The Colonial Conference

9 July 1894

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the British Empire was reaching its peak. Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, marking fifty years on the throne. That year, the Imperial Federation League, whose aim was to promote closer ties within the Empire, organized the first Colonial Conference in London. It was hosted by Queen Victoria and Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.  The United Kingdom, Canada, Newfoundland, the six Australian colonies, New Zealand and the Natal and Cape Colonies in southern Africa sent representatives. Sir Alexander Campbell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, and Sandford Fleming (later Sir) represented the Dominion of Canada. Fleming was the Scottish-Canadian engineer who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway and conceived worldwide standard time. He was also an ardent imperialist who lobbied hard for a trans-Pacific telegraph cable linking the British colonies in Australia with Canada. As a trans-Atlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland had been laid many years earlier, a trans-Pacific line would fill in a missing piece in a globe-girding communications network that would help unite the Empire. Although the Conference agreed on a number of resolutions, including the approval of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable, agreements reached were non-binding.

Colonial Conference LAC PA-066744 Samuel J. Jarvis
The Participants in the Colonial Conference held in Ottawa, June-July 1894, Library and Archives Canada, Samuel J. Jarvis, Library and Archives Canada, PA-066744.

Seven years later, in 1894, a second colonial conference was organized, this time by the Canadian government of Conservative Sir John Thompson. According to a contemporary report, Mackenzie Bowell (later Sir), who as Minister of Trade and Commerce had the previous year travelled to Australia to promote Australian-Canadian trade relations, found it difficult to negotiate with six different Australian colonies during his short stay in the Antipodes. (The Australian Federation wasn’t formed until 1901.) Consequently, Canada proposed a conference in Ottawa. Five of the six Australian colonies (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, the only exception being Western Australia) sent representatives.[1] New Zealand and the Cape Colony of South Africa also sent delegates. Britain was represented by the Earl of Jersey, a former governor of New South Wales.  Lord Jersey was given strict instructions that he was only to listen, provide information, and report back to the British government. He did not have the authority to bind the British government to any agreement or even express any views on behalf of the British government. The Canadian delegation consisted of Mackenzie Bowell, Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir Adolphe Caron, Postmaster-General, George E. Foster, Minister of Finance, and Sandford Fleming.

The Colonial Conference ran over a twelve-day period ending 9 July 1894. Most of the conference was held in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill. The debates were not open to the general public or the press. Commenting on its lack of access, The Globe newspaper tartly remarked that “The conference has taken an excellent course to ensure that it will make the least possible impression on the public mind.” While it was generally known that Imperial trading relations was a major focus of the conference, little news filtered out of the deliberations. Consequently, reporters focused on the many peripheral social events. The night before the opening session, the government held a banquet for 300 guests at the Russell Hotel in honour of the delegates. The Ottawa Evening Journal remarked that the banquet was “the talk of the corridors of Parliament” the next day and that “unrestrained enthusiasm and loud cheers” had greeted the “incidental mention of Cecil Rhodes,” the great South African imperialist. More substantively, the newspaper also reported that the Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier (later Sir) had advised delegates to follow the trading policy of the mother country [Britain], i.e. free trade. At that time, the Liberal Party was a free-trading party, and supported unrestricted trade with the United States. It would attempt to negotiate a reciprocity treaty with the Americans during the early 1900s.

Colonial Conference G.R. Lancefield LAC PA-028845
The Colonial Conference inside the Senate Chamber, Parliament Hill, 28 June 1894, G.R. Lancefield, Library and Archives Canada, PA-028845.

A few days later, the Government held a garden party on Parliament Hill. Over 1,000 incandescent electric lights illuminated the trees and hedges close to the Cartier statue to the west of the central block. Lights and Chinese lanterns lit up “Lovers’ Walk – a secluded, treed pathway around the bluff of Parliament Hill that was long a popular spot for strolling. (Only traces of the trail now remain.) A large arch was erected with an “immense carpet underfoot.” The Journal waxed eloquently about the event. “Guests felt that some invisible genii had transported them for from the heights of Ottawa to some garden in the Orient.” The newspaper focused considerable attention on the ladies’ dresses. Lady Thompson, the Prime Minister’s wife, wore a black silk lace gown with jet trimmings. A band of black velvet with a diamond star in the centre encircled her throat.

