Challenges and Changes in British North America Prior to Confederation

History Cheat Sheet

Looking back Canada prior to 1850

Between the 1800s and 1850s, British North America (Canada) experienced challenges and conflict. The tension between Britain and the United States was starting to escalate. The United States declared war on Britain on June 1812. On August 24, 1814, the British retaliated American attacks by burning down American government buildings, including the White House. Shortly after, a peace treaty was signed and ended the war. Over 15,000 First Nations people died during the War of 1812, which was more casualties than the American and British soldiers combined. The war led to many changes in British North America. Europe was experiencing significant growth in population and jobs were scarce. This forced many people to look elsewhere for jobs, such as in British North America. During this time, over 800,000 immigrants came to British North America. In Lower and Upper Canada, there was a growing movement for government reform. Following two violent rebellions in 1837 and 1838, Lord Durham became responsible for determining the cause of the violence. He believed that the solution to the unrest would be to merge Lower Canada and Upper Canada together. The Province of Canada was formed in 1841. To acquire more land, the government made land surrender treaties with the First Nations peoples. These were one-time payments that allowed the government to buy land from the First Nations peoples and they would receive no land in return.

Political Structure In British North America

All of the colonies in British North America used a similar political structure, as they were all under British rule. This allowed the colonies to be governed in a similar way. Some of the features of this early political structure are still used in Canada today. The monarch (leader) of England was also the leader of British North America. “The Crown” is a symbolic word to refer to the monarch, or leader, of a country. In British North America, the Crown appointed the governor. The governor appointed the members of the legislative council and executive council. The executive council is the group that introduces bills into legislature; this group still exists today but is referred to as the cabinet. The legislative council was responsible to the legislative assembly, which was made up of members from Canada East and Canada West. These members of the legislative assembly were voted into the assembly by male property owners.

Canada East and Canada West had the same number of seats in the legislative assembly. This led to problems as each side voted against each other, meaning there was no real change. Political deadlock is the word used to describe a situation where no change or progress can be made as a result of disagreement among parties. The major source of disagreement between Canada East and Canada West was due to two main issues. Transportation. Canada West desired to establish larger transportation routes. They believed this would create many economic benefits that would help the nation. In contrast, Canada East emphasized a focus on preserving their culture. They did not want to change the current state of affairs. Representation. Canada West supported representation by population whereas Canada East wanted to retain equal representation. Both sides held strongly to their beliefs and neither wanted to negotiate.

Politicians During the Deadlock

John A. Macdonald was the Conservative leader and George Brown was the Liberal leader in Canada West. George Brown strongly opposed the French, whereas Macdonald had an alliance with the politicians, George-Étienne Cartier, and Antoine-Aimé Dorion, in Canada East.

Representation by Population

Representation by population is a political system that allocates political seats based on population. Highly populated areas would receive more representatives compared to lower populated areas. Canada West had a much higher population than Canada East. They believed representation by population was the most equitable way of allocating seats. The political system used at the time in Canada was equal representation. Under this system, each region had the same number of seats, regardless of the number of people living in them.

George Brown

George Brown was a strong proponent of representation by population. He owned The Globe, which was a famous newspaper in Toronto. Brown was able to leverage his control of the paper to write articles that promoted the idea of representation by population.

George-Étienne Cartier

George-Étienne Cartier was a dominant figure in politics in Canada East. He was a conservative from Montreal. Cartier was known for being strongly opposed to representation by population. He feared that this policy would give more power to the English-speaking majority. This would be detrimental to French society and culture. Cartier and Brown got into many disagreements and arguments regarding the direction Canadian politics should take.

Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald was born in Scotland and immigrated to Kingston, in the province of Upper Canada. As a political figure, Macdonald wanted to stop the political deadlock that was hindering the country’s growth. Macdonald convinced the other politicians to agree to Confederation. Confederation would unite Canada East and Canada West with Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia into a single country. Confederation would require a new system to be developed to ensure that smaller, less populated regions would be able to have some influence as to how the country was run.

First Nations Peoples

For representation by population to be an effective political system, it would need accurate numbers for all of the people in a given area. The census of 1871 recorded 23,037 First Nations peoples in Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. This figure most likely underestimates the number of First Nations peoples living in this area at the time, as census officials did not believe it was important to have an accurate population count for the First Nations. In addition, at this time, First Nations peoples did not believe in property ownership by individuals, so they typically did not own land.


