“Some nations are conceived in revolution, and some in negotiation, but Canada was conceived here in Charlottetown, right after a party.”
– From the collection of Island author and historian, David Weale
If you’ve spent any time watching any kind of Canadian media lately, you’ve probably encountered a reference or two to Canada’s “150th birthday,” or the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Likewise, if you’ve spent any time on social media, you have also likely heard a number of people who are frustrated with the Canada 150 celebrations.
In reading through these discussions myself, I was often struck by the disparity between the official histories, like, for instance, the #Canada150 campaign, and academic interpretations of the past. The former was so relentlessly positive, and the latter so critical, that it almost seemed as if they were talking about two entirely different events. It also struck me that if perhaps more people knew about what really happened, they might be more inclined to see Canada 150 a little differently. But in most cases, this kind of information is very difficult to find.
So in response, I decided to start (another???) new series on Unwritten Histories, that I will be calling “Inconvenient Pasts.” In this series, I’m going to unpack some of our common historical misconceptions, talk about what really happened, and discuss what we can learn from both the events in question and subsequent interpretations. To put it another way, I will be disrupting traditional historical narratives, reinserting some of the inconvenient parts that have been left out, and hopefully shedding some light on our unwritten histories (see what I did there? 😉 )
In keeping with the Canada 150 theme (and the requirement that I poke fun at Prince Edward Island (known informally as PEI) whenever I can, since my husband is from there), we’re going to start by looking at the Charlottetown Conference, where it all began. Most people, including the Prince Edward Island provincial government, believe this to be the birthplace (and time?) of Canadian Confederation. And as we shall see, what really happened is actually far more interesting and complex than our traditional story.
A Pretty Picture
Picture this for a moment: A group of twenty-three great men came together and put aside their political differences, with the goal of creating a new nation. They gathered at the newly-built Province House, located in Charlottetown, PEI, where they engaged in a series of thoughtful debates. Once they came to an agreement, they shook hands, and thus, a nation was born.
(If you remember the Canada 150 commercial produced by the former Conservative government, which is, sadly, no longer online, then this image likely sounds familiar.)
Only not really.
Begin at the Beginning: A Problem of Sources
While the Charlottetown Conference did take place in PEI (specifically from September 1st to September 9th, 1864), and twenty-three men did meet there to discuss the possibility of a union between the British North American colonies, what actually happened is a matter of considerable debate. More than 150 years later, there is still no scholarly consensus. Why is that, you may be wondering? Well, for the simple reason that there are no surviving documents from the Charlottetown Conference. Zip, nada, nothing, etc… You can’t imagine how frustrating this is to historians. Without any primary sources, historians only have recourse to second-hand accounts of what happened, written down days, weeks, and months later. So no matter what anyone tells you, we simply don’t know what happened with any certainty.
So where does that leave us? Well, there are two sources that most historians rely on when it comes to trying to piece together what happened in Charlottetown. The first are newspaper accounts. A huge number of journalists flocked to PEI’s capitol in order to document the events of the day. But there is a really serious problem when it comes to using these sources: they are not entirely reliable. This was before the advent of journalistic ethics and codes-of-conduct, so journalists were free to print whatever they wanted, whether it was true or not. And even when journalists did tell the truth, they had no compunctions about editing or exaggerating events, since the goal of newspapers in this period was to sell copies. If the journalists could write a more exciting story than describing what actually happened, then so much the better. On the flipside, many newspapers were openly partisan; unlike today where newspapers claim ‘objectivity,’ many nineteenth-century rags at least owned up to their political biases.
The second, and more reliable, source of information comes from a collection of letters sent by George Brown to his wife, Anne Nelson Brown. He wrote to her nearly every day, and described the goings-on in great detail. While these are great sources of information, this still means that we only have one account of what happened. We do not actually have minutes from the meetings that took place at Province House. At the same time, it is impossible to know whether or not these letters are fully trustworthy. After all, do you tell your partner/spouse everything (::winkwinknudgenudge::)? And surely you’ve never edited or exaggerated a story to make yourself look impressive, right? 😉
While all primary sources have their advantages and disadvantages, this is still a very undesirable situation for a historian.
That said, by comparing both sources, as well as later accounts of what happened by the principle actors, historians have been able to put together a rough idea of what happened. But, as you will see, the account is considerably different than the one you’ve likely heard before.
