Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Queen Victoria, 1837-1901: Mother of Confederation


by Arthur Bousfield


Queen Victoria grew up knowing a lot about Canada. Her father, the Duke of Kent (Prince Edward, fourth son of King George III), had lived for nearly ten years in Quebec and the Maritimes in the last decade of the 18th Century and had travelled as far inland as Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). As a young Princess, Victoria received the Bouchettes, the Quebec topographers, at Kensington Palace in 1832. The many well-known photographs of Victoria at the end of her life have stamped people’s minds with the image of her as an old lady, but it was as a charming young girl of 18 that she came to the Throne.

She inherited the Crown after a period of royal unpopularity, scandals and family discord. “I will be good”, she said at age 10, when she realised that she would likely become Queen; and she lived up to this resolve. A wave of enthusiasm greeted her accession and everyone was moved by the great presence and dignity shown by the short (barely five foot) blue-eyed, fair- haired monarch. Her accession coincided with the rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada and her diaries reflect those unhappy events. For her coronation in 1838 an amnesty was granted to the Upper and Lower Canada rebels as part of the celebrations and the young Queen talked Lord Durham into accepting the post of Governor-in-Chief of Canada to study reforms for the provinces in the wake of the rebellion.

Just as her grandfather King George III will always be identified with the existence of Canadians as a separate people in North America, so Queen Victoria is forever linked with the birth of a unified Canadian state. Before Confederation came about the Queen made clear that she strongly favoured it. Her father after all had proposed a similar scheme as early as 1814. “I believe it will make [the provinces] great and prosperous”, she told Sir Charles Tupper, one of the principal fathers of Confederation.

It was on 1st July 1867 that Her Majesty proclaimed the Confederation of the first four provinces of Canada and at the same time summoned the first members of the Senate of the new Dominion. To underline the inseparable bond between Crown and Confederation, Sir John Alexander Macdonald, first Prime Minister of the new Canada, whom Queen Victoria received in audience on the eve of the great event, told her that the purpose of Confederation was “to declare in the most solemn and emphatic manner our resolve to be under the sovereignty of Your Majesty and your family forever”. Loyalty to the Crown was the keystone of Confederation, the only common bond that could overcome the strong sectional character and feelings of the provinces. Even the ship that carried the delegates from the Province of Canada to Prince Edward Island for the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to Confederation was named the Queen Victoria. Victoria has rightly been called the “Mother of Confederation”.

Queen Victoria twice chose Ottawa as the capital, first in 1857 for the Province of Canada and then again in 1867 for the Dominion of Canada. She named British Columbia in 1858 and the City of New Westminster in 1859, and chose the pitcher plant as the flower of Newfoundland in 1865. She also assigned the coats of arms of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick in 1868. She gave the royal charters of the universities of Laval in1852 and of Trinity in 1851. In 1879 she contributed money for the preservation of the historic walls of Quebec City and paid for the erection of the city’s Kent Gate in memory of her father. After the great fire of 1890 at the University of Toronto, Victoria made a personal donation towards the restoration. Regina and Victoria were named in her honour, and the Province of Alberta after her fourth daughter Princess Louise Alberta. More counties, districts, villages, streets, parks and schools are named after her than after any other individual in Canada. The main roads of inumerable Canadian communities, as large as the City of Toronto or as small as the Village of Neustadt, Ontario, are named “Queen Street”. As part of the Canadian reaction to the Annexation Manifesto of 1849 (a drive by some Montreal business leaders for union with the United States), the Queen’s Birthday became a major national holiday and is still celebrated each year on the Monday preceding the 25th May. (Victoria Day, as it became in 1901 in memory of the Queen, is also the celebration of the reigning monarch’s official birthday.) Schoolchildren once invented the chant: “The twenty-fourth of May is the Queen’s birthday. If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away”.

When invited by unanimous resolution of the Parliament of the Province of Canada (modern Ontario and Quebec) in 1858 to tour the province, Queen Victoria declined but sent her eldest son, the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), instead. It was not fear of the ocean voyage, unwillingness to endure the fatigue of such a long tour or lack of interest that made her refuse, but rather the reluctance she felt about leaving Britain in the hands of the politicians for several months. Though never personally present in Canada, Canada was never far from her mind or she from the minds of Canadians. When the last spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway joining Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the first train arrived in Vancouver from Montreal in 1886, the news was immediately telegraphed to Queen Victoria as “Canada linked!”

