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Canadian National Unity Formation in the Period of Post-Confederation

National unity is of great importance for each country because it allows keeping people united and ensures the trust of the citizens in their government. National unity cannot be forced or imposed on people; it is formed in the course of the country’s history and is influenced by important historical events. On its way to national unity, Canada has gone through numerous rebellions and revolutions which turned it into a strong country that evokes pride in its citizens. Canada’s national identity started to be shaped in Post-Confederation Canada in 1876-1914. After the formation of the federal Dominion of Canada in 1867, Canada faced several disturbances which affected its future development; such events as the Red River Rebellion, execution of Louis Riel, the leader of this rebellion, and Manitoba Schools Question had significantly raised the level of national unity among Canadians by 1914.

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The Red River Rebellion

The first to contribute to the Canadians’ national unity was the Red River Rebellion which is often regarded as the first governmental crisis which arose after the creation of the Dominion of Canada. Along with the political uncertainty of those times several other factors, such as racial, religious, and nationalistic, have initiated this rebellion. The transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada which was negotiated by William McDougall and George Cartier in London in 1868 under the Rupert’s Land Act 1868 (Francis and Smith 73), even though it marked Canada’s purchase of the territory, still left the question of political authority unsettled. Louis Riel was selected as a leader of this territory who organized the Métis National Committee and later initiated the rebellion. The matter was that an English-speaking governor was appointed to govern this territory, which the French-speaking inhabitants have ardently opposed. Together with other Red River Settlement inhabitants, Riel formed a provisional government which was expected to negotiate with the then government of Canada led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. The subject of the negotiations was the transfer of sovereignty or, to be more exact, postponing the transfer because McDougall, who was prevented from entering the territory of the Settlement by the natives, was unable to exercise control over it. Riel negotiated with the Canadian government to give Assiniboia, a Red River Colony, a status of a province. The negotiations fell apart rather quickly, though the agreements which followed the events of the rebellion were quite successful. One of the curious results of these hurried and tortuous negotiations was the Manitoba Act (Francis and Smith 133). According to this Act, the Red River Settlement, as well as its surroundings, entered the Confederation as a province of Manitoba and, unlike all other provinces, even had their land and resources (though the resources were controlled by Ottawa).

In the course of the rebellion, Ried arrested and executed an Orangeman Thomas Scott, which, though this person was believed to be a “rash, thoughtless young man whom none cared to have anything to do with” (Francis and Smith 91), still caused resentment in the rows of Protestant English Canadians. After the Manitoba Act was passed, a military expedition was sent to the province to cope with the rebellion in the west where the outrage was growing because of Thomas Scott’s execution. While attempts were made to suppress the rebellion and arrest Riel, the latter fled to the United States, thus ending the rebellion. Therefore, the governmental crisis which Rupert’s Land Act has entailed was the first stage in the creation of the Canadians’ national unity. The Red River Rebellion which took place after the passing of this act was the result of the settlement’s inhabitants and their leader Louis Riel’s desire to promote their nationalistic ideals and oppose the Canadian government. Though on the one hand, the rebellion has emphasized the fact that Canada’s population was split into English-speaking and French-speaking, it made both these populations stand up for their rights and interests. This means that regardless of their keeping to different ideas, they were consolidated at least amidst their groups.

Louis Riel Execution

The execution of Louis Riel during the North-West Rebellion can be considered as another driving force of renewing French Canadian nationalism. This rebellion of 1885 “began in hope but failed the Métis at Batoche” (Francis, Jones, and Smith 76) because they were completely defeated in it. Though after the Red River Rebellion the lives of the Métis have considerably improved and some of them moved to Saskatchewan, quite a well-developed for those times province in Canada, they still felt like they were oppressed and discriminated against. The first reason for that was the expansion of the railway, while the second one was the European immigration; the immigrants were demanding land which the government guaranteed to them, thus depriving the natives of it. The final concern of the Métis was that the hunters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as the other ones, hunted the buffaloes that were already almost extinct even without hunting. This shows that the North-West Rebellion, just like the Red River one was caused by a mixture of factors, starting from political and ending with social ones.

