A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 47, The British North American Act

The colonial leaders who met at Charlottetown and at Quebec may have come to an agreement amongst themselves in respect to forming a new country, but such an agreement in itself was not to make Canada come into being. What was necessary was to pass a law in the British Parliament, to which the British colonies were subject. Therefore a third conference of the colonial leaders was convened in London, England. It was there that the necessary law was to pass; and where there resided the British politicians who would have to be briefed and addressed.

The London Conference

The process seem to proceed on the basis that those who came to London as representatives of the British North American colonies were possessed of plenary power. (There is an important point to be made: The representatives of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Lower Canada [Quebec] and Upper Canada [Ontario] never brought the question before their respective constituencies for a vote. Only after all was said and done were elections carried out.)

Those who were against the union, an increasing number, formed a league and went off to London to give the counter-arguments to the British politicians. Best we list the con and pro arguments. These arguments had no great impact in Britain beyond a few interested British politicians: they were, however, to be heard again when the elections back home were held later in the year, and, much more broadly amongst the voting constituents. We may put their arguments this way:

On the top of the PRO LIST are those enumerated by Tupper:

"The people of British North America would achieve a nationality that would impart strength. The elimination of the five hostile tariffs, the five currencies, the five postal systems would facilitate easier and freer exchange in business and commercial activities. A common railway policy would integrate the provincial systems into a national system. The united colonies could collectively provide some element of defence which was non-existent at that time."1
On the top of the CON LIST are those views held by Howe which may be briefly stated:
"He [Howe] emphasized the fact that all of Nova Scotia's hard won freedoms and accomplishments would be swept away by confederation. Control over Nova Scotia affairs would be given to the Canadians, 'who live above the tide and who know little and care less for our interests or our experience.'"2
And so an act of the British Parliament was passed in order "to protect the diversified interests of the several provinces, and secure efficiency, harmony, and permanency in the working of the union." The system of government as set forth in the act of 1867, combines in the first place a general government, "charged with matters of common interest to the whole country," and local governments for each of the provinces, "charged with the control of local matters in their respective sections."3

At the same time the B.N.A. Act was passed, another was passed guaranteeing a loan of 3 million pounds for the construction of an inter-colonial railway between Quebec and Nova Scotia, thought to be essential if the union was to hold together. In the preamble of the B.N.A. Act, Canada was to have "a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom." Dicey, when he looked at it, was of the view that the Founding Fathers, in the use of these words, misled the people and maybe themselves. It was Dicey's view the the word States should have been used instead Kingdom, as, in truth, the government set up under this new Constitution of Canada, was "modelled on that of the United States" and not that of the United Kingdom.4 Though there were obvious differences.5

We may easily produce a synoptic view of The B.N.A. Act:

"Thus, the stage was set for the British North America Act, 1867, (B.N.A. Act), a primary piece of legislation under which Canadians have been working, and living with, ever since. It did nothing but spilt up the areas of governmental responsibilities, as was required under a federal system. It did not establish a new constitution for Canada, and, it is not correct to refer to the B.N.A. Act as Canada's constitution. The constituent parts of Canada had a constitution before the B.N.A. Act and the B.N.A. Act did nothing to change it. The B.N.A. Act amalgamated the individual provinces into one country, and, of necessity, under a federal system. Essentially, all the B.N.A. Act did was to divvy up the departments of government between two levels, one being the central or federal government and the other consisting of the provincial or territorial governments. The B.N.A. Act spelled out this division of powers in sections 91 and 92; all done, in order "to protect the diversified interests of the several provinces, and secure efficiency, harmony, and permanency in the working of the union." The B.N.A. Act, set up a general government, "charged with matters of common interest to the whole country," and local governments for each of the provinces, "charged with the control of local matters in their respective sections."6
We need state, too, that the B.N.A. Act "made little difference to the relations with Great Britain. The imperial government still controlled foreign relations ..."7

To conclude these synoptic comments on the B.N.A. Act, we add: The Federal government was responsible for such matters that were important to the country as a whole, and important that such matters that are to be the same throughout, for example: banking business, criminal law, the post office, the armed forces. The provinces were to legislate in matters considered more local, such as property law.


It should now strike the reader that this business of creating a new country, Canada, was the business of only a few men from each of the provinces; it did not involve, from the start to the end, any of the voters, as voters, in the process, at all. The delegates came home from their diplomatic travels to resume their governmental duties, one of which was to call an election every few years. So, only after the horse had bolted, seemingly, did they begin to consider whether the barn doors were solid enough to stand the jolt: the provinces called elections.

