Anne McDonald's enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. The pleasure of reading Miss Confederation is not just in the rich historical detail it captures, but also in following McDonald's delight in discovering Mercy Coles' diary. McDonald is not just a transcriber; she acts as an attentive and affectionate listener, recognizing the value of a young woman's lively perspective on an unfolding history.
Frances Greenslade, author of Shelter (Penguin Random House 2012).
Overall, Miss Confederation is a delicious book for us female history nerds to curl up with on a rainy day. It's empowering and it's incredible to take a look at a woman who shaped Confederation in her own way. Without Mercy, where would we be? Most likely, Confederation would be just another history event told entirely by men. While this isn't inherently evil, it's refreshing and encouraging to study history from a different angle.
Damaris Tonner -- Net Gallery
Mercy Coles’ diary of the social side of Canada’s Confederation conferences, as analyzed by Anne McDonald, reveals a story of beaus and belles, of champagne and dancing, of politicians lobbying each other through the medium of their unmarried daughters — all as seen from the young lady’s side of the quadrille. An enlightening, entertaining read.
— Fred Stenson, author of the historical novels, The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo
Miss Confederation: The Diary of Mercy Anne Coles
Miss Confederation is a story of Confederation and of women’s unheard voices. The Mercy Coles diary, though well-known to historians, has never been published before now. It is an important diary, not only to the story of Confederation, but also to how a young unmarried woman explored the world and her part in it at this changing and pivotal time in Canadian history.
Canada’s journey to Confederation kicked off with a bang — or rather, a circus, a Civil War (American), a small fortune’s worth of champagne, and a lot of making love in the old-fashioned sense (courting, that is).
Mercy Coles, the daughter of PEI delegate George Coles, kept a diary of the social happenings and political manoeuvrings as they affected her and her desires. A unique historical document, her diary is now being published for the first time, offering a window into the events that led to Canada’s creation, from a point of view that has long been neglected.
To the Edge of the Sea won the Brenda MacDonald Riches First Book Award for 2011 in April 2012.
Anne McDonald’s first novel To the Edge of the Sea, released by Thistledown Press Spring 2011, explores the formation of Canada during the Confederation conferences of 1864. Themes of home and away, loss, love, belief and deception run throughout the story of John A Macdonald, Mercy Ann Coles, and Alex and Reggie, two PE Island brothers caught up in the times of the day – the circus and the Tenant’s League.
“Writ large, the country takes shape beneath a nurturing hand. We’re given Sir John A and the people of a groundbreaking time. We’re given writing that is evocative, genuine and eye-opening. A worthy chair by the fire sort of read.” Richard Wagamese
Excerpt To the Edge of the Sea
Reggie, Alex, and his father were out in the boat as Reggie looked up. There, marching toward them, were the soldiers who had come from Halifax, marching right over them, swamping the boat. The boat began to sink and Reggie and his father clung to the sides as everything slipped past, the fish and lines and nets floating above them as they sank with the boat. Alex was there too. He swam in circles over their heads, but Reggie was too afraid to reach for Alex’s hand, too afraid to let go of the boat. He and his father sank and Reggie shuddered; he was suffocating, needed to breathe. Reggie’s mouth opened and it filled with water. He cried out, waking himself. He was only half awake and thought he was home, that it was time to get up, time to go fishing. Panic welled up in him, left the taste of salt tears on his lip.
Reggie sat up quickly. Never. Never again out on the water. He looked out the window, wanted the bed to stop its sea sway, his stomach sick, tears in his eyes each time it happened. Never escaping the sea, everywhere his stomach sick. He hated it.
He was unable to fall back to sleep and lay listening to the rain that started suddenly and heavily. The whole weight of rain and wet on Reggie who turned to the wall. No one thinks they’ll find him alive, his uncle had said to the neighbour yesterday afternoon. Reggie listening silently, had been furious. Lucky to find him at all, the neighbour had responded. Reggie had felt suddenly sick then and had to leave the room in a rush. Now his father had brought him Alex’s watch. It was Reggie’s now. The responsibility was his. One son was gone – but it was the second born. And Reggie was the first. It is the first born who never leaves. But Reggie had left, had broken all the rules. He was supposed to be the one to stay. Talisman of safety, the first to be born, the first to … He left the thought unfinished. And his father, that too. That too, he’d left. God damn them.
