(Disponible en français : L’écritoire de la Confédération)
The Confederation Inkstand is a Canadian artifact that, although unremarkable in its design and manufacture, is historically important because it was used at three significant moments in the nation’s history.
The inkstand, which forms part of the special collections of the Library of Parliament, bears four sterling silver plaques. Three of the plaques mark its use at:
- the Quebec Conference of 1864;
- the wartime Quebec Conference of 1943; and
- the admittance of Newfoundland into Confederation in December 1948 and February 1949.
The inkstand, made of ebonized (black painted) wood, and was likely manufactured between 1861 and 1864. The date was estimated by an expert appraiser based on the popularity of ebonized furnishings.
Ebonized wood became fashionable following the death of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who arranged for much of her furniture to be painted black as a sign of mourning.
It holds two identical cut glass inkwells with brass collars sitting within circular recesses. There are two elongated recesses for quills and a curved handle centered lengthwise along the top, and the front has a single drawer.
Quebec Conference, 1864
The inkstand is first known to have been used at the Quebec Conference that began on 10 October 1864 and lasted just over two weeks. The plaque that commemorates the occasion reads:
Encrier dont se sont servi les Promoteurs de la Confédération Canadienne pour signer les résolutions adoptées à la Conférence de Québec.
Sir E‐P Taché / Mademoiselle C.A. Taché.
In the photo, the inkstand can be seen on the table in front of the delegates, and is identified by its profile, the double wells and its handle.
It is questionable that this inkstand was used at the Charlottetown Conference of September the same year: given the comprehensive manner in which the inkstand’s uses are noted on the plaques, and the fact that it came from a delegate’s family, its known use at Charlottetown would not likely have been omitted from these commemorations.
“QUADRANT”, Quebec 1943
The inkstand was used a second time in August 1943 at the first of two war-time conferences (codenamed “QUADRANT”), a highly secret strategic meeting held in Quebec City to determine the future course of the Second World War.
No known photos of the inkstand exist at the event, and its use is recorded only on the inkstand’s plaque, which reads:
Cet encrier fut prêté à M. Mackenzie King devant servir au président des États‐Unis et au premier ministre de Grande‐Bretagne, lors de la Conférence de Québec en 1943
Newfoundland joins Confederation, 1948
The final use of the inkstand noted on the plaques commemorates Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1948. The inscription reads:
On December 11, 1948, this Inkstand was used by the delegates of Canada and Newfoundland at the signing in Ottawa of the Terms of Union.
The inkstand can be seen clearly on the table in front of the delegation. Seated are Louis St-Laurent, Prime Minister of Canada, and A.J. Walsh, chairman of the Newfoundland delegation. Joey Smallwood, first premier of the new province, is standing second from right.
On 11 December, 1948, the Terms of Union were signed in the Senate Chamber at Ottawa with a subsequent signing in the Commons on 7 February, 1949.
In an excerpt from the Commons debates of that day, Mr. St-Laurent read into the record of Commons debates part of the remarks he made at the December 11 signing. In them, he describes the inkstand, and announces that it would be donated to the people of Canada and housed in the Library of Parliament:
The fourth and final plaque affixed to the inkstand commemorates its presentation to the ‘Canadian Nation’ and identifies its provenance. It reads:
To the Canadian Nation from Major R.A.C. Kane, VD, grandson of Sir Etienne P. Taché.
In the words of Prime Minister St-Laurent (above): “The inkstand was used at the famous Quebec conference in 1864 by the original Fathers of Confederation, and subsequently presented to Taché, who presided over that conference.”
It is reasonable to accept that indeed the inkstand would have been presented to Taché in recognition of his important role at the conference. This establishes a connection to the event.
The second element to confirm its provenance and indeed its authenticity is the connection of the donor to Taché: Major R.A.C. Kane was indeed a direct descendant of Taché, with genealogical research suggesting that he was in fact Taché’s great-grandson.
Viewing the inkstand
The Confederation Inkstand is normally housed in the Todd-Faribault Room of the Main Library. However, for the remainder of this year, the inkstand is on loan to The Canadian Museum of History for inclusion in their exhibit, 1867: Rebellion and Confederation.
Further details on the exhibit are available at the museum’s website.
Author: Sonia Bebbington, Library of Parliament