Confederation was, very clearly, an idea arising in Canada as a solution to Canadian problems and it was meant to give advantage to Canada first and foremost. It did not derive from the ambitions of Prince Edward Islanders, nor was it an expression of the dreams of Newfoundlanders. Nor too was it a scheme hatched in Fredericton or Halifax. Our understanding of the outcome of the Confederation discussions must begin with that reality, which raises the question, Why did some Atlantic colonies believe the federal union was worth joining while others did not?
There were vested interests in the East that saw a union of colonies as a route to profit. And to some of those leaders who envisioned the possibilities of a larger and more complex and technological political entity, we can confidently ascribe the title “modernizer.” Their values became dominant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as modernization was widely accepted as a goal inseparable from the nation state. It is important, too, to recognize that the decision to join in a federal union was made by politicians and not by referendum. Doing so obliges us to come to grips with contrary interests among political elites and between political elites and the people they nominally represented.
Clearly there were different economic agendas at work. One study of Maritime support for Confederation found it to be strongest among those who envisioned a continental and international industrial economy and weakest among those who were at the heart of the established shipping industries of the region. This apparent dichotomy hides the presence of contrary voices on both sides but it should alert us, too, to one of the hoariest myths of Confederation: that is, Maritime opposition sprang out of conservative, backward-looking parochialism. In fact, the shipping industry was a hotbed of innovation and was highly aggressive in its marketplace. Certainly there was new money going into industrial proposals, but that does not necessarily mean it was characterized by youth and vigour while the established elite was being old and unimaginative.
The Maritime colonies approached Confederation from a position of weakness. Not only were their numbers, economies, and assets a fraction of the size of Canada’s, their political vision was not nearly as unified. Canada’s “great coalition” existed precisely because a new constitutional arrangement was needed to get beyond the political impasse in Ottawa. Brown, Cartier, and Macdonald had a lot at stake in their mission, and they were motivated, therefore, to speak with something like a single voice in favour of the structure they envisioned. The same was not true for the Maritimers. In each East Coast colonial assembly there was substantial division and no mandate to reconfigure the whole of British North America. Had they first achieved Maritime union, perhaps they might have stood as one. As it was, Prince Edward Island, to take one example, never had the chance to get past feeling dwarfed by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick before being overwhelmed by the Canadas.
Newfoundland, for its part, viewed the whole proposition with bemusement if not outright hostility. After all, there was nothing that an island colony across the St. Lawrence Gulf would get from a federal union: no railway, no bridge, and few economic advantages that it did not already enjoy. And the potential costs — loss of political authority to a centre 1,000 kilometres to the west, paying for a railway between Halifax and Montreal, and being dragged into Canadian-American affairs — were too high. A Newfoundland opponent of Confederation famously warned that if Ontario was again under attack from the United States, the national government would call upon the rest of the unified British North America to assist, and the cream of Newfoundland youth would leave “their bones to bleach in a foreign land.” As one historian wrote, “Secure behind a wall of water, the island had its independence guaranteed by the Royal Navy.”
In 1869, after the other colonies had joined as one Canada, pro- and anti-Confederation politicians took their arguments to the electorate. There were other, more immediate, issues before the voters, but the rejection of Confederation was resounding. As the outcome was announced,