The History of Canada Series: Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting That Made Canada

The History of Canada Series: Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting That Made Canada

by Christopher Moore

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In 1864, thirty-three delegates from five provincial legislatures came to Quebec City to pursue the idea of uniting all the provinces of British North America. The American Civil War, not yet over, encouraged the small and barely defended provinces to consider uniting for mutual protection. But there were other factors: the rapid expansion of railways and steamships spurred visions of a continent-spanning new nation.


Federation, in principle, had been agreed on at the Charlottetown conference, but now it was time to debate the difficult issues of how a new nation would be formed. The delegates included John A. Macdonald, George Etienne-Cartier, and George Brown. Historian Christopher Moore demonstrates that Macdonald, the future prime minister, surprisingly was not the most significant player here, and Canada could have become a very different place.


The significance of this conference is played out in Canadian news each day. The main point of contention at the time was the issue of power—a strong federal body versus stronger provincial rights. Because of this conference, we have an elected House of Commons, an appointed Senate, a federal Parliament, and provincial legislatures. We have what amounts to a Canadian system of checks and balances. Did it work then, and does it work now?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143194507
Publisher: Penguin Canada
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Series: History of Canada
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 483 KB

About the Author

Christopher Moore is an accomplished historian and has written or contributed to fifteen books. His first book, Louisbourg Portraits: Life in An Eighteenth-Century Garrison Town, won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, and he won the 2011 GG Award for children’s literature. He has a long-running column in Canada’s History, and his journalism has been recognized with three National Magazine Award nominations. He lives in Toronto with his family.


Hawaii and San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

August 5, 1958

Place of Birth:

Toledo, Ohio

Read an Excerpt


October 10, 1864: La Vieille Capitale


“Since Saturday  we have had the world’s bleakest  weather,” lamented the Quebec City correspondent of the Montreal newspaper  LaMinerve on Monday, October 10, 1864. “It is too bad for our visitors. Quebec City is so beautiful  when  the weather  is good.”  Instead,  on Saturday night, “a white shroud  of snow covered the ground,  and a penetrating frost chilled us hand  and foot. On Sunday, we might have been some- where  in Siberia. Today  the  white  shroud  has  grown  dirty,  and  you cannot  put  a foot  off the sidewalk  without plunging  into  mud.”  The wooden  sidewalks  were not much better  than  the streets. The English writer  Anthony  Trollope   found  while  visiting  that  “the  boards   are rotten,  and worn  in some places to dirt. The nails have gone, and the broken  planks go up and down under the feet, and in the dark they are absolutely  dangerous.”1

1In 1864, “Canada” meant the territories of the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes system, roughly today’s Quebec and Ontario, then united  into a single province of Canada. Citizens of the Atlantic  provinces did not then think of themselves as Canadians.

The visitors for whom  LaMinerve grieved were the delegates who had  arrived  for  the  British  North American  constitutional conference, beginning that morning  at the legislative building. Thirty-three delegates from five provincial  legislatures—Newfoundland, Nova  Scotia, New Brunswick,  Prince Edward  Island,  and  Canada*—had come to Quebec City pursuing  the old idea of uniting  into  a single nation  all the prov- inces of British  North America,  an  idea  proposed frequently  for  fifty years  without effect, and  now  suddenly  revived. The  threat  to  British North America from a massively armed  and not always friendly United States encouraged the small and  barely defended  provinces  to think  of uniting  for mutual  protection. The rapid  expansion of distance-annihi- lating railroads and steamships  spurred  visions of a continent-spanning new nation, bound  by rail. A political crisis in the Province of Canada— present-day Ontario and  Quebec—had stimulated the  search  for  new and larger unions. And there was the sheer ambition of the thing. “Do we wish to  live and  die in our  insignificance?”  cried Joseph  Howe  of Nova  Scotia  when  the  idea  of  union  was  discussed  in  Halifax   that summer, though he would come to oppose the plan these delegates would craft in Quebec City. His rival, Charles Tupper, foresaw Nova Scotians enjoying “a  far  higher  status” as citizens of a transcontinental nation than  as a small Atlantic  coast community.2

In the Province of Canada, a broad  coalition  committed  to remaking the union took power in June 1864. In September, eight cabinet members from that  coalition  travelled  by steamship  to Charlottetown to present their proposals to delegates of the legislatures of the three Maritime provinces. In the brilliant sun of Charlottetown, the Maritimers endorsed “confederation,” a federal union of all the British North American prov- inces.  Confederation carried  the  promise  of  westward expansion to British Columbia on the Pacific coast, and of rail links between the Maritimes and “the  Canadas.” During  the  six days  at  Charlottetown, this confederation had  generated  a shared  purpose  among  the usually fractious  politicians  of British North America.  But they had  discussed the matter  mostly at the level of general principle. The nuts and bolts of a formal union remained  to be placed and tightened  down. There would be confederation only “if the terms of union could be made satisfactory.”3

A longer  meeting, a true  constitutional conference,  would  be needed  to discuss and ratify those terms of union, the principles and the practicalities upon  which a new nation  could be built. Early in October, British North American politicians  were on the road again, this time to Quebec City.

