1837-1839: The Birth of the Federation
In November 1837, rebellion broke out in Lower Canada. Led by Papineau, the ‘Patriotes’ demanded acceptance of the proposals Papineau had sent to Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, which included a provision of self government for Canada and was considered far too radical to be given any merit. Melbourne, on hearing of the rebellion, had martial law declared in Lower Canada and dispatched local militia to deal with the rebels. A ragtag force of 300 militia was handed a brutal defeat near Quebec on November 13th, causing Melbourne much concern as blood had now been spilt on British territory; he ordered a report to be prepared on the future of Canada. Meanwhile, in Upper Canada, staunch republican William Lyon-Mackenzie was arrested for editorials in which he encouraged open insurrection against the British. Thus Upper Canada remained peaceful throughout the rebellion and sided with the British. Modern historians often discuss what could have been if Upper Canada had taken up arms against the British, and many believe it could have served as the finishing blow to Britain’s North American Empire.
By December, the Patriotes had been beaten in open confrontation and forced into guerrilla war, one which would continue all the way until late 1838 when the final fighters left in exile for the United States, France or Switzerland. The results of the report, known as the British North America Sovereign Status Report, suggested the unification of the two provinces and self government for Canada. The Whig government, eager to ease tensions in the area, accepted the act and had it passed on December 14th 1837. The next day, the Province of Canada was born, giving Anglo-Canadians more leverage in politics than the formerly francophone-majority province of Lower Canada which had been seen as a danger to the empire.
Another provision that Melbourne had encouraged was that of an ‘Imperial Federation’, that would federate the empire. The reason for this choice was the inevitability that one day, a centralised British Empire would fall apart while if decentralised, it could hope to survive. There were many opponents to the suggestion, many pointing out that an independent Canada could easily fall under the influence of the United States of America, a far nearer power with much influence in the area. Some Canadians also advocated that the Canadians not adopt the pound when given self government, but instead use the dollar to make trade with the states easier.
Eventually however, the advocates of the scheme won out, and on January 5th 1838 (Formation Day) the Imperial Federation was formed with Britain having 5 seats and the Province of Canada having 1, to be increased to 2 on being granted self governing colony status. The new Imperial Parliament was based in London, and was in session from March to September with the monarch having the ability to call emergency sessions at any time.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Queen Victoria had now appointed the first Governor-General: John Clitherow. Clitherow took on his job with much enthusiasm, and became a prime advocate of the Federation. He was also the man who was responsible for the origins of the Federation’s economic system. When Canada was granted responsible government on February 22nd 1838, this made it a subject to the Corn Laws. Clitherow argued that this damaged Canada’s economy and would force it into the arms of the US. Melbourne, while agreeing to federation, was not eager to have the Corn Laws lifted as he saw it as the first step towards ending British protectionism.
Debate raged throughout the year, and resulted in the pro free-trade Conservatives claiming 56 of Canada’s 71 seats in the Canadian federal elections of that year. It also meant the Conservatives claimed both of Canada’s seats in the Imperial Parliament, much to Clitherow’s (who had a reserved seat as the representative of the Queen in Canada) disappointment. Finally, on October 22nd, the Corn Laws were amended, allowing Canada to be exempt from the tariffs. However, the trade issue would not end here.
Clitherow pushed for an ‘Imperial Preference’ which would lower duties on Canadian goods even further. Melbourne stepped down in February 1839, which meant that Sir Francis Thornhill Baring succeeded him as Prime Minister. Baring was far less resilient than his predecessor and agreed to the preference. Finally, the Imperial Parliament voted to pass it, 6-1. In March it became law, and soon Canadian grain was able to be sold to Britain for far cheaper prices than grain from other countries. It also worked vice-versa, allowing Canada to decrease its dependence on American goods and also keeping the Canadian pound at the acceptable exchange rate of 3 for the British pound and 1.5 for the US dollar. For now, Canada would remain an integral part of the sterling area.
Canada also faced its first major foreign crisis at this time. Although not involving Canadian territory, Britain and the USA had an ongoing dispute over the boundary of the Maine-New Brunswick border. Momentarily, it looked as if Canada may have become involved in its first war, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed. In July 1839, a new treaty was signed demarcating the border as a compromise, although for some time afterwards there would be disputes between local farmers over the exact delineation.
Finally, an act was signed agreeing to an expansion of the Imperial Parliament which it was felt was too small. Under the new agreement, Britain gained 50 seats while Canada gained 20 (not including both countries ‘reserved seats’ for heads of government and state). It also meant that Whigs were able to push the Conservatives out of their majority in Canada, leaving the entire Imperial Parliament under Whig control. Free trade began to look less and less attractive as an ideal, though many Conservatives continued to champion it.
At this point, the federation seemed to be at peace and prosperity seemed to be just over the horizon. However, it would not be long before the Federation was plunged into crisis over events in the Far East...