted against outright separation; in 1995 a proposition aimed at separation—or at least a major restructuring of Quebec’s relationship with Canada—was defeated again, though by a margin of only 1 percent. The 1995 referendum highlighted Quebec’s internal divisions, as nine-tenths of English speakers opposed separation while three-fifths of French speakers supported it.

There have been several unsuccessful efforts to entice Quebec to approve the constitution formally and to develop a balance of powers acceptable to both Quebec and the rest of Canada. For example, the Meech Lake Accord (1987), which would have recognized Quebec’s status as a distinct society and would have re-created a provincial veto power, failed to win support in Manitoba and Newfoundland, and the Charlottetown Accord (1992), which addressed greater autonomy for both Quebec and the aboriginal population, was rejected in a national referendum (it lost decisively in Quebec and the western provinces). The Clarity Act (2000) produced an agreement between Quebec and the federal government that any future referendum must have a clear majority, be based on an unambiguous question, and have the approval of the federal House of Commons.

The “Quiet Revolution” to the present

Under the Duplessis administration, none of the neo-nationalist or liberal reforms were implemented. In the interim, the social and economic transformation of the Québécois community continued apace, thus creating the opportunity for rapid institutional change should a more sympathetic political party take office. The Quebec Liberal Party chose a former federal minister, Jean Lesage, as its new leader in 1958 and adopted a new political platform comprising elements from both the neo-nationalist and neoliberal platforms.

Following Duplessis’s death in 1959, Lesage and the Liberals formed a government with a slim majority in 1960, and the “Quiet Revolution” began. Supported by an emerging new middle class of well-educated Québécois, the Lesage government created a modern, secular Quebec state that took control of all social, health, and educational institutions, opening thousands of jobs for the educated Francophones.

The government also created and managed numerous Crown corporations, including Hydro-Québec, where French was the language of the workplace. Many Québécois used this experience to create private companies that became part of Quebec, Inc., a consortium of large Québécois corporations. To finance all of these expensive reform programs, Lesage and his successors demanded and received a greater share of federal personal, corporate, and estate taxes. Quebec also opted out of many of the Canadian government’s shared-cost programs and received additional tax points. Quebec garnered the largest share (nearly 50 percent) of the equalization transfers made by Ottawa to Canada’s have-not provinces.

The Quebec government’s pursuit of additional tax revenue and jurisdictional power over domestic and foreign matters posed a serious political challenge to an already decentralized Canadian federation. Right- and left-wing secessionist political movements emerged in the mid-1960s. They coalesced around René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, which was founded in 1968. Following defeats in the elections of 1970 and 1973, the Parti Québécois, promising a referendum on secession, was elected in November 1976. The Parti Québécois’s first legislation was Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.

Responding to this very serious threat to national unity, the Canadian Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, prepared itself for the provincial referendum on secession that took place in May 1980. Garnering 60 percent of the vote, the federalist forces led by Trudeau defeated the secessionists. Trudeau acted immediately on his promise to renew the federation. The Canadian Parliament, with the support of nine provinces and a majority of Canadians, acted to “patriate” (a uniquely Canadian term meaning roughly to Canadianize) the country’s founding document, the British North America Act of 1867, which originally had been enacted by the British Parliament.

The resultant Canada Act of 1982, augmented by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (a bill of rights), provided the country with a new constitution. Lévesque’s Parti Québécois rejected the new constitution because it diminished Quebec’s power over language and education and that it did away with Quebec’s constitutional veto.

Quebec’s constitutional struggle with the federal government remained largely dormant until 1987 when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney negotiated a deal with the Quebec Liberal government of Robert Bourassa. The result, the Meech Lake Accord, recognized Quebec as a distinct society and gave the government and legislature of Quebec the right to preserve and promote its uniqueness. It also gave Quebec and the other provinces expanded powers, including a veto over all changes made to Canada’s central institutions. However, the Meech Lake Accord was not ratified by all 10 provinces within its required three-year limit because of opposition in Manitoba and Newfoundland.

Canada’s constitutional wars continued when Bourassa, with support from Mulroney, threatened to hold another referendum on secession in October 1992 if his government was not offered an acceptable set of constitutional proposals by the federal government and the other provinces. Months of negotiations produced the Charlottetown Consensus Report, which called for enhanced autonomy not only for Quebec but for the country’s aboriginal groups.

The proposal was rejected by Canadians in a national referendum by a margin of 55 to 45 percent. Mulroney resigned, and in the 1993 election, the Conservative Party was shattered. Bourassa, ill with cancer, also resigned. His successor, Daniel Johnson, lost the 1994 election to Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau, who promised to hold a referendum within the year. However, under pressure, Parizeau backed away from a referendum on outright secession.

Instead, Quebecers were asked if they supported the concept of sovereignty partnership between an independent Quebec and the rest of Canada. In 1995 a powerful campaign for the “yes” vote nearly won the day for the separatist cause, as the referendum was defeated by fewer than 55,000 votes. Parizeau stepped down and was replaced by Lucien Bouchard, a founder of Bloc Québécois.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was shocked by the narrow margin of victory. His government passed a resolution recognizing Quebec as a distinct society and a bill stating that the Canadian government would never ratify another major constitutional amendment without the approval of Quebec’s National Assembly. He also referred Quebec’s referendum law to Canada’s Supreme Court; it stipulated that the Quebec assembly had the right, under international law, to make a unilateral declaration of independence following a simple majority vote on secession.

In August 1998 the Supreme Court justices, in their landmark Quebec Secession Reference decision, ruled that Quebec did not have, under domestic or international law, the right to secede unilaterally. The justices then opined that if Quebecers voted on a direct question pertaining to secession only, with a clear majority, the Canadian government would be obligated to negotiate secession with Quebec. The court made it clear that the negotiations would encompass all matters, including borders, and that there was no guarantee that they would succeed. They concluded that the Quebec state could proceed to take all the risks inherent in an illegal declaration of independence.