Expert Tip: I’m not going to talk about Confederation itself in detail here, since that is a subject way beyond the scope of a blog post. But if you’d like to read more about what happened, check out the list of recommended sources at the bottom of this page
On August 29th, 1864, a number of Canadian political leaders and journalists, including some people you may have heard of (John A. Macdonald, George-Etienne Cartier, George Brown), and roughly $13,000 worth of champagne, boarded the Queen Victoria in Quebec City, and set sail for Charlottetown. The voyage was, by all accounts, a pleasant one. The sun was shining, the weather was warm, and the Canadians were lounging about on deck chairs. On the morning of September 1st, George Brown, after taking his morning saltwater bath, described PEI as “as pretty a country as you ever put your eye upon.”
By noon of that day, the Canadian delegation had arrived in Charlottetown harbour, and found it to be almost completely deserted, with no one on hand to greet them. Where was everyone, you may be wondering?
At the circus.
I’m not even remotely kidding. I swear.
The fantastical Slaymaker and Nichol’s Olympic Circus had rolled into town on August 30th. The show featured “troupes of learned dogs and comical moneys […] the Original Arabs, [and] a young ‘danseuse,’” though the star attractions were the horses and their riders, performing tricks and feats of derring-do.
Now that you’ve (hopefully) stopped laughing at this point, keep in mind that
- This was 1864. There were no smart phones, game consoles, or even televisions (::gasp::). A circus was an exciting event in this period!
- The last time a circus had been in PEI had been twenty years before.
- This was PEI 😉
People from all over the Island flocked to Charlottetown to see the circus, using whatever means necessary, whether by boat, horse, or foot. This included all of the politicians who were in town for the conference. Only one person was left behind to greet the Canadian delegates: William Henry Pope, a PEI lawyer and newspaperman. According to several different accounts, Pope commandeered one of the only vessels left in the harbour, an oyster boat. According to the Charlottetown Vindicator, in an article from September 7, 1864, Pope arrived in a “flat-bottomed boat, with a barrel of flour in the bow, and two jars of molasses in the stern, and with a lusty fisherman as his only companion.” According to another contemporary report, “[Pope] made a respectful official visit alongside the Canadian steamer “Queen Victoira”[sic] seated on an unclean barrel, and in fully command of an imbibing oyster boat propelled by a paddle and an oar. The Steward of the steamer, taking [Pope] for a Bumboater, said, “I say, skipper, what’s the price of shell-fish? But [Pope] opened not his shell.”
Political Gathering or Excuse to Party?
Once the Canadian delegates had arrived and landed on shore, they then participated in an official welcome and party.
Expert Tip: There were actually so many people in town for the circus that there were no hotel rooms left for the Canadian delegates. Most of them slept on board the ship, while a few accepted invitations to stay at the homes of Island delegates.
The following day, September 2nd, would set the pattern for all of the subsequent days: officially meetings in the morning and the early afternoon, and then par-tay all evening. In all, official negotiations only took place on September 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th (the 4th was a Sunday, and the day of rest, and the 7th through to the 9th were given to the Maritime delegates to discuss the Canadian proposal). In fact, it would be fair to say that the delegates spent nearly as much time, if not more, dining, drinking, and dancing, than they did negotiating, at least officially.
And oh, the parties were spectacular. In addition to the welcoming party on the first night, the delegates and their wives also participated in a traditional Island luncheon hosted by Pope the next day, featuring lobster and oysters; a lunch aboard the Queen Victoria where “in the warmth of eloquence and champagne, the ice melted completely”; a trip with the ladies to the north side of the Island for “warm sea-bathing”; and the final Grand Ball with dinner and dancing, held at the Colonial Building that lasted until 4 in the morning.
All of these exciting events came to a close on the 9th, when the Canadians departed aboard their ship. The Maritime delegates had agreed to consider the Canadian proposal of Confederation, pending further discussions, one month from then, in Quebec City.
And that’s pretty much it.
Now frankly, if you ask me, this is a much more interesting story than the traditional narrative. But there are still important insights to be gained, both from analyzing what really (or likely) happened.
