The day the circuses came to town

Isle_of_Man_Steam_Packet_Company_paddle_steamer_Queen_Victoria.When the steamship Queen Victoria sailed into Charlottetown Harbour on Sept. 1, 1864, she was the last to arrive at the party, bringing the delegation from the Province of Canada to one of the most significant events in Canada’s history. One would expect that the ship’s arrival would have been cause for a certain amount of pomp and celebration, perhaps a brass band, a few banners and a crowd waving and cheering. Such was not the case.
When the ship dropped anchor, the harbourfront was deserted. Prince Edward Island’s colonial secretary, William Henry Pope, commandeered an oyster boat that was to be rowed out to meet the ship, sharing its interior with a barrel of flour and two jars of molasses. According to local lore, he greeted the future Fathers of Confederation seated on a pickle barrel. Finding no rooms in any of the 20 local inns, most of the delegates from the Province of Canada were accommodated aboard the Victoria.
The delegates’ arrival took a back seat to a different sort of affair that was well-attended by the Island’s citizenry and politicians. When the Charlottetown Conference began on Sept. 1, 1864, the conference and delegates — which included John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee and George-Etienne Cartier — were overshadowed by the Slaymaker and Nichols’ Olympic Circus, the first circus to visit Prince Edward Island in more than 20 years.
While the political circus that had descended on Charlottetown featured a marathon of speeches, protests, political manoeuvring, lobster lunches, champagne balls and resolutions, the Olympic Circus, in town for three days, offered acting dogs and monkeys, performing horses, and the Snow Brothers’ daring balancing acts. The political conference — and the founding of our nation — went ahead, literally and with wonderfully balanced irony, with a dog-and-pony-show in the background.
Leading up to the conference, in the spring of 1864, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island contemplated a Maritime union. Prince Edward Island was not enthusiastic about losing its legislature in favour of a union, but the three provinces agreed to discuss the expediency of union. They didn’t get further than appointing delegates to a conference to discuss the idea; Prince Edward Island insisted that the conference be held in Charlottetown, which was not acceptable to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.
Meanwhile, in the Province of Canada (created by the legislated union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840), the government lurched from one crisis to another as its dual parties failed to resolve its divisive issues. On June 23, 1864, with the Province deadlocked in its struggles between east and west, French and English, conservatism and liberalism, George Brown, leader of the Upper Canada Reform Party, suggested a federation that would include the Northwest or, if that failed, a federal union to remake the united Canadas.
Brown and Macdonald temporarily dropped their differences and agreed to explore a federal union. Governor general Lord Monck asked the Maritime lieutenant-governors if they would entertain the idea of permitting delegates from the Canadas to attend their conference to determine if a proposed union “may not be made to embrace the whole of the British North American Provinces.”
A somewhat reserved, but favourable response was returned, which seemed to reinvigorate Maritime enthusiasm for a conference. It was quickly arranged by allowing Prince Edward Island to host it, with the date set for Sept. 1. The purpose of the conference remained to discuss Maritime union, but it was allowed that, if the delegates were so inclined, the Canadian suggestion would be considered. Ultimately, the Canadian delegation commandeered the agenda, subsuming Maritime union with the federal union. Newspapers of the day confirmed that the Canadian delegates presented a detailed plan for such a union.
For eight days, the politicians debated the merits of Confederation and partied hard at balls and banquets. On Sept. 8, the final ball of the Charlottetown Conference was held, spilling over to the next day. Although the conference delegates did not formally consider the Canadian plan, they conducted a general review and agreed to meet at the Quebec Conference the following month to discuss it officially and in detail. By the end of October 1864, the official proposals for the British North American union had been drafted.

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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Category: Delights

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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