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History Pre-confederation (to 1867)

Miss Confederation

The Diary of Mercy Anne Coles

by (author) Anne McDonald

foreword by Christopher Moore

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jun 2017
Pre-Confederation (to 1867), Diaries & Journals, Women
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    Jun 2017
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History without the stiffness and polish time creates.

Canada’s journey to Confederation kicked off with a bang — or rather, a circus, a civil war (the American one), a small fortune’s worth of champagne, and a lot of making love — in the old-fashioned sense. Miss Confederation offers a rare look back, through a woman’s eyes, at the men and events at the centre of this pivotal time in Canada’s history.

Mercy Anne Coles, the daughter of PEI delegate George Coles, kept a diary of the social happenings and political manoeuvrings as they affected her and her desires. A unique historical document, her diary is now being published for the first time, offering a window into the events that led to Canada’s creation, from a point of view that has long been neglected.

About the authors

Anne McDonald has an MA in Psychology, has studied improv at Second City in Toronto, and has attended Sage Hill (Poetry Colloquium, Fiction Workshop) and the Humber School for writers. She facilitates creative writing and theatre workshops and also provides training in collaboration, communication, and creativity for organizations across the Prairies. Anne is a published author whose work has been produced by CBC radio. The autobiographical genesis of the novel To the Edge of the Sea: One hot and sleepy July day in Toronto I was teaching my English as a Second Language class and decided to watch a video celebrating Canada’s 125th birthday, a video that my mother had sent to my sister who had been teaching in Africa. In it there was a line drawing of William Pope rowing himself out to the Queen Victoria in the Charlottetown harbour to meet the Fathers of Confederation. He was the only one there and was in a small and insignificant boat because the first circus in twenty years was in Charlottetown. There was no one else to meet them, no boats or carriages to bring them ashore. This intrigued me and started my research into the story of Canada’s formation – one that had always seemed so quiet, so inconsequential. I spent many hours in the Toronto Reference Library reading histories of the circus and of the Confederation Conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec. In the Baldwin Room of the library I was able to read an original copy of Edward Whelan’s The Union of the British Provinces, published with his own money in 1865. It compiled the speeches of the delegates, after the fact, as no recordings were allowed during the Conferences themselves, and it helped me understand more of the politics, the delegates, and the events. Another invaluable resource was Mercy Coles’s unpublished diary of the Quebec Conference and tour of the Canadas. It is available in the National Archives in Ottawa. I first heard of it in Christopher Moore’s book, 1867 How the Fathers Made a Deal (1997) which was incredibly helpful as it describes the politics, people and events of the Conferences and what led up to Confederation and the formation of Canada. The Prince Edward Island Provincial Archives was a useful resource and the staff were very helpful in finding newspaper accounts of the circus and of the events of the conference. Shane Peacock’s book, The Great Farini (1995) was a valuable resource as well. My Aunt Frances Griffith sent me essays, stories and material of Prince Edward Island’s history such as the story of the Tenant’s League and Fletcher’s Field, outmigration in PEI, and many other topics. I can’t thank her enough. These are just some of the resources that I used in the writing of this book. Again, I have played with the known facts and timelines, making up my own intents and this novel is my fictional telling of the formation of Canada. 

Anne McDonald's profile page

CHRISTOPHER MOORE is the author of numerous history books for adults and young readers including 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, McCarthy Tetrault: Building Canada’s Premier Law Firm, and Louisbourg Portraits. He is winner of the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction and co-author of The Illustrated HiStory of Canada. Christopher lives in Toronto with his wife and their two daughters.

Christopher Moore's profile page

Excerpt: Miss Confederation: The Diary of Mercy Anne Coles (by (author) Anne McDonald; foreword by Christopher Moore)

Miss Confederation: Mercy Anne Coles

It is rather a joke, he is the only beau of the party and with 5 single ladies he has something to do to keep them all in good humour.1

