Bill Waiser

Fathers of Confederation Table

If a table could tell stories

John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney were good friends.

One was the Conservative prime minister of Canada, the other the Indian Commissioner for the North-West Territories.

Their friendship was based on mutual trust.

When Dewdney wanted to step down as Indian Commissioner in 1881, after only two years on the job, Macdonald offered him the lieutenant governorship of the North-West Territories and an increase in salary if he stayed on to help implement federal Indian policies.

Dewdney agreed and held the two positions until 1888, when he entered Parliament as a cabinet minister.

Three years later, when the prime minister suffered a severe stroke, Dewdney was at his bedside on June 6, 1891 when Macdonald died at his Ottawa residence. He was also one of the executors for Macdonald’s will.

Dewdney’s loyalty to the old chieftain – as Macdonald was known – might explain why the Indian Commissioner was allowed to ship a special table from Ottawa to Regina for the Indian offices.

It was no ordinary piece of furniture.

Constructed of oak and basswood, with rounded corners and drawers, the rectangular table was apparently used by the Fathers of Confederation during their deliberations at the 1864 Quebec Conference meeting.
It was then transferred to Ottawa for use by the new government of Canada. The cabinet held its meetings around the table.

When a larger table was built for this purpose, Dewdney arranged for the old table to be sent to Regina – sometime between 1883 and 1888 – as part of the furnishings for the Indian offices in the new territorial capital.

It’s debatable whether Dewdney could have secured the cabinet table without Macdonald’s agreement, especially given its connection to the founding of the dominion.

Maybe it was a recognition of Dewdney’s faithful service to the government and the Conservative party.
A series of draconian federal Indian policies likely passed over the table in Dewdney’s Regina office – ironically, the same table at which the Fathers of Confederation sought to end their colonial relationship with Great Britain. In 1896, the table became the property of the government of the North-West Territories. That was the year before responsible government came into effect and Frederick Haultain was named territorial premier.

Thereafter, the table served as house table for the legislative assembly of the North-West Territories. Its significance was not lost on the territorial representatives.

These were heady days in the territorial assembly, when there was a concerted push for provincehood for the region.

During a 1902 debate, R.B. Bennett, a successful Calgary corporate lawyer and future Conservative prime minister, declared that Territorial Premier Haultain’s call for one large western province “would make it impossible for the provinces to work together in harmony.”

Pointing for special effect at the Confederation table in the assembly, Bennett argued, “Let us be national in our aspirations and not sectional in our ambitions.”

But the presence of the table in the territorial assembly did not dissuade the Laurier government from creating western provinces with a difference.

In the 1905 autonomy bills, Ottawa retained control of Saskatchewan’s and Alberta’s public lands and resources – just as it did with Manitoba in 1870.

In 1908, the confederation table suffered something of an indignity. In preparation for the meeting of the legislative assembly on the top floor of the new Post Office building, a carpenter had to remove six feet from the centre of the table so that it would fit.

The table was transferred to the Legislative Library in 1914 and accorded a place of honour.

It was no coincidence that Saskatchewan government officials used the table in 1930 to sign an agreement transferring federal control of resources to the province. At present, it is on loan to the Canadian Museum of History as part of a confederation display.

What stories the table could tell – if it could only speak.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix


Photograph: Saskatchewan Archives Board