It is true that Upstart came before systemd. However, no other major distro is using upstart any more besides Ubuntu. wikipedia informs me that Maemo used it, and so did WebOS, but that's mostly a historical note at this point.
So yes, I would say that Canonical is very much going off on their own with this project. The fact that they require copyright assignment probably hasn't helped matters.
In general I feel like Canonical has been creating a lot of questionable forks: bzr versus git, upstart versus systemd, Unity versus GNOME. They've always claimed to be UI experts, but they don't seem to be focusing their effort where it counts.