Amor de Cosmos overcame strong resistance from the Greater Victoria area to push British Columbia into joining Confederation.

Saanich might have become part of the USA

What was Saanich like on July 1, 1867 when the modern-day Canada came into existence? The truth is, if some people had their way some 150 years ago, Saanich residents today might be getting ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, rather than Canada Day. But first things first.

Saanich – or better yet the space that would eventually become the District of Saanich – would not become an official part of Canada until July 20, 1871.

Until then, the area remained under the jurisdiction of the Colony of British Columbia, a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, then approaching its territorial, political and cultural influence under the reign of Queen Victoria. But even this narrative fails to tell the full story, because if it had been up to one group of area residents, Vancouver Island might well have ended being a part of the United States.

As UBC historian Margaret A. Ormsby notes in her authoritative work, British Columbia: a History, the occasion of Confederation did not really resonate with British Columbians. “Victoria and New Westminster, neither of which had yet failed to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, permitted July 1, 1867 to pass without particular notice: only in Yale and Baskerville, now the most populous centre of Williams Creek, was the first Dominion Day marked with rejoicing.” In short, the Greater Victoria region was ambivalent, if not hostile, towards the new political creation that had emerged half a continent away.

This attitude reflected what had happened in 1866, when the “feverish atmosphere of Victoria” spawned far-reaching discussions about the future status of Vancouver Island. At issue was the pending union between the Colony of Vancouver Island and the mainland Colony of British Columbia for financial reasons. Leonard McClure, an Irish-born politician, entrepreneur and journalist, who had initially favoured union, feared correctly, as it turned out, that the pending union would strip Vancouver Island of its representative assembly.

Accordingly, he pushed for “good and cheap government, under British rule, [and] if possible, under the American Republic if it cannot be otherwise obtained.” McClure preferred joining the United States over joining the British Columbia mainland. He was hardly alone, according to Ormsby. “More than one of [Victoria]’s completely disheartened business men had begun to advocate withdrawal of the Colony from the British connection and political union with the United States,” she writes.

However, McClure never spoke for a majority, and local support for U.S. annexation largely collapsed with his departure for the United States in December 1866.

But his influence could be felt throughout the ensuing years. Pro-Confederation forces under the leadership of Victoria journalist and politician Amor de Cosmos – once a political partner of McClure – faced considerable opposition on Vancouver Island, especially in Victoria, which had become the capital of the united colony of British Columbia following its formal creation in August 1866.

De Comos and other prominent members of the Confederation League struggled to gain political support on Vancouver Island, which remained a hotbed of anti-Confederation sentiments between 1866 and 1871. Not all opponents of Confederation favoured joining the United States. Some favoured the status quo of remaining a British colony. Others, especially Victoria’s business community, favoured annexation. In 1869, for example, two Victoria entrepreneurs with ties to Victoria’s German and Jewish communities personally petitioned then U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant requesting annexation, according to Ormsby.

Canada, however, was eager to expand westward towards the Pacific in light of American expansionism following the Civil War, and Canada more or less bribed British Columbia into joining Confederation by promising to pay for the transcontinental railroad that would eventually bind the country.

Central to this agreement was a meeting between Sir George Cartier, negotiating on behalf of Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, and a trio of politicians from British Columbia, held in Ottawa in the early summer of 1870 against the backdrop of Louis Riel’s first rebellion.

This delegation consisted out of de Cosmos’ personal rival John Helmcken, Robert William Weir Carrall, and Joseph Trutch, whose name the University of Victoria recently removed from a residence building following a student’s petition, citing his racist attitudes towards First Nations.

“In Ottawa, the delegates were surprised by the warmth of their reception,” Ormsby writes. In fact, Ottawa offered British Columbia more than it had hoped for. B.C. wanted a coach road. Ottawa offered to pay for a railroad. The B.C. delegates could not believe their fortunes and B.C.’s governing council approved union with Canada in January 1871.

De Cosmos, who eventually simultaneously served as premier of British Columbia and as a federal Canadian Member of Parliament representing Victoria, prevailed.