Friday, February 17, 2017

Spotlight on our Heritage #10: Fenians, Americans, Acadians, and Canadians: The Confrontations of Confederation

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the tenth in a series of features prepared for Heritage Week 2017 (February 13 – 20), entitled Spotlight on our Heritage. The blog series celebrates 150 years of history, and reflects upon New Brunswick’s role in Confederation. This particular "spotlight" draws from the Fredericton Region Museum exhibition A Ship Full of Troubles: New Brunswick and Confederation, which was co-curated by STU and UNB graduates Nathan Gavin and Caleb Goguen.

Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon
(Provincial Archives of New Brunswick,

Fenians, Americans, Acadians, and Canadians: The Confrontations of Confederation

New Brunswick’s experience engaging with the Confederation question was tumultuous to say the least. With responsible government still in its infancy, New Brunswick’s politicians would face a number of hurdles before being able to join in Confederation. From the staunch localism shown by some, to blatant outrage against the idea of any form of union with the Canadians from others, New Brunswick’s entrance into Confederation was not going to be a smooth ride.

One of the biggest influences on Confederation was the American Civil War and the mixed bag of threats that permeated from it. The young Lieutenant Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon landed in New Brunswick 1861, just in time for his first colonial trial. Within the first month of setting foot on the continent, he was faced with the Trent Affair.

With the War of 1812 still fresh in New Brunswickers’ minds, tensions rose at a breakneck pace along the British North American/United States border. On the 8th of November, 1861, The USS San Jacinto intercepted the RMS Trent, a British mail packet ship on its journey to England from Havana. The RMS Trent was ambushed in the Bahama Channel and the crew of the USS San Jacinto captured John Slidell and James Mason, two Confederate diplomats on their way to push for the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition.

63rd Regiment preparing to
depart from Saint John, Illustrated London News
(Harriet Irving Library Archives & Special
Collections, UNB)
The uproar that the Trent Affair caused in British North America reverberated across New Brunswick. Upon hearing the news, over 10 000 officers and men were sent to the Province of Canada. The troops first landed in Saint John, where Lt. Gov. Arthur Hamilton Gordon took charge, housing them in schools, customs houses, halls, and anywhere else he could lodge them before they were transported to Canada.

On December 26th, 1861, the prisoners were released and tensions subsided. Although violence did not break out, the Trent Affair brought into question the stability of US/BNA relations. This would have an adverse effect on the Reciprocity Treaty, a trade agreement signed between the United States and British North America in 1854. This agreement promoted tariff free trade between the two parties and gave Americans the right to fish off the shores of British North America. The Trent Affair also brought into question the reaction time of New Brunswick’s defence, which was largely provided and funded by the Crown. By this point in time, London was also more than willing to rid themselves of the costly task of defending British North America.

Sir Albert James Smith
(New Brunswick Museum,
As New Brunswick began inching its way towards Confederation, an opposing force grew in retaliation. Albert James Smith, leader of the Anti-Confederation party and MLA for Westmorland County believed that Confederation would be horrible for New Brunswickers. He was backed by a group of people who were more than used to living under a largely uncaring English government and vehemently opposed to having another layer of English politicians above them, the Acadians.

The Acadian population was against Confederation and its lofty promises from the very beginning. Not only were they suspicious of the scheming Canadians, they were distrustful of Samuel Leonard Tilley’s lofty promises of projects like the Intercolonial Railway and its ambiguous path through the province. Knowing that the North Shore would most likely be avoided completely and that Saint John, the economic centre and Fredericton, the capital, had a better shot at having the railway pass nearby, Confederation would be a hard sell for Acadians.

Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley
(Bibliothèque et Archives 
nationales du Québec,
After the Quebec Resolutions returned in Tilley’s hands, the Acadian population was certain that Confederation would mean bad news. One of the guarantees given to Upper and Lower Canada was that protection would be granted to their minority religious schools. Catholics in Upper Canada and Anglicans in Lower Canada were given these protections, while the Catholics in New Brunswick were not to be given these same guarantees.

Tilley called an election in 1865, making New Brunswick the only province given a chance to vote on whether Confederation was worth the ink and paper. Clearly, this did not work out for Tilley. Albert James Smith and his ragtag crew of Anti-Confederation politicians spanned from staunch opposition, to lukewarm Confederation supporters who were skeptical of the Quebec Resolutions, took legislature, and stopped Confederation in its tracks.

Smith’s party began to unravel almost immediately. The Americans realized that they did not benefit nearly as much from the Reciprocity Treaty and promptly abrogated the deal. This was the first of many nails in Smith’s Anti-Confederation coffin. Since Confederation would promote East-West trade within British North America, Albert James Smith knew the importance of keeping the Reciprocity Treaty alive. Upon failing to renew the Reciprocity Treaty, Smith was then faced another roadblock, the Fenian Brotherhood.

The term “Fenian” is derived from Finna, a prominent band of mythological warriors in Irish culture. Their main goal was to gain Irish independence from Britain. The Fenian Brotherhood believed that taking a piece of British North America to use as a bargaining chip could potentially work. They were growing in number and influence in North America. By 1865, they had roughly 10 000 Civil War veterans, 500 000$, and their eyes set for Campobello Island.

To not rile up any suspicion, the Fenian band sent their weapons in a separate ship, The Ocean Spray, to Eastport, Maine. Arriving a few weeks before the event, the number of Fenians stationed within a stone throw of Campobello Island frightened New Brunswicker’s and call into question the unsteady truce between British North America and the United States. When American authorities finally broke up the situation, the threat had been for the most part, quashed. That being said, a raid was still attempted. They managed to light a few woodpiles on fire and steal a British flag.

On the New Brunswick side of this event, pandemonium was unleashed into the Assembly. The Catholic population quickly changed its mind on the Confederation issue out of fear of being lumped in with the Fenian insurgents.

Peter Mitchell
(New Brunswick Museum,
Fear of a lack of defence drew anyone on the fence towards Confederation into the fold. One of the promises of the Quebec Resolutions was a centralized military funded and maintained by the Federal government. Smith was forced to hold another election, which he swiftly loss to the Pro-Confederation Coalition.

With Peter Mitchell at the helm, New Brunswick glided into Confederation without a hitch and became one of the first provinces to join the fold. The worries and presumptions of the Intercolonial Railway’ trajectory were realized as per the fear of English New Brunswicker’s and to the gain of Acadians by following a route along the North Shore, staying as far away from the US border as possible.

For more information on the tumultuousness of Confederation and the events that led to, and away from it, check out the Fredericton Region Museum’s Confederation exhibit titled A Ship full of Troubles, Robert Dallison’s book Turning Back the Fenians, and Dr. Gary Campbell’s book The Road to Canada.

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