British North America Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The British North America Act created of the Dominion of Canada, formally marking the birth of Canada as a nation within what would come to be known as the British Commonwealth.

Summary of Event

After the British defeat of French forces in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Paris Paris, Treaty of (1763) forced France to yield its former colony, Canada, to Great Britain. For the first century after the Treaty of Paris, Canada was ruled as a British colony, and almost all important political decisions affecting Canadians were made by the British parliament in London or by the governor-general, who was the Crown’s official representative in Canada. British North America Act of 1867 Canada;British North America Act British Empire;and Canada[Canada] Canada;and Great Britain[Great Britain] Cartier, Sir George Étienne Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation] [kw]British North America Act (July 1, 1867) [kw]North America Act, British (July 1, 1867) [kw]Act, British North America (July 1, 1867) British North America Act of 1867 Canada;British North America Act British Empire;and Canada[Canada] Canada;and Great Britain[Great Britain] Cartier, Sir George Étienne Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation] [g]Canada;July 1, 1867: British North America Act[4070] [g]British Empire;July 1, 1867: British North America Act[4070] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 1, 1867: British North America Act[4070] [c]Government and politics;July 1, 1867: British North America Act[4070] [c]Colonization;July 1, 1867: British North America Act[4070] Mackenzie, Alexander [p]Mackenzie, Alexander;and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation] Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen[Victoria];and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation]

Various British governments saw no reason to change this situation of overt colonial rule from London, until the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Great Britain[Great Britain] Great Britain;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] (1861-1865) in the United States in 1861. Henry Palmerston, Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] the British prime minister from 1859 to 1865, and his chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone, expressed overt support for the Confederates and even considered granting diplomatic recognition to the Confederate government of Jefferson Davis. Moreover, British shipyards built ships for the Confederate navy Navy, Confederate . These were considered hostile acts in Washington, D.C. The overt distrust between Washington and London became much worse when, in 1861, a U.S. warship stopped the British steamer Trent during a trip from Canada to England and removed two Confederate agents, whose goal was to seek active support from England for the Confederates. This almost provoked a third war between the United States and Great Britain, after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the War of 1812.

After the Union victory in the Civil War Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Canada[Canada] Canada;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] , the British government realized that the victorious North was angry with it but still felt positively toward Canadians, who had helped greatly in protecting escaped slaves. Canada;African American immigrants Prominent British politicians feared that U.S. forces might invade Canada in retaliation for British support of the Confederates during the Civil War, but believed that no such invasion would take place if Canada became an independent country. U.S. citizens in the North generally wished to maintain good relations with Canada. Thus, it was in Great Britain’s self-interest to create, as quickly as possible, an independent form of government in Canada.

The British encouraged two leading Canadian politicians—Sir John Alexander Macdonald from Ontario Ontario;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] (Upper Canada) and Sir George Étienne Cartier from Quebec Quebec;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] (Lower Canada)—to propose a political system to unify Canada;unification of the various Canadian provinces under a single federal system. The challenge for Macdonald and Cartier was to balance federal and provincial interests while preserving the best elements of the British parliamentary system. The recent experience of the Civil War convinced Macdonald and Cartier that it would be extremely unwise for Canada to grant excessive powers to individual provinces, but they both realized that certain matters needed to be resolved at the provincial level. Unless individual provinces saw economic, social, or political advantages for themselves in a new Canadian union, they would not join the new confederation, as it came to be called. Prince Edward Island Prince Edward Island , for example, chose not to join the Canadian confederation in 1867, but joined the Dominion of Canada six years later, only when the federal government offered to pay off the large debts the province had incurred as a result of railroad construction on the island.

The negotiations in Canada before the approval of the British North America Act of 1867 took place at conferences held in Charlottetown, on Prince Edward Island, and in Quebec City. It eventually was decided to recommend a legislature with two chambers: a House of Commons with elected members, and a Senate composed of appointed members. The linguistic and religious rights of Canadians were to be protected, and it was specified that either French or English could be used in the Houses of Parliament and in all Canadian courts. The founders of the Canadian confederation granted to the national government the power to regulate trade and commerce, to impose taxes, to control the criminal justice system, to appoint judges, and to overrule decisions rendered by provincial governments. The various provinces were to be responsible for education in their provinces. This section was important because it permitted the French Roman Catholic majority in Quebec Quebec;Roman Catholics to continue subsidizing Catholic schools in Quebec.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the British North America Act of 1867 specifically assigned to the federal government, not to the provinces, all powers not especially enumerated in the North America Act. The clear intention was to avoid in Canada disagreements about provincial and federal powers similar to the conflicts between federal and state powers that had created so many problems, and even a civil war, in the United States.