After the conference, which concluded with a ball in the Drill Hall, delegates remained tight-lipped, saying little beyond anodyne comments. Lord Jersey remarked he wasn’t able to go into details, but he was “safe in saying that the results will surely prove beneficial, not only to the mother country, but to the various colonies.” William Foster from South Australia thought it “would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the conference in bringing nearer together the people of the distant parts of the empire.” In the absence of hard news, the Journal asked delegates about their opinions of Canada. Simon Fraser, a delegate from Victoria Colony in Australia who was actually a Canadian born in Picton, Nova Scotia, noted great differences between the Canada of his youth some forty years earlier and the Canada of 1894. Then, “it was still the good old days of stage coaches.” Canada was “a kingdom now; it has a place among the nations of the earth,” with a great future. Jan Hafmeyr from the Cape Colony in South Africa honestly replied that he had been ill for much of his brief stay. Consequently, he did “not feel qualified to express an opinion of the Dominion, its peoples and institutions as requested.”

Details of the conference finally came out in August 1894 with the publishing of the conference proceedings. With Mackenzie Bowell, the Canadian Minister of Trade in Commerce in the chair for most of the time, delegates focused their energy on two main issues — the enhancement of intra-Empire trade, and the laying of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada. Procedurally, it was one colony, one vote, with resolutions decided on a majority basis.

The first issue became known as the “imperial preference.” It was a policy keenly supported by Canada’s protectionist-minded and imperialist Conservative Party. In 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government had introduced its “National Policy,” directed at sheltering Canadian manufacturers from foreign, especially American, competition. The Conservatives had won the 1891 General Election under the imperialist banner “The Old Flag [Union Jack], the Old Policy [Protectionism], the Old Leader [Macdonald].” With the opening of western Canada, the Canadian government was eager to increase its share of the large British market for agricultural products and other commodities. With imperial sentiment on the ascendant in Canada, the Conservative Party now under Sir John Thompson supported differential tariffs that favoured British (and British colonial goods) over foreign goods. British goods would still face a tariff, just a smaller one than that imposed on foreign goods. This was seen as a way of broadening and deepening intra-Empire trade while at the same time keeping American producers at a significant disadvantage in Canadian markets. Greater access to Empire markets also became more imperative after the 1890 introduction of the McKinley Tariff in the United States that substantially raised existing barriers to Canadian goods.

However, Britain had pursued a free-trading policy with the world since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Cheap foreign food fed the growing British urban proletariat. The factories and mills in which they worked depended on the importation of cheap commodities for conversion into textiles and other manufactured goods. Consequently, it sought the lowest world price for imported inputs, and didn’t distinguish between foreign and colonial sources. British trade with non-Empire countries dwarfed its Imperial trade. While some of the Australian colonies supported the Canadian position, they were hampered by constitutional barriers that, while allowing them to favour other Australian colonies, forbade them from discriminating in favour of any country, whether foreign or British. The South African colonies laboured under similar restrictions.  On a 5-3 vote, the delegates passed a resolution, moved by Canada, stating the Conference’s “belief in the advisability of a Customs’ arrangement between Great Britain and her Colonies by which trade within the Empire may be placed on a more favourable footing than that which is carried on with foreign countries.” Recognizing that Great Britain might not be inclined to do this at this point in time, a subsidiary resolution noted the desirability of the Colonies to be given the power to discriminate in favour of each other’s products. Canada, Tasmania, Cape of Good Hope, South Australia and Victoria voted in favour of the resolution. New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand voted against it. Britain did not vote.

The second important issue – the construction of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada – was less contentious. A resolution moved by New South Wales passed unanimously. (Again, Britain did not vote.) The South African delegation urged that eventually the cable should be extended to South Africa. Sandford Fleming presented a lengthy paper examining the delays in laying the cable since the first colonial conference in 1887. Delegates thought it appropriate that Canada, Britain and the Australian colonies each assume a one-third share in a government-owned venture, estimated to cost about £1.8 million. Australians denounced the “grasping monopoly” of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company that owned the only existing telegraph line to Australia through Asia, and indicated their willingness to assume the entire cost of building the trans-Pacific line if the underwater cable could be protected for at least a week “after a declaration of war by or against England.” Sandford Fleming though that once the line was built, it would cost 2 shillings per word to send a telegram from Australia to Canada, and would lower the per word cost of sending a telegram from Australia to Britain from 4 shillings and 9 pence to 3 shillings and 3 pence. At today’s prices that would be a reduction from about £28 (C$48) per word to a mere £19 (C$26). (With email, Skype, and other forms of electronic communications virtually costless today, one forgets how expensive telecommunications used to be.)

