The Canada of 1867 bore little resemblance to the Canada of today. It was a sparsely populated country of 3.4 million inhabitants (3.7 million by 1871) divided between four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

Politics in Canada in 1867

Despite its vast stretches of wilderness, Canada was no longer an "archipelago of British colonies." It was turning into a country, but as yet only in the east; 76% of Canadians lived in Ontario or Quebec, and the rest in the Maritimes.

Canada's population broke down as follows according to the 1871 census data:










New Brunswick



Nova Scotia






map of Canada in 1867
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

Of course, the Canada of 1867 bore little resemblance to the Canada of today, because it was much smaller. However other British colonies existed in the rest of the area covered by Canada today: Newfoundland (146,536) and Prince Edward Island (94,021) in the east, British Columbia (10,586) in the far west, and Rupert's Land (undetermined population) in the vast region between B.C. and Ontario that extended across present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, as well as part of Ontario and Quebec.

map of canada in 1867
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

Terminology – Confederation or Federation?

Since 1867, people have often used Canadian Confederation as the long name for Canada. Officially, however, Dominion of Canada was the name chosen in 1867, but it fell out of use. Later the "Federal Union" came to be known simply as the Confederation, a word still used today to designate the country. Nevertheless the term Confederation has no official or legal status and is found nowhere in the Canadian Constitution of 1867. In the 19th century, the terms federation and confederation were employed as synonyms.

For simplicity's sake, one could say that the Dominion of Canada came into being on July 1, 1867, with the confederation of four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick) of British North America into a Federal Union. In 1867, Canada was still a British colony, and would stay one until 1931 with the proclamation of the Statute of Westminster (London).

In actual fact, contemporary Canada is a federation, not a confederation. The latter term is used today to designate a union of independent states having delegated by treaty certain government jurisdictions to a central government. That is why we speak of the Helvetian Confederation (the cantons have retained their political sovereignty), or Swiss Confederation as it became on April 18, 1999. The term federation refers to a union of associated states into a single federal state with two levels of government. There are numerous examples of federations around the world: the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Belgium, Russia, South Africa, etc.

From Confederation on, the Anglophone inhabitants of Canada began to call themselves Canadians, rendering the French word Canadiens (which designated French-speaking Canadians) obsolete. French-speaking Canadians came to be systematically known as French Canadians (Canadiens français) as opposed to English Canadians (Canadiens anglais).

For more information, please consult the section Foundations of this site

British North America Act of 1867 and linguistic question

The 1867 Constitution was officially adopted on March 29, 1867, under the name British North America Act 1867, 30–31 Victoria, c. 3 (U.K.) by the Parliament of Westminster. It came into force at noon on July 1, 1867, turning Canada into the Dominion of Canada. In 1982, the British North America Act was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867. Interestingly enough, Canada does not possess a constitution, i.e., a single document, but some thirty constitutional texts (for details, see the Legislative Framework section of this website). The constitutional text of 1867 is still in effect today and is an integral part of what is called the Canadian Constitution. On July 1, 1867, Toronto's Globe saluted the birth of a new white, English, Protestant Canada in these terms:

John Alexender Macdonald, George-Etienne Cartier, Geroge Brown

We salute the birth of a new nation. A united English America four million inhabitants strong takes its place today among the great nations of the world.

John Alexander Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, expressed his notions of equality between the two languages joined together in the Confederation thus:

I disagree with the viewpoint expressed in certain quarters that we must somehow attempt to suppress one language or place it in an inferior position with regard to the other; any such attempt is doomed to failure, and even were it possible, would be foolish and petty.

In George-Étienne Cartier's opinion, the Constitution of 1867 needed to accord Quebec sufficient autonomy to protect its language, religion, and tradition of civil law. For George Brown, 1867 marked the end of French domination over Canada and the advent of a new British nationality; at the Quebec Conference in 1864, he exclaimed, "Is it not wonderful? French Canadianism entirely extinguished!" But nothing happened as planned, with hard reality having a tendency to intervene.

The Constitution Act, 1867, which is still in effect today, contains only a single section on language, section 133. It stipulates that members have the right to use English or French in the Parliament of Canada and the Legislature of the Province of Quebec, as do citizens in any proceedings before a federal court of Canada or a court of Quebec. It is worded thus:

Section 133

1) Either the English or the French Language may be used by any Person in the Debates of the Houses of the Parliament of Canada and of the Houses of the Legislature of Quebec; and both those Languages shall be used in the respective Records and Journals of those Houses; and either of those Languages may be used by any Person or in any Pleading or Process in or issuing from any Court of Canada established under this Act, and in or from all or any of the Courts of Quebec.

2) The Acts of the Parliament of Canada and of the Legislature of Quebec shall be printed and published in both those Languages.

