The Quebec Act
The War of 1812
The Fur Empire
Timber and Wheat
Population Increase
Little Englandism

With Little Englandism and the end of the mercantile system from the 1840s to the 1860s, Britain actually encouraged British North America to move towards more independence. But two other factors led to Confederation in 1867.




One key element was the political deadlock that emerged in the Canadas in the 1850s. Politically, the union of the Canadas did not work well. The French Canadians and English Canadians were at odds and there was a problem of representation. When the union was created in 1841, the Upper Canadians were less numerous, and in the hope of giving them more power in relation to the French Canadians of Lower Canada, the two areas had been given equal representation. In time, however, the population of Upper Canada had become more numerous, and the Upper Canadians began demanding proportional representation (emergence of reform (Clear Grits) party under George Brown, whose motto was: “rep by pop”). By then the French Canadians were staunchly opposed to such a reform, which would have put them in the minority. This created a hopeless political deadlock in the Canadas, and a coalition emerged, whose purpose was to separate the Canadas, by placing them within a larger federation of British North American colonies.




Another crucial element that led to Confederation is the fact that during the American Civil War, the relationship between the United States and Great Britain deteriorated to its lowest point since the War of 1812. While officially neutral, Britain seemed to favor the South. The British textile industry was dependent on cotton production and Britain had old and close ties to the South. Moreover, British manufacturers feared industrial competition from the American North. Many of the British elite identified with the South’s more hierarchical, cotton-based plantation society.


During the Civil War, a series of incidents threatened the relationship between the two countries. One key episode was the Trent Affair. On November 8, 1861, Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy ordered the crew of the U.S.S. San Jacinto to stop the British steamer Trent and arrest Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell. En route to Europe to rally support for the Confederate cause, the men were brought ashore and imprisoned in Boston Harbor. Claiming violation of international law, Britain demanded the release of the diplomats and ordered troops to Canada to prepare for a potential Anglo-American conflict. The diplomats were finally released in early January 1862, bringing the Trent Affair to a peaceful close.


The Americans were also angered by Britain’s willingness to supply the Confederate South with arms and war ships. One major grievance concerned the construction of the warship Alabama in Liverpool and its subsequent role as a Confederate commerce raider. After the war, the US officially claimed reparations from Britain for the damages caused by the Alabama and other raiders.


Another incident saw Canada, not Great Britain, add additional strain to the tense Anglo-American relationship. On October 19, 1864, 25 Confederate soldiers who had been captured by Union forces beforee escaping to Canada crossed the border into Union territory and attacked the town of Saint Albans, Vermont. Their goals in the raid, which was authorized by the Confederate government, were to gather cash for the Confederate treasury and to divert federal troops away from the Confederate armies to protect the Northern border. After killing a man and stealing about $200,000 from the three banks, they fled back to Canada. A group of Northerners pursued them across the border and caught several Confederate raiders, but had to hand them over to Canadian officials. The stolen money was returned but the Confederate agents were released unpunished. The episode hurt rather than helped the Southern cause in the eyes of Canadians, because they felt that the Confederates had abused British hospitality in order to embroil Great Britain in a war with the United States. However, if Canadians were angry at Southerners for using country as a base of operations, they were also angry at Northerners for crossing the border to continue the pursuit.


These various incidents produced great anger in the Northern states, giving rise to talk of war with Canada and Britain and contributing to the 1866 American decision not to renew the Reciprocity Treaty with British North America.



Faced with American hostility, the British North American colonies realized that union would strengthen their position vis-à-vis the US. Confederation came to be perceived as an alternative to annexation. The idea was strongly supported by Britain, still in the grip of an anti-imperialist sentiment.


The first provinces to move towards union were the Maritimes, who began discussing the union of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. However, the Canadians, who had  invited themselves at the Maritime conference in Charlottetown, proposed a more ambitious plan: the confederation of all the British North American colonies. This would allow them to set up a common defense, a common economic market and common resources like railroads. The negotiations were accelerated by the end of the American Civil War and the fear of an American move against the Canadian colonies. In 1867, the Canadian Confederation was born around the following principles: separate provincial governments to protect local specificities; the monarchic principle retained; and a strong central government.