A conference crucial to Canadian confederation was nearly derailed by an American circus.
The colonies of Atlantic Canada were considering unification in the face of the American Civil War, which saw increasing Yankee military might and diminishing British support for colonial defence. Politicians from Canada East and West were invited to the discussions in Charlottetown starting on September 1st 1864.
Coincidentally, the city was a scheduled three-day stop for Philadelphia-based Slaymaker & Nichols’ Olympic Circus, which feared the Civil War’s effects on stateside attendance.
Slaymaker & Nichols was the first circus to visit the island in twenty years, so public interest was high. The waterfront consequently was deserted, with no one working at the public wharf. When the Canadian delegates arrived, PEI’s representative William Pope had to handle greeting duties by himself—even rowing out to the SS Queen Victoria and ferrying the new arrivals, who included John A. Macdonald and George Brown from Upper Canada, and George-Étienne Cartier, Thomas D'Arcy McGee and Alexander Galt from Lower Canada.
Because circus-goers filled all the Charlottetown hotels and booked all carriages, delegates were forced to stay each night on board their 191-ton steamer laden with more than $13,000 worth of champagne.
The official events soon morphed into a political circus, which Canada West’s George Brown termed “the shake elbow and the how dyedo.”
Although the majority of the conference took place at PEI’s legislative building, social functions were held at the lieutenant governor’s house. Alongside discussions, speeches and alliances, there were lobster lunches, picnics and champagne balls. Banquets were held nightly for the duration—except on the Sunday, when no formal discussions were scheduled.
Despite the circus—political or literal—the Charlottetown Conference was a significant step towards Canadian confederation. Following the proposals put forth by John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier, the Maritime delegations expressed willingness to join a larger Canadian confederation if details could be worked out.
For further information:
Canada Channel | The Confederation Years - 1864: http://canadachannel.ca/confederation/index.php/The_Confederation_Years_-_1864