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 The Fathers of Confederation (1864)

The Fathers of Confederation meeting in Charlottetown in 1864

Although the British had secured the northern part of the Oregon country,[i] fear of American expansionism, as expressed in the Manifest Destiny, remained the chief motivation for Britain to unite the provinces of its North-American colonies. Its two British colonies in what had been the Oregon Country were amalgamated in 1866 as the United Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Moreover, in 1870, the Province of Canada bought land formerly owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.  So, finally, “British Columbia, was enticed to join the new confederation in 1871, but only with the promise that a transcontinental railway be built within 10 years to physically link east and west.”[ii]

The Canadian Pacific Railway

“The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated February 16, 1881, with George Stephen as its first president.” Building a railway through ranges of mountains was well-nigh impossible but “[t]his incredible engineering feat was completed on Nov.7, 1885 – six years ahead of schedule – when the last spike was driven at Craigellachie, B.C.”[iii]  (The Fenians were there.)

The Provinces, territories and Yukon entering into Confederation

Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia

Provinces entered into Confederation progressively, which constitutes a main characteristic of Confederation. When the Federal Dominion of Canada was formed, on July 1, 1867, one British colony, the British Province of Canada, was divided into the new Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec and two other British colonies, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, joined Ontario and Quebec. In other words, three British colonies were formed into four Canadian provinces on July 1, 1867.

Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, Alberta & Newfoundland

Manitoba joined in 1870, followed by British Columbia, in 1871, bringing the number of provinces of the Dominion of Canada to six (6).  Prince Edward Island (7) joined on July 1, 1887, Saskatchewan and Alberta, on September 1905 (8 & 9).  However, the tenth province, Newfoundland, now Newfoundland and Labrador, did not join until 1949 (10), under Joseph Roberts “Joey” Smallwood, PC, CC (December 24, 1900 – December 17, 1991), Newfoundland’s first Premier.

The Northwest Territories and Yukon

As for the Northwest Territories and Yukon, the rest of what would constitute the Dominion of Canada, they entered into Confederation respectively in 1870 (the Northwest Territories) and, the Yukon, in 1898.

The Fenians or Irish Republican Brotherhood


There was reluctance to join Confederation on the part of the three Atlantic provinces: New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, once called collectively Nova Scotia.  They simply had no need, a crucial factor, to enter into a partnership with British Provinces to the West.  Quebec stood to regain its Lower Canada, which was important motivation.

However the initial reluctance on the part of the Atlantic provinces was overcome when, as mentioned above, US expansionism became a threat to Britain’s colonies in North America.  However, threats did not emanate from believers in the Manifest Destiny, but from Fenians who were attempting to invade the British colonies north of the 49th parallel.


The first threats from the US had little to do with the expansionist Monroe Doctrine.  On the contrary, attempts to invade lands north of the border were made by Fenians, an Irish Brotherhood: the Fenian Brotherhood devoted to building an independent Irish Republic (Irish Republican Brotherhood: IRB).

In Britain, the Fenians were promoting trade unionism as well as armed revolution to further their goals.  Consequently, Fenians, were poor candidates for American citizenship.  Yet, they found their way across the Atlantic to the US.  The US branch of the Fenian Brotherhood, was founded by John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny,[iii] the author of the Felon’s Track, a Gutenberg Project EBook (simply click on the title:  Felon’s Track to read).  As well, the Great Irish potato famine (1845 and 1852) had led to massive emigration to the United States and to Canada, but I do not think the Irish Potato Famine refugees can be associated to Fenianism.  They arrived in North America between 1845 and 1852.

The Fenians in “Canada”: Raids

Raids (Wikipedia)

In Canada, the Fenians first attacked the Missisquoi County, in the Loyalist Eastern Townships, the area of Canada where I live.  But other Fenian targets were Campobello Island, New Brunswick (United Empire Loyalist country), which they attacked in April 1866, and the current Ontario.  In the current Ontario, about a thousand Fenians crossed the Niagara River on 1st June  1866 under Colonel John O’Neill.  The Fenians then attacked the future western provinces of burgeoning Canada all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

In Ottawa, Patrick James Whelan was hanged, perhaps too hastily, for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy Etienne Hughes McGee, PC, (13 April  1825 – 7 April 1868 ).  D’Arcy McGee was an Irish nationalist, but he was also one of the Fathers of Confederation, which had just been achieved.

In other words, the Fenians raids played a significant role in bringing about Confederation, as did the Oregon Treaty of 1849. So, aggressiveness on the part of the United States was to be feared by Britain’s colony to the north of the United States.

Nineteenth-Century Nationalism

However, we do see signs of the times in the actions of the Fenians.  After the Congress of Vienna (September, 1814 to June, 1815), nationalism grew considerably in Europe leading to the various revolution of 1848 and, ultimately, to World War I.  Michael Doheny took part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.[iv]

In fact, European nationalism had also fuelled French-Canadian nationalism.  When Lord Durham suggested the Union of Upper and Lower Canada and the assimilation of French-speaking Canadians, he inadvertently gave great impetus to French-Canadian nationalism, which, as mentioned above, helps understand why French-speaking Canadian leaders, living in what would be the Province of Quebec, supported Confederation.

Conclusion, but to be followed

So a threat from the US, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or the Fenians, led to Atlantic Canada’s willingness to join the Confederation.  Under Confederation the Atlantic provinces gained muscle.  Newfoundland, however, was beyond the grasp of Fenians.  Other provinces would join after 1867. Provinces joined Confederation because there was something to be gained. In the case of British Columbia the construction of a railway would be  condition and a need.


I will pause here in order to talk about the Red River Rebellion and the yet to be understood the life and execution of Louis Riel, the member of Parliament for Provencher (Manitoba) and the “father of Manitoba.”


[i] Under the terms of the Oregon Treaty of 1849, Britain ceded it claims to ownership of land south of the 49th parallel.  But it kept Vancouver Island and coastal islands as well as Vancouver.

[ii]  Canadian Pacific Railway, History, http://www.cpr.ca/en/about-cp/our-past-present-and-future/Pages/our-history.aspx.  The General Manager of the Company was William Cornelius Van Horne.

[iii]  “He [Michael Doheny] took part in the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, eluded arrest, and, after being hunted by the police for some time, escaped to New York. He settled in the United States, and became a lawyer and a soldier with the Fenian Brotherhood.” (Wikipedia)

Provinces of Canada:1867-1870 (please click on the map to enlarge it)

 © Micheline Walker
 20 April 2012