Women’s views and opinions were not represented in the representation by population political system. Only male landowners were allowed to vote for the legislative assembly. Women who were married to men may have been able to give some input into their husband’s decision during a vote, but beyond that, their own views were not considered.

Creating Canada

Charlottetown Conference

In September 1864, there was a conference held in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island to discuss uniting the Maritime colonies: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The purpose of the union was to make the Maritime colonies less dependent on Britain. The Province of Canada heard about the news and John A. Macdonald proposed a new plan of creating a union with Canada. The Maritime provinces supported the proposal and agreed to meet again in the future.

The Québec Conference

Later, in October 1864, a second conference was held in Québec City. The purpose of the meeting was to continue the discussion about the creation of a single state. All representatives from the three Maritime provinces and Newfoundland attended. The meeting occurred for over three weeks until the representatives voted in favor of the Québec Resolutions. The Québec Resolutions, also known as the seventy-two resolutions, were a group of statements written at the Québec Conference of 1864. These statements were important because they served as a framework for the Canadian constitution.

Key features of the Québec Resolutions included:

  • There would be a federal constitution. There would be one government to control all of Canada and a government for individual provinces.
  • Provinces would have their own set of responsibilities that were different than federal responsibilities.
  • Representation in the government would include features of both equal representation and representation by population.
  • Parliament would be based on people who were appointed and people who were elected.

The London Conference

During December 1866, politicians from Canada East, Canada West, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick met with the British government in London, England. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the future of the colonies, as well as the possibility of creating a single state. This was the last conference which outlined the details of the constitution.

London Conference, 1866

This meeting led to the creation of the Dominion of Canada, which was Britain’s first self-governing Dominion. This meant that Canada was still part of the British Empire; however, the British would have no say in how Canada’s government would be run. Instead, the British played a symbolic role in the Canadian government.

Canada would be responsible for all activities within its country. Britain still had influence over Canada in international affairs. Britain was responsible for foreign policy. Foreign policy is the government’s strategy in dealing with other nations. This meant that Britain could make negotiations with other countries on behalf of Canada. This also meant that Canada was not truly independent from Britain as a separate nation. Britain had influence over Canadian foreign policy until 1923.


Confederation refers to the process where the three colonies in Canada united to form a single federation called the Dominion of Canada. The provinces in the Dominion of Canada were Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Confederation took place on July 1, 1867. Ottawa was selected as the capital city of the country and the parliament building was used as the main government building.

People celebrated confederation across the country by firing cannons and lighting fireworks. Canadians had a positive outlook for the future of their country. Today, July 1st is known as Canada Day.

An act is a piece of legislation that is passed by parliament. The British North America Act was the first act that made Canada independent but it was renamed to the Constitution Act in 1867.

Structure of the New Government

  • Canada’s government has a federal system that is responsible for managing the entire nation. Individual provinces would have a provincial government, each with their own set of responsibilities.
  • French and English would be Canada’s official languages.
  • The new government would have a combination of appointed and elected representatives. Specifically, the House of Commons would have elected representatives and the Senate would be appointed by the elected Prime Minister.
  • The new government would use a combination of representation by population and equal representation. The House of Commons would be based on representation by population. The Senate would be allocated evenly among regions.

Senate is a group in parliament that is appointed by the Prime Minister to represent various regions in the country.

The House of Commons is a group in parliament based on representation by population that is elected by voting citizens.

John A. Macdonald criticized the structure of the American government. He believed that the United States gave too much power and authority to the individual states. This would make the Americans not so “united” because each state would have different policies and rules. Macdonald even believed the structure of the American government led to the civil war in the United States.

In Canada, some responsibilities were given to the provincial/territorial governments, but the federal system remained responsible for managing the entire nation.

Jurisdiction is the official power to make legal decisions and judgments.

Women’s Rights in Canada

Emily Howard Jennings Stowe was a physician and school principal. She was born on May 1, 1831. She was also the founder of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association. Stowe is known for her many accomplishments, including being the first female school principal and the first female to practice medicine.

Stowe started her career at age 15 where she worked as a teacher at a school in Summerville, Ontario. After teaching for seven years, Stowe applied to many schools but was not admitted because she was female. She eventually was accepted into the Normal School in Upper Canada which was the only school that accepted females. She graduated and became the first female school principal in Ontario.