At various times the Queen sent four of her sons and one daughter to Canada. Queen Victoria was the patron of Canadian artists such as Madam Albani, Lucius O’Brien, Frederic Bell-Smith and Homer Watson. She honoured many Canadian statesmen and was involved with a host of other Canadian public figures. At her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 Canada’s gift to her was the establishment of the famous “Victorian Order of Nurses”, which has helped millions of Canadians through illness, convalescence or disability. In 1896 she established the Royal Victorian Order, an order of chivalry for personal service to the monarch to which Canadians continue to be appointed to this day.

Queen Victoria’s sixty-three year reign (second only to King Louis XIV of our monarchs) coincided with the zenith of the second British Empire. Her assumption of the title “Empress of India” in 1877 symbolised this fact. Development of Dominion status by Canada in 1867 provided a model for the peaceful transition of empires into independent states, that was adopted thoughout the world in the following century. When the Queen’s Golden Jubilee was celebrated in London in 1887, twenty years after Confederation, the Premiers of the ten self-governing overseas provinces in addition to Canada (the first of them) gathered there to hold what was, in effect, the first Commonwealth Conference.

Victoria was a liberal monarch in the very best sense of the word. She urged her government to be merciful to her Indian subjects following the Mutiny in 1858, as she had for the Canadian rebels in 1837. On another occasion she deplored “the violent abuse of the Catholic religion” that was then taking place in public. And when it came to the question of race, Victoria was truly colour blind. A black from Nova Scotia was the second Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross (the highest decoration for bravery under fire) only two years after the Queen established it in 1856. American slaves hoping to escape to freedom in Canada by the underground railway made up a song called Away to Canada with the verse: “I heard old Queen Victoria say if we would all forsake / Our native land of slavery and come across the lake, / That she was standing on the shore with arms extended wide / To give us all a peaceful home beyond the rolling tide”. When the Queen received Kahkehwahquonaby, the Ontario Mississauga Chief, at WindsorCastle in 1838 she allowed him to wear native dress instead of the usual court dress customary for such occasions. Towards the end of her reign she refused to part with an unpopular Indian servant because she felt people were prejudiced against him simply because of his colour.

In 1840 Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha. It was a love match and the couple had nine children. Victoria’s handsome German Prince was a man of considerable talent, a political philosopher who had an earned PhD, a musician and composer, an excellent administrator and an indefatigable worker. Prince Albert originated the highly successful Great Exhibition of 1851 that led to the erection of Crystal Palaces in many major Canadian cities. Even more important for Canada’s destiny, he helped avert a war with the United States in 1861. Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (represented in the Canadian Parliament for many years by the Prime Minister and great royalist John Diefenbaker) is named for him. The Prince became the Queen’s Private Secretary and was so efficient and influential that from 1840 to 1861 there was almost a joint monarchy.

During Victoria’s reign the modern practice of constitutional monarchy took shape and the Queen learned from her husband that to continue to exert royal influence she had to work hard and regularly. When the Prince Consort (as Queen Victoria created Albert) died in 1861, Victoria was heart broken and, in her grief, wore black clothes for the rest of her life and withdrew into seclusion, an action that made the Monarchy temporarily unpopular in the United Kingdom, though not in Canada. Gradually the Queen reappeared in public and one of her last public acts before her death in 1901 was to review Canadian troops returning from the South African War via London.

Once coming upon a courtier misbehaving in the Palace, Queen Victoria said: “We are not amused!” and passed on. This remark has led to her being labelled as humourless. Nothing could be further from the truth. She possessed a charming smile, laughed heartily, loved fun and had a great sense of humour. She had a passion for opera and the theatre and a real gift for drawing and painting. Mendelssohn said that she had the finest amateur singing voice he had ever heard. She spoke French, German and Italian as fluently as she did English and was the author of two books. Victoria’s prestige was so great internationally that the century in which she lived is known as the “Victorian Age”, even in republics like the United States.

John Diefenbaker described the day of her death in his memoirs: “When Queen Victoria died, Father regarded it as one of the most calamitous events of all time. Would the world ever be the same? I can see him now. When he came home to tell us the news, he broke down and cried.”


Copyright (c) 2013 Arthur Bousfield