History without the stiffness and polish time creates.
Canada’s journey to Confederation kicked off with a bang or rather, a circus, a civil war (the American one), a small fortune’s worth of champagne, and a lot of making love in the old-fashioned sense. Miss Confederation offers a rare look back, through a woman’s eyes, at the men and events at the centre of this pivotal time in Canada’s history.
Mercy Anne Coles, the daughter of PEI delegate George Coles, kept a diary of the social happenings and political manoeuvrings as they affected her and her desires. A unique historical document, her diary is now being published for the first time, offering a window into the events that led to Canada’s creation, from a point of view that has long been neglected.
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About the Author
Anne McDonald is an award-winning author. Her novel To the Edge of the Sea won the Saskatchewan First Book Award. Her play Lullabies and Cautions was recently showcased at the 2016 Spring Festival of New Plays. Her work has appeared in literary journals, Canada’s History , and on CBC Radio. Anne teaches theatre and creative writing. She lives in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Read an Excerpt
Miss Confederation: Mercy Anne Coles
It is rather a joke, he is the only beau of the party and with 5 single ladies he has something to do to keep them all in good humour. 1
The “he” mentioned in the above quotation is Leonard Tilley, who was then the premier of New Brunswick, and Mercy Anne Coles, the irreverent writer of this note, was one of those single women. Ten unmarried women altogether, three from Prince Edward Island, two from Nova Scotia, four from New Brunswick, and one from Canada West, accompanied their fathers or brothers to the conference in Quebec City, where the men negotiated Confederation and the creation of Canada.
The start of Canada’s journey to Confederation is a fascinating one, involving a circus; Farini, the tightrope walker from Port Hope, Ontario; the American Civil War; a whole lot of champagne, sunshine, and sea; and lovemaking in the old-fashioned sense.
The process began in earnest when, in September 1864, the Fathers of Confederation, travelling by rail, steamship, and horse-drawn carriage, met in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, to discuss the possibility of a union of Britain’s North American colonies.* Like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, PEI was an independent colony of the British Crown at the time. The final of this group of colonies, Canada, was made up of Ontario and Quebec, then known respectively as Canada West and Canada East. Each of the Maritime colonies was very small, and with a large and growing American neighbour, many of the colonies’ residents, including those of Canada East and West, felt that if they were to survive separate from the United States, then the time had come to join forces and form a larger political entity.**
Following their time in Charlottetown, the Canadian and Maritime delegates crossed the Northumberland Strait on the Canadians’ steamship, the Queen Victoria, and toured briefly through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, meeting in Halifax on September 12 for the delegates to discuss the idea of Confederation further. Mercy Coles, the unmarried twenty-six-year-old daughter of Prince Edward Island delegate George Coles, went with her father on this tour. From Mercy’s descriptions she was the only young woman to go on this trip with the delegates. Perhaps her father viewed this as an opportunity for her education, or to meet a potential husband.
The big meetings and events, though, were saved for Quebec City, where, in October 1864, the Maritime Fathers of Confederation, with their unmarried daughters and sisters in tow, travelled again on the Queen Victoria, which the Canadians had sent to bring the Maritimers up to Quebec City. They promenaded on the decks and looked out at the spectacular fall scenery along the shores of the St. Lawrence.
Mercy Coles was not part of this large group, however. She writes that her “father thought the trip [by ship the whole way] would be too rough for mother and me.”2 Instead, Mercy, her father and mother; William Pope (Colonial Secretary and a member of the Conservative Party, which was in power in PEI) and his wife; and Mrs. Alexander, the widowed sister of Thomas Heath Haviland (also a member of the Conservative Party), left on October 5, a day earlier than the others. They crossed from PEI to Shediac, New Brunswick, then took a train specially booked for them to Saint John. There they picked up Leonard Tilley, the aforementioned “only beau of the party,” as well as two members of Tilley’s government Charles Fisher, with his daughter Jane, and William Steeves, with his two daughters.
From Saint John, they travelled by steamship down the Bay of Fundy, the trip taking twenty-four hours, to Portland, Maine (compare this to the sixty-plus hours it would take to get to Quebec City by ship). There was as yet no rail line from the Maritimes to Quebec through Canada, and so the group had to take this roundabout route through the United States. Of course, what the single women missed in the promenading on the Queen Victoria’s deck, they gained in the attention paid to them by the recent widower and then-premier of New Brunswick, Leonard Tilley.
In Quebec City, the Fathers debated and finally crafted the seventy-two resolutions of the British North America Act, the act that formed the Canadian constitution at the time, and which still forms the basis of the Canadian constitution today.
* No young women from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Canada, accompanied their fathers to the Charlottetown conference in September 1864. No doubt the men didn’t view the time in Prince Edward Island (which had nowhere near the opportunities and entertainment that Quebec City had) as an opportunity for their daughters to meet potential husbands. The women of PEI, however, including Mercy Coles and Margaret Gray, were part of the social events at Charlottetown.
** Newfoundland did not take part in the Charlottetown conference, however representatives from there did go to the Quebec conference.
Table of Contents
- Foreword by Christopher Moore
Miss Confederation, Mercy Anne Coles
Charlottetown: The Circus, Champagne, and Union
The Journey Begins: The Lure of Travel, the New and Leonard Tilley
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: the “Failed,” the Grand Success, or the Drunken Fiasco of the Government Ball
The Temptation of John A. Macdonald
What She Said – A Woman’s Point of View
Montreal Sightseeing and the “Eighth Wonder of the World”
Ottawa the Unseemly
Sightseeing in Toronto, 1864 Style
Family and Travel
Daughters and Fathers
“Reminiscences of Confederation Days:
Extracts from a Diary Kept by Miss Mercy
A. Coles When She Accompanied Her
Father, the Late Hon. George Coles, to the Confederation Conferences at Quebec,
Montreal and Ottawa in 1864.”
- Notes on Sources
- Image Credits