“The new Dominion of Canada was ushered in, at Peterboro, by the discharge of heavy guns, musketry, &c., the ringing of bells, and various other marks of the general rejoicing of the citizens. To many the ringing of the bells was a cause of alarm, but very soon they found that their fears were groundless; the cause was nothing more or less than introducing our citizens to Confederation.”
So wrote the Peterborough Examiner of July 4th, 1867, the British North America Act having officially become law three days previously. And how was the town of Peterborough, Ontario (formerly Peterborough, Canada West) getting along a couple of months or so later? Click on to find out!
Avid readers of this series will not be at all surprised to discover that the big story, indeed practically the only one, in Peterborough in late August of 1867 was an election, with the new Dominion in the process of providing herself with her first Parliament. Not only that, but Ontario’s first provincial election was taking place at the same time. The voting, which was still done orally (you basically showed up at the polling station and told the returning officer whom you wished to vote for) took place over an entire month, beginning in early August. Peterborough’s balloting was slated for early September, and so the late August papers were full of campaigning, coverage of the issues, and so on.
Peterborough County, plus a little bit of Northumberland, had been divided into two ridings both provincially and federally. Peterborough West included the town itself, along with North and South Monaghan, Smith, and Ennismore. Peterborough East contained the rest of the county.
In terms of local issues in the election, it is clear that the main one had to do with settlement of the back country. Candidate after candidate, from all parties, threw their support behind homesteading laws designed to attract immigration to the region. Liberal candidate John Gordon’s view on the matter, published in the Examiner several times in August in the form of an open letter to the electorate, is fairly typical:
“Much has been said and little done on the subject of immigration which is so essential to the welfare of a new country like ours. My plan for securing a large share of the immigration now flowing to America and hitherto passing us, would be to make this country the cheapest place for a man to live in on this continent.”
In the national picture, the big issue was the Grand Trunk Railway. While the railway was widely viewed as a necessity, on both economic and security grounds, it was also viewed as a bit of a money-pit, and there were rampant allegations that not all of the company’s business dealings with the government were entirely above-board. The August 15th Examiner included a lengthy diatribe on the subject, including sinister accusations hurled at the Prime Minister himself:
“Mr. John A. MacDonald was the bitterest opponent of the Grand Trunk Railway Company up until the moment he was taken into secret partnership with the Grand Trunk contractors in their speculations at Port Sarnia.” (emphasis in the original)
Generally speaking — and this is an over-simplification of a very complex issue — the Conservatives were seen as supporting the Grand Trunk, while the Liberals were opposed to giving it any more public money.
Shady dealings with the railway company or not, the Conservatives would sweep Peterborough in the 1867 elections on both the federal and provincial levels. The Legislative Assembly of Ontario saw the county represented by George Read (Peterborough East) and John Carnegie (Peterborough West), with Conservative John Sandfield McDonald ending up as Premier (the Conservatives and Liberals tied with 41 seats apiece, so McDonald’s government was a coalition between the two parties). On the federal level, John A. MacDonald’s Conservatives won 100 seats to the Liberals’ 62, while Joseph Howe’s Anti-Confederation Party took 18 seats, all of them in Nova Scotia. Peterborough County’s Members of Parliament would be Charles Perry (West) and Peregrine Maitland Grover (East), the latter of whom we have met before in this series. While the election generally went smoothly, the riding of Kamouraska in Quebec would remain without representation until 1869; the 1867 vote there was postponed due to rioting.
While the elections dominated the Peterborough newspapers in late August of 1867, they were not the only major developments in the area. The County Council was preparing to debate a bylaw allowing it to raise the funds necessary to build a bridge across Chemong Lake between the Townships of Ennismore and Smith. The process was still very much in the early stages at that point, but the bylaw would be duly passed in October of 1867, $10,000 would be raised, and the floating bridge across the lake opened for traffic approximately four years later.
I have not touched at all, in this piece, on news from abroad, for the very simple reason that there was not very much of it catching the attention of Peterborians this week in 1867. The recent excitement of Confederation and the ongoing election combined to drive most other matters out of the public discourse, at least for the time being. However, there was one thing going on of which we should take some note for future reference. The Russian Empire was in the process of handing over to the United States the territory of Alaska — the treaty had been signed in March of 1867, although the formal transfer did not take place until October. The transfer of Alaska had some important ramifications for the western part of the new Dominion of Canada, but those, as mentioned, we shall consider further along the historical timeline.
Next week, we will take a look at early September of 1868!