Stowe applied to the Toronto School of Medicine in 1865 but was rejected because she was female. During that time, women were not allowed to attend medical school. Instead, Stowe attended the New York Medical College for Women and graduated in 1867. After obtaining her education, Stowe came back to Canada and began practicing medicine in 1867 in Toronto.

While practicing medicine, Stowe fought hard for equal treatment of men and women. She believed that everyone should have access to education, regardless of their gender. She founded the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association (CWSA), which focused on improving the rights of women and granting them access to high levels of education. Stowe was very influential and promoted political change through newspaper articles, rallies, and speeches.

Stowe died in 1903. Her legacy inspired the creation of a female-run hospital called the Women’s College Hospital and Dispensary. There are also two elementary schools in Ontario named after Emily Stowe.

Joining Confederation Manitoba and British Colombia

The Manitoba Act of 1870 allowed Manitoba to join Canada as its fifth province. An important component of this act was its protection of Métis people’s rights. It was designed to be a province for the Métis people. Back then, Manitoba was centered around today’s Winnipeg and very small in both population and size. Due to its small size, Macdonald was reluctant to make Manitoba a province.Although Manitoba was intended to be for Métis people, Ottawa sent over several white settler groups in large quantities. The Métis were unable to get any land until after a surveying process. This process took roughly three years to complete. Laws were also created that favored the occupation of land by non-Métis people. This caused many Métis people to choose to migrate west to Saskatchewan.

British Columbia

When Canada was created, British Columbia considered joining the new country. B.C. had a lot of debt, and joining Canada would be an opportunity to improve the economic situation in the country. B.C. also feared for its security because the United States had recently purchased Alaska. They believed there was a risk that the United States would try to connect Alaska to its mainland by invading B.C.

During the Yale Conference, politicians discussed the possibility of joining Canada. The proposal faced a lot of resistance as many BC politicians were appointed and feared that responsible government would cause them to lose their positions.

B.C. officials decided they would agree to become a province in Canada, under the condition that there would be no responsible government. Canada responded by insisting that B.C. implement a responsible government. Canada agreed to pay pensions for the B.C. politicians that would lose their jobs and Canada also agreed to pay off B.C.’s debt. British Columbia accepted these terms and joined Canada in 1871. Northwest Territories

The North-Western Territory was given to Canada in 1870 after Britain transferred their control over the land. This land joined Rupert’s Land to form the Northwest Territories. At first, this region did not have its own territorial government. Instead, it was controlled directly by the federal government in Ottawa. This lasted until 1876 when the government appointed a lieutenant-governor for the region.

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island did not join Canada during Confederation despite being actively involved in the early discussions. After not joining, Prince Edward Island noticed that its economy was struggling in comparison to the other Maritime provinces. The provinces involved in Confederation saw massive improvements in trade and economic development. Macdonald offered to pay off the debt in P.E.I. in exchange for joining Canada as the seventh province. P.E.I. agreed and joined Canada in 1873.

P.E.I. License Plate used from 2013 to present day. Its slogan is: “Birthplace of Confederation.”

Chinese Canadians Headtax and Canadian Railroads

The government proposed to build a railway linking the Pacific provinces to the Eastern provinces within 10 years of 20 July 1871. Canada wanted to build the Canadian Pacific Railway from coast to coast for many reasons. The railway would increase connectedness and transportation across the country.

Many of the railway workers came from China. Chinese workers were looking for a new opportunity for work. China had a very large population and not very much farmland. China was also struggling with uprisings and war.

Canada was desperate for help building infrastructure and recognized that many Chinese people were looking for new opportunities. Canada tried to recruit many people, at least temporarily, for assistance.

Chinese railway workers were often exposed to harsh conditions and paid much less than their coworkers of European descent. Chinese workers and European workers were often separated from one another. Chinese workers were typically given much more dangerous working conditions, and some workers were even killed. The workers were so underpaid that many people could not afford to return home once the railway project was complete.

Once the project was finished, Canada created a head tax. The Chinese head tax was a fixed fee charged to each Chinese person entering Canada. This tax was unusual as other immigrants did not have to pay a special tax to enter the country.

This injustice went unacknowledged for many years. The head tax was removed in 1923, but the Canadian government did not apologize to China until 2006. Canadians today now recognize the valuable contributions of hardworking Chinese Canadians.

