It took 30 years, from 1837 to 1867, for the British colonies in North America to reach the monumental political compromise that led to Canada’s creation. It has taken nearly as long — some 22 years — for the Museum of Civilization to develop and produce a highly original way of presenting the genius of Confederation within a single exhibition. This can now be seen in a new section just installed in the Museum’s Canada Hall.
What has been done in the Museum is highly innovative. We see glimpses of armed uprisings, a jail cell, military activity, negotiations, riots and eventual compromise. It is very different from how Confederation is usually discussed, with emphasis often placed on the peaceable — even boring — debates of the 1860s.
The road to Confederation was rough and gritty, strewn with conflicts, bad decisions and some corrections. In short, the process was very human, and its political outcome was ultimately very Canadian.
Our exhibition begins in 1837, with the famous Rebellions in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada (today’s Ontario and Quebec). Thankfully, these uprisings did not result in carnage on the scale of the American Civil War, but they were real enough. Re-establishing civil order required military action by British troops and local militias. Subsequent legal and social control measures included public hangings and deportations.
The Rebellions reflected widespread dissatisfaction with social, economic and political conditions in both colonies. In Lower Canada, French nationalism added an extra dimension of solidarity and anger. Despite an initial defeat, however, the movement for reform continued after the Rebellions, eventually reshaping our constitutional landscape.
Colonial leaders spent years trying to solve competing political demands. They had to find a practical balance between regional interests, languages, religions, versions of democracy and funding for public infrastructure. Issues came to a head under the masterful leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald, the elegant statesmanship of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, the eloquence of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, and the steady competence of many other colonial representatives.
The Fathers of Confederation at the 1864 Charlottetown Conference were helped in their negotiations by copious quantities of “refreshment” — particularly the champagne provided by Macdonald. Most importantly, they recognized the vulnerabilities of their individual colonies, which lacked the economic, military and political strength to survive separately.
Our Museum exhibition begins with a Rebellion episode at Montgomery’s Tavern, on the northern outskirts of Toronto. It moves to the Au-Pied-du-Courant Prison in Montreal, where Patriote leaders were imprisoned. It also includes a British Officer’s room —reflecting the role of this well-trained army in maintaining order and providing defence against potential American expansionism — as well as a countdown of key events in the move to political compromise. Period artifacts and engravings add authenticity to the main narrative.
The Canada Hall is this country’s most popular presentation on national history, with a particular focus on our social and economic evolution. This new exhibition adds a political dimension designed to deepen the experience for the 400,000 visitors who walk the Hall each year.