Why Was There No Canadian “Civil War”?

Why Was There No Canadian “Civil War”?
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Some Canadians seem prone to assume that all the fire and brimstone of North American history was naturally in the U.S., while the genteel “peace and good government” tradition equally as naturally informed the more sedate history of Canada. Yet, though it doesn’t seem to have received the attention it deserved in Canadian historiography, the question as to why Canada didn’t have a “civil war” of the kind that so profoundly affected the history of the U.S. is hardly one with an immediately obvious answer. [ref]Two important points have to be made before going any further. First, I use the term “civil war” in the interest of convenience, but as those historians working in the Austrian tradition have observed this is a misnomer: a civil war is between two factions, each vying for power over the other. In the case of the U.S., the Confederacy had no intention of invading Washington and imposing its rule upon the entire Union. It was a war of seccession (from the perspective of the South) and of invasion (from the perspective of the North). Second, anyone who believes that the war was fought over the emancipation of the slaves is labouring under the sway of an unfortunate mythology. Lincoln, along with many other influential Northern war mongers, frequently stated that this was not the purpose of the war. Many of them, including Lincoln, supported the Fugitive Slave Act. The Emancipation Proclamation came only two years after the start of the war and at a time when the Union was suffering serious battlefield setbacks. It was intended as a strategy to discourage European support of the Confederacy and possibly incur slave rebellions in the secessionist states. Further, the Proclamation emancipated no slaves as it did not pertain to those already under Union jurisdiction, but only those in the Confederacy – over which the Union government had no control. That the war was not considered a war of slave emancipation by the general population of the North is also shown by the Northern riots, most terribly in New York City, where blacks were attacked by rioters en mass, and in the massive army desertions – 90,000 of which escaped to Canada – which resulted when the Proclamation led many to think the purpose of the war had changed to slave emancipation.[/ref]

The situation in Canada for several decades after 1879 was quite similar to that in the U.S. for the three decades leading up to 1861.[ref]The story considered here is that of Western Canada. Eastern Canada, particularly the Maritime Provinces, have their own history to tell as a result of the National Policy tariff. It is, though, a different story, and so will have to be saved for another occasion.[/ref]There was an industrial part of the country (the U.S. North, the Canadian Centre) and an agricultural part of the country (the U.S. South, the Canadian West); the agricultural part of the country was a major producer of a commodity in great international demand (cotton in the U.S. South, wheat in the Canadian West); the industrial part, in both cases, through its political cronyism, rampant rent-seeking and patronage, had forged an industrial-state complex that imposed onerous tariffs on the pro-free trade, agricultural part of the country. In both cases, the agricultural part of the country had great incentives for pursuing free trade policy and open international relations. However, such policy to benefit the agricultural part of the country placed the goods of the industrial part of the country in a situation of disadvantageous competition with international manufacturers.

Whereas there was a long history of using tariffs to generate income to finance the state, prior to the creation of income taxes, in both these situations the industrial-state complex imposed massive tariffs, the purpose of which was never pretended to be income generating, but were openly acknowledged as intended to create monopoly markets for the domestic production of industrial goods to the benefit of the industrial part of the country. These tariffs had the unambiguous intention of reducing the agricultural part of the country to a mere hinterland, a captive market for the overpriced, uncompetitive industrial goods of the tariff-imposing political class based in the industrial part of the country.

In both cases, major political unrest resulted in the agricultural parts of the countries. Prominent intellectual and political leaders emerged to express the anger, outrage and betrayal felt in the agricultural parts of the countries. In both civil society and electoral politics major protest movements emerged in each of the agricultural parts of the countries. Many were unapologetic in describing the state imposed tariff as nothing short of exploitation and thievery. To repeat, these are strikingly similar situations. From there, though, the stories part company.

As we know, in the U.S., after decades of failing to win redress for the relentless assault on their liberty and property, the agricultural part of the country took the initiative to exercise its confederal rights to secede from the Union. Given all the other similarities, noted above, why did the Canadian West not do likewise? First let’s consider some possible explanations, which don’t stand up well to scrutiny. These would include, first, the claim that states in the U.S. enjoy a level of sovereignty that exceeds that historically of Canadian provinces. A second might be the argument that the U.S. South constituted a more viable independent society and economy than did the less developed Canadian West. Neither of these, it seems to me, stand up to close scrutiny as explanations for the absence of a Western Canadian secession movement. A third claim for U.S. southern advantage could be based upon purported discrepancies in access to world markets. While there may be more merit in this explanation, it seems to raise as many questions as it answers.

