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The British-American Confederation

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1300, p. 118.

February 4, 1865

...It is precisely because we are sincerely solicitous for the abiding welfare of the projected Confederation that we cannot join some of our contemporaries in flaunting before the eyes of British Americans the dazzling, but, in our opinion, improbable, prospect of their one day becoming "the leading Power of the American continent." It is a dream flattering to British vanity, and countenanced at the present moment by some American malcontents. The British Americans will do well not to import from this island the high-flying Imperial ambition which once swayed Britons so powerfully, but which is now somewhat out of date and fashion. "The leading Power on the American continent," whoever it may be, will have the leading debt in the American continent, will be the most prone to wars of empire, to wars for a fanciful balance of power, or more probably for a real but selfish preponderance. Such distinctions as these may be accepted as the gratuitous gifts of destiny, but are not worth heavy sacrifices for their attainment.

Still more important to the Confederation than its relations to Great Britain and France (for we must not forget that Canada has a hold upon the French heart also) are its relations to its powerful and excitable neighbour. It is the instinct of danger in this direction which has so rapidly brought to a head the idea of a British-American Confederation. President Lincoln has given notice to the British Government to terminate that stipulation of the treaty of Ghent, which, in substance forbade the maintenance of a naval force on Lakes Ontario and Erie. Congress has instructed, or is on the eve of instructing, the President to give the requisite year's notice of the termination of the Reciprocity Treaty with Canada. We will fling a veil of oblivion over General Dix's passionate order, speedily cancelled as it was by the President. The repeal of the Reciprocity Treaty alone will exclude American vessels from the navigation of the Canadian waters, natural and artificial, and place the disabilities of the American fishing interests on [the sa]me footing as they were in 1852, when the American people were excited to a war point by the simple enforcement of an almost unquestioned British right. The birthday of the confederation will fall in no halcyon time of security, but at an epoch when the minds of its citizens are brooding anxiously about the future of their country and the various forms of danger to which it may be exposed.

It is to be hoped that the free-trading interests of the Great West will eventually outweigh in the political balance the Protectionist tendencies of the Atlantic States, and that the repeal of one reciprocity treaty will be only a step towards the conclusion of another and an amended one. The pungent manifesto of the Detroit Board of Trade, which has been recently republished in this country, gives us an assurance that the men of the West will not allow their greatest commercial interest, the export of grain and its free transit to the seaboard, to go to the wall. That they will find willing allies in British American statesmen the following well-conceived resolution shows:--

The communications with the North-Western territory and the improvements required for the development of the trade of the Great West with the seaboard, are regarded by this Conference as subjects of the highest importance to the Confederation, and should be prosecuted at the earliest possible period when the state of the federal finances will permit the Legislature to do so.

The improvements referred to are, we presume, the construction of the Ottawa Canal and the deepening of the Welland and St. Lawrence canals. Such being the highly precarious state of the commercial relations between British America and the United States, it becomes doubly incumbent on the former to establish that system of entire intercolonial free trade which is one of the most prominent features of the new scheme. The sweeping away of four or five provincial tariffs will be the best means of indemnifying the British Americans for the possible loss of a reciprocity treaty with the American Union.

To carry out this general system of free trade, as well as to facilitate intercourse between the maritime provinces and Canada, it is absolutely necessary that the missing links of the intercolonial railroad, which is to connect Halifax with Quebec, be forthwith completed. These missing links are two--viz., between Truro, in Nova Scotia, and Shediac, in New Brunswick; and between Fredericton, N.B., and Rivière de Loup, the eastern terminus of the Grand Trunk line, 114 miles below Quebec. The construction of this line was recommended by Lord Durham in his celebrated "Report on the Affairs of British North America," so early as January, 1839, at a time when the present gigantic system of American and Canadian railroads was yet in embryo. We quote this curious passage:--

The completion of any satisfactory communication between Halifax and Quebec would, in fact, produce relations between these provinces that would render a general union absolutely necessary. Several surveys have proved that it would be perfectly practicable the whole way. It appears to be a general opinion in the United States that the severe snows and frosts of that continent very slightly impede and do not prevent the travelling on railroads; and, if I am rightly informed, the Utica Railroad, in the northern part of the State of New York, is used throughout the winter. If this opinion be correct, the formation of a railroad from Halifax to Quebec would entirely alter some of the distinguishing characteristics of the Canadas. Instead of being shut out from all direct intercourse with England during half the year, they would possess a far more certain and speedy communication throughout the winter than they now possess in summer. The passage from Ireland to Quebec would be a matter of ten or twelve days, and Halifax would be the great port by which a large portion of the trade, and all the conveyance of passengers to the whole of British North America, would be carried on....If the great natural channel of the St. Lawrence gives all the people who dwell in any part of its basin such an interest in the government of the whole as renders it wise to incorporate the two Canadas, the artificial work which would, in fact, supersede the lower part of the St. Lawrence as the outlet of a great part of the Canadian trade, and would make Halifax, in a great measure, an outport to Quebec, would surely, in the same way, render it advisable that the incorporation should be extended to provinces through which such a road would pass.

Although Sir Robert Peel's Government was favourable to this project, and offered to guarantee 4 per cent interest to the investors, it has not yet been carried out. The want of it was grievously felt by the empire in the winter of 1861-2, when the 10,000 British troops made their famous passage on sleighs between Fredericton and Quebec. The same motives of economy and speed in the conveyance of troops, military stores, and the mails which have prompted the Indian Government to guarantee a certain rate of interest upon the vast sums invested in Indian railroads, has at length impelled both the Imperial and Colonial Governments to renew their offers of a guarantee and grant of land to any capitalists who will supply the missing links in the railroad chain between Halifax and Quebec. As the surveys have long since been made, and the estimated outlay is only £3,000,000 for a length of 350 miles, and inasmuch as its execution is a condition precedent of the proposed Confederation, we may soon expect to hear of its introduction on the Stock Exchange....

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