First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government

In 1848, Canada formed its first nominally responsible government—one whose executives would be responsible to the colony’s people rather than to the British home country. The existence of responsible government was merely theoretical, however, until the passage of the first law supported by Canadians that opposed British interests: When the Rebellion Losses Act became law, responsible government in Canada became a reality.

Summary of Event

The view of empire that prevailed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Great Britain acquired most of the possessions that made up the British Empire, was based on the mercantilist system: Colonies, it was thought, existed to complement the economy of the mother country, mostly by producing staple raw materials that would be exchanged for the finished products manufactured at home. The American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);and colonial policy[Colonial policy] (1775-1783) called that doctrine into question. The thirteen colonies had evolved from producers of staple raw materials, such as tobacco Tobacco;in United States[United States] and cotton, into diversified economies with their own multifaceted social structures. These, in turn, demanded recognition in the political sphere, and when they did not receive that recognition, they wrested political autonomy from Great Britain by force. Canada;responsible government
Responsible government, Canadian
Rebellion Losses Act of 1849
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
[kw]First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government (Apr. 25, 1849)
[kw]Test of Canada’s Responsible Government, First (Apr. 25, 1849)
[kw]Canada’s Responsible Government, First Test of (Apr. 25, 1849)
[kw]Responsible Government, First Test of Canada’s (Apr. 25, 1849)
[kw]Government, First Test of Canada’s Responsible (Apr. 25, 1849)
Canada;responsible government
Responsible government, Canadian
Rebellion Losses Act of 1849
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
[g]British Empire;Apr. 25, 1849: First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government[2680]
[g]Canada;Apr. 25, 1849: First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government[2680]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 25, 1849: First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government[2680]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 25, 1849: First Test of Canada’s Responsible Government[2680]
Elgin, eighth earl of
Grey, Henry George
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada]
Baldwin, Robert
[p]Baldwin, Robert;and Canada[Canada]
Lafontaine, Louis Hippolyte
Durham, first earl of
[p]Durham, first earl of;and Canada[Canada]
Papineau, Louis-Joseph
Mackenzie, William

[p]Mackenzie, William Lyon;and responsible government[Responsible government]
Roebuck, John Arthur

In the wake of the American Revolution, the British government developed for the rest of the empire a doctrine of representative government. The leaders of the British government would oversee the empire as a whole, while conceding local political expression to assemblies elected by the residents of the colonies. Thus, colonial subjects would be represented in their own legislative bodies. However, the executive branch of the colonial government would still be controlled by Britain, which would appoint a governor for each colony. The governor was responsible to London; he was not responsible to the colony, its people, or its legislature.

The doctrine of representative government was applied to Britain’s settlement colonies—those colonies inhabited by immigrants from Europe or their descendants—for fifty years, beginning in the late eighteenth century. The maritime colonies (later Nova Scotia Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) New Brunswick had been allowed representative assemblies since the 1780’s, but the decisive expression of representative government was Canada’s Contitutional Act of 1791 Constitutional Act of 1791 . To make the governing job manageable, Canada was divided into two provinces: Lower Canada, comprising the area between Quebec and Montreal, which was inhabited largely by the descendants of French immigrants, and Upper Canada, the predominantly British area north of Lakes Ontario and Erie.

Under the representative Voting rights;in Canada[Canada] governments of Upper and Lower Canada, fairly liberal franchises allowed residents to elect the members of legislative assemblies. Each body had to pass any laws applying to its province, but such laws came into operation only if approved by two councils: the legislative council and the executive council. The members of both of these councils were appointed by the British-appointed governor. Finally, approval of laws required the assent of the government in London. Thus, Canadians in each province could design their own laws, but those laws could take effect only if endorsed by four separate organs of the mother country: the two councils, the governor, and the home government itself.

Robert Baldwin.

(Library of Congress)

At first, the system established by the 1791 constitution Constitutions;Canadian
Canada;constitutions worked fairly well. Most of the colonies’ inhabitants were subsistence farmers, and a small elite consisting of traders and a few professionals enjoyed privileged access to the governors. The governors appointed to the executive councils a few relatively wealthy individuals, often called the compact, who received salaries for their advice. A few prominent locals, celebrities intended largely to focus popular support for the governors’ measures, were appointed to the legislative councils. It was assumed that the executive councils would restrain any radical impulses of the elected members of the legislative assemblies. The British viewed the executive councils as the local equivalents of the House of Lords in England.