In those  days,  they  came  usually  by train.  Quite  suddenly,  steam trains  had become the way one travelled in British North America—but not yet between Atlantic Canada and Quebec City. No rail line yet linked all the provinces  of British North America.  Fortunately steamships,  as new as, almost as fast as, and often more comfortable than steam trains, filled the gap. “The boats are very fine,” wrote one traveller on the steam- ships that plied between Montreal and Quebec City in 1864, noting that they were “three  storeys  high and  like floating  hotels,”  although “they shake   very   much   and   the   lamps   swing   with   the   motion,    not agreeable.”4

For Maritimers travelling to the constitutional conference, a special steamship   cruise  had  been  arranged. In  the  1850s,  the  province  of Canada had commissioned  a private shipping line to outfit three steam- ships to carry mail and tend the buoys and lighthouses  of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  When  the  company  got  into  financial  trouble, the  govern- ment found itself owning the ships. In August, the “government steamer” Queen Victoria had  carried  the  Canadian cabinet  from  the  dock  at Quebec  to anchorage in Charlottetown harbour in barely sixty hours. In  early  October,  Queen  Victoria  sailed  again,   this  time  to  bring Maritime delegates to Quebec  City.5

Queen Victoria’s  first  call  was  Pictou  on  the  gulf  coast  of  Nova Scotia, where Nova Scotia’s delegates had come up from Halifax to meet the  steamship.  Premier  Charles  Tupper  of  Nova  Scotia  came  aboard with three Conservative colleagues and two members of the Reform opposition, along  with  wives  and  daughters  eager  to  renew  the festivities many of them had enjoyed during the Charlottetown sessions. The  next  stop  was  Charlottetown, where  Queen   Victoria picked  up Colonel John Gray, the Conservative premier of the island, and members of his cabinet,  and  also  leaders  of the  Island’s  Reformers—and more wives  and  daughters. Then  the  steamer   made  the  short   crossing  to Shediac, New  Brunswick,  to collect another group  of government and opposition members  from  the  New  Brunswick  delegation, and  more wives and daughters—again, no sons were included,  and the daughters were all single and of marriageable age. Leaving Shediac early Friday morning, October 7, QueenVictoriamade steam for Quebec City, offering the passengers “every comfort  and luxury that could be desired.”6

The mood was festive. Queen Victoria’s deck “was  seldom deserted by promenaders during  daylight  and  long  after  dark,” wrote  Edward Whelan. Whelan, a member of the Prince Edward  Island legislature and a delegate to the conference,  was a Charlottetown newspaperman who kept copious  notes for his paper,  TheExaminer. As they steamed up the broad  St. Lawrence,  he reported, the promenaders on deck were driven indoors  by gales and snow squalls. The storm slowed the ship’s progress, and the travellers reached Quebec City in darkness  on Sunday, October 9, too late to share the sight sailors had marvelled at for centuries: the city and its mighty rock rising where the great river narrowed “like an island above   the  surface  of  the  ocean,”   as  the  Quebec   navigator  Joseph Bouchette once put it.7

Not  all Maritime politicians  heading  for Quebec  City were aboard Queen Victoria.  Some had opted  for the one railroad then available  for travel  from  the Maritime provinces  to Quebec  City—the  one through the United States. Prince Edward  Island’s opposition leader and former premier,  George Coles, his wife, and his daughter Mercy Anne boarded a steamer in Charlottetown at 3 a.m., and crossed to Shediac, New Brunswick.  “I  was  very  ill, it  was  so  rough,” Mercy  recalled  in  her diary, but a train  waited  at Shediac to carry them to Saint John, where they joined George Coles’s fellow Reformer,  New Brunswick’s premier Leonard  Tilley, and  other  delegates  and  their  families. Tilley was “the only beau of the party,” with five single ladies, Mercy Anne reported, and she was flattered by his attentions. Tilley was forty-six to her twenty-six, but he was a widower  and, though  her language in the diary is guarded, she may  have  been  considering  him  as a potential suitor.  From  Saint John, the steamer New Brunswicktook them down the Bay of Fundy to Portland, Maine,  where they boarded the Grand  Trunk  passenger  train north  into  Canada. They were expected:  at the junction  for Quebec,  a special train requisitioned by the government of Canada waited to carry them  along  the  branch   line  to  Lévis Junction,  across  the  river  from Quebec City.8

