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Hudson's Bay Company and British Columbia: .1821-49

The Nor'Westers predominate in the merged group, but it continues to trade under the more venerable of the two names as the Hudson's Bay Company. The company now has administrative responsibility for an enormous region, stretching from the western boundary of Ontario (Upper Canada in the language of the time) to the Pacific.

The southern border of much of this British territory has recently been established in the peace-making process after the war of 1812 (during which American troops burn the parliament buildings in Toronto). A virtual ban on warships in the Great Lakes, agreed in 1817, is the first sign that both sides are ready to compromise.

This first precautionary peace-keeping measure is followed a year later, in 1818, by the agreement which has held good ever since - that the frontier between the two nations will run west from Lake of the Woods along the 49th parallel.

At this stage the border is drawn only as far as the Rockies. The region west of the continental divide (as yet virtually unsettled at this latitude by Europeans) is regarded for the moment as shared territory between the two nations. In 1846 it is ceded to the USA by Britain, recognizing as a fait accompli the human reality of the Oregon Trail. Since then the frontier has continued along the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific coast.

With American pressure building up in Oregon, the British government takes steps to ensure that the line is indeed held at the frontier agreed in 1846. The valuable Vancouver Island, offshore but nicked at its southern end by the 49th parallel, is given in 1849 the protective status of a British crown colony.

A gold rush to the Fraser river in 1858, mainly by prospectors from America, underlines the importance of the entire region between the Rockies and the coast. This area too is proclaimed a colony, as British Columbia (united from 1866 with Vancouver Island). The Hudson's Bay Company territory now stretches only from Hudson's Bay to the Rockies. But it is still a very large region.

Rebellion and reform: 1837-1864

The circumstances of French and then of British North America have meant that war and trade have demanded more of men's attention than politics. But in the 1830s political change is in the air in all the nations with which Canada is most closely connected. In Britain the Reform Bill is passed. In France a revolution has brought to the throne a Citizen King. In the USA Andrew Jackson is seen as the representative of a new and more popular form of democracy.

In this atmosphere it becomes painfully evident to the citizens of Toronto and Montreal that they are enduring an old-fashioned colonial status more stifling even than the kind rejected by Britain's American colonies in 1776.

It is true that there are elected legislative assemblies in Toronto and Montreal for Upper and Lower Canada, but they have no executive power. This is wielded in each province by a governor, an executive council and a legislative council, all of whom are appointed by the crown in London (and in the case of the councils the appointment is for life).

Moreover the councillors favoured in London seem far from representative in Canada. They are almost exclusively Anglican, whereas many of the British in Upper Canada are nonconformist. And they are almost exclusively English, even though almost all the inhabitants of Lower Canada are French.

These circumstances, combined with the effects of economic recession in America in 1837, result in a minor rebellion in December in Upper Canada and a much more serious one at the same time - led by Louis Papineau and his Patriots - in Lower Canada. The latter is rapidly and harshly suppressed by British troops, but it sends a sufficiently strong signal for the government in London to react.

A new governor-general, the earl of Durham, is appointed in 1838. His name immediately suggests reform, for he is son-in-law to Earl Grey and was closely associated with him in pushing the Reform Bill through parliament.

In his Report on the Affairs of British North America, ready for publication in 1839, Durham makes two proposals which are acted upon during the 1840s. The first, resulting from his perception that Canada's main problem is racial antagonism, is that British Upper Canada and French Lower Canada should be merged as a single Province of Canada with equal representation in a joint asssembly. The second is that an executive council shall be responsible, like the cabinet in Britain, to the elected assembly.

The first proposal is put into immediate effect, in 1840. The second has to wait until 1848. Both apply only to the two most populous provinces (and the only two known at this stage as Canada), but others soon follow the same route.

However, over the next two decades, the arrangement made for the united Province of Canada comes to seem increasingly unworkable. The reason is that there are far more British than French immigrants to Canada, and they naturally go to the British region (now known as West Canada within the united province). By the early 1860s the population of West Canada is seriously under-represented in the joint assembly, leading to much political unrest.

One clear option is for the British and French provinces of Canada to separate again. But this naturally raises the often discussed question of a federal union of some kind. It is the subject of a conference planned for the autumn of 1864.

Quebec Conference and Dominion of Canada: 1864-67

The Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have been considering a union of their own. Arranging a conference to discuss it, at Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island in September 1864, they invite representatives from the province of Canada. When these representatives propose the broader plan of a federal union of all the provinces of British North America, there is immediate interest. The conference is transferred in October to Quebec.

A scheme of federal union is decided upon without much difficulty. But when it is put to the various assemblies during 1865, only the province of Canada accepts it.

The British government, reacting with enthusiasm to a practical solution for a familiar colonial problem, exerts pressure on New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to join the scheme. So when the British North America Act is passed at Westminster, in 1867, four former colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the province of Canada now separated again into Ontario and Quebec) unite to form a new Canadian state - which formally comes into existence on 1 July 1867, with Ottawa as the capital city.

Since Queen Victoria is still to be head of state, the new nation is in effect a kingdom linked to the British crown. The Canadian suggestion is that it should be known as the 'kingdom of Canada'.