The Dominion of Canada, 1873

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The North America Act did not contain a specific bill of rights, but reaffirmed the reality of the unwritten British tradition of protecting basic civil rights. (A specific Charter of Rights and Freedoms Canada;Charter of Rights and Freedoms was, however, approved by the Canadian parliament in 1982. Similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights, it also established the equality in law between the French and English languages in Canada.) The British North America Act had restricted the ability of the Canadian parliament to change its basic provisions without the approval of the British parliament. In reality, the British government stopped interfering directly in Canadian domestic affairs early in the twentieth century, but the very possibility of British involvement in internal Canadian matters bothered many Canadians, and this requirement was eliminated by the Canada Act of 1982, by which the British government formally recognized Canada’s complete independence from Great Britain.

On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act took effect, and the confederation of Ontario Ontario;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] , Quebec, Quebec;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] Nova Scotia Nova Scotia;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] , and New Brunswick New Brunswick;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] created the Dominion of Canada. Because of its historical importance, July 1—Canada Day Canada Day , as it is now known—became the Canadian national holiday. At the suggestion of Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen[Victoria];and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation] herself, John A. Macdonald, who had played the leading role in the creation of the Canadian confederation, was appointed Canada’s first prime minister.

Significance

As prime minister, Macdonald strove to unify Canada both politically and culturally. He was an English-speaking Protestant from Ontario and understood that the unity of Canada required that both major language groups (French and English) and religious groups (Catholic and Protestant) be included at all levels of the federal government. Until his death in 1873, George Étienne Cartier was Macdonald’s most important adviser, and most historians feel that the French-speaking Catholic Cartier and the English-speaking Macdonald governed Canada together for the first six years of its independence.

Macdonald’s government spent large sums of money to complete the construction Canada;railroads of the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;construction of Railway in order to permit travel and trade between eastern and western Canada. During his first six years as prime minister, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, Manitoba British Columbia British Columbia , and Prince Edward Island Prince Edward Island all joined the Canadian confederation. Although Macdonald served as the leader of the opposition party in the House of Commons from 1873 to 1878, when Alexander Mackenzie Mackenzie, Alexander [p]Mackenzie, Alexander;and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation] served as Canada’s prime minister, the years between 1867 and 1891 have generally been called the Macdonald era because of his great influence in creating the modern country of Canada.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchison, Bruce. Macdonald to Pearson: The Prime Ministers of Canada. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans Canada, 1967. Useful chapters on Macdonald’s years of service as prime minister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“John A. Macdonald.” Maclean’s 114, no. 27 (July 1, 2001): 37. A profile of Macdonald, describing his career, role in the confederation of Canada, and involvement in Canadian politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Ged. Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-1867. London: Macmillan, 1995. Excellent analysis of the reasons that Great Britain was so eager to create the Dominion of Canada after the Civil War in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Cynthia M., and Jack McLeod, eds. Sir John A.: An Anecdotal Life of John A. Macdonald. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989. Contains numerous comments on John Macdonald from many different contemporary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swainson, Donald. John A. Macdonald: The Man and the Politician. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971. An excellent and well-documented biography of Macdonald.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, M. Brook, and Doug Owram, eds. Canadian History: A Reader’s Guide. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Presents an excellent analysis of important studies of Canadian politics and society, both before and after the confederation of 1867.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waite, P. B. The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867: Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America. 3d ed. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2001. Recounts the events leading to the 1867 confederation of the Canadian provinces, examining the role that politics and newspapers played in the process.

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Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Sir John Alexander Macdonald; Alexander Mackenzie; Lord Palmerston; Queen Victoria. British North America Act of 1867 Canada;British North America Act British Empire;and Canada[Canada] Canada;and Great Britain[Great Britain] Cartier, Sir George Étienne Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Canadian confederation[Canadian confederation]

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