Seeing the Fathers of Confederation through the eyes of a woman

By Costa Maragos Posted: October 3, 2017 3:00 p.m.

Anne McDonald (l) is an author and a lecturer at the U of R’s Theatre Department and with SUNTEP of the Gabriel Dumont Institute.  Ann Germani (r) is a harpist and professional musician.
Anne McDonald (l) is an author and a lecturer at the U of R’s Theatre Department and with SUNTEP of the Gabriel Dumont Institute. Ann Germani (r) is a harpist and professional musician. Photos by Don Hall and Ken Frazer

So much of what we know about Canadian Confederation is understood through the eyes of men.

Well, get set for a much different view of the Fathers of Confederation, the events, and Canada itself on its journey to becoming a country.

Anne McDonald and Ann Germani present an evening of words and music that bring to life talks that were underway in Prince Edward Island and Quebec City in 1864, three years before confederation.

The event, October 5 at Luther College, is part of the Canada 150 series at the U of R hosted by the Department of History.

Anne Mercy Diary
Miss Confederation: The Diary of Anne Mercy Coles is published by Dundurn Press and can be purchased here.

McDonald, a lecturer in the Theatre Department and the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP), is the author of Miss Confederation: The Diary of Mercy Anne Coles.

The book is about the diaries of 26 year old Mercy Coles, daughter of Prince Edward Island delegate George Coles. He brought along his daughter to the conference in Quebec City and following tour of the Canadas to be a part of the social events surrounding the confederation talks.

For the big talks and events in Quebec City, the maritime delegates brought along nine of their unmarried daughters. The discussion of the union of Canada was seen by the Fathers of Confederation as an opportune moment for more union – the possibility of finding mates for their daughters.

According to McDonald, Mercy was fine with that but she had some other ideas as well. Mercy was an astute observer of people and their behaviours; their conduct at banquets, balls and other gatherings.

She wrote her thoughts in a diary. The diary, long known by historians but only published for the first time now, is one of the few primary documents on Confederation and the only one from a Canadian woman’s perspective.

The diary not only tells of the men, events and social networking that were pivotal to the conferences of 1864 which allowed Confederation to happen, but also allows us an insider’s view at how a young unmarried woman portrayed herself and life at this seminal time in Canada’s history.

“The Coles diary provides an intimate view of Canada’s movers and shakers of the time,” says McDonald. “Coles was 26 years old, which at that time, was getting old to be single. Coles was interested in the men. Many of them, including John A. Macdonald, were taken with her.”

Coles’ diary was not only kept intact but ended up in Library and Archives Canada. When McDonald read the diary she immediately understood it was a goldmine of stories missing from most scholarly books about Confederation.

“The idea of Confederation, our view of it, is so narrow. We think of it as just guys,” says McDonald.

Now McDonald has teamed up with Ann Germani, a musician and harpist - based in Brandon, Manitoba - who has researched, arranged and recorded a collection of Confederation era songs and dances.

The evening event at the U of R will feature Germani’s music from her CD Dancing to Confederation.  

Germani’s research has unearthed music composed by band leaders, teachers and musicians, living on Canadian soil, circa 1867.  As was common to that time, many compositions had their roots in the music of Europe and the British Isles but, as works became titled by places, events and celebrations in the New World, a new Canadian musical voice and identity began to express itself.

“Anne and I are thrilled to be collaborating - bringing to life through words and music not only the life and times of Mercy Anne Coles, but indeed of all Canada in its social, cultural and musical context,” says Germani.

Says McDonald: “We hope people will come away with a wider appreciation of what was actually going on in Confederation. Anne and I weave our work together. There is time for music. Time for the diary. Ann has done such an amazing job with all her research around the music and the things that were coming up at that time. There is all of this elaborate sheet music. The music and the Conference tour go hand-in-hand. The important sights of the day, documented by the famous photographer William Notman, are also represented in the sheet music. In our presentation you hear Canada as it was then – in words and in music.”

Music, stories and a view of Canadian history that is far from dull.

This event is free and open to the public. Reception to follow. Books and CDs will be available for purchase.
Ann Germani (harpist) – Dancing to Confederation
Anne McDonald (author), Social Whirlwind of Confederation: A Woman’s Perspective, the Diary of Mercy Coles.
Date:      October 5
Time:      7:30 pm
Location:  Luther Auditorium, Luther College at the U of R.
The Canada 150 Lecture series: Marking the 150th Anniversary of Confederation is an initiative of the Department of History to commemorate the founding of the Canadian confederation and examine the development of Canada since 1867. The lecture series is generously supported by the President’s Office and the Faculty of Arts.