In 1850,  not  even fifteen years earlier,  the British North American provinces  boasted  barely  a hundred kilometres  of railroad. Travellers moved at the speed of stagecoaches and sailing ships. In winter, as the Canadian engineer Thomas Keefer wrote bitterly, “far away in the south is heard the daily scream of the steam whistle, but from Canada there is no  escape,  blockaded and  imprisoned by ice.”9  In 1849,  the  reform- minded Canadian government of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, newly empowered by something  called “responsible government,” enacted legislation to provide financial underpinning for railroad bond issues. A railroad boom began, and soon the navvies were swinging their hammers. By  1864,   the   province   of  Canada  alone   boasted   three   thousand kilometres  of railroad.

Canada’s  principal  railroad, the Grand  Trunk, now ran from Sarnia in the west through Toronto and Montreal. At Montreal, the hub of this network, the mighty Victoria Bridge, an engineering marvel completed in

1860, carried  the rail line across the St. Lawrence,  and the Grand  Trunk continued downriver past Quebec as far as tidewater at Rivière du Loup. From Montreal, another line ran southeast to Portland, Maine. Maritimers still made do with relatively short local lines, but they too were planning new railroad projects  everywhere,  and they nursed  bold aspirations for lines to Quebec City and Montreal and down into the United States.

Not  that  train  travel was luxurious. “One  might just as well try to write on horseback,” Mercy Coles wrote about  diary-keeping on a train. The first Grand Trunk  trains took fourteen  hours to travel from Toronto to Montreal, and at first they had no dining or sleeping cars. Soon after confederation, a new member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario boarded a train at Strathroy on his way to his first parliamentary session. He had  to change  trains  at London, Hamilton, Toronto, and  Prescott, with  long  waits  each  time, and  he arrived  in Ottawa exhausted after twenty-four bumpy hours. Grumpy  too: at some point his new umbrella had been stolen from the overhead  rack.10

Train travel carried risks greater than delays and petty theft. In June 1864,   a  Grand   Trunk   passenger   train   rattling   through  Beloeil  in Quebec’s Richelieu Valley crashed through an open drawbridge, and ninety-nine  people died in the wreck. “The  Grand  Trunk  is in very bad repair,” the  politician  George  Brown  grumbled  a  few  months  earlier. “Almost every day we hear of accidents.”11 Despite the dangers and discomforts, the  railroads enabled  resourceful  travellers  to  make  jour- neys in speed and relative comfort, like the one bringing these Maritimers toward Quebec City. The American writer Henry James, who would visit Quebec  City a few years later, described  his trip north  from the United States by train  as “a  dreary  night  journey  through crude,  monotonous woods,” until  the railroad line emerged onto  the south  shore of the St. Lawrence. Then suddenly “beyond it, over against you, on its rocky promontory, sits the ancient town, belted with its hoary wall and crowned with its granite citadel.”12

Mercy Coles and the Maritime politicians taking the train to Quebec travelled in daylight, but they reached Lévis station  too late on Saturday afternoon, October 8, to appreciate Henry  James’s view of the citadel city. It was dark  when they took  the ferry across the river in heavy rain and rode carriages  up to the Upper Town. After some confusion  about their destination, they found  their way to the Hotel  St-Louis inside the city walls on Rue St-Louis, “a very nice hotel and every comfort  one can wish for,”  in Mercy’s opinion.  Two  delegates from  Newfoundland had already  arrived,  but  the storm-stayed passengers  from  Queen Victoria would not join them until the following evening. Journalists  from as far as London and New York, executives from all the leading railroad companies,  and  other  interested  parties  who  had  swarmed  to Quebec for  the  conference  had  been  dispatched   to  the  Russell  House  some blocks away.

