T.W. Paterson: B.C.’s confederation with Canada not easy

“Well, I may frankly tell you that I think British Columbia a glorious province — a province Canada should be proud to possess.”

“Well, I may frankly tell you that I think British Columbia a glorious province — a province Canada should be proud to possess.” —Lord Dufferin

“Day after day for a whole week, in a vessel of nearly 2,000 tons, we threaded an interminable labyrinth of watery lanes and reaches that wound endlessly in and out of a network of islands, promontories and peninsulas for thousands of miles, unruffled by the slightest swell from the adjoining ocean, and presenting at every turn an ever-shifting combination of rock, verdure, forest, glacier and snow-capped mountain of unrivalled grandeur and beauty…”

Whew! Over 70 words in a single sentence and he wasn’t done!

This glowing, almost poetic, description of B.C.’s Inside Passage dates back to 1876. The eloquence as expressed in the purplish prose of that era isn’t that of a professional scribe nor that of an earlyday travel agent, but in the words of an illustrious visitor, Lord Dufferin, then Governor-General of Canada.

The reason for his Excellency’s call was to soothe the ruffled feelings of British Columbians who were growing increasingly unhappy with delays in beginning construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the key conditions of their joining Confederation. The transcontinental railway was such a hot political potato that, for a time, it appeared that B.C. might opt out to go it alone once more. As one early historian described the crisis, “It was of the greatest importance that the bitter feeling which was growing amongst the people of the province should be allayed.”

Thus the arrival of the diplomatic Lord and Marchioness Dufferin aboard HMS Amethyst.

For want of our own transcontinental railway the vice-regal couple had had to take a somewhat circuitous route to reach the Pacific coast. From Ottawa, they’d headed westward on the Central Pacific to San Francisco where they boarded the waiting Amethyst for the voyage to Victoria. There, they were greeted by former colonial governor Sir James Douglas and other leading citizens.

They also encountered their first delicate moment of their tour when it was learned that several boorish individuals had erected an archway over Fort Street (the visitors’ intended route to Government House) with the message, “Carnarvon terms or separation” in bold script. Without getting too involved, let’s just say that Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had sided entirely with the province in urging that Canada get the lead out in beginning construction of the CPR.

As Lord Dufferin “considered that he could not, consistently with his position as Governor-General, pass under [the arch], although he’d have had no objection to do so as a private individual,” a short detour allowed the cortege to bypass the offending declaration.

Further embarrassment for the governor-general was caused when a large delegation called at Government House to complain that “…owing to the non-fulfilment of the terms of union…it was the opinion of a large number of the people of the province that separation from the Dominion would be the inevitable result…”

As before, Lord Dufferin thought it “not in accordance with the usual practice for him to deal with addresses other than those of a personal or complimentary nature, except under the advice of his responsible ministers,” and declined the invitation to hear the delegation’s grievances.

He later relented and agreed to an interview by their leaders but, for all his personal charm and diplomatic skills, he failed to calm the political waters.

As a result Prime Minister Mackenzie found himself even deeper in difficulty with his westernmost province.

None held it against Lord Dufferin, however, all agreeing that he and the Marchioness were a fine couple worthy of the office of Governor-General. It was then that the couple undertook a lengthy tour of the B.C. coast before returning to Victoria to inform a delighted gathering: “And now that I am back it may perhaps interest you to learn what are the impressions I derived during my journey.

“Well, I may frankly tell you that I think British Columbia a glorious province — a province Canada should be proud to possess, and whose association with the Dominion she ought to regard as the crowning triumph of Federation.”

One hundred of 40 years after, who’d disagree with him?