Moira Dann is a writer living in Victoria. She's written a book about the Mothers of Confederation
On this day more than 150 years ago, the weather was just awful in Quebec City: It was bucketing rain. The Quebec Conference attendees and their wives and daughters were recovering from Governor-General Cahrles Monck's "drawing room," a huge event held Oct. 11 in the Parliament building with some 800 people attending.
It was the first of many parties, balls and dinners scheduled for the conference. In addition to the social whirl, over the course of three weeks in Quebec, the delegates hammered out the 72 resolutions that formed the basis of our Constitution.
Today, most Canadians are enjoying Thanksgiving with their families. It's a (minimally commercialized) holiday that promotes family, food and gratitude. While that's a noble idea that's perfect for many, it can be a strain for some who are far from home, estranged from relatives, or at the very least find themselves challenged by family situations.
Many of us can't bear to be in the same room with some relatives for longer than it takes to wolf down a turkey dinner. But we do, because it's family – a network that helps us to position ourselves in the world.
It wasn't dissimilar in 1864 Quebec. Many of those top-hatted, suit-coated fellows could do little more than tolerate each other because of political differences and ancient slights. But they had gathered in Quebec a little more than a month after an initial meeting in Charlottetown that had sketched an outline of what a new Canada might look like. They were following up to colour it in.
John A. Macdonald and George Brown of Canada West (Ontario) and George-Étienne Cartier of Canada East (Quebec) were the primary instigators of the Confederation discussions; now they had to make sure all the goodwill flowing from September's conference in Charlottetown would be shaped into a document. They had never been anything like friends but they had shelved their partisan, political and personal rancour when they took part in what's known as the Great Coalition and then approached Maritime leaders about uniting British North America.
Some of these men found each other about as appealing as the "drunk uncles" many families must accommodate to keep the peace.
Globe founder Mr. Brown hated what he called "French-Canadianism" and didn't hesitate to say so, even when counting on Mr. Cartier as an ally. Mr. Brown and Mr. Macdonald were political foes in the legislature and Mr. Brown publicly criticized Mr. Macdonald for his drinking. Mr. Macdonald famously said, "…the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober." No love lost here.
Still, while probably grinding their teeth, they stuck it out at the Quebec Conference not just for their own self-interest, but for a greater good they could see on the horizon.
Mr. Brown wrote to his wife Anne that even though talks almost derailed over "distribution of members of the Upper Chamber [Yikes! the Senate reform prequel] …The conference proceedings get along very well considering we have a great deal of talkee-talkee but not very much practical administrative talent among our Maritime friends."
The conference participants worked long days and partied hard.
The wives and daughters did some shopping and sightseeing, complained about the unremittingly awful weather, socialized and gossiped.
Mercy Coles from Prince Edward Island (daughter of PEI opposition leader George Coles) wrote in her diary about her experiences. One evening, she'd had to put up with a drunk uncle of sorts: Thomas D'Arcy McGee. "Before dinner was half over he got so drunk he was obliged to leave the table. I took no notice of him."
If we're adding up reasons to be thankful this weekend, we should include the simple fact that the men we call the Fathers of Confederation stayed in the same room long enough to get the work done, to create the foundation for the democratic nation we will renew with our votes in a few short days.
They endured each other like relatives for three weeks so we could ultimately have that citizen's privilege.