The  Hotel  St-Louis,  Quebec  City’s leading  hotel  from  the  1850s until the Chateau Frontenac was built just down the street in the 1890s, would be a hive of activity throughout the conference, and not only for the Maritimers. Several of the Canadian delegates, indeed, were also residents  of the hotel. Six months  earlier, George Brown had been rent- ing “very good quarters—a good sitting room and a closet as bedroom” in Madame Langlois’s house on the north  side of the upper town, “with a glorious view of the St. Charles” river. But Madame Langlois sold the house  in May,  and  Brown  joined other  parliamentarians who  roomed at the Hotel  St-Louis.13  On  Saturday  night,  Mercy  Coles encountered him in the hotel drawing  room as soon as she had changed her dress and ventured downstairs. She had met Brown and most of the other Canadian politicians  in September,  during  their mission to Charlottetown; at the time  Brown  had  written  to  his  wife  that  the  Coles  daughters were “educated, well informed and as sharp as needles.”14 Brown himself had only  returned from  Toronto that  morning,  sped  down  overnight  in a private rail car—being a cabinet minister had perks, he noted apprecia- tively—and they all reunited like old friends. “Mr. Cartier, John A. Macdonald, and McGee arrived in a minute,” Mercy reported, and with instinctive Victorian  formality,  they arranged themselves to go into the dining room. “Mr.  Cartier  took Ma to dinner, John A. took Mrs. Pope; we had a splendid  dinner.” Friendships  forged at Charlottetown were renewed,   and  Macdonald’s  aide,  Hewitt   Bernard,   promised   Mercy they would all have “grand times.” There would be an even larger gathering  at  the  hotel  the  following  evening  when  Queen Victoria’s passengers arrived “What a Babel when they came in!&rduo; she told her diary.15

As a governor  general’s wife was soon to say, Quebec  City was already “one of the most famous landscapes  of the world,” and the confedera- tion  delegates  and  their  families  were  eager  to  explore  what  Edward Whelan  called “the  ancient  and  historic  city” and  its “mazy,  crooked, narrow and bewildering streets.”16 In 1864, Quebec was a city also being transformed  by  steam  and  iron.  Since  Champlain’s  day,  and  long before, Quebec had commanded the narrows of the St. Lawrence from its rock  above  the river, controlling all traffic and  trade  between  the wide Atlantic  world  and  the  interior  of Canada. The city’s guns had long defended  the entry to the continent, and its docks and warehouses dominated its trade.  Upstream  from  Quebec  City, only local shipping traffic ventured. In the 1850s, however, shipping began to travel past the city.  Powerful   steamship   engines  and  the  dredging   of  the  riverbed allowed ships swift passage upriver, right past the older city to Montreal, the emerging  commercial  capital  and  railroad hub.  In the new age of steam and iron, Quebec City’s businesses were shifting to Montreal, particularly the international commerce that depended  on British capital and operated mostly in English.

Montreal, the new point  of exchange  between  the steamships  and the American  continent, grew rapidly  in the 1860s,  but  Quebec  City’s population levelled off at about  fifty thousand people. That population was about  40 percent  English in the 1860s,  but  would  grow  steadily more French-speaking. Was Quebec  City about  to become what Montrealers were already beginning to call it: the vieillecapitale, a folkloric,  historic  place  that  business  had  passed  by? Slower  growth would   indeed  preserve  its  historic  ambiance,   its  walls  and  ancient buildings, but in 1864 the city was still the centre of government for the province  of Canada and  the  residence  of the  governor  general  of all British North America. Quebec  was still the military  capital  of British North America, with a garrison  of red-coated British soldiers and their officers,  and  fortifications  of  stone  and  earth   framing   the  town.  It remained a centre of commerce, law, and culture. Many of the great institutions  of  French  Canada—the  Catholic   bishop’s  cathedral  and palace,  the Séminaire  de Québec,  Université  Laval—were  found  inside the ancient walls in the Upper Town neighbourhoods atop the cliffs, mingled inextricably with long-established English institutions, such as the Anglican Cathedral, the English-language  college, and the homes of leading  anglophone business  families. The civic government was simi- larly  mixed.  Adolphe  Tourangeau, a  lawyer  and  businessman,  had recently succeeded Thomas  Pope as mayor  of the city, though  his plan to demolish the town’s gates and even the walls themselves as part of his modernization campaign  had been thwarted. The city remained  divided between the stylish Upper Town inside the walls and the working-class Lower Town  along  the riverfront, but  in recent  years the Grand  Allée had been laid out, leading westward beyond the St. Louis Gate, through new developments and  past  the Plains of Abraham to Spencer Wood, the elegant park  and residence of the governor  general.17

