Booming cannon fire, carried on a warm breeze, sounded the birth of our nation 92 years ago. Although a handful of its 3.5 million people lived with surprising elegance, Canada was essentially a raie and rural land of dirt roads, oxen in the fields and — inevitably—squabbling politicians

W. G. HARDY July 4 1959


Booming cannon fire, carried on a warm breeze, sounded the birth of our nation 92 years ago. Although a handful of its 3.5 million people lived with surprising elegance, Canada was essentially a raie and rural land of dirt roads, oxen in the fields and — inevitably—squabbling politicians

W. G. HARDY July 4 1959


Booming cannon fire, carried on a warm breeze, sounded the birth of our nation 92 years ago. Although a handful of its 3.5 million people lived with surprising elegance, Canada was essentially a raie and rural land of dirt roads, oxen in the fields and — inevitably—squabbling politicians


On July 1, 1867, the weather god beamed. All across the new Dominion the sun shone in a sky of cloudless blue, though there was a breeze to temper the heat. In Ottawa, the capital, shortly alter the midnight of June 30. the pealing of church bells and the dull thudding of a onc-hundred-and-one-gun salute banished sleep. When the sun rose, from Halifax to Sarnia, royal salutes of twenty-one guns began. All across the federation, too, the church bells rang and there were parades and the formal reading ol the Queen's proclamation; though in Halifax and Saint John the shops were hung with crepe.

Meanwhile, in the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa, the first government of the Dominion was sworn in by Lord Monck.

John A. Macdonald appropriately, was the first prime minister. George Brown sat apart in Toronto, a dour dominie. But John A.'s cabinet contained two Clear Grits, William McDougall and W. P. Howland, though Brown had had both of them read out of his party. Samuel Tilley was a cabinet member. Both Charles Tupper and D'Arcy McGee had had to be excluded so as to solve John A.'s problem about an Irish-Catholic minister. From Quebec. Cartier was the giant while Galt was minister of finance.

To signalize the event, Governor-General Monck announced Macdonald as Knight Commander of the Bath with the inferior distinction of Companion of the Bath for Cartier, Galt. Tupper, McDougall and Howland. Cartier and Galt were both so in-

censed by what they took to be a slight that they refused the decorations. Both had to be consoled like babies and were finally given higher honors.

The official part of the ceremonies was completed by midday. Then across the Dominion, but more particularly in what had been the province of Canada, the people went on holiday. In Quebec it was flags and bunting and family parties, and a cricket game at Three Rivers. Ontario favored brass bands, regattas, races and the like.

In the more remote centres the farmers gathered in the local fair grounds or picnic places, for a program of sports and a country supper of salads, cold meats, pies and cakes, at tables set up on trestles under the trees. As the soft July night floated down the villages, towns and cities were bright with Chinese lanterns on the porches and w'ith firew'orks and illuminations. The people, the inchoate mass without an articulate voice, sensed that something of significance had occurred.

What was it like, this infant empire of Macdonald’s? In 1867 of its approximately 3,300,000 people almost half lived in Upper Canada and, if Quebec province w'ere added, nearly eighty percent were accounted for. By 1871 French-speaking Canadians were thirty-one percent of the population, those of British origin, with the Irish predominating, sixty and a half percent, and those of other national origins only about eight and a half percent. The multiple mosaic of modern Canada had not yet developed. But the ancient and modern tension between French Roman Catholic (about forty two percent of the new Dominion's inhabitants w'ere Catholics) and English Protestant remained a feature of Macdonald's new' empire.

Statistics never convey the flavor of a vanished w'ay of life. The whole of the Dominion was overwhelmingly rural with eighty-one percent of the population living outside the cities and towns. From the Maritimes, the wooden ships still whitened the harbors of the world. In Quebec and Ontario, the heartland of the new country, the frontier was still on the doorstep. Outside of the eastern towmships, Quebec w'as pretty well limited to the habitant farms along the valley of the St. Lawrence. Except for

the timber trade out of Quebec City (by

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“Elections very often meant whisky, bludgeons, fists and explosions of riotous brawling“

1871 a city of sixty thousand) and except for the banks, colleges, merchants, shipping and railways of Montreal, the life of French Canada was still as in the days of New France, the life of the parish and the farm.

