Miss Confederation's Diary, the Facebook of 1864

Miss Confederation's Diary, the Facebook of 1864

Posted on July 13 by Anne McDonald in Non-fiction
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I love going to conferences. I love travelling and touring too, but there’s something about attending a conference, or any organized event that’s scheduled over an intense short period of time, in a new place, that makes life thrum in a different way. There’s a certain group of people all there for the same reason – but all with different agendas and perspectives. Some are the movers and shakers, the bigwigs, the celebrities of whatever group you are with. Their agendas are more obvious. There are things that you want, too. You schmooze, you connect, learn. You cavort, tease, make jokes, rib each other; sometimes you dance. You go for drinks, have banquets, drink coffee in quiet corners and make life-long friendships. You see a new city and its sights; life there is different, with challenges and rewards your home doesn’t have. A heightened atmosphere reigns amongst this close group in a narrow space of time and place. There’s no saying what might happen in those close confines.

And that was one of the major things that struck me about the Mercy Coles “Reminiscences of Canada” Confederation diary when I wrote Miss Confederation. Mercy, along with nine other young, unmarried daughters of the Fathers of Confederation, went along with her father to the Quebec Confederation conference and tour of the Canadas in 1864. This is the first time the diary has ever been published, though it’s been known about for years. That it is only being published now is telling evidence of whose voices have been considered worthy of being heard. I’m fascinated by how her diary of the conference and tour feels contemporary – that people did then as they do now – schmooze, lobby, network, dance, sit together on bus (or in their case, train) tours and make new friends. The conference was sixteen days, with special events day, and night. And then the whole group of conference goers went on tour – from Quebec City to Montreal (pictutred below), Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, to Niagara Falls – with yet more events, sightseeing, balls. Can you imagine! What a heyday of fun – like a non-stop fair. And because we have this diary, written right at the time, it’s like we are there, dancing and eating, flirting (she was looking to get married, after all), teasing and being teased.


And the diary, with her entries often fairly brief, are just what we’d post today on Facebook or Twitter – with a photo to go along with them. Her way of expressing herself is different than what we’d say today, but the sentiments are the same.

So-and-so sat beside me at dinner. He was so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing (D’Arcy McGee). This famous guy, a journalist from England, was across from me – he’s ugly and doesn’t seem too impressive to me (George Augustus Sala).

And if you’re interested in seeing who’s available, you might write of who was talking non-stop to who and who was put out by that (New Brunswick’s William Steeves’ two daughters who monopolized the young guy who was really “the beau of Miss Fisher’s”).

In researching and writing Miss Confederation, it was these types of comments made by Mercy about the people and the places that spurred my writing on. I’d begun to transcribe the diary back in 2012 and she made me wonder about just about everything she referred to – from the Eighth Wonder of the World (Montreal’s Queen Victoria Bridge); the famous photographer in Montreal (William Notman); New Brunswick’s Premier Leonard Tilley who was “the only beau of the party”; to the incendiary Civil War song, the “Bonnie Blue Flag.” Although contemporary in sentiment and desire, the people and places she described were foreign to me – even if she was describing well-known people, such as John A. Macdonald. That’s because those people have never been presented like they are here – right at the time when this now famous, or infamous, history was being made.

The research was engrossing; here I was recreating a picture of Canada based on Mercy Coles’ viewpoint: Canada at Confederation, from a woman’s perspective.

To see more photos of the past, scroll through these images of Prince Edward Island, Mercy's hometown.

Prince Edward Island / Île-du-Prince-Édouard

Anne McDonald

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 25, 2016
Anne McDonald photo

Anne McDonald

Anne McDonald is an award-winning author. Her novel To the Edge of the Sea won the Saskatchewan First Book Award. Her play Lullabies and Cautions was recently showcased at the 2016 Spring Festival of New Plays. Her work has appeared in literary journals, Canada’s History, and on CBC Radio. Anne teaches theatre and creative writing. She lives in Regina, Saskatchewan.