The vessel “dropped anchor magnificently,” Brown wrote, in Charlottetown harbour. He hoped that the locals would be suitably impressed by their “big brothers from Canada.” In fact, the town was abuzz, but not for any political conference. People were arriving from all over the Island to see the circus. It was making its first appearance on the Island in 20 years. The welcoming committee consisted only of W.H. Pope, a local member of the PEI legislature. He commandeered a small boat to row out and greet the Canadians.
It was an awkward beginning. There were not even enough hotel rooms in town for all the delegates. But hospitality won the day. The Maritime delegates agreed to postpone their discussions and allow the Canadians to present their plan. The Canadians were elated. The agenda was cleared; the next day, George-Étienne Cartier and Macdonald began the presentation. Why not create a union of all the British North American colonies? After the first session, Pope invited everyone to his house for a grand buffet luncheon of oysters and lobster.
Macdonald was the Canadian point man the next day. He was earnest and persuasive, and regaled the delegates with his knowledge of British history. He told them that they had to avoid the tragic flaw in the American political system of a weak central government. In Macdonald’s mind, this had led to the American Civil War. He proposed instead a federation with a strong central government that preserved the local identities of the separate colonies. George Brown described the constitutional issues. Alexander Galt outlined the financial and economic arrangements.
The discussions were informative. The real persuasion, however, took place in the partying that happened afterward. For historian Peter Waite, “the beginning of Confederation could be precisely dated.” It happened when the Canadians began pouring from the plentiful stores of champagne aboard the Queen Victoria.
When the Maritime delegates got down to the subject for which the conference had been called, it became abundantly clear that Maritime union was never going to happen. The PEI delegates made the impossible demand that Charlottetown be the capital of a united province. At least in the wider Canadian federation the small, isolated city would be the capital of something.
Be it the champagne, the timing or the tacit approval of the British Colonial Office (it had agreed to the concept of union in an 1862 memo), the Maritimers were won over. The Saint John Morning Telegraph reported that the “confederate” cruiser in the harbour, the Queen Victoria, promised to outrival the Civil War cruisers “in the number and value of her conquests. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have all been within range of her big guns... such well-known pieces of artillery as the Cartier, the Macdonald and the Galt.”
The conference then moved on to Halifax, Saint John, Fredericton and back to Saint John, where the meetings concluded on 16 September. The delegates decided that another conference be held to work out the details of a union for all of British North America. It was scheduled to take place on 10 October in Quebec City. (See Quebec Conference, 1864.) At the final banquet in Halifax, Macdonald responded to the toast offered to “colonial union.” We will avoid the mistakes of our American neighbour, he promised. We will preserve the identities of the separate provinces while creating a vigorous central government.
As historian Christopher Moore argued, “The 1864 conference at Charlottetown transformed the pious, impractical ideal of confederation into a political program to be taken seriously.” It was there that Canada was born.