The “he” mentioned in the above quotation is Leonard Tilley, who was then the premier of New Brunswick, and Mercy Anne Coles, the irreverent writer of this note, was one of those single women. Ten unmarried women altogether, three from Prince Edward Island, two from Nova Scotia, four from New Brunswick, and one from Canada West, accompanied their fathers or brothers to the conference in Quebec City, where the men negotiated Confederation and the creation of Canada.
The start of Canada’s journey to Confederation is a fascinating one, involving a circus; Farini, the tightrope walker from Port Hope, Ontario; the American Civil War; a whole lot of champagne, sunshine, and sea; and lovemaking — in the old-fashioned sense.
The process began in earnest when, in September 1864, the Fathers of Confederation, travelling by rail, steamship, and horse-drawn carriage, met in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, to discuss the possibility of a union of Britain’s North American colonies.* Like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, PEI was an independent colony of the British Crown at the time. The final of this group of colonies, Canada, was made up of Ontario and Quebec, then known respectively as Canada West and Canada East. Each of the Maritime colonies was very small, and with a large and growing American neighbour, many of the colonies’ residents, including those of Canada East and West, felt that if they were to survive separate from the United States, then the time had come to join forces and form a larger political entity.**
Following their time in Charlottetown, the Canadian and Maritime delegates crossed the Northumberland Strait on the Canadians’ steamship, the Queen Victoria, and toured briefly through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, meeting in Halifax on September 12 for the delegates to discuss the idea of Confederation further. Mercy Coles, the unmarried twenty-six-year-old daughter of Prince Edward Island delegate George Coles, went with her father on this tour. From Mercy’s descriptions she was the only young woman to go on this trip with the delegates. Perhaps her father viewed this as an opportunity for her education, or to meet a potential husband.
The big meetings and events, though, were saved for Quebec City, where, in October 1864, the Maritime Fathers of Confederation, with their unmarried daughters and sisters in tow, travelled again on the Queen Victoria, which the Canadians had sent to bring the Maritimers up to Quebec City. They promenaded on the decks and looked out at the spectacular fall scenery along the shores of the St. Lawrence.
Mercy Coles was not part of this large group, however. She writes that her “father thought the trip [by ship the whole way] would be too rough for mother and me.”2 Instead, Mercy, her father and mother; William Pope (Colonial Secretary and a member of the Conservative Party, which was in power in PEI) and his wife; and Mrs. Alexander, the widowed sister of Thomas Heath Haviland (also a member of the Conservative Party), left on October 5, a day earlier than the others. They crossed from PEI to Shediac, New Brunswick, then took a train specially booked for them to Saint John. There they picked up Leonard Tilley, the aforementioned “only beau of the party,” as well as two members of Tilley’s government — Charles Fisher, with his daughter Jane, and William Steeves, with his two daughters.
From Saint John, they travelled by steamship down the Bay of Fundy, the trip taking twenty-four hours, to Portland, Maine (compare this to the sixty-plus hours it would take to get to Quebec City by ship). There was as yet no rail line from the Maritimes to Quebec through Canada, and so the group had to take this roundabout route through the United States. Of course, what the single women missed in the promenading on the Queen Victoria’s deck, they gained in the attention paid to them by the recent widower and then-premier of New Brunswick, Leonard Tilley.
In Quebec City, the Fathers debated and finally crafted the seventy-two resolutions of the British North America Act, the act that formed the Canadian constitution at the time, and which still forms the basis of the Canadian constitution today.

* No young women from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Canada, accompanied their fathers to the Charlottetown conference in September 1864. No doubt the men didn’t view the time in Prince Edward Island (which had nowhere near the opportunities and entertainment that Quebec City had) as an opportunity for their daughters to meet potential husbands. The women of PEI, however, including Mercy Coles and Margaret Gray, were part of the social events at Charlottetown.
** Newfoundland did not take part in the Charlottetown conference, however representatives from there did go to the Quebec conference.

Editorial Reviews

Anne McDonald’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. The pleasure of reading Miss Confederation is not just in the rich historical detail it captures, but also in following McDonald’s delight in discovering Mercy Coles’ diary. McDonald is not just a transcriber, she acts as an attentive and affectionate listener, recognizing the value of a young woman’s lively perspective on an unfolding history.

Frances Greenslade, author of Shelter

Mercy Coles’ diary of the social side of Canada’s Confederation conferences, as analyzed by Anne McDonald, reveals a story of beaus and belles, of champagne and dancing, of politicians lobbying each other through the medium of their unmarried daughters — all as seen from the young lady’s side of the quadrille. An enlightening, entertaining read.

Fred Stenson, author of the historical novels, The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo

McDonald’s finely crafted and nuanced history book rises above the crescendo of flag-waving nationalism. It adds a completely new dimension to our nation-making experience — a unique woman’s perspective which will stand the test of time.

The Chronicle Herald

McDonald and Coles take readers along on the “Confederation ride” — a fascinating and revealing tour of eastern Canada in 1864.

Canada's History

Unlike the more stagnant, textbook version of events, Miss Confederation is a refreshing and honest view of these meetings and the Canada of that time.

Atlantic Books Today

Anne McDonald's Miss Confederation, which includes Mercy Coles' diary, an intimate and timely account of her view of the Fathers of Confederation on their road to uniting the provinces, provides colour to what has previously been a dry subject. It is a lively history and well worth reading.

Sharon Johnston, author of the bestselling Matrons and Madams

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