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Politics

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Americans/J.m. Bumsted

By 1784 the combination of the American peace and Loyalist resettlement had completely remade the political structure of British North America. A first round of imperial reorganization took place that year. Cape Breton was recognized as a separate colony, and both it and St John’s Island were put under the authority of the governor of Nova Scotia. Controversy between Loyalist newcomers and the government of Nova Scotia resulted in the creation of New Brunswick as a separate colony, one that Loyalists could dominate. The division of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada was still a few years away but was already prefigured by the extent of Loyalist settlement west of the St Lawrence River.

The Loyalist presence remade the political life of British North America as well. The Loyalists brought with them American political experience and rhetoric. They were firmly committed to representative government and colonial constitutional practices. They believed in order, hierarchy, and authority, but they were also committed to the “rights” of life, liberty, and property and had sufficient political experience to make their opinions felt. On the other hand, the subtle changes in the status of women brought about by the Revolution probably did not come to British North America, where patriarchy continued to reign supreme.

The American-born were actively involved in politics in the period of early settlement, especially in New Brunswick and Upper Canada. American-born Loyalists held most of the important appointed offices in the first New Brunswick governments and were frequently elected to the provincial assembly. In early Upper Canada, the American-born were not prominent among official appointments, but they were extremely active politically, often in opposition to those officials. Despite the wave of anti-Americanism in Upper Canada after the War of 1812, post-Loyalist Americans actually represented 14.1 percent of the members of the House of Assembly in Upper Canada in the period 1830–41 – not an insignificant figure since the American-born constituted only 6.7 percent of the overall population of the province in 1842. At the same time, in relation to their total numbers, the American-born by the 1830s held a low proportion of high-status appointments.

On the west coast, the influx of American miners from California in the 1850s produced a substantial political response from the colonial authorities. In the gold-fields of British Columbia, as in California and Australia, the major problems revolved around policing. The miners themselves quickly established informal legal institutions to deal with their particular needs, as they had elsewhere, and it was felt necessary to bring these under government control as rapidly as possible. Thus Governor James Douglas of Vancouver Island unilaterally extended British authority onto the mainland in 1857, and the colony of British Columbia was officially established by the British government in November 1858, largely because of concern that the American miners would otherwise set up their own institutions of government and, following previous patterns, demand annexation to the United States.

Historically, Americans have on the whole been less active in Canadian politics than their numbers might indicate, at least partly because of anti-Americanism on the part of Canadians, but also because until very recently Americans (at least theoretically) would automatically forfeit their citizenship if they voted in foreign elections or ran for public office. Americans were significantly under-represented in prairie provincial and federal politics, for example, despite the number of American-born agrarian populists active in the west, especially in Alberta. Even in Alberta, only about 10 percent of legislators between 1905 and 1967 were American-born, more than half of these belonging to the Social Credit Party. But very few of these legislators had migrated to Canada as adults. At the same time, the American-born were quite active at local levels of government and in the politics of voluntary organizations. Nevertheless, virtually the only well-known Canadian politician of this century who was American-born was Clarence Decatur Howe, who had migrated to Canada as an adult. As minister of transport, Howe created Trans-Canada Airlines in 1936. During World War II he was minister of munitions and supply, and after 1945 he served as minister of trade and commerce.

Despite their relatively low political profile, Americans did have a profound effect on prairie populism. There were a number of varieties of prairie populism in Canada with no common or distinctive intellectual content. Agrarian democratic populism was a style and an attitude, rather than a precise ideology, and it was not uniquely American in origin, since elements can be found in indigenous Canadian and in British developments as well. Nevertheless, American farmers immigrating to Canada brought with them both an agrarian political experience and a variety of institutional expressions of that experience. Almost every farmers’ movement existing in the United States was imported into Canada, ranging from grain growers’ organizations to cooperative associations. Political manifestations of American populism included calls for “direct legislation” – a concept that encompassed referenda and the right of voters both to initiate laws and to recall (and dismiss) elected representatives – and battles against the protective tariff, monopolies, and government corruption and extravagance. American farmers in Canada, like the agricultural sector as a whole, supported cooperation, free or freer trade, and some measure of local control over the operations of government. Some American farmers were also in favour of equal rights for women as part of a general package of reform. Though the American newcomers may not have been solely responsible for the many strands of populist democratic thought, their experience with and sympathy for agrarian democracy helped ensure that it would predominate in the prairie provinces between 1910 and 1945.

As well as influencing populism, American political ideology also had a substantial impact on Canadian radical thinking in the early years of the twentieth century. Many of the radical ideas of this period had been spawned in the mountain states and in California. Americans led in the extension into Canada of traditional American trade unions as well as in the development of the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), both militant and radical. The industrial syndicalism of the “Wobblies” was peculiarly American in its philosophy and its leadership, and leading IWW organizers such as Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Joe Hill spent much time in Canada agitating among the workers. The ease with which labour radicals were crossing the Canadian-American border was one of the many reasons why border-crossing surveillance and procedures were tightened up in the early years of the twentieth century.

Probably the most important former American in British Columbia was E.T. Kingsley, who had lost both legs in a California industrial accident and for many years ran the Socialist Party of Canada. His career demonstrates that, on the Canadian frontier, American radicalism merged with European and British traditions. For example, “impossiblism,” the notion that not only was capitalism unreformable but attempting to achieve reform would divert the worker from the class struggle, came partly from Marx, partly from the British Socialist Democratic Federation, partly from frontier working conditions, and partly from E.T. Kingsley’s American background.