When Canada became a nation 150 years ago on July 1, it was made up of just four provinces — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. The borders of Ontario and Quebec that were established in 1867 would be unrecognizable today, since the new provinces were far smaller in area than they are at present. It was essentially a humble beginning to a nation that would eventually span from “sea to shining sea.”
The process of expanding the new nation began with the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the admission of Manitoba into the Canadian Confederation as the fifth province in 1870. But it was far from a smooth process. In fact, the entry of Manitoba only came after an armed resistance had occurred in protest against Ottawa’s failure to consult or explain to the people of the Red River Settlement their future standing in the Canadian Confederation.
William McDougall, the erstwhile lieutenant-governor of Manitoba appointed in 1869 by Ottawa to rule Red River, was prevented on October 31, 1869, by the Métis, from entering Red River and assuming his position.
Technically, the resistance started on October 11, 1869, at the farm of André Nault, when Riel stepped on a surveyor’s chain and told the men plotting out the land for the Canadian government, “You go no further.” What Riel was signaling by this act was that Canada had no legal authority to commence surveying land or transferring jurisdiction of the region from the HBC without the consent of the local inhabitants.
In fact, the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the HBC for £300,000 ($1.5 million) was not completed until June 23, 1870, when Queen Victoria signed an order-in-council to cede the territory to the Canadian government. The Canadian purchase came after the land was transferred by the HBC to the British Crown on November 19, 1869. The final purchase came as a result of a series of complex negotiations between London, Ottawa and the HBC.
At one stage, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald asked the British to postpone the land transfer until his government could resolve its difficulties with the inhabitants of Red River.
It was left to George Leveson-Gower, second Earl Granville, the Colonial Secretary, to explain the situation in Red River to the British House of Lords. “The Government of the Dominion declined to accept the transfer which it had been agreed upon should be in effect in December,” remarked Earl Granville, in the British House of Lords on May 5, 1870, “on the grounds that the settlement appeared to be for the moment in a state of anarchy. They accordingly stopped payment of the money which was to be given to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Her Majesty’s government, although not admitting the justice of the refusal, were convinced that any misunderstanding with the Dominion would only increase the difficulty of the position.”
Manitoba historian W.L. Morton pointed out that the Red River resistance of 1869-70 was based upon the failure of Ottawa to go ahead with the transfer as well as the Canadian government’s failure to consult the local inhabitants.
“They held therefore that there was no legal government,” wrote Morton, “that the people at Red River were in a state of nature, and might lawfully, under the law of nations, set up a provisional government for their mutual protection and security.”
This was a point emphasized by Alexander Begg, a Red River historian and witness to the events of 1869-70, in his journal.
The resolution of the “thorny problem” for Canada came when Noel-Joseph Ritchot of St. Norbert, Alfred H. Scott of Winnipeg and Judge John Black of St. Andrew’s negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Confederation with Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant George-Etienne Cartier.
Originally, the thought was to have Red River admitted to Canada as a “territory,” but Riel, at the Convention of Delegates, on February 3 raised the issue of admitting the settlement as a province.
“His aim was to make such terms with Canada as would enable the people of the North-West to control its local government in the early days of settlement, and as would allow them to possess themselves, as individuals and as a people, enough lands of the North-West to survive as a people, and to benefit by the enhancement of the wealth of the North-West that settlement would cause,” wrote Morton.
The Manitoba Act was introduced in the House of Commons on May 3, 1870, and passed third reading by a 120-11 vote on May 9. Officially, Manitoba became the fifth province on July 15, 1870.
When Ritchot returned to Red River and made his report to a special session of the Riel-led Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia: “The House passed him a cordial vote of thanks for the straightforward, courageous, and successful way in which he discharged his important mission. It was then unanimously resolved by the Legislature, in the name of the people, that the Manitoba Act should be accepted as satisfactory, and that the country should enter the Dominion ...
“This conclusion elicited loud and enthusiastic cheers,” according to the New Nation.
The promise of a connection from east to west (a land road was first proposed, although this changed with the building of the trans-continental railway) brought British Columbia as the sixth province in 1871. Next came Prince Edward Island in 1873, a holdout from the original British colonies that had discussed the formation of a confederation at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864. A term of P.E.I.’s entry into the Canadian Confederation was the maintenence by Ottawa of a ferry link to the mainland, which was only dropped in 1997 when the Confederation Bridge was completed.
The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 were carved out of the Northwest Territories (Canada now has three territories: Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest) to the chagrin of Manitoba, which wanted to expand its own borders westward.
The final province to join the confederation was Newfoundland and Labrador on March 31, 1949. Newfoundland delegates had participated in the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, but decided against joining the proposed union. Even in 1948, it took two referendums before a scant majority of 52 per cent of Newfoundlanders accepted entry into Canada. After terms were negotiated with the federal government, Newfoundland became the 10th province a year later.
The process that began 150 years ago with just four relatively small-sized provinces has become 10 provinces and three territories comprising the second-largest land area of all the world’s nations, and it was the creation of the fifth province that commenced the expansion of Canada’s borders to their present size.
Happy Canada Day!