The Indian Act

The Indian Act is a Canadian act of Parliament that concerns registered Indians and the system of First Nations reserves. First passed in 1876, it remains the primary document outlining relations between the government of Canada and the 614 First Nations bands in Canada. The Act covers governance, land use, healthcare, education, and other affairs on First Nations reserves. The original Indian Act had two primary functions affecting all Indigenous Canadians: 1) It dictates how reserves and First Nations bands can operate. 2) It defines who is, and who is not recognized as an “Indian,” impacting membership in bands. The Indian Act was passed to consolidate laws related to Indigenous people enacted by the colonies of British North America. Its purpose, as stated by its writers, was to manage Indigenous affairs to encourage them to give up their Indian status and join “Canadian civilization” as full members through a process called enfranchisement. Indigenous peoples with the franchise were allowed to vote for representatives, had to pay taxes, and could not live on a reserve. Indigenous peoples who lived on a reserve had a different set of rights and obligations. Since the laws included in the Indian Act were first passed, First Nations peoples have resisted oppression and sought an active role in defining and establishing their own rights. The Indian Act is very controversial. The Assembly of First Nations describes it as a form of apartheid, meaning it

is a system that discriminates based on race. However, the Indian Act is historically significant and legally important to First Nations peoples, acknowledging that the Canadian federal government has a unique relationship with and obligation to First Nations people’s. A famous example of oppression outlined in the Indian Act that was met with resistance from First Nations people is the Potlatch Law. In 1884, the federal government banned potlatches under the Indian Act and later banned other ceremonies, such as the sun dance. The potlatch is very important to Indigenous people in Pacific Northwest Canada. As described by the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia, “The potlatch refers to the ceremony where families gather and names are given, births are announced, marriages are conducted, and where families mourn the loss of a loved one. The potlatch is also the ceremony where a chief will pass on his rights and privileges to his eldest son.” Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald did not see this First Nations tradition as valuable or important. He wanted to enforce control on First Nations peoples by limiting what was viewed as non-essential, inappropriate rituals to lead them towards what he thought was a “healthier” European mindset. Missionaries and colonial officials saw the ritual of giving away nearly all of one’s possessions as a sign that the Indigenous peoples were “unstable.” A potlatch is an important, gift-giving feast practiced by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada. The first person to be charged under the law was a Stó:lō man from Chilliwack, British Columbia named Bill Uslick. Some First Nations bands found loopholes in the law and held their potlatches in celebratory seasons, such as around Christmas time, and claimed that they were simply doing what was “customary with white people during this season.” The potlatch ban was never entirely effective, but it did significant cultural damage to Indigenous peoples. In 1951, the Indian Act was revised, eliminating the ban on the potlatch.

Numbers Treaties 

A treaty is a formal agreement made through negotiation between two or more groups, usually related to peace, alliance, commerce, or other policies.

The Numbered Treaties, also known as the Post-Confederation Treaties, are a series of eleven treaties signed between the First Nations and the monarch of Canada. These treaties were signed in two waves: Treaties 1 through 7 signed from 1871 to 1877 and Treaties 8 through 11 signed from 1899 to 1921. In the first wave, the treaties were used to advance European settlements across the Prairies, as well as to support the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway. With these agreements, the Dominion of Canada could expand west, and the government could transition the First Nations into their new economy. No longer could First Nations have a nomadic lifestyle; they were to settle in the west and become part of settler society.

For Treaties 1 through 7, there was resistance from some First Nations bands to the treaty process. This resistance was due to a growing anxiety that it would allow a flood of new settlers, but many saw it as a way to secure much-needed assistance. During this time, the First Nations bands were suffering due to disease, famine, and conflict; their cultural way of life was diminishing quickly.

These treaties differed from earlier treaties. First Nations peoples were given European or Métis translators during the discussions of the treaties. This meant that some details could be left out during translation. During the negotiations of Treaty 3, the notes taken by Chief Powassan show that he had a differing understanding of what was being offered due to the language barrier. The Canadian government was more focused on changing the way of life of First Nations groups, rather than trying to negotiate and collaborate with them. Following the negotiations of the first wave of treaties, revisions were actively pursued by Plains Cree chiefs Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) and Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear).