Despite the strong imperial sentiments expressed by all at the Conference and the self-congratulations that followed the resolutions, reality quickly set in. The Globe newspaper wrote a scathing report on the Conference’s trade resolution once news about its deliberations became known. It wrote that “Next, perhaps, to levying taxes on the colonies for old world wars…, there could surely be no swifter way of wrecking the Empire than to compel the forty millions in the United Kingdom to stint their bellies and immensely reduce their opportunities… [G]reater [Imperial] unity cannot be brought about by differential tariffs whose effect would be the speedy impoverishment of the mother country… No sane man can believe that we can find such a policy as a customs union with far distant continents whose population is even smaller than our own and a war of tariffs with our American kinsmen, with whom Providence has decreed that we must live as next-door neighbour to the end of time.”

Although Canada unilaterally introduced imperial preferences during the late 1890s, Britain retained its traditional free trade policies. It wasn’t until another Ottawa conference, this one held in 1932 in the depth of the Great Depression, did Britain break with its long-standing beliefs and introduced an imperial preference system as recommended by Canada.

The trans-Pacific, “all-Red,” British cable was finally laid in 1902, with the first message sent in December of that year. Operated by the British Cable Board, it was owned by Britain (5/18), Canada (5/18), New South Wales (1/9), Victoria (1/9), Queensland (1/9) and New Zealand (1/9). The cable ran from Vancouver to Brisbane, with intermediate connections at various tiny Pacific islands that Britain controlled, with a branch to New Zealand from Norfolk Island. The line was later extended across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.


Devlin, Charles, 1892. Liberal Member for Ottawa County, Quebec, Speech, House of Commons Debates, 7th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol.1, page 501.

Globe (Toronto), 1894. “Cabled From London, The Intercolonial Conference,” 15 June.

——————-, 1894. “At The Capital, Mr Bowell Elected President of the Conference,” 30 June.

——————-, 1894. “Notes and Comments,” 5 July.

——————-, 1894. “Trade Projects,” 4 August.

——————-, 1894. “Schemes of Empire,” 4 August.

Hopkins, J. Castell, 1894. “Imperialism at the Intercolonial Conference, Toronto,

Huurdeman, Anton. 2003. The Worldwide History of Telecommunications, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, New Jersey.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1894. “Sons of the Empire,” 28 June.

—————————–, 1894. “An Imperial Feast,” 29 June.

——————————, 1894. “The Second Day’s Conference,” 30 June.

——————————, 1894. “The Government and the Delegates,” 4 July.

——————————, 1894. “The ‘At Home’ On The Hill,” 6 July.

——————————, 1894. “Ball,” July 9.

——————————, 1894. “Mr. Bowell and the Conference,” 9 July.

——————————, 1894. “Utterances By Colonial Delegates,” 11 July.

——————————, 1894. “The Intercontinental Visitors,” 11 July.

——————————, 1894. “Fruits of the Conference,” 31 July.

Times (London), 1894. “What Colonial Unification May Mean,” 8 July.


[1] New South Wales – F.B. Suttor, Minister of Public Institutions; Queensland – A.J. Thynne, Member of the Executive Council, William Forrest; South Australia – Thomas Playford, Agent General in London, Victoria – Sir Henry Wrixon, Nicholas Fitzgerald, Member of Legislative Council (also represented Tasmania) and Simon Fraser, Member of Legislative Council; New Zealand – Alfred Lee-Smith, Cape of Good Hope – Sir Henry De Villiers, Chief Justice; Sir Charles Mills, Agent General in London, and Jan Hendrick Hafmeyer, Member of Legislative Council.