The vast majority of Québécois accepted the Supreme Court’s controversial decision, thereby preventing the Parti Québécois government from employing it as a catalyst for a third referendum on secession. Quebecers reelected Bouchard’s Parti Québécois to a second term in 1998. At a convention in May 2000, Bouchard pledged to promote with renewed vigor the cause of Quebec’s independence but refused to set a date for another referendum.

He retired in 2001, citing his failure to make advancements toward sovereignty. Bouchard became the leader of a movement against another referendum on secession because the Québécois society had far more urgent demographic, social, and economic problems to resolve to ensure its long-term viability, prosperity, and sustainability. In 2003, however, Parti Québécois and Bernard Landry, who had succeeded Bouchard as premier, were ousted from office by the Liberal Party and its leader, Jean Charest, who promised to restore the health care system and to lower taxes for the middle class.

In November 2005 Parti Québécois elected as its leader André Boisclair, a charismatic 39-year-old who had been a member of the party’s executive committee since 1985 and a member of the provincial assembly since 1989. The vast majority of the Québécois lost confidence in him, however, a result of what many considered a lack of political judgment and in response to a personal scandal (before his election as leader he had admitted prior cocaine use).

As a result, Charest’s Liberal government, despite failing to deliver on its two key promises, was reelected in 2007, though with only one-third of the seats, mostly in Anglophone and Allophone ridings. Mario Dumont’s Democratic Action Party, which represented the interests of small-town rural Québécois and disgruntled middle-class suburbanites, garnered one-third of the seats from both the Liberal Party and Parti Québécois. In the wake of Parti Québécois’s second defeat, many Québécois appeared to have no desire to be drawn into the third referendum on secession.

Like Bouchard, most Québécois came to understand that it was necessary and urgent to resolve the many demographic, social, and economic problems confronting their society before confronting the risks inherent in seceding from the Canadian federation. Québécois also gambled that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government would grant the province of Quebec special constitutional status within a more decentralized and asymmetrical Canadian federation, thereby making secession unnecessary. A failure to deliver on this promise might well revive the secessionist movement, leaving Canadians once again facing a challenge to the political and territorial integrity of their nation-state.

Quebec Records found in French methodology

One of the reasons Quebec records are more easily accessible further back than those influenced by British systems is that from the beginning of the colony of New France record keeping fell under the more diligent French methods.

This has both been a blessing and confusion as Quebec records are more easily and less easily accessible than those of the other provinces. This paradox occurs because the early records were more meticulously kept due to the French influence but were not maintained by one central jurisdiction until 1994.

However, due to the French influence, keeping vital records was well established from the early days of the settlement of New France. From long before the establishment of the French colonies in North America, churches in France maintained vital statistics through their registers. There is evidence of vital records back to the time of Charlemagne or earlier. Certainly, intact parish registers have been found dating from the 14th century. However, it appears that these registers were kept for church purposes rather than for state reasons and as such were not consistent.

Dates of the ceremony were usually the only dates included. Also what names were recorded varied by which priest was documenting the ceremonial event. The name of the father was not always listed in the record of baptism unless he was a significant benefactor of the Church. The record of a funeral Mass did not include the date of death or even the age of the deceased.

Canada 1993

The new Liberal government faced several challenges, including an ongoing recession, political fragmentation along regional lines, and a resurgence of the independence movement in Quebec. In early 1995 Canada’s self-image was tarnished when the government disbanded the Canadian Airborne Regiment, which had been tainted by charges of torture and murder while serving in Somalia. Shortly thereafter Canada became involved in a dispute with Spain over Spanish commercial fishing in Canadian waters off Newfoundland. A Spanish fishing boat was seized, and tensions mounted between the two countries before an international agreement was negotiated to govern access and assure that depleted stocks would not be overfished.

In October 1995 the country came closer than ever before to political partition. Quebec held another referendum on secession, and this time the separatists were only narrowly defeated, by a margin of 50.6 to 49.4 percent. The independence movement benefited from the charismatic personality of federal representative Lucien Bouchard, who took over the leadership of the Parti Québécois and became premier of Quebec in 1996.

As prosperity returned to the country, enthusiasm for independence in Quebec waned, and Bouchard became more pragmatic in his dealings with the federal government and his fellow provincial premiers. The goal remained the same, but, unless secession seemed likely, confrontation was to be avoided. In the meantime, the federal government attempted to mollify Quebec by pursuing a policy of “distinct status” for the province but assuring, through legislation called the Clarity Bill, that any future referendum would require federal approval and involvement.

A new generation of Canadians both inside and outside Quebec seemed less concerned with the sovereignty issue and more interested in the opportunities that had emerged with NAFTA and its resultant prosperity. Economic growth and the tax bounty that accompanied it permitted provincial governments and the federal government to secure their fiscal position, though not without considerable rancor.

Payments from Ottawa to the provinces were reduced as Chrétien was determined to balance the federal budget; in a similar fashion, provincial governments shifted costs to municipal governments and individual citizens, who frequently found themselves without services they had come to expect or, in some cases, paying for those services with increased or new taxes and user fees.

Prosperity camouflaged many problems encountered by the middle and upper classes, but working-class and unemployed Canadians found themselves without support. In some provinces, particularly Alberta and Ontario, both under the leadership of Progressive Conservatives, the cost-cutting was ideological, deep, and divisive. Tax cuts in these provinces, particularly for wealthier citizens, were viewed as a panacea for Canada’s economic and social ills.


* The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2007.

*Article published By: Fawne Stratford-Devai. 2001.

* Article published by Richard T. Clippingdale.

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