Christopher Moore, Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting That Made Canada (Allen Lane/ Penguin Random House Canada) Hardcover, 262 pages, $35
Reviewed by Dean Jobb
Edward Barron Chandler almost altered the course of Canadian history. As the Fathers of Confederation hammered out the framework for a constitution in the 1860s, the former New Brunswick premier emerged as a champion of provincial rights. And had his arguments prevailed, Canada would be a much different country today.
Chandler wanted the constitution to spell out the powers that would be granted to the national government that would unite Canada’s four founding provinces – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and present-day Ontario and Quebec – in a federation. At a crucial constitutional conference in Quebec City in October 1864, he proposed that jurisdiction over matters not assigned to the federal government should revert to the provinces.
It was a turning point in the negotiations. How power was shared between governments, historian Christopher Moore relates in his new book, would determine whether provinces and regions would call the shots or “the federal government would become all-powerful.”
Three Weeks in Quebec City is the story of how Canada was created, and it was created in true Canadian fashion – not through war or revolution, but through polite debate at conference tables in 1864, first in Charlottetown and then in the Quebec capital. And if you think the process of fine-tuning a constitution is a recipe for a slow read, think again.
Moore, one of our best popular historians (and a columnist for Canada’s History magazine), knows how to bring the past to life. In his skillful hands, Canada’s birth is a colourful and engaging story of people and politics.
This is familiar territory for Moore – his book 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, published in 1997, also explores the backstory to Confederation – and he brings depth and insight to this updated account. His focus now is the pivotal Quebec conference, where 33 delegates from competing political parties managed to work out the intricacies of a constitution in record time.
“There is no instance on record of a colony peacefully remodelling its own constitution,” declared George Brown, the reformist politician and Toronto Globe publisher responsible for many of the key provisions. “Canada is rightly setting the example of a new and better state of things.”
It was not all business. Mercy Anne Coles went to Quebec City with her father, a Prince Edward Island delegate, and her diary entries enliven the book with descriptions of the lavish dinners and balls that punctuated the meetings. Frances Monck, the snobbish sister-in-law of Canada’s governor, also recorded the festivities, including one orgy of “drunkenness, pushing, kicking, and tearing” that ran to 4 a.m. and left the conference room floor littered with food and broken bottles.
Moore mines the surviving (and surprisingly scant) minutes of the conference sessions to piece together the decisions and compromises that shaped our system of government. One of the most contentious issues was the role of the Senate.
Today’s critics who dismiss the Red Chamber as ineffective may be surprised to learn that’s precisely what its designers wanted – an appointed body that would review legislation but remain, in Moore’s words, “dignified, ceremonial, advisory – and largely without power.” Elected senators, the delegates realized, might wield as much political clout as the elected members of the House of Commons, generating conflict and deadlock (something advocates of an elected Senate should bear in mind).
So the Senate was relegated to a subordinate role. But it was designed, as well, to protect the smaller partners in Confederation. Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces were each allotted 24 senators, affording the Atlantic region a strong voice in Ottawa as the rest of Canada grew in population – and earned additional seats in the House of Commons (something those who would abolish the Senate should keep in mind as well).
That’s why Edward Chandler was so concerned about provincial rights. Without a strong Senate to promote regional interests, he feared, provinces would be weak and insignificant. And this is where events in the United States foiled his plans and put their stamp on Canadian federalism.
With America in the grip of a horrific civil war, our nation-builders feared that strong provinces could tear apart Canada just as strong states had divided North and South. “We should concentrate the power in the federal government,” future prime minister John A. Macdonald told the delegates, “and not adopt the decentralization of the United States.” Chandler’s proposal to strengthen the provinces, he warned, would repeat the mistakes of American’s founders.
The New Brunswicker was outvoted and powers not spelled out in the constitution were ceded to the federal government. Atlantic Canada continues to struggle to be heard in Ottawa but the provinces have not disappeared or become little more than municipal governments, as Chandler feared. And our federation has proven strong enough to withstand regional protests and two votes on Quebec separation.
As Canada prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, it appears the politicians who gathered in Quebec City built well.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), tells the strange-but-true story of American swindler Leo Koretz and his escape to a life of luxury and excess in 1920s Nova Scotia. Details at www.empireofdeception.com