To my knowledge, most scholars associated with the Mises Institutes tend to share the view that the original U.S. colonies formed the Union, in contrast to the Lincolnian mythology in which somehow the Union gave rise to the pre-existing parts of what came to be united. Hopefully, then, I can address these matters briefly. This Lincolnian mythology is logically absurd (how can a combination pre-exist the elements that had to combine for it to exist?) and there are numerous other political and legal arguments, regarding the peace settlement with Britain and the terms of joining the Union set by several of the founding colonies, which argue that secession was always an implicit option in uniting. It is true, of course, that only two of the original Confederacy states were part of the original thirteen colonies, but the gist of the scholarship seems to suggest that, by joining of their free will, those non-original founding states – since there were no explicit conditions to the contrary – joined under the terms of the same assumption for freedom to secede as had the founding states. Thus, though I can’t make the argument thoroughly in the limited space here, it does seem that a right of secession was implicit in the uniting of the American states from the beginning.

Was this, though, so different from the situation of the Canadian provinces? Yes, they united with the consent and encouragement of Britain, rather than in defiance of it. But the parts still logically preceded the union and had to be sovereign to some degree to have the authority to choose to enter the union. It is true that, unlike the U.S. Constitution that was worded to be bias toward the rights of the states, the British North America Act was biased in the other direction. While in the U.S. any right not stipulated as federal in the Constitution was assumed to the states, in Canada any right not stipulated to the provinces was assumed to the federal government. This is an important difference, but the provinces were the founders, confederation had to be endorsed by the provincial legislatures, and the fact that the BNA act protected provincial sovereignty in key areas of civil life would suggest that no one involved thought that joining confederation constituted an abandonment of sovereignty.[ref]Indeed, efforts by the Federal Government over the next century to usurp areas of provincial sovereignty were regularly defeated by pro-provincial rights rulings of the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.[/ref] Further, more recent events surrounding the fate of Quebec has not provided any conclusive legal or scholarly case against secession of a province. So, the suggestion that the U.S. southern states had some advantage over the Canadian western ones in this regard doesn’t seem plausible.

It certainly is true that the U.S. South was a more developed society and economy. However, it’s not as though only such a level of development provided the necessary conditions for secession. After all, in many ways the Canadian West was considerably more developed, certainly technologically, than were the thirteen colonies when they seceded from the British Empire over a century earlier. Furthermore, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem in this argument. The main reason that the southern U.S. states were more developed was that they had been more successful in fighting the North’s mercantilist empire building. Their success at winning occasional relief from excessive tariffs, in the 1830s to 1860s period, allowed them to increase their standard of living and quality of life by better profiting from the trade of their cotton. The only way for the West of Canada to parlay its wheat into a similar development boon was precisely to gain relief from the Centre’s mercantilist tariff regime. Given the many decades of failure to gain relief from the National Policy, it was less a question of how the West could become developed enough to pursue secession as how it could possibly develop without secession.[ref]The fact that post-WWII Federal Government policy may have helped reduce some of these historical discrepancies begs the question in regards to either the ethical standing of such policy for any taxation-based regime, as well as the long term sustainability of stimulus and redistribution policies. And, of course, the events of the National Energy Program, as recently as the 1980s, indicates that the old mercantilism of the Centre is not as far back in the rear-view mirror of history as some might suggest.[/ref]

At first glance, greater access to world markets for the U.S. southern states might seem like a plausible explanation for their greater readiness to secede. Indeed, it was recognized that if the South did as they promised, and refused to enforce the tariff in their ports, places like Charleston and New Orleans would quickly displace the harbour of New York as the major entry point for European trade. For the North mercantilists to succeed in their North American empire building, they had to impose their tariff regime on the southern states. The latter’s easily accessible ports were surely an attractive feature in the South’s consideration of its options. In contrast to this, students of Canadian history are always told how the railroads were built east and west, funnelling trade back and forth with Central Canada, denying western farmers’ access to U.S. and international markets. While this claim is true as far as it goes, it leaves too much unaddressed. Even if we rule out the western extremes of the Great Lakes (technically in Ontario and arguably under the control of Central Canada) the Canadian West enjoyed a long history of maritime access to world trade through ports on Hudson’s Bay. Indeed, eventually, by 1929, Churchill, Manitoba, finally became a port for the exportation of the West’s wheat into the world market.