This system, however, began to break down in the early years of the nineteenth century. Many factors contributed to this breakdown. A major influence was very heavy immigration, mostly by impoverished Scots and Irish people Canada;Irish immigration who were victims of gentrification at home. They came to Canada seeking new land to farm. The population of Canada increased fivefold between 1812 and 1850. Cheap fares were provided by the ships carrying timber and lumber from British North America to Great Britain—immigrants, even at low rates, provided a return cargo for the ships. Once the immigrants had established themselves in their new home, they became interested in how they were governed.

Back in Britain, the mercantilist concept of the empire was beginning to break down. Sparsely populated colonies did not provide adequate markets for Britain’s growing industries, so Britain needed the entire world as a market. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining imperial control was increasing: After 1815, Britain maintained six thousand troops in Canada and built many new fortifications to forestall another invasion from the United States. Attempts to collect money from the colonists to pay for some imperial expenses met with the same rejection they had in the thirteen colonies to the south. The British government was willing to turn over some of the revenues the colonies generated—those from the sale of public lands, for example—but only in return for the colonies assuming the costs of colonial government. The colonists were willing to accept such an arrangement only if they were given greater control over the operation of that government.

The demands of the colonial radicals were beginning to find support in Britain, mostly from radical politicians, such as John Arthur Roebuck Roebuck, John Arthur , who had been elected to Parliament as a result of the Reform Act of 1832. These politicians championed the colonial cause. Both of the established parties regarded the radicals and their ideas with suspicion, but the Whigs Whig Party (British);and Canada[Canada] (unlike the Tories) were often dependent on radicals for voting support in Parliament. At the same time, radicals in the colonies, such as William Lyon Mackenzie Mackenzie, William Lyon
[p]Mackenzie, William Lyon;and responsible government[Responsible government] in Upper Canada and Louis-Joseph Papineau Papineau, Louis-Joseph —leader of the French Canadians sitting in the legislative assembly in Lower Canada—began to form ties with the parliamentary radicals.

Matters came to a boil with the Canada;rebellions rebellions of 1837. Papineau and his followers staged an uprising in Lower Canada, which, after a successful beginning, was rapidly defeated. A brief public disturbance led by Mackenzie in Upper Canada met the same fate. Despite the ease with which the rebellions were quashed, the leaders of the British government were shocked and determined to investigate. They selected as their investigator a member of the aristocracy, John George Lambton, the first earl of Durham Durham, first earl of
[p]Durham, first earl of;and Canada[Canada] , who had a long association with the radical thinkers of Britain.

Durham was appointed governor-general and lord high commissioner of Canada in 1838, and in the course of a relatively short visit to Canada (from late May until November, 1838), he interviewed a number of Canadian leaders. It seems likely, however, that before conducting those interviews, he had already arrived at the conclusions expressed in his famous Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839). His principal conclusion was that Britain needed to give the Canadians not just representative government, in the form of an elective legislative assembly, but responsible government, in which executives were chosen by and answered to the assembly rather than the governor.

Durham’s report recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be united into a single province, with a legislative assembly elected by the populace of both areas. This proposal, not new, would sufficiently dilute the votes of the French Canadians that the British element would dominate the assembly. To assuage the French Canadians, Durham Durham, first earl of
[p]Durham, first earl of;and Canada[Canada] proposed a considerable degree of local autonomy. The legislative assembly would deal with province-wide affairs and particularly with financial issues. Most important, it would choose the members of the executive council, which would become, in effect, the equivalent of the British cabinet.

Lord John Russell Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada] , the Whig Whig Party (British);and Canada[Canada] leader, introduced legislation into the British parliament in the summer of 1839 incorporating most of Durham’s recommendations. The proposal languished for a year, as Britain’s political leaders struggled to come to terms with the loss of control over Canada that it envisaged. The stumbling block was the difficulty of codifying the precise limits of the colonial governor’s powers in a responsible government. Under what circumstances would he be responsible to the legistlature, and under what circumstances would the home government—through the governor—still hold sway?