The Imperial Economic Conference

21 July 1932

The New York stock market crash in October 1929 marked the start of the Great Depression. Over the next three years, the global economy contracted at an alarming rate. Matters were exacerbated by misguided economic policies in major countries, aimed in part at maintaining the gold standard. In an effort to prop up demand for U.S.-made goods, the United States introduced the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930. Tariffs on tens of thousands of U.S. imports were raised to levels not seen in over one hundred years. In retaliation, Canada and other countries introduced tariffs against American goods to protect their industries. The combination of high tariffs and slumping domestic demand sent international trade into a tail spin. In the three years to mid-1932, Canadian exports fell by roughly 50 per cent, while imports declined by more than 60 per cent. Canadian gross domestic production shrank by 24 per cent in the 1929-32 period. The global economy fared better, but still contracted by more than 10 per cent; unemployment soared everywhere.

Against this backdrop, the leaders of the United Kingdom, the Dominions, and India met in Ottawa during the summer of 1932 to discuss the disastrous economic situation, and to try to mitigate its effects through closer imperial economic association. The conference had been requested by Canadian Premier R.B. Bennett at the end of the previous Imperial Conference held in London two years earlier. At that conference, Britain had rejected a Canadian proposal for members of the Empire to institute a reciprocal imperial trade preference aimed at boosting intra-Empire trade. Through much of the previous century, Britain had pursued a free-trade policy, confident that its manufactured exports could compete at home and abroad, while importing food and other raw materials from countries like Canada, Russia, and Argentina. But by 1932, the situation had radically changed—the key U.S. market was largely closed to British goods, Britain had been forced off the gold standard, and a protectionist-minded government was now in power. The new National government, which consisted of members of all three major political parties but dominated by the Conservative party, broke with tradition and introduced a general tariff of 10 per cent against non-Empire countries, and threatened to extend them to the Dominions that had already raised their own tariffs against goods from the Mother Country. Now, all members of the Empire had something to gain from successful trade negotiations.

For Canada, the conference was of vital importance. With Canadian exports to the United States in sharp decline, redirecting trade toward imperial markets was critical for the economy, especially its farmers. To ensure the conference’s success, the Canadian government made meticulous preparations, including the compilation by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics of six volumes of trade and other statistics to provide a common reference base for conference delegates.

Leaders, their delegations, and wives began to arrive in Ottawa in mid-July. In preparation for the social battles about to be joined, it was reported that some ladies had brought maids as well as 20-30 pieces of luggage filled with gowns, shoes, and hats to wear at the many gala events and garden parties. The Globe reported that “Ottawa will be a gay and delightful centre of social activity for the next six weeks.” The Indian delegation provided an exotic touch when the wife and daughter of Haji Sir Abdullah Haroon, member of the Indian legislature for Karachi and a senior member of the Indian delegation, arrived wearing Indian saris of bright coloured silk, embroidered in gold thread. But it wasn’t to be all fun and games. Underscoring the importance of the conference, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin arrived with more than half of his cabinet and their wives. Delegations were met at Union Station by Prime Minister Bennett and his sister, Mrs Mildred Harridge, who acted as the Canadian hostess.

1932 Imperial Conference
Delegates to the 1932 Imperial Economic Conference, Ottawa, UK National Archives

The conference officially got underway on the morning of 21 July 1932 with the arrival of the Governor General, the Earl of Bessborough, in an open landau on Parliament Hill amidst full vice-regal pageantry, including a guard of honour and a marching band. Delegates subsequently convened in the chamber of the House of Commons, Parliament having adjourned for the summer. The Canadian delegates sat on the government benches to the right of the speaker’s throne, next to the Australian and New Zealand delegations. The British team sat to the left of the speaker’s chair. The Governor General started the proceedings with a message of goodwill from the King, followed by his own personal greetings. Bennett was unanimously elected conference’s chairman. There were nine keynote speeches from each of the heads of delegation. Bennett, going first, re-submitted his proposal for a reciprocal imperial trade preference. The British Prime Minister cautiously supported the idea but noted that a trade preference can be achieved by lowering tariffs on intra-Empire trade, or by raising tariffs on non-Empire trade; the British government favoured the former. The conference broke up into committees that afternoon, followed by a gala dinner for 900 guests hosted by the Canadian government at the Château Laurier Hotel.