It is important to understand that section 133 did not institute official bilingualism in Canada as a whole; it simply permitted the use of English and French in the Federal Parliament, the Quebec Legislature, and the courts of the province of Quebec and those still to be created by the federal government. It could even be said that English and French were not recognized at all as official languages.

In the 19th century, the notion of a bilingual country had scarcely taken root and flew in the face of the notion of the nation state, i.e., a country perceived as having a single language and a single "race" (a very popular term at the time). English Canadians could not even conceive of a nation with two official languages, although examples did exist (e.g., Switzerland). That's why there was no talk of institutional bilingualism, let alone official bilingualism. Although recognition of the two languages was limited to two precise areas (legislation and federal courts), English and French did achieve real legal status, although without being enshrined per se as official languages. Of the four original provinces, only Quebec was required under the 1867 Constitution to be bilingual, but there, too, without the languages being declared official.

In actual fact, the Constitution Act, 1867, did not commit the federal government, the federal civil service, or Quebec to bilingualism. All it did was create what Franco-Ontarian legal scholar Gérald-Armand Beaudoin (1929 – 2008) called "an embryo of official bilingualism." The purpose of Section 133 had never been to impose an institutional framework on language. Today one might say the law had loose ends, but institutional bilingualism was a rare commodity in 1867, even non-existent. Only the Swiss Federation had any such system, but it is unlikely the drafters of the Constitution—essentially John A. Macdonald—consulted the Swiss constitution of the day (which was written in German and French). At most, they looked at existing statutes in the British colonies, none of which was bilingual. So this "embryo of bilingualism" was no cause for surprise. It wasn't common practice at the time. In fact, some viewed it as excessively tolerant!

Examples of bilingualism could be found in the administrative, judicial, school, and other systems of certain countries (Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, Italy, etc.), but few bilingualism provisions enshrined in legal texts, i.e., a constitution or statute. It also needs to be remembered that those who negotiated the Constitution, the "Fathers of Confederation" as they are known, had only a single model to guide them—that of the United Kingdom, which had chased all the minority languages (Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Manks) from its midst in favour of the unifying power of English. In the case of Canada, the embryo of legislative and judicial bilingualism was probably perceived as an almost revolutionary advance. 

How an Englishman develops an idea, for instance, bears little resemblance to how a Frenchman would do the same. The mentality, the way of thinking, the method is different. We can grasp the idea of a law in one language and express it but poorly in another. Unless the two tongues share a same spirit and the two peoples an identical intellectual process, any attempt at translation will be vain unless one first completely assimilates the legal notion to be transplanted, which in itself alters the essence, introduces new viewpoints, reorders both the details and the whole according to a new economy, and in the end presents a new conception of the law, with all the attendant changes to make it fit another manner of thinking, doing, and speaking. Any other method of borrowing shall assuredly lead to deplorable consequences.

In the 1980s, the federal government would find solutions to these problems by calling on two drafting committees, one English and the other French, and a third to reconcile the two versions.

Territorial Expansion (1867–1949) and Its linguistic consequences

The four founding provinces—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec—became the heart of federal Canada in 1867. Then a few years later, then prime minister Sir John Alexander Macdonald bought Rupert's Land and negotiated the entry of three other provinces (Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, and Prince Edward Island in 1873) and created two territories (the Northwest Territories in 1870 and the Yukon Territory in 1898). At the turn of the century (1905), Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories. The inhabitants of Newfoundland had the opportunity to become part of Canada in 1869 and in 1896, but rejected the offer until 1949, when they finally joined the Confederation, which, it should be remembered, has always been a federation

map showing the date of admission to the federation for each province

This territorial expansion in Canada was fuelled by the fear of U.S. expansionism. In the year of Confederation (1867), the United States had just bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, and it was thought this would encourage the Americans to connect the north and south through British Columbia. The Union Pacific Railway was completed in 1864, boosting the population in the northwestern United States. American merchants and colonists began to see opportunities for expansion into the vast, practically uninhabited Canadian plains. Since 1863, nine new states had been created, a number of which hugged the Canadian border: Minnesota in 1858, Wisconsin in 1863, Montana and Washington in 1889, and Idaho in 1890. All of these events made the Americans look very suspicious in the eyes of Canadians, who feared a new rise in expansionism in the West. Canada needed to outstrip the Americans and open up new land for colonization.

The territorial expansion of Canada after 1867 also had major linguistic consequences. It ensured the spread of the English language across the continent, reducing, and even eliminating, some rights of French speakers despite the enshrinement of these rights in the Constitution of Canada. One thing is certain—although the federal language policy was one of non-intervention (i.e., doing no more than what the Constitution required), certain provinces actively sought to restrict francophone rights, and in many cases managed to eliminate them altogether for a time. In short, policies ranged from non-intervention to outright prohibition, except in the Parliament of Canada.