First Nations and residential schools

The North-West Rebellion of 1885 was a rebellion by the Métis people, led by Louis Riel, and an associated uprising by First Nations Cree and Assiniboine in the District of Saskatchewan, led by Big Bear and Poundmaker, against the government of Canada. Many Métis felt the government was not protecting their rights, land, and survival. The Cree sought to renegotiate treaty terms due to the decline in the bison population. Although they rebelled against the same government, the Cree and Métis were not acting in unison. Battles at Duck Lake, Fish Creek, and Cut Knife were early victories, but the rebellion ended in the four-day Siege of Batoche, leading to Riel’s capture, conviction of treason, and subsequent execution by hanging, negatively impacting relations between English-speaking Canadians and French Canadian Riel supporters. First Nations groups in Canada had many important leaders that shaped the relations between Indigenous peoples and the government in Canada.

Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) was a Plains Cree chief who objected to signing Treaty 6 with the Canadian government, fearing devastating effects. After resisting for four years, he signed the treaty when facing starvation to receive food rations on a government reserve.

Louis Riel, a political leader of the Métis people, aimed to preserve Métis rights and protect Francophone people from unfair treatment by the Anglophone Canadian government. Leading two rebellions against Canada, Riel is described as both a visionary and a figure fighting to protect Francophone people. The Canadian residential school system was a government-sponsored program that developed religious boarding schools for Indigenous youth, founded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and directed by Christian churches. The goal was to assimilate Indigenous children into European Canadian settler society and remove them from their Indigenous culture. An 1894 amendment to the Indian Act made attendance at day schools or residential schools mandatory for First Nations children. Commissioner Hayter Reed aimed to place residential schools far from Indigenous communities to reduce family visits and further “civilize” Indigenous children.

The residential school system negatively affected Indigenous children by forcing them to be far from their families, prohibiting them from speaking their traditional language, and subjecting them to physical or sexual abuse. Many attendees felt isolated, struggling to fit into both their Indigenous culture and mainstream Canadian society. The impact of the residential school system has contributed to issues such as alcoholism, substance abuse, and a high suicide rate in present-day Indigenous communities.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology on behalf of the government of Canada for the suffering caused by residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established by the Canadian government to document the history and lasting impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous peoples in Canada. An estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools during their operation in Canada between 1831 (prior to compulsory schooling) and 1996. The general experiences of Indigenous children in residential schools were much more negative than positive, although some may have a few happy memories. Many Indigenous children suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in residential schools, leading to lasting trauma throughout their lives.

Daily Life

School days began early. Students were to get dressed and attend chapel. Breakfast followed, and like all meals, it was to be eaten quickly in a refectory (a dining hall). Next, students would have classes or work periods. Sometimes they had a short period of recreation before dinnertime. Bedtime was early. Weekends were a little different, as students did not have their formal school classes. On weekends, students completed other chores and spent time on religious studies.


The food quality was poor, and the quantity was limited; students were often left hungry after meals. The clothing they were forced to wear as uniforms was uncomfortable, not properly fitted, and, during winter, did not protect them from cold Canadian weather. Their academic studies were not well-prepared by teachers, and students were taught in English or French, although most Indigenous children could not speak either language at the time.

Some staff tried to be good instructors and care for the children, but the institutional setting defeated even those with good intentions. Due to impatience, a high volume of work, and sometimes for no reason at all, staff would physically abuse the children.

Indigenous children were isolated and removed from their traditional culture. They were converted to Christianity, and residential school staff would often criticize or make fun of the spiritual traditions in Indigenous cultures. Children were removed from their families too. They were separated from their siblings and forbidden to see their parents or even to speak their first language. The Mohawk Institute Residential School was a residential school in Brantford, Ontario. The school was originally operated by the Anglican Church of Canada as a day school for Indigenous boys from the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve. In 1885, after the Indian Act made enrollment mandatory for Indigenous children under 16, control of the school was given to the government of Canada until it closed on June 27, 1970.

Mohawk Institute, 1934

Many former students of Mohawk Institute have spoken out about the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse they suffered at the school. The poor quality of food served at the school gave it its nickname, “The Mush Hole.” Since students often tried to escape the school, a prison cell was built in the basement. Sally General, a former student at Mohawk Institute, recalls being locked in a dark room as punishment but not knowing why she was being punished. Later, once she learned to speak English, she found out she had been locked in the room as punishment for not knowing or being able to speak English.

Between 1854 and 1859, the building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt near its original location. On April 19, 1903, the school building was again destroyed by fire. In the months to follow, other buildings, like the barns and boys’ dormitory, were also destroyed by fire. It has been suggested that all of these fires were started by students at the school. The school buildings were rebuilt the following year, designed to hold 150 students. The Mohawk Institute Residential School was the oldest, continuously operated Anglican residential school in Canada.