Big country, big history

Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-67
August 4, 1995

This is history as it used to be written. It affects a certain gentlemanly tone, displaying a set of mannerisms and understandings about what is important. Confederation created Canada; an empire spawned a nation. This is the stuff of big history. The politics of important men governed this; the historiography of politics addressed it. Writing history is an act of citation: of spokesmen, and of those wise men who have, for generations, offered their narratives of what happened.

Ged Martin is drawn to the old questions. He asks who? where? what? why? when? and how? When he asks who were the "British" who wanted to see the union of Britain's North American colonies he is not concerned with the current focus on national identity, but with broadening the historiographic tendency to reduce Britishness to the Colonial Office. The British were the Colonial Office plus The Times and the general male voice of property and propriety: their support for confederation of the provinces of British North America, Martin argues, grew out of a kind of natural inclination sustained by ignorance and arrogance. The why was proclaimed as a kind of pragmatic trinity: better government, rational preparation for eventual self-rule, and, of course, insulation against the dangers threatened by the ideological and military challenges of the Unites States. How the British launched confederation is largely a success story of preserving the authority of empire, while granting the often illusory autonomies of independence. I will not belabour the wheres, whats, and whens of all of this: mostly Martin likes to economise, making a lot of a little. Ultimately, Martin harkens back to the idealism of 19th-century historical writing. "The first and original cause of confederation was the idea of confederation itself."

Alternative understandings merit little consideration. To those vulgar materialists distrustful of this marshalling of rhetoric, for instance, Martin offers a terse warning. "Historians who habitually emphasise economic factors tend to portray unidentified capitalists whispering in the ears of British ministers in the mid-1860s, urging them to create a united British North America.'' This is not, of course, a way to look at the world. Martin manages to avoid dealing with the arguments and suggestiveness of Stanley Ryerson's Unequal Union: Roots of Crisis in Canada, 1815-1873 (1968), a Marxist account of confederation, just as he ignores what a number of political economists, labour historians, and feminists have had to say about Canadian nation-building and nation-builders.

History, as lived, and often as written, has little taste for irony. Yet this book is nothing if not ironic. As Canadian confederation, built over the course of the 19th century, appears to follow the logic of its 20th-century unravelling, a book about its making is destined to be unread. Constructed on a kind of methodological antiquarianism, immune to so much of the analytic currents of our time, this account straightjackets confederation's meaning in an often unreflective reproduction of rhetorics. What is missed is an opportunity to explore how the "British" acceptance and promotion of confederation was stamped with empire's understandings of power, be they related to class, gender, race, or region. Despite the inclusion of decades of development in his title, moreover, Martin bypasses the tumultuous conflicts associated with the Canada-Britain relation in the 1830s and 1840s, telescoping his treatment into the narrow chronology of debate in 1864-67.

Ensconced in the directorship of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Canadian Studies, Martin does not seem to be listening to what is happening in Canada, either historiographically or politically. He knows that it is no longer acceptable to state, as did A. R. M. Lower in 1946, that French Canadians were a "feminine people'' whom the project of confederation need to woo as the"very womanly woman'' they were. Yet in commenting at the end of his book on an amendment to the British North America Act of 1867, Martin claims that the clarification "saved the eldest daughter of the empire from the perils of female suffrage''. The trouble with writing history in the old ways is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bryan D. Palmer teaches Canadian history, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada.

Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-67

Author - Ged Martin
ISBN - 0 333 522885
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 388

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