In Ontario, the only completely settled area was along the "Front” of Lake Ontario from Kingston to Toronto with a depth northward of from twenty to — at the utmost — a hundred miles, and in the southwestern peninsula to Sarnia and Windsor. Even in the settled areas there were swamps, frogs, mosquitoes and flashing fireflies, and, snake-rail, slump and stone fences crawling over hill and dale. Frame and brick and stone houses betrayed prosperous farms. But along the back concessions and in the newly settled areas, it was still the log house and the log barn.

There was no flood of tourists. There were no paved roads. Along the Front and in the southwestern peninsula there were turnpikes and graveled roads but in the back country the dirt trail and the corduroy road still led through the thick woods and the swamps where the trees met above the ruts. Railroads, some of them already abandoned, criss-crossed the province. But, outside of the old-fashioned locomotives and the old - fashioned kerosene-lit, plush-seated coaches they dragged, there were few machines. Here and there mowers and reapers were appearing but in the back counties the scythe and cradle still cut the crops and oxen worked among the stumps.

Wood was the universal fuel. The lamps were coal-oil lamps, though castiron stoves were ousting the picturesque fireplaces and the andirons and spits and kettles on the hobs. The women milked by hand. Hand-turned churns made butter. The spinning wheel whirred. Barnraisings. corn-huskings, quilting bees and threshings were community occasions and so were the sugaring-off parties in the late March woods with the last snow still deep, though dirty, in the bush.

In winter the bells of horse-drawn sleighs and cutters tinkled on the trails, or if the snow was deep, detoured through the fields. Snowshoes, skating and tobogganing parties were the vogue. Farmers had to break open their own roads in winter and keep them in repair in summer. Life was still self-help; government had not as yet emasculated independence wdth a beneficent paternalism.

Village and town life knew more of the amenities. In the village there was the kerosene-lit general store with its kegs,

barrels, bolts of cloth and its conglomerate of odors — cheese, butter, eggs, spices, hard candies, “store-bought” cookies, leather stalks and strips of licorice— and usually a wicket for the mail.

Rival centres w-ere the blacksmith shop with the pungency of the burnt hooves of horses and the hissing of the red-hot horseshoe dipped in water, and the tavern with its sawdust and its smell of beer and whisky.

If there was a river with a dam and waterfall there would soon be a town wdth a sawmill and a gristmill and a drugstore, a doctor’s and dentist s offices, two or three rival stores, a local newspaper, a bank, three to four churches and three to four taverns. In Ontario, there was always a Church of England and, quite often, a Roman Catholic place of worship and a struggle for the rest of the population between Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist, while minor sects scurried anxiously about the outskirts. The taverns by a logical division were one Grit, one Conservative and one for neutrals. Often, too. in those departed days there w-as a cricket club.

Emotional orgies

Taverns were as frequent as today’s gasoline stations. They were planted in every village and on every crossroad and they dotted the roads leading into the market towns. In the cities they stood as social centres on every other streetcorner. Yet it was also the age of unquestioning faith. Reprobates knew they were sinners and no two ways about it. So did the backsliders. In Ontario the trinity of dissenter sins were drinking, dancing and card-playing — with smoking as a possible fourth. The camp meeting with its shacks and picnic grounds to accommodate hundreds of people and lasting for weeks — Dunkards or Bible Christians or Methodists or Baptists — were emotional orgies, precursors of the Billy Sundays and Grahams of more modern days.