While George Brown’s letters to Anne Nelson Brown might be somewhat questionable when it came to chronicling the events of the Charlottetown Conference, they are a fantastic (and invaluable) source of information about mid-nineteenth century Canadian politics, culture, and society. For instance, we know that much of the actual political negotiation happened when the delegates were socializing. After all, what better way to get to know someone than get drunk with them? I’m kidding, of course, but to this day, political leaders don’t limit their political discussions to official meetings. They get to know each other in more informal settings, learning about the other person’s strengths and weaknesses, making and breaking alliances, and figuring out whom to trust. As Edward MacDonald put it: “A heart the heart of the conference were the exploratory talks in the Legislative Council chamber of the Colonial building that sketched out the rough plan of a confederation. The social round in Charlottetown merely schooled delegates to like it.”
We can also learn a great deal, for example, about social and gender norms as well. For example, we can learn a great deal about mid-nineteenth century marriages and ideas about love just by reading the letters between George and Anne. George was quite passionate in his letters, contradicting our ideals about Victorian sexuality. We also learn that extramarital affairs were, if not accepted, at least tolerated. According to Brown, George-Étienne Cartier was practically living with his mistress, Lucy Cuvillier (a fascinating woman in her own right). We can learn about the interconnectedness of the great political families of the British North American colonies. For example, Macdonald would go on to marry, Agnes Bernard, the sister of conference secretary Hewitt Bernard. William Henry Pope’s young son, Joseph, sat on George Brown’s knee and received a sixpence. He would later grow up to become Sir Joseph Pope, and secretary to Macdonald himself. (Oh, nepotism. Plus ça change.)
There is even much to be learned about the establishment of Canada as a settler colonial regime. For example, here is George Brown’s description of the arrival of the Canadian delegates:
Having dressed ourselves in correct style, our two boats were lowered man-of-war fashion, and being each duly manned with four oarsmen and a boatswain, dressed in blue uniforms, hats belts, etc in regular style, we pulled away for shore and landed like Mr. Christopher Columbus who had the precedents of us in taking possession of portions of the American continent.
Like so many other North American settlers, Brown saw himself as an heir to Christopher Columbus. In this one sentence, he erased thousands and thousands of years of Indigenous history in Canada and North America. He envisioned North America as an essentially “empty land,” and one that he had a rightful claim to. Was it any surprise then that no Indigenous leaders or even representatives were invited to the Charlottetown Conference?
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
So does all of this mean that the Charlottetown Conference wasn’t important? Of course not. It was a hugely significant gathering of Canadian and Maritime political leaders, establishing a foundation that would eventually lead to Confederation. But we need to understand what really happened without romanticizing the past, and editing out the parts that don’t fit with a larger national narrative. We need to understand what did and what didn’t happen, to learn from our mistakes, and to do better next time. Further, our romanticized versions of historical events like the Charlottetown Conference say more about the present than they do about the past. They speak to a desire to make our history reflect our conception of what it means to be Canadian: polite, tolerant, and welcoming.
In fact, I would go so far as to argue, as have Christopher Moore and Ged Martin, that we need to do away with the whole idea of “Fathers of Confederation.” As Christopher Moore points out, these “fathers of confederation” were not heroes; they were simply men — no more and no less. They were human, and very fallible. Perhaps instead of using the image of the Fathers of Confederation as a representation of the birth of the nation of Canada, we would be better served by Fannie Parlee’s “Confederation Quilt.” While the workmanship of this quilt is superb and would be difficult to accomplish even today, the most remarkable feature of this quilt is the fabric. According to her family, Parlee was a dressmaker, and in the summer of 1864, spent much of her time creating a profusion of gowns for the wealthiest women on the Island. She used scraps from these dresses to compose the quilt. As Charlotte Gray points out, this piecework quilt, made up of differently coloured and shaped scraps of fabric serves as a better metaphor for the Charlottetown Conference. But I would even push this further, and argue that it also is a superb metaphor for the past, a visual symbol of the ruling elite (in the form of the fabric), stitched together by a working woman whose labour and contribution remains largely invisible, unless you know where to look.
I hope you’ve liked this first instalment in the “Inconvenient Pasts” series. Are there any stories in particular that you’d like to heard about? Let me know in the comments! If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it through Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform.