It is important to remember that in 1900, Canada had a population of 5.4 million. In the years that followed, Canada experienced the highest immigration rates of the century. For example, between 1896 and 1914, some 1.1 million Europeans settled in Canada, with two-thirds from Great Britain. More than half of these immigrants (618,000) settled in the West, and were joined by 172,000 Americans. Such a wave of immigration dramatically altered the ethnic makeup of the Canadian population. Descendants of the British, French, and aboriginal populations saw their proportions decline.

So it comes as little surprise that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, English Canadians were very concerned about assimilating the new ethnic groups flooding into the country and, as a result, denied French Canadians—who they viewed as just another group of non-Anglophones—the right to separate schools. In other words, French Canadians—and Amerindians—were lumped in the same group as the throngs of immigrants. Canada remained an English-speaking country in which bilingualism was tolerated in Federal Parliament and Quebec, but not in the other provinces. In 1911, some 22% of the population of Canada was foreign born, which meant the country was no longer massively of British descent, but rather multiethnic. However, mentalities did not change until much later.

Language rights recognized by the province

Franco-Manitobans represented a considerable percentage of the population (over 40%) at this time. The census of 1871 showed 5,700 French-speaking Métis, 4,000 English-speaking Métis, and 1,600 representatives of the white population (Scottish and French Canadians). The French speakers, therefore, had a right to expect a certain degree of language protection, and they were given the same language and religious rights as English speakers for as long as they remained a sizeable minority.

Section 22 of the Manitoba Act of 1870, a constitutional statute, provided for a system of public denominational schools subsidized by the province:

Section 22

In and for the Province, the said Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Education, subject and according to the following provisions:

1) Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to Denominational Schools which any class of persons have by Law or practice in the Province at the Union:

2) An appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or decision of the Legislature of the Province, or of any Provincial Authority, affecting any right or privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic minority of the Queen's subjects in relation to Education:

Legislation touching schools subject to certain provisions.
3) In case any such Provincial Law, as from time to time seems to the Governor General in Council requisite for the due execution of the provisions of this section, is not made, or in case any decision of the Governor General in Council on any appeal under this section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial Authority in that behalf, then, and in every such case, and as far only as the circumstances of each case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial Laws for the due execution of the provisions of this section, and of any decision of the Governor General in Council under this section. Power reserved to Parliament.

What is more, the Manitoba School Act of 1871 (or Education Act) stipulated that the Board of Education had to offer French-language schools all the necessary educational materials (books, maps, etc.) in French. In 1878, the Catholic section of the Board of Education adopted regulations on the language of instruction in Manitoba Catholic schools; it stipulated that the language spoken by the majority of taxpayers in a district would be the language of instruction in school.

Section 2 of the 1873 Act concerning Municipalities stipulated that any applications to create a municipality had to be made in French and English in the Manitoba Gazette. Another 1875 act, the Act respecting County Municipalities, set out that municipal bylaws and notices be published in both languages. The 1875 Elections Act of Manitoba stipulated that English and French be used in voter instructions, election proclamations, and voter lists. Lastly, the 1876 Act respecting Jurors and Juries set out that in a trial conducted in French, the court could order the jury to be composed of an equal number of French and English-speaking jurors. In 1879, the English Party caucus suggested that official documents no longer be printed in French; the issue was debated and adopted in the House, but the lieutenant-governor, Joseph Cauchon, refused to sign the bill. These protection measures would not last, and after the death of Riel, Franco-Manitobans began to see their language prohibited in various ways. It is important to note that the arrival of many English-speaking colonists from Ontario had shifted demographics in favour of the English-speaking majority.

Yukon Territory (1898)

The Yukon Territory was separated from the Northwest Territories in 1898 in response to the enormous population increase in the region during the Klondike gold rush. However, a large portion of this population left the territory once gold supplies ran out.

Yukon was originally an Amerindian name first used to refer to the river. The term Yukon comes from Yu-kun-ah, which means "big river." The name was first noted in 1846 by John Bell (1799–1868), an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1886, Dawson City was the site of an Indian fishing camp; by four years later, it had transformed into the largest urban centre in Canada west of Winnipeg, with a population of 40,000, primarily made up of itinerant prospectors.

Section 110 of the Northwest Territories Act was little enforced in the Yukon. As a result, Francophones lost most of their language rights.

Map of Canada in 1898

Linguistic Policies of the founding provinces

Protecting minority language rights was not a consideration at the time of Confederation. At best, minorities were left to fend for themselves; at worst, they were banned or assimilated. The Western world offered few examples other than non-intervention or assimilation. For the British Empire and Canadian politicians to have a more generous outlook would have been surprising indeed.