The West and Confederation 1857-1871: A Review

W.L. Morton is a well know historian for his easy to read and succinct accounts of Canadian history.  These easy to read accounts are most noticeable in such works as The Progressive Party of Canada (1950), The Canadian Identity (1961), The Kingdom of Canada (1963) and The Critical Years: A History of British North America, 1857-1873 (1964).  The fact that he is a history professor at Trent University and a Master of Champlain College might contribute to the feeling that Canadian History should be simplified in order that history may be conveyed to the average Canadian.  Morton may feel that if history is conveyed in the simplest of terms and made relevant to the history student, thus in turn, history will be easier to teach. 

With the idea that history should be simplified, Morton’s article, that The Canadian Historical Association choose in order to convey to the average Canadian the historical facts on how Western Canada entered Confederation, is a complete failure.  There are a number of noticeable failings in the article that the need to be addressed in order to ensure that the article is more easily conveyed to the intended audience.  The Canadian Historical Association seeks to convey, through their series of booklets, to the average Canadian the events that have helped to shape the current Canadian nation state.  The Canadian Historical Association has done this by selecting articles written by major Canadian historians for publication on such Canadian events as the Charlottetown Accord, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), The Quebec Conference, Louis Riel, and others.  These articles are well known for being readable for a non-historical reader because of there easy to grasp chronological commentary that presents the basic facts on the subject.  Then, if the reader wishes, the historian provides a list of articles and books that should be considered for further investigation of the topic.  Morton article, surprisingly, fails to convey the easy to read nature that is usually characteristic of the Canadian Historical Society’s booklet series.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the article is the lack of a coherent map that would assist the reader in analysing the situation that lead to the West joining Confederation.  A coherent map would assist the reader in visualizing the many geographical aspects that Morton writes about.  For example, in Morton’s introduction the author attempts to explain the location of the Colony of Vancouver Island, the Indian Territory, and Rupert’s Land.[1]  The author also writes about the Russians in Alaska and the Americans in St. Paul, Minnesota.  A coherent map would allow the reader to see the problem the British were having with the interests of both of these countries on the North West.  Also, the map would allow the reader to easily visualize what the borders of the Dominion of Canada at that time and to see why the acquisition of the North West by the young Canadian government would be such a positive step.  Therefore, a map would ultimately assist the reader in visualizing the dangers the British felt from outside forces and the why the Canadians were interested in expanding their territory westward.

A lack of explanatory footnotes or a glossary of terms also does not help the audience of the Morton’s article.  Most readers of the Canadian Historical Association’s booklets would be unfamiliar with the historical jargon used by Morton to convey his supporting points.  For example, “the Rush-Bagot agreement of 1817”,[2]“the Monroe[3] “the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1825”,[4] “the Crimean War”,[5]and “the Grand Trunk Railway”[6] all require further explanation as to who or what these items entail.  Perhaps a glossary explanation at the end of the article of these terms would be the best use since many of these terms come up repeatedly.  Also, the definition of these terms would provide the reader with a basis to come to an understanding on how each of the items fits into Morton’s argument.  Therefore, a further explanation of some of the historical jargon would greatly assist the reader in simplifying how each of the items fit into Morton’s argument and, thus, make the author’s argument even clearer for the non-historical reader.

Despite these the major faults of the article in being able to convey its message in a clear and easy to read manner, Morton presents a strong argument of why the Canadian government was interested in the lands of the Hudson Bay Company when, “in 1857,…the question of [the Hudson Bay Company’s license] renewal was to the fore in the minds of the Company and of the Imperial Government.”[7]  Morton fully explains his thesis statement by dividing up the issue into sections.  These sections take a look at several issues that affect the renewal of the Company’s license including the outside political forces in the west, the composition of the Select Committee of 1857, what problems existed in the West, how these problems were to be rectified, and how Canada came to acquire the northwest.  Each of these sections present what the political problems at the time were, who was involved (i.e. the Canadian government, the British Government, the members of the Hudson Bay Company, the Natives, etc.), the interests of the Americans and the Russians at the time, and how the Canadian delegation came to convince the British Government to hand over control of this vast territory to a young and inexperienced country.

Morton explains the interests that the United States and the Russians had on what would become the Canadian West.   The United States was looking to expand the state of Minnesota into the Red River Valley and the existence of free trade between Minnesota and the Red River area that was growing every year.[8]  Also, the Americans were interested in the mineral prospects in the RockyMountain area.[9]  The Russians, however, were looking to expand their territory in Alaska in order to acquire a warm water port that could be used for year round shipping.[10]  These threats provided the need for the North West to begin to develop if the British still hoped to maintain their control of the area.  Thus, Morton has presented to the reader some reasons why the management of the area by the Hudson Bay Company needed to be changed.