In the three or so decades following the 1879 National Policy tariff, there no doubt were obstacles to overcome. A railway had to be built from Winnipeg to Churchill and the freezing of the Bay limited the maritime season. Such ports were clearly not going to be as convenient as Charleston or New Orleans, but neither is it obvious to me why provinces, under the yoke of the Central Canada’s mercantilist North American empire, wouldn’t have and couldn’t have found quicker solutions of great strategic importance, should secession have been seriously considered. The other option, of course, was land routes connecting with the U.S. cities to the south. Of course, with the financial impacts of the tariff, there were no economic incentives to build the lines south. However, that’s assuming the very outcome that is being questioned here: the lack of a secessionist movement against the mercantilist empire building regime of the industrial part of the country. A declaration of secession and refusal to enforce the tariff, as was done in the southern U.S. states, certainly would have changed overnight the economics of building railroads from the western prairies south to the U.S. So, while transport options were certainly not as readily at hand for the Canadian West as they were for the U.S. South, in and of itself, that alone doesn’t seem to provide a conclusive explanation for the absence of a secessionist movement in the former, despite the initial great success of such in the latter. (A success, of course, that was only forestalled by military invasion.)

Certainly, other factors have to be considered, from the role of nationalism and monarchism to fears of what actually happened to the secessionists of the U.S. South: not merely military and political defeat, but the infliction of terrible war crimes. And, neither can we prima facia rule out the possibility of corruption among Western provincial elites being bought off by the Central Canadian mercantile empire. Trying to sort out all these questions on pure speculation and a heavily statist historiography that has not been much interested in such topics – and certainly doesn’t take matters of legitimate secession and voluntary governance even remotely seriously – is ultimately not going to provide satisfactory answers to such questions. The hard work of a libertarian history alone can help us solve interesting puzzles of Canadian history such as this one. This is why I am trying to raise the funds to write a libertarian history of Canada. If you would like to see such a project come to fruition, please support my efforts: information on this is available at my website.[ref]Individual donations are great and very much appreciated; however, this project can only succeed with institutional, foundation and business support. If you know of anyone with such connections who might be able to help, please inform them of the project and pass their contact information onto to me. Thank you to all for your support in this effort.[/ref]


  • Michael McConkey

    Thank you for your kind comments on the article, Mark. I believe we’ve discussed Naylor in the past. There certainly are problems with his book historiographically – particularly his great over reliance upon the business press as his key sources. This, though, interestingly, has been a common problem in Canadian business history. Your comments seemed to be divided into two parts; I’ll address each separately.

    First, I thought that Naylor’s business history was a great contribution when it first came out, just because it threw an intellectual grenade into Canadian historiography. I still think that his emphasis upon the rent-seeking regime of the post-Confederation Canadian state remains of value. His ancillary argument, though, that the dominance of the mercantilist class stunted the development of indigenous Canadian industry, at the expense of a U.S. branch plant economy – which could be more rapidly established to reap revenues for mercantilist dominated banking and transport sectors – is more open to debate. My understanding is that empirical work since the publication of Naylor’s book points to there being in fact a much more vigorous indigenous Central Canadian industry than Naylor allowed. Though problematic in its own ways, a valuable counter weight to Naylor is Michael Bliss’ Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business. (Also, for a pretty exhaustive critique of Naylor that argues that the literature even at the time of his writing contradicted him, see D.G. Paterson, in The Canadian Journal of Economics, 10(3), 1977.)

    For the purposes of the article above, I’m not sure it really matters which side of that argument is right, though. Whether the federal Canadian state was directly serving indigenous Canadian industrialists or the Canadian mercantilists indirectly through the U.S. branch plant industrialists, the dynamic and consequences was the same for Western wheat farmers. It’s true, if Naylor were correct, the comparison with the U.S. would be a little less parallel, but the essential conflicts would remain the same. Though, as I say, my understanding is that Naylor lost the argument, I don’t claim to have studied the matter closely enough to proclaim a winner with confidence. So, your qualification is well taken.

    For the second part, though, I was unclear about some of your quotations in regards to the tariff. They seem to corroborate what I say in the article: prior to 1879 the tariff was widely perceived as being primarily a means for the state to generate revenue. In the case of the National Policy tariff, though, there was no doubt it was concerned with serving the rent-seeking agenda quaintly referred to by statists as “protectionism.” If I’ve not understood the point you were making with those latter quotations, please do elaborate and I’d be happy to offer my thoughts for whatever use they may be.

  • mstob

    Dr. McConkey, this is a fascinating article. It is great to see someone shining the libertarian light on Canadian history. I hope that I will be able to write similar work myself in the future. I would just like to make a point. From my limited reading of Canadian history, the Canadian east was barely industrialized around the time of Confederation. Furthermore, around this time there was not a strong push for protectionism specifically by industry. During this period Canada was dominated politically and economically not by industry but by commercial interests, that is, banking, railways, land speculators, and trading companies.