Programming note: Our schedule for the next couple of weeks is going to be a bit unusual. I will be having surgery on Friday, and will likely be out of commission for at least a week. So, this week’s roundup will go out on Friday morning (January 27th), covering all the way up to Thursday. The Tuesday blog posts for the next two weeks will be guest posts by two of my favourite historians. I’m not sure what’s going to happen about the following week’s roundup (February 5th), since it will largely depend on how I’m feeling. Worse comes to worse, I’ll do a double-roundup the following week (February 12th). I will definitely keep you posted though. My Twitter will also be a bit spotty, and will again depend on how I’m feeling. But I will be back. Don’t worry. 😉
- “Canadian Confederation.” Online Exhibit. Library and Archives Canada.
- “The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864.” Online Exhibit. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
- Coates, Colin and Philip Girard. “Reconsidering the Debates over Canadian Confederation.” Active History and Canada Watch. June 27, 2016. (plus the remainder of the series)
- Hennessy, Catherine G., David Keenlyside, and Edward Macdonald. The Landscapes of Confederation – Charlottetown, 1864. Charlottetown, PEI: Prince Edward Island Museum of Heritage Foundation, 2010.
- Moore, Christopher. 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, Canada, 1997.
- “Mothers of Confederation.” Online Exhibit. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Papers relating to the conferences which have taken place between Her Majesty’s government and a deputation from the Executive Council of Canada appointed to confer with Her Majesty’s government on subjects of importance to the province. London: G.E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode, 1865.
- Waite, P. B. The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867 : Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1962.
 For a fascinating discussion of this image, please see http://activehistory.ca/2016/07/the-robert-harris-group-portrait/
 Interestingly, while most of George’s letters survive, very few of Anne’s do. George was apparently incensed at the idea of anyone reading Anne’s letters except for him that he nearly always destroyed them after reading. Julia Skikavich, “Anne Brown,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/anne-nelson-brown/
 Brown Papers, George Brown to Anne Brown, September 13, 1864. Cited in P.B. Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867 : Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1962), 74.
 Of course I’m kidding. 😉
 Quoted in P.B. Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867 : Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America, 75
 Charlottetown Ross’s Weekly, September 8, 1864. Cited in P.B. Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867 : Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America, 75. A bumboater is someone who uses a small boat to ferry supplies to ships. There is a wonderful image of this occasion painted by Rex Woods, entitled “Prelude to Confederation,” but I can’t find it online. You can see a really bad black-and-white image here. However, a statue to him was unveiled in Charlottetown in 2014 .
 P.B. Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867 : Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America, 75-79 and Catherine G. Hennessy, David Keenlyside, and Edward Macdonald, The Landscapes of Confederation – Charlottetown, 1864 (Charlottetown, PEI: Prince Edward Island Museum of Heritage Foundation, 2010), 15.
 Catherine G. Hennessy, David Keenlyside, and Edward Macdonald, The Landscapes of Confederation – Charlottetown, 1864, 9
 Moira Dann, “Where Were the Mothers of Confederation?,” The Globe and Mail, August 28, 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/where-were-the-mothers-of-confederation/article4284401/
 Quoted in Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867 : Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America, 75.
 And we’re failing miserably. Probably the best example of this was the Trudeau government’s talk of “reconciliation” while simultaneously approving the construction of more pipelines. Trudeau is repeating the same mistake made by the Canadian delegates: discounting the voices of Indigeneous peoples.
 For a fascinating discussion of the history of the term and its problems, see http://gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/236-time-to-retire-canada-s-fathers-of-confederation. Martin also is equally critical of the problematic label of “Mothers of Confederation”; I think he discounts the overall impact of the female attendees. In the end, we simply don’t really know enough about what happened to make a judgment either way.
 Christopher Moore, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, Canada, 1997), xii.
 Just to give you a sense of how amazing the quilt is, the entire surface is covered in gold and silver-thread embroidery, done is a large variety of stitches. The quilt itself is composed of sixteen full squares and four half-squares of primarily silk, satin, taffeta, and brocade, based onto a cotton foundation. Some of these scraps are dyed in the very latest new colours, mauve and magenta. Other pieces are elaborately embroidered all over. The entire quilt is also surrounded by a silk ruffle, and measures approximately 5 by 6 feet.
 Charlotte Gray, The Museum Called Canada: 25 Rooms of Wonder (Toronto: Random House, 2004), 366-369