Questions of Order: Confederation and the Making of Modern Canada – A Review

Peter Price, Questions of Order: Confederation and the Making of Modern Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).

Steve Penfold

As an historical event, Canadian Confederation is very confusing. Multi-leveled, contradictory, endlessly complex – it has meant, and continues to mean, different things to a ridiculously wide range of scholars, politicians, and citizens. The British North America Act might be the most boring “founding document” in the history of nations – a tedious description of government institutions – but it is also endlessly fascinating in its technical complexity. Read one way, it seems to show federal supremacy; read another, it has decentralizing tendencies. John A. Macdonald thought he had subordinated the provinces, but his ally Georges-Etienne Cartier saw all the powers that Quebec needed to protect its national distinctiveness (not to mention sufficient federal power to build railways). Remember that old story of the blindfolded men touching an elephant? Don’t be fooled: that yarn is about perception, but Confederation is confounding in fact, a jumble of contradictory features that should never occur in the same lifeform. Examine a platypus without a blindfold: we can see the animal just fine, but who can figure it out?

In this engaging book, Peter Price is the latest to put his hand on the metaphorical platypus, offering an intellectual history of Confederation in English Canada up to 1914. In this sense, Questions of Order might easily have been titled, The English Canadian Idea of Confederation. Like Arthur Silver in his similarity-titled classic on Quebec (The French Canadian Idea of Confederation [Toronto, 1982]), Price examines interpretations rather than institutions. And if his gaze is higher than Silver’s – Price reads thick books and literary journals rather than local newspapers – the result is similar. You will learn little about Section 91 here, and less about the Privy Council or provincial rights. John A. Macdonald gets only a few mentions, and the only Brown in the Index is named Clement.

Instead, Price points our attention to the way Canadian thinkers wrestled with the meaning and consequences of 1867. One chapter unpacks the debate around the racial and political bases of nationality, finding a much fuzzier distinction between the two ideas than you might expect. Another chapter examines the many ways that intellectuals struggled to fit the BNA Act into the broader currents of constitutionalism. The Act was anomalous in so many ways: a British law mostly written by colonials; a written document in an empire with an unwritten constitution; a federation within a unitary constitutional monarchy. Yet Price shows that some Canadian thinkers understood it as one part of an international conversation about constitutions as the basis of political belonging and allegiance. Yet another chapter follows attempts to understand citizenship within an Empire that had granted some degree of local autonomy.

Throughout, Price makes the racialist assumptions of his thinkers clear. He even finds, on that basis, shared assumptions among intellectual enemies. Both the imperialist George Grant and the continentalist Goldwin Smith, for example, assumed that their different projects would result in greater Anglo-Saxon cooperation and unity. Their differences were about borders and institutions, but their agreement was about whiteness and civilization. Sometimes, debates got convoluted and even heated — it’s nice to know that contemporaries found as much to debate as historians – but Price breaks down the arguments calmly and reasonably, with a good eye to their wider implications.

The most interesting chapter comes at the end, when Price examines ideas in practice. Here, he reconstructs the public and Parliamentary debates on naturalization – the process of acquiring the status of British subject in Canada. He shows that an essentially mechanical process became increasingly wrapped in racialized ideas of “good citizenship” (which was precisely the language that was used, even before the more famous creation of official Canadian citizenship in the late 1940s). Before this point, much of the book was (an admittedly engaging form of) intellectual history and left me wondering what it all meant. This last chapter gets us out of salons and high-minded magazines and into laws with real consequences for mobility, rights, and membership in the political community. Price might have attempted more of this ideas-on-the-ground discussion throughout the book.

Still, it is good to have another readable book on Confederation that isn’t 60 years old (there aren’t that many, especially by university scholars). At some point, I am sure, someone will aim for a more complete retelling of the Confederation story in all its fascinating complexity, bringing a broad framework that will consider institutions alongside race, colonialism, and other themes, something that will speak to our current concerns through the lens of rigorous history.  But that is not Price’s job. He has advanced the discussion, producing a focused and readable study of the many ways that English Canadian thinkers struggled with the meaning of Confederation.

Steve Penfold teaches Canadian history at the University of Toronto.

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