    All of the following is from Tom Naylor's History of Canadian Business, Vol 1. (Toronto, 1975)

    “In 1850 so called 'manufacturing' accounted for about 18% of the total GNP, but of this over 50% consisted of the products of saw mills and grist mills – ie primary processing only of the two staples. Moreover in the remaining manufacturing sector, the factor system was virtually absent: production was overwhelmingly undertaken in small shops still organized largely on handicraft lines.” 4

    “Fiscal policy was inseparable from railway finance. In 1858 and 1859, with Grand Trunk teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, tariffs were raised. While a great deal of confusion resulted from Finance Minister Sir Alexander Galt's use of the phrase “incidental protection” the objectives of the tariff were in fact clearly revenue oriented. Galt himself in his attempts to justify the tariff and to placate the ruffled feelings of British industrialists, stated the revenue objective clearly…. The purpose of the tariff, he stated baldly, was 'to protect those parties in England who have invested in our Railways and Municipal bonds.'” 28

    “In 1862 he stated that 'the best evidence that could be offered against the charge of protection was that the effect of the tariff had not been to produce manufactures.'”28

    “Apart from Isaac Buchanan there was little or no pressure for protection before Confederation, at least in Upper Canada” 29

    “During all of the period from 1866 to 1879, two themes dominated fiscal debate – revenue and protection. At first the protectionist element remained weak, but by the late 1870s it was a political sentiment of some consequences. Nonetheless even by that late date protection was still an emotion-charged and minority-supported position.”36

    Of course, there is always the possibility that Naylor is misled. I am still learning about this issue myself so if you would be able to point me in a good direction with regards to sources, authors, etc. I would be grateful.

  • Michael McConkey

    John, thank you for taking the time to read the article and providing your comments: dialogue is always appreciated. I’m not sure I entirely understood your second set of comments. Certainly, changes in the historical context and political attitude in Britain did cause it to regard Canadian independence differently than it had regarded that cause in the thirteen colonies. I’m not clear, though, what impact that is to have had on the post-Confederation relations between Western and Central Canada. I’m not claiming there is none, but from your comments I don’t understand what it would be.

    As to the Loyalists, I’m glad you raised this topic. There is a long strain in Canadian historiography of saying, well, the foundation of Anglo-Canada is pro-British (see the United Empire Loyalists) and in Quebec the Catholic hierarchy was horrified by the French Revolution and so the consequence of all this was a deep-seated counter-revolutionary spirit that informed Canadian development. This analysis, though, at least as it applies to English Canada, skates over way too much contrary evidence. For all the attention that the United Empire Loyalists get in Canadian popular culture, there is amazingly little attention to what is called (perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek) the Late Loyalists. After the Constitutional Act of 1791 the Upper Canada government made vast tracks of land available precisely to entice Americans to move north. (This was about population politics, which I won't go into here.) These were people who very much did NOT reject the U.S. Independence Revolution, but moved up exclusively to take advantage of cheap land. And they did indeed bring their republican values with them. They were in fact the intellectual and demographic base for the 1837 rebellion against the Family Compact in Upper Canada.

    Furthermore, by the time of the National Policy, we’re talking nearly a full century after the U.S. succession from Britain; during that time there continued to be regular flows of Americans, bringing their subversive populist and free markets ideas into Canada, particularly in to the West. When you look at the biographies of the agrarian free trade radicals in the Canadian West, a very large number of them turn out to have been born and raised amid the U.S. populist uprisings in the late decades of the 19th century. Given all this, it seems to be giving the influence of the Loyalists way too much credit for their overall influence on Canadian culture and their influence seems especially irrelevant to the attitudes in the National Policy era Canadian West.

  • John Dougan

    I suspect that base answer could be as simple as "A Canadian is an American who rejected the revolution". The arrival of the United Empire Loyalists strongly biased the Canadian population toward people who felt the U.S. sucession solution to the perceived injustices of the British govt. was, at a minimum, wrongheaded. I would also suspect that the U.S. succession caused changes to the rulings of the Crown's judges and the behaviour of his Ministers as they probably didn't want to lose another colony through being stupid (as they did with the US…imagine how history might have been if the 13 colonies had got a similar deal to the one the Canadians got in 1867).

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Michael McConkey is an independent scholar, with a Ph.D. from McGill University and many years experience as researcher and educator, who spends his time between Vancouver and Hua Hin, Thailand. He runs the FrFree Market Thinker series and is the author of the recently completed treatise, Voluntary Governance: A Roadmap. He is currently working toward the creation of the Pacific Institute of Voluntary Governance in Vancouver.

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