Reggie pulled off the covers and got out of bed. He dressed and left the house. The birds were out now calling and the rain had stopped, the sun shimmered on the fields making them look like water. The long grass rippled in the wind as though in a wave. The whole sky was reflected in a puddle ahead of him. Water. On the land that he loved water, staring back at him everywhere water. Listening, he heard the sigh of wind through the trees and the grass, like the wind on the boat when they turned out to the open sea. A rare wind blowing north pushed at his back. He watched as the grass in the field rolled like waves through the sea. Rolling forward, pushed like him, away, and Reggie walked up the road away from the house, away from the farm. Walked without stopping, more than an hour, straight through the field that turned into sand that slipped out from beneath his feet, the grass of the dunes waving like the field, the wind pushing stronger at his back, all the way to the edge of the sea.
More about To the Edge of the Sea
The story of this story:
One hot and sleepy July day in Toronto I was teaching my English as a Second Language class and decided to watch a video celebrating Canada’s 125th birthday, a video that my mother had sent to my sister who had been teaching in Africa. In it there was a line drawing of William Pope rowing himself out to the Queen Victoria in the Charlottetown harbour to meet the Fathers of Confederation. He was the only one there and was in a small and insignificant boat because the first circus in twenty years was in Charlottetown. There was no one else to meet them, no boats or carriages to bring them ashore. This intrigued me and started my research into the story of Canada’s formation – one that had always seemed so quiet, so inconsequential.
I spent many hours in the Toronto Reference Library reading histories of the circus and of the Confederation Conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec. In the Baldwin Room of the library I was able to read an original copy of Edward Whelan’s The Union of the British Provinces, published with his own money in 1865. It compiled the speeches of the delegates, after the fact, as no recordings were allowed during the Conferences themselves, and it helped me understand more of the politics, the delegates, and the events.
Another invaluable resource was Mercy Coles’s unpublished diary of the Quebec Conference and tour of the Canadas. It is available in the National Archives in Ottawa. I first heard of it in Christopher Moore’s book, 1867 How the Fathers Made a Deal (1997) which was incredibly helpful as it describes the politics, people and events of the Conferences and what led up to Confederation and the formation of Canada. The Prince Edward Island Provincial Archives was a useful resource and the staff were very helpful in finding newspaper accounts of the circus and of the events of the conference. Shane Peacock’s book, The Great Farini (1995) was a valuable resource as well.
My Aunt Frances Griffith sent me essays, stories and material of Prince Edward Island’s history such as the story of the Tenant’s League and Fletcher’s Field, outmigration in PEI, and many other topics. I can’t thank her enough. These are just some of the resources that I used in the writing of this book. Again, I have played with the known facts and timelines, making up my own intents and this novel is my fictional telling of the formation of Canada.
Excerpt of Miss Confederation: Diary of Mercy Anne Coles
Mercy Anne Coles
It is rather a joke, he is the only beau of the party and with 5 single
ladies he has something to do to keep them all in good humour.1
The “he” mentioned in the above quotation is Leonard Tilley,
who was then the premier of New Brunswick, and Mercy Anne
Coles, the irreverent writer of this note, was one of those single women.
Ten unmarried women altogether, three from Prince Edward Island, two
from Nova Scotia, four from New Brunswick, and one from Canada West,
accompanied their fathers or brothers to the conference in Quebec City,
where the men negotiated Confederation and the creation of Canada.
The start of Canada’s journey to Confederation is a fascinating one,
involving a circus; Farini, the tightrope walker from Port Hope, Ontario;
the American Civil War; a whole lot of champagne, sunshine, and sea; and
lovemaking — in the old-fashioned sense.
