British Columbia Confederation Essay

The twelve essays in this collection, the eleventh volume of the “Essays in the History of Canadian Law” series produced by the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, address different issues in Quebec, Lower Canadian, and Upper Canadian legal history from the Conquest to Confederation (and sometimes beyond). The collection opens with a historiographical essay written by G. Blaine Baker that offers a thorough and exhaustive survey of the field of legal history of the Canadian colonies before Confederation. Although not the most exciting essay of the volume, it is a very useful contribution and an excellent way to introduce the field. Of the eleven remaining essays, only R. Blake Brown’s essay concerning the possession and regulation of firearms from 1760 to 1867 covers both Canadas. The others essays focus either on Quebec and Lower Canada from 1760 to 1867, or Upper Canada and Ontario from the 1820s to 1900. In this sense, the collection artificially brings together essays focusing on two distinct colonies. Even if this compartmentalization is not surprising, since it replicates a characteristic feature of Canadian historiography, it is nonetheless regrettable. Many of the questions studied in the different essays could have led to fascinating inter-colonial comparisons.

Despite this caveat, the essays demonstrate the dynamism of Canadian legal history. They shed light on the preferred topics and approaches of legal historians. In a contribution that is halfway between a historiographical essay and a research program, Donald Fyson surveys the ways in which minority groups in the Province of Quebec and Lower Canada (e.g., Aboriginal people, blacks, women, and British settlers) have been studied by legal historians, and proposes new avenues of research. In a more traditional essay, Sylvio Normand describes the nature of the legal literature produced in Quebec and Lower Canada before the Act of Union; even if this essay is very descriptive, it serves a useful purpose. David Gilles’s article describes the legal situation of women in the province, as well as their participation in the judicial system from 1740 to 1791, and concludes that the Conquest did not represent a major shift in women’s legal rights and activities in the Province of Quebec. In contrast to the Normand and Gilles essays, which are essentially descriptive, Michel Morin’s article is more argumentative. It discusses the Canadiens’ political and legal demands between 1760 and 1791. It demonstrates that these new subjects (oddly called “francophones” in this essay) adapted to [End Page 631] British laws very quickly and used them to their own advantage very soon after the Conquest. This essay is certainly one of the strongest of the collection. Ian C. Pilarczyk’s essay about child abuse in nineteenth-century Montreal, probably the most disturbing piece considering the topic, and Eric H. Reiter’s article discussing the concept of “moral injury” in the colony are the last two essays focusing on Lower Canada.

The four remaining essays focus on Upper Canada and Ontario. Both Bradley Miller and Jeffrey McNairn offer fascinating essays about Upper Canadian legal history from a cultural and intellectual point of view. McNairn studies the meanings ascribed to imprisonment for debt by Upper Canadians, while Miller discusses the problem of sovereignty raised by the Upper Canadian rebels when they crossed the American border in 1837–38. Along with Morin’s essay, these two contributions are the most argumentative and the strongest of this collection. Finally, Lori Chambers studies women’s property rights in Ontario (in this sense, her article falls outside the period covered by the other articles), while Mary Stokes discusses grand juries.

In the end, Baker and Fyson have brought together twelve interesting and well-researched, stand-alone essays that have very little to do with each other. If it was not for the authors’ commitment to connect their essays to transnational trends and to inscribe the history of the Canadian colonies in broader contexts (including North America, the British Empire, and even Europe), these essays would not have much in common at...

​British Columbia joined Confederation on 20 July 1871, becoming Canada's sixth province in the wake of a gold rush and on the promise of a transcontinental railway link.

British Columbia joined Confederation on 20 July 1871, becoming Canada's sixth province in the wake of a gold rush and on the promise of a transcontinental railway link.

First Nations

British Columbia was populated after the last Ice Age, with records of human habitation dating back at least 8,000 years. On the coast, several First Nations emerged, including the Tagish, Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Nootka, while inland lived the Carrier, Interior Salish and Kootenay.

Europeans didn't arrive on the Pacific coast in significant numbers until after the voyage of James Cook in 1778 and the mapping expedition of George Vancouver in the 1790s. By 1849, the land was home to about 50,000 Aboriginal people and a few hundred British settlers. The settlers established the colony of Vancouver Island that year.

Fraser River Gold Rush

Everything changed with the Fraser River Gold Rush starting in 1858, when 30,000 gold-seekers, many from the United States, raced to cash in. The influx of settlers prompted Britain to create a separate mainland colony that same year, called British Columbia.

A form of representative government was established in BC in 1864, just as the eastern colonies of British North America were debating Confederation. In 1866, the colonies of Vancouver Island and BC were united under a common legislative assembly and governor, with their capital at Victoria.

When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, British Columbians debated joining the new country. Entering Confederation would help BC take on debt to pay for the building of roads and other infrastructure. It would also provide a measure of security and ensure the continuation of the British nature of the colony, especially following the US purchase of Alaska that same year. The Alaska purchase sparked fears that the Americans would try to annex BC to link Alaska with US western territories.

Amid these debates, Aboriginal people had little or no say in their political future. Joseph Trutch, the chief commissioner of lands and works, refused to negotiate treaties with First Nations or recognize Aboriginal title to land. He also cut the size of existing Aboriginal reserves.

Confederation Movement

Politician Amor De Cosmos, a newspaper publisher, led the Confederation movement along with John Robson and Arthur Kennedy. De Cosmos formed the Confederation League in 1868 to unite the colony with Canada and bring responsible government to BC. The movement grew in popularity. However, its greatest opponents were the powerful, unelected members of the colonial government who feared for their jobs and pensions if BC became a Canadian province with a fully elected, rather than a partially appointed, legislature.

Economic recession in the colony, and the presence of a group of settlers who favoured the annexation of BC by the United States, also hampered the Confederationists.

One major obstacle to union was removed in 1869 with the death of Governor Frederick Seymour, who opposed joining Canada, and his replacement by Anthony Musgrave, who supported union. The following year, Canada also purchased Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories from the Hudson's Bay Company. This gave Canada control over the vast territory between the Great Lakes and BC, clearing the way for a coast-to-coast country and, eventually, a transcontinental railroad.

BC Becomes a Province

The colony’s legislature debated Confederation in the spring of 1870 — deciding, despite opposition, to seek entry into Canada without responsible government. The colony then sent a three-man delegation to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of entry.

Federal leaders insisted on BC having responsible government if it became a province — but they agreed to provide pensions for unelected local officials who would lose their positions in the process. Canada also agreed to take on BC’s debt, build a rail link to the Pacific coast, and give BC the right to send three senators and six members of Parliament to Ottawa.

The terms were passed by both the BC assembly and the federal Parliament in 1871, and the colony joined Canada as the country's sixth province in July 1871.Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a central condition of the deal, was only started in 1878 after many delays and finished in 1885.


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