Anyway, the feeling of oppression made the Métis ask for Riel’s return from exile and his standing up for this people’s nationalism again through appealing to the government. Thus, in the spring of 1885, the rebellion was started. The provisional government was re-established by Riel and his supporters, though this time it was a government of Saskatchewan. They sincerely hoped that the federal government would not show much opposition to their demands, like the previous time when the Red River Rebellion was organized. However, certain things had changed since those times and the federal government had some serious advantages in this “fight”. One of these advantages was the Canadian Pacific Railway which was built from Ontario up to the province of Saskatchewan. It played an extremely important role in transporting troops, which has largely increased the government’s strengths. In addition to this, the government has created North-West Mounted Police which served as an armed local force and was first to get involved in the fight with Riel and other natives. The religious factor was also the federal government’s advantage due to its being non-beneficial for Riel. He returned to his native land announcing himself as a prophet sent back by God to do justice and save his people. This fact has made the Catholic Church deny Riel in support, which significantly reduced the number of warriors Riel had been counting on. The Mounties surrounded the Métis settlement and reinforcements which arrived sometime later decisively defeated the natives. Riel did not manage to escape as the previous time; he was arrested and executed, which this time caused resentment among French Canadians. They opposed English-speaking Canada blaming it for being prejudiced against Riel and themselves. This has considerably widened the already great gap between these two populations and led to French Canadian nationalism renewal. The sense of nationalism is present even in the modern French Canadians’ society. This all shows that political squabbling, along with several other factors, has promoted nationalism in Canada.

Manitoba Schools Question

The final most important event in Canadian history which resulted in fortifying national unity among Canadians was the Manitoba Schools Question, the conflict which led to the appointment of the new Prime Minister and the implementation of the policy of continentalism. After the rebellions which the country has gone through, English Canadians started immigrating to the province of Manitoba and their number was increasing. This made the government of the province pass the Manitoba Schools Act which led to the “abolition of the state-supported separate school system” (Francis, Jones, and Smith 82), as well as the abolition of French as an official language. These provisions contradicted the Manitoba Act passed during the Red River Rebellion and guaranteeing the natives separate French schools. This has initiated a political movement among Protestants and led to one more federal political crisis which resulted in the resign of Mackenzie Bowell, then Canada’s Prime Minister. Wilfrid Laurier was appointed to this position; this event has with time turned Canada into a country with strong nationalist convictions. In 1887 Laurier became the leader of the Liberal Party, which helped him spread his influence over Quebec (the province he came from) and Canada in general. He remained a Prime Minister until 1911 when his party was defeated during the elections. The primary objective of Laurier was to unite French and English Canada and to create a sense of nationalism in the country. This objective was expected to be fulfilled using numerous policies of conciliation. One of the first actions which Laurier has undertaken after getting the position of Prime Minister was to work out a solution to the Manitoba Schools Question which caused so many conflicts in the country. This solution consisted in proposing Catholics in Manitoba obtain Catholic education, which was advantageous for both, English and French Canadians.

Another step that Laurier has undertaken to evoke a sense of nationalism in Canadians was following the policy of continentalism. This policy has been also implemented in the United States; later it became so widespread that gradually grew into nationalism and the United States’ calling itself America instead of North and South America. As far as Canada is concerned, this policy has become one of three main constituents of Canadian nationality; at this, two other ones were independence and pro-British imperialism (Francis, Jones, and Smith 89). Successful implementation of the policy strengthened the economic and trade ties of Canada with the North American continent, though its opponents never stopped pointing at its possible negative outcomes. Continentalism in its most extreme form was often referred to as annexationism. This policy was hardly ever supported in Canada for it meant that all parts of the latter should be integrated into the United States. This contradicted one of the ideas that Laurier promoted, namely the idea of liberty which he tried to preserve so much. In 1911 Laurier’s Liberty Party negotiated free trade with the United States, but the party lost the election and the agreement was canceled. Nevertheless, continentalist policies have been adopted by the Progressive Conservative Party and used further to improve trade relations between Canada and the United States. This has in no way harmed the sovereignty of Canada; on the contrary, it has only promoted the Canadians’ nationalism. Thus, the Manitoba Schools Question and the conflicts it has entailed resulted in the appointment of Laurier on the post of Canada’s Prime Minister who implemented numerous conciliation policies and continentalism and created genuine national unity among the Canadians.

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Taking into account everything mentioned above, it can be stated that Canada’s way to national unity has indeed been rather long and thorny. The difficulties started shortly after the Canadian Confederation and the passing of Rupert’s Land Act which has caused the Red River Rebellion. The leader of this rebellion Louis Riel fought for his native people’s rights and freedoms and inspired others for this fight for nationalist ideas. The second stage of this fight took place in several years when dissatisfaction of Métis people with their lives made Riel return from exile and continue his fight. The second time was less successful for the insurgents because it resulted in their defeat and execution of their leader. This, however, has only fortified their sense of nationalism. Finally, the Manitoba Schools Question provoked the concluding conflict in Canadians’ development of national unity. This conflict led to resigning of the country’s Prime Minister and the appointment of the new one, Wilfrid Laurier, who together with his conciliation policies and continentalism brought the country to a higher level of nationalism. These political events altogether created a high sense of national unity among the citizens of Post-Confederation Canada.

Works Cited

  1. Francis, R. Douglas and Donald, B. Readings in Canadian History: Post-Confederation. Toronto : Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1986.
  2. Francis, R. Douglas, Jones, Richard, and Smith, Donald B. Destinies: Canadian History since Confederation. Toronto : Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1988.

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