The farm, the forest and the fisheries ruled. In Ontario there were eight or nine cities, most of them overgrown towns of from five thousand to twenty-five thousand. which had profited from the new factories sprouted by the Cayley - Galt tariff of 1858-59. factories which were turning out ploughs, implements, boots, shoes, cloth, cottons and furniture. Quebec City and Toronto both boasted about sixty thousand people. Montreal some one hundred thousand. Even in these — for

that timé — huge centres, there were no buildings over three or four stories. There was a lack of paved streets and parks. There were a number of pretentious brick and stone mansions with huge, elm-andmaple-embowered grounds but many of the homes were frame, with frame verandahs jutting out over wooden sidewalks. Milk and bread services and garbage collections were rudimentary. In the early sixties horse-drawn streetcars had appeared in Toronto and Montreal but the wealthy kept their own horses, carriages and coachmen. Homes were gas-lit. In the better ones running water and the tin bathtub cleansed the body, but most people still got their water from a well in the back yard and their baths on Saturday nights in the family washtub.

Similarly, medical services tended to be elementary, and epidemics, such as smallpox and scarlet fever, were common. In Ontario, though not in Quebec, even the country districts had a school for at least part of the year. Books were few and school buildings and equipment not elaborate. The main furnishing was the hickory stick. Yet, (except for Quebec. where schooling was neither prevalent nor encouraged) there was a keen desire for education. Secondary schools took in only a small percentage, but those who were taught were taught well, chiefly in the classical languages and in mathematics. Somehow, that type of education produced leaders such as John A. Macdonald, Tupper, Tilley, Cartier, men who seemed to be better "adjusted" to life than the products of today’s elaborately equipped omnibus schools with their neurotic emphasis on "personality development.”

In 1865 Ontario municipalities were forced to support high schools by taxes and girls were reluctantly permitted to attend. Colleges and universities had been established in all the four provinces long before Confederation. But it was not yet the theory that everyone ought to be gifted at birth with a University degree.

There w-as little that can be called Canadian literature or painting or music. The theatres did show plays from New' York or London. These were for the cities. Average individuals, in default of TV. movies, professional sport, and motor cars, either made their own amusements or found sociability in the church or the tavern or both, and excitement in political meetings and revivals. There were plenty of newspapers, usually either

in a double sheet, or four pages, which carried local happenings and, after 1866, columns of British and European news received by transAtlantic cable. In Ontario everyone was a Grit or a Tory.

In Quebec the picture was more complicated with shades of political colors from Rouge to Bleu. In all the four provinces elections usually meant whisky, bludgeons and fists, especially since there were no votes for women. Elections were the more exciting since, at the time, they were spaced over about a fortnight so that there was opportunity for tensions to explode into riotous brawling.

In both Ontario and Quebec the life of the forest was still close to that of the farm. The white pine had not yet been stripped from the fringes of the settled areas. From December to April the timber-cutting in the forests of the Ottawa, the St. Maurice and the other rivers leading into the St. Lawrence, held sway. A great many sawmills cut planks for the American market. But the timber trade from Quebec to Britain and Europe was still flourishing and the great rafts still floated down the St. Lawrence. In addition, Quebec shipyards were active. In 1863, for instance, they turned out thirtyseven ships, twenty-four barques, one brig and three brigantines.

The palm in shipbuilding as usual went to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. These two Maritime provinces were a fairly compact block of settlement. except that the interior of New' Brunswick was, in 1867, largely forest. Halifax, with twenty - nine thousand people and a long tradition, and Saint John remained the two principal ports.

As in the Fifties, however, shipbuilding went on wherever there was a cove or a creek. In 186¿, to give an example, New Brunswick turned out one hundred and sixty-three vessels aggregating 92,605 tons; while at Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, from 1860 to 1869, thirty-four full-rigged ships, one hundred and four barques and a flock of brigs, brigantines and schooners—the whole totalling 105,000 tons—were added to the Yarmouth fleet. Confederation might be ä glumfaced subject in 1867, but the high adventure of the “wooden ships and iron men” kept on. overshadowing the farms and even the fisheries, if

This is an excerpt from Professor Hardy’s forthcoming book, From Sea Unto Sea, Vol. 4 of the Doubleday Canadian History Series. It will be published next year.