The best solution to this issue seemed to be placing control of all matters other than foreign relations and consitutional modifications in the hands of the Canadian legislature, but this solution failed to garner sufficient support in Parliament. Therefore, in July of 1840, when the Union Act passed Parliament, reuniting Canada, it did so without instituting responsible government. Upper and Lower Canada were renamed Canada West and Canada East, respectively, and they became regions within the Province of Canada.

Responsible government came several years later in a much less formal fashion. The Whigs Whig Party (British);and Canada[Canada] won a majority in the British elections of 1846, and John Russell Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada] became prime minister of Great Britain. He made Henry George Grey Grey, Henry George , the third Earl Grey, his secretary of state for war and the colonies, and the following year the eighth earl of Elgin Elgin, eighth earl of became governor-general of Canada. Grey favored responsible government for Canada, and his instructions to Elgin conveyed this policy.

In March, 1848, a new ministry was formed in Canada’s parliament, led by copremiers Robert Baldwin Baldwin, Robert
[p]Baldwin, Robert;and Canada[Canada] and Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine. Lafontaine, Louis Hippolyte They were determined that their minstry should be the first responsible government in the Province of Canada. Thus, by 1848, the prime ministers of Great Britain and Canada, as well as Canada’s governor-general and the British secretary for the colonies, all favored responsible government. The policy’s first test was to come the following year.

In 1849, the Rebellion Losses Bill was introduced in the Canadian parliament. The bill sought to compensate residents of Canada East for financial losses they had incurred as a result of the rebellions of 1837. The bill was extremely controversial, both in Britain and among British Canadian Tories, because it was believed that many actual rebels would receive payments if it passed. Elgin opposed the bill. However, once it passed the Canadian parliament, the governor-general believed that his commitment to responsible government meant that he had a duty to sign it into law. He signed the bill on April 25, 1849, demonstrating that Canada’s government was no longer merely representative. It was now responsible.


Many in Britain and Canada alike were infuriated by the passage of the Rebellion Losses Act. A Tory mob burned the parliament buildings in Montreal in reaction to the law, but the government weathered the storm, and the precedent was set. Ten years later, when the Canadian parliament passed a protective tariff Tariffs;Canadian that was damaging to Britain’s commercial interests, it too was signed into law.

The shift from representative government to responsible government in British North America enabled Great Britain to sustain an empire that would otherwise have been unsupportable for the small island nation. Once responsible government had been conceded to the Canadians, it formed the model for other settlement colonies. Nova Scotia Nova Scotia , in fact, had formed a responsible ministry led by Joseph Howe in February, 1848, a month before Canada’s first responsible ministry was formed. The other provinces of British North America soon followed suit, including Prince Edward Island Prince Edward Island (1851), New Brunswick New Brunswick;responsible government in (1854), and Newfoundland Newfoundland;responsible government in (1855). In 1867, Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick united to form the Dominion of Canada, with self-government in all matters other than international affairs, military alliances, and constitutional amendments. Canada was the first dominion in what would in the twentieth century become the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Further Reading

  • Baskerville, Peter A. Ontario: Image, Identity, and Power. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 2002. Illustrated survey of Ontario history; provides useful information about Baldwin, Lafontaine, and their ministries.
  • Buckner, Phillip A. The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815-1850. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. The most complete discussion of the events leading up to the realization, in Canada, of responsible government.
  • Burroughs, Peter. “Colonial Self-Government.” In British Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, edited by C. C. Eldridge. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Concise but informative account of the development of responsible government.
  • _______. “Imperial Institutions and the Government of Empire.” In The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter. Vol. 3 in The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by William Roger Louis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A truncated account that places the Canadian achievement of responsible government in the context of the evolution of the entire British Empire.
  • Mansergh, Nicholas. The Durham Report to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Vol. 1 in The Commonwealth Experience. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. Useful for understanding the effects of Durham’s report and the development of responsible government within Britain.
  • Ward, John Manning. Colonial Self-Government: The British Experience, 1759-1856. London: Macmillan, 1976. Treats Canadian developments as part of an imperial process.

Irish Immigration to Canada

British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832

Rebellions Rock British Canada

Upper and Lower Canada Unite

British North America Act

Canada’s Mackenzie Era

Supreme Court of Canada Is Established

Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister

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