As British Columbians continue their 150th year of celebration of the July 1867 Act of Confederation and their welcome to join that Confederation and become part of Canada in July 1871, I wonder how many realize how lucky we are things worked out as they did.
I mean, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that West Coasters would rush to join the new union. True, there was a strong body of opinion in the sparsely settled western colony that confederation with Canada and continued links with mother England were the desirable way to face the future. But, it is also true that on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland there was a strong lobby demanding British Columbia join the United States – voluntarily if possible, by annexation as a last resort.
The debate whether to stay with historic British connections or hook-up with the burgeoning and prospering America rumbled in many a tavern as well as local government offices throughout the 1860s. It came to make or break time in 1867 – the year the USA bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. The deal was signed on March 30, 1867 – four months before Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick became Canada.
Still recovering from its bloody civil war (1861-65), America was certainly interested in the possibility of linking Alaska with Washington and Oregon thus giving the USA total control of the Pacific Coast from Mexico to the high north. But, history doesn’t tell us just how close it came to closing that geographic gap by annexing BC.
We do know that even as politicians in 1867 discussed the terms of BC joining Canada, a petition was being circulated in Victoria demanding heavy financial concessions from England if it wished to keep BC in the folds of Empire – or to grant the Colony permission to join the United States. The Library and Archives of Canada tell us that while “it is not known how many signatures the petition gathered, or if indeed the Queen (Victoria) ever received it … it caught the attention of (then) Governor Frederick Seymour and the Colonial Office which resolved to promote union with Canada more vigorously.”
Two years later in 1869, with BC still not safely in the Confederation fold, a second petition with 104 signatures was delivered to newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant. In simple terms, it urged the President to simply annex the Colonies and make them a State of the Union. He declined to act – but the two petitions undoubtedly shaped the thinking of the Canadian representatives at the Confederation bargaining table. It was later stated “the generosity of these terms was met with surprise and even disbelief in British Columbia – but without contest.”
The joy didn’t last long. One of the key promises made to BC was that a railway through the mountains would be built with construction starting within two years and completion promised in 10. In May, 1878, with the project hardly begun, Victoria’s Member of Parliament, Amor De Cosmos, took the floor in the House of Commons to demand speedier action or, he threatened, British Columbia would seek annexation by the United States.
The last spike was driven at Craigellachie on November 7, 1885, five years late but soon enough to silence further talk of annexation. For this, we should all be thankful. In this glorious year of celebration, we can look south thankful that 150 years ago, the pro-USA campaigners lost the battle, thus sparing us from having to acknowledge Donald Trump as our president.