Seven fascinating artifacts you can see at the 1867: Rebellion & Confederation exhibition
I have a confession to make: For five summers, from 1996 until 2000, I was paid to dress up as a Father of Confederation. I was part of a troupe of actors who would wear period costumes while giving walking tours and speaking with tourists about Canadian history. Now that you know about my old summer job, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I heard the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) was going to be hosting an exhibition called 1867: Rebellion & Confederation, I was more than a little excited.
Canada’s Confederation history is often portrayed as boring – especially when compared to the action and adventure that fills the pages of other nations’ pasts. But the truth is that the story of Confederation is anything but boring. You want action? There are rebellions, raids and riots aplenty. You want intrigue? We’ve got charismatic (and not-so-charismatic) political leaders, impassioned speeches and political maneuvering that would give a show like House of Cards a run for its money.
1867: Rebellion & Confederation was created by the Canadian Museum of History and adapted by the CMHR. It brings together an amazing collection of 124 artifacts from across Canada. Each artifact has its own story – and every story tells us something about the early struggles in Canada for democracy, liberty and rights. The artifacts also tell us who was left out of Confederation – and why these issues, raised so many years ago, are still important in Canada today. So, without further ado, I present to you seven fascinating artifacts you can only see at the 1867 exhibition.
1. Prisoner’s box, 1838
By the 1800s, there were six colonies in what was then known as British North America. Each colony had an elected assembly, but true power was actually in the hands of governors who were appointed by the British government. Many people began to resent their lack of political rights and in 1837 and 1838, this resentment boiled over into violent rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada (what is now Ontario and Quebec). The rebellions were brutally crushed by the government – entire villages were burned, nearly 1,500 people were arrested, another 250 were deported and 50 individuals were hanged.
One particularly touching set of artifacts connected to this violent time are several small souvenir boxes, whose inscriptions were carved by prisoners awaiting trial in Upper Canada. The box pictured above has three inscriptions. The top of the box reads: “To Miss Nancy Macpherson. / from her friend John Anderson / a state prisoner in Fort Henry 1838.” One side of the box commemorates two men who died for their role in the rebellions: “In memory of Lount and Matthews / executed at Toronto 12th April 1838 / Time will tell why.” On the other side is written: “God and Liberty. / Dear to me as light and life, thou mountain / nymph, sweet Liberty.”
2. Cane owned by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, 1840
When rebellion failed, many reformers in British North America again turned to peaceful methods to achieve their goals. They wanted a more democratic government – they called it “responsible government.” As a proud Maritimer, I’m happy to say that responsible government was first achieved in Nova Scotia, in January of 1848. It wasn’t an easy struggle – many of the colony’s elite were completely opposed to the idea. One opponent was Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a renowned author, lawyer and politician. He used his most famous book – The Clockmaker – to directly attack the idea of responsible government. If you visit 1867, you’ll find an original copy of The Clockmaker on display right next to Haliburton’s cane. He might have been against responsible government, but I was still thrilled to get to see a cane that was once owned by this famed writer.
3. Cobblestones used as weapons, 1849
Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Quebec) followed close on the heels of Nova Scotia and achieved responsible government later in 1848. The new system was almost immediately put to the test. In 1849, when the new government passed a bill aimed at compensating people in Lower Canada (now Quebec) for losses they suffered during the rebellion, opponents of the bill rioted in the streets of Montréal, which was then the capital of the United Province of Canada. The rioters tore cobblestones out of the street and threw them at the Governor General, Lord Elgin. They then marched on Parliament, vandalized it and set it on fire. The cobblestones pictured here are some of those that were thrown at Lord Elgin – his wife Lady Elgin gathered them up and kept them as mementoes of a tumultuous time in Canadian history.
4. Métis Saddle, 1846
Responsible government did not include everyone. Women, Indigenous peoples and many others were excluded from these new democratic rights. For Indigenous people in particular, who already inhabited the land, growing European settlement was placing increasing pressure on their societies. Indigenous people responded by mobilizing to protect their rights. They physically protested incursions on their land and wrote letters to the Imperial government in London. At the Red River Colony in what was then called the Northwest Territories, First Nations, French, English and Métis all worked to resolve growing tensions over land and resources. This beautiful Métis saddle, decorated with dyed porcupine quills, speaks to the vibrancy of Indigenous cultures in British North America, in the face of opposition and oppression from settler governments.
5. Jacket owned by Patrick Quinn, 1847
Due to immigration from the United States and Europe, the settler population of British North America had grown from approximately 382,000 in 1800 to nearly 3.3 million by 1861. One particularly large group of immigrants were the Irish, many of whom came fleeing famine, disease and poverty. British North America was not always a welcoming place, however – even when they survived the difficult journey across the Atlantic, many Irish Catholics encountered hostility and discrimination from Protestants in cities like Toronto. This jacket belonged to Patrick Quinn, a young Irish boy who was orphaned shortly after his arrival at the age of six.
6. Fenian revolver, 1866
We now think of the border between Canada and the United States as the most peaceful in the world, but this wasn’t always the case! During the Confederation era, the border was threatened by the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish American organization that wanted to free Ireland from British rule. Many Fenians were veterans of the recent American Civil War and they formed a plan to invade British North America – and trade it for Irish independence. During the 1860s and 1870s the Fenians launched a number of raids across the border and fought several battles with Canadian militia. They never were able to make good on their threat of a full-scale invasion, but their actions caused much fear and concern – and real deaths. In my summer job, I often portrayed Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Canadian politician who was assassinated by the Fenians. Threats like the Fenians made some in British North America argue that a union was needed, in order to better defend the colonies. This is a revolver that was taken from a Fenian officer at the battle of Ridgeway (also known as the battle of Limeridge), which happened in what is now Ontario on June 2, 1866.
7. Mercy Coles’ diary, 1864-1879
In 1864, meetings were held in Charlottetown and the city of Québec to talk about uniting all the colonies in British North America under one government. Discussions were held about what would happen to local autonomy, language rights and religious rights under a new union. These meetings ultimately led to the Confederation of Canada on July 1, 1867 – but not everyone was included in the conversation. Indigenous peoples were largely ignored and women were kept on the sidelines and denied political rights. Women did attend the conferences – they accompanied their husbands and fathers and they played an important social role. Mercy Ann Coles, who accompanied her father George Coles from Charlottetown to the city of Québec, recorded her impressions in the diary that is pictured above. It is an important source for historians of the Confederation era. Mercy Coles would live another 53 years until 1921. This was long enough for her to see some women win the right to vote in Canada in 1917 and 1918 – but not long enough to see women win the right to vote provincially in her home province of Prince Edward Island, in 1922.
And many more…
And there you have it – seven fascinating artifacts you can only see at the 1867 exhibition. There are plenty more – for example, we have a pocket watch that belonged to John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, the armchair used by Louis-Joseph Papineau, a leader of the 1837-38 rebellions in Lower Canada, as well as the sword of Cuthbert Grant, an important Métis military and political leader – just to name a few! If you want to see more of the 124 fascinating artifacts contained in the exhibition and learn the whole story, come visit 1867: Rebellion & Confederation! You can find it at the CMHR until May 7, 2017. I think you’ll find it just as exciting as I did, even if you’ve never dressed up as a Father of Confederation.