The Confederation Debates, or Parliamentary debates on the subject of the confederation of the British North American provinces, is a set of documents that is invaluable when demonstrating to students the wealth of information found in older government publications. It dealt with issues much broader than Confederation. For example, it discussed Canada-U.S. relations; inter-provincial trade (the geographic conglomerations of 1840 were not working according to many) and the “Quebec Question”.
Many other issues that have current relevance can be found in the Confederation Debates. When sections are read to students, they are often astounded at how such issues still have resonance today in Canada. They see that Confederation was ultimately a great compromise of many varying viewpoints, wishes and issues. How Canadian! Students can easily relate the past with the present, as many issues remain the same – issues such as free trade, English-French relations, Canada-U.S. relations, and so on. There are many related reports that are equally interesting to students in terms of helping them see “old as new again” such as the Durham Report of 1839 (Report on the affairs of British North America). Much can be drawn from it to current events such as Meech Lake. The Report from the Select Committee of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada and Statutes, treaties and documents of the Canadian Constitution, 1713-1929 are well worth a look. (See page 361 on French Canadians and a possible U.S. takeover of Canada.)
A useful class exercise following the review of these documents would be to ask students to analyze the Confederation Debates and have the faculty member ask students to write a speech or report of their own based on other government documents which contain some of the issues discussed.
Vivienne Monty is Senior Librarian at Frost Library, York University. She is the former Head of the Government and Business Library and was also the chief editor for the creation of two specialized periodical indexes, the Monetary Times and Maclean’s Magazine.