Parliament in Westminster, aware of American republican sensibilities, rejects this proposal and calls the new state the Dominion of Canada. Thus 'dominion status', a device later used to give independence to other British colonies, comes into existence.

The four provinces of the new Canada include nearly all the historic regions of both French and British North America (only Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast decline the chance to join). But British North America also now includes a vast and largely unsettled region to the west of Ontario - consisting of the Hudson's Bay Company territory and British Columbia.

Manitoba to Alberta: 1869-1905

A natural next step, after the creation of Canada, is for the huge Hudson's Bay Company territory (entrusted by charter to the company since 1670) to be transferred to the new state. This is achieved in 1869 by agreement between the British and Canadian governments, but little is done to inform or conciliate the scattered groups of settlers living an isolated existence in the territory.

One group which reacts adversely to the unexpected change is the inhabitants of the Red River Settlement, established near Winnipeg in 1811 by the Hudson's Bay Company. Originally of Scottish or French origin, they are now mostly métis (meaning interbred with the local Indian population).

The métis of the Red River Settlement have developed their own independent way of life and intend to preserve it. They find an energetic leader in Louis Riel, who in 1869 seizes Fort Garry (the name at the time of Winnipeg) and sets up a provisional government with himself as president.

The new Canadian government decides to negotiate rather than suppress the rebellion. The result is the very rapid creation of a new province, Manitoba, which joins the dominion in 1870 (though without Riel himself, who is treated as an outlaw for having court-martialled and executed a man from Ontario).

British Columbia is also keen to join the expanding nation. Negotiations begin in earnest in 1870, with the British Columbians insisting on one condition - that a railway is constructed across the vast open centre of Canada to join them to the rest of the nation. With the promise that a transcontinental line will be completed within ten years, British Columbia joins the confederation in 1871. (And the promise is almost fulfilled - the Canadian Pacific railway is finished in 1885.)

Prince Edward Island completes the first batch of provinces in the confederation, reversing its earlier decision and joining in 1873.

In the same year, 1873, the North-West Mounted Police is formed to patrol the wild region between Manitoba and British Columbia, known simply as the Northwest Territories, for which the government in Ottawa is now responsible. In July 1874 a force of 275 mounted police in scarlet tunics (soon to be affectionately known as the Mounties) sets off west from Manitoba to spread through the western plains towards the Rockies.

The Mounties achieve their purpose with the skill which makes them famous, even when they have to cope with the lawless adventurers who swarm into the Yukon for the Klondike gold rush of 1897-8.

The Yukon Territory is divided in 1898 from the rest of the Northwest Territories, and soon two new provinces along the nation's southern border are ready to complete the structure of modern Canada. Alberta and Saskatchewan both become provinces in 1905, forming with Manitoba the three so-called 'prairie provinces'.

Surprisingly events in the prairies, from the mid-1880s, have given a new urgency to a long-standing Canadian problem - the relationship between the French and English communities. The first such occasion involves the return of the métis leader Louis Riel.

French in the prairies: 1884-1890

Louis Riel is living in America in 1884 when discontented métis in the Saskatchewan valley invite him to return as their leader. Once again he sets up a rebel government, seeking the support of local Indians against federal interference in the region. But this time Ottawa is in no mood to compromise. Federal troops overwhelm him. He is convicted of high treason and is hanged in 1885.

Whatever the circumstances (and his various spells in lunatic asylums might have recommended leniency), ancient bitterness is immediately revived by Riel's being in origin a French Canadian.

Outrage at his death on the part of French-speaking Canadians is immediately reflected in the politics of Quebec where the most outspoken politician in the French cause, Honoré Mercier, sweeps to victory as premier in the provincial election of 1886.

Soon there is further cause for French affront at the turn of events in the prairies. The British North America Act of 1867, acknowledging the fears of the French Catholic community, has guaranteed the educational rights of minorities in 'dissentient schools' in each province. Similarly the province of Manitoba, when set up in 1870, is required to provide denominational schools for its communities.

By the late 1880s Protestant immigration has reduced the French Catholic population of Manitoba to only about 10%. Moreover the agitation by Mercier and others on behalf of Riel has provoked an anti-Catholic backlash in the prairies. The government of Manitoba (eager also to save on the education budget) declares in 1890 that the province's schools will henceforth be non-denominational, with English as the only language of instruction.

The Manitoba Schools Question, involving the obligation of provincial and federal governments in relation to the French Catholic minority, is fought over in the courts during the 1890s and is the main issue in the federal election of 1896.

That election brings to power, as leader of the Liberal party, Canada's first French-speaking premier, Wilfrid Laurier. He succeeds in finding a compromise which defuses the immediate problem in Manitoba, but in the first of his four successive terms in office (in an unbroken spell to 1911) he is confronted by another aspect of the same problem.

When the Boer War begins, in 1899, British Canadians are eager to send Canadian troops. With some reluctance Laurier does so, thereby outraging many of his own French-Canadian community in Quebec. One of the most enduring issues of Canadian political life has become painfully evident in the first decades of the nation's existence.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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