Quebec  City  had  not  yet yielded  cultural  leadership  to  Montreal, either in English or French. Since 1824, the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec,  mostly  but  not  exclusively English, had  been maintaining a library and collecting historical records. And at Octave Crémazie’s bookshop, many  of French  Quebec’s  leading  intellectuals  and  writers could  often   be  found   in  the  backroom  gathering   place.  Crémazie himself, honoured as “le poète nationale” for his tributes  to French Canada’s  culture,  no longer joined them; he had fled to Paris to escape his extravagant debts.  His shop  remained  a gathering  place for poets, journalists, antiquarians,  and  artists   such  as  the  painter   Théophile Hamel. Quebec was also home to Cornelius  Krieghoff, whose paintings of habitant life were already popular among  English-Canadian collec- tors.  Both  of  French  Canada’s   leading  historians  lived  in  the  city. François-Xavier Garneau, ailing and elderly in 1864, had been inspired to  write  his  Histoire  du Canada by  Lord  Durham’s   ill-considered remark  that  the French  Canadians were a people  without history,  but Garneau was a free thinker  and  somewhat anti-clerical, so the church hierarchy   preferred   the  more  deferential   Cours d’Histoire  of  Abbé Ferland,  dean  of arts  at  Université  Laval.  More  popular than  either, both  in French  and in English translation, was the nostalgic  historical novel LesAnciens Canadians,  recently published  by the elderly lawyer and former  seigneur Philippe Aubert  de Gaspé.

If trains  and  steamships  were  draining  trade  from  Quebec  City, they could at least bring visitors. Anthony Trollope visited in 1861, observing, “The  best part  of the town  is built high upon  the rock—the rock  which  forms  the celebrated  plains  of Abram;  and  the view from thence down to the mountains which shut in the St. Lawrence is magnif- icent.”  The  homespun American  humourist Artemus  Ward  came  in 1865, and wrote home, “The streets don’t lead anywheres  in particular but everywhere in general. The city is built on a variety of perpendicu- lar  hills,  each  hill  bein’  a  little  wuss  than  t’other  one.”18  Ten  years earlier, the English world traveller Isabella Bird found Quebec “most picturesque … all novel and original,” and was struck by its military air. “Guards and sentries appear  in all directions; nightfall brings with it the challenge ‘Who goesthere?’ and narrow gateways form inconvenient entrances  to streets so steep that  I wondered how mortal  horses could ever toil up them.”19

Now  came  all  these  politicians  from  all  the  provinces  of  British North America, paying court to the traditional pre-eminence  of the city by bringing the crucial constitutional negotiations to be settled there. Journalists   and  political  aides  and  railroad lobbyists  followed  them. While the delegates got the newly built  Hotel  St-Louis, these observers were  dispatched  to  the  older  Russell House,  across  town  on  Côte  du Palais. A decade earlier, Isabella Bird had found the guests at the Russell “lively and amusing,” although the hotel was “composed of three of the oldest houses in Quebec,” had “no  end of long passages, dark  winding staircases, and queer little rooms,” and was “haunted to a fearful extent by rats.”20 Around  the constitutional summit would develop a social and commercial  festival  to  brighten  a  cold,  damp  autumn. The  governor general  and  his court,  the  politicians  and  civil servants,  and  the  civic elite, both French and English, would  all be drawn  in, inspiring Edward Whelan  to tell his Charlottetown readers  that  the Maritimers were in danger of forgetting  their mother  tongue and returning home “talking a strange   conglomeration  of  English   and   excessively  bad   French.”21

Shopkeepers,  hoteliers,  and  caleche drivers  would  prosper.  Whatever those  upriver  parvenus  in Montreal might  think,  Quebec  in these few weeks  seemed  to  recover  its  place  as  the  key  city  of  British  North America.  It warmed  the  hearts  of Quebec  City  to  see the  steamships arriving  crowded  with  Montrealers whenever  one of the great  balls of the confederation conference was about  to be held.22

There had been a long gestation  to this constitutional conference. It had emerged from fierce rivalries among  the provinces and within  their governments, and from equally fierce clashes of both ideology and ambi- tion among the politicians involved. The meeting at Quebec had drawn together  several provinces, more than  thirty  delegates, and many contending interests.  At the  heart  of the  project,  however,  stood  three men, all from the province  of Canada, all between the ages of forty-five and fifty, all veteran politicians, and all vying for leadership in the confer- ence and in the new nation  they would discuss. They were a francophone from Montreal, George-Étienne Cartier; a Scots Canadian from Toronto, George Brown; and a second Scot, John A. Macdonald, from Kingston. Their tactical alliances, their three-cornered rivalry, and their visions for confederation would  be central to the whole process.

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