The composition of the Select Committee of 1857 was “set up to enquire into the desirability of renewing the Company’s jurisdiction.”[11] This section provides the reasoning behind why ‘the Canadians[12]’ were interested in acquiring the lands of the North West.  The section does this by listing the pros and the cons of the both the Canadians and the British.  The Canadians and the British would help to develop the area with the extension of the Grand Trunk Railway Westwards, provide a governmental structure to the Red River area in order to solve the discontent that existed in the area, the resistance of the métis to joining the Canadian colonies and the ominous threat of the political and military influence of the American neighbours in creating the military outpost on the border.   These items are all explained in terms of what the Select Committee of 1857 faced when it was forced to rule on the possible renewal of the Company’s jurisdiction.

There were problems in the West that the Imperial government needed to solve in order to maintain peaceful British control over the North West. Morton begins this section by simply listing them, then explaining how why each posed a problem, and, finally, how each problem was solved or not solved.  The first problem of the gold rush territory and the American threat is solved with the creation of the new British colony of British Columbia.   The second two issues were not solved.  The second issue, the renewal of the licence of the Company, was not solved because the licence eventually expired and the British government lost the next election.   The third issue is that the territorial problems of the Red River and Saskatchewan areas be dealt with by creating a union with the United Canadas or an overall federal union of all of British North America.  However, the third issue is not solved because of the reluctance of the United Canadas over the cost of governing such a large and still relatively unpopulated area.   Also, Lower Canadians were reluctant to the acquisition of such territory in the North West because they felt that this acquisition would lead to the expansion of Upper Canada and that province’s population.  This caused a problem, the Lower Canadians feared, because the representation by population government system would lead to a higher representation of Anglophone Upper Canadians from the newly expanded Upper Canada that would overwhelm the mainly Francophone representation from Lower Canada.  Therefore, a deadlock had appeared in the solving of the North West’s problems because of the unwillingness of the Canadian politicians to acquire the land and maintain a governmental structure.

The acquisition of the North West by the newly formed Canadian government would eventually occur because of political developments.  Morton explains this will happen in a chronological order by pointing out that the British North America Act of 1867 and the continued American pressure to annex portions of the North West.  Morton substantiates his claim by pointing to primary evidence, the British North America Act of 1867’s section 146, that “provided the admission of ‘Rupert’s land and the North-Western Territory' to the Union on terms to be arranged.”[13]  Then Morton goes on to explain the Americans were again posing a threat to the territory of the North West after they had purchased Alaska from the Russians and the government of Minnesota had passed resolutions calling for the annexation of the Red River area to the United States.  Therefore, Morton utilizes primary evidence and the continued American threat to show that there was interest in the eventual acquisition of the North West and the continued threat of an American invasion.

Finally, Morton points out how each of the remaining problems of the handover was to be solved.  The Hudson Bay Company agreed to surrender their property to the Imperial Government who, in turn, would sell it to the Canadian government.   This problem was solved considering that the Imperial government was willing to even loan the Canadian government the money for the transfer.  However, the problems do not end there.  The métis resisted the acquisition of the North West by the Canadian government because the métis had never been consulted over the issues of governance and the protection of their rights that the métis had enjoyed under British rule.  This problem was rectified, Morton points out, by the Manitoba Act of 1870 that stated that self-government would be enacted.  This ending to Morton’s article convinces the reader that the all the remaining problems and issues had been dealt with.  The ending is required since it is well known via the Riel Rebellions occurred.  Thus, if Morton can satisfy the reader that the métis were satisfied after their uprising, the new Canadian government would finally fulfill their dream of westward expansion.

Morton provides a believable argument that is backed up with solid research through the use of primary sources (i.e. the British North America Act of 1867) and believable sub-arguments (i.e. the American threat, the initial Canadian reluctance toward westward expansion).  However, Morton uses terms that may be unfamiliar to his audience.  Considering this use of Canadian historical jargon, perhaps Morton should consider including in the next reprinting of this article a glossary of terms.  This glossary of terms would allow the reader to consult something in order to define the term used and how the term fits into the historical context.  Also, a map of the Canadian west would be useful as well.  The map would assist the reader in visualizing the problems in the west and how the problem would be solved by the Canadian acquisition of the North West. Overall the article presents a good argument.  However, the argument needs to be further strengthened with the inclusion of the map and glossary in order to be easily conveyed to his non-history inclined audience.  This inclusion of the map and glossary would also be in fashion with the traditional view of Morton attempting to present history in the simplest of terms, and thus, easier to present to his students.


Morton, W.L. The West and Confederation, 1857-1871. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 1958.

[1]W.L. Morton. The West and Confederation, 1857-1871.  (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1958): 3.

[2]Morton 5.

[3]Ibid. 5.

[4]Ibid. 5.

[5]Ibid. 4.

[6]Ibid. 6.

[7]Morton 3.

[8]Ibid. 5.

[9]Ibid. 5.

[10]Ibid. 4. 

[11]Morton 6.

[12]The term Canadians here only refers to the government of the United Canadas.  This is because Canadian Confederation would only be born ten years later.  

 [13]Morton 17.