The Prince Consort had died in 1861, leaving the widowed Queen to bring up her nine fatherless children, the youngest of whom was but four years old.
For a time Queen Victoria, utterly heartbroken, took no part in public affairs, though she was ever mindful of her duty to her subjects at home. Those beyond the seas still attracted little attention, and an event of vast imperial importance passed almost unnoticed by Britons at home.
Twenty-eight years had passed away since Lord Durham's famous report and the subsequent union of Upper and Lower Canada. The storms that had raged round the subject were silent, the statesman who laid the foundation of Canadian union had long since been laid in his quiet grave, while Canada, the land he had made loyal and free, was rapidly growing into an important nation.
The population had increased rapidly in Upper Canada, to which colony the Irish peasants had flocked after the terrible potato famine of 1845. Trade had doubled and trebled, new villages and towns had sprung up. Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Ottawa were important cities, and enterprising farmers were making their way farther and farther west. Colonists from the Old Country were clearing forests, and growing wheat on virgin soil to the north, while the fur traders, who for the past two hundred years had held trading rights over enormous tracts of ice and snow, were pushed towards the inhospitable shores of Hudson's Bay.
From the Pacific coast to the desolate shores of Labrador, these old merchant-adventurers had roamed, buying the furry skins of wolves and foxes, bears and beavers, for sale in Europe and America. From many an isolated fort amid the great silences the flag of Britain flew, bearing the magic letters H. B. C.
The cultivation of wheat was now found to be more valuable; and gradually land was bought from the Hudson Bay Company, and amid hardship and toil, in poverty and privation, individual men were reclaiming barren and desolate lands to bring them under cultivation. It is well to remember what our country owes to the plucky, persevering, resolute Britons who, far from home and friends, built up the Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria.
In 1858 the discovery of gold on the Pacific coast brought colonists in a rush from all parts of the world. Vancouver Island sprang into fame, and the town of Victoria became the great commercial centre of gold-diggers. No longer could the Hudson Bay Company minister to the growing needs of the colonists, and Britain took over the rest under the name of British Columbia.
In 1866, after years of unsuccessful toil, a cable was laid under the broad Atlantic Ocean. The deed was finally accomplished by a British ship amid universal rejoicing. It can easily be understood how great was the moment when mutual congratulations were exchanged between the Mother Country and her daughter colony, a moment only surpassed when, after the Queen had passed away, Britain spoke to Canada by means of wireless telegraphy.
Canada was at an acute stage in her history just then. Her isolated provinces were thinking of uniting in imitation of the neighbouring United States of America. It was a matter of the gravest moment, and a few months after the laying of the submarine cable, a famous conference was held in the historic city of Quebec. It was composed of representatives from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the already united Canadas. Men of ability, power, and eloquence, French Canadians, English Canadians, Irishmen, Scotsmen, who had emigrated to the new country all met to make this momentous decision for the country of their adoption.
Hotel Chateau Frontenac, and Dufferin Terrace.
Above Old Town and River, Quebec.
Should they unite or should they not? For eighteen days they sat with closed doors discussing the future of their land, until at last they arrived at a scheme for uniting the great colonies of British North America, and from the realm of dreams federation became an accomplished fact. Upper Canada was henceforth known as Ontario, and Lower Canada as Quebec, and the whole Federation was named the Dominion of Canada.
The new Federal Parliament was to consist of two Houses—a House of Commons with 181 representatives and a Senate of 72 life members, with a Governor-General sent out from England to watch over all Imperial interests. Thus the colonists made themselves perfectly free to work out their own laws, to manage their own rapidly increasing trade, their taxes, and their defences.
As other provinces grew stronger, they joined the Federation. Manitoba and the North-West territories and the old Hudson Bay land came into the union in 1870, British Columbia and Vancouver in 1871, and Prince Edward Island in 1873, with representatives sitting in the central Parliament at Ottawa.
When all was complete, the Dominion of Canada stretched 3,000 miles from sea to sea. "The little British possession of 1759, described by the French as a few square miles of snow, had grown till she was thirty times the size of the Mother Country."
Newfoundland—the oldest colony—preferred, and still prefers, to stand outside the federal union, and to bear her burdens alone, in the same way that New Zealand remained outside the Australian Commonwealth thirty vicars later.
Canada has had her moments of wishing for separation and independence, but the cry of the blood has been strong, and the links that bind her to the island-home have proved enduring.