The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation 1864-1900


257 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-5557-5





Reviewed by R. Douglas Francis

R. Douglas Francis is a history professor at the University of Calgary
and author of Images of the Canadian West.


“In 1864, when the fathers of Confederation sat down to their conference table, there were about a million people of French origin in British North America, and more than 85 per cent of them lived in what would become the province of Quebec. In all other places they lived in small and scattered groups surrounded by great majorities of strangers.” That basic demographic factor, according to Arthur Silver, affected and guided French-Canadian attitudes toward Quebec, Canada, and Confederation. As is the case a century later, the French Canadians had two possible responses to their minority position in North America: to make Quebec alone the homeland of the French Canadians; on to work for a broader bilingual and bicultural Canadian nation in which French Canadians played a prominent role. In dealing with this familiar issue in French-Canadian history, Silver comes to some new, significant, and different conclusions for the years 1864 to 1900.

Silver argues that French Canadians during the Confederation debates did not put aside their sectional interests of the previous century to work for a new pan-Canadian nationalism — quite the opposite: they looked on Quebec as the exclusive domain of the French Canadians, their only homeland. They accepted Confederation because it promised to strengthen Quebec’s position in British North America.

By the late nineteenth century, however, this exclusive Quebec nationalism had to be reconciled with a wider French-Canadian nationalism. The rise of a strong English-Canadian imperial/national sentiment forced the change. As the Quebecois saw French Canadians’ rights eliminated in the other provinces, it in turn aroused their interest in the plight of their compatriots in the rest of Canada. In the end, French Canadians had to reconcile their Quebec and Canadian forms of nationalism.

Silver has argued his case well. His thesis is clear; his research impressive; and his arguments convincing. There are, however, two weaknesses. Like many historians, he relies heavily on newspapers as his chief source of public opinion. He justifies his position by claiming that newspapers were the formulators of public opinion in the late nineteenth century. Yet recent research among social scientists questions this assumption. Also he might have strengthened his case by discussing more fully the ideas of French-Canadian intellectuals, particularly the influential clerics. One suspects that they reflected and directed public attitudes as much as newspaper editors. These minor criticisms aside, Silver’s work is an important contribution to the study of French-Canadian attitudes in the late nineteenth century.


Silver, A.I., “The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation 1864-1900,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024,