The French Canadians and the Birth of Confederation

Jean Charles Bonenfant is a well-known historian for his thorough and in-depth accounts of French-Canadian history.   The in depth writing that Bonenfant excels in writing is perhaps most noticeable in such articles as: “Thomas Chapasis, textes choisis” (1957), and “La Naissance de la Confédération” (1969).  There are also several of his writings that have been translated and published in such Historical Journals as the Canadian Historical Review. Most of Bonenfant’s writings tend to focus on the time around Canadian Confederation.  This interest in the Confederation era may be due to the fact of his interest in the study of law.  Bonenfant’s writings tend to focus on the legal repercussions on what aspects the British North America Act would have on both the federal and provincial governments in regards to the division of powers.  Bonenfant’s writing is further strengthened by the fact that he studied law at University, called to the bar in 1935, and eventually became a law professor in the Faculty of Law at University . 
Jean Charles Bonenfant’s article, “The French Canadians and the Birth of Confederation”, continues the tradition of in-depth investigative writing that Bonenfant is known for.  The article, published in booklet format by the Canadian Historical Association, explores the French-Canadian reactions to the events leading up to Canadian Confederation.  This article is especially important to Bonenfant’s career considering he is one of the first to investigate, in article form, the often neglected area of the French-Canadian version of the events leading up to Canadian Confederation.  There are thousands of articles and books on the movements of English-Canadians[1] leading up to Confederation, but very little has been written on the French-Canadians feelings towards the idea of Confederation.   Bonenfant even recognizes the lack of French-Canadian interest in Confederation in his bibliographic notes of his article by writing:

The historians who have written about the birth of Confederation have taken into account the participation of the French Canadians in the events and have briefly analysed their attitudes, but no thorough study has been devoted to his subject as a whole.  French-Canadian historians have also neglected the study of this period.  The only work on the subject written by a French Canadian is La Confédération canadienne (Montreal, 1918), by Abbé Lionel Groulx, which the author himself admits was written too quickly, and declares “that these studies make absolutely no claim to being a definitive work.”[2]

Bonenfant’s attempt at being one of the first French-Canadian writers to write on the topic of Confederation is done in true Bonenfant form.  The article provides a thorough in-depth chronological explanation about the feelings of both Liberal and Conservative minded French-Canadians from before 1864 until after the institution of Confederation on July 1st, 1867.

However, Bonenfant fails to meet one of the priorities of the Canadian Historical Association.  The Canadian Historical Association, when choosing the articles for their booklet series, seeks to convey to the average Canadian the events that have helped to shape the current Canadian nation state.  However, Bonenfant’s article, despite being a good in-depth article, somewhat fails to meet the Association’s objective of being easy to understand and comprehend by the average Canadian.  Bonenfant uses some heavy historical jargon from both the Union Period and post-confederation eras.  An example of this jargon can easily be found in the references to the positions held by some politicians such as “Upper Canadian Liberal leader George Brown”.[3] The reader is left wondering why there is a necessity for the an Upper Canadian Liberal leader since the Canadian colonies had supposedly been unified in 1840 after Lord Durham’s report.  Perhaps in this case a short explanatory footnote explaining how George Brown could be the Upper Canadian Liberal leader in relation to the political structure of the government of the United Province of Canada. 

Another instance of the use of jargon that would confuse the reader is the demand for an ‘Upper House’ in Quebec or the creation of a ‘Legislative Council’.  Perhaps a short glossary of terms would be beneficial to the reader.  This glossary of terms would define the jargon used in the article in order to assist the reader.  The glossary of terms could also provide a short explanation on some of the key people involved in Confederation that are mentioned in the article.  For example, Bonenfant mentions Joseph-Charles Taché, George-Etienne Cartier, Sir John A. Macdonald, Alexander T. Galt, and Antoine-Aimé Dorian.  These names appear in the article, yet, the reader is not told about the political or personal background of these characters.  The glossary of terms would greatly benefit the novice historians who are attempting to learn the French-Canadian involvement in Confederation for the first time and still allow older and more experienced historians to read the article without being inundated with what they may see as useless explanatory footnotes.

Bonenfant explains his main question, “what would be their reactions when faced with the events which would take place from June 1864 to 1 July 1867, and which would constitute the genesis of Confederation”, by breaking his argument down into twelve explainable sections.  Bonenfant breaks his presents the answer to his question this way in order that the reader is better able to grasp the different concepts that are found in the French-Canadian response to Confederation.  However, there are basically four main points to his argument that can be found if each Bonenfant’s twelve sections are combined into the three different time periods.  The resulting fourth point is the involvement of the Catholic clergy requires its own point because the Church’s ideologies on Confederation are better studied as a whole and not in sections.
Bonenfant's first point of argument is based on the narrative of the events that lead up to the discussion on Confederation.  This section takes place before 1864 and in 1865 and shows where the idea of federalism began.  Bonenfant achieves this task by pointing to the writings of Joseph-Charles Taché from 1858, the demands that Alexander T. Galt had made “before he would enter the Cartier-Macdonald ministry”[4], and Dorian’s Manifesto. Within this section the reader learns who were some of the first writers to propose federalism and how some of these writers’ ideas became incorporated into the idea of Canadian Confederation.

