Charlottetown 1864: The Persuasive Power of Champagne

It was there that Canada was born.

On Monday August 29, 1864 half the cabinet of the Canadian government boarded the steamer Queen Victoria at Quebec. They had heard that representatives of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI were meeting in Charlottetown to discuss Maritime union and they hoped to crash the party. The government of Upper and Lower Canada was gripped in deadlock and even old enemies such as John A. Macdonald and George Brown agreed that some new political arrangement was needed. As the Queen Victoria made its way slowly down the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Canadians were frantically working out their pitch.

The vessel “dropped anchor magnificently,” Brown wrote, in Charlottetown harbour. He hoped that the locals would be suitably impressed by their “big brothers from Canada,” but they were not. “Neglect and indifference were measured out with beautiful impartiality” wrote one journalist. In fact the town was abuzz but not for any political conference. People were arriving from all over the Island to see the circus, which was making its first appearance on the Island in 20 years. The welcoming committee consisted of a single man, a local member of the PEI legislature, W.H. Pope, who commandeered a small boat and rowed out breathlessly to greet the Canadians.

It was an awkward beginning. There were not even enough hotel rooms in the town for all the delegates. But hospitality won the day as the Maritime delegates agreed to postpone their discussions and allow the Canadians to present their plan. The Canadians were elated. The agenda was cleared and the next day George-Etienne Cartier began the presentation. Why not create a union of all the British colonies? After the first session Pope invited everyone to his house for a grand buffet luncheon of oysters and lobster.

The Canadian point man on the next day was John A. Macdonald. He was earnest and persuasive. He regaled the delegates with his knowledge of British history and told them that they had to avoid the tragic flaw in the American system, which had led to Civil War. He proposed a federation that would feature a strong central government while preserving the local identities of the separate colonies. George Brown described the constitutional issues and Alexander Tilloch Galt outlined the financial and economic arrangements.

Fathers of Confederation, 1864. This famous photo shows John A. Macdonald seated in the front row, centre, George-Étienne Cartier is standing to his right (courtesy NAC/C-733).

The discussions were informative but the real persuasion was in the partying that went on afterwards. For historian Peter Waite “the beginning of Confederation could be precisely dated.” It happened when the Canadians began pouring from the plentiful stores of champagne aboard the Queen Victoria.

When at long last the Maritime delegates got down to the subject for which the conference had been called originally, it became abundantly clear that Maritime union was never going to happen. The PEI delegates made the impossible demand that Charlottetown be the capital of a united province. At least in the wider Canadian federation the little city would be the capital of something.

Be it the champagne, the timing or the tacit approval of the British Colonial Office, the Maritimers were won over. The Saint John Morning Telegraph reported that the “confederate” cruiser in the harbour, the Queen Victoria, promised to outrival the Civil War cruisers “in the number and value of her conquests. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have all been within range of her big guns… such well known pieces of artillery as the Cartier, the Macdonald and the Galt.”

After the conference moved on to Halifax, it soon became clear that the delegates had made a stupendous decision that a new conference be convened in Quebec to work out the details of a union for the whole of British North American on October 10. At the final banquet, Macdonald responded to the toast offered to “colonial union.” We will avoid the mistakes of our American neighbour, he promised. We will preserve the identities of the separate provinces while creating a vigorous central government.

The Charlottetown Conference illustrated the weaknesses and strengths of political representation of the time. There were no women among the delegates and only a handful of Catholics. There were no Acadians from New Brunswick, no Scots from Nova Scotia, no workers or farmers or First Nations. On the other hand, thanks to the efforts of Charles Tupper of Nova Scotia, and unlike the fiascos of the constitutional conferences of the 1990s, all the elected parties were represented. The delegates of that time at least represented the farmers and workers that made up the bulk of their constituents, rather than the concentrated corporate power that dominates the politics of today.  “The 1864 conference at Charlottetown transformed the pious, impractical ideal of confederation,” writes historian Christopher Moore, “into a political program to be taken seriously.” It was there that Canada was born.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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