Real mysteries remain about Canadian confederation.
Following the story of the original Canadian separatist, Joe Howe, and the events surrounding Dominion Day, Canada’s first birthday, gives a unique perspective of anti-confederate rebels, rogues and riches. Regular people spoke out against a system of power and control totally absorbed with empire building on a scale rarely seen before or since that got us into confederation. Nova Scotia’s anti-confederates hoped to get us out. But they had limits bound by politeness, respect, and the natural urge of peace.
The First of July has come and gone, and, doubtless, the men who have sold Nova Scotia think all is well. If they knew the smothered foeling of strong indignation, which on Monday swelled up in the breasts of thousands of Nova Scotians, and which alone respect for the Queen and the constituted authorities prevented from bursting forth in all its majesty, their rejoicings would have been mingled with fear. Nova Scotians, you are now said to be Canadians, by Act of Parliament, against your wishes. Do you accept the will of the despots who have forced this measure upon you, or do you reject the imputation as an insult upon your intelligence, and a trampling upon your right to be heard in deciding your own destiny? The coming Election will decide whether Nova Scotia is to be ruled according to the well-understood wishes of the people of this Province, or according to the commands -- the impudent demands -- of the rebels and corruptionists of Canada.
The Pictou Advocate, July 3, 1867
The year after confederation was violent and conflicted. As Canada’s first birthday approached Joe Howe, famous champion of responsible government and freedom of the press, became the leading figure in Canada’s anti-confederate movement. The people of Nova Scotia overwhelmingly believed their local politicians were tricked into confederation by a couple of upper Canadian hucksters named MacDonald and Magee. In the first Canadian election after confederation Nova Scotia voted over 95% in favour of separation from Canada and sent an army of politicians to Ottawa led by Howe. It was a time of radical press and the rebirth of a nation.
From the Charlottetown conference to the turn of the 20th century, the birth of Canada is more complicated, conflicted and connected to a full-on dangerous world than anything we learned in school.
Spies were everywhere. Conspirators linked to Montreal interests assassinated Lincoln. Imperialist factions within the American government bought Alaska, boxing in the continent. The US south, a key east coast trade partner, was trying to pull itself back from the bloodiest separatist conflict in history. There were over a million battle-hardened Union troops just a few days from the US/Canada border and itching for a fight.
There were dramatic duels over matters of honour in the media. Magee, father of confederation, was shot and killed in the street in Ottawa. Irish Fenian rebels roamed the northern woods fighting a guerilla war against the crown. Vast fortunes and dynasties of robber barons vied for limitless natural resources of Canada’s oceans and northern reaches.
Aging European empires fiddled from afar. Only the British navy ruling the waves kept pirates and privateers at bay.
On the first Dominion Day a cannon used in the celebration in Halifax exploded, likely sabotaged, killing and maiming six soldiers. Canadian Civil war was a real possibility even in polite company.
Set against this background, Joe Howe, along with his quick-witted friend Thomas Chandler Haliburton, race around Ottawa, Montreal, London and Washington. Like a real life Holmes and Watson - or maybe modern day Ben Franklin in Paris a generation before - Howe and Haliburton struggle to unlock the mysterious factions and forces that led seemingly unstoppably to Canadian Confederation. As they unravel the conspiracy, fueled as much by free liquor in Charlottown and as political purpose, and try to work ‘a better deal’, they discover Canada from a new and amazing perspective; five distinct countries divided, as countries are by geopolitical economic limits like mountains, rivers, seas and languages.
Through seven years of fighting that teeter on open warfare, alignment with the United States, Britain and even France, Howe and the anti-confederates transform MacDonald’s vision of the “Kingdom of Canada” into something approaching the country we know today. But the fight also changes Howe and the anti-confederates themselves - framing for generations the kind of sometimes-ambiguous moderation, and ‘bought politician’ that is the hallmark of Canadian politics and social ambivalence about politics to this day.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.