At the federal level there were two parties in the contest. John A. Macdonald was the leader of the Conservative Party (also known as the Liberal-Conservative Party at the time), and George Brown, the leader of the Liberal Party. The voting and the counting continued over a period that went from August 7 to September 20. There were to be 181 seats in Parliament for the new federal government. The Conservatives won 101 seats and the Liberal Party 62. But our interest is not so much with the wide federal election but with that which occurred in Nova Scotia. Though this much should be said, Nova Scotia had 19 seats and they all, except for one, Tupper, went to individuals who did not support confederation (anti-unionists).

The 1867 provincial election in Nova Scotia saw two parties vying for votes. There was the Anti-Confederation League, the "Nova Scotia Party" with Howe at its head; then there was the union supporters, the "Canada Party" with Tupper at its head. The arguments out on the hustings were those as stated above where the statements of both Howe and Tupper were set out. You know -- it is a sell out to the Upper Canadian interests (Howe) and it is best for growth and defence (Tupper).8

Howe's appeal to the voters was an emotional one, one which worked. Tupper's appeal was that it was time for all to come into the new age, as difficult as that might be on certain people: the fishermen, boat-builders and those more generally involved in making a living from the sea. "Railroads and coal mines, as the key ingredients of the emerging economy, were crucial in determining the inclination of voters in a given area. The Nova Scotia Party, on the other hand, was most effective in areas of wood, wind and sail."9


The result was almost all in favour of the Anti-unionists. Howe's party, the Nova Scotia Party, carried 36 of the 38 seats in the provincial legislature.10 The Unionists, the Canada Party, did of course have support. The greatest part of this support was "over seventy per cent, from those counties least committed to the sea and the older economy." These centers were listed as Pictou, Colchester, Cumberland, Hants, Annapolis, Kings, and central Halifax.11 Charles Tupper was the only one of the Canada Party to be elected; it was only by a very small margin. Mention also may be made to another Unionist, William Alexander Henry. He had been the elected representative in the legislature for Antigonish for 20 years, only to lose his seat to a newcomer, being "outvoted three to one." "Henry failed to carry a single poll in the constituency he had dominated for the past twenty years."12

No matter the result of the provincial election, the creation of a federal union was a done deal. On the 1st of July, 1867, the provinces of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick formed up into one Dominion, under the name of Canada.13 "... Quebec entered the union reluctantly and fearfully, the Maritimes were pressured into it against their will, and that only Ontario enthusiastically supported Confederation."14

"This new world, when compared with Europe, is in almost every feature, a picture of youth entering on manhood, while the other declines with old age. Europe, exhausted in strength & failing in vigor. America, British America I mean, is bursting forth with powers of which neither the Government in England or the country here it yet aware. Here are the resources of a great Empire, & we don't yet know how to call them forth; but here they are rapidly expanding, as if in due preparation for a great struggle at no distant day."15
Both the Morning Chronicle and the Acadian Recorder appeared as obituary editions with broad black lines between the columns mourning the death of Nova Scotia.16


Four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, came together at the passing of the B.N.A. Act, in 1867. The people of the Red River, Manitoba became part of Canada in 1870; British Columbia in 1871; and Prince Edward Island in 1873. Thus, Canada, by 1873, consisted of these seven provinces, together with Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories. By 1905 the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were created, and in 1949 Newfoundland joined in.

George Macaulay Trevelyan:

"As a result of successful Federation, the Dominion of Canada had been able to deal with the United States more and more on her own account, and no longer merely through the agency of Great Britain. The new sense of Canadian unity also produced in the decades following Federation, the Canadian-Pacific Railway, which opened the vast regions of the remote West to English-speaking settlement under the British flag. That railway is the spinal cord of the new Canadian nation."17
The golden age of "wood, wind and sail," during which Nova Scotia prospered, was coming to an end; even if there were those who could not see it. How could it be? Did we not live on the sea, the highway of the world? Did we not make our living from the sea? And then in 1867 Nova Scotia became confederated with inlanders -- did it not favour the inland provinces to be connected to the Maritime provinces, rather than the other way around? But then there were those who in the union of British North America believed that Nova Scotia, after things worked themselves out, would benefit to a great degree and looked "forward to the day when the Inter-colonial Railway would be completed and Halifax would become its terminus and a manufacturing centre, and the wealth of the interior of the new Dominion of Canada would pour into the city to be transported to the rest of the world."18

-- The End of Book Three


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Peter Landry