The process began in earnest when, in September 1864, the Fathers
of Confederation, travelling by rail, steamship, and horse-drawn carriage,
met in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, to
discuss the possibility of a union of Britain’s North American colonies.* Like
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, PEI was an independent
colony of the British Crown at the time. The final of this group of colonies,
Canada, was made up of Ontario and Quebec, then known respectively
as Canada West and Canada East. Each of the Maritime colonies was very
small, and with a large and growing American neighbour, many of the colonies’
residents, including those of Canada East and West, felt that if they
were to survive separate from the United States, then the time had come to
join forces and form a larger political entity.**
Following their time in Charlottetown, the Canadian and Maritime
delegates crossed the Northumberland Strait on the Canadians’ steamship,
the Queen Victoria, and toured briefly through Nova Scotia and
New Brunswick, meeting in Halifax on September 12 for the delegates
to discuss the idea of Confederation further. Mercy Coles, the unmarried
twenty-six-year-old daughter of Prince Edward Island delegate George
Coles, went with her father on this tour. From Mercy’s descriptions she
was the only young woman to go on this trip with the delegates. Perhaps
her father viewed this as an opportunity for her education, or to meet a
The big meetings and events, though, were saved for Quebec City, where,
in October 1864, the Maritime Fathers of Confederation, with their unmarried
daughters and sisters in tow, travelled again on the Queen Victoria,
which the Canadians had sent to bring the Maritimers up to Quebec City.
They promenaded on the decks and looked out at the spectacular fall scenery
along the shores of the St. Lawrence.
* No young women from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Canada, accompanied
their fathers to the Charlottetown conference in September 1864. No doubt the
men didn’t view the time in Prince Edward Island (which had nowhere near the
opportunities and entertainment that Quebec City had) as an opportunity for their
daughters to meet potential husbands. The women of PEI, however, including
Mercy Coles and Margaret Gray, were part of the social events at Charlottetown.
** Newfoundland did not take part in the Charlottetown conference, however
representatives from there did go to the Quebec conference.
Mercy Coles was not part of this large group, however. She writes that
her “father thought the trip [by ship the whole way] would be too rough
for mother and me.”2 Instead, Mercy, her father and mother; William
Pope (Colonial Secretary and a member of the Conservative Party, which
was in power in PEI) and his wife; and Mrs. Alexander, the widowed sister
of Thomas Heath Haviland (also a member of the Conservative Party),
left on October 5, a day earlier than the others. They crossed from PEI
to Shediac, New Brunswick, then took a train specially booked for them
to Saint John. There they picked up Leonard Tilley, the aforementioned
“only beau of the party,” as well as two members of Tilley’s government
— Charles Fisher, with his daughter Jane, and William Steeves, with his
From Saint John, they travelled by steamship down the Bay of Fundy,
the trip taking twenty-four hours, to Portland, Maine (compare this to the
sixty-plus hours it would take to get to Quebec City by ship). There was
as yet no rail line from the Maritimes to Quebec through Canada, and so
the group had to take this roundabout route through the United States. Of
course, what the single women missed in the promenading on the Queen
Victoria’s deck, they gained in the attention paid to them by the recent
widower and then-premier of New Brunswick, Leonard Tilley.
In Quebec City, the Fathers debated and finally crafted the seventy-two
resolutions of the British North America Act, the act that formed the
Canadian constitution at the time, and which still forms the basis of the
Canadian constitution today.
Politics was not the only thing on the minds of those discussing the creation
of Confederation, however. The men viewed the conference and following
tour of the Canadas as a wonderful opportunity for other matters; they
brought along their unmarried daughters and sisters to … well, to promote
unions of a different sort. Luckily for us, Mercy Coles kept a diary of her
trip. She wrote of her travels and of the events, balls, banquets, people, and
whirlwind of social happenings and political manoeuvrings as they affected
her and her desires.
In the mid-19th century, three young Prince Edward Islanders explore their disparate futures at home and away, in a debut novel that is lyrical and precise in its descriptions of land, sea and people, and powerful in its accounts of both personal and political histories of the province and country.
Saskatchewan Book Award judges Joan Barfoot, Christine Cowley and Katherine Gordon for Best First Book