Notes on 26th Text for Reading Field: Stevenson

Canadian History, Week Four


Garth Stevenson. Ex Uno Plures: Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada, 1867-1896. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993. [Online preview: ].

The title of Garth Stevenson’s text refers to a play on the United States motto, E pluribus unum — “out of many, one” – a reference to the union of the original 13 states that was suggested by the first Great Seal committee in 1776. The Canadian word play has been ascribed to George Cartier who sought to signify the converse — “out of one, many.”[1] Stevenson notes that the Canadian federal union, unlike the American, had as its basis the distribution of powers to the provinces, not a cession of a portion of their powers to the central authority (hence the usage of the term ‘confederation’ which implied a less centralized relationship than ‘federation’).

In his detailed account of federal-provincial relations after Confederation to the installation of Wilfred Laurier’s government, Stevenson demonstrates that because the structure and rules set out in the BNA Act supplied the framework within which political activity took place, the Act shaped political activity. He observes that, “The structure and processes, as opposed to the content, of intergovernmental relations developed gradually through trial and error.”[2] He shows the patterns of political interaction to have been a complex mix of conflict and collaboration. Canadian federalism — in his view, an arrangement by which provincial governments sought and defended autonomy from the outset — was “the product of all these conflicting influences and pressures rather than a conscious design.”[3]

Stevenson begins with a brief description of the origins of Confederation. He finds the two main reasons for pursuing such a union originated in, and were chiefly beneficial to, the United Provinces: i.e. arriving at a workable political arrangement between Canada West and East; and supplying military defence, principally as security from American aggression (an issue more important to colonies with extensive American borders). He describes the three stages that led to Confederation as: the Macdonald-Cartier agreement to make it a priority; the allegiance of George Brown and cohort to the Canadian government plan; and the negotiations with the Maritime colonies at Charlottetown and then Quebec.

Subsequently, Stevenson maintains, the features of the BNA Act that caused the most friction in intergovernmental relations were many. They included:

  • the appointed upper house of Parliament;
  • dual seating of members of the House of Commons in a provincial house;
  • and the ambiguous position of the lieutenant-governor as both a federal and provincial officer (a position Stevenson characterizes as an ambiguous “paternal despot,” because specifics about such questions as ‘acting on behalf of whom? at whose behest?’ were never established).[4]

As well, in addition to the policy of reservation (“effectively obsolete and redundant” by 1896), disputes arose over:

  • the anomalous power of disallowance of provincial legislation;
  • and inconsistencies between responsible government and federalism (partisanship and patronage existed in uneasy tension – the personal often over-road party loyalty, much as it had in the wholly representative system).

Then there was the overlapping distribution of legislative powers and dissatisfaction with how their relative strengths were decided. Although the prime minister dominated the process of intergovernmental relations with respect to policy directions, Stevenson notes that — with the exception of Manitoba, and to some degree British Columbia — the provinces “very rapidly escaped from the subordination Macdonald might have wished to consign them.”[5]

Stevenson assigns no small measure of importance to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in effecting this achievement. By 1887, JCPC decisions on issues involving the executive powers or properties of the two levels of government found in favour of the provinces, thereby effectively expounding “the notion that the two levels of government were equal in status.”[6]

Stevenson disagrees with historiographical claims that the senate had a significant role. He observes that “it is difficult to see any real substance in the Senate’s alleged role as a defender of regional or provincial interests. Certainly it played no significant part in resolving any of the issues that arose between the provinces and the dominion government.”[7]

Other features of the BNA Act that caused the friction in inter-governmental relations that Stevenson touches on include:

  • the location of the capital within a province rather than in a separate district;
  • the appointment of provincial court judges by the federal government;
  • and the excessive complexity of financial provisions (all provinces, apart from Ontario suffered from financial difficulties and relied on federal subsidies).

Complications directly pertaining to the BNA Act provisions aside, Stevenson identifies the major issues that occupied the intergovernmental agenda as the “three perennial preoccupations of nineteenth-century Canadian politics: finance, the administration of justice, and religion”[8] Further, he finds that outright disputes tended to centre on “land, money, railways and religion.”[9] He illustrates that politics, law, funding, railways, and religion combined in various ways to heighten controversy surrounding intergovernmental negotiations on matters such as:

  • demarking the western boundary and regulating liquor consumption in Ontario;
  • land reform and guarantees of dominion operated steamship service in Prince Edward Island;
  • the reluctant acceptance of, and ongoing truculence towards Confederation in Nova Scotia;
  • the relation of Church, State, and Nation, and chronic financial problems in Quebec;
  • whether to abolish tax-supported Roman Catholic separate schools in New Brunswick;
  • Western alienation (which Stevenson remarks was “a dialogue of the deaf”), largely attributable, one way or another, to issues of tariff and control of land allocation in Manitoba and British Columbia.

Although Stevenson’s analysis does not indicate that religion on its own produced a great number of episodes of intergovernmental conflict, he is explicit about asserting that religion was a compounding issue in all instances. He argues that the 19th century propensity for personal identity to be “anchored to religion” reinforced stereotypical views of peoples in distant regions – a signal of what other analysts have designated pluralistic ignorance.[10]

This ignorance is highly visible at one point of intergovernmental cooperation in Stevenson’s account: immigration, particularly the differential treatment that, racialized criteria supported. Pluralistic ignorance also marked a fundamental cleavage that in Stevenson’s opinion strengthened the governments of Ontario and Quebec. The negative attitudes of the residents of each towards the other left them decidedly reluctant to concentrate power in a central government that might be unduly influenced by the other.

The overall point Stevenson seeks to make is that, from an early date, the central government was unable to assert absolute dominance over the provinces. Geographically, Canada’s very large size inhibited centralization – both because timely long distance communication was difficult and because identifying with distant populations (distant enough to preclude routine face to face interaction) in such a way that their concerns could be understood was difficult. The decisions of the JCPC reinforced geographically determined tendencies towards provincial autonomy, as did the fact that “the British North America Act specifically enumerated some fields of provincial jurisdiction.”[11] By 1877, in Stevenson’s view, there was in place a “regime in which strong autonomous provincial governments competed on fairly equal terms with the central government for political authority, legitimacy, and power.”[12]

Additional Commentaries and Sources of Interest:

McGill-Queen’s University Press, promotional review, McGill-Queen’s University Press website, .

William Gordon Casselman, “The Mottos of Canada,”,

[1] See Joseph Adolphe Chapleau, quoted in Garth Stevenson, Ex Uno Plures: Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada, 1867-1896 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 1; Chris, ed., “serendipity,” online blog, post cached at <;, notes that the motto “probably came from a sort of 18th century Reader’s Digest called Gentlemen’s Magazine, which was widely read by the elites. This is not a lofty classical quote.” In fact it has been traced to a recipe for flavoured cheese in a poem attributed to Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil, 70-19 BC) but of unknown origin.

[2] Stevenson. Ex Uno Plures, 188.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] Ibid., 206.

[6] Ibid., 284.

[7] Ibid., 329.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Ibid., 178.

[10] Ibid., 34, 181.

[11] Ibid., 346.

[12] Ibid., 344.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 4 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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