Bonenfant then points out how the idea of a federation of the colonies of British North America was begun.  The author notes that Alexander T. Galt began the idea of a federation when he presented his terms for entering the cabinet of the Cartier-Macdonald administration of the United Province of Canada.  However, Bonenfant introduces the reader to the French-Canadian arguments against Confederation in order to show the readers a balanced argument.  The main arguments against Confederation can be found in Dorian’s Manifesto, which Bonenfant presents the main ideas.  The showing of both the pro and anti-confederation forces is most important to ensure that the reader is given a balanced approach to idea of Confederation instead of the usual arguments can be found in favour of the idea of Confederation that traditional English-Canadian writers usually espouse.  Overall, this first section introduces the reader to the origins of Confederation and also shows the origins of the pro-Confederation and Anti-Confederation forces.  

The second point of Bonenfant’s answer to his question begins with the debate over the Quebec Resolutions and ends with the achievement of Confederation.  In this point Bonenfant introduces the reader to the process that the idea of Confederation took in the political process as well as in sphere of public opinion. Bonenfant achieves this task by showing the positions taken by such pro-Confederation politicians as George-Etienne Cartier and Hector Langevin as well as updating the reader on what actions the anti-Confederation politicians were doing.   These different ideas found in this section show how Bonenfant presents a balanced approach of presenting the facts.

Also, in the political realm, Bonenfant presents the results of the vote counts based on several cross-references of the numbers.  These vote counts and the various cross-references show the reader how the politicians between the two former colonies voted, how the French-Canadian politicians voted, and overall what percentage of the entire Province of the United Canada felt on the issue of Confederation.  These vote counts are of the utmost significance to Bonenfant’s answer to his question because these vote counts shows the various attitudes towards Confederation within several traditional categorical groupings.

The public reaction to the idea of Confederation is presented through the various newspaper reports on the issue.  Bonenfant has selected a good cross-reference of the political ideologies in order to maintain a balanced answer to his initial question.   For example, Bonenfant quotes from the Liberal newspaper, Le Pays, and the Conservative newspaper, La Minerve, in order to present the ideologies that the public thought were important in their positions as either pro-Confederationists or anti-Confederationists.  Again, Bonenfant notices that a well-balanced argument will further strengthen his answer to the original answer.  

The third point of Bonenfant’s article shows the reader what the results of Confederation were and how each the pro-Confederation and anti-Confederation members continued to do after Canadian Confederation had been achieved.  Bonenfant does this by presenting the reaction of French-Canadians on the first day of the existence of the new Dominion of Canada and how Confederation seemed to solve the problems of the time.  The author accomplishes this task by presenting the reader with the anti-Confederationist view of the birth of Confederation from the Courrier du Canada newspaper and the pro-Confederationists’ view of the problems that were solved with the creation of Confederation.  The pro-Confederationists’ view of the problems that were solved included the railway question, the loss of reciprocity with the United States, and the defence of the British North American forces. 

Bonenfant’s fourth and final point is the involvement of the Catholic clergy of Quebec in the Confederation process.  The Catholic Church has been, historically, heavily involved in political matters within Quebec history.  Therefore, it would be a great mistake to leave out the influence of the Catholic Church in a work dealing with this time period.  Bonenfant recognizes this fact by including a separate section on how the Catholic Church influenced the Confederation process.  The author recognizes that the Catholic Church supported the idea of Confederation on the basis that a federation of the British colonies in North America would be a better solution for the French-Catholic culture than if Lower Canada (Quebec) was annexed to the United States.   Also, Bonenfant notes that after Confederation was completed, the Church sent out letters to their members to ensure that the Church’s membership would see that Confederation was the better choice then annexation to the United States. Therefore, Bonenfant presents several key answers in order to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the Church’s role in the Confederation process.

Bonenfant provides a believable answer to his initial question which is backed up both with primary documents (i.e. the newspaper reports) and his twelve sections. The fact that Bonenfant seems to lack a thesis statement is not really a matter that should be questioned because of the fact that Bonenfant is writing to provide a balanced argument from a French-Canadian point of view.  A thesis statement would destroy the author’s attempt in writing a balanced article because of the fact that thesis statements tend to lead a writer to take a stand on an issue.  However, Bonenfant wished to avoid taking a stand on the issue in order to produce a balanced approach.  Therefore, Bonenfant chose to present a simple question and provide an in-depth historical investigation that presents the views and biases for both sides of the argument over Confederation.  This type of writing allows the reader to decide for themselves what position they want to take on the issue instead of the author attempting to convince the reader of his or her own argument. 

Overall, the article presents a good answer to the question of how the French-Canadians felt over the idea and the process leading up to Confederation. However, Bonenfant uses some terms that may be unfamiliar to his audience.  Considering this use of historical and political jargon, perhaps when the article is reproduced again, someone should consider including a glossary of terms.  The inclusion of a glossary of terms would help simplify for the reader the historical and political jargon for both history students and the general public.
Bonenfant, Jean Charles.  The French Canadians and the Birth of Confederation. Ottawa, Canadian Historical Association, 1996.



[1]There is a vast collection of articles and books on the likes of Sir John A. Macdonald, George Brown, D’arcy Magee, and many others. 

[2]Jean Charles Bonenfant. The French Canadians and the Birth of Confederation. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 1996.

[3]Bonenfant 4.

[4]Bonenfant 4.