Delegates agreed to work every day and evening except for Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays which were devoted to social events. That first weekend, the Governor General hosted the heads of delegations and their wives at a formal dinner at Rideau Hall. Other members of delegations were invited to less formal functions at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club and the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club. On Sunday, churches across Canada and the Empire prayed for the success of the conference. In Ottawa, Dr. Clare Worrell, the Anglican archbishop of Halifax and Primate of Canada led prayers for leaders at St. Mathew’s Church, while His Excellency, Mgr. Andrea Cassulo, the Papal Legate, did likewise at Notre Dame Catholic Basilica.

Despite resolves to work for the common good and avoid bargaining for parochial gains, delegates haggled like fishwives over the next six weeks. Initial cheers for Canada changed to jeers when news leaked that Canada was the sole hold-out preventing an agreement. However, when negotiations wrapped up on 18 August, all countries had cobbled together a series of bilateral arrangements between each other based on Bennett’s idea of imperial preference. In essence, Britain agreed to keep in place the exemption for Empire products from its general 10 per cent tariff. It also gave in to Dominion demands to impose new tariffs and quotas on the imports of agricultural products from outside the Empire. Canada didn’t give Britain much, agreeing not to raise tariffs further on British goods, and to lower them on 200 items, many of which weren’t even made in Canada.

The Imperial Conference was a boon for Ottawa businesses which enjoyed a marked pick-up in sales as the hundreds of visitors bought summer clothes, souvenirs, and novelties. Department stores, like Murphy-Gamble and Freiman’s, noted that even the locals were buying. In the long run, however, the trade preferences negotiated at the conference did relatively little for the Canadian economy. Canadian trade continued to be oriented in a north-south pattern with the United States; geography trumped imperial ties. Canadian exports did rise somewhat in the years that followed the conference, but the upturn was more likely due to the recovery in the global economy that anything else. Moreover, later in the 1930s, Canada negotiated lower tariffs with the United States, its most natural trading and investment partner. Britain was the big loser. Going into the conference, it had hoped to lower intra-Empire tariffs while keeping tariffs on foreign countries unchanged—a modest step toward freeing global trade, while at the same time strengthening intra-Empire political and economic ties. Instead, by raising tariffs and instituting quotas on non-Empire agricultural goods, it exacerbated the global retreat from free trade, raised domestic costs, and undermined Britain’s leadership role in the world.


Boyce. Robert, 2010, “The Significance of 1931 for British Imperial and International History,” Histoire@Politique. Politique, culture, société, N°11, mai-août,

Canadian History, 2013. The Ottawa Conference,

Hodson, H.V., 1932. “Ottawa and the New British Empire,” The Spectator, 9 August,

Jacks, David, S. 2011. Defying Gravity: The 1932 Imperial Conference and the Reorientation of Canadian Trade, Working Paper #17242, National Bureau of Economic Research, July,

The Globe, 1931. “Bennett to Call Imperial Economic Conference, Session in Ottawa as soon as possible,” 29 October.

———————, 1932. “The Imperial Conference,” 24 February.

———————, 1932. “Message from King George to Open Economic Conference,” 11 July.

———————, 1932. “Conference Gaieties Open With Parley Dinner Party,” 20 July.

——————–, 1932. “Ottawa Greets Visitors Arriving for Conference,” 20 July.

———————, 1932. “Canada’s Cordial Empire Offer Finds Cheering Family Response,” 22 July.

———————, 1932. “Empire Trade Proposals Revealed at Conference,” 22 July.

———————, 1932. “Many Statistics Are Made Public For Conference,” 22 July.

———————, 1932. “City Bows in Prayer for Success of Imperial Conference,” 25 July.

Reid, R. A., 1932. “The Imperial Conference of 1932,” Article II, The Globe, 22 July.

The Evening Ottawa Citizen, 1932. “Sales Increase, Business Good, Merchants Say,” 23 July.

————————–, 1932. “Opposing Views on Canada’s Offer in Britain,” 23 July.

————————–, 1932, “Sharply Criticize Canada For Conference Delay,” 3 August.

————————–,1932.  “Premier Bennett Under Fire, Called ‘Buffoon of Ottawa,’” 3 August.

The Montreal Gazette, 1932. “The Imperial Conference,” 6 December.

Image: Delegates to the 1932, Imperial Economic Conference, Ottawa, The National Archives (United Kingdom),