British North America Act


British North America Act
(1867)
   An act of the British Parliament creating the federal state since known as Canada. It united the separate colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a federal Dominion of Canada while simultaneously dividing the old colony of united Canada into the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The capital of the Dominion was established at Ottawa.
   The topic of a union of the British colonies in North America had been debated on and off since the War of 1812. In the 1850s, the idea was intermittently discussed, and the prospect of an intercolonial railway bringing the trade of the Canadas to maritime ports was raised. With the encouragement of the British government, of events south of the border during the American Civil War, and of financial interests looking to make the Canadian railway system at last a paying proposition, meetings of representatives from the three maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) and from the Canadian legislature were held at Charlottetown and then at Quebec in 1864. It was agreed that a federal union would be formed, with a parliament consisting of a lower house elected by population and an upper house in which each section (Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and the Maritimes) would be represented equally.
   The Canadian legislature, representing both Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario), passed a resolution in favor of Confederation in 1865. The scheme, however, met opposition in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the latter of which did not join confederation until 1873. New Brunswick, prompted by the 1865 U.S. abrogation of the reciprocity (essentially free trade) treaty of 1854, endorsed it. At the initiative of the British government, a meeting was held in London in December 1866 to finalize the terms of the new union. That meeting, under the chairmanship of Sir John A. Macdonald and Lord Carnarvon, Colonial Secretary under Disraeli, agreed the terms of a bill to be presented in the imperial parliament. It was suggested that the new federation be termed a “dominion,” reference being made to Psalm 72, “he shall have dominion also from sea to sea”: transcontinental aspirations guided the confederative project from the beginning.
   The British North America (BNA) bill appeared, from the British point of view, to solve a number of potential embarrassing problems. After the Fenian raids of 1866, it unified for the common defense a disparate set of militarily indefensible colonies, it provided further for the expenses of Canadian government to be met by the Canadian taxpayer, and it raised the hope that British-financed railways might become solvent. In short order, the last significant British garrisons were withdrawn from Canada. The BNA bill received its second reading in the House of Commons on February 28, 1867, passing without a division, after which the House filled up for a debate on a dog duty. The BNA Act received royal assent on 29 March 1867, the Dominion officially coming into existence on 1 July 1867, a date for many years celebrated as Dominion Day, but now known as Canada Day.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Ged Martin. Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation. London: McMillan, 1995.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.