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Photos and Text by Vincent Lê Hoàng Long

The making of Canada in Charlottetown, PEI

2017 is a very special year as Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1st.   Until 1867, there was no country in the world called Canada.   Instead there was a chain of small British colonies that scattered across the northern part of the North American continent, separated by mountains, forests and prairies.     Each colony had its own territory and its own government, and even its own postage stamps.    Proud of their freedom and traditions, yet suspicious of each other, at the time, the colonies of British North America did not see a need to unite.   In fact, many colonists doubted the benefits of a union and believed that they should remain separate.   There were also people in the colonies who thought that, sooner or later, Canada would join the United States of America, a young and strong country to the South. Few imagined that the British colonies would become a new nation.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island’s political and cultural capital, was where the idea of Canada as a country was conceived.    The city is famous for hosting the first meeting in 1864 to discuss the idea of Confederation, which eventually led to the birth of a new nation 3 years later.

Province House, home to PEI Provincial Legislature since 1847, site of Charlottetown Conference in 1864
Province House, home to PEI Provincial Legislature since 1847, site of Charlottetown Conference in 1864

British North America before Confederation

The scattered British colonies in North America had little in common other than a tie to Britain far across the Atlantic and fear of being taken over by the United States.   Each colony was led by a governor who represented the British Crown.     There were four Atlantic colonies on the East coast: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.   Across the vast landscape was a small colony of British Columbia on the West coast.    The massive North-Western Territory with its plains and mountain ranges were home to Aboriginal and Métis communities and a few fur trading posts.    The colony with the biggest population, mostly famers, was the United Province of Canada after the British government united Upper and Lower Canada (today’s Ontario and Quebec) in 1841.   The United Province of Canada was made up of Canada West with mostly English and Protestants, and Canada East which was mostly French and Catholics.    The vibrant colony was growing but divided.

The mid 1800s were troubled times for British North America.    Political, military, economic and social problems threatened to overwhelm the colonies.   Constant disagreements between representatives of Canada West and Canada East in the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada had brought decision making to a standstill.

The colonies also had legitimate reasons to worry about external military threat from the South.   Many Americans had a belief known as “Manifest Destiny”, that it was in God’s plan that all of North America will eventually belong to the United States.   The fear intensified once the American Civil War ended in 1865.   The powerful Union arm forces of the northern states could seek revenge against Britain for supporting Confederate forces in the southern states during the war.   The distance colonies were already expensive to support and would be difficult for Britain to defend if the Americans were to attack.    It was time for the colonies to think about looking after themselves.

Province House History comes alive in Charlottetown’s historic district with a troupe of costumed bilingual Canadians portraying the Fathers and Ladies of the Confederation, providing a glimpse into the historical and cultural context of the Charlottetown Conference. The scene here show their debate on the benefits of a Confederation.
Province House
History comes alive in Charlottetown’s historic district with a troupe of costumed bilingual Canadians portraying the Fathers and Ladies of the Confederation, providing a glimpse into the historical and cultural context of the Charlottetown Conference. The scene here show their debate on the benefits of a Confederation.

Charlottetown Conference – September 1-7, 1864

In the first week of September 1864, the Maritime colonies had planned a meeting in Charlottetown to discuss a union between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.   At the time, Newfoundland was tied more closely with Britain so they did not send any representatives.  The leaders from Canada East and West asked if they could attend to hear the discussions, 8 representatives led by Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown sailed into Charlottetown on the steamship Victoria to meet with 15 leaders of the Maritime colonies.   It was here in Charlottetown that they laid the foundation for the most significant agreement that change the destiny of the continent.

When the Charlottetown Conference opened, the leaders of the Maritime colonies quickly agreed to put aside the subject of their union until they heard what the representatives from the United Province of Canada had to say.     Since forming their coalition, John A. Macdonald, George Brown and George-Étienne Cartier had been doing a lot of thinking and took to the floor with energy and conviction in their impressive presentation.      Macdonald introduced the idea of uniting all the colonies, Cartier and Brown explained the way new provinces in the Confederation would share power.    When all was said and done, plans for a Maritime union had been forgotten, ideas of a confederation had taken center stage.    The leaders agreed to meet again in Quebec City the following month where they came up with 72 resolutions that outlined the divisions of power and representations for different levels of government, money matters and railways linking new provinces.    Eventually, the resolutions became the constitution for a new nation and July 1st, 1867 was the chosen date for the official proclamation of the Dominion of Canada.

Beaconsfield Historic House, an enduring symbol of Victorian elegance in Charlottetown
Beaconsfield Historic House, an enduring symbol of Victorian elegance in Charlottetown

Visiting Charlottetown, a significant place in Canadian history

I love visiting Charlottetown, one of Atlantic Canada’s most charming and picturesque city.   It’s easy to see why settlers established the town where they did, a piece of land within a protected harbor, where 3 rivers converge there.   Downtown Charlottetown today has a wonderful mix of modern and Victorian buildings, government, commercial and cultural centers.   Elegant boutique shops and specialty stores dot the streets throughout the historic downtown.   Outside of the business core, one can walk down streets with graceful landscapes and dramatic homes from many eras.   With beautiful architecture and parks making a visit to this place an immersive journey through the past.

Visiting Charlottetown in 2017 will be even more special with Canada celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary.   I can’t think of a better time to visit Province House and sit in the chamber where the Fathers of the Confederation first met to discuss the creation of a new nation.     Next door to Province House is the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Canada’s National Memorial to the Fathers of the Confederation, built in 1964 to commemorate 100th Anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference.   During the months of July and August, visitors can take a tour of Government House, the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Prince Edward Island, where the delegates of the 1864 Charlottetown conference took the most important photo in Canadian history on the steps of this building.    One can also visit Ardgowan, a picturesque cottage that was once the home of William Henry Pope, one of the Fathers of the Confederation who rowed out to welcome the representatives to the Charlottetown Conference.     All aforementioned are registered National Historic Sites of Canada.

As I walked the Charlottetown streets tracing the steps of the founding fathers, it’s pretty amazing to me what they accomplished.  Despite their differences: French, English, Scottish, Irish, Protestants, Catholics, political enemies, it was here in Charlottetown that they were able to set aside their personal and cultural differences and hammered out the best option for Canada, a gamble that the survival and future of British North America rested with the creation of a Confederation.   Instead of guns and violence, they chose to solve the problems facing the colonies with words, calm words, passionate words, and convincing words.  I am grateful for their vision of a country whose citizens share a secular identity that transcends ethnic and religious identities.   Today, Canada is the second largest country and one of the richest nations in the world.   It is a peaceful and prosperous nation that is home to many people from around the globe including a large Vietnamese community.  Charlottetown was where the founding fathers first laid the corner stone for a new country, a foundation for a tolerant, inclusive and multi-cultural country that we enjoy in Canada